E-Pluribus | December 13, 2023
What free speech isn't; "saving" the earth harms the middle class; and the value of ignorance.
A round-up of the latest and best musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Tal Fortgang: Intimidation Is Not Free Speech
It’s true that denying free speech to anyone puts free speech at risk for everyone. But it’s also true that not all kinds of speech should be “free.” Tal Fortgang at City Journal writes that threats and intimidation go beyond the intentions of the First Amendment and actually undermine the First Amendment rights of others.
In the written testimony they provided when appearing before Congress last week, Harvard’s Claudine Gay, Penn’s Liz Magill, and MIT’s Sally Kornbluth all made clear that anti-Semitism is a growing problem and claimed to be doing everything they could to confront it.
[. . .]
[But our] hands are tied, the presidents claimed, by the principle of free speech. They would love to punish the Jew-haters for violating “the right of all our students to feel safe and included,” as Gay put it, but they are hamstrung by the need to “give broad protection to free expression—even expression that is offensive,” in Magill’s words.
[. . .]
Under heavy fire from all sides, Gay and Magill (who has since resigned) backtracked on that admission, though it was an accurate expression of the ideal toward which these schools claim to strive. But the presidents’ position is no principled stand; it’s a dodge. If they were really interested in taking a Constitution-based approach to advancing speech in a content-neutral way, they could enforce constitutionally permissible limitations on speech known as “time, place, and manner” restrictions. In short: they could take a stand, not against disruptive speech but disruptive action.
Many anti-Israel agitators have violated with impunity rules regulating the times, places, and manners of expression. At Penn, for instance, students vandalized university buildings with anti-Israel messages and occupied them for hours. At Harvard, hordes invaded classes with bullhorn-amplified chants of “globalize the Intifada!” At MIT, students chanted “free, free Palestine!” in a math class. Dozens of similar incidents have piled up across the country, with students emboldened to keep exceeding the bounds of acceptable expression because they know that university leadership won’t stop them.
If they really wanted to, campus presidents could put a swift end to such intimidation with strict enforcement of content-neutral rules that anti-Israel students violate regularly. They could punish the individuals responsible for making campus a hostile place for Jews without discriminating based on the content of speech. Yet, they haven’t.
Read the whole thing.
Joel Kotkin: The New Green Feudalism
Advocates of “green” policies often tout the economic as well as the environmental benefits of their grand plans. Writing at Compact Magazine, Joel Kotkin argues that this econ selling point rings hollow; the more likely result is an expanding underclass serving the interests of the elite—“feudalism with better marketing.”
Once the epitome of competitive capitalism, the tech industry, as one Silicon Valley wag put it, now resembles “feudalism with better marketing.” In 2023, six of the world’s eight most-valued companies are tech firms; Apple, the first $3 trillion company, has a market valuation just below the GDP of India and the United Kingdom, and larger than those of Italy, Russia, or Canada.
The pursuit of the green agenda, accelerated under Biden, marks a new phase of feudalization. Nonprofits funded by green-tinged oligarchs to push renewable energy raise four times the amount of funding spent by advocates for nuclear or fossil fuels. Elon Musk, green capitalists in Silicon Valley, and Wall Street investors share the notion, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen put it, that climate change provides “the greatest economic opportunity of our time.” The green gold rush is on; the Financial Times estimates there is more than $200 billion invested in “cleantech” projects in the United States alone. It is doubtful how much of this would occur without government subsidies.
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[G]reen policies threaten large parts of the middle and working class. Most vulnerable are those who work in industries like manufacturing, agriculture (particularly ranching), logistics, and construction. In Texas, the price could be as many as a million generally good-paying jobs. According to a Chamber of Commerce report, a full national ban against fracking would cost 14 million jobs—far more than the 8 million jobs lost in the Great Recession. Will “green jobs” come to the rescue? Unlikely. Barely 1 percent of people who lost “dirty jobs,” notes a recent University of Pennsylvania study, find work in a “green” one.
In adopting the “net-zero” agenda, the West accelerates the demise of its industrial base while making conditions worse for much of its middle class. In places like Germany as well as New York and California, the population endures high rates of “energy poverty,” and is forced to spend more than 10 percent of household income to keep the lights on and homes heated.
At the same time, the green regulatory onslaught has accelerated the industrial supremacy of China, which already emits more greenhouse gases than the entire high-income world. At the same time, the Middle Kingdom dominates the battery and electric-vehicle markets. Chinese-made EVs, roughly half as expensive as their Western competitors, may well displace the US Big Three as well as German and even other Asian automakers. Despite the Biden administration’s embrace of “Made in the USA,” American manufacturing recently dropped to its lowest point since the pandemic. Meanwhile, coal-dependent China expands its market share in manufactured exports to roughly equal America, Germany, and Japan combined.
Read it all here.
ICYMI: Natasha Mott: The Value of Ignorance
In his 1992 song “What they don’t know, country artist Collin Raye sang about some kids fishing in a puddle: “what they don't know / just might be a blessin'.” At Discourse Magazine, Natasha Mott addresses the value of ignorance in a more scholarly fashion, but it boils down to the same question: “[Is] it possible that there’s value in our ignorance?”
Though ignorance isn’t a desirable end state, if we’re not first ignorant, we’ll never be able to acquire knowledge. Knowing everything is a boring sort of heat death, anyway. The fun part seems to be watching humans go from ignorant to informed and somehow back to ignorant again. Nietzsche warned us, when he declared God dead, that something like this epistemic crisis was coming. We’ve been dumping all our faith into the great human Knowledge Machine that turns ignorance into understanding through science and reason, and one casualty for many people was the idea of God. Now we’ve got to figure out what’s what on our own.
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In my futile attempt at knowing things, I recently read that the entire standard model of physics might be wrong because a muon experiment produced some interesting results. Great! I thought to myself. This is exactly the problem. People don’t trust science because every time we think we know something, it turns out we don’t. Shouldn’t the Knowledge Machine have a self-correcting function?
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One topic on which most experts seem to agree is that people need to be educated, but to what extent is education actually helping people deal with the epistemic crisis? We send kids to school for 12 years, where we inflate grades and even pass students who don’t meet basic standards, all to prepare them for a very expensive post-secondary education—and then expect the vast majority to have learned enough for the remaining 50 years of their life.
The universities are brimming with degree seekers, but the Knowledge Machine quickly renders those pieces of paper obsolete. So, we encourage a professionalized chunk of these students to maintain their degree with additional certifications and continuing education credits because the Knowledge Machine told us that as people become experts, they gain humility—but now we’re not even sure about that. We’re all overestimating how much we know, and formal education isn’t doing a great job of correcting that.
[. . .]
The current flood of information is rewiring our brains, so maybe youths are actually “built different” because the Knowledge Machine changes us. Because the vast majority of information we consume is relegated to something like Andrew Jackson’s trivia night, maybe the point is not to cram in as much as possible but to inspire deeper learning. Then, we have to figure out how to adapt long-form content to our new brains so that we can collect the value in what was once an author’s uninterrupted words on a printed page, free of distraction and advertisement.
Read it all.
Around Twitter (X)
And then there’s Aaron Sibarium tweeting with tongue-in-cheek:
And finally, via Christopher Rufo and Phil Magness, the latest on Harvard president Claudine Gay’s writing foibles gives rise to the question, is there a strict definition of "serial plagiarist," or is it flexible?