E-Pluribus | February 8, 2024
The worst, except for all the others; trouble in gender-critical paradise; and government censorship by proxy.
A round-up of the latest and best musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Damon Linker: Isaiah Berlin and the Tragedy of Pluralism
Though his name may not be familiar to many Americans, Oxford’s Isaiah Berlin was an influential 20th century British-Russian liberal philosopher and writer. At Persuasion, Damon Linker examines Berlin’s understanding of human nature and the unfortunate but realistic limitations it places on even the best forms of government.
Postwar [WW II] liberalism took its distinctive shape in response to the war’s unspeakably gruesome events. Why did people of the era end up slaughtering each other with such savagery and destructiveness? How could it be prevented from happening again? What kind of politics would be most likely to secure and maintain peace? And how could such a politics be consolidated—through the inculcation of which truths about the human condition? These were the questions the postwar liberals were ultimately responding to and attempting to answer.
Isaiah Berlin’s most well-known and influential contribution to political theory is the lengthy essay titled “Two Concepts of Liberty,” originally published in 1958. In the essay’s opening sections, Berlin distinguished what he called negative liberty (freedom from external constraint) from positive liberty (freedom to pursue ends of one’s own choosing, along with possession of the means to attain those ends).
The distinction is an illuminating one—as are Berlin’s arguments in support of considering negative liberty to be the more politically fundamental form of freedom, in the sense that it must be secured in a community before that community can safely encourage the pursuit of, and set up programs designed to help people achieve, positive liberty. That’s because the effort to make positive liberty available to all citizens tends to require a vast expansion of government power. If that expansion is not to grow to tyrannical proportions, it must be limited by a prior commitment to a certain baseline of negative liberty.
That doesn’t mean Berlin means to denigrate positive liberty. He wants his reader to see that both the negative and positive dimensions of liberty are choiceworthy and admirable human ideals, but also that they stand in deep tension with each other, requiring a form of negotiation and balance between them in which negative liberty takes priority.
[. . .]
To my mind, the most comprehensive, concise, and moving summary of Berlin’s pluralistic liberalism can be found in several paragraphs of a “short credo” he composed for a ceremony commemorating his acceptance of an honorary degree at the University of Toronto on November 25, 1994, three years before his death:
“Justice has always been a human ideal, but it is not fully compatible with mercy. Creative imagination and spontaneity, splendid in themselves, cannot be fully reconciled with the need for planning, organization, [and] careful and responsible calculation. Knowledge, the pursuit of truth—the noblest of aims—cannot be fully reconciled with the happiness or the freedom that men desire, for if I know that I have some incurable disease this will not make me happier or freer. I must always choose: between peace and excitement, or knowledge and blissful ignorance. And so on.”
So what is to be done to restrain the champions, sometimes very fanatical, of one or other of these values, each of whom tends to trample upon the rest, as the great tyrants of the twentieth century have trampled on the life, liberty, and human rights of millions because their eyes were fixed upon some ultimate golden future?
I am afraid I have no dramatic answer to offer: only that if these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, [and] arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen. So much liberty for so much equality, so much individual self-expression for so much security, so much justice for so much compassion. My point is that some values clash: the ends pursued by human beings are all generated by our common nature, but their pursuit has to be to some degree controlled—liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I repeat, may not be fully compatible with each other, nor are liberty, equality, and fraternity.
Read it all here.
Andrew Doyle: Caught up in the gender-critical civil war
In an essay at UnHerd, Andrew Doyle, a self-declared member of the “gender-critical movement,” gives an insider’s look at the internal struggles (vicious at times) of the movement. The same fury that some activists direct at religious and social conservatives for their perceived “bigotry” and “hatred” can also be aimed at apparent allies who do not hold all the orthodox positions of the offended parties.
. . .I have learned that many [within the gender-critical movement] are exasperated by the “intolerant elements” within their community who seek to destroy anyone who does not conform to every single aspect of their worldview, even if it means that the cause is fatally undermined. They describe a “civil war” being waged by a small but intimidating minority who maintain that any slight point of disagreement is a form of heresy, that language has the capacity to shape reality, and that those found guilty of wrongspeak ought to be publicly shamed and alienated. Remind you of anyone?
This civil war within the gender-critical movement is, of course, a boon to the high priests of gender identity, those authoritarians who have been conducting a frighteningly effective campaign to reorganise society around the metaphysical belief that “gender” should take priority over sex when it comes to spaces, sports and human rights. Given that the stakes are so high, not least for women, children, and gay people, it might be worth considering what this in-fighting is all about and how it might be avoided in the future.
[. . .]
I host a weekly show on GB News called Free Speech Nation, which explores all aspects of the culture wars and has a particular emphasis on the ongoing attacks on women’s rights in the name of “progress”. Even before last Sunday’s show had aired, I was contacted by regular viewers who had taken issue with me for inviting the trans writer and teacher Debbie Hayton to appear for an interview. As an admitted autogynephile — a heterosexual man who presents as a woman out of an erotic attraction to himself — Hayton is something of a hate figure for many in the movement. By conducting this interview, I was deemed guilty of “enabling” and “promoting perversion”, in spite of Hayton’s gender-critical beliefs.
[. . .]
Many of my detractors took the view that my homosexuality was the issue. One self-declared feminist confessed to being “a raging homophobe” and wrote: “I don’t like gay men anymore. I think most of them are miso[gynist] pieces of shhh [sic] that mock women and platform AGPs”. Another was more direct: “The gays are definitely to blame as well. First off, sticking a penis inside a man’s asshole is unhealthy. If you can’t admit this then you are part of the problem.” Another went with “I hate men in general”, and then clarified her misandry in an oddly specific way: “Gay MEN. Straight MEN. White MEN. Black MEN. All MEN. I don’t discriminate. I view you all with equal amounts of derision”. Then there was an especially malicious attack from law scholar Dr Alessandra Asteriti, who called me a liar and resorted to the defamatory claim that my objective was to “harm women and children”.
Despite the onslaught, I should emphasise that this kind of sociopathic behaviour is far from typical in the gender-critical movement. Yes, there exists a small contingent who despise gay men and seek to bully and harass anyone who takes a different view. But this is most definitely not the norm, and the overwhelming majority of women I have encountered in this fight have been generous, compassionate and incredibly courageous in the face of threats and wholly unfounded accusations of “hate” and “transphobia”. It is only thanks to their hard work that we have seen a recent sea-change in public understanding of the dangers of this ideology.
Naturally, at the time, I found it difficult to distinguish between legitimate criticisms and outright abuse. And once I became defensive, which of course made matters worse. It’s always worth bearing in mind that, in the eye of a Twitter storm, one does not see individuals, but rather an army determined to see you crushed. At that point, nuance becomes impossible.
[. . .]
My experiences this week have certainly alerted me to a dark element within gender-critical circles, one that has become a source of considerable concern for many women in the fight. I have retreated from Twitter and instead launched a Substack, in the hope that I may continue these conversations with those who are able to remain civil even while robustly disagreeing. I now understand that serious discussions about this issue are simply not possible on Twitter, and my sanity has to come first.
Read it all.
Jacob Sullum: Was Amazon 'Free to Ignore' White House Demands That It Suppress Anti-Vaccine Books?
A government needn’t arrange book burnings to engage in censorship. For Reason, Jacob Sullum looks at a recent trove of internal emails from Amazon that reveals how the Biden administration pushed the company in 2021 to restrict the visibility of books the government deemed disparaging to COVID-19 vaccines.
In 2021, emails recently obtained by Rep. Jim Jordan (R–Ohio) show, White House officials pressured Amazon to curb the distribution of books they believed were discouraging Americans from getting vaccinated against COVID-19. As Reason's Robby Soave notes, these communications bear a strong resemblance to the Biden administration's pandemic-related interactions with social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook, which a federal appeals court deemed unconstitutional in a First Amendment case that the Supreme Court will consider during its current session. The Amazon episode is also reminiscent of a 1963 Supreme Court case that likewise involved the sale of books that government officials perceived as a public menace.
[. . .]
Writing for the [Supreme Court] majority [in Bantam Books v. Sullivan,] Brennan rejected the argument that distributors like Silverstein were free to ignore the commission's notices. The panel's actions "were performed under color of state law and so constituted acts of the State within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment," he wrote, adding:
“These acts and practices directly and designedly stopped the circulation of publications in many parts of Rhode Island. It is true, as noted by the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, that Silverstein was "free" to ignore the Commission's notices, in the sense that his refusal to "cooperate" would have violated no law. But it was found as a fact…that Silverstein's compliance with the Commission's directives was not voluntary. People do not lightly disregard public officers' thinly veiled threats to institute criminal proceedings against them if they do not come around, and Silverstein's reaction, according to uncontroverted testimony, was no exception to this general rule. The Commission's notices, phrased virtually as orders, reasonably understood to be such by the distributor, invariably followed up by police visitations, in fact stopped the circulation of the listed publications…It would be naive to credit the State's assertion that these blacklists are in the nature of mere legal advice, when they plainly serve as instruments of regulation independent of the laws against obscenity.”
Like Rhode Island's Commission to Encourage Morality in Youth, the White House officials who complained to Amazon about anti-vaccine books were seeking "the suppression of the sale and circulation" of constitutionally protected literature they found "objectionable." And like Silverstein, Amazon responded to official pressure, agreeing to limit the visibility of the books in search results, even though its "refusal to 'cooperate' would have violated no law."
The trouble began in March 2021, when Senior White House COVID-19 adviser Andrew Slavitt did an Amazon search and did not like what he found. "Who can we talk to about the high levels of propaganda and misinformation and disinformation [at] Amazon?" Slavitt asked the company in a March 2 email. He elaborated on that concern in a message he sent later that morning: "If you search for 'vaccines' under books, I see what comes up. I haven't looked beyond that but if that's what's on the surface, it's concerning."
An internal Amazon email sent an hour later illuminates the company's response. "We will not be doing a manual intervention today," it said. "The team/PR feels very strongly that it is too visible" and "won't fix…the long-term problem because of customer behavior associations. If we completely remove customer behavior associations it will break the search." But to mollify the White House, the Amazon official (whose name is redacted) said "the team" would "widen the search light flag for COVID-19 CDC website redirect so that it comes to the top of the page on more search keys."
[. . .]
Amazon, in short, responded to White House "pressure" by dropping at least one book, making others harder to find, and mulling "a broad misinformation policy" that might extend beyond books about vaccines. Were those decisions "voluntary," as Rhode Island described Silverstein's response to its book-monitoring commission?
Unlike Rhode Island's censors, White House officials did not, so far as we know, make "thinly veiled threats to institute criminal proceedings." But that does not mean Amazon had nothing to worry about if it dismissed the Biden administration's complaints rather than changing its policies and practices to suppress the books that Slavitt et al. viewed as a threat to public health.
[. . .]
It is hard to believe that the possibility of such legal action played no role in Amazon's eagerness to appease the Biden administration when it objected to books that the company was selling. Drawing a line between persuasion and coercion in the social media case that is now before the Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit noted that Facebook et al. had reason to worry about "threats of adverse government action" such as "antitrust enforcement" if they failed to meet their "responsibility related to the health and safety of all Americans" as defined by federal officials, including the president himself.
You could say that Amazon, like Silverstein, "was 'free' to ignore" the government's demands. But as Justice Brennan suggested, "it would be naive to credit" that characterization.
Read the whole thing.
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Thomas Chatterton Williams with an optimistic note about college students:
And finally, author Katherine Brodsky, with a worthy thought (whatever side she is on!).