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E-Pluribus | July 6, 2022
A new (but old) civics curriculum, freedom of speech and the states, and the rise of the Sensitivity Reader.
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Michael Knox Beran: Beyond Woke—a Return to Lincoln?
Good citizenship requires good education, and Michael Knox Beran at City Journal writes about a new civics program that aims to bring back some of what has been lost, or at least misplaced. The new material, American Birthright, recalls a “Lincoln-style liberalism,” an appropriate model for today’s divided nation.
It’s not partisan special pleading. The orientation of the Civics Alliance, the coalition sponsoring American Birthright, is conservative, but a progressive critic would be hard put to find its program reactionary. Hayek figures in American Birthright, as does Milton Friedman. But so, too, do Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. Washington and Thomas Jefferson are part of the program, as are Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.
Far from being narrow, American Birthright would expose students to a range of human possibility. It emphasizes primary texts that young people can evaluate for themselves: the Epic of Gilgamesh, Exodus, the First Sermon of Buddha, the Analects of Confucius, the Hadith of Gabriel, the Communist Manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, and Roe v. Wade ruling figure alongside The Wealth of Nations and the Federalist Papers.
True, if identity politics triumph, the classical liberalism that American Birthright would resurrect will be as much a curiosity as Zoroastrianism (page 105). But the Civics Alliance may be right in betting on the continued vitality of Lincoln-style liberalism. Wokeism is likely to fail precisely because it borrows so copiously from earlier failed experiments in collectivist solidarity. Robespierre’s ruinous republic of virtue was toppled in less than a decade, and the workers’ paradises inspired by Marx have (with a few unsavory exceptions) met similar fates.
Wokeism is running up against the obstacle that doomed its predecessors: human nature. Marx, Edmund Wilson wrote, was startled to discover that the proletarian worker, given the chance, was less interested in “improving humanity” in the abstract than in joining the bourgeoisie to better his own lot. It was not “what Marx expected him to do.” Enrichissez-vous (“enrich yourselves”), the slogan of the classical liberal statesman François Guizot, proved more attractive to the downtrodden than Marx’s ideal but unworkable proposition, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”
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Jeff Kosseff and Matthew Schafer: How States and Congress Can Prepare for a Looming Threat to Freedom of Speech
As the Supreme Court seems increasingly willing to allow states to govern their own affairs, Jeff Kosseff and Matthew Schafer, writing at Lawfare, offer some ways for states, as well as Congress, to address the continuing threats to First Amendment freedoms.
State courts can also breathe new life into their state constitutional protections for freedom of speech and of the press. When the Court last took a turn toward narrowly construing individual freedoms after the end of the Warren Court, Justice Brennan called on state supreme courts to fill the void. He wrote in 1977, “State constitutions, too, are a font of individual liberties, their protections often extending beyond those required by the Supreme Court’s interpretation of federal law.”
Take, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co. that a defamation plaintiff cannot base her case on the defendant’s opinions because opinions are not provable as false–—prima facie element of a defamation claim. In so holding, the Court nevertheless eschewed broader protection for opinions that the Ohio Supreme Court recognized. Despite the Court’s holding, the Ohio Supreme Court soon reaffirmed that as a matter of Ohio state constitutional law, its broader protections for opinion controlled. Thus, in Ohio, speakers today have greater latitude under that court’s precedent than whatever they might be owed under the U.S. Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence.
Other states have done the same. Recognizing its own constitutional history and its role as home to news organizations from around the world, New York’s court of last resort long ago held that the “protection afforded by the guarantees of free press and speech in the New York Constitution is often broader than the minimum required by” the U.S. constitution. Similarly, New Jersey’s highest court recognized that its state’s protection of press freedom was “more sweeping in scope than the language of the First Amendment.”
When the Court handed down Sullivan and extended it throughout the years, there was little reason for state courts to undertake an independent analysis of their constitutional law and its effects, if any, on onerous defamation lawsuits. In this way, Sullivan actually arrested much of the development of state defamation and constitutional law in this area. Much as they did before Sullivan, however, state supreme courts should consider again their own state constitutional text and history rather than merely deciding cases on First Amendment grounds.
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Kat Rosenfield: Sensitivity Readers Are the New Literary Gatekeepers
The publishing industry has been under fire recently for kowtowing to various forms of pressure, governmental and otherwise. At Reason, Kat Rosenfield exposes one of the more egregious ways that authors’ freedom of expression and creativity have been infringed upon: the Sensitivity Reader.
Known as sensitivity readers, or sometimes authenticity readers, consultants like Sally are a growing part of publishing, hired to correct the pre-publication missteps of authors who don't share the same traits—or "lived experience," to use a favored buzzword—as their characters.
The sensitivity reader's possible areas of expertise are as varied as human existence itself. One representative consultancy boasts a list of experts in the usual racial, ethnic, and religious categories, but also in such areas as "agoraphobia," "Midwestern," "physical disability, arms & legs," and (perhaps most puzzlingly) "gamer geek." Another one lists individual readers with intersectional qualifications: Depending on the content of your novel, you might hire a white lesbian with generalized anxiety disorder or a bisexual, genderfluid, light-skinned brown Mexican with a self-diagnosis of autism. Every medical condition, every trauma, every form of oppression: Sensitivity readers will cover it all.
[ . . . ]
To understand why publishing would go all-in on a practice that not only interferes with an author's creative autonomy but traffics in crude stereotyping to boot, you need to know one crucial fact about sensitivity readers: They're cheap. The average cost of a sensitivity read is a few hundred dollars per manuscript, and it's a freelance job. This made it a godsend to publishers who wanted to merely look like they were giving people of color a seat at the table but didn't want to go to the trouble of buying all those additional chairs. Retaining a freelance stable of racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities created the appearance of diversity for a fraction of the cost.
[ . . . ]
The irony is that sensitivity reading is, in itself, an exercise in exactly the kind of offensive generalizing it purports to help authors avoid—not just in the way it traffics in crude stereotypes about how people of a given race, gender, or sexual orientation move through the world, but in whose interests it ultimately serves. This is a practice driven primarily by the fears of privileged editors, agents, and publishers, and that is who it protects, too often at the expense of the diverse authors whose work they claim to champion. Writers such as Alberto Gullaba Jr. are sidelined, sandboxed, scolded away from taking creative risks, by oblivious white people whose own imaginations can only extend as far as the next cancellation.
Read it all here.
Covid contrarian Alex Berenson is back on Twitter, apparently on somewhat of a short leash, and that has potential future Twitter owner Elon Musk curious.
A “fascist” comment thrown out by liberal Yale University professor Jason Stanley provokes some back and forth between several commenters, including Wesley Yang, and Thomas Chatterton Williams & David French, both of whom once co-authored an op-ed with Stanley. Feelings clearly run high on both sides:
And finally, Andrew Sullivan on the end-game of woke gender language: