Quick hits (part I)

1) Great stuff from Adam Serwer, “By Attacking Me, Justice Alito Proved My Point: If he wants the public to see the Court as apolitical, he should try meeting that standard himself.”

Last month, Justice Samuel Alito insisted that the Supreme Court’s critics are wrong. The Court is not “a dangerous cabal” that is “deciding important issues in a novel, secretive, improper way, in the middle of the night, hidden from public view,” he said. Reading aloud from a piece I wrote in the aftermath of the Court’s recent ruling on an abortion law, Alito insisted that it was “false and inflammatory” to say that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision had been nullified in Texas.

Alito’s complaint about my description of the substance of the Court’s ruling was just as meritless as his grousing about my description of the process by which it was delivered. The practical effect of the Supreme Court’s September decision was to deny Texans the right to decide when to end a pregnancy, and many—those who can afford it—are going out of state for treatment. Anti-abortion activists are so delighted with the law’s impact that they are trying to dissuade people from suing under the law, because that might subject it to substantive review by the courts more swiftly. The whole idea of the law was to prevent women in Texas from being able to obtain abortions for as long as possible. It would be wrong to say that Roe has been overturned, but it is beyond dispute to say that its protections are no longer in effect in Texas. In a word, it has been nullified.

The reporters who cover the Supreme Court are a hierarchical bunch, as anyone who has had to sit in the fourth row of the press area, straining to see or hear the proceedings, will tell you. They are decorous and proper and deferential to the justices. The longtime SCOTUS reporters for outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post did not even link to my piece that Alito was mischaracterizing so that their readers could make their own judgments; His Honor’s word would do. And yet here is the Times:

He addressed the recent decisions in unusual detail, rejecting, for instance, what he said was the “false and inflammatory claim that we nullified Roe v. Wade” in early September by allowing a Texas law that bans most abortions after six weeks to come into effect.

“We did no such thing, and we said so expressly in our order,” he said, quoting from it. Indeed, the majority in the 5-to-4 ruling said it based its decision on procedural grounds and did not address the constitutionality of the Texas law.

The effect of the ruling, however, has been to deny abortions to most women in Texas. In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the majority’s unsigned order “illustrates just how far the court’s ‘shadow docket’ decisions may depart from the usual principles of appellate process.”

This is the closest a Supreme Court reporter for a major outlet gets to saying, “Although the justice insisted the liquid was rain, chemical analysis shows the composition to be identical to urine.” Few if any reports saw the decisions as affirming the constitutionality of the Texas law, but many observers surmised that the majority was happy to leave it in place for now, because it does not think women should have the constitutional right to decide whether to carry a pregnancy to term, and therefore does not consider circumstances in Texas to be a matter of significant concern.

2) Michael Tesler, “Why Abortion May Now Motivate Democrats More Than Republicans”

Abortion has long motivated Republicans as a political issue. But following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in early September not to block Texas’s new law banning most abortions once an ultrasound can detect cardiac activity, usually about six weeks into a pregnancy, many have argued that Democrats may become more motivated by reproductive rights. As one Republican pollster recently told the Associated Press, “It is going to be a very motivating issue for women who haven’t typically been single-issue pro-choice voters.”

Tracking data from The Economist/YouGov seems to support this viewpoint. In each weekly survey since February, respondents were asked about the importance of abortion, and as we see in the chart below, the issue has become increasingly more important to Democrats and less important to Republicans ever since.

Throughout most of 2021, Trump voters were actually more likely than Biden voters to say that abortion is a “very important” issue to them. That matched the long history of abortion opponents rating the issue as more important than its proponents. But, as the chart above shows, this pattern was dramatically reversed after Texas’s abortion ban went into effect. Averaged across the five weekly surveys conducted by The Economist/YouGov since then, 51 percent of Biden backers rated abortion as a very important issue compared with just 39 percent of Trump supporters. Morning Consult’s polling shows that the share of Democratic women who said issues such as abortion, contraception and equal pay are central when voting for federal office nearly doubled immediately after Texas’s ban.

3) I’ve only had a gas stove for two years of my life and have always preferred electric.  Now I can feel morally superior about it :-). NPR:

Americans love their gas stoves. It’s a romance fueled by a decades-old “cooking with gas” campaign from utilities that includes vintage advertisements, a cringeworthy 1980s rap video and, more recently, social media personalities. The details have changed over time, but the message is the same: Using a gas stove makes you a better cook.

But the beloved gas stove has become a focal point in a fight over whether gas should even exist in the 35% of U.S. homes that cook with it.

Environmental groups are focused on potential health effects. Burning gas emits pollutants that can cause or worsen respiratory illnesses. Residential appliances like gas-powered furnaces and water heaters vent pollution outside, but the stove “is the one gas appliance in your home that is most likely unvented,” says Brady Seals with RMI, formerly Rocky Mountain Institute.

The focus on possible health risks from stoves is part of the broader campaign by environmentalists to kick gas out of buildings to fight climate change. Commercial and residential buildings account for about 13% of heat-trapping emissions, mainly from the use of gas appliances.

4) Holy crap, planarian flatworms are crazy!  Ed Yong, “They can tear themselves in half and regrow complete bodies. They can retain memories despite decapitation. And if you chop them into little pieces, each piece will start acting like a perfectly intact worm.”

5) One of the great things of federalism is that it allows states to be “laboratories of democracy.”  States can experiment and come up with all sorts of great policy innovations.  Or, they can be like South Dakota and come up with the equivalent of equivalent of chlorine gas in their lab, “South Dakota’s tax avoidance schemes represent federalism at its worst”

The Pandora Papers — the trove of more than 11.9 million confidential documents shared with The Washington Post and partner news organizations — shine a light on South Dakota’s role as an offshore financial center. For the most part, the revelations relate to the Mount Rushmore State’s status as a magnet for foreign wealth, including money derived from international drug smuggling and exploitative labor practices. But it’s not just foreigners who are moving assets to the “little tax haven on the prairie”: High-net-worth Americans also are shifting billions to South Dakota and a handful of other domestic havens, shortchanging federal and home-state tax collectors in the process.

The rise of domestic tax havens marks a troubling new chapter in the history of American federalism. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis hailed states as “laboratories of democracy,” but increasingly U.S. states are becoming laboratories of sophisticated tax avoidance. So far, Congress and the states whose tax bases are being cannibalized by the domestic havens have done little to fight back. Hopefully, the Pandora Papers will catalyze a reaction that’s long overdue.

Congress, for example, could close the loopholes in federal tax law that domestic havens exploit. And the states that lose out from cross-border tax wars could bolster their own legal defenses. Of course, lawmakers in the domestic tax havens also could halt their efforts to emulate overseas havens such as Luxembourg and Switzerland.

There is nothing new — or terribly remarkable — about states competing to lure residents and businesses by offering low tax rates. New Yorkers have long moved to Florida, and Californians relocated to Nevada, to avoid state income taxes. Domestic havens such as South Dakota, however, allow high-net-worth clients to minimize taxes without leaving the comfort of their Manhattan condos and Napa Valley chalets.

South Dakota’s history as a domestic tax haven dates to 1983, when the state legislature voted to lift all durational limits on trusts. Previously, South Dakota — like all but two other states — followed the “rule against perpetuities,” inherited from English common law, which generally prevented trusts from lasting much longer than three generations. And the two states that didn’t follow the rule — Idaho and Wisconsin — weren’t terribly attractive trust fund destinations because they imposed state tax on trust income. With the 1983 law, South Dakota became the first state to allow trusts to exist free of state income tax forever.

The opportunity to establish a perpetual “dynasty trust” with no state income tax induced many of the richest American families to locate their trusts in South Dakota. The Pritzkers of Hyatt hotel fame and the heirs to the Wrigley chewing-gum fortune both opened private trust companies in the state’s largest city, Sioux Falls. By the end of fiscal 2020, financial institutions in South Dakota managed more than $367 billion in trust assets. The state’s success attracted copycats: Delaware followed suit by allowing perpetual trusts in 1995, Alaska in 1997 and a flood of others afterward. Perpetual trusts — rare before the 1980s — have now become a standard tool in the high-end estate planning kit.

The biggest loser in all this is the U.S. Treasury. Carefully designed, a South Dakota dynasty trust can operate as a perpetual estate-tax-avoidance machine. If wealthy families passed their fortunes from grandparents to children to grandchildren and so on, a 40 percent federal estate tax would apply at each generational interval. Shifting those fortunes to perpetual trusts allows them to escape estate tax indefinitely. (A separate federal tax — the generation-skipping transfer tax — is intended to prevent estate tax avoidance via perpetual trusts, but flaws in the design of that levy mean that as a practical matter it often doesn’t achieve its end.)

6) I’ve been a fan of Steven Pinker going back to 1997’s How the Mind Works.  I’m also a fan of his current stance against campus illiberalism and for a less pessimistic view of all sorts of things.  A nice NYT interview from last month about his latest take on rationality, “Steven Pinker Thinks Your Sense of Imminent Doom Is Wrong”

Your new book is driven by the idea that it would be good if more people thought more rationally. But people don’t think they’re irrational. So what mechanisms would induce more people to test their own thinking and beliefs for rationality? Ideally there’d be a change in our norms of conversation. Relying on an anecdote, arguing ad hominem — these should be mortifying. Of course no one can engineer social norms explicitly. But we know that norms can change, and if there are seeds that try to encourage the process, then there is some chance that it could go viral. On the other hand, a conclusion that I came to in the book is that the most powerful means of getting people to be more rational is not to concentrate on the people. Because people are pretty rational when it comes to their own lives. They get the kids clothed and fed and off to school on time, and they keep their jobs and pay their bills. But people hold beliefs not because they are provably true or false but because they’re uplifting, they’re empowering, they’re good stories. The key, though, is what kind of species are we? How rational is Homo sapiens? The answer can’t be that we’re just irrational in our bones, otherwise we could never have established the benchmarks of rationality against which we could say some people some of the time are irrational. I think the answer is, especially for publicly consequential beliefs: We achieve rationality by implementing rules for the community that make us collectively more rational than any of us are individually. People make up for one another’s biases by being able to criticize them. People air their disagreements, and the person with the strongest position prevails. People subject their beliefs to empirical tests…

7) Big fan of this take, “‘Emergency situation. Might help. Won’t hurt. Worth pursuing.’ In a pandemic, it’s the right logic.: Health agencies have been slow to follow their usual emergency guidance when it comes to covid-19”

This is not, of course, only my personal logic. It’s standard thinking in the treatment of medical emergencies. It is logic that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention follows, as well. Despite citing literature that admits that “systematic reviews have not identified any randomized-controlled trials that support the use of these agents,” the CDC nevertheless advises physicians in published recommendations to “consider giving famotidine” to patients suffering from anaphylactic reactions.

But while the CDC is happy to accept such logic in that scenario, for some reason, it seems unable to apply the same thinking in others. And that’s continuing to hurt the U.S. response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Early on, the CDC advised the public against general mask usage. “If you are not sick,” the agency said in the spring of 2020, “you do not need to wear a face mask unless you are caring for someone who is sick.” Then-Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams followed this guidance in late February 2020, tweeting: “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing [the] general public from catching #Coronavirus.” One month later, CDC Director Robert Redfield backtracked, stating that in light of new data, guidance on the general public’s use of masks was being “critically re-reviewed.” By then, the new virus had already spread beyond anyone’s ability to control.

 
Similarly, it was not until May 2021, over a year into the pandemic, that the CDC admitted that the coronavirus behind the disease did indeed spread through the air via aerosolization rather than by droplet particles that fall quickly to the ground. Droplet diseases can be evaded by staying six feet apart from our peers and employing the use of simple surgical masks, while airborne diseases are best controlled by emphasizing good ventilation and the use of aerosol-protective N95 masks. Of course, no school or office building would have been injured by a recommendation that they open their windows in addition to spacing their desks apart, and no nurse or doctor would have been seriously harmed by utilizing an N95 mask before it was proved that they were absolutely needed. At worst, some people would have worn sweaters indoors for no good reason, and an extra layer of protective masks would have been worn when they weren’t absolutely necessary. At best, however, the pandemic would have been better contained, and many of the 3,600-plus health care workers who died in the first 12 months of the pandemic would still be alive today. Here again, “Emergency situation. Might help. Won’t hurt. Worth pursuing,” would have been a wise mantra to follow. (Because of ongoing misinformation, it is important to note here that the politicized treatments of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin do not meet the criteria of this mantra. These treatments can better be described as “Won’t help, might hurt, don’t pursue.”)

Despite all this, the CDC and other federal agencies leading the pandemic response do not appear to have learned the lesson. Even as the Food and Drug Administration admits that coronavirus booster vaccines don’t carry any significant safety risk and that they appear to be effective, they have gone on to reject recommending them for most people, instead endorsing them only for the elderly and people at high risk of severe covid…

More important than any specifics, however, is that the current issue, like the ones before it, serves to highlight a fundamental logic gap that seems to be going repeatedly unaddressed at the highest levels of our government. In an emergency situation, we often don’t have the luxury of a complete data set before we decide to do what is right. As with a patient struggling to breathe as the result of an allergic reaction, we cannot wait for the worst to happen before we finally decide to take action. We don’t need to think our plan is a silver bullet for it to still make sense to pursue it.

Our current pandemic will have more stages to come, and the future will present us with new pandemics, each with their own challenges and difficult decisions. If we are to do a better job going forward than we have done looking back, “Emergency situation. Might help. Won’t hurt. Worth pursuing,” is a mantra our most senior officials would be wise to adopt.

8) Some interesting social science: “College and the “Culture War”: Assessing Higher Education’s Influence on Moral Attitudes”

Moral differences contribute to social and political conflicts. Against this backdrop, colleges and universities have been criticized for promoting liberal moral attitudes. However, direct evidence for these claims is sparse, and suggestive evidence from studies of political attitudes is inconclusive. Using four waves of data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, we examine the effects of higher education on attitudes related to three dimensions of morality that have been identified as central to conflict: moral relativism, concern for others, and concern for social order. Our results indicate that higher education liberalizes moral concerns for most students, but it also departs from the standard liberal profile by promoting moral absolutism rather than relativism. These effects are strongest for individuals majoring in the humanities, arts, or social sciences, and for students pursuing graduate studies. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of our results for work on political conflict and moral socialization.

9) Loved Yglesias‘ take on investing in producing a ton of zero-carbon energy and then doing cool things with it (free post):

Over the centuries, people have invented many different kinds of machines that help us do things and improve living standards. But in a very general way, what most of these inventions do is let us substitute some form of power for human effort. And as long as we were totally ignoring the costs of burning coal and oil, this was a great mechanism for progress — you invent new ways to do things by burning coal and oil, so then you burn more coal and oil.

But since the mid-1970s we’ve been increasingly aware of the limits and problems with this model, and it’s put us on an energy diet. Now when we invent something cool, we often have to say “too bad the energy requirements are so high.”..

But as Ryan Avent (from whom I borrowed that chart) and others have written, this is a backward way of looking at things. The turn toward conservation and efficiency was a necessary evil in an era when we couldn’t come up with a better way to deal with geopolitical instability linked to oil and pollution linked to all forms of fossil fuels.

Instead, we should raise our clean energy production ambitions. We don’t want to replace 100% of our current dirty energy — we want to generate vastly more energy than we are currently using and make it zero carbon…

Cleaning the air

One convenient fix for climate change would be large-scale direct air capture technology where machines act like supertrees, sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it somewhere.

Such a technology would have a lot of virtues. Because greenhouses gasses added to the atmosphere stay there, even reaching global zero emissions won’t stop global warming. It would halt the acceleration of global warming (which is good and important), but the ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would let us go net negative and try to halt the warming.

A related issue, as the Georgetown philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò argues, is that carbon capture is a means for developed countries to pay reparations for our outsized role in contributing to the global stock of emissions. Right now America’s idea of global contribution to the fight against climate change is to push development banks to stop financing fossil fuel projects in poor countries. We got rich burning fossil fuels, but it’s now bad if others do the same. China is the biggest emitter right now, but if you look at total emissions, the United States has still doubled Chinese emissions with a much smaller population.

Direct air capture is a way to make it right.

It’s also, of course, a way to get to net zero without totally eliminating fossil fuels…

More clean energy faster

Making as much zero-carbon electricity as possible as quickly as possible is substantially more important than trying to stamp out fossil fuel use. In part, that’s because energy abundance has important upsides for humanity. We’ve been talking here about the upside for rich countries, but in some parts of the world, people don’t have any electricity at all.

Beyond that, it’s the scarcity of clean electricity that prevents us from unleashing some of our most promising technologies for both the mitigation and adaptation sides of things. An important question, of course, is how you actually accomplish this. That’s going to have to wait for later posts.

But the big picture question of how we orient ourselves is important. We shouldn’t be looking at our current energy usage and asking, “How can we get this much energy, but cleaner?” We should be looking at a 45-year energy diet and asking, “How can we use clean energy technology to shatter this barrier and open up incredible new vistas?”

10) No trigger warnings from me (not that I was going to anyway).  Jeanne Suk Gersen, “What if Trigger Warnings Don’t Work: New psychological research suggests that trigger warnings do not reduce negative reactions to disturbing material—and may even increase them.”

Because trigger warnings involve assumptions about emotional reactions, particularly with respect to P.T.S.D., psychology researchers have begun to study whether trigger warnings are in fact beneficial. The results of around a dozen psychological studies, published between 2018 and 2021, are remarkably consistent, and they differ from conventional wisdom: they find that trigger warnings do not seem to lessen negative reactions to disturbing material in students, trauma survivors, or those diagnosed with P.T.S.D. Indeed, some studies suggest that the opposite may be true. The first one, conducted at Harvard by Benjamin Bellet, a Ph.D. candidate, Payton Jones, who completed his Ph.D. in 2021, and Richard McNally, a psychology professor and the author of “Remembering Trauma,” found that, among people who said they believe that words can cause harm, those who received trigger warnings reported greater anxiety in response to disturbing literary passages than those who did not. (The study found that, among those who do not strongly believe words can cause harm, trigger warnings did not significantly increase anxiety.) Most of the flurry of studies that followed found that trigger warnings had no meaningful effect, but two of them found that individuals who received trigger warnings experienced more distress than those who did not. Yet another study suggested that trigger warnings may prolong the distress of negative memories. A large study by Jones, Bellet, and McNally found that trigger warnings reinforced the belief on the part of trauma survivors that trauma was central (rather than incidental or peripheral) to their identity. The reason that effect may be concerning is that trauma researchers have previously established that a belief that trauma is central to one’s identity predicts more severe P.T.S.D.; Bellet called this “one of the most well documented relationships in traumatology.” The perverse consequence of trigger warnings, then, may be to harm the people they are intended to protect.

11) How Covid vaccine innovations can help with flu vaccines:

But a new generation of highly effective flu vaccines may emerge in the next few years, based on the same mRNA technology that has protected hundreds of millions of people against Covid-19.

While traditional influenza vaccines are grown for months in chicken eggs, mRNA vaccines are manufactured relatively quickly from scratch. In theory, their faster production may make them better matched to each season’s flu strains. And when they’re injected into people, they may provoke a stronger immune response than traditional flu vaccines do.

Two companies — Moderna, the Massachusetts biotech company that produced one of the authorized mRNA vaccines for Covid-19, and Sanofi, a French vaccine maker — began trials for mRNA flu vaccines this summer. Pfizer and BioNTech, the companies that produced the other mRNA Covid-19 vaccine, started their own flu trial last month. And Seqirus, a vaccine producer based in England, is planning to test another mRNA vaccine for the flu early next year.

No one can say for sure how well any of these four seasonal flu vaccines will turn out, but many experts are optimistic. And further down the line, mRNA technology may be tailored to make vaccines that work for years against a wide range of influenza strains.

“I am beyond excited for the future of flu vaccination,” said Jenna Bartley, an immunologist at the University of Connecticut…

But some studies suggest that mRNA vaccines might prove more potent than traditional ones. In animal studies, mRNA vaccines seem to provide a broader defense against influenza viruses. They prompt the animals’ immune systems to make antibodies against the virus, and also train immune cells to attack infected cells.

But perhaps most important for the flu, mRNA vaccines can be made rapidly. The speed of mRNA manufacturing may allow vaccine makers to wait a few extra months before picking which influenza strains to use, potentially leading to a better match.

“If you could guarantee 80 percent every year, I think that would be a major public health benefit,” said Dr. Philip Dormitzer, Pfizer’s chief scientific officer.

The technology also makes it easier for mRNA vaccine makers to create combination shots. Along with mRNA molecules for different strains of influenza, they can also add mRNA molecules for entirely different respiratory diseases.

12) This!! “Religious Exemptions for Vaccine Mandates Shouldn’t Exist: Freedom of religion was never meant to excuse people from obligations that apply to everyone.”

SCALIA WAS RIGHT about vaccines and civic obligation, but it’s odd that he had to worry about vaccine requirements in the first place. In fact, religious opposition to vaccines is vanishingly rare. In 2013, John D. Grabenstein, a vaccinologist and practicing Catholic, surveyed a wide range of world religions and couldn’t find any that had anti-vaccine teachings.

Except one. The Church of Christ, Scientist teaches that the material world, including disease, is an illusion, and so the way to overcome disease is through prayer, not medicine or vaccination. Members routinely reject medical care, even for their children. Although tiny—most estimates peg membership in the tens or low hundreds of thousands range—the group was politically influential in the mid-20th century, with several Christian Scientists serving in the Nixon administration. In the 1960s and ’70s, as vaccine mandates for diseases like measles and polio proliferated, the church’s lobbying efforts contributed to a wave of state laws creating religious opt-outs. Today, 48 states and the District of Columbia allow some form of exemption. By the time the modern anti-vaxx moment picked up steam in the 2000s, these exemptions were sitting around like a loaded gun.

“From a doctrinal perspective, it’s just the Christian Scientists,” Grabenstein says. “What we’re really seeing [now] is people wanting a personal philosophical exemption. They’re calling it religious when it’s really their own philosophy.”

Other experts who have studied the matter come to the same conclusion: Almost everyone who claims a religious exemption is using it as a cover for secular concerns, like fear of side effects or a general distrust of government. “I would be very surprised if more than a handful of these people are really thinking about religion at all,” says Dorit Rubenstein Reiss, a professor at UC Hastings College of Law who has studied vaccine exemptions extensively.

Reiss notes that in Connecticut, for example, the rate of religious opt-outs from school vaccine requirements grew from 1.7 to 2.7 percent between 2012 and 2019, even though there was no corresponding change in the state’s religious composition. In California, the rate nearly quadrupled between 1994 and 2009. Rising opt-out rates have correlated, as you’d expect, with rising infections. In 2019, two decades after measles was declared “eliminated,” the CDC reported 22 outbreaks and 1,249 cases—the highest number since 1992.

Reiss laid out the problem bluntly in a 2014 article : “First, people lie to get a religious exemption. Second, U.S. jurisprudence makes preventing such abuse very hard.”

STATE LEGISLATURE MAY have had Christian Scientists in mind when they wrote exemptions into law. The trouble is that carveouts can’t legally be limited to any particular denomination, or even to members of organized religion. In 2001, for example, a federal judge ruled that Arkansas’ vaccine exemption violated the Constitution because it only applied to members of a “recognized church or religious denomination.” Arkansas responded by changing the law to allow parents to claim a “personal belief” exemption, a path that 14 other states currently follow. Research has found that these states grant more non-medical exemptions than states that limit them to religious claims…

While the language of religious objections typically refers to someone’s “sincerely held belief,” judges are understandably wary of trying to read someone’s heart and mind. That creates room for mischief when it interacts with a cultural shift that constitutional law scholar Robert Post calls the “protestantization of religion”—the growing feeling that religious doctrine is not handed down by hierarchical organizations, or even governed by internal consistency, but is a question of individual private belief. Everyone is potentially a religion of one, an echo of the Supreme Court’s 1879 warning about permitting “every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

If America’s religious objectors aren’t taking their cues from official teachings, where are they getting them? To some degree, the answer seems to be Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and right-wing media. The result is a “religious” opposition to vaccine mandates that is at times indistinguishable from a political stance.

13) This, from Cathy Young, on Wokeness is really good, “Defining “Wokeness”: Yes, there is a distinct ideology behind “wokeism,” “social justice,” and other terms that refer to progressive orthodoxy—and it’s toxic”

The supportive replies are typical: It’s just “making an effort not be racist or sexist,” or “a meaningless epithet whose unironic use is pure cringe.”

But in fact, the ideology denoted by “wokeness” and “wokeism”—sarcastic riffs on “woke,” a term from African-American vernacular that means being awake to social injustice—does exist. (Writer Wesley Yang has also dubbed it “the successor ideology” to convey its succession to old-style liberalism.) To avoid the pejorative overtones, I will mostly use “Social Justice,” since that term is embraced by many activists themselves.

Its basic tenets can be summed up as follows:

Modern Western societies are built on pervasive “systems of oppression,” particularly race- and gender-based. All social structures and dynamics are a matrix of interlocking oppressions, designed to perpetuate some people’s power and privilege while keeping others “marginalized” on the basis of inherent identities: race or ethnicity; sex/gender identity/sexuality; religion and national origin; physical and mental health. (Class also factors into it, but tends to be the stepchild of Social Justice discourse.)  Individuals and their interactions are almost completely defined and shaped by those “systems” and by hierarchies of power and privilege. The only right way to understand social and human relations is to view them through the lens of oppression and power.

Everyone who belongs to a non-oppressed category in some core aspect of identity (white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, Christian, non-immigrant) possesses “privilege,” enjoys unearned benefits at the expense of the oppressed, and is implicated in oppression. Thus, social justice advocacy must focus not only on the problems faced by the disadvantaged but on the unfair advantages of the “privileged.”

Because various oppressions are so deeply embedded in everything around us, all actions that do not actively challenge it actively perpetuate it. Writer, scholar and new MacArthur Genius Grant winner Ibram X. Kendi, whose 2019 book How to Be an Antiracisthas made him an intellectual star of the Great Awokening, puts it most succinctly: everything is either racist or antiracist, with no possibility of anything in between.

Challenging oppression and inequality requires not only combating injustices and reforming or dismantling oppressive institutions, but eradicating the unconscious biases we have all learned…

Moral judgments of virtually any situation should be based primarily on where the people involved stand in the power/privilege hierarchy. As David Frum wrote in 2015, discussing many leftists’ rush to blame the victims after Islamist gunmen attacked the offices of the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo in retaliation for cartoons poking fun at Islam, killing 11 people and wounding 11 more, this moral theory can be summed up as: “1. Identify the bearer of privilege. 2. Hold the privilege-bearer responsible.”

These are the core foundational concepts; but there are other important tenets, spoken or unspoken. For instance:

All claims and accounts of identity-based oppression, abuse, or prejudice must be accorded the presumption of belief; to challenge or deny them is oppressive. Above all, a privileged person accused of causing harm to a marginalized person must listen, learn, and show contrition; to protest innocence is to show “fragility” and is itself an act of harm.

The privileged can easily harm people with marginalized identities by “appropriating” their voices or aspects of their culture such as dress or food. Offenses can range from a story, novel, or poem in the voice of a marginalized person to an ethnic Halloween costume .

Institutions and cultural products are irrevocably tainted by historical connections to oppressive practices or bigoted beliefs, whose effects remain deeply embedded. Thus, (inaccurate) claims that American policing had its origins in slave patrols have been used as proof of systemic police racism. An author’s or artist’s racist or sexist views, even if normal for his/her time, are presumed to infect the work. Recent critiques of Dr. Seuss, for instance, argue that The Cat in the Hat subtly perpetuates “racist ideologies” because the Cat’s appearance and mischievous behavior may have drawn on some tropes from black minstrelsy. (No, seriously.)

14) Biden administration wants banks to help crack down on tax avoidance that costs the American public trillions.  Tax cheats and the banks that help them are not happy and just throwing up a bunch of chaff about “privacy.”

15) Wouldn’t be a quick hits without Freddie deBoer these days.  Damn this is good.  You should read it. “That One Side Would Like to Utterly Destroy the Other Side Seems Significant, To Me”

But the popularism debate is a perfect example of how progressives simply can’t have the debates they need to have when the boundaries of the debate are hemmed in by the fear of vindictive reprisals. Should the party moderate? Should the party push left? How should it accomplish either? These issues involve everyone in the Democratic coalition. The rules of the game, though, tell us that some people have to mind their Ps and Qs while others get to engage angrily, vengefully, jokingly, and immaturely, as for some bizarre reason we have carved out a total exemption to basic rules of conduct in argument within left-of-center spaces for those who claim to speak from the standpoint of “the marginalized.” Unfortunately, their grasp on who actually holds that status is a little… motivated.

They say, for example, that people who come from less privileged backgrounds – there isn’t any such ordinal scale, of course, but hang on – should have special status to dictate the future of the party. And you might imagine that this would privilege conservative and moderate Democrats, of which there are far more than you could ever imagine from Twitter. The young activist core of the progressive Democrat agenda is dominantly white; it must be, as most Americans are white and an even higher percentage of college graduates are white and the percentage of those who went to the tiny handful of elite schools that graduate the vast majority of our politically influential class is even more white. Those activists are thus overwhelmingly young and majority white and almost universally college educated and, while in some cases making bad money now, upwardly mobile and uniquely equipped to navigate the knowledge economy when they move on to getting paid, as they all inevitably will. This would seem to be a privileged class in the most obvious sense, and against them stands a lot of regular Democrat voters. Say, people with some college but no degree, Black, middle aged, middle class, and far more conservative than the average Twitter liberal, favoring “commonsense” abortion restrictions, opposed to major policing reductions, vaguely worried about deficits and taxes, and deeply skeptical about mass immigration.

So the dictate to favor the more marginalized members of the coalition leads to pursuing an agenda consonant with the values of those moderates, right? Good lord, of course not. Instead the activist class just insists that they are the marginalized voice, and if you disagree, they try to ruin your life. Black Democrats have been perhaps the most conservative element of the party since the formation of the modern Democratic coalition, but this fact is inconvenient for those who both claim to speak ex cathedra when discussing racial justice and who hold policy positions far to the left of most Black Democrats. So they just ignore the reality of who favors further-left positions among Democrats, and if you try to bring the reality to their attention, you get white men calling you a white man at best and a digital mob trying to declare you a permanent untouchable at worst. So how can we have the immensely important debates we need to have, under those conditions? In so many domains, the left-of-center is hamstrung by a punishingly narrow range of acceptable positions, a mass assumption of bad faith, and a refusal to insist that everyone play by the same rules…

But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s the activist class, the Twitter-obsessed class, the collegiate class, the vengeful “progressive” NPCs that have poisoned the well by normalizing attempts to destroy people they disagree with. No one is saying you shouldn’t advocate for your values. You absolutely should be vocal and passionate, and you are free to invoke moral language, and you certainly don’t have to personally like the people you disagree with. But you don’t get to threaten people’s lives, which is very common in some social media spaces, and you don’t get to silence anyone, and you don’t get to dox anyone, and it’s profoundly fucked up to try and separate someone from their job in a world where you have to work to eat. That can never be an authentically progressive or left-wing action, I don’t care how righteous you think your movement is. There’s no excuse for that behavior, especially given that the people who are guilty of this are almost all perfectly empowered and socioeconomically secure. You can’t run a political party under these conditions, or a social movement, and we shouldn’t have to. Advocate for your values, do the work, build the coalition through persuasion, accept that people will always disagree with you and that this is a healthy condition, and stop pretending that you are the subaltern when you’re really a whole industry of A students who went to elite colleges and have never known what it’s like to not be listened to and taken seriously.

To put it simply, grow up. And stop trying to destroy people. Like you yourselves keep saying, canceling doesn’t reliably work, so why bother? Judging by the utter lack of meaningful change since last summer, neither have the protests or riots. That’s not a nice thing to say, but it’s reality, and if you are sincere about helping those you claim to speak for, your first duty is to efficacy. So maybe time to try something else.

16) Sometimes I enjoy being one of the crowd and doing what everybody else is doing.  And, in this case, I quite enjoyed “Squid Game.”

17) I recently finished reading, Mine: How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control our Lives.  It’s great.

I once returned to my childhood home to find my father going through my collection of baseball cards, carefully calculating their value. It was as if he thought he … owned them. Seriously? I had collected them, I had cared for them, I had paid for them. Or, more accurately, I had regularly stolen change from his coin tray to buy them and then abandoned them as a teenager, but that all struck me as singularly irrelevant. They were, to pilfer the title of the thought-provoking new book by Michael Heller and James Salzman, “Mine!”

“Mine!” sets out to change the way we think about what we own, which is often decidedly at odds with reality. The authors cast the idea of ownership broadly, taking in not just land, cash and cars but also the confounding array of things we claim as our own, or try to, in our lives. Who is entitled to those few precious inches of space between our knees and the inevitably reclining seat in front of us on airplanes? Can someone force me to lop off the tops of my trees just because my neighbors have decided to install solar panels on their roof? Do I really need to tell my doctor not to steal my cells while I undergo surgery? And what exactly does Amazon mean when it says that the e-book I just purchased — or thought I did — “may become unavailable” to me?

 

The tiny turf wars we wage may seem trivial, but Heller and Salzman convincingly demonstrate they are anything but. “Our things — like our bodies — define and constitute who we are, not just as individuals, but as part of meaningful communities,” they write. We are conditioned to think of ownership as preordained and inevitable, bestowed through some natural order of things. Instead, our assertions of ownership are value-laden, inconsistent and regularly in conflict with others’ equally plausible claims of right. In the end, “Mine!” proposes, there are just six “pathways to claiming ownership,” ranging from possession or being first to family entitlement. The authors posit that if people could recognize their own underlying assumptions about ownership, they would become better advocates for themselves, their communities and the common good.

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

One Response to Quick hits (part I)

  1. “Droplet diseases can be evaded by staying six feet apart from our peers and employing the use of simple surgical masks, while airborne diseases are best controlled by emphasizing good ventilation and the use of aerosol-protective N95 masks.”

    N-95 masks have a limited time before their particle-trapping systems reach capacity. This includes both the electrostatically-charged fiber system and the layering system which uses Brownian Motion to trap particles. No one has tested N-95 masks for this time limit in the case of viruses. N-95 masks are meant for industrial use–for things like sandblasting.

    Masking is a physics problem, but we saw a review article on masking in JAMA. [facepalm]

    It’s interesting that being unmasked allows large droplets to fall to the floor, carrying virus out of the breathing zone, but being masked causes large droplets to be captured by masks, where water is wicked away by the mask and evaporates, leaving free, aerosolized virus, which then may be either re-inhaled by the wearer or exhaled out into the room. So masks may actually increase the inhalation of aerosolized virus.

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