E-Pluribus | January 10, 2024
Classical liberalism dies in darkness; obfuscation in higher education; and nothing is a bigger threat to democracy than...voting?
A round-up of the latest and best musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
John Lloyd: Lights Out in America
Is the party over? At Quillette, John Lloyd decries the way the free press (not to be confused with The Free Press) has knuckled under pressure from the perpetually offended. Lloyd writes that this capitulation to the loudest voices will only lead to more and greater censorship down the road.
The US media enjoys the world’s strongest protections of speech and publication, so it might have been counted on to oppose this [cancel culture] movement in the name of those freedoms. But instances of journalists being fired or forced to resign for writing or saying the wrong thing have been growing, and these cases tend to follow a similar pattern. First, a writer or editor publishes a piece that is deemed offensive to one or more groups of “marginalised” individuals. Second, activists, influencers, celebrities, and not infrequently the writer’s/editor’s own colleagues informally collaborate in a sustained social-media mobbing of the publication in question and any staffers unwise enough to defend the article at issue. Third, following a period of agonised indecision, the writer/editor is pushed out and the publication releases a craven apology detailing the hurt caused and the lessons learned. Upshot? The mob is greatly empowered and the spectrum of permissible opinion shrinks.
[. . .]
Social media is widely blamed for collapsing complex matters into the Manichean world in which the cancellers believe we live, but it is probably not blamed enough. The online magazine Tablet carried a story earlier this month about a New York public-school teacher who was told by a student that she would “never believe” that the Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza was hit by a stray Palestinian rocket, even if Hamas told her so. Distrustful of the mainstream media and political plurality, such students prefer to get their news from TikTok and Twitter. “They don’t read anything,” the teacher complains. “They just read headlines and pictures and memes. And they base their whole worldview on a set of memes.”
[. . .]
Also ludicrous is the failure to be consistent about what constitutes supposedly dangerous speech. Reflecting on the paradoxical nature of his former employer [the New York Times], [James] Bennet wrote in his conclusion that a few months after he had been pushed out, the paper ran a “shocking op-ed praising China’s military crackdown on protestors in Hong Kong … but there was no internal uproar.” As if to underline the point, on Christmas eve, the Times published an op-ed by the Hamas-appointed mayor of Gaza City. Neither editorial decision resulted in internal upheaval, much less a senior defenestration.
[. . .]
The value of Bennet’s essay about the Times lies in its revelation of how great the damage inflicted by the cancellers has become. When journalists at America’s liberal paper of record can get a senior editor dismissed for publishing a column by a sitting US senator, it has a catastrophic effect on the media’s claim to be a pillar of democracy. These should be men and women dedicated to the illumination of public policy from every side; instead, they are behaving as the stewards of acceptable discourse, and see it as their duty to turn out the lights.
Read it all here.
Josh Barro: Universities Are Not on the Level
Josh Barro is one of those commentators who is difficult to pigeonhole (he once hosted a program called “Left, Right & Center”). At his Very Serious Substack, Barro finds himself agreeing with conservatives about the sorry state of higher education. His primary concern? Pervasive dishonesty in the way colleges and universities operate and present themselves to the public.
I personally have also developed a more negative view of colleges and universities over the last decade, and my reason is simple: I increasingly find these institutions to be dishonest. A lot of the research coming out of them does not aim at truth, whether because it is politicized or for more venal reasons. The social justice messaging they wrap themselves in is often insincere. Their public accountings of the reasons for their internal actions are often implausible. They lie about the role that race plays in their admissions and hiring practices. And sometimes, especially at the graduate level, they confer degrees whose value they know will not justify the time and money that students invest to get them.
[. . .]
The last form of dishonest use of academic output I want to talk about is one that exploded as a huge problem when the COVID pandemic hit: subject-matter specialists using the guise of expertise in an effort to impose their values and policy preferences on the public. This phenomenon isn't limited to universities — some of the medical and public health professionals doing this were on faculties, some were at hospitals, some worked for the government, and some just posted a lot on Twitter. But I’ll simply say that several years of hearing “Science Says” prior to claims that weren’t science as such, but rather were applications of scientific claims through a very specific value framework I didn’t share — part-communitarian, part-neurotic, part-left wing — made me feel more negatively about experts, including those at universities, and I’m far from alone in that sentiment.
The dishonesty at universities extends beyond their research output. Let’s talk about admissions. Harvard has had a longstanding practice of using race as a factor in college admissions, producing a class that is less Asian and more black and Hispanic than it would be if they did not consider race. And they also have a longstanding practice of lying about it. Throughout the litigation over Harvard’s admissions policies, they didn’t just defend the appropriateness of race-conscious policies to promote diversity; they denied that they were discriminating at all. They played word games — similar to the “what even is plagiarism?” bit deployed by Gay’s defenders — arguing somehow that race could be used as a positive factor for admission without ever being a negative one, a mathematical impossibility when awarding a fixed number of admission slots.
It’s part of a broader dishonesty in how people in higher education insist on talking about affirmative action. Affirmative action policies prefer personnel of certain racial and ethnic backgrounds as part of an effort to alter the institution’s demographic balance — this is the point of affirmative action — but apparently it’s racist to admit this is what’s happening (or sometimes it would constitute an admission of illegal activity) so there’s a bunch of obfuscatory fudging of what the universities are really up to when they look at race. And since the Supreme Court’s ruling last year prohibiting race-conscious admissions practices, institutions across the country have been blatantly obvious about their search for ways to flout the law. It’s dishonest and, in the last few years, it’s been all over the news, which can’t have been good for public trust in universities.
Read it all.
Toby Harshaw: 2024 Is the Year of Elections and That’s a Threat to Democracy
To hear Toby Harshaw tell it, odds are we are finished. And even voting won’t save us. In this post for Bloomberg, Harshaw makes the case that popular support for authoritarian candidates could make this upcoming election season a disaster for democracy.
Early that year , John [Micklethwait] published a column positing that we lived in a “20% world.” Let’s check his math (bearing in mind he’s my boss): “Bookmakers were offering punters a 1-in-5 chance of Donald Trump winning the US presidency that November. There were similar odds on three other ‘unthinkables’: Britain voting to leave the European Union; the extreme left-winger Jeremy Corbyn being elected Britain’s prime minister; and Marine Le Pen ascending to the French presidency.” Unfortunately, John beat the spread: Two of the unthinkables became more than thinkable — and don’t count Le Pen out quite yet.
So where does that leave us today? “Look at the world in 2024 and it is almost a mirror image of 2016,” John and Adrian write. “The long-shot unthinkables from eight years ago are now the firm favorites, or even just the accepted status quo.” Oddsmakers put Trump’s reelection chances at close to 40%, with Joe Biden nearly 10 percentage points back. (In his speech at Valley Forge on Friday, Biden warned that “Democracy is on the ballot.” Someone on the campaign staff might remind him that he’s literally the one on the ballot, and it’s time to get crackin’.) A solid majority of Britons thinks Brexit was a mistake, but the odds of the nation rejoining Europe are slim to none. And there’s a prop bet: Taiwan votes for a new president in less than a week, and another victory by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party may bring the territory closer to a Chinese invasion.
But it’s not just Taipei on the line: 41% of the world’s population is having major elections this year. Yay democracy! Right? Not really, what with extremist populist parties — mostly right-wing — on the rise everywhere from the European Union to the Pacific rim. Karishma Vaswani is especially worried about the latter: “Asia-Pacific is seeing a significant increase in populism and authoritarianism, harking back to an era when strongmen presidents ruled with an iron fist. Hundreds of millions of votes won’t necessarily mean more democracy.”
As for Europe, John and Adrian [Wooldridge] warn that “in a terrifying number of cases, candidates who would have been seen as extremist wild cards in 2016 look the strongest ... with likely advances in the European Parliament, Austria, Portugal and Germany.” Niall Ferguson, fresh from a pointy-heads parley in Italy, throws Europe’s largest war since 1945 into the mix: “It has long been a talking point in Ukraine that, if Donald Trump is elected US president in November, their country will be in trouble. It turns out their country is already in trouble, 11 months before the American election.”
[. . .]
So what are the chances everything turns out alright — somebody other than Trump wins the US presidency; the UK regains its senses; China is dissuaded from invading its “rogue province”; the Middle East finds peace; and dictatorships fall left and right? EEK! “If you allow yourself to dream a little, and an optimistic case emerges. Call it the 10% world,” note John and Adrian. In other words, the worst scenarios have increased from 20% chance of fruition four years ago to 90% today.
Read the whole thing.
Around Twitter (X)
A new study from the Southern Economic Association conducted by four Baylor University professors casts doubt on the efficacy of “executive-level chief diversity officers” when it comes to increasing hiring of underrepresented minorities.
Colin Wright has the scoop on a new textbook from the American Psychiatric Association that muddies the waters on biological sex to serve its pro-transgender agenda:
And finally, good news for peace! San Francisco will apparently halt its attacks on Israel! (Click for video.)