“Seinfeld” in the cancellation crosshairs

November 15, 2021 • 11:15 am

I’ve subscribed to The Righting, a daily news summary of right-wing articles compiled by leftists. Perhaps that explains why the daily list of links shows how bull-goose loony much of the Right is, even when the articles come from the more respectable right-wing sites, like the National Review.  The articles are hilarious in their denunciations of the Left (they are of course anti-vax and hate Biden), but even a blind pig can find an acorn—an acorn which you’d only find on conservative sites. One of these is their singling out of egregious wokeness.

This one, from of all places a right-wing entertainment site (Hollywood in Toto: “The Right Take on Entertainment”), describes the attacks on the television comedy “Seinfeld” for being racist, sexist, able-ist, and so on. The article links to a lot of criticism of the show.

Now I never watched “Seinfeld” much; for some reason the fact that nothing ever happened on the show bored me, but there were some episodes I found hilarious, like “The Chicken Roaster,” in which Kramer gets hooked on Kenny Rogers’ Roasters, a chicken takeout across the street from their apartment. But its flashing sign, which makes Kramer’s apartment into a nightmare of disco proportions drives him nuts. And the funniest episode I ever saw was the famous “Soup Nazi” one, based on a real soup-vending curmudgeon in New York City.

I never paid much attention to the show’s lack of “political correctness”, as it was called at the time, but now people are sniffing out infelicities in very old t.v. shows and calling them out. Back then, for instance, “Soup Nazi” was inoffensive; now it would be an insult to all brash people, or seen as a diminution of Nazism. That trend is what the article below is about (click on screenshot to read).

An excerpt:

It’s only one of the most popular sitcoms of all time, a comedy that sparks new fans whenever it shifts to a fresh platform. It did it again earlier this year when Netflix began airing the show’s nine sublime seasons.

And, for at least six years, the woke mob has insisted we shouldn’t laugh along with Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer.

Take this 2015 article, which declares one of TV’s supreme sitcoms is now too “racist” and “sexist” to enjoy. The article sprang to life after Seinfeld admitted he’d never play a college gig because students are too easily offended.

If you stick a thumb in the woke mob’s eye they quickly retaliate.

Still, the article didn’t inspire a movement. Nor did subsequent pieces hammering similar themes. The far-Left Bustle attacked singular jokes from the classic show, 13 in total, as being offensive with its 2018 screed.

The trend continued in 2020, with Cheat Sheet bemoaning that Seinfeld refused to apologize for the show’s jokes. The woke mob loves apologies. They’re rarely accepted, of course.

The Hostage Apology is akin to Struggle Session lite.

The far-left Screen Rant decided, apparently, that 2021 is the year to kickstart “Seinfeld’s” cancelation. Back in May the site ran an op-ed taking down George for his problematic behavior.

His antics “haven’t aged well,” we’re told. Screen Rant wants every character in a sitcom to behave like a gentleman, thus negating all of George’s broad comic tics.

Looper attempted its own cancellation essay this year, all the while admitting how foolish such a measure is.

Sure, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer — and on a meta level, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld and everyone else behind the “Seinfeld” scenes — would undoubtedly laugh at the notion of an article like this, offering a snarky remark and a reminder that the best humor (and an invaluable life necessity) comes from laughing at things society takes seriously. Nevertheless, it’s hard to dispute — these “Seinfeld” moments have not aged well.

Screen Rant’s latest broadside against “Seinfeld?” Seinfeld: 10 Things About Jerry That Have Aged Poorly

You can read the articles (I’ll put three examples below from the Screen Rant article and three from another piece), but it was my impression that Seinfeld’s comedy was meant to be edgy by taking on topics and reactions that people often have, but keep to themselves. In other words, it airs publicly what people are thinking privately, but were allowed to air in the private group of Jerry’s friends. Three examples from Screen Rant.

Three examples from the Bustle article, “These 13 jokes from ‘Seinfeld’ are actually super offensive“:

Well, I didn’t think they’d find this episode “super-offensive”, but I was wrong.

I don’t find what’s below particularly racist, for some men are attracted to Asian women. Others are attracted to black women, or to Hispanic women. I’ve never heard this as characterized as “saying you like everyone in a race”. Rather, what some men find attractive are the features of women from some ethnic group, and not all women or all people.

This isn’t “racist” unless somehow you stereotype the women by expecting them to all behave in a defined and similar way.  But the relationships I know of involving white men and nonwhite women have all been pretty much like intra-racial relationships, with the same affection and closeness. The women are, after all, human beings.

Many of the ten jokes and incidents from the Bustle article, as I said, deal with people’s feelings that they’re not comfortable making public except to one’s very good friends. In other words, they highlight life as it is, warts and all. No character on Seinfeld is portrayed as a saint: they all have their flaws, obsessions, and biases.

This kind of humor was the metier of people like Lenny Bruce, and now of Dave Chappelle, but it doesn’t play well with the Woke. As we know from Titania McGrath—whose sarcastic tweets get mistaken for genuinely “progressive’ views”—one characteristic of Wokeness is that it lacks a sense of humor.

Seinfeld and other comedians have said that they’ll no longer do standup at colleges and universities, and it’s not hard to see why. Here’s Seinfeld on “political correctness”.

 

Netflix employees and many civilians criticize Dave Chappelle’s “The Closer,” Netflix executives stand by the Chappelle and the show

October 15, 2021 • 11:00 am

I still haven’t seen Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special “The Closer“, so I can’t weigh in on whether what he said was in horrible taste or not. Those of you who did see it can (and should) weigh in below. As you know, given that it dealt with transsexual issues, it caused an uproar, much of it is already reported on WikipediaThe unusual thing is that a big and lucrative corporation is standing firm against a social-media onslaught.

All I can say about Chappelle is that I’ve seen some of his other shows, or parts of him, and see him as a latter-day Lenny Bruce, who deals frankly with topics about which people have strong feelings. And I think he’s funny and provocative as hell.

But I will neither defend nor attack him about this issue till I see the show. I’ll just reprise the reaction given by the New York Times, which reports that the company is melting down internally after presenting Chappelle’s show. Chappelle allegedly made comments that were “transphobic”.  Both co-executives of Neflix, however, are defending both the show and Chappelle.

Click on the screenshot below to read:

The accusations (all indented material are from the NYT piece):

That’s all changed. Internally, the tech company that revolutionized Hollywood is now in an uproar as employees challenge the executives responsible for its success and accuse the streaming service of facilitating the spread of hate speech and perhaps inciting violence.

At the center of the unrest is “The Closer,” the much-anticipated special from the Emmy-winning comedian Dave Chappelle, which debuted on Oct. 5 and was the fourth-most-watched program on Netflix in the United States on Thursday. In the show, Mr. Chappelle comments mockingly on transgender people and aligns himself with the author J.K. Rowling as “Team TERF,” an acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminist, a term used for a group of people who argue that a transgender woman’s biological sex determines her gender and can’t be changed.

“The Closer” has thrust Netflix into difficult cultural debates, generating the kind of critical news coverage that usually attends Facebook and Google.

Several organizations, including GLAAD, the organization that monitors the news media and entertainment companies for bias against the L.G.B.T.Q. community, have criticized the special as transphobic. Some on Netflix’s staff have argued that it could incite harm against trans people. This week, the company briefly suspended three employees who attended a virtual meeting of executives without permission, and a contingent of workers has planned a walkout for next week.

. . .Terra Field, a software engineer at Netflix and one of the three employees who were suspended for joining a quarterly meeting of top executives that they were not invited to, said on Twitter last week that the special “attacks the trans community, and the very validity of transness.” (Ms. Field and the other suspended employees have been reinstated.)

Jaclyn Moore, an executive producer for the Netflix series “Dear White People,” said last week that she would not work with Netflix “as long as they continue to put out and profit from blatantly and dangerously transphobic content.”

On Wednesday, GLAAD criticized Mr. Sarandos’s claim that on-screen content does not lead to real-world violence. “Film and TV have also been filled with stereotypes and misinformation about us for decades, leading to real-world harm, especially for trans people and L.G.B.T.Q. people of color,” the organization said in a statement.

The critics:

The critical reaction to “The Closer” has been mixed, with most reviewers acknowledging Mr. Chappelle’s comedic skills while questioning whether his desire to push back against his detractors has led him to adopt rhetorical tactics favored by internet trolls. Roxane Gay, in a Times opinion column, noted “five or six lucid moments of brilliance” in a special that includes “a joyless tirade of incoherent and seething rage, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia.”

I looked up the ratings of the show on Rotten Tomatoes, and here they are. This is one of the biggest disparities I’ve ever seen between critics’ reviews and the public’s reviews.  Clearly, the media is much more on the “transphobe” side than is the public:

The defense. Surprisingly, given its dominance of the media, both of the company’s chief executives mounted a robust defense, though the company didn’t have a comment (nor did Chappelle).

A discussion this week on an internal Netflix message board between Reed Hastings, a co-chief executive, and company employees suggested that the two sides remained far apart on the issue of Mr. Chappelle’s special. A transcript of the wide-ranging online chat, in which Mr. Hastings expressed his views on free speech and argued firmly against the comedian’s detractors, was obtained by The New York Times.

One employee questioned whether Netflix was “making the wrong historical choice around hate speech.” In reply, Mr. Hastings wrote: “To your macro question on being on the right side of history, we will always continue to reflect on the tensions between freedom and safety. I do believe that our commitment to artistic expression and pleasing our members is the right long term choice for Netflix, and that we are on the right side, but only time will tell.”

. . .Replying to an employee who argued that Mr. Chappelle’s words were harmful, Mr. Hastings wrote: “In stand-up comedy, comedians say lots of outrageous things for effect. Some people like the art form, or at least particular comedians, and others do not.

When another employee expressed an opinion that Mr. Chappelle had a history of homophobia and bigotry, Mr. Hastings said he disagreed, and would welcome the comedian back to Netflix.

“We disagree with your characterization and we’ll continue to work with Dave Chappelle in the future,” he said. “We see him as a unique voice, but can understand if you or others never want to watch his show.”

He added, “We do not see Dave Chappelle as harmful, or in need of any offset, which we obviously and respectfully disagree on.”

In a note to employees this week, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s other co-chief executive, expressed his unwavering support for Mr. Chappelle and struck back at the argument that the comic’s statements could lead to violence.

I’ll try to watch this soon, and the questions I’ll be asking myself are these:

a. Does Chappelle really seem to express transphobia or homophobia?

b. Is the show in bad taste?

c. The show is said to include a memoriam by Chappelle of his late friend Daphne Dorman, a transgender comedian. Others say it was disrespectful. Which was it?

d. Do I think the show is likely to incite violence? (That’s just a guess, of course.)

e. Does this look like it will hurt Netflix?

f.  Do I think that Chappelle is through—permanently cancelled. I doubt it given that Netflix is defending him pretty strongly, and if they keep airing his shows, well, that’s not cancellation.

The topic of transsexual people is perhaps the hottest political button there is for those on the Left. Certainly Netflix and Chappelle had the right under the first amendment to say what they wanted, but of course that right comes with the consequences of what you say. Normally the consequences from what I hear from the critics and opponents would be cancellation, but this is Dave Chappelle, and pushing buttons is his business.

Two taboo articles to read

October 10, 2021 • 11:30 am

If you’re following transgender issues, and aren’t afraid to question the view that transwomen are women in every sense and likewise for transmen, and also feel that there’s a rush to affirm transgender identity in children or teens without proper guidance, then you should read these two articles.

I was originally going to present just one long quote from Andrew Sullivan’s take on the issue, as his analysis this week is good, but he also relies on a new article by Abigail Shrier published on Bari Weiss’s site. You should read that one first by clicking on the screenshot below.  And do remember to subscribe to the Substack sites that you read often.

Shrier is the demonized author of the book Irreversible Damage, which warns of the dangers of premature transitioning as an early teen or child without proper medical and psychological guidance. She is not a transphobe, nor is she opposed to gender changing. She is just worried about the dangers of rapid “affirmation” without caveats as well as the possibility that social pressure forces young people to transition instead of, for instance, becoming gay or changing their minds. The medical consequences of transitioning are irreversible, and you have to have all possible information before you start —usually by taking “puberty blockers.”

Shrier is not a transphobe, though the trans activists call her one. I suggest you read her book and decide for yourself.

Her new piece, which I won’t dwell on, as you should read it, is about two doctors who help young people (mostly girls) transition. Both doctors are trans women. One, Marci Bowers, is a world expert in vaginoplasty: creating an artificial vagina from a penis. Such surgery is often, but not always, chosen by biological males transitioning to the female gender. The other, Erica Anderson, is a clinical psychologist at UCSF’s Child and Adolescent Gender clinic.

Neither of these women are transphobes, of course, but both express caution about changing gender from male to female without proper advice. The main issue is loss of one’s sexual side. Transitioning starts with taking puberty blockers, which stops puberty in its tracks and according to trans activists is allegedly completely reversible (we don’t really know that!), so that a candidate can ponder their decision while in sexual stasis.

The problem with the drugs is that most people taking the blockers go on to full transitioning, often involving later genital surgery. And this causes two problems. First, puberty blockers prevent not only development of full erotic sensation, but also leave the penis at such a small size that it’s very hard to convert it into a vagina facsimile. The alternatives, using tissue from elsewhere like the colon, are very unsatisfactory. Second, this surgery pretty much prevents transsexual women from ever having an orgasm. So unless they’ve experienced one before beginning puberty blockers, they’ll never have the full experience of sex with a partner. This isn’t often emphasized, leading to Anderson’s quote:

Anderson agreed that we’re likely to see more regret among this teenage-girl population. “It is my considered opinion that due to some of the — let’s see, how to say it? what word to choose? — due to some of the, I’ll call it just ‘sloppy,’ sloppy healthcare work, that we’re going to have more young adults who will regret having gone through this process. And that is going to earn me a lot of criticism from some colleagues, but given what I see — and I’m sorry, but it’s my actual experience as a psychologist treating gender variant youth — I’m worried that decisions will be made that will later be regretted by those making them.”

What, exactly, was sloppy about the healthcare work? “Rushing people through the medicalization, as you and others have cautioned, and failure — abject failure — to evaluate the mental health of someone historically in current time, and to prepare them for making such a life-changing decision,” Anderson said.

******************

Andrew Sullivan’s own Substack column this week is largely about transsexuality, and mostly about comedian Dave Chappelle’s new (and last) Netflix show, which I haven’t seen, called “The Closer”. Click on the screenshot to read (and subscribe if you’re so moved):

Sullivn calls Chappelle “the greatest living comedian”, and after having seen a couple of his pieces, I think he’s right up there. He also pulls no punches, saying, like Lenny Bruce and other controversial comics, exactly what he thinks, not worrying about saying what he sees as true will damn him forever. The “truth” in this case, comprises Chappelle’s views on transsexuality, drawn in particular from his friendship with a trans woman comedian, Daphne Dornan. (She killed herself not long ago.) Dornan turned her transsexuality into humor, sometimes laughing at herself, and Sullivan calls Chappelle’s remembrance of her “a moving account.”

But of course Chappelle being Chappelle, he makes shocking statement like one I’ll quote below—things that have gotten him called a transphobe (Sullivan gives links to several hostile reviews). Yet to me, Chapelle’s message, at least as filtered through Sullivan, is redolent of truth.  I just don’t have the guts to say it like he does. And so I’ll give a long quote from Andrew (emphasis is mine):

And, through the jokes, that’s what Chappelle is celebrating: the individual human, never defined entirely by any single “identity,” or any “intersectional” variant thereof. An individual with enough agency to be able to laugh at herself, at others, at the world, an individual acutely aware of the tension between body and soul, feelings and facts, in a trans life, as well as other kinds of life. Assuming that marginalized people cannot tolerate humor at their own expense is as dehumanizing as assuming they have no agency in their lives. It is a form of bigotry — of the left.

And the capacity for laughter — the target of every fundamentalism, left and right — is integral to being fully human. To remind us that a trans person can laugh at herself is to remind us that she too is brimming with the kind of complex self-awareness that every mature human has. We laugh, above all, at the absurdity of our reality. And yes, that’s the second point Chappelle makes: there is something called reality. We can deny it; or we can accept it. Comedy’s key role is that it helps us accept it.

Whatever else this is, it seems to me to be the opposite of transphobia. Like Rowling, Chappelle supports every law protecting trans people from discrimination; and believes in the dignity and equality of trans people, as he insisted in the show. But he also believes that it is absurd — absurd — to say that a trans woman is in every way indistinguishable from a woman. Because she isn’t.

The current debate, in other words, is not about being pro or anti-trans, in the lazy formula of woke media. In the US, trans people are already protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, thanks to Justice Neil Gorsuch. And I literally know of no one who insists on the reality of biological sex who would disapprove of or reverse this.

The debate, rather, is about whether a tiny group of fanatics, empowered by every major cultural institution, can compel or emotionally blackmail other people into saying things that are not true. This, in Chappelle’s words, is what they are trying to force people to deny:

Gender is a fact. Every human being in this room, every human being on Earth, had to pass through the legs of a woman to be on Earth. That is a fact. Now, I am not saying that to say trans women aren’t women, I am just saying that those pussies that they got … you know what I mean? I’m not saying it’s not pussy, but it’s Beyond Pussy or Impossible Pussy. It tastes like pussy, but that’s not quite what it is, is it? That’s not blood, that’s beet juice.

Yes this is shocking, funny, wild. But not wrong. And this seems to me to be exactly what a comic is supposed to do: point out that the current emperor has no clothes. A transwoman cannot give birth as a woman gives birth. She does not ovulate. Her vagina, if it exists, is a simulacrum of one, created by a multiple array of surgeries. Sex in humans is binary, with those few exceptions at the margins — mixtures of the two — proving rather than disproving the rule. Until five minutes ago, this was too obvious to be stated. Now, this objective fact is actually deemed a form of “hate.” Hate.

This means that the debate is no longer about 0.2 percent of humanity. It’s about imposing an anti-scientific falsehood on 99.8 percent of humanity. It means that we have to strip all women of their unique biological experience, to deny any physical differences between men and women in sports, to tell all boys and girls that they can choose their sex, to erase any places reserved exclusively for biological women, like shelters for those who have been abused by men, and to come up with terms like “pregnant people” to describe mothers. Yes — mothers. The misogyny buried in this is gob-smacking. Is Mothers’ Day next for the trans chopping block?

And the key thing is: absolutely none of this is needed to protect trans people from any and all discrimination.

The question of trans rights has been settled by the Supreme Court. I’m delighted it has. What we’re dealing with now is something very different. It’s an assault on science; it’s an assault on reality; it’s an attempt not to defend trans people but to cynically use them as pawns in a broader effort to dismantle the concept of binary sex altogether, to remove any distinctions between men and women, so that a gender-free utopia/dystopia can be forced into being.

There’s a lot more to the piece, including Sullivan’s contention that the woke Left uses gays in a way that ensures their “continued marginalization”, and most important, his contention below (my emphasis):

To be clear: I don’t favor crude bans on healthcare for kids with gender dysphoria. I favor much greater caution, care, and concern — for the sake of trans and gay kids, and their families. The most prominent LGBT groups have no interest in preventing gay kids from being swept up in this, and deny that is even possible — and are now in the forefront of erasing the very existence of same-sex, as opposed to same-gender, attraction. Any engagement with biology is deemed a form of “hate.” And the more potent the evidence of mis-steps in this revolutionary moment, the more furious and intense the urge to suppress it. The trans movement is now, tragically, the vanguard of the postmodern left’s goal of dismantling science itself because they believe that science is, in fact, merely an instrument of “white supremacy.”

I think he’s right here. When three scientific societies involving evolutionary biology issue a joint statement that biological sex is a “continuum” rather than binary, you know that ideology is trying to obscure scientific truth. And when a university simply fabricates an ideology supposedly held by Thomas Henry Huxley, turning him into a racist when he was not—all in the cause of taking his name off an academic unit—you know that scientists are no longer seeking truth but trying out of fear to adhere to an ideology they see as prevalent.

Bill Maher’s new show, including interview with Steve Pinker

October 9, 2021 • 12:30 pm

This will surely be taken down very soon (only clips of Maher’s shows can be shown), so I’m putting it up without having watched it. It’s Bill Maher’s entire show from last night. The interview with Pinker, discussing his new book Rationality, starts at 8:05 and ends at 18:26.  (Note that he’s wearing his custom caiman cowboy boots.)

The panel includes reporter Robert Costa and musician Michael Render. Maher’s final solo comedy segment starts at 43:55.

UPDATE: As expected, the video of the whole show has been taken down. If a clip appears with the interview, I’ll post it here.

h/t: Paul

Jon Stewart gets pushback for dissing science and insisting on a lab-leak origin for Covid-19

June 23, 2021 • 11:00 am

On the first live Stephen Colbert show, he hosted his predecessor Jon Stewart, who went on a rant that partly dissed science (Stewart said, for instance, that the pandemic was more than likely caused by science”.)  More important, though was Stewart’s unwavering contention that the coronavirus, WITHOUT ANY DOUBT, came from the Wuhan Virology lab rather than transmission from an unknown host to humans. (Let me add that Stewart has worked for good causes: his testimony before Congress about getting more help from those exposed to toxins in the 9/11 incident was eloquent and moving.)

People have interpreted this rant, as I do, as Stewart’s being very serious about both science and the origins of the coronavirus. I remain agnostic about the latter, but do disagree with Stewart’s take that science itself has some inherently bad aspects to it. (I would argue that the scientific toolkit is amoral, but that the tools of science, since they’re used by humans, can be used to do bad things.)

Watch the piece below where it self starts (2:47) until it ends at 8:38 and listen for yourself.

The exchange is funny, as it would have to be given the participants (Stewart’s “chocolate” analogy is a chuckle), but several people, including two editorial writers from the Washington Post as well as journalist Dan Rather, have taken out after Stewart for a.) dissing science and arguing that science is inherently unreliable, and b.) making no bones about where the coronavirus came from.  Now the second question isn’t so important except for historical interest, but having Stewart, a role model from whom many young folk get their real news, make such unsubstantiated assertions about science and the virus has angered the writers (see below).

Here are three articles (the first two from WaPo, the other from Dan Rather’s Substack site) going after Stewart for his monologue above. I’ll give one quote from each (click on screenshots to read):

Quote:

The segment was practically tailor-made to blow up in the current debate over the lab leak. It’s funny and good viewing and features a guy who often lampooned conservatives promoting a theory they have warmed to more than the other side. Even Jon Stewart is saying the theory Donald Trump once (briefly) espoused but was dismissed by scientists and the media was right about the lab leak!

The conventional wisdom on the validity of the lab leak has changed in recent weeks, but Stewart goes even beyond that new conventional wisdom that holds the theory is suddenly more valid. Scientists still generally regard the theory that the virus emerged naturally as more plausible than a lab leak, although that thinking is definitely evolving.

But if there’s one thing Stewart was often criticized for — especially by conservatives — it’s in oversimplifying complex issues to land a joke. (He often shrugged off that criticism by saying he was a comedian, not a newsman. But his show was the news to many young people, and it clearly had a political bent to it.)

And his summation of the argument for the lab leak theory suffers from some of that. Stewart pitches it as an irreconcilably massive coincidence that that virus emerged from a place with a high-level virology lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, that worked on novel coronaviruses.

Well, that’s not such a biting critique, but the next one is a bit more critical, concentrating on why we shouldn’t trust celebrities’ opinions on Covid-19 (or, for that matter, the opinions of politicians. Remember Trump and his “bleach our insides” theory of cures?). This piece, and the article by Dan Rather below it, emphasize that science is not a one-way street to the truth, and opinions about what’s true or best to do can change as the data change, as they did during the pandemic. The alterations about how we should behave changed over time, leading some people to reject the science altogether.

Some excerpts:

But these days, [Stewart] is retired and only emerges from time to time, and because he always delighted more in skewering Republicans, it was a bit shocking to see him go on an extended rant on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” about the coronavirus lab leak theory.

This theory has become associated with conservatives trying to prove that former president Donald Trump was right about everything. Yet Stewart apparently thinks it’s the only plausible explanation for the source of the virus.

This provides an important lesson about celebrities: You shouldn’t get your political opinions from them, or your scientific opinions either

. . .Even though Trump briefly claimed in 2020 (a claim he quickly dropped) that he had lots of evidence that the lab leak theory was true, what did it change? Had we had definitive proof from the get-go that it came from a lab, would Trump’s response to the pandemic, and the resulting death toll, have been less disastrous? Once the pandemic was here, it was here.

But set that aside for the moment, and consider Stewart.

Yes, he has every right to go on as many talk shows as he wants and explain his coronavirus theories. But his attack on expertise reminds us why expertise is so important.

The world is full of amateurs who think they’ve stumbled across some piece of information or logical connection that the people who know a lot more about the subject at hand have missed. There are a thousand unpublished manuscripts titled “Einstein Was Wrong About Relativity” stored on the home computers of people with no formal training in physics.

That’s not to say that experts don’t often have biases or blind spots, because they do. Sometimes, they can be catastrophic. But it’s not because experts can’t be trusted, it’s because something kept them from seeing what they should have, or — perhaps more often — they just didn’t have enough information to arrive at the best judgment.

. . .As long as they’re “raising awareness,” no one gets upset; it’s when they take stances on controversial issues that people decide that if that athlete or singer doesn’t agree with them, then he should shut up and stick to the thing that got him famous in the first place.

. . . But they’re not experts, and the reason we listen to experts is that they know more than we do. And if they know more about some things than others, then we have to understand where we shouldn’t listen to them and where the limits of their knowledge are.

That’s why it’s problematic when liberals say “I believe in science” as though science always shows you exactly which political decisions to make. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it has gaps that can lead you in the wrong direction. That’s why we need elected leaders who’ll listen to scientists, then make judgments built on a broad range of considerations.

The nature of human existence is that we have to outsource much of what we learn about the world to people we trust. But if a celebrity agrees with you today about one thing, it doesn’t make them any more trustworthy than they will be tomorrow when they disagree with you about something else.

Well, I’m not sure how many people will now adhere to the lab-leak theory just because of Stewart’s rant. After all, the truth or falsity of that theory isn’t all that important. What is important is the point that Dan Rather makes in the next article: science is our best (and, in this case, only) weapon to defeat such a deadly pandemic. And yet science is a set of tools, and must be wielded by fallible humans.

In many important ways Rather’s commentary is the most trenchant, as it defends the enterprise of science against those who think that it is either inherently unreliable or contains some elements that motivate people to do bad things. No, bad people do bad things. As I’ve said before, blaming science for the spread of the coronavirus is like blaming architecture for the Nazis’ gas chambers.

Here are a few excerpts from Rather’s piece:

All this underscores a simple truth: science, nature, the universe, is complicated. What we have seen in this pandemic is the public witnessing scientific research in real time. Scientists will be the first to tell you that a lot of what they initially think, their hypotheses, turn out to be wrong. That is what experimentation is for. That is what data is for. We learn from our failures as well as our successes. At first we got guidance that COVID was spread largely on surfaces, even as some scientists were warning early on about it being aerosolized. We eventually got mask mandates. Many researchers felt that that came too late. This is not a sign of good faith or bad faith. Science isn’t faith. It’s about teasing out what we know, and pivoting our thinking when we learn something new. Scientists, especially in the early stages of examining a phenomenon (like a deadly virus they haven’t seen before), often disagree.

. . .On The Late Show, Stewart didn’t leave his criticism of science and scientists at COVID and lab leaks. He extrapolated. “Can I say this about scientists?” he added. “I love them and they do such good work but they are going to kill us all.” Let that sink in. Scientists are going to “kill us all?” And he finished up by predicting how the world would end. “The last words man utters are somewhere in a lab a guy goes, ‘Huhuh! It worked.’”

I cannot overemphasize how dangerous this line of thinking is. It is true that some scientists have done some bad things in the name of research — such as the Tuskegee experiments. Scientists have been wrong. Science and technology have been tools that supported colonialism and oppression. Science does not release us from our moral responsibilities. All of this is the case because science is a human endeavor and scientists are human, subject to the same frailties and base instincts as any member of our species. But science is also a way of thinking, where we challenge our own dogmas and beliefs, whe

. . .I am old enough to remember when childhood was plagued by horrible diseases that have now been almost completely eliminated by vaccines. I remember when cancer was an automatic death sentence. I remember when we couldn’t imagine going to distant planets. I remember when we didn’t understand how our climate worked. I remember times when we were less knowledgeable and prepared, until science helped open our eyes. At the same time, I know that science itself is not a substitute for morality or public policy. It is a method for us to understand the choices we might have to make.

What we need is to teach people what science is, and what it is not. We need to show how the process of discovery works, how ideas are tested and sometimes found to be wrong. We need to investigate such stories like the origins of the virus. But we need to put that into the context of life on the planet, our interconnectedness, and all the other factors that shaped this pandemic. We need to embrace science as a quintessentially human endeavor, our instinct as a species to cross horizons of knowledge and experience. Like all of our actions there is a fine line between benefit and harm. So we must strive to create structures and systems of government and society that promote the former and minimize the latter. That does not include fanning the flames of ignorance or demonizing scientists who are dedicating themselves to opening our collective minds to information and data and have done so much to lessen the suffering of the human condition.

I know people think Rather is superannuated, a has-been with little to say. But his piece, as in the words above, is a far better take on science than that of any non-scientist journalist I’ve seen. The man understand how science works, and how it’s intertwined with human wants and desires. Jon Stewart, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have a clue.

And you could argue that Stewart is just making an extended joke. Indeed, his line about the “last words man utters” is funny. But also misguided. And I don’t think for a second that Stewart is just joking here.

But I’ll grant you this: Stewart has a good sense of humor.

“Progressophobia” demolished by Bill Maher: “Kids, there actually was a world before you got here.”

June 12, 2021 • 11:00 am

Reader Tim found this video from Bill Maher’s latest show in which the host attacks “progressophobia”—the claim that everything, including morality and social justice, is getting worse. This is palpably untrue, as Steve Pinker shows for many aspects of society in his book Better Angels. (Maher says the term “progressophobia” was coined by Pinker.) Yet for simply documenting progress (while noting that it’s not always steady and some areas regress), Pinker has been demonized. This baffles me.

I’m not sure why the “”progressophobes” persist. Some people seem to have an interest in claiming that the world is getting worse in nearly every way. I suppose this comes from the fear that if you admit that things like race relations and civil rights are getting better, you’re undercutting your mission in some way. After all, if equal opportunity (or even numerical equity) finally obtain in colleges, then diversity and inclusion administrators will be out of a job. And if your self-importance and the attention you get from others depend on complaining about lack of progress, then real progress undercuts those traits.

But I don’t see why we can’t fight to improve things at the same time we admit that they have improved. Who but a historical ignoramus (or Kevin Hart; see below) could clam that the rights of people of color haven’t improved in the last 75 years? I’m not going to bother to list all the ignominies visited on African-Americans, even when I was a little boy, that are diminished or gone. And do I need to add here that there’s still substantial room for improvement: improvement in housing, income, education, and so on? Or that racism has not completely disappeared?

I often tell the story of arriving at the College of William and Mary in 1967 on a Greyhound bus. At the bus station there were two bathrooms for each sex and two water fountains. It took me a minute to figure out what that meant. Only a few years before, those bathrooms and water fountains had been labeled “white” and “colored”. (William and Mary is in Virginia.) The labels had been removed, probably in 1964.

This bit by Bill Maher, in which he underlines moral progress, will surely dispel the claim that he’s an alt-righter (maybe he was an anti-vaxer, but he’s still on the Left). It’s one of his better bits, honest but humorous. And he takes “progressophobia to bits, asserting “There is a recurring theme on the far Left that things have never been worse,” and giving the example of Kevin Hart telling the New York Times, “You’re witnessing White power and White privilege at an all-time high” (article here).

Now no chronicler of progress, least of all Pinker, would claim that progress has been steadily upward, or in some areas, there’s been actual regression. Maher notes in this segment that areas that have worsened include the environment, the degree of homelessness in Los Angeles, and “the prospects for maintaining an actual democracy in America”.  But seriously, if you were a Jew, a black person, a gay person, or a woman, would you rather have lived in 1850 or now? This is a no-brainer.

McWhorter on Maher

May 8, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Reader Paul called my attention to the appearance of John McWhorter on Bill Maher’s show last night, along with Rick Wilson, Rob Reiner and Elissa Slotkin. Here’s the whole one-hour episode, and the McWhorter segment extends from 7:35 to 22:10.  I haven’t listened to the rest. (For a five-minute segment, go here.)

It’s clear that Maher is a huge admirer of McWhorter, who doesn’t pull any punches in this interview (he says, for example, that the only use for Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility is “to keep tables from wobbling”). McWhorter also denies that most black people have internalized themselves as victims of a white-supremacist system.

A hard case for free-speech advocates

February 21, 2021 • 12:30 pm

If you read this site even cursorily, you’ll know that I’m pretty much what they call a “hard-liner” on free speech. That is, I adhere to the Constitution’s First Amendment, which (with important exceptions) stipulates that the government cannot prevent you from speaking as a citizen. The exceptions, as carved out by American courts over the years, include harassment in the workplace, false advertising, defamation (deliberately lying with intent to harm), speech intended and liable to create imminent violence, and so on. I can’t think of a single form of speech that the courts haven’t already dealt with that should be prohibited. I don’t adhere to European blasphemy or “hate speech” laws, for instance: I think that Holocaust denialism should be allowed and that people should be able to say “gas the Jews”, so long as there aren’t Jews, a gas chamber, and an angry mob at hand.

Moreover, I go further, arguing that even private organizations should go as far as they can in allowing the kind of speech permitted by the First Amendment. For example, I think all colleges should adhere to what public colleges and universities must already adhere to: First-Amendment freedoms.  Facebook and Twitter, as far as they can, should do likewise. Nevertheless, I recognize that in some cases private organizations can and should be able to restrict speech. It wouldn’t do, for example, for a business to allow its employees to hurl racial slurs at customers.

So here’s a hard case for me, one that gave me pause. It involves a Canadian comedian, Quebecois Mike Ward, making fun of a disabled kid as part of his act. For that, Ward is now facing judgment by Canada’s Supreme Court. Click on the screenshot to read. 

The article notes that Canada, like the U.S., has pretty broad speech laws, but it also has “hate speech laws” against “identifiable groups” and, at least in Quebec, a “right to dignity”. In the case of the disabled kid, Jérémy Gabriel, these rights came into conflict. The minority group in question is the disabled, and the dignity attacked was Gabriel’s, as comedian Ward made fun of him in his act.

About a decade ago, the comedian Mike Ward, of Quebec, mocked the voice of a well-known disabled teenage singer in a standup routine, roasting him for being off-key, making fun of his hearing aid and calling him “ugly.” But he said he had defended the boy to others because he would soon die. When the teen didn’t die of his illness, the comedian joked, he tried to drown him.

Here’s Gabriel’s disability:

Mr. Gabriel has Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare congenital disease characterized by skull and facial deformities. He was born deaf and received a hearing aid implant at age 6. At age 8, he captured hearts across Quebec after singing the national anthem at a Montreal Canadiens hockey game. He went on to meet Celine Dion in Las Vegas, serenade Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican and write an autobiography.

Gabriel is thus a public figure, which to some makes him less immune to mockery. I have to admit that Ward’s comedy crossed the line for me, as I don’t find it funny at all. It’s mean-spirited. But that’s a different question from whether what he said was illegal. Remember that comedians often cross the line to make a point. Sarah Silverman, Lenny Bruce, and Dave Chappelle are just three. Chappelle, in fact, often goes after other black people, like Jussie Smollett, using the n-word, and that’s legal in the U.S. (the piece on Smollett, at the link, is also very funny). Silverman, I believe, has made fun of the aged, and perhaps the disabled. A lot of American comedy would, it seems, violate Canada’s “hate speech” and “right to dignity” laws.

The mockery of Gabriel was part of Ward’s act that also went after other folks:

Mr. Ward, a stand-up comic who has twice won “comedian of the year” in a prestigious Quebec comedy award show, has appeared on television internationally, and is known for his trenchant comedic style. In 2008, his joke about a 9-year-old girl who was abducted spurred death threats against him.

The Supreme Court case took root in 2010, when the comedian used his act to make fun of people in Quebec seen as being above criticism, and targeted celebrities like Celine Dion. He also targeted Mr. Gabriel and, among other jokes, made fun of his hearing aid, calling him “the kid with the subwoofer” on his head. The show was performed hundreds of times between 2010 and 2013, and disseminated online.

And Gabriel said that he was harmed by Ward’s mockery:

Mr. Gabriel, now a 24-year-old political science student in Quebec City, said in an interview that the comedy routine — and the raucous laughter it provoked — destroyed his self-esteem during difficult teenage years when he was already grappling with being disabled. As a result of the routine, he said he was bullied at school, and became depressed and suicidal, while his parents were crushed. He said that after his complaint against Mr. Ward, he also received death threats from the comedian’s fans.

“You are already dealing with prejudices when you have a disability and the process of self-acceptance is even harder when you are a teenager,” he said. “It became a thousand times harder when people were laughing at the idea of me dying. I felt like my life was worth less than others.”

I don’t doubt that Gabriel experienced harm as he describes. But bullying by others was not the intention of Ward, so this isn’t equivalent to the comedian harassing him personally and repeatedly. Further, Ward was a public figure, and making fun of public figures is a regular trope of comedy. Usually it’s not for a disability, but remember that Trump, in his inadvertent Presidential comedy act, made fun of a disabled reporter and was not prosecuted.  If one went after Justin Trudeau in a nasty way—and one could!—it could deprive him of his “right to dignity,” even if Trudeau was not a member of an “identifiable group.”  But perhaps if someone in Newfoundland made fun of Quebecois, that would be a “hate crime.” I don’t really know how it works in Canada.

At any rate, 9 years ago Gabriel’s family filed a complaint against Ward for breaching the human rights code of Quebec, and the commission found Ward culpable for breaching Gabriel’s dignity, ordering Ward to pay him $35,000 (Canadian) and his family $7000. Ward appealed, and the appellate court upheld the decision except for eliminating the damages given to Gabriel’s family. Ward then appealed to Canada’s Supreme Court, which has heard the case and will rule soon.

Note that other comedians have equally odious aspects of their acts, none of which I think should be illegal:

In the United States, Lenny Bruce was labeled a “sick comic” for his expletive-laced routines, and in 1961 he was arrested on obscenity charges in San Francisco. His defiance helped to clear the way for other iconoclastic comedians.

In France, the comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala has been repeatedly charged with violating anti-hate laws. He is widely associated with an inverted Nazi salute known as the quenelle. In 2013, he lamented that a prominent Jewish journalist had not died in “the gas chambers.”

As a secular Jew, I find that disgusting bigotry, but it’s not and shouldn’t be illegal.

Canadian comedians are upset, of course, because if the Supreme Court upholds the verdict, it puts comedy on a slippery slope. Remember, the offense Ward committed wasn’t hate speech, but the “right to dignity.” In my view, nobody has a “right to dignity”—at least, not a right to immune from mockery, which is what that right appears to comprise. Once you define a “right” in that sense, there’s no stopping anybody from bringing lawsuits. It would be the death of substantive comedy.

Granted, Ward’s making fun of Gabriel was reprehensible. It served no comedic purpose that I can see, and was mean spirited. And yes, it did harm Gabriel, but I don’t think that Ward intended the bullying and threats to ensue.

Ward may be found guilty under Canadian law, but he wouldn’t be under American law. And, in my own judgment, though what Ward did was vile and not in the least humorous, that’s what people have said about comedians like Lenny Bruce for years. A nasty and uncalled-for joke, for sure; speech worthy of censorship and punishment, no. Not in my view.

Another interview with Titania McGrath

January 13, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Titania McGrath, who is actually comedian Andrew Doyle, goes on Fox News—who else would have him?—to talk for 26 minutes about Titania McGrath, Her Wokeness. You can hear the show by clicking on the screenshot below

Some of the stuff you might know from the talk by Doyle I posted before, but there’s also new stuff here, too.  One is Doyle’s reaction to Ricky Gervais’s “comedy” monologue at the Golden Globes, where he was host. I’ve put the monologue below, which didn’t go down well at all with the privileged audience who took themselves quite seriously.

Another is that Titania is writing another book—for children! Have a listen.

Gervais’s comedy was really biting, and I pretty much liked it, as did Doyle. You can see why.  My favorite line is this: “If you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg.”

He also goes after Apple, Amazon, and other corporations. You can be sure that he won’t be hosting this, or any other similar show, in the future.