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Worthy Reads This Week (2021 July 9): Lies, Damned Lies, and The Resultant Bipartisan Epistemic Crisis
Retweets are not endorsements! I found these articles thought-provoking. There’s a good chance I agreed with something important in each, but maybe not, and, in any case, I absolutely do not endorse each and every claim made in each and every article.
Here is my proposition: The doctrine of stare decisis cannot properly be understood or applied in such fashion as to permit the justices deliberately to render a decision contrary to the correct reading of the Constitution. Whenever it can be said, with sufficient confidence, that a prior decision is seriously and meaningfully wrong—not just technically mistaken in some minor, immaterial, or inconsequential respect; not a matter of reasonable disagreement; but out-and-out wrong in a way that matters—the justices’ ultimate duty to the Constitution obliges them to overrule the error. Roe is not a close case. It is a flat-out indefensible misreading of the Constitution with enormous consequences.
Paulsen is always worth reading, and it's nice to see him come out swinging after six months in apparent hibernation. My own analysis of the Dobbs grant is here, and I linked last time to Shirif Girgis's incisive look at Dobbs.
Any readers who might be tempted to assume that Paulsen is some kind of right-wing firebrand with an axe to grind are reminded that Paulsen voted for Biden. (I thought that was ethically not defensible, my first serious disagreement with Paulsen since ever.)
Roe v. Wade remains the most pressing public policy disaster of our lifetimes, in ways that have shaped an entire generation's worldview. Delenda est.
This leads to the second big difference between the internet of the aughts and the internet of the 2010s: the standards for participation were different—in some ways the barrier to entry was both higher and lower than on twitter. In the old days people used to say "if you don't like it, make your own blog!" That directive was easy to follow. It is near impossible for someone de-platformed from twitter to create some new twitter to replace it; in contrast, anybody really could create their own blog (and forums were not hard to stand up either).
But if writers were to have people read their blogs, then their blogs had to be good. This was the price of participation. On twitter, anybody who can think up a snarky 140 characters retort can contribute to the "conversation." In the blogosphere, you had to create your own blog and write up your thoughts in long-form. For this reason, blog debates were simply more intelligent than today's twitter debates. Idiot bloggers were ignored and usually did not last. Idiot tweeters cannot be shunted to the side—especially if they have a blue check.
No substantive comment; I just dearly miss the heyday of blogging. I started blogging in the twilight of the blogs, but I was a reader, and, guys, it's true: the Internet was better back then.
Maybe Substack will save us.
"Sex, Gender, and Submitting to the Reality of the Family," by Rod Dreher:
I'm having a hard time picking a good tease quote out of this to show why it's a worthy read and not just More Of The Usual Social Conservative Hand-Wringing. I guess I'll go with the thesis statement:
The fundamental task of each generation is to produce the next generation, so that our people will continue. That’s not a religious belief; that’s a proposition that is, or ought to be, obvious to anyone who lifts his or her head up out of the trough long enough to see past their own appetites. If we, both individually and collectively, lose our ability to recognize that, and fail to create social structures and disciplines that make producing the next generation possible, then we will have committed suicide. A consistent theme in the fiction of Michel Houellebecq is that we in the West have done exactly that. Bourgeois individualism and materialism are and will be the death of us, he says.
"The Situation in Afghanistan Is Much Worse Than You Realize," by Thomas Joscelyn:
Haqqani, a U.S.- and U.N.-designated terrorist, trumpeted his organization’s “continuous series of conquests,” instructing the Taliban’s “district and provincial governors” to “pay attention” to the orders coming down the chain of command. The Taliban leader told his fighters that they shouldn’t be “cruel” or “arrogant” in their moment of triumph. “Good governance is the need of the hour and must be taken into account by our colleagues. To compensate even a small mistake is a tall order.”
Haqqani does not speak like the internationally wanted terrorist that he is. Instead, he speaks authoritatively—like the head of a nation—the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. This is yet another indication of the American failure.
When I read this on June 25th, it was the first reporting I'd seen about the on-the-ground situation in Afghanistan, although I've been working for months on the assumption that something like it was true.
In the days since, this narrative has rapidly metastasized and is on the verge of becoming mainstream (although I suspect pro-Biden mainstream media will try to delay that as long as possible), but it's still bracing to read this.
To be sure, I don't see that the United States has a choice here. We cannot remain at war in Afghanistan forever. We can either lose the war now or lose it later, with more blood and treasure lost there. But we should be clear-eyed about what is happening there. A lot of people are going to suffer and die after we withdraw. We should do what we can to mitigate that, and we should be honest about it.
"When the State Comes for Your [Trans-Identifying] Kids," by Abigail Shrier:
But unlike some other parents I would later speak with, Ahmed’s cool head prevailed. Believing he might be walking into a trap, Ahmed reached out to both a lawyer and a psychiatrist friend he trusted. The psychiatrist gave him advice that he believes saved his son, saying, in Ahmed’s words: “You have to be very, very careful, because if you come across as just even a little bit anti-trans or anything, they’re going to call the Child Protective Services on you and take custody of your kid.” The lawyer told Ahmed the same: “What you want to do is agree with them and take your kid home. When the gender counselors advise you to ‘affirm,’ go along with it. Just say ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh, okay, let’s take him home, and we’ll go to the gender clinic.’”
Ahmed assured Seattle Children’s Hospital that he would take his son to a gender clinic and commence his son’s transition. Instead, he collected his son, quit his job, and moved his family of four out of Washington.
You will be pleased, though not especially surprised, to learn that the story later reports that Ahmed's son (who is, by the way, autistic) is doing just fine in a new state, and no longer experiences gender dysphoria.
That's the one with a happy ending.
The Lab Leak Media Bubble, by Zeynep Tufecki:
Here’s a few basic “did you look it up in Wikipedia level” facts about the Wuhan Institute of Virology that I wrote in my own article... Just writing this meant that I got surprised mail from people. Even such minor basic facts hadn’t made it out of the distorted media bubble of last year to the point that people were emailing me with astonishment to learn the basics about the location of the lab.
...[A]s far as I can tell, none of the key Chinese scientists who have published or given interviews have tried to wa[v]e away the location, ever. They admit they are surprised by the coincidence. They note that the guilty bats are far away. They say the ones in Hubei would be in hibernation, and are far from the city.
All this was just us, some of our media, scientists and journalists. With Chinese scientists and media, we can point at the repression, coercion and lack-of-freedoms that clearly restrict what they can say. (For more than a year, Chinese scientists have not been allowed to publish on the pandemic without centralized national security review. The media censorship barely requires explaining).
What’s our excuse?
Our mainstream media institutions are no longer intended primarily to inform the public. Their primary purpose is affirmation. The difference between a One America News politics reporter and a New York Times science reporter is not ethics or intentions. There are only two differences:
(1) Talent. The NYT draws from a genuinely more talented population than OANN. Talk about the virtues of America's rural yeomanry all you like; that demographic simply does not produce the quantity and quality of persuasive writers and propagandists that the Sidwell-Smith-Times pipeline.
(2) Orientation. OANN is staffed by dissidents. The NYT is staffed by power. Power always has a number of advantages over dissidents in a propaganda war... especially when the dissidents refuse to hold themselves to a higher standard of conduct than power (as American dissidents, emulating the historically unusual dissidents of the late-'60s/early-'70s, usually don't).
This does not mean you should trust OANN over NYT. It means you should not trust anyone. True information that creates an accurate picture of the world is increasingly hard to come by (see: that Afghanistan reporting above), and we may increasingly need to accept that we as news consumers are simply incapable of knowing the truth about a number of large and important topics. Pravda has not reported it and the samizdat that reaches us is incomplete and error-ridden. Covid and the bipartisan lying about it cast this dynamic into sharp relief.
I doubt Zeynep would make a media critique anywhere close to this strong. Even if she thought I was right (doubtful), she'd be unemployed and unemployable if she said so. But I am making this case because these media failings play a key role in my last two worthy reads for this week:
"Viktor Orban, Literal Authoritarian," by Cockburn:
Blasting across Cockburn’s email feed recently was a new piece from Yasmeen Serhan for the Atlantic, titled ‘The Autocrat’s Legacy.’ The piece is about the unfathomable wickedness of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán. He’s the autocrat.
...‘Orbán doesn’t follow the classic authoritarian playbook of jailing opposition politicians, arresting journalists, or violently cracking down on protesters, as is so often the case in places such as Russia or Belarus,’ Serhan writes. So, in other words, Orban is not an authoritarian. He’s just a guy who wins elections.
...More than ever before, Western elites simply equate democracy with their own power. In a time when Western power seems shakier than ever, they tell the public that democracy means they are the only acceptable choice to lead. So, who is really putting democracy in peril?
Honestly, you really gotta read the whole thing here. I keep trying to sympathize with both sides on the "is Viktor Orban an autocrat?" thing, but, really, I've read a lot about how Viktor Orban is supposedly destroying democracy, and it really does always come down to, "He's just right-wing and it's not fair when right-wingers win elections and implement their agenda!" Most every "dirty trick" Orban has ever pulled off has been endorsed by Brian Fallon and at least one Atlantic writer as something essential to "saving" democracy in America... because, in America, it would help the Left.
But the hypocrisy is invisible, never flagged outside far-right publications like the Spectator, because our mainstream media institutions are not intended primarily to inform the public
"The Stolen Election and the Right-Wing Epistemic Crisis," by Darryl Cooper:
I think I've had discussions w/enough Boomer-tier Trump supporters who believe the 2020 election was fraudulent to extract a general theory about their perspective. It is also the perspective of most of the people at the Capitol on 1/6, and probably even Trump himself.
Most believe some or all of the theories involving midnight ballots, voting machines, etc, but what you find when you talk to them is that, while they'll defend those positions w/info they got from Hannity or Breitbart or whatever, they're not particularly attached to them.
Here are the facts - actual, confirmed facts - that shape their perspective: 1) The FBI/etc spied on the 2016 Trump campaign using evidence manufactured by the Clinton campaign. We now know that all involved knew it was fake from Day 1 (see: Brennan's July 2016 memo, etc).
...But the behavior of the corporate press is really what radicalized them. They hate journalists more than they hate any politician or gov't official, because they feel most betrayed by them.
The idea that the press is driven by ratings/sensationalism became untenable. If that were true, they'd be all over the Epstein story. The corporate press is the propaganda arm of the Regime they now see in outline. Nothing anyone says will ever make them unsee that, period.
This is profoundly disorienting. Many of them don't know for certain whether ballots were faked in November 2020, but they know for absolute certain that the press, the FBI, etc would lie to them if there was. They have every reason to believe that, and it's probably true.
I know a few people who think the election was stolen.
It wasn't. I've looked into it very, very closely (and I did not trust either mainstream media or dissident media) and the evidence is simply overwhelming: Biden supporters in and out of government engaged in a couple of attempts to subvert the election, sometimes successfully, but their efforts were not enough to change the outcome of the election.
Virtually all claims of outright fraud were simply false on examination, and many others (presented in long, long, lonnnnnng press conferences) were so weak the Trump Campaign never even brought them to court where they could be examined. Sidney Powell made a lot of explosive (and insane) claims about Dominion voting machines, which many of my friends believed because she'd staked her reputation on it and had promised evidence soon... but she had no evidence, and her reputation is now destroyed, and she is being sued for defamation and will lose. There were no "late night vote dumps," as you would well know if you -- like me -- stayed up until 4:30 AM on Election Night and watched the ballots escorted to the Milwaukee County Court House under police escort to be counted.
(Biden's winning margin didn't even come from the inner cities; he made his biggest gains in the suburbs, and that was what swung the election. So many examples of supposed fraud come from Milwaukee and Detroit, but, in fact, to win the election the way he did, Biden's people would have had to commit massive voter fraud in Wauwatosa, and nobody alleges that.)
Tightening up ballot access laws, protecting future elections against the kinds of shenanigans Democrats attempted in 2020, that's all justified. Something like Georgia's voting reform bill is entirely appropriate. But even after you count every legitimate ballot, and throw out every remotely plausibly fraudulent ballot, Biden still wins the electoral college by a decent margin (and the popular vote by a large one). Joe Biden is the legitimate president of the United States.
But, with all that being said, I really can't blame my election-outcome-doubting friends too hard, because... what the heck are they supposed to do?
Not everyone is blessed with the time and brainpower needed to sort through hours of court filings and mathematical models to demonstrate to themselves that Biden did in fact win. Most of these good Americans never even took college Statistics (essential to any kind of election-fraud analysis), and even most of those who did have forgotten all of it! But "doing the analysis yourself" is the only way to learn anything remotely true anymore. There is no doubt in my mind that, in the very slightly counterfactual world where Biden's shenanigans did swing the election and the election therefore was stolen, I would have done the same analysis, objected to the steal... and been dismissed as a conspiracy theorist just as completely as my stolen-election-supporting friends have been in reality.
That's because the mainstream media's primary intention is not to inform the public.
And that's why I really like this thread. It observes both that the mainstream media is a propaganda service, and notes that one effect of this is an epistemic crisis. Facts don't matter on the Right because facts can't matter because facts are not generally available and accessible. (Facts don't matter to the Left, either. See Orban and Wuhan, above.)
Now, Ross Douthat and Megan McArdle both point out that this particular thread is pretty self-serving and forgiving of Trump supporters, many of whom (Trump included) really wouldn't give a damn about a fact if it walked up and shook their hands. I agree with their critiques as well. Still, it gets at an important facet of our political reality in a way that makes it a worthy read.