Philomena is back in her own BBC series, “Cunk on Earth”

October 9, 2022 • 1:00 pm

My beloved Philomena has returned to television. Apparently there’s a series of five episodes of “Cunk on Earth”, all of which are online. According to the BBC, this is what the “mockumentary” is about:

In this deeply profound and important mockumentary series from Charlie Brooker, Philomena Cunk (Diane Morgan) tells the entire story of Human Civilisation from prehistoric times to the present day, covering all the main bits of History, Science, Culture and Religion.

So this really is the last documentary you ever need to watch.

Along the way, Philomena asks experts hard-hitting questions about humanity’s progress, and stands on or near impressive old ruins and inside museums, before the shot cuts away to some archive of the bits that don’t exist anymore or were too expensive to film at.

In this opening episode Cunk travels the world, heading down caves and up mountains in her search for Mankind’s first moments, and with the help of a variety of experts she explains how the earliest societies were formed: from the easier ones to spell like Rome and Greece, to the ones that are harder to spell, like Egypt and Mesopotamia.

All the videos are a bit shy of half an hour. The one on religion is next, and it’s a hoot. I’ll post one per day. But you have to watch them all!

Here’s Episode 1: “In the Beginnings”. Like the other episodes, it features Philomena interviewing academics and experts, and surely most of them must know that this is a spoof!

Bill Maher’s “Real Time”

August 7, 2022 • 6:14 pm

Watch this quickly before it’s removed. It’s the entire content of this week’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” show, featuring David Duchovny, Democratic political advisor Lis Smith, and Matt Taibbi, someone many of us read but few have seen.

The opening monologue is about “fat acceptance,” which isn’t as humorous as usual since it’s meant pretty seriously. Few would have the moxie to say what Maher says.

HBO will take this down, so watch now.

and here’s the “Overtime” segment, which begins with Maher asking the guests who they think will be the Republican Presidential candidate in 2024.

“The kindergarten is already in charge”: Bill Maher on the liberal media

June 18, 2022 • 1:30 pm

Bill Maher, a liberal, is in bad odor among progressives, because he makes fun of their excesses. That’s what comedians do, for crying out loud, and it’s not like you have to look hard for those excesses, either. Here’s his new eight-minute monologue that takes off from the ridiculous shenanigans involving reporters Felicia Sonmez and David Weigel of the Washington Post. Sonmez was fired and Weigel suspended. She deserved what she got, while Weigel was treated excessively sternly.  But the whole social media kerfuffle, which should not be dominating stories about liberal media, bespeaks a juvenility of employees that was the subject of my last post about Sarah Haider.

After I heard this and thought about that episode, and similar episodes at the NYT, I realized that the employees of these papers really are acting like spoiled kids. Lukianoff and Haidt were right.

Have a listen. I love his comment about Watergate’s “Deep Throat” and safetyism!

h/t: Paul

“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.