Andrew Sullivan has some concerns about the Biden administration

March 13, 2021 • 12:00 pm

It may be my “glass half empty” view of the world, but Joe Biden, while proving an infinitely better President than Trump, still is doing some things that disturb me. And I don’t feel that we have to praise everything Biden does now that he’s been elected on the grounds that we should just shut up—after all, Trump is worse. Kvetching is always justified, no matter who’s President, for we haven’t had a perfect President.

One of Biden’s bad moves, mentioned very briefly by Andrew Sullivan in his column below, is the new administration’s proposal to dismantle the Title IX provisions for adjudicating sexual-assault cases, provisions strengthened by Betsy DeVos during the Trump administration. (This is one of the few good things I can mention about Trump’s changes.) DeVos’s changes, which I described here, included the following:

1.) Schools would now be required to hold live hearings and not closed-door adjudications.

2.) The “single-investigator model,” in which one person adjudicates all the evidence and passes judgment, would go out the window. All collected evidence would now have to be presented to a (presumably) objective third party or parties.

3.) Both accusers and accused will be allowed to cross-examine each other through an advisor or a lawyer. However, those who accuse someone of sexual assault or misconduct cannot be directly questioned by the defendant, which seems fair and protective of people’s psyches. They can, however, be questioned by a third party like a lawyer or adviser. This was something that was missing in the Obama regulation, but was recently mandated by a federal court ruling in Michigan.

4.) A “rape shield” protection will remain in place, so that a complainant’s sexual history will remain strictly off limits.

5.) Hearing, like court cases, will be conducted with the presumption of innocence of the accused.

6.) Instead of relying on the “preponderance of evidence” standard mandated by the Obama “suggestions,” schools can use either that standard or the “clear and convincing evidence” standard, which is stricter but still not as strict as the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in courts.

You may recall that the standards, as I explained last year, are these:

  • Conviction requires guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”, which of course means that the bar is very high for conviction.
  • Conviction requires “clear and convincing evidence”, that is, it must be “highly probable or reasonably certain” that harassment or assault occurred. This is conventionally interpreted to mean a likelihood of 75% or higher that the assault took place.
  • Conviction requires a “preponderance of the evidence” for assault or harassment. This means that it is more likely that not (likelihood > 50 %) that the offense occurred.

7.) The legal responsibility of colleges and universities would change: previously schools would be legally responsible for investigating complaints if they had “actual knowledge” that an assault had happened. Now they have legal responsibility only if a victim files a formal complaint. (If the victim doesn’t, schools are still encouraged to provide “supportive measures.”)

8.) Exculpatory evidence cannot be withheld from the accused. It could previously, which was one of the most unfair parts of the Obama-era guidelines. Further, those accused will be able to review all the evidence against them, which wasn’t previously mandated.

9.) Finally, colleges and universities can investigate conduct only if it occurs in the school’s own premises, programs, or activities, or in a location over which the college or university exercises oversight.

This now appear to be going the way of the dodo, as Biden is calling for a review of these changes and, as per a campaign promise, will probably undo them. As NPR reports, this has caused joy on the part of some and dismay on the others. I’m on the “dismay” side because an accusation of sexual assault is a very serious matter, and if you’re convicted you could not only be thrown out of college, but it could ruin your life. It seems to me that if colleges are to adjudicate these matters—and most of our readers think they should go first to the police, with colleges acting only after there’s a judicial finding—the accused and accuser should enjoy the same rights they have in a courtroom. By erasing the DeVos changes, Biden is ensuing that the accused person’s rights as outlined above will be weakened.

Another organization viewing Biden’s proposed changes with dismay is the Foundation for Individual Rights in education (FIRE):

“It’s certainly an opening salvo,” says Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director for the civil liberties advocacy group, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “But the administration will not be able to easily ditch the regulations, and we’ll fight tooth and nail to make sure that they don’t.”

Because federal courts have affirmed students’ due process rights, Cohn says, the Biden administration will be limited in how much they can change.

“Institutions will hear from us that they can’t just disregard what the courts are saying,” Cohn says.

Others, however, think that Biden’s rollback is great:

“This is going to be a long march,” says Terry Hartle, senior vice president, Government Relations and Public Affairs for the American Council on Education, a trade group of colleges and universities.

The group is among those who object to the Trump administration rules. Hartle says they not only work against survivors, but they’re also unworkable for schools who are not equipped to be turned into pseudo-courts.

“We’re not judicial bodies,” he says. “Campus officials [are] not trained to navigate these sort of quasi-legal disputes.”

Note that they say the rules “work against survivors”, assuming that accusers are survivors. In fact, they work the same way for everyone, survivor or false accuser, perpetrator or falsely accused. And if schools aren’t equipped to be “pseudo-courts”, either throw the accusations to the police and real courts, or give everyone the same protections they get in real courts.

Another issue I object to, but only in small part, is Biden’s executive order on gender discrimination. While in the main it’s a great thing to have to protect transgender and “other-gender” people, it also regards transsexuals who have not undergone any kind of medical treatment as identical in every respect to someone of the sex they claim to be. For most moral and legal issues that’s fine, but when it comes to sports, prisons, and rape counseling, they should have carved out some reasonable exceptions.

At any rate, like me, Sullivan argues strenuously that criticizing Biden is not the same as approving Trump, which should be obvious. If you subscribe, click on the screenshot below.

Sullivan, who apparently knows a lot more about economics than I, also has a lot more to be worried about. I won’t go into his concerns about the spree of government spending, and I don’t know enough to weigh in on them. But here are some of his other worries (I don’t share all of these):

Step back some more, and look at the rest of the Biden agenda. It’s pretty similar in scale and ambition. HR1 — reforming democracy — has some good parts, but it is also a Christmas tree of hyper-progressive goals. On “social justice” questions, Biden mandates “equity” as a core principle in all policy-making, and Ibram Kendi indoctrination sessions for government employees; he is likely to end due process for college men accused of sexual assault or rape; he wants to legislate that sex-based rights are trumped by gender-based rights, and to repeal the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when it comes to gays, lesbians and transgender people. After a lifetime of opposition, Biden now backs full public funding of abortion. On immigration, Biden’s goal appears to be facilitating as much of it as possible, while granting a mass amnesty. Am I missing something? Is there a policy area where the left is not in control? (Seriously, if you can find an area where they’re not, I’ll post it, and recalibrate.)

He finds a silver lining, though:

Liberal democracy itself is threatened by the extreme gulf between rich and poor — and rebalancing this is vital. The lack of real economic gains for the vast majority for decades requires a major adjustment — and if sending people checks is the easiest way to do this, so be it. The resilience of low inflation and the persistence of a financial crisis recession suggests that a bigger stimulus in 2009 would have been preferable. Finding a way to support greater inclusion of minorities and women in every sphere of life and work is the right thing to do. Expanding healthcare to those most excluded it from it should not be a controversial question. In all these areas, the Democrats have their hearts and minds in the right place. A shift to the left in 2021 is completely defensible. Even the British Tories are economic lefties now. My 1980s self would look at my 2021 politics and be amazed how far I’ve come.

But a capitulation to the far left is something else.

Is Biden capitulating to the far left? I think he is—at least a lot more than I suspected. And below are some more concerns:

What I fear is that economic history has not ended, and that uncontrolled borrowing, spending and printing will lead to inflation that destroys people’s savings and livelihoods. What I fear is the next recession, when our staggering debt could render the government incapable of mitigating it. What I fear is an assault on the very ideas of individual freedom, merit, objective standards, hard work, self-reliance and free speech that have long defined the American experiment — in favor of crude racial engineering.

I’m with Andrew on the ones below:

What I fear is a generation’s rejection of limited government, and color-blind liberalism. What I worry about is a press whose mission seems increasingly devoted to enforcing elite orthodoxies, rather than pushing back on all forms of power. I fear an educational establishment that instills critical theory’s racism and sexism into the hearts and souls of children from the start, an establishment that regards the very idea of America as indelibly evil, and its founding ideals a myth and a lie.

In the main, of course, things are looking up. A detour into lunacy has been corrected. Now if we could just keep the left from becoming the Looney Left.

Like Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan is pro-Biden but worried

January 23, 2021 • 11:00 am

If you didn’t like Bari Weiss’s reservations about potential problems with the Biden administration, which include its truckling to the Woke, you’re really not going to like Andrew Sullivan’s latest piece at The Weekly Dish (click on screenshot below). For Sullivan has a take almost identical to Weiss’s, and yet I sympathize with some of his worries.

Click on screenshot to read it (you’ll probably need a subscription, but I’ll give a few quotes). One note: You are free to say what you want in the comments, including that you’re not worried about this stuff, but please don’t tell me that I’m not allowed to have concerns—that now I should be celebrating rather than nitpicking. I am in fact doing both!

Like Weiss, Sullivan begins (and ends) by expressing some fealty towards Biden and hopes that his administration will succeed. He notes that Biden’s Inaugural speech was uninspiring and in fact anodyne, and Sullivan’s right. But, as I’ve noted before, in those words we saw the real Joe: a decent and straightforward man with a vision, however unrealistic it is. He is not an orator. Sullivan:

But [Biden’s Inaugural speech] matched the occasion: it was conventional, banal even, and anodyne. And how much we’ve missed banality! Biden boldly asked us to be against “anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness,” and to reaffirm the “history, faith and reason” that provides unity. Sure. Okay. At that level of pabulum, who indeed could differ? And a nation united in pabulum is better than one divided into two tribal camps waging an “uncivil war” against each other about everything.

And if Biden sticks to this kind of common ground, it will serve him well. He is lucky, in many ways, to succeed Trump. Any normal inauguration would feel transcendent after the sack of the capitol.

After praising Joe for his pandemic response, economic stimulus package, energy plan, and so on, Sullivan gets down to business. Here are his areas of concern (Sullivan’s quotes are indented, mine flush left).

1.) Immigration.  The Democrats really need to put together a sensible immigration policy that doesn’t say “open borders” to Americans. If they don’t do this, they’re shooting themselves in the foot, and risk big losses in the midterm elections.

But Biden has also shown this week that his other ambitions are much more radical. On immigration, Biden is way to Obama’s left, proposing a mass amnesty of millions of illegal immigrants, a complete moratorium on deportations, and immediate revocation of the bogus emergency order that allowed Trump to bypass Congress and spend money building his wall. Fine, I guess. But without very significant addition of border controls as a deterrent, this sends a signal to tens of millions in Central to South America to get here as soon as possible. Biden could find, very quickly, that the “unity” he preaches will not survive such an effectively open-borders policy, or another huge crisis at the border. He is doubling down on the very policies that made a Trump presidency possible. In every major democracy, mass immigration has empowered the far right. Instead of easing white panic about changing demographics, Biden just intensified it.

2.) Equity versus equality. It behooves all of us to understand the difference. I hope that Biden does! At present he seems to be bowing before Critical Theory in his executive orders:

Biden has also signaled (and by executive order, has already launched) a very sharp departure from liberalism in his approach to civil rights. The vast majority of Americans support laws that protect minorities from discrimination, so that every American can have equality of opportunity, without their own talents being held back by prejudice. But Biden’s speech and executive orders come from a very different place. They explicitly replace the idea of equality in favor of what anti-liberal critical theorists call “equity.” They junk equality of opportunity in favor of equality of outcomes. Most people won’t notice that this new concept has been introduced — equity, equality, it all sounds the same — but they’ll soon find out the difference.

In critical theory, as James Lindsay explains, “‘equality’ means that citizen A and citizen B are treated equally, while ‘equity’ means adjusting shares in order to make citizen A and B equal.” Here’s how Biden defines “equity”: “the consistent and systematic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals, including individuals who belong to underserved communities that have been denied such treatment, such as Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.”

In less tortured English, equity means giving the the named identity groups a specific advantage in treatment by the federal government over other groups — in order to make up for historic injustice and “systemic” oppression. Without “equity”, the argument runs, there can be no real “equality of opportunity.” Equity therefore comes first. Until equity is reached, equality is postponed — perhaps for ever.

I’m not sure that Biden’s definition adheres to the equity limned by Lindsay. All we can do is wait and see what Biden proposes. His executive order does seem to conflate “equity” and “equality of opportunity,” so someone should at least tell Joe the difference.

I think that for the near future the Democratic policy should be a combination of both equity and equality: some affirmative action but with the real work—and the hard work—being done on the level Sullivan notes in the paragraph just below. For the truth is that until equality is reached, equity won’t follow except though some kind of affirmative action. Like Sullivan, my goal is equality: equality of opportunity for all, which means removing the barriers to achievement that have impeded oppressed groups for decades. That takes a huge influx of effort and money into poor communities, and I’d hope we have the will and the funds to do that. But I’d throw some equity in there, too, for a government that at least doesn’t in part include representatives from all groups loses its credibility. Sullivan sees Biden adhering to the Ibram X. Kendi view of racial equity. I’m not yet sure of that, but Biden does seem to be going in that direction.

Sullivan saying, correct, what we really need to do:

Helping level up regions and populations that have experienced greater neglect or discrimination in the past is a good thing. But you could achieve this if you simply focused on relieving poverty in the relevant communities. You could invest in schools, reform policing, target environmental clean-ups, grow the economy, increase federal attention to the neglected, and thereby help the needy in precisely these groups. But that would not reflect critical theory’s insistence that race and identity trump class, and that America itself is inherently, from top to b

3.) Gay and gender issues. Like me (I think), Sullivan is in favor of equality based on sex and gender (including transgender people), but has some worries that the Biden administration will neglect those issues in which sex and gender issues mandate some inequality:

Biden’s executive order on “LGBTQ+” is also taken directly from critical gender and queer theory. Take the trans question. Most decent people support laws that protect transgender people from discrimination — which, after the Bostock decision, is already the law of the land. But this is not enough for Biden. He takes the view that the law should go further and insist that trans women are absolutely indistinguishable from biological women — which erases any means of enforcing laws that defend biological women as a class. If your sex is merely what you say it is, without any reference to biological reality, then it is no longer sex at all. It’s gender, period. It’s socially constructed all the way down.

Most of the time, you can ignore this insanity and celebrate greater visibility and protection for trans people. But in a few areas, biology matters. Some traumatized women who have been abused by men do not want to be around biological males in prison or shelters, even if they identify as women. I think these women should be accommodated. There are also places where we segregate by sex — like showers, locker rooms — for reasons of privacy. I think that allowing naked biological men and boys to be in the same showers as naked biological women and girls is asking for trouble — especially among teens. But for Biden, this is non-negotiable, and all objections are a function of bigotry.

And in sports, the difference between the physiology of men and women makes a big difference. That’s the entire point of having separate male and female sports, in the first place. Sure, you can suppress or enhance hormones. But you will never overcome the inherited, permanent effects of estrogen and testosterone in childhood and adolescence. Male and female bodies are radically different, because without that difference, our entire species would not exist. Replacing sex with gender threatens women’s sports for that simple reason.

Now people have said these are “quibbles” I’m less worried about locker rooms than about sports, prisons, rape counseling and women’s problems. Granted, these are not as pressing as are issues of inequality, climate change, and economics.) But they’re not quibbles, for a). they bear on issues of fundamental fairness, and those issues won’t go away; and b). the way Biden’s administration works this out will have consequences for the acceptance of the Democratic Party as a whole—for our continuing control of the House and Senate (the Supreme Court is already lost for several decades). And remember, Biden casts himself not as a messenger of Wokeness, but as a healer. If he’s to heal, he has to realize that most Americans want a sensible immigration policy, want equality but only a temporary remediation of inequity via affirmative action, and don’t want untreated biological men serving time in women’s prisons or participating in women’s sports. So far Biden’s policies seem to me way too conciliatory towards Critical Theory. That is to be expected if he’s clueless about Critical Theory and also keen to not be called a racist by more leftist Democrats.

Sullivan ends this way:

I wonder if Joe Biden even knows what critical theory is. But he doesn’t have to. It is the successor ideology to liberalism among elites, a now-mandatory ideology if you want to keep your job. But Biden’s emphatic backing of this illiberal, discriminatory project on his first day is relevant. He has decided to encourage “unity” by immediately pursuing policies that inflame Republicans and conservatives and normies more than any others.

And those policies are obviously unconstitutional. . .

. . . I want Biden to succeed. I want Republicans to moderate. I want to lower the temperature. I want to emphasize those policies that really do bring us closer together, even though many may still freely dissent. Biden says he wants to as well. But none of that can or will happen if the president fuels the culture war this aggressively, this crudely, and this soon. You don’t get to unite the country by dividing it along these deep and inflammatory issues of identity. And you don’t achieve equality of opportunity by enforcing its antithesis.

I’ve quoted too freely here, and you should pay the $50 per year to read Sullivan (and perhaps Bari Weiss), because they’re good writers, because they may have views that don’t exactly jibe with yours, and because you need to read something besides the New York Times and Washington Post, which have already caved to Critical Theory. Actually, I pay $4 per month to read the NYT, so I’m paying more to read Sullivan (and Weiss, if I subscribe) than to read whole newspapers. I’ll live.

Yes, we can and should celebrate the unexpected victory of the Democrats as well as their takeover of Congress. But remember too that Biden promised to heal, and you won’t heal America by imposing Critical Theory on it.


Andrew Sullivan: party like it’s 1920! (and a word on Mayor Pete)

December 19, 2020 • 1:30 pm

Now that Trump is toast and we have two vaccines in the offing, Andrew Sullivan is ebullient. His latest piece at The Weekly Dish celebrates The Good Times Coming with a historical analogy: the outburst of hedonism in the Roaring Twenties following the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Click on the screenshot below to see the column, though it will do you no good unless you have a subscription (I do, so I’ll quote sparingly):

The Beagle Man can barely contain himself!:

With a new president, a new season, a miraculous set of vaccines, and a booming economy, it will be easier to put Covid behind us than it might otherwise have been. And we can tell ourselves a different kind of story than in 1919. The difference between this plague and every one before AIDS is that it didn’t blow itself out. We put an end to it. The passivity and fatalism that marked many human experiences of plague are, in this moment, avoidable. We can rightly see this turning point as a real scientific breakthrough, with vast implications for tackling plague viruses in the future.

And freezing a society for a while, putting the entire social order on hold, allowing ourselves to think again and reassess where we are and where we were, has consequences, many of which we cannot know at all right now. I explored this theme in an essay earlier this year. Whole industries will be re-imagined; careers will change; people will move; workplace patterns will permanently shift; babies will be born in larger numbers; the younger generation will rise; and the culture itself will throb with renewed energy.

That this future is unknowable is partly why it’s so invigorating. Coop an entire society up for a year, suppress all the human instincts to be together, surround everyone with fear and caution … and then set them all free. The end of this epidemic is coming. We know that now. We can see it in the future. And can almost taste it. So get ready to party. Because 2021 will rock.

I think, when Andrew says that Covid-19 differs from previous plagues in that humans ended it instead of waiting for its natural waning, he’s forgotten about smallpox and polio. But never mind. What perplexes me—and I see this on the news a lot—is the idea that we’ll be better off as a species for having weathered this storm. That’s almost tantamount to saying that in the net, the pandemic was a good thing. I don’t claim that Sullivan is saying that, but he, like many others, seems bent on finding something good emerging from a horrible epidemic.

But what can we expect, or prognosticate, will be the salubrious consequences? Well, we know how to deal with a pandemic better now: we know how to do contact tracing, we’ve developed vaccines—with messenger RNA!—in less than a year, and we know better how to distribute them. Perhaps that will help us the next time the world rouses up its bats and sends them forth to die in a happy city. But that would be about just the same result had we never had this pandemic. We had to learn this sometime! And don’t forget the dead, who will number more than two million when this is over.

As for the other salubrious consequences, I don’t see them. Restaurants will be gone, people will be more afraid of each other, many kids have lost almost a year of schooling, and so on. I think people want to get back to what existed before (I’m excepting the social movements that were already in play when the pandemic started), not engineer a brand new world with no places to eat and where sociality is limited to bumping fists and elbows. Truly, I think it would have been better had the epidemic not knocked us back on our heels. But perhaps I’m wrong—perhaps some readers see a silver lining that I can’t. If so, weigh in below. Will anything good—beyond a better ability to deal with epidemics—come from this plague?


During the primary I was a big fan of Mayor Pete as a Democratic candidate, even though he lacked experience on the national level. Buttigieg was whip-smart, so he could learn on the job, was eloquent, and was not on the extreme AOC wing of the Left. I guess I thought of him as a white, gay Obama.  Now, fortunately, Biden has appointed Buttigieg as Secretary of Transportation, even though Pete was a former rival.

It can only be a good thing that Mayor Pete is now Secretary Pete, as I’m sure he has a big future in politics. And it’s great that he’s a Democrat. But what I didn’t think of is how Buttigieg could strike fear into the Far Left wing of the Democratic Party—you know, the wing that turns centrists into Republicans. And, in his weekly offering, Sullivan quotes Matt Yglesias and then adds his own gloss:

“I hope this is obvious to everyone, but it just can’t be stressed heavily enough that social media performative Pete-hatred is not actually about Pete [Buttigieg]. I’d say most generously it’s about an accurate sense that his existence threatens the young socialist left’s belief that the future belongs to them.

Joe Biden, yesterday’s man, is easy to live with. So is the politically clumsy Kamala Harris. But the prospect of a charismatic, talented, ambitious normie Democrat who’s not going away any time soon is terrifying.

But this is good! Right now Democratic Party politics is largely polarized between an ossified and uninspiring establishment and a group of young, dynamic leftists who are wildly out of touch with political reality. Fresh faces who know how to be interesting while also knowing how to read public opinion surveys are exactly what the country needs,” – Matt Yglesias, Slow Boring, the best new thing on Substack.

That last sentence is very good. And here’s Sullivan’s take:

In our post-Trump attempted return to normalcy, a man like Pete Buttigieg matters. Yes, he’s blandly ambitious in a very Rhodes Scholar way. He’s super-smooth in debate. His precocity is a bit irritating. He offends the Alphabet People because he’s such a normie gay man, threatening to complicate the hard left’s assertion that being attracted to the same sex must be turned into some ideological identity — LGBTQ+ — rather than just being who you are, and finding some path to happiness.

But a successful liberal polity desperately needs fewer Twitter extremists and more pragmatic over-achievers. Like, well, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. They turned out to be pretty good for the Democrats, no?

Well, I’m not sure about Clinton, but I won’t argue. You know, sometimes I think that if I were in my twenties now, I’d be further on the Bernie Sanders “progressive” spectrum of Democrats. Have I gotten more conservative as I’ve gotten older? I can’t tell, because I can’t do the experiment of going back in time and presenting the young, hirsute Coyne with today’s Democratic platform (if there is one) to get a reaction. All I know is that the country is deeply polarized and I’m pretty sure that if liberalism is to survive in this climate, it won’t do so by touting “progressivism” (which, by the way, is tainted with anti-Semitism).

Andrew Sullivan implies that the Resurrection probably didn’t happen, and then describes “Christianism” as a big threat to America

December 12, 2020 • 11:30 am

Andrew Sullivan is a practicing Catholic, but doesn’t like to discuss his own beliefs.  I’ve had two interactions with him about this issue, though the latest wasn’t really an “interaction.”

In 2011, Sullivan pounced on me in his column in the Daily Dish for assuming that people take the Bible literally when it comes to the creation of Earth and its inhabitants. His piece can be found at the archived website, and I also posted about it, saying this and quoting Sullivan:

At any rate, Sullivan makes this accusation:  I am one of many deluded fools who thinks that the account of Genesis was meant to be taken seriously.  From the outset it was an obvious metaphor, and intended to be seen as such!

“There’s no evidence that the Garden of Eden was always regarded as figurative? Really? Has Coyne read the fucking thing? I defy anyone with a brain (or who hasn’t had his brain turned off by fundamentalism) to think it’s meant literally. It’s obviously meant metaphorically. It screams parable. Ross sees the exchange as saying something significant about the atheist mindset – and I largely agree with everything he says, except his definition of “fundamentalist” doesn’t seem to extend much past Pat Robertson. It certainly makes me want to take Jerry Coyne’s arguments less seriously. Someone this opposed to religion ought to have a modicum of education about it. The Dish, if you recall, had a long thread on this subject in August. No one was as dumb as Coyne.”

I responded by quoting a number of theologians, including Aquinas and Augustine, who took the Genesis story literally, even though some church fathers noted that it had a metaphorical interpretation as well as a literal one. And of course about 40% of all Americans are Genesis adherents. In response to Sullivan’s insults about my dumbness, and his assumption that I hadn’t read Genesis, I called him a “mush-brained metaphorizer.”

My anger at Sullivan, inflamed by his insults, has since cooled. We’re on the same side on many issues, particularly “wokeness”, and his columns are very often rational and perspicacious. Still, he occasionally drags his faith into his column (now The Weekly Dish, a subscriber-only site to which I do subscribe). And when he mentions faith in a positive way, it now conflicts all the more jarringly with his avowed adherence to rationality and science.

That led to my second interaction, when he wrote this:

. . . I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity. That’s why I suspect a reinvention and reboot for Christianity is an urgent task.

Well, I couldn’t let that stand, so I wrote what I thought was a good “reader’s dissent”, pointing out that the happiest, most well-off, and liberal democracies of the world were the least religious. Sadly, he didn’t publish my gem, so I put it on this site. So be it.

But I always wonder what the man really believes about his faith, and I’d love to debate him on the dissonance between his Catholicism and his constant banging on about the need to be rational and adhere to the facts. In his column this week, he makes a telling statement in the midst of criticizing Trumpian Christianists (more on them in a second) for their refusal to face facts about the election. He indicts not only the Right, embodied by the unhinged Eric Metaxas, but also the Woke Left, represented by Ibram X. Kendi, as ignoring evidence. If you’re a member, click on the screenshot below:

Toward the end of what is a readable and incisive essay, Sullivan makes the statements below below while discussing the refusal of “Christianists” to accept the election results, claiming instead that Biden’s victory is the result of a widespread conspiracy. (The emphasis below is mine.)

The right is not unique in conspiratorial delusion, of course. The refusal of many on the left to accept Tump’s legitimate victory in 2016 was real and widespread. Both Hillary Clinton and John Lewis declared Trump an illegitimate president. Remember the Diebold machines of 2004? Not far from the Dominion stuff today. And the intensity of the belief on the left in an unfalsifiable “white supremacist” America has a pseudo-religious fervor to it. The refusal of Metaxas to allow any Republican to remain neutral or skeptical is mirrored by Ibram X. Kendi’s Manichean fanaticism on the far left.

But the long-established network of evangelical churches and pastors, and the unique power of an actual religion to overwhelm reason, gives the right an edge when it comes to total suspension of disbelief. Christianists are not empiricists or skeptics. They’re believers. This time around, it’s belief in a “multi-layered, multi-dimensional” conspiracy involving hundreds of people in several states, rejected by almost every court. You can fact-check that as easily as you can fact-check the Resurrection.

But what else does that mean except that there’s as little evidence for the Resurrection as there is for Republicans’ election conspiracy theories? In other words, no evidence! I’m forced to conclude, then, that Sullivan, as a Catholic, rejects Jesus’s literal Resurrection. Maybe he thinks it’s some kind of metaphor. My conclusion is strengthened in the next bit when he once again touts empiricism (my emphasis):

To survive, liberal democracy must have some level of moderation, some acceptance of the legitimacy of the other side, and room for compromise. It has to be based in empiricism, shared truth, deliberation and doubt. Fundamentalist religion has none of those qualities. It’s all or nothing.

One can conclude that Sullivan indeed equates belief in the Resurrection with fundamentalism, but of course that’s not the case: if anything, Jesus’s revival is a critical tenet of mainstream Catholic (or other Christian) faith, fundamentalist or not. It’s a linchpin of the Christian story of sin and salvation. Note also that he avers here that liberal democracy must be based on empiricism and shared truth, while earlier he said that liberal democracy, to survive, also has to have some faith in a “transcendent divinity”, and requires a “rebooted Christianity.” I’m here to tell Sullivan that basing democracy on empiricism automatically rules out basing it on any Abrahamic religion, including a “transcendent divinity” theistic or not.

Enough. The rest of the article is good, describing a group of hardcore Republican Christians, whom he calls “Christianists” to parallel “Islamists”, as both groups see no distinction between their faith and politics. Trumpian Christianists apparently see Trump, with all his flaws, as God’s own second saviour to redeem both ourselves and our country.

To Sullivan, the existence of Christianists explains the plethora of Republican loons who still won’t accept the election results. But I’m not as sure as he that this group will pose a real threat to America after Biden is sworn in.

Two quotes:

In a manner very hard to understand from the outside, American evangelical Christianity has both deepened its fusion of church and state in the last few years, and incorporated Donald Trump into its sacred schematic. Christianists now believe that Trump has been selected by God to save them from persecution and the republic from collapse. They are not in denial about Trump’s personal iniquities, but they see them as perfectly consistent with God’s use of terribly flawed human beings, throughout the Old Testament and the New, to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven.

This belief is now held with the same, unwavering fundamentalist certainty as a Biblical text. And white evangelical Christianists are the most critical constituency in Republican politics. If you ask yourself how on earth so many people have become convinced that the 2020 election was rigged, with no solid evidence, and are now prepared to tear the country apart to overturn an election result, you’ve got to take this into account. This faction, fused with Trump, is the heart and soul of the GOP. You have no future in Republican politics if you cross them. That’s why 19 Republican attorneys general, Ted Cruz, and now 106 Congressional Republicans have backed a bonkers lawsuit to try to get the Supreme Court to overturn the result.

Biden’s victory was not God’s will. Therefore it couldn’t have happened.

Below: Sullivan’s fears, which may well be exaggerated. I certainly hope they are:

And Trump is at the center of [Christianists’] belief system now, which includes all his lies. The relationship of many with him is that of evangelicals and their pastor: a male, patriarchal figure who cannot be questioned and must be obeyed. Trump’s political genius has been in sniffing out this need to believe, and filling it, all the time, tweet by tweet, lie by lie, con by con. No wonder Trump Trutherism is now a litmus test for the Christianist faith. . .

. . . Not only is it all or nothing, but the mandate to believe it, and act on it, is from God himself. When this psychological formation encounters politics, it cannot relent, it cannot change its mind, it cannot simply move on. And a core element of our politics right now — and part of the unprecedented resilience of Trump’s support — is this total suspension of judgment by a quarter of all Americans. When that certainty of faith met a malignant narcissist who cannot admit error, a force was created that continues to cut a ferocious swathe through our culture and our democratic institutions.

And if God Almighty calls for the overturning of a democratic election by force or violence? Then let the walls of Jericho come tumbling down.

I still predict little or no right-wing violence after January 20, but I’m not going to bet on it. The GOP, with 100+ of its Congresspeople joining the crazy Texas lawsuit trying to overturn the election, has become a swarming beehive of of truthers, conspiracy theorists, and, of course, gun nuts.

Andrew Sullivan immerses himself in hot water by saying “only some black lives matter”

December 6, 2020 • 1:30 pm

The mantra “All Lives Matter” is rightfully criticized as an effort to marginalize black people, for it’s an attempt to practice “whataboutery” on the slogan “Black Lives Matter”, words meant to emphasize that black people count just as much as white ones. It’s an anti-racist slogan, and a good one, even though the movement has been coopted for some goals with which I disagree.

But title of Andrew Sullivan’s new Weekly Dish piece (click below if you have a subscription) might sound just as offensive to people of color, even though it’s not meant to do down racial justice. Rather, Sullivan is pointing out that the number of black people killed by other black people dwarfs the number of unarmed African-Americans killed by cops (and not all of those cops are white). And yet, he argues, if black lives do matter, why is this problem given so much less attention?

Now you may say that the statement that “Only some black lives seem to matter” (Andrew means “the ones killed by cops”) also tries to diminish the problem of police racism, but that’s not what Sullivan is about here, for he notes that “there remains a real problem with police interaction with African-Americans.” As he says,

. . . . killing by a representative of the state is a much, much graver offense than that by a fellow civilian. We should take it much more seriously than regular crime. That’s why I favor every measure to increase accountability from the police — tackling their unions, de-militarizing their equipment, ending qualified immunity, putting more resources into de-escalation training, and so on.

But then he goes on to quote the data, and after that highlights the folly, in view of that data, of calling for reducing policing, whether it be by eliminating cops or “defunding” them to the point that crime prevention and protection is seriously diminished.  I’ll give a few quotes from the article, as the data should be seen by anyone who deals with these issues:

Nationally the toll on black lives from violence is shockingly disproportionate. The data from 2019 show 7,484 homicides of African-Americans, compared with 5,787 homicides of whites. That we have become used to this discrepancy doesn’t make it any less awful: African-Americans form only 13 percent of the population and yet comprise 54 percent of homicide victims. If you look at black men alone, it’s even worse. They comprise less than 7 percent of the population and a whopping 46 percent of the murder victims. Black men, in other words, are over six times more likely to be killed than the general population — and young black men face even worse odds.

Increasingly black children and minors are victims as well. . .

. . . It is not therefore an exaggeration to say that African-Americans are being gunned down in America vastly out of proportion to their numbers in the population as a whole. We’ve heard this truth before, of course, but usually when talking of police shootings. And it’s true that police disproportionately kill black men — 26 percent of fatal police shootings are of black men, compared with their 7 percent of the population as a whole. This is a vital, troubling issue that deserves attention. But the disproportion for African-Americans killed by civilian shootings is almost twice as skewed as that for those killed by cops.

And the scale of it is on an entirely different level. In 2019, 243 black men (including only 13 unarmed black men) were shot dead by cops. In comparison, a whopping 7,484 were killed by civilians. If you believe that black lives matter, where is the outrage about that 7,484? If Travis Nagdy, a young man of color, had been killed by a cop, you would know his name by now. Because he was killed by a civilian, you probably don’t.

I live in a city where these statistics are often in our face on the evening news. Time after time we hear about black teenagers or kids shot, often accidentally, and the toll can be brutal. So far this year in Chicago, 715 people have been victims of homicide—227 more than in all of 2019. Most of these killings are on the South and West sides, areas where black and Hispanic people live. In 2016, a year for which I could find data, 75% of the 762 murder victims in Chicago were black, and 71% of murderers were black; yet in the city as a whole, 30.1% of the residents are black.  It is a valid question—one apart from that of police brutality—why blacks disproportionately kill each other so often. And if you do think that black lives matter, as most good people do, then surely this is a problem that must be addressed. (Gun control, in my view, is one of several solutions.)

There’s no doubt in my mind, though, that one of the solutions is NOT less policing.  Those who call for that are, in my view, lunatics: so woke that nobody’s life means much to them. Yes, by all means reform the police, involve social workers when police alone won’t do, and get ride of hyper-militarization. But in view of statistics like those above, cutting way back on policing is not the answer. In fact, American blacks are in general against reducing policing, as Sullivan notes (and the bolded bit, which is my emphasis, will get him into that hot water):

Yes, I know many now insist that abolishing or defunding the police is not their real agenda. And for some, that may be true. But the record is quite clear: abolition of the police and of incarceration was exactly what many BLM activists and critical race theorists demanded, and still demand. It’s what the Minneapolis City Council voted for last June. It’s what Ilhan Omar explicitly demanded. It’s what the autonomous zone in Seattle enforced. It’s what BLM’s DC branch explicitly endorsed. It’s what the newly elected congresswoman Cori Bush supports. It’s what was painted on the streets of DC in letters large enough they could be read from an airplane. Abolition, in fact, is integral to critical race theory, and its view of the police as mere extensions of “white supremacy”, even when police departments are often very racially diverse or majority black, and run by black police chiefs.

It is no accident that the killing of George Floyd prompted a massive outpouring of protest while no such national movement emerged in response to, say, the killing of a one-year-old child in Brooklyn. Black lives matter, it seems. But some black lives matter more than others — depending entirely on who took them.

This left-progressive view is not one shared by most African-Americans. Or, for that matter, by leading and successful black pols like Barack Obama and James Clyburn and the late John Lewis. Polling in 2018 showed that only a small minority — 18 percent in one survey — opposed hiring more police officers, while 60 percent want more cops and more funding. A Gallup poll this summer found that “61 percent of Black Americans said they’d like police to spend the same amount of time in their community, while 20 percent answered they’d like to see more police, totaling 81 percent. Just 19 percent of those polled said they wanted police to spend less time in their area.” So mostly white leftists last summer campaigned for something a hefty majority of actual African-Americans oppose. And, of course, it is the African-American community that endures the murderous consequences.

The notion that the cops are universally reviled in the African-American population is just as false. In a Vox/Civis analysis poll, 58 percent of black Americans said they have a favorable opinion of their local police. In the Gallup survey, 61 percent are “very confident” or “somewhat confident” about “receiving positive treatment” by police.

It seems to me, and here Sullivan agrees, that the “defund the cops” movement is a drive led mostly by well-off white people that is against the wishes of most black people.

Reformation of police departments is much to be desired, and will go a long way towards easing the feelings of many blacks that the cops put targets on their backs. But even if we bring down the number of unarmed blacks shot by cops to zero, the huge problem of homicide in the black community will remain. Who in their right mind would say that the solution is to get rid of the cops?

Andrew Sullivan: There are bad people on both sides

November 14, 2020 • 9:30 am

Now that Trump has lost, but fails to admit it, Andrew Sullivan is surveying the wreckage of America, worried that Trump may try to throw the election into the House of Representatives. That dire scenario was described by Bart Gellman in the November Atlantic, and could—just conceivably—result in a legal victory for Trump.

I’m not as worried about that as is Sullivan. The press describes Trump’s aides as quietly nudging him towards the door, and although Republican politicians are loath to affirm Biden’s victory, I also believe they will start speaking up as the weeks pass and Trump still hasn’t conceded. But even if this doesn’t take place, Sullivan still presents a post-mortem in his Weekly Dish column below (click on screenshot).

First, Sullivan cites two sets of facts that seem accurate but also disturbing:

And yet a poll found that 70 percent of Republicans — with no credible evidence at all — believe that the election was rigged. House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy, not exactly a fringe character, baldly told Fox News: “President Trump won this election. So everyone who is listening, do not be silent about this. We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes.” Ten Republican state attorneys general have joined in the attempt to prevent Pennsylvania from certifying its election results. Senator Roy Blunt declared: “The president wasn’t defeated by huge numbers, in fact he may not have been defeated at all.”

Well, 70% of Republicans still means less than half the country (unless some deluded Democrats think the election was rigged), but even 35% is a figure way, way too high. Still, as Sullivan says, “we are left for two months with an urgent crisis of legitimacy — and for years ahead, an incoming president Biden who will be deemed the beneficiary of massive fraud by a significant chunk of the country. ”

And there’s this, also casting a bad light on Republicans:

. . . . the damage this past week has already inflicted on basic democratic norms is incalculable. More foreign leaders have accepted Biden’s victory than Republican officials. Think about that for a bit.

So be it. Along with Sullivan, I see Trump’s actions as self-centered and carrying the threat of doing incalculable damage to American democracy.

Although nobody can compare Trump’s current behavior with that of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama after Trump’s 2016 victory (Clinton swiftly conceded and Obama facilitated a smooth transition), Sullivan, who sees himself as a conciliatory middle-of-the-roader, doesn’t find the Democrats innocent of the current mess:

Didn’t the Democrats do this first to Trump four years ago? Isn’t payback ok? Sure, many Dems did say that Trump won in 2016 because of Russia, with no solid proof of anything. Yes, Rachel Maddow is a disgrace. And, yes, some accused him of being an illegitimate president because of it, and because of his popular vote deficit. None of this was defensible rhetoric. And it’s a sign that our political culture has not just decayed on the right.

And he continues, arguing, perhaps justifiably, that the increasing wokeness associated with the Left, has also helped erode the strength of American democracy:

I’ve referred to this process of accelerating illegitimacy before as a Weimar dynamic. By Weimar, I don’t mean a direct parallel to the 1920s and early 30s in Germany. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that nightmare. I mean rather a democracy where the center is always much weaker than the extremes on both sides, where democratic procedures lose legitimacy with the public at large with each election cycle, where street violence supplements debate with the connivance of elites, where propaganda replaces information, and where all the energy is destructive.

I mean a conservatism that keeps surrendering to right-radicalism, because it no longer believes in the liberal project writ large. I mean a liberalism so lacking in conviction that it is  incapable of standing up to the woke left. I mean a media where outlets are incapable of housing a variety of opinions — because radicalized readers and activist journalists believe an open debate is a form of harm and oppression. I mean a left bent on packing courts, abolishing the filibuster, targeting religious freedom, and embracing direct race discrimination as payback for the injuries of the past. I mean a right indifferent to democratic norms, convinced that no Democratic president can be legitimate, consumed with conspiracy theories, and paranoid in a way only Americans can muster.

Much as I bridle at criticism of the more moderate Left as cowardly and censorious, there’s some truth in what Sullivan says. What, for example, is responsible for a Trump loss on the one hand, but a general Republican set of victories for Congressional seats and in state governments? Could it be an America thoroughly sick of Trump’s derangement but suspicious of a more extreme Left? If Democrats don’t win both contested seats in Georgia, the Senate will remain Republican and we’re in for at least two years of a stalemate, with Biden governing by executive order.  And I still worry about the possibility that both Biden and Harris will cave in to the Woke, which would damage the future of the Democratic Party.

Perhaps both Sullivan and I should be celebrating rather than neurosing. But the Republicans are behaving even worse about the election than I expected, and come January they will still be with us, enraged by Trump’s loss. The Woke are still with us, too, and, despite several readers’ predictions, I don’t think they’re going away when Biden enters the White House. Wokeness is by now a self-sustaining phenomenon, driven by the Left’s fear of being called racist, pushed by the media, and barreling to hell for lack of a clear brake on wokeness.

And, I suppose, I’m worried about Trump hanging around as a bellwether of Republican ideology. Could he run again in four years? I don’t think so, but he could, god forbid, become a Senior Republican Statesman with considerable influence. And so Sullivan ends not with a bang, but (god forbid again), a prayer. After all, both he and Biden are Catholics:

And [Trump] is not going away. Far from it. If he leaves office voluntarily, it will be to launch a movement founded around that very Weimar of constructs: a corrupt elite that stabbed the American people in the back in 2020, and robbed them of their votes. He will demand total Republican obstruction to anything Biden or the Democrats propose — because they are usurpers and crooks — and ensure his base remains permanently inflamed with anger and resentment. He will sabotage as much of our system as he can. And by pledging immediately to run in 2024, he will control the GOP as totally in the future as he has in the past.

The 2020 election did not resolve this crisis of legitimacy. It found two Americas, very evenly divided, and at war with one another. And in the days since it ended, it has become clearer and clearer not only that this house is divided, but that Trump would be more than happy to see it fall.

An older, frailer man — perhaps the last man standing in our political culture with deep affection for a less polarized past — has been tasked to hold our democracy together, even as the culture keeps tearing it apart. Pray for him.

“Pray for him”? Is this a metaphor for “send good thoughts and wishes” to Biden? Well, those won’t help, either. What we can do is support Biden politically, and go into the streets, which I swear I’ll do, if Trump tries to hold onto the Presidency.

Andrew Sullivan gives Biden a pat on the back

October 31, 2020 • 1:15 pm

I haven’t found the latest few installments of Andrew Sullivan’s The Weekly Dish terribly exciting, and, truth be told, they haven’t been as thoughtful or engaging as his old tripartite column for New York Magazine. I know his readers enjoy the ability to publish their “dissents”, which is good, and like to guess “where was this photo taken?”, but I prefer his serious, longer-form pieces.

There’s only one such piece per week now, and this week’s is about Joe Biden. It’s pretty good, but I’m wondering if my $50 subscription was well spent. I’m hoping that, after the election, Sullivan will find new and interesting things to write about. I’m not giving up yet.

I think The Weekly Dish is now pay-only, but if you subscribe you can see the post by clicking on the screenshot below. I’ll give a few excerpts, but I have little to say about Sullivan’s take, which is fine but unoriginal.

Do note that this week’s podcast on Sam Harris’s Making Sense site, also reproduced on Sullivan’s page, is a 1.5-hour conversation between the two of them about Trump. I’ll probably listen to it since it’s relatively short for Sam (how can anyone listen to three hours of conversation?), so stay tuned.  If you subscribe to Andrew’s site, the podcast is free there, but if you don’t subscribe to Sam’s site you can listen to only an excerpt. I guess the serious media people on the Left have decided that, in the future, podcasts are the way to go. They’re more lucrative and also more spontaneous, but I’m happy to keep typing.

Sam says this about Andrew on the site:

[Sullivan] is writing a book on the future of Christianity, and his collection of essays will be published in 2021.

Christianity, eh? That should be interesting!

The main lesson from Sullivan’s piece is that Biden is not going to further wokeness in America, and that Uncle Joe turned out much better than Sullivan anticipated. Just a few excerpts:

. . . Biden’s core appeal, as he has occasionally insisted, is that he ran against the Democratic left, and won because of moderate and older black voters with their heads screwed on right. He was the least online candidate. For race-leftists like Jamelle Bouie, he was part of the problem: “For decades Biden gave liberal cover to white backlash.” For gender-warriors like Rebecca Traister, he was “a comforter of patriarchal impulses toward controlling women’s bodies.” Ben Smith a year and a half ago went for it: “His campaign is stumbling toward launch with all the hallmarks of a Jeb!-level catastrophe — a path that leads straight down … Joe Biden isn’t going to emerge from the 2020 campaign as the nominee. You already knew that.” The sheer smug of it! And the joy of seeing old Joe get the last laugh.

. . . His core message, which has been remarkably consistent, is not a divisive or partisan one. It is neither angry nor bitter. Despite mockery and scorn from some understandably embittered partisans, he has a hand still held out if Republicans want to cooperate. In this speech at Warm Springs, where Biden invoked the legacy of FDR, you can feel the Obama vibe, so alien to the woke: “Red states, blue states, Republicans, Democrats, Conservatives, and Liberals. I believe from the bottom of my heart, we can do it. People ask me, why are you so confident Joe? Because we are the United States of America.”

. . . What I grieve is an idea of America that is decent, generous, big-hearted, and pragmatic, where the identity of a citizen, unqualified, unhyphenated, is the only identity you need. I miss a public discourse where a president takes responsibility even for things beyond his full control, where the fault-lines of history are not mined for ammunition but for greater understanding, where, in Biden’s words, we can once again see the dignity in each other. I am not a fool, and know how hard this will be. But in this old man, with his muscle memory of what we have lost, and his ability to move and change in new ways, we have an unexpected gift.

Sullivan is a big believer, as I used to be, in America United—the possibility that someone could bring the ends of the political spectrum together and we’d be One Big Happy Country. While I fervently wish that were possible, and it’s my ideal as well (so long as the Happy Country is a liberal one!), I don’t think that it’s possible for Biden, or anyone, to Superglue the fractures in the American populace. Yes, we may well have a Democratic Senate, House, and President, and that means that things will get done, but don’t expect the evangelicals, the gun nuts, the anti-maskers, and others on the extreme right to come around. And, of course, we’re facing a Supreme Court that will fight liberalism at every turn.

Andrew Sullivan: The genetic underpinnings of IQ means we shouldn’t value it so much, that we should ditch the meritocracy, and that we should become more of a communist society

September 12, 2020 • 11:30 am

Andrew Sullivan has devoted a lot of the last two editions of The Weekly Dish to the genetics of intelligence, perhaps because he’s taken a lot of flak for supposedly touting The Bell Curve and the genetic underpinnings of IQ.  Now I haven’t read The Bell Curve, nor the many posts Sullivan’s devoted to the genetics of intelligence (see the long list here), but he’s clearly been on the defensive about his record which, as far as I can see, does emphasize the genetic component to intelligence. But there’s nothing all that wrong with that: a big genetic component of IQ is something that all geneticists save Very Woke Ones accept. But as I haven’t read his posts, I can neither defend nor attack him on his specific conclusions.

I can, however, briefly discuss this week’s post, which is an explication and defense of a new book by Freddie DeBoer, The Cult of Smart. (Note: I haven’t read the book, either, as it’s just out.) You can read Sullivan’s piece by clicking on the screenshot below (I think it’s still free for the time being):

The Amazon summary of the book pretty much mirrors what Sullivan says about it:

. . . no one acknowledges a scientifically-proven fact that we all understand intuitively: academic potential varies between individuals, and cannot be dramatically improved. In The Cult of Smart, educator and outspoken leftist Fredrik deBoer exposes this omission as the central flaw of our entire society, which has created and perpetuated an unjust class structure based on intellectual ability.

Since cognitive talent varies from person to person, our education system can never create equal opportunity for all. Instead, it teaches our children that hierarchy and competition are natural, and that human value should be based on intelligence. These ideas are counter to everything that the left believes, but until they acknowledge the existence of individual cognitive differences, progressives remain complicit in keeping the status quo in place.

There are several points to “unpack” here, as the PoMos say. Here is what Sullivan takes from the book, and appears to agree with:

1.) Intelligence is largely genetic.

2.) Because of that, intellectual abilities “cannot be dramatically improved”.

3.) Because high intelligence is rewarded in American society, people who are smarter are better off, yet they don’t deserve to be because, after all, they are simply the winners in a random Mendelian lottery of genes fostering high IQ (I will take IQ as the relevant measure of intelligence, which it seems to be for most people, including Sullivan).

4.) The meritocracy is thus unfair, and we need to fix it.

5.) We can do that by adopting a version of communism, whereby those who benefit from the genetic lottery get taxed at a very high rate, redistributing the wealth that accrues to them from their smarts. According to DeBoer via Sullivan,

For DeBoer, that means ending meritocracy — for “what could be crueler than an actual meritocracy, a meritocracy fulfilled?” It means a revolutionary transformation in which there are no social or cultural rewards for higher intelligence, no higher after-tax income for the brainy, and in which education, with looser standards, is provided for everyone on demand — for the sake of nothing but itself. DeBoer believes the smart will do fine under any system, and don’t need to be incentivized — and their disproportionate gains in our increasingly knowledge-based economy can simply be redistributed to everyone else. In fact, the transformation in the economic rewards of intelligence — they keep increasing at an alarming rate as we leave physical labor behind — is not just not a problem, it is, in fact, what will make human happiness finally possible.

If early 20th Century Russia was insufficiently developed for communism, in other words, America today is ideal. . .

Sullivan adds that the moral worth of smart people is no higher than that of people like supermarket cashiers, trash collectors, or nurses. (I agree, but I’m not sure that smart people are really seen as being more morally worthy. They are seen as being more deserving of financial rewards.)

6.) Sullivan says that his own admitted high intelligence hasn’t been that good for him, and he doesn’t see it as a virtue:

For me, intelligence is a curse as well as a blessing — and it has as much salience to my own sense of moral worth as my blood-type. In many ways, I revere those with less of it, whose different skills — practical, human, imaginative — make the world every day a tangibly better place for others, where mine do not. Being smart doesn’t make you happy; it can inhibit your sociability; it can cut you off from others; it can generate a lifetime of insecurity; it is correlated with mood disorders and anxiety. And yet the system we live in was almost designed for someone like me.

This smacks a bit of humblebragging, but I’ll take it on face value. It’s still quite odd, though, to see a centrist like Sullivan, once a conservative, come out in favor of communism and radical redistribution of wealth. So be it. But do his arguments make sense?

Now Sullivan’s emphasis on the genetic basis of intelligence is clearly part of his attack on the extreme Left, which dismisses hereditarianism because it’s said to imply (falsely) that differences between groups, like blacks and whites, are based on genetic differences. It also implies (falsely) that traits like intellectual achievement cannot be affected by environmental effects or environmental intervention (like learning). Here Andrew is right: Blank-Slateism is the philosophy of the extreme left, and it’s misguided in several ways. Read Pinker’s book The Blank Slate if you want a long and cogent argument about the importance of genetics.

But there are some flaws, or potential flaws, in Sullivan’s argument, which I take to be point 1-5 above.

First, intelligence is largely genetic, but not completely genetic. There is no way for a given person to determine what proportion of their IQ is attributable to genes and how much to environment or to the interaction between the two: that question doesn’t even make sense. But what we can estimate is the proportion of variation of IQ among people in a population that is due to variation in their genes. This figure is known as the heritability of IQ, and can be calculated (if you have the right data) for any trait. Heritability ranges from 0 (all variation we see in the trait is environmental, with no component due to genetics) to 1 (or 100%), with all the observed variation in the trait being due to variation in genes. (Eye color is largely at this end of the scale.)

A reasonable value for the heritability of IQ in a white population is around 0.6, so about 60% of the variation we see in that population is due to variation in genes, and the other 40% to different environments experienced by different people as well as to the differential interaction between their genes and their environments. That means, first of all, that an appreciable proportion of variation in intelligence is due to variations in people’s environments. And that means that while the IQ of a person doesn’t change much over time, if you let people develop in different environments you can change their IQ in different ways—up or down. IQ is not something that is unaffected by the environment.

Related to that is the idea that a person’s IQ is not fixed at birth by their genes, but can be changed by rearing them in different environments, so it’s not really valid to conclude (at least from the summary above) that “academic potential cannot be dramatically improved”. Indeed, Sullivan’s summary of DeBoer’s thesis is that the difference in IQ between blacks and whites (an average of 15 points, or one standard deviation) is not due to genes, but to different environments faced by blacks and whites:

DeBoer doesn’t explain it as a factor of class — he notes the IQ racial gap persists even when removing socio-economic status from the equation. Nor does he ascribe it to differences in family structure — because parenting is not that important. He cites rather exposure to lead, greater disciplinary punishment for black kids, the higher likelihood of being arrested, the stress of living in a crime-dominated environment, the deep and deadening psychological toll of pervasive racism, and so on: “white supremacy touches on so many aspects of American life that it’s irresponsible to believe we have adequately controlled for it in our investigations of the racial achievement gap.”

Every factor cited here is an environmental factor, not a genetic one. And if those factors can add up to lowering your IQ by 15 points, on what basis does DeBoer conclude (with Sullivan, I think), that you cannot improve IQ or academic performance by environmental intervention? Fifteen points is indeed a “dramatic improvement”, which according to DeBoer, we’d get by simply letting black kids grow up in the environment of white people.  (I note here that I don’t know how much, if any, of that 15-point difference reflects genetic versus environmental differences; what I’m doing is simply asserting that even DeBoer notes that you can change IQ a lot by changing environments.)

Further, what you do with your intelligence can be further affected by the environment. If you’re lazy, and don’t want to apply yourself, a big IQ isn’t necessarily going to make you successful in society. So there is room for further improvement of people by proper education and instilling people with motivation. This doesn’t mean that IQ isn’t important as a correlate of “success” (however it’s measured) in American society—just that environmental factors, including education and upbringing, are also quite important.

What about genetic determinism and the meritocracy? It’s likely that many other factors that lead to success in the U.S. have a high heritability as well. Musical ability may be one of these, and therefore those who get rich not because they have high IQs, but can make good music that sells, also have an “unfair advantage”. What about good looks? Facial characteristic are highly heritable, and insofar as good looks can give you a leg up as a model or an actor, that too is an unfair genetic win. (I think there are data that better-looking people are on average more successful.) In fact, since nobody is “responsible” for either their genes or their environments, as a determinist I think that nobody really “deserves” what they get, since nobody chooses to be successful or a failure. Society simply rewards those people who have certain traits, and punishes those who have other traits. With that I don’t have much quarrel, except about the traits that are deemed reward-worthy (viz., the Kardashians).

This means, if you take Sullivan and DeBoer seriously, we must eliminate not just the meritocracy for intelligence, but for anything: musical ability, good looks, athletic ability, and so on. In other words, everybody who is successful should be taxed to the extent that, after redistribution, everyone in society gets the same amount of money and the same goods. (It’s not clear from Sullivan’s piece to what extent things should be equalized, but if you’re a determinist and buy his argument, everyone should be on the same level playing field.)

After all, if “the smart don’t need to be incentivized”, why does anybody? The answer, of course, is that the smart do need to be incentivized, as does everyone else. The failure of purely communist societies to achieve parity with capitalistic ones already shows that. (I’m not pushing here for pure capitalism: I like a capitalistic/socialistic hybrid, as in Scandinavia.)  And I wonder how much of Sullivan’s $500,000 income he’d be willing to redistribute.

If you think I’m exaggerating Sullivan’s approbation of communism, at least in theory, here’s how he ends his piece, referring to his uneducated grandmother who cleaned houses for a living.

My big brain, I realized, was as much an impediment to living well as it was an advantage. It was a bane and a blessing. It simply never occurred to me that higher intelligence was in any way connected to moral worth or happiness.

In fact, I saw the opposite. I still do. I don’t believe that a communist revolution will bring forward the day when someone like my grandmother could be valued in society and rewarded as deeply as she should have been. But I believe a moral revolution in this materialist, competitive, emptying rat-race of smarts is long overdue. It could come from the left or the right. Or it could come from a spiritual and religious revival. Either way, Freddie DeBoer and this little book are part of the solution to the unfairness and cruelty of it all. If, of course, there is one.

Let’s forget about the “spiritual and religious revival” (I wrote about that before), and realize that what we have here is a call for material equality, even if people aren’t morally valued as the same. And why should we empty the rat-race just of smarts? Why not empty it of everything that brings differential rewards, like writing a well-remunerated blog? In the end, Sullivan’s dislike of extreme leftism and its blank-slate ideology has, ironically, driven him to propose a society very like communism.

My unpublished comment on The Weekly Dish

September 5, 2020 • 10:15 am

On his website The Weekly Dish, Andrew Sullivan publishes “dissents”—comments from readers who have disagreed with things in the previous week’s column. They’re often quite long, and, to his credit, Sullivan often admits he’s wrong or engages the dissent thoughtfully.

In his column a week ago Friday, Sullivan made a statement about the virtues of Christianity that riled me up, for recently he seemed to have strayed away from the God-osculation that was, to me, his most irrational feature.  But then it returned. He had this exchange with a reader (my emphasis):

Part of reader’s comment:

Parting question for you: Do you think a resurgence of small “L” liberalism is possible in an increasingly atheistic West? If so, by what mechanism would it be brought about?

Sullivan’s response:

I’m glad you’re making this essential point about right-wing postmodernism as well. I agree largely, and should devote more attention to it — as I have done in the pastBut the honest answer is: I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity. That’s why I suspect a reinvention and reboot for Christianity is an urgent task.

That response, about the need for Christianity to sustain liberalism, struck me as badly mistaken, and I wrote a short post about it. But then, realizing that perhaps Sullivan might engage me directly in a “dissent”, I rewrote my post, added data, and sent it off to the Dish. I was hoping he’d choose to answer it in public, and I wanted to see what he’d say.

I didn’t entertain high hopes for this, as Greg, who sent several dissents to the old Daily Dish (a couple of them published), told me that dissents aren’t acknowledged and few of them are printed. Nevertheless, I sent what’s below to Sullivan.  I’m printing it here because it wasn’t used this week; Sullivan answered several readers’ dissents about Trump. (Sullivan engaged me in an exchange nine years ago, back when I was pretty down on his religiosity and took issue with his seeing Scripture as metaphorical, not intending to be read literally.)

Rather than waste what I wrote, here it is. Perhaps some day Sullivan might address it, or it might be useful for somebody else. The data come from a number of posts I’ve done on this site.

Dear Andrew,

I wanted to challenge you on a statement you made in last Friday’s Dish. In response to a reader’s question about whether you thought that “a resurgence of small ‘L’ liberalism is possible in an increasingly atheistic west”, and how it could be promoted, you said this:

. . . . the honest answer is: I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity. That’s why I suspect a reinvention and reboot for Christianity is an urgent task.

I agree about the objective reality part—after all, modern liberalism and its program are closely wedded to real facts, not fake ones—but I don’t agree that liberalism needs a “transcendent divinity”. In fact, objective reality suggests the opposite: liberalism needs to reject the idea of gods.

I’ll leave aside the contradiction between believing there’s an objective reality and the assertion that there’s a “transcendent divinity”, much less a Christian one— claims about reality that have no empirical support. And I’ll only mention that many nonliberal positions, like anti-pro-choice and anti-gay views, are often seen and supported as God’s will.

Instead, I want to emphasize that the objective reality of the world is that the less religious a country or a state is, the more liberal it seems to be. Not only that, but the inhabitants are better off and happier.

There are now ample data showing a negative correlation among the world’s countries between belief in God and several indices of national well being—indices that comport with liberal goals. Measures of “successful societies”, incorporating 25 factors that make for healthier societies, are negatively correlated with religiosity among developed Western nations.  Income inequality across 67 countries is positively correlated with the frequency with which their inhabitants pray. The UN’s World Happiness Index, a measure of people’s subjective evaluation of their mental well being, is strongly negatively correlated with the average religiosity of a nation.

Granted, some of these data come from non-Christian countries, but most are Christian.

This also holds for states in the U.S.: the human development index, a measure of a state’s well being, is negatively correlated with the average religiosity of the 50 American states. Of course in America religiosity is Christian religiosity.

Over and over again—and this is a fact well known to sociologists—we find that the more religious a country is, the worse off it is. The five happiest countries in the world, for instance, are Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Switzerland—hardly Christian nations, with Scandinavia being for all purposes a den of atheists. And these countries, by all lights, are liberal, moral, and caring.

While the reason for these correlations aren’t clear, it’s not likely that religion itself promotes poverty, inequality, and unhappiness. Rather, it’s probable that, when the people of a country or state are not well off, and don’t feel cared for by their societies, they turn to religion as a palliative: the assurance that Someone Above will take care of things, now or after death. Although I’m not a Marxist, Marx may have gotten it right when he said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Whatever the cause, objective reality doesn’t support your claim that embracing transcendent divinities leads to more liberal societies. Rather, worse societies seem to become more religious, or retain more religion.

Fortunately, we do have a reinvention of Christianity. It isn’t a reboot, but surely suffices as a grounding for liberalism. It’s called secular humanism, and is the basis for all the happiest, most secure, and best-off societies in the world.

All the best,
Jerry Coyne

Andrew Sullivan: Sustainable liberalism requires God

August 29, 2020 • 1:45 pm

I want to add one comment to today’s earlier post on Andrew Sullivan. It gets its own space here because it’s is unrelated to the issue of violent vs. nonviolent protests.

One good feature of The Weekly Dish is that thoughtful readers write in offering criticisms of what Sullivan wrote earlier.  Sullivan then responds, and, to his credit, sometimes he admits error. But this time he touts God. Here’s a bit of one critical email and Sullivan’s answer (my emphasis):

Part of reader’s comment:

Parting question for you: Do you think a resurgence of small “L” liberalism is possible in an increasingly atheistic West? If so, by what mechanism would it be brought about?

Sullivan’s response:

I’m glad you’re making this essential point about right-wing postmodernism as well. I agree largely, and should devote more attention to it — as I have done in the past. But the honest answer is: I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity. That’s why I suspect a reinvention and reboot for Christianity is an urgent task.

Well, yes, you have to have faith in an objective reality if you’re trying to do any effective politics, but liberalism depends heavily not only on the concept of objective truth, but on ascertaining what it is. But as for “general faith in a transcendent divinity”, well, that’s totally bogus. Why do we need belief in God to advocate liberal politics? It would seem the opposite to me: many right-wing tenets, like anti-pro-choice and anti-gay positions, seem to depend on adhering to the will of a god or a faith.

It irks me that a man who is often so rational in other ways still believes, without a shred of evidence, that there is a god. (Sullivan’s a Catholic—a pretty pious one, I gather, though not an adherent to all Church dogma.) If you believe in an objective reality, then you must also believe that there are ways to ascertain what that reality is. But there is no way to ascertain the “reality” of a god, much less of Sullivan’s Christian god. The more urgent task is to weaken all faiths, not buttress them.

Fortunately, we do have a reinvention of Christianity. It isn’t a reboot, but surely suffices as a grounding for liberalism. It’s called secular humanism.