Quick hits (part II)

1) I’ve been meaning to watch “Let the Fire Burn” for a long time, and it was apparently at the top of my Netflix DVD queue.  As a documentary, I was not nearly as impressed as the many recommendations I’ve heard would suggest, but it was pretty amazing to get the (not quite full enough) story of how the city of Philadelphia burned down a whole city block in pursuit of a Black psuedo-cult in 1985.  I definitely remember when this happened when I was 13.

2) N&O Observer says the NC Governor should put teeth in enforcing mask mandates and gym/bar closures.  I heartily agree.

3) Research suggests there are six different “cluster types” of Covid-19.  Headache and loss of smell in all of them.

1- (‘flu-like’ with no fever): Headache, loss of smell, muscle pains, cough, sore throat, chest pain, no fever.

2- (‘flu-like’ with fever): Headache, loss of smell, cough, sore throat, hoarseness, fever, loss of appetite.

3- (gastrointestinal): Headache, loss of smell, loss of appetite, diarrhea, sore throat, chest pain, no cough.

4- (severe level one, fatigue): Headache, loss of smell, cough, fever, hoarseness, chest pain, fatigue.

5- (severe level two, confusion): Headache, loss of smell, loss of appetite, cough, fever, hoarseness, sore throat, chest pain, fatigue, confusion, muscle pain.

6- (severe level three, abdominal and respiratory): Headache, loss of smell, loss of appetite, cough, fever, hoarseness, sore throat, chest pain, fatigue, confusion, muscle pain, shortness of breath, diarrhea, abdominal pain.

4) This is so fascinating, basically, historical/archaeological epidemiology “Viking Age Smallpox Complicates Story of Viral Evolution: An extinct version of the smallpox virus dating to 1,400 years ago prompts speculation about viruses becoming more lethal over time.”

The evolution of the deadliest virus in human history — smallpox — is only partly understood. Like the novel coronavirus and many other disease-causing viruses, smallpox seems to have originated in animals, probably rodents, and spilled over to humans, probably thousands of years ago. In the 20th century alone it killed hundreds of millions of people.

Until now, the earliest confirmed case of smallpox had been found in the mummified remains of a Lithuanian child from the 17th century. On Thursday, an international team of researchers pushed that date back 1,000 years, reporting in the Science journal that they had recovered smallpox DNA from the remains of people in Northern Europe in the Viking Age.

The virus they found is now extinct and has not been found in other, more recent skeletal remains. It is not an ancestor of the modern smallpox virus, but an evolutionary dead end. It has more genes than the modern virus, and scientists have observed that among the many different pox viruses in nature, fewer genes tend to mean a more deadly virus. Putting those facts together caused one prominent smallpox specialist to suggest that the modern virus might have become more deadly as it evolved. Most viruses become less deadly over time…

The differences in the Viking variant are significant enough for the virus to make up a new group, or clade, of Variola. It is not an earlier version of the modern virus. Both modern smallpox and the newly discovered variant descended from a common ancestor, but diverged at least 1,700 years ago. Dr. Jones said: “The Viking viruses were on a different evolutionary path that could not have led to the modern viruses.”…

The genetic details of the Viking virus are what prompted speculation that perhaps the smallpox virus may have become more deadly. Barbara Mühlemann, also a virologist at Cambridge and the first author on the paper, said that the general understanding of pox viruses is that the ones with fewer genes directed at deceiving the immune system of a host are actually more deadly. The reason is not clear, although with viral infections, a very strong immune reaction is often what kills the victim.

“The pattern that we’ve seen in the paper,” she said, “ is that there has been a loss of genes over time” in the modern smallpox virus compared to the Viking virus, which had more active genes than the modern virus. But, she cautioned, she and her colleagues have no direct evidence that the Viking version of the virus was less deadly.

5) Atlantic, “BoJack Horseman’s Diane Problem Is Now an Industry Problem: High-profile white voice actors are relinquishing their roles as characters of color. But the departures have caused divisions among their peers.”  I totally get that Hollywood voice casting has almost surely been unfair to non-white actors for generations.  The solution is not that voice actors should only portray the same race as they are.  We do not need that racial essentialism.  (Also, Alison Brie was brilliant as Diane on Bojack and I’d hate to think about losing her performance).  To say that only a Black person can portray a black animated character is, in the end, no different than saying only white people can play “white” roles (yeah, I know, power differential and all) and that’s no way to go.

6) I found this to be an interesting perspective/frame on cancel culture.  Especially given a recent FB debate in which multiple people argued that to be Republican is to be racist (more thoughts on that coming up this week):

Although I’ve collapsed the debate over cancel culture into the debate over free speech, there’s an important difference to note at the outset.

The debate over cancel culture is not so much about free speech as it is about freer speech — it’s less about carving out space for your deplorable opponents to say anything they like and more about ensuring that enough space is carved out for reasonable views to be voiced without fear of incurring “cancellation.”

In other words, those decrying the existence of a pernicious “cancel culture,” like the Harper’s letter signatories, want to fix the discourse parameters so that speech is let in that they see as intellectually in bounds, whether any of them personally agree with that speech or not. Cancel culture promoters, by contrast, favor a discourse culture in which only progressive-compliant speech is allowed.

The crowd that worries about cancel culture includes free speech advocates of the more traditional kind, the sort who think any prohibition on any speech is cryptotyrannical, but the crowd’s most prominent voices are those who aren’t so much absolutists about free speech as they are contemptuous of attempts to narrow acceptable discourse into more or less what progressives believe.

Think about it in terms of concentric circles.

The largest one is the libertarian framework we call free speech absolutism: everything is in bounds.

The second-largest one is the anti-cancel culture liberals wanting some things out of bounds, but also insisting that their own views, ranging from center-right conservatism to left-liberalism, remain comfortably in bounds.

Finally, there’s the smallest circle, which only allows for progressivism-compatible views. This last circle doesn’t represent the way the discourse at large looks today, but it does capture the way some subcultures within it operate, and it is certainly an image of how the discourse would look if some progressives had their way.

I want to focus on these last two circles and leave the largest one, free speech absolutism, aside.

I’ve recently come across the argument that, as the concentric circles metaphor perhaps suggests, the liberals who sharply criticize cancel culture and the progressives who argue that it’s actually a good accountability measure really only disagree about where to draw the line. The former want to set the discourse limits in one place, the reasoning goes, while the latter merely wish to set the limits in a different place.

This analysis is mistaken.

The reason it’s mistaken is it contains a false equivalence at its core: the idea that both groups fundamentally agree on the discourse principles.

But both groups are not equivalently supportive of the importance of free and open debate. One group favors it whereas the other group rejects it; cancel culture critics approve of it whereas cancel culture promoters see it as a troubling accommodation of harmful and dangerous views.

The metaphor of concentric circles is perhaps misleading here, then, since it suggests that the groups merely differ on where to draw the line. But here’s what the metaphor leaves out. The reason the lines are drawn in different places is precisely because the two groups differ on the very principle in question. The two parties differ on where to draw the line, that is true — but the line-drawing is a consequence of a prior philosophical difference.

What’s the principle that they differ over?

The anti-cancel culture people are supporters of a discourse culture that allows views they strongly disagree with, so long as certain conditions are met. Those conditions tend to be some combination of: the view must be argued in good faith, the view must be supported by reasons, the view must not flagrantly contravene historical and scientific facts, etc.

Their critics, on the other hand, have a radically different view of what the discourse should allow. This group believes that the above conditions are not enough — it is not enough for someone to argue something in good faith, or to support their views with reasons, or to be factual. A discourse participant can tick all these boxes and yet argue for a view that many within this group would find reprehensible.

The first group thinks that those conditions are sufficient for discourse worthiness; the second group thinks they’re necessary but insufficient.

7) And because I’m such an anti-cancel culture guy, that also means I truly believe in engaging with the strongest/smartest voices telling me I’m wrong, in this case Vox’s Zack Beuachamp, whose articles incorporating social science I typically love:

Abstract appeals to “free speech” and “liberal values” obscure the fact that what’s being debated is not anyone’s right to speech, but rather their right to air that speech in specific platforms like the New York Times without fear of social backlash. Yet virtually everyone agrees that certain speakers — neo-Nazis, for example — do not deserve a column in the paper of record.

The real debate here is not about the principle of free speech, but the much grayer question of how we draw its boundaries. What kinds of speech should be morally out of bounds? What sorts of speakers should be excluded from major platforms? When can giving a platform to one kind of person actually make it harder for other people to speak their minds freely? And what kinds of social sanctions, like public shaming or firing, are justified responses to violations of these social norms?

Once we see that these are the issues we’re actually discussing, it becomes clear that “cancel culture” is not the existential threat to free expression it’s made out to be. Questions about the limits of what we should discuss in major publications are important, to be sure — and I do think the anti-cancelers have marshaled some decent arguments for their approach. But debates over speech’s boundaries are the kinds of difficult conversations that every liberal society (maybe even every society) grapples with all the time. Canada criminalizes hate speech, Germany bans Holocaust denial, and the United States permits both — yet no one seriously believes that America is a free society while the other two have somehow collapsed into illiberalism.

The cancel culture conversation is the same debate around free speech’s limits that we’ve been having over offensive speech for decades, playing out in newsrooms and faculty lounges rather than legislatures.

What’s happening now seems novel because we are currently seeing a wave of social justice activism that seeks to redefine how we understand appropriate debate over these topics, sometimes even pushing to consign to the margins views that may have seemed tolerable in the past. These advocates can and have overreached, and should be criticized when they do. But on the whole, their work is aimed not at restricting freedom but at expanding it — making historically marginalized voices feel comfortable enough in the public square to be their authentic selves, to exist honestly and speak their own truths.

This is not a debate over the value of liberalism and free speech. Liberalism requires placing some boundaries on acceptable speech to function; there is a reason out-and-out racists like Richard Spencer weren’t asked to be signatories on the Harper’s letter.

Instead, this is a debate within liberalism over who gets to define the boundaries of speech — and where these boundaries ought to be set if American society is to follow through on its liberal promise.

8) Harry Enten on the race 100 days out:

I know– but keep fighting like Biden is 10 points behind.  And, Biden has to win big.  There can really be little doubt at this point that Trump will do everything in his power to try and steal a close election and end American democracy as we know it.

9) Relatedly, your depressing read, “8 Big Reasons Election Day 2020 Could Be a Disaster”

10) Cool NYT video feature on how federal troops escalated violence in Portland.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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