Lyin’ Eyes

March 22, 2023
Posted by Jay Livingston

During the protests over the killing of a Black man in Kenosha, WE, CNN reported that the demonstrations were “mostly peaceful.” Unfortuantely, the background visual behind the reporter showed a lot of fire.

The right-wing had a field day.

Technically, CNN was correct. The demonstrations were mostly peaceful. But that didn’t matter. What mattered were those who posed the greatest threats, the ones who torched those buildings.

And now we have Tucker Carlson (here) saying that the “overwhelming majority” of people who invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 were “peaceful.” Carlson acknowledges that a “small percentage of them were hooligans. They committed vandalism.” But the overwhelming majority “were orderly and meek. These were not insurrectionist. They were sightseers.”  He has the tape to prove it. In fact, he has all the tape – 41,000 hours. The Republicans on the House committee gave it to him to edit as he sees fit. No doubt, the Carlson cut will show very orderly people, meekly trying to overturn an election that their candidate lost by seven million votes.

Technically, Carlson is correct. The  overwhelming majority —especially if you expand the denominator to include the tens of thousands of Trump supporters who came to the rally that day but did not invade the Capitol — were not hooligans. But again, the numbers don’t matter. What matters are the violent insurrectionists. This small minority are important because they posed the greatest threat to the democratic institutions of the government and to the police who were trying to protect the Capital and the Representatives and staffers who work there. That’s why, as Carlson laments, “you’ve seen their pictures again and again.”  But who are you gonna believe – Tucker Carlson or your lyin’ eyes?

There’s a larger and more complex question topic in these demonstrations — the relation between the overwhelming majority and the extreme minority. It’s far too complex to go into here, especially in the case of Jan. 6.

Check and Double-Check Your Conservatism

March 15, 2023
Posted by Jay Livingston

In 2014, the Princeton Tory, the campus conservative publication, ran a piece condemning the phrase “check your privilege” and the ideas behind it (here). The author, Tal Fortgang complained that “the phrase . . . assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it,”

Check-your-privilege diminishes “everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life” and “ascrib[es] all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive.”

This is standard conservative thinking — the individual-reductionist belief that those who wind up in elite schools and eventually in high-paying jobs have gotten there solely on the basis of their own personal qualities like intelligence, perseverance, grittiness, etc. Privilege — the social class of their parents — had nothing to do with it. They are all self-made successes. (This conservative take makes an exception for Blacks, women, and other previously excluded groups. They have reached their position not through ability and virtue, but through favoritism in the form of institutional programs emphasizing diversity, equity, and inclusion.)

So you can imagine my surprise when I read George Will, a reliably conservative columnist, making basically the same “check your privilege” attacks on elite-school students (here . The students in question were the Stanford Law students who had wielded the hecklers’ veto against Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan, who the schools conservative organization (the Federalist Society) had invited to speak.

(The only videos of this event that I could find online, here for example, pick up at the point where a Stanford administrator makes a long statement to the students in the room, telling them that she too disagrees with Judge Duncan, that they are free to leave in protest, but that those who stay should allow him to speak. The end of the video clip shows a lot of students walking out and the rest sitting there quietly.)

George Will of course is horrified by the thought of students not allowing someone to speak. He even has snide things to say about the administrator who got things quieted down. But what really ticks him off is the background of the students, their having grown up in privilege.

So, “helicopter parents” hover over their offspring to spare them abrasive encounters with the world. And “participation trophies” are given to everyone on the soccer team, lest the excellence of a few dent others’ self-esteem — the fuel that supposedly propels upward social mobility.

Larded with unstinting parental praise and garlanded with unearned laurels, these cosseted children arrive at college thinking highly of themselves and expecting others to ratify their complacent self-assessment. Surely it was as undergraduates that Stanford’s law school silencers became what they are: expensively credentialed but negligibly educated brats.

You might have expected Will to praise kids who managed to get into Stanford Law. I mean, you’ve gotta be really smart and have really good grades and crush the LSAT, and it probably helps to have gotten into a college where you get really good education. But Will seems to think that all this was handed to these students and that instead of working at their studies for years, they lolled around idling in undeserved self-satisfaction. In Will’s view, they are examples of what Molly Ivins said of George W. Bush — that he was born on third base thinking he had hit a triple. Somehow, I doubt that Stanford Law has has as many “legacy” admissions as Yale did in the early 1960s.

Compared with the “check your privilege” students (and sociology faculty) at Princeton, George Will’s version is simplistic, crude, and devoid of evidence.

New Technologies, Old Attitudes

March 5, 2023
Posted by Jay Livingston

What do our reactions to AI, UFOs, and DMT have in common? Ross Douthat, in today’s Times (here), has an answer:

There is a shared spirit in these stories, a common impulse to the quests: the desire to encounter or invent some sort of nonhuman consciousness that might help us toward leaps that we can’t make on our own. The impulse is an ancient one: The idea tha one might bind a djinn, create a golem or manipulate a god or fairy to do your bidding is inscribed deep in the human imagination.

Surprisingly, Douthat does not remind us that these deals with nonhumans always turn out badly for the humans. He seems to share in the optimism for, as the column’s title has it, “the return of the magicians.” In his mention of Dr. Faustus, Douthat says only that “the scientist and the magician were often overlapping figures in the early modern imagination, blurring together in vocations like alchemy and characters like Dr. Faustus.” Douthat sees blurring. Not so bad. What’s a little blurring? But the central plot element in the story is that Dr. Faustus sells his soul to the devil.

I was reminded of Philip Slater’s far less sanguine take on this kind of thinking in his book The Pursuit of Loneliness, published in 1970. That was more than a half-century ago, but it still seems accurate. Here is a long excerpt..

All societies, optimally, must allow for both change and stability.... Every society evolves patterns for attempting to realize these mutually incompatible needs.

Our society, as many have pointed out, has traditionally handled the problem by giving completely free rein to technological change and opposing the most formidable obstacles to social change. Since, however, technological change in fact forces social changes upon us, this has had the effect of abdicating all control over our social environment to a kind of whimsical deity. While we think of ourselves as a people of change and progress, masters of our environment and our fate, we are no more entitled to this designation than the most superstitious savage, for our relation to change is entirely passive. We poke our noses out the door each day and wonder breathlessly what new disruptions technology has in store for us. We talk of technology as the servant of man, but it is a servant that now dominates the household, too powerful to fire, upon whom everyone is helplessly dependent. We tiptoe about and speculate upon his mood. What will be the effects of such-and-such an invention? How will it change our daily lives? We never ask, do we want this, is it worth it? (We did not ask ourselves, for example, if the trivial conveniences offered by the automobile could really offset the calamitous disruption and depersonalization of our lives that it brought about.) We simply say “You can't stop progress” and shuffle back inside.  

We pride ourselves on being a “democracy” but we are in fact slaves. We submit to an absolute ruler whose edicts and whims we never question. We watch him carefully, hang on his every word; for technology is a harsh and capricious king, demanding prompt and absolute obedience. We laugh at the Luddites (Nat Turners in the struggle for human parity with the machine) but they were the last human beings seriously to confront this issue. Since then we have passively surrendered to every degradation, every atrocity, every enslavement that our technological ingenuity has brought about. We laugh at the old lady who holds off the highway bulldozers with a shotgun, but we laugh because we are Uncle Toms. We try to outdo each other in singing the praises of the oppressor, although in fact the value of technology in terms of human satisfaction remains at best undemonstrated. For when evaluating its effects we always adopt the basic assumptions and perspective of technology itself, and never examine it in terms of the totality of human experience. We say this or that invention is valuable because it generates other inventions-because it is a means to some other means-not because it achieves an ultimate human end. We play down the “side effects” that so often become the main effects and completely negate any alleged benefits. The advantages of all technological “progress” will after all be totally outweighed the moment nuclear war breaks out (an event which, given the inadequacy of precautions and the number of fanatical fingers close to the trigger, is only a matter of time unless radical changes are made).

Let me make clear what I am not saying here. I do not believe in the noble savage and I am not advocating any brand of bucolic romanticism. I do not want to put an end to machines, I only want to remove them from their position of mastery, to restore human beings to a position of equality and initiative.