The expanding power of opaque notions

David Harsanyi worries that censorship is gaining popularity:

Why would a feminist — or anyone, for that matter — celebrate the idea of empowering bureaucrats to decide how we talk about gender stereotypes? Because these days, foundational values mean less and less to those who believe hearing something disagreeable is the worst thing that could happen to them.

Sometimes you need a censor, this Jezebel writer points out, because nefarious conglomerates like “Big Yogurt” have been “targeting women for decades.” She — and the British, apparently — don’t believe that women have the capacity to make consumer choices or the inner strength to ignore ads peddling probiotic yogurts.

This is why the U.K. Committee of Advertising Practice (and, boy, it takes a lot of willpower not to use the cliché “Orwellian” to describe a group that hits it on the nose with this kind of ferocity) is such a smart idea. It will ban, among others, commercials in which family members “create a mess, while a woman has sole responsibility for cleaning it up,” ones that suggest that “an activity is inappropriate for a girl because it is stereotypically associated with boys, or vice versa,” and ones in which “a man tries and fails to perform simple parental or household tasks.”

If you believe this kind of thing is the bailiwick of the state, it’s unlikely you have much use for the Constitution. I’m not trying to pick on this one writer. Acceptance of speech restrictions is a growing problem among millennials and Democrats. For them, opaque notions of “fairness” and “tolerance” have risen to overpower freedom of expression in importance…

This position and its justifications all run on the very same ideological fuel. Believe it or not, though, allowing the state to ban documentaries is a bigger threat to the First Amendment than President Donald Trump’s tweets mocking CNN…

Nearly every censor in the history of mankind has argued that speech should be curbed to balance out some harmful consequence. And nearly every censor in history, sooner or later, kept expanding the definition of harm until the rights of his political opponents were shut down

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The common denominator of the two extremes is the abandonment of disinterested reporting

Victor Davis Hanson writes about America’s Media Meltdown:

Between 2008 and 2016, the media were unapologetic about their adoration of President Barack Obama. Now, they are energized by their thorough loathing of President Donald Trump. In tragic fashion, the hubris of deifying Obama has now come full circle to the nemesis of demonizing Trump. The common denominator of the two extremes is the abandonment of disinterested reporting…

While a few journalists were aware of their cult-like worship, most were hooked and competed to outdo one another with embarrassing hagiographic praise. Upon election, Obama was summarily declared by one presidential historian and television pundit to the smartest man with the highest IQ ever to have been president.

Obama himself channeled the veneration, variously promising in god-like fashion to cool the planet and lower the seas, remarking that his own multifaceted expertise was greater than that of all of the various specialists who ran his campaign. For the next eight years, the media largely ignored what might charitably be called an historic overextension of presidential power and scandal not seen since the days of Richard Nixon’s presidency. A clique of journalists set up a private chat group, JournoList, through which they could channel ideas to promote the Obama progressive agenda.

Freed from most press scrutiny, the Obama administration surveilled Associated Press reporters accused of leaks and monitored the communications of Fox News’s White House Correspondent James Rosen. In a variety of scandals, UN Ambassador and National Security Advisor Susan Rice lied repeatedly about the Benghazi catastrophe, the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap, the Iran deal, and the supposed destruction of weapons of mass destruction by the Assad government in Syria. Meanwhile, Obama’s Attorney General Loretta Lynch faced inquiries about massaging the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Close advisors such as Rice and UN Ambassador Samantha Power faced congressional inquiries into whether some in the administration had requested improper surveillance reports of political opponents, unmasked their names, and illegally leaked them to the press—a story that the media overlooked.

Most Obama foreign policy initiatives proved disappointments: reset with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the bombing of Libya resulting in postwar chaos, the withdrawal of all U.S. peacekeepers from Iraq, the faux redlines with Syria, failed “strategic patience” with North Korea, writing off the ISIS terrorist caliphate as “Jayvees,” and the expansion of Chinese bases into the South China Sea.

At home, Obama was the first president in recent history never to have achieved three percent economic growth, as labor non-participation rose and median family incomes fell. The media largely ignored a series of scandals, as if investigating them might endanger the Obama progressive moment: the politicization of the IRS, FBI, and Justice Department; ICE reduced to de facto irrelevance; fraud at the VA; overreach at EPA; and incompetence at the Secret Service and GSA.

Rather than appreciate such media obsequiousness, Obama sometimes showed near contempt for toadyish reporters, joking about his positive press coverage and joshing how he got the Nobel Peace Prize without much accomplishment. His deputy National Security Advisor and would-be novelist Ben Rhodes contemptuously manipulated and then wrote off young foreign correspondents as know-nothings—despite the fact they had helped the administration obfuscate the dangerous implications of Obama’s Iran deal through what Rhodes called an “echo chamber” of administration-fed talking points.

Former speech writers Jon Favreau and Jon Lovett joked on television how they had easily deluded the public on the downsides of Obamacare. Special advisor Jonathan Gruber laughed at the “stupidity of the American voter” who was easily deceived by the administration and media about the nature of Obamacare. Again, the common denominator was an expectation that the press was not a public watchdog but an enabler of the Obama agenda

In addition, the current generation of marquee reporters was schooled at the major journalism schools by veterans of the 1960s, when the “new” journalism saw progressive political activism—opposition to the Vietnam War and the promotion of civil rights, feminism, and environmentalism—as the proper counterweight to traditional and supposedly regressive American values

Trump was neither shy nor decorous in punching back, ridiculing the appearance of on-air talking heads, relegating them to back of the room slots at press conferences, and going over the head of the media through often crude ad hominem tweets. Although polls (whose reliability remains questionable after the 2016 election) rarely showed figures higher than forty percent for Trump, the media is held in even less regard, with about two-thirds of those polled expressing their disapproval of journalists.

If the media became unhinged in the adulatory Obama years through hubris, it might have earned back its respect and professionalism by covering Trump in even-handed fashion. But Nemesis does not work that way: those it destroys, it first makes mad.

 

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Accepting other people’s choices

Good stuff from Jim Geraghty’s Morning Jolt

Barro continues, “It’s not good to spend a lot of time telling people what they think of as their non-political behaviors are Actually Problematic And Bad.”

I don’t know whether this is a more dominant thread of thought in the modern progressive’s mind than it was a decade or two ago, or whether we just see more of this theme in progressive media outlets. One reason this type of “your seemingly mundane, apolitical choice is terrible and must be denounced” article is increasingly common is because it is cheap and easy.

You don’t need much specialized knowledge, a lot of research, travel or anything like that to write a piece such as that. Just take something that a lot of people do — particularly people who aren’t like you — and denounce it in logically-shaky-at-best, furious, hyperbolic terms. Let’s say, “Your Decision to Eat Bacon Is Worse Than Apartheid.” This will undoubtedly turn heads, and some people will click on the headline just out of curiosity, wondering why something they always thought was good is actually so bad for the world. Bacon fans will denounce the essay, and in the process, drive more traffic. People will write blog posts and make counterarguments, prompting even more readers and web-surfers to check out what launched the latest brouhaha. In the Web-traffic numbers, an incredulous or angry click looks the same as an approving click.

Barro continues, “Especially when this amounts to telling people that what’s wrong with them is they’re not more like you.”

Bingo. “I’m a childless adult, telling all of you people out there to stop having children.” “I’m a vegan, telling you that you must stop eating meat.” I’m an urbanite who doesn’t own a car, telling you that your automobile is destroying the planet and gas taxes should be higher to support the costs of mass transit.”

The not-so-subtle subtext is, “Why aren’t you more like me?” And the simple answer from most people is . . . “Because I don’t want to be more like you.” It’s rare that those lifestyle choices have never been considered by the target audience; they just don’t find them appealing or workable for their lives. In some cases, there’s a remarkable obliviousness about the reality of life for their target audiences — i.e., “Why aren’t you buying organic?”

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that progressives are exhibiting all of the traits that they accused Christian conservatives of embodying: smug judgmental attitudes, harsh denunciation of those who make different choices, lack of respect for others who see things differently and a refusal to recognize individual autonomy, an eagerness to enforce a stifling code of behavior, and a conditional-at-best view towards liberty.

As Jonah observes this morning, “Filipovic is precisely one of those writers you’d expect to go ballistic if some conservative Christian opined about the reproductive choices women should make. But if it’s in the name of the environment? Let’s wag those fingers, everybody!”

I used to think that the most important value for living in a constitutional republic such as ours was a bit of faith in people to eventually make the right choices for themselves. But I’m starting to wonder if an even more important value is an acceptance of people making what we perceive to be the wrong choices for themselves.

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Humanity’s ability to forestall radical warming

Good piece by Oren Cass, Truth is Just a Detail, at City Journal:

Wallace-Wells’s article is a quintessential illustration of what I have described in Foreign Affairs as “climate catastrophism.” He ignores humanity’s capacity for adapting to changes that will occur slowly over decades or centuries, inserting the classic catastrophist disclaimer in his introduction: “absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives . . .” But humanity will obviously make significant adjustments in the coming century, especially if faced with the catastrophes he posits. The qualifier undermines everything that follows, just as it did the Population Bomb and Peak Oil prognosticators of the past.

Likewise, Wallace-Wells seems not to understand that the world of future centuries will look vastly different from today’s, and that climate impacts must be understood in this context. Thus, he takes a particularly extreme warning that climate change might reduce global output 50 percent by 2100 and invites readers to “imagin[e] what the world would look like today with an economy half as big.” But the study in question is producing estimates for the world of 2100, not 2017—the loss is “relative to scenarios without climate change.” Even growing at only 2.5% annually, the global economy of 2100 would be seven times larger than today’s. Cutting that in half is a catastrophe, comparatively speaking—but still yields a dramatically wealthier world than we have today. Wallace-Wells claims to have conducted “dozens of interviews and exchanges with climatologists and researchers in related fields,” but he seemingly could not find any to go on the record validating any of his claims. He even acknowledges that the three whom he does quote—one on mitigating climate impacts, one on the history of climate science, and one on past extinctions—are all optimists about humanity’s ability to “forestall radical warming.”

Related:  Jonah Goldberg on the use of “scare tactics” in the AGW debate:

The more you sound like some cowbell-wielding street preacher wearing a sandwich board that says “The End Is Nigh!” the more likely it is that people will ignore you. Particularly if your last few terrifying predictions didn’t pan out.

But this focus on how using scare tactics doesn’t persuade skeptics overlooks another problem. What about the people it does persuade? If you honestly believe that climate change will end all life on earth (it won’t) or lead to some dystopian hell where we use the skulls of our former friends and neighbors to collect water droplets from cacti, what policies wouldn’t you endorse to stop it?

There’s a rich school of journalistic and academic nonsense out there about how democracy may not be up to the job of fighting climate change, and why people who question climate change must be silenced by the state. It’s remarkable how many of the people who rightly recoil in horror at the idea of using, say, the war on terror to justify curtailing civil liberties have no such response when someone floats similar ideas for the war on climate change.

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A People without a King

Nice sentiments for today from Kevin D. Williamson in A People without a King:

A great many of those troops — Americans, British, Australian, Italian, Finnish—probably rolled their eyes when they heard politicians making fine speeches about what our nations were up to in Afghanistan or Iraq. And no doubt the first thing the Marquis de Lafayette heard when he returned to France to lobby for support for Washington and his forces was: “What’s in it for us?” That’s a fine question, but it isn’t the only question. Americans can be — and often are — everything our critics say we are: impulsive, vulgar, oafish, clumsy, greedy, vain, belligerent, sanctimonious, hypocritical. But we are something else: a catalyst. We’ve had 241 years of hit-and-miss government, but imagine going back to 1776 with a prophecy that one day, in the not-too-distant future, the English, French, Germans, Spanish, and Italians — to say nothing of the Israelis and the Japanese and the Indians — would form a restive and sometimes turbulent but enduring alliance against tyranny and oppression, and that this alliance would be loosely and imperfectly organized around something like the ideals ratified on July 4, 1776.

We have our political, economic, and religious disagreements with our friends and allies, but everywhere in the world where people fight against tyranny, we hear an echo of 1776. Everywhere in the world where people risk everything they have to tell the king, führer, caudillo, secretary general of the central committee, dear leader, ayatollah, or president for life to kiss their asses, we see something of ourselves. When things get bad enough, we join in, and have spent untold blood and treasure in the pursuit of other people’s liberty. Why? What’s in it for us?

It is in our nature. We aren’t our politics. We aren’t our government or our president or even our Constitution, which is subject to revision from time to time. We are the people who decided that rather than just change kings, we’d do away with kings altogether under the radical theological premise that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, irrespective of the king’s good opinion. A people with no king showed the world that life without tyranny is possible, and in fact that no tyrant walking the Earth is powerful enough to stand against a nation of truly free men. Castro, Putin, Maduro, Kim — they are sad and more than a little ridiculous by comparison.

It emphatically is not the case, flatulent rhetoric notwithstanding, that the desire for freedom has been planted in every human heart. But where it has been planted, Americans know a kinship beyond blood. When Ronald Reagan demanded of Mikhail Gorbachev “Tear down this wall!” no one asked, “What’s in it for us?” We already knew.

We still know.

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“About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful.”

Excerpt from President Coolidge’s speech commemorating the nation’s 150th anniversary:

About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.

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What are conservatives trying to conserve?

Writing at NRO, Andrew McCarthy sums up a point that is often made, though perhaps not often enough:  in America, most conservatives aren’t trying to conserve a monarchy, or blood & soil nationalism, but an idea that remains radical even after 241 years.

These episodes are a constant reminder that what conservatives intend to conserve, and what progressives intend to progress away from, is Anglo-American liberalism, with its individual rights, procedural justice, and rule of law.

In the Commentary symposium, “Is Free Speech Under Threat in the United States,” Jonah Goldberg contributes this:

Of course free speech is under threat in America. Frankly, it’s always under threat in America because it’s always under threat everywhere. Ronald Reagan was right when he said in 1961, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”

This is more than political boilerplate. Reagan identified the source of the threat: human nature. God may have endowed us with a right to liberty, but he didn’t give us all a taste for it. As with most finer things, we must work to acquire a taste for it…

In the past, threats to free speech have taken many forms—nationalist passion, Comstockery (both good and bad), political suppression, etc.—but the threat to free speech today is different. It is less top-down and more bottom-up. We are cultivating a generation of young people to reject free speech as an important value

The self-esteem craze was just part of the cocktail of educational fads. Other ingredients included multiculturalism, the anti-bullying crusade, and, of course, that broad phenomenon known as “political correctness.” Combined, they’ve produced a generation that rejects the old adage “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me” in favor of the notion that “words hurt.” What we call political correctness has been on college campuses for decades. But it lacked a critical mass of young people who were sufficiently receptive to it to make it a fully successful ideology. The campus commissars welcomed the new “snowflakes” with open arms; truly, these are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

“Words hurt” is a fashionable concept in psychology today. (See Psychology Today: “Why Words Can Hurt at Least as Much as Sticks and Stones.”) But it’s actually a much older idea than the “sticks and stones” aphorism. For most of human history, it was a crime to say insulting or “injurious” things about aristocrats, rulers, the Church, etc. That tendency didn’t evaporate with the Divine Right of Kings

And that is the threat free speech faces today. Those who inveigh against “hate speech” are in reality fighting “heresy speech”—ideas that do “violence” to sacred notions of self-esteem, racial or gender equality, climate change, and so on. Put whatever label you want on it, contemporary “social justice” progressivism acts as a religion, and it has no patience for blasphemy.

Appeals to the First Amendment have as much power over the “antifa” fanatics as appeals to Odin did to champions of the New Faith.

In the same symposium, David French adds:

While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.

The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.

The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.

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