Why is everyone so mean to Bari Weiss?

By Robert Wright, Jul 19 2020

Bari Weiss, who until this week was an opinion editor at the New York Times, has signed two famous letters lately: (1) the “Harper’s letter,” which argued against cancel culture and was also signed by 152 other luminaries; and (2) the “Bari Weiss resignation letter,” in which Weiss, in addition to announcing her exit from the Times, tried to get someone canceled. 

The “someone” was the novelist Alice Walker. Weiss called Walker, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of The Color Purple, a “proud anti-Semite who believes in lizard Illuminati.” 

I refuse to do whatever amount of googling it would take for me to develop a firm view on whether Alice Walker is indeed anti-Semitic, let alone get to the bottom of the famously slippery lizard Illuminati question. But for present purposes we don’t need that data anyway. I just want to note something others have noted about Weiss: she punctuates fierce defenses of free and untrammeled speech with attempts to expel people from the community of discourse because of things they’ve said. Obviously, if you can get enough elites to share your view that a person is anti-Semitic, that person won’t be welcome on mainstream platforms. To call someone an anti-Semite is to argue for their cancellation.

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Red virus, blue virus

By Robert Wright, Mar 22 2020

On March 11—back before President Trump had declared a national emergency and sent various other signals that he was now taking COVID-19 seriously—the Economist posted some numbers showing that Democrats were more worried about the virus than Republicans and more likely to have taken precautions against it. The headline said, “In America, even pandemics are political.” 

There’s certainly some truth to that. Once Trump, out of the gate, minimized the dangers posed by the virus, some of his supporters followed their leader—as supporters are especially inclined to do in polarized times. And their attachment to his position was probably strengthened by the derisive dismissal of it coming from his detractors. Psychology of Tribalism 101.

But to fully appreciate the coronavirus’s potential to deepen American polarization, you need to see how thoroughly it can be woven into the narrative that got Trump elected. And to see that, you need to understand another reason Trump supporters didn’t get as freaked out by the virus as Trump detractors: It wasn’t as much of a threat to them.

The virus was at first a blue-state problem: California, Washington State, New York, and Massachusetts had the biggest spots on the coronavirus map. And as the disease spread, it hit the bluer parts of the red states—the big cities. (As various analysts have noted, America’s great divide isn’t so much blue state versus red state—after all, big chunks of blue states are red, and vice versa—as high-population-density areas versus lower-density areas.)

Of course, this is changing. The virus is now in all states, and it’s starting to move from cities to towns. So maybe people on both sides of America’s political divide will more and more be seeing things the same way? 

In the sense of taking the epidemic seriously, yes. There’s been an uptick in Republicans’ interest in and concern about the coronavirus as it has spread and as Trump has gone from being dismissive of it to being conspicuously in command of the war against it. But there’s reason to worry that this convergence of perspectives won’t bring broader harmony between red and blue.  

For one thing, if you’re in a red state or a red town, and you see the virus headed your way, where is it headed from? From blue states and blue cities! Moreover: How did it get to those blue states and blue cities? From abroad.  

Bertrand Russell’s not entirely crazy dream of ending war via logic

By Robert Wright, Feb 22 2020

The truth, whatever it may be, is the same in England, France, and Germany, in Russia and in Austria. It will not adapt itself to national needs: it is in its essence neutral. It stands outside the clash of passions and hatreds, revealing, to those who seek it, the tragic irony of strife with its attendant world of illusions.     

                                    –from Russell’s essay “On Justice in War-Time” 

Among the many things Bertrand Russell is known for are these two: (1) laying the foundations of “analytic philosophy,” which values clear expression and fine-grained analysis over grand theorizing; (2) disliking nationalism, especially in its belligerent forms. I’d never imagined a connection between the two, but the philosopher Alexander Klein, in an essay published this month, says there is one. 

Russell, according to Klein, hoped that the rise of analytic philosophy would reduce the stature of grand philosophical paradigms with names like “German idealism” and “British idealism.” He wanted to “destroy a conception of philosophy as an articulation of a ‘national mind’,” Klein writes. 

This may sound like a pretty roundabout way to combat nationalism—and it would have seemed especially ineffectual at the time Russell was doing some of his writing on the subject, as World War I was engulfing Europe. But, Klein says, there was a second sense in which Russell hoped analytic philosophy could discourage national conflict. 

The methodology of analytic philosophy involves defining your terms with painstaking precision, thus crystallizing the meaning of propositions so they can be evaluated via strict logic. Russell’s “theoretical antidote to the irrational, sectarian vitriol between European nations,” writes Klein, “was to try to show how logic could function as an international language that could be used impartially and dispassionately to adjudicate disputes.” Well that would be nice!

How Aaron Sorkin killed 'Mockingbird'

By Robert Wright, Jan 25 2020

A few months ago I saw the Broadway version of To Kill a Mockingbird, a much-lauded production that, as shaped by playwright Aaron (“The West Wing”) Sorkin, significantly alters the tenor of the 1960 Harper Lee novel. 

There’s a lot about the play I liked. The seemingly weird decision to cast an adult as Scout, the novel’s child narrator, worked spectacularly. But ultimately, I think, Sorkin’s rendering of the story drives home this sad fact: If you want to get much lauded for a Broadway production, the safest route is to affirm the prejudices and moral blind spots of your time rather than challenge them. 

And here’s the irony: If Sorkin had wanted to challenge the prejudices and moral blind spots of our time, all he would have had to do is leave Harper Lee’s version of the story alone. In an important sense, the novel is actually more subversive now than it was in its original milieu. Sorkin, in trying to make the story edgier, has taken the edge off it. In trying to make it politically progressive, he has made it morally regressive. 

To put a finer point on it: Sorkin has written a play for the #Resistance, injecting the story with a subtext about Trumpism and how we should handle it. And that message reflects and reinforces some of the least enlightened and most counterproductive tendencies in the liberal reaction against Trump.   

One of the most famous lines in To Kill a Mockingbird comes during a conversation between Scout and her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch. He says to her: "If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

R.I.P., Intellectual Dark Web (2018-2019)

By Robert Wright, Dec 21 2019

Remember the “Intellectual Dark Web”? Nineteen months ago, that term was injected into America’s zeitgeist by New York Times staffer Bari Weiss, who, in a lavishly illustrated piece, explained what the IDW was and why it held great promise.  

In Weiss’s telling, the loose network of thinkers constituting the IDW was just what America needed in a time of political polarization and increasingly oppressive speech codes. This new tribe of “renegades” was bound not by ideology—“The core members have little in common politically,” Weiss wrote—but rather by a fierce commitment to principle, to the defense of free inquiry and expression. IDW members might disagree about any number of issues, but all courageously stood up to “the tyranny of thought policing.”  

Interest in the IDW spiked. (See graph, below, of Google search frequency for “Intellectual Dark Web.”) Then interest began subsiding. (See graph below again.) Then it kept subsiding. (Ditto.) Today, you don’t hear much about the IDW—not even from the people who are, or were, part of it.  

Why Republican climate-change skepticism has grown as the planet has heated up

By Robert Wright, Dec 14 2019

If you’re a liberal who has been trying to change the minds of conservative climate change skeptics, social science now offers this guidance: Cut it out! The first step toward convincing them that they’re wrong may be to quit trying to convince them that they’re wrong.

That’s one takeaway from a study presented last month by two political scientists, Dominik Stecula of Penn and Eric Merkley of the University of Toronto. They found that people who strongly identified as Republican and were shown the scientific consensus on climate change were less likely to accept it if they were also shown warnings about the perils of climate change from prominent Democrats.  

By itself this isn’t big news. We’ve long known that, just as people sometimes use “in-group cues” to form their views—that is, they uncritically accept opinions prevalent in their tribe—they can also use “out-group cues,” rejecting opinions because they’re held by the enemy tribe. And you’d expect this effect to be especially strong in an age, like ours, of “negative partisanship”—when the two political parties seem to be held together largely by dislike of each other. 

Trump’s magic anti-impeachment force field

Nov 23 2019

The phase of House impeachment hearings that concluded this week established, beyond reasonable doubt, that President Trump withheld congressionally authorized aid from Ukraine as a way of coercing its government into launching an investigation that, he hoped, would taint a political rival, Joe Biden. 

Here is the political toll this has taken on Trump: Since the day the hearings started, his approval rating, as measured in the Real Clear Politics polling average, has risen by slightly less than a point, and his disapproval rating has fallen by slightly more than a point. 

There was a time when you could shock people with paragraphs like that. But over the past three years Trump’s core support has proved so durable in the face of so much bad publicity that many Trump opponents have come to expect the worst. Poll numbers that once induced much wailing and gnashing of #Resistance teeth now elicit knowing, sardonic nods.

How empathy intensifies political polarization

Nov 09 2019

There are people who believe that the political polarization now afflicting the United States might finally start to subside if Americans of both parties could somehow become more empathetic. If you’re one of these people, the American Political Science Review has sobering news for you.

Last week APSR—one of the alpha journals in political science—published a study which found that “empathic concern does not reduce partisan animosity in the electorate and in some respects even exacerbates it.”

The study had two parts. In the first part, Americans who scored high on an empathy scale showed higher levels of “affective polarization”—defined as the difference between the favorability rating they gave their political party and the rating they gave the opposing party. In the second part, undergraduates were shown a news story about a controversial speaker from the opposing party visiting a college campus. Students who had scored higher on the empathy scale were more likely to applaud efforts to deny the speaker a platform.

It gets worse. These high-empathy students were also more likely to be amused by reports that students protesting the speech had injured a bystander sympathetic to the speaker. That’s right: according to this study, people prone to empathy are prone to schadenfreude.

Virality and virulence

Oct 19 2019

This week I was reminded anew of the promise and peril of tweeting right after your morning coffee. And in the process I was reminded (not that I really needed it) of Twitter’s tribal nature. 

On Friday morning, just as the caffeine was taking full effect, and I was settling in to work on this newsletter, I fatefully took a look at my Twitter feed. I saw that Hillary Clinton, in an interview, had suggested that Tulsi Gabbard was being “groomed” by Russia to be a third-party spoiler candidate, and that Jill Stein, who played that role last time around, was “also” (like Gabbard, that is) a “Russian asset.” 

That’s pretty extreme. As Hillary Clinton undoubtedly knows, and as Wikipedia confirms, the term “asset,” in that context, is typically taken to mean that the person in question isn’t just being exploited by a foreign power but is consciously and secretly cooperating. Not to mention the fact that people aren’t typically “groomed” without being aware of it.

Now, my opinion of Jill Stein—like my opinion of Ralph Nader ever since his third party candidacy got George W. Bush elected president—is low. And I’m not a big Gabbard supporter. I like much of what she says about foreign policy, but I also find her in some ways offputtingly quirky. (For example: She replied to Hillary’s conspiracy theory with a kind of conspiracy theory of her own. And, though I’d like to think this was sly commentary on Hillary’s seeming paranoia, I fear it wasn’t—and if it was, I think it was too subtle for its own good.)

NBA’s China Syndrome

Oct 12 2019

This was a tough week for San Francisco Warriors coach Steve Kerr. It all started when the General Manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protestors. The Chinese government—and lots of Chinese people—didn’t like that one bit, and China is a huge market for the NBA, so various NBA officials and players set about saying conciliatory things. Kerr, when asked about the controversy, did what you might expect: He declined to comment.  

At this point Donald Trump somehow found the time—even while getting impeached and getting Kurds slaughtered—to tear into Kerr (a longtime Trump critic) for not being manly enough to stand up to China. Which in turn kept the whole issue alive long enough for Kerr to be asked by a reporter whether, in the course of his many visits to China, there had been discussion of how the NBA’s financial interests relate to “a country whose human rights record is not in step with the United States.”