Speech

[Sent April 6, 2015]

News

I want to write about free speech, starting with the controversy swirling around South African comedian Trevor Noah, the guy slated to replace Jon Stewart on the Daily Show later this year. Within about eight seconds of his announcement as Stewart’s successor, the internet exploded. Noah has nine thousand tweets on record dating back to 2009, and, surprisingly, some of them suck! Like this gem: “Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I’m sexy!- fat chicks everywhere.”

Now, this is hackneyed crap of the sort that bad comics have been leaning on since television came out. But I think that’s Noah’s greatest sin here, especially considering his long history of solid material. Others disagree. Noah has been subject to a rage-fusillade demanding his ouster, with the outrage industry, America’s only thriving economic sector, claiming antisemitism (including from right-wingers trying to win Jewish voters in the wake of the Obama/Netanyahu drama), racism, fat-shaming, misogyny, and homophobia. And yeah, the tweets are offensive. It’s hard to read something like “Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn’t look b4 crossing but I still would hav felt so bad in my german car!” without cringing. But the bigger question, the one that the outrage industry has yet to effectively answer, is so what?

Trevor Noah probably won this round (check out Patton Oswalt’s response), but the stakes are higher elsewhere, for me most interestingly on college campuses. I’ll let Jonathan Chait at New York explain what we’re talking about:

“. . . a growing number of campuses, professors now attach “trigger warnings” to texts that may upset students, and there is a campaign to eradicate ‘microaggressions,’ or small social slights that might cause searing trauma. These newly fashionable terms merely repackage a central tenet of the first p.c. movement: that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses. Stanford recently canceled a performance of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson after protests by Native American students. UCLA students staged a sit-in to protest microaggressions such as when a professor corrected a student’s decision to spell the word indigenous with an uppercase I — one example of many ‘perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies.’ A theater group at Mount Holyoke College recently announced it would no longer put on The Vagina Monologues in part because the material excludes women without vaginas.”

I saw this sort of thing first-hand at my own school, and this is an issue that I care a lot about. It does not take too much exaggeration to say that places of learning are being transformed into tightly-buttoned centers of thought-policing, a charge led by crusading students and faculty and abetted by fearful administrators. And the thing is, if we’re talking about actually combating bigotry, free speech is the only successful approach. The metaphor that works best here, I think, is an economic one. Jonathan Rauch talks about the political marketplace: you put forth an idea, it is bought or sold, increases or decreases in value as open debate approves or disapproves. Good ideas rise, bad ones fall. This is the only way to successfully fight bigotry of any form. It’s why gay rights have gone from 0 to 60 in ten years. Because we can see what happens when you criminalize a product in the economic marketplace. Pot is illegal. It was pushed out of the open market and onto the black market. And when certain types of speech are penalized, they go underground as well. A student will keep her hand down because she thinks her comment about the Berlin Conference might be perceived as colonialist or her theories about Chaucer might reflect her privilege. And maybe they are. But no one finds out. What we are left with is an atomized student population, isolated in bubbles, secure and unchallenged and uneducated.

To me, what is most frightening about the new outrage movement is its fundamental alien-ness. Americans are inheritors of a small-l liberal tradition of free speech stretching back to Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, Enlightenment thinkers that saw absolute freedom of speech as the most important facet of a free society. The United States is the country with the strongest speech protections in the world because, as a nation, we have agreed that open debate is a precious thing and must be defended. This new movement rejects that tradition. And that’s scary. All this bull about Trevor Noah and Kimmy Schmidt isn’t just silliness. It’s a challenge to liberalism.

In other news, we might not have to invade Iran, Jeb Bush declares he is a proud Hispanic-American, Florida remains the only state where firefighters have to deploy hoses to stop bee rampages, America gets even Furious-er, and Happy Opening Day, America! Go Sox.

Interesting Stuff

1. Dr. Dean Burnett, “Why People Keep Electing Idiots” in The Guardian.

Right? Burnett, a neuroscientist, explains the link between trust, confidence, and intelligence. It’s not good.

2. Bryan Burrough, “Meet the Weather Underground’s Bomb Guru” in Vanity Fair.

Reads like a novel. Super interesting story about America’s most infamous domestic terrorist group.

3. Francis Fukuyama, “Dealing with ISIS” in The American Interest.

Short, level-headed analysis of what we need to do. I agree with everything here.

4. Robert Wachter, “How Medical Tech Gave a Patient a Massive Overdose” in Medium.

Hey Epic people! This one’s about you! Interesting dive into the decision chain at UCSF hospital.

And a couple bonus things:

There’s something heartbreaking and weird and fascinating here: Watch a lyre bird imitate the sound of a chainsaw.

I don’t buy a lot of the arguments about overpopulation but here’s some really cool photos.

Music

THROWBACK BLUES WEEK!

1. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (with Otis Spann), “Walk On” Live in France, 1974.

AND Otis Spann killing it on the piano.

2. Mance Lipscomb, “Motherless Children” from A Well Spent Life, 1971.

He uses a knife as a slide. That is all.

3. Mississippi John Hurt, “Lonesome Valley” from “Rainbow Quest,” 1965,

My favorite old blues player.

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