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E-Pluribus | February 22, 2023
Two strikes for authoritarianism; a warning against trigger warnings; and a closer look at those revised College Board AP test standards.
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Joanna Williams: Two Woke Authoritarians Make Their Exit
Authoritarianism may still be on the rise, but at least Scotland and New Zealand are making positive moves. Recent resignations of the leaders in both countries seem to reflect public attitudes turning against their illiberal ways, writes Joanna Williams for City Journal.
First New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, and now Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon: the world’s chief nannies are quitting before voters have a chance to push them out. The pair thrived off imposing Covid restrictions, only to find far less sympathy for their blend of woke politics and authoritarian control in 2023. It seems that, freed from lockdowns, many people are no longer willing to be nudged, cajoled, hectored, censored, monitored, checked, and approved. Nor are they willing to sacrifice their rights, their children’s safety, and their standard of living to appease a leader’s appetite for hollow displays of virtue.
[ . . . ]
Liberal commentators have been fulsome in praising Sturgeon and Ardern for their—presumably distinctly feminine—capacity to know when the time is right to step back. But their lack of self-awareness is astonishing. Both Sturgeon and Ardern have, in their own way, enthusiastically driven “culture war” conflicts. In her resignation speech, Ardern listed among her achievements “progress on issues around our national identity,” saying she believes that “teaching history in schools and celebrating our own indigenous national holiday will all make a difference for years to come.” What this means in practice is a renaming of towns and buildings and Maori and indigenous creation myths being “given equal billing to hard science” in school curriculum despite only 17 percent of New Zealanders identifying as Maori. To initiate such conflict and then complain about “adversity” is rich.
[ . . . ]
With their concern for woke issues like gender and identity politics, Sturgeon and Ardern have enjoyed reputations for being morally virtuous. But their lack of concern with the economy and wages reveals their contempt for the problems of ordinary people. Their policies reinforce this contempt. Efforts to clamp down on free speech show us that they do not trust ordinary people to reach their own conclusions and make reasonable decisions. Higher taxes on alcohol reveal that they do not trust people to consume alcohol responsibly. Bans on corporal punishment reveal distrust in parents’ ability to manage discipline of their own children. . .
Read it all here.
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Amna Khalid: British universities are repeating the mistakes of their American counterparts.
[TRIGGER WARNING!] - Just kidding. Besides, Amna Khalid at Persuasion writes that it wouldn’t do any good anyway. Khalid reports that despite universities here in the former British colonies demonstrating the futility of such warning, universities over there are trying them out anyway.
This trend [of trigger warning for literature] is alarming for several reasons. First, it runs counter to research on the effects of such advisories. As early as 2020 the consensus, based on 17 studies using a range of media, was that trigger warnings do not alleviate emotional distress, and they do not significantly reduce negative affect or minimize intrusive thoughts. . .
On the contrary, researchers found that trigger warnings actually increased the anxiety of individuals with the most severe PTSD, prompting them to “view trauma as more central to their life narrative.” A recent meta-analysis of such warnings found the same thing: the only reliable effect was that people felt more anxious after receiving the warning. The researchers concluded that these warnings “are fruitless,” and “trigger warnings should not be used as a mental health tool.”
But beyond the fact that trigger warnings don’t work in general, there is something particularly perverse about appending them to works of literature and art.
Engaging with art is not simply a matter of extracting information or following the storyline. Rather, as Salman Rushdie once put it, literature allows us “to explore the highest and lowest places in human society… to find not absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination and of the heart.” Literature cultivates an aesthetic sensibility, a deeper sense of empathy, and allows you to be taken out of yourself in a way that only art can do. Joyce Carol Oates characterizes it as “the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”
In other words, literature is transformative precisely because it has the ability to shock and surprise. It can jolt us out of complacency, force us to contend with the uncertain, the strange and even the ugly. For Franz Kafka, the only books worth reading are the ones that “wound or stab us.”
Read the whole thing.
John McWhorter: DeSantis May Have Been Right
The New York Times’s John McWhorter is generally not a fan of Ron DeSantis’s culture war tactics. However, after looking at the original and revised College Board Advanced Placement test curriculum, McWhorter concedes DeSantis had a point about the advocacy approach the original text sought to implement.
However, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and in terms of how we tell the story of Black America, the board did the right thing, whether because of DeSantis’s threat or for more high-minded reasons. The take that I saw in the course’s original draft depicted the history of Black America over the past several decades as an unbroken stream of left protest against a seemingly unchanging racist hegemon. There is certainly drama in the procession. The Black Panthers, the Black arts movement, Black studies departments, Black Lives Matter. Incarceration, reparations and Black struggle. Amiri Baraka, Molefi Kete Asante, Manning Marable (all notably left-leaning writers). But Black history has been ever so much more than protest and professional pessimism; note how hard it is to imagine any other group of people whose history is written with this flavor so dominant.
This is not education but advocacy. And in no sense does racism mean that the difference has no meaning. The key issue is the difference between opinions that are considered and debated and opinions that are mostly uncontested and perhaps considered uncontestable — essentially opinions that are treated as if they were facts.
Of course, it is possible to teach about opinions rather than facts. When that is properly done, the opinions are presented along with intelligent counterproposals. Given that Black conservatives — or skeptics of progressive narratives often processed as mainstream after the late 1960s — were nowhere to be found in the A.P. curriculum (except for Booker T. Washington, who has been dead for over a hundred years, and Zora Neale Hurston, whose conservatism is all too often downplayed), it is reasonable to assume that opinions from the left were going to be presented with little or no meaningful challenge.
Read it all.
Colin Wright on the incompatibility of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion mentality with the mission of universities:
Do states have a say in how public (state) universities are run? Of course, but David Decosimo of Boston University with a thread on how to balance academic freedom with reasonable regulation:
And finally, via Noam Blum, New York Times journalists sticking up for journalism: