Glenn Loury and Matt Johnson discuss the legacy of Hitchens

July 19, 2023 • 12:00 pm

Who among us hasn’t said to themselves, “I wish Hitchens were here. What would he make of all the identity politics going down?” And indeed, given the man’s unpredictability, it’s hard to know, though Matt Johnson thinks that Hitch would definitely be antiwoke.

Johnson recently came out with a new book, How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment.  There’s a six-minute video discussion below, and an intro and Q&A on Loury’s website. Click below to read Loury’s intro and an excerpt, and then watch the video (you can skip the printed Q&A since the text beyond the intro is a transcript).

Here’s Loury’s intro:

Identitarianism is now so deeply ingrained in left-liberal politics, it’s easy to forget that things weren’t always this way. Material economic concerns once formed the solid core of left activism and thought on the domestic front: labor protections, combating economic inequality, providing services for the poor, and so on. Anyone who didn’t put those issues at the center of their politics couldn’t reasonably call themselves a member of the left. Now these quite serious issues have been displaced by a superficial obsession with race and identity. If you’re not calling for “racial justice,” it seems, it doesn’t matter how many warehouse workers you organize. Even Bernie Sanders found himself in the crosshairs of his ostensible allies when he downplayed identity politics in the 2020 Democratic primaries.

Christopher Hitchens was a writer and thinker produced by—but not reducible to—that older tradition of left-wing thought and activism. For much of his life, he was an advocate for organized labor and a strong social safety net. He took the ideas of justice, equality, and democracy very seriously. Sometimes this led him to positions that would be at home on today’s left, as when he advocated for reparations for the descendants of slaves. But sometimes his commitments put him at odds with his fellow travelers, as when he supported the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Iraqis were being deprived by Saddam Hussein of their right to democratic self-determination.

Hitchens also believed that identity politics was a cheap substitute for what he saw as real political action. My guest this week, the writer Matt Johnson, thinks that, on that issue, Hitchens had it right. In fact, Matt wrote an excellent book about it. There was nobody quite like Hitch. His rhetorical force and precision, his moral clarity (even when he was wrong), and his wit seem in short supply today. I’ve hosted some left-liberals, like Mark Lilla and Norman Finkelstein, who are unafraid to speak out against “their side” on identity politics. And clearly Matt believes that the left can recover something of Hitch’s spirit, otherwise he wouldn’t have written the book. Despite my own political commitments, I hope he’s right.

I’ve read Johnson’s book, and it’s pretty darn good, though if you know your Hitchens well, you may find little that is new. Nevertheless, Johnson’s argument, supported with quotes, is persuasive.

Below, Johnson tells us about the pervasiveness of identity politics, and Loury asks him why are liberals, for instance, so divided given that they can’t agree on fundamental liberal issues.

One comment: Hitchens was in favor of reparations towards minorities, though Johnson implies otherwise. You can see that in this video debate between Hitchens and, ironically, Glenn Loury.

One question and answer:

GLENN LOURY: How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment. The great Christopher Hitchens can save the left. The left’s in trouble. It’s worth saving, says Matt Johnson. And one of the reasons it’s in trouble is because it’s immersed in what Hitch called “the sinister bullshit” of identity politics. And Hitchens can save us from that, too. How so?

MATT JOHNSON: He was very opposed to identitarianism, because he saw it as regressive. In one article, he wrote, “If we were dogs, we would all be the same breed.” Emphasizing human difference is unhealthy and it’s tribal and it’s become very obsessive on the left. You know, I’ve listened to you for years, Glenn, you and John McWhorter. I’m not a fan of the DiAngelo school of identitarianism, not a fan of Kendi.

These guys, they really do frustrate me. I look at the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and I wonder what Martin Luther King or Bayard Rustin would say about a movement that encourages large audiences of white people and corporations to look inward and identify and root out the racism instead of just looking at inequities in the society and trying to address them on a fundamental level.

It’s this toxin. It’s so easy to be tribal. It’s so easy to identify with a group. And Hitchens, in Letters to a Young Contrarian, for example, just said that identity politics is a cheap excuse for politics to the extent that the left was enmeshed in it, which it really has been for a long time. It was giving away one of the most important moral principles that it could hold, which would be universalism. We should try to move toward a colorblind society. I know that saying that automatically gets you branded a reactionary. It’s like saying “all lives matter.” You’re viewed as somebody who’s fighting the progress of racial justice in the country. I really do think that that should be the end goal. And if it takes 200 years, so be it. If it takes 500 years, so be it.

But I think there are a lot of people who don’t think it’s the goal we’re striving for. I think they think that race is this eternal fact about us, and racial division is an eternal fact about our politics. And Hitchens always hated that idea, and he thought we could be radical enough to get past it.

Robyn Blumner on humanism vs. identitarianism

May 28, 2022 • 9:45 am

In her terrific new article in Free Inquiry—”a bimonthly journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary published by the Council for Secular Humanism, a program of the Center for Inquiry”Robyn Blumner gives voice to things that have been bubbling up inside many of us but haven’t been expressed, either because we haven’t thought deeply about them or because what she has to say is unwelcome to many. (Blumner is president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, CFI, and executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.)

And her message is this: identitarianism, which she defines from the Urban Dictionary as “A person or ideology that espouses that group identity is the most important thing about a person, and that justice and power must be viewed primarily on the basis of group identity rather than individual merit”—is, as her title shows, incompatible with humanism, a movement which she characterizes in a quote from Paul Kurtz, one of her predecessors:

“The Affirmations of Humanism”: We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity and strive to work together for the common good of humanity. (Paul Kurtz, Free Inquiry, Spring 1987)

Click to read her piece. When I’m writing about a piece such as hers, I first print it out (I can’t read seriously on a screen) and then underline the parts I find most important or quotable. In this case, however, I wound up underlining the whole thing, as there’s not a word wasted. Rather than just give up and say “go read it” (you should and perhaps I should have just written that), I’ll give a couple of quote and perhaps my own take, but read it yourself for free:

Here’s her main message:

The division has to do with a fundamental precept of humanism, that enriching human individuality and celebrating the individual is the basis upon which humanism is built. Humanism valorizes the individual—and with good reason; we are each the hero of our own story. Not only is one’s individual sovereignty more essential to the humanist project than one’s group affiliation, but fighting for individual freedom—which includes freedom of conscience, speech, and inquiry—is part of the writ-large agenda of humanism. It unleashes creativity and grants us the breathing space to be agents in our own lives.

Or at least that idea used to be at the core of humanism.

Today, there is a subpart of humanists, identitarians, who are suspicious of individuals and their freedoms. They do not want a free society if it means some people will use their freedom to express ideas with which they disagree. They see everything through a narrow affiliative lens of race, gender, ethnicity, or other demographic category and seek to shield groups that they see as marginalized by ostensible psychic harms inflicted by the speech of others.

This has given rise to a corrosive cultural environment awash in controversial speakers being shouted down on college campuses; even liberal professors and newspaper editors losing their jobs for tiny, one-off slights; the cancellation of great historical figures for being men of their time; and a range of outlandish claims of microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and other crimes against current orthodoxy.

It has pitted humanists who stand for foundational civil liberties principles such as free speech and equal protection under the law against others on the political Left who think individual freedoms should give way when they fail to serve the interests of select identity groups. The most important feature of the symbol of justice is not her sword or scales; it is her blindfold. Identitarians would pull it off so she could benefit certain groups over others.

To show the misguided priorities of the identitarian project, Blumner slips in a description of an egregious act by the American Humanist Association, a group that, despite its avowed mission, has become too woke to bear.

Good people with humanist hearts have been pilloried if they don’t subscribe to every jot and tittle of the identitarian gospel. A prime example is the decision last year by the American Humanist Association (AHA) to retract its 1996 award to Richard Dawkins as Humanist of the Year. The man who has done more than anyone alive to advance evolutionary biology and the public’s understanding of that science, who has brought the light of atheism to millions of people, and whose vociferous opposition to Donald Trump and Brexit certainly must have burnished his liberal cred became radioactive because of one tweet on transgender issues that the AHA didn’t like.

Blumner will certainly be demonized herself for the piece, as she criticize divisiveness, which is engineered deliberately by many so-called humanists who prefer exhibiting their virtue to improving society, and (like me) favors equality of opportunity over “equity” (equal outcomes):

This is what identitarians have wrought. Rather than lifting up individuals and imbuing them with autonomy and all the extraordinary uniqueness that flows from it, identitarians would divide us all into racial,  ethnic,  and  gender-based groups and make that group affiliation our defining characteristic. This has the distorting effect of obliterating personal agency, rewarding group victimhood, and incentivizing competition to be seen as the most oppressed.

In addition to being inherently divisive, this is self-reinforcing defeatism. It results in extreme examples, such as a draft plan in California to deemphasize calculus as a response to persistent racial gaps in math achievement,  Suddenly a subject as racially neutral as math has become a flashpoint for identitarians set on ensuring equality of outcomes for certain groups rather than the far-more just standard of equality of opportunity. In this freighted environment, reducing the need for rigor and eliminating challenging standards becomes a feasible solution. The notion of individual merit or recognition that some students are better at math than others becomes racially tinged and suspect.

Not only does the truth suffer under this assault on common sense, but we start to live in a Harrison Bergeron world where one’s natural skills are necessarily sacrificed on the altar of equality or, in today’s parlance, equity.

Of course, the identitarians’ focus is not just on racial issues. Gender divisions also play out on center stage. I was at a secular conference recently when a humanist leader expressed the view that if you don’t have a uterus, you have no business speaking about abortion.

Really?. . . .

Well, that’s going to get people’s dander up, but it’s good that someone with both power and credibility has said it. It is the drive for equity, not simple equality of opportunity, that is bringing the Left to its knees.

Blumner goes on to affirm that you don’t have to be a cop to have a opinion on cops, a poor person to have an opinion on poverty, and so on.  We’ve tacitly but mistakenly agreed on the Left that you can address problems relevant to an issue only if you have the correct racial, gender, or class credentials to expound on that issue.  And that’s what drives us apart: the notion that society is collection of moieties, each of which can only suggest solutions to its own problems. The basis of humanistic concern, the individual, is effaced, and here she quotes Kurtz again:

If the Affirmation quoted at the beginning of this article that rejects “divisive parochial loyalties” based on facile group affiliations isn’t a rejection of identitarianism, I don’t know what is. In his 1968 essay “Humanism and the Freedom of the Individual,” Kurtz stated bluntly:

Any humanism that does not cherish the individual, I am prepared to argue, is neither humanistic nor humanitarian. . .  Any humanism worthy of the name should be concerned with the preservation of the individual personality with all of its unique idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. We need a society in which the full and free development of every individual is the ruling principle. The existence of individual freedom thus is an essential condition for the social good and a necessary end of humanitarianism.

The individual is the most important unit in humanism. When our individuality is stripped away so we can be fitted into prescribed identity groups instead, something essential to the humanist project is lost. Those pushing for this conception of society are misconstruing humanism, diminishing human potential and self-actualization, and driving a wedge between good people everywhere.

Robyn is not saying that humanists shouldn’t concentrate on alleviating the problems specific to groups like women (viz. abortion rights) or minorities. Neglecting that there are group afflictions is in fact contrary to humanism. What she is emphasizing is that those problems should be tackled together, that no single problem should get overweening attention over others, and, most important, that nobody has a priority of opinion over others based on their gender, race, class, and so on.  If you adhere to the free-speech assumption that a clash of ideas is essential to moral and social improvement, then eliminating all groups but one or two from discussing an issue is a recipe for disaster.

At any rate, this piece is your reading for the day.


Dawkins and Blumner; Imagine No Religion Conference, Vancouver, CA, June 2015:

Are students immune from criticism because of their identity?

January 27, 2021 • 8:45 am

I always take care when criticizing the public writings of students at my own university. After all, I am on the same campus, may encounter the student, and, although I no longer teach, I’m cognizant of a perceived power imbalance that may intimidate students whom I criticize.

On the other hand, the ideas of a student who writes a public op-ed in a newspaper, as did one undergraduate in a recent issue of the Chicago Maroon (a student paper directed at the University community), constitute a fitting object for criticism—especially if you go after the ideas and not the student’s character.  After all, the Maroon has a comment section, and our University is renowned for encouraging a give-and-take of ideas.

Ergo, I wrote a response to the editorial, for it was something that bothered me: an undergraduate who wanted to do away with free speech on campus because it supposedly propagates hate and white supremacy. Indeed, the student maintained that modern liberal education, as well as the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, were designed to buttress a status quo of bigotry (“By following the Chicago principles, the University effectively legitimizes and encourages students who may share similar bigoted ideologies.”)  This is disturbing, for it seems to be the view of many undergraduates, and I’m not a little worried that one modern trend, especially on the Left, is to dismantle the traditional liberal ideal of free speech as enshrined in the First Amendment.

Today’s post demonstrates what you can expect when you criticize the ideas of an undergraduate of color. This morning I found a comment (posted here only) from one “Olivia.”  The appended email was “”, and the IP address indicates that it comes from—get this—Columbia University.

The comment:

She’s literally 18 years old you fucking freak. You’re letting all these people attack a literal college freshman. A fucking teenager. You wrote an article entirely targeting this one girl and are encouraging her public critique as if she’s not EIGHTEEN. You put a student of color on the stage and are effectively putting her in danger and letting weird adult “intellectuals” villify [sic] and attack her. You’re a fucking weird, fully-grown white guy attacking an asian eighteen year old and saying her experiences as a marginalized person is [sic] not correct because of your dumbass views as a white heterosexual who doesn’t face oppression in those facets. You’re a fucking freak and I hope you rot in hell.

Note four points here. First, the commenter says not a single word about my argument, which was about the need to retain free speech on this campus and others. Ideas are no longer important: identity and power differentials are paramount. What was apparently “targeted” was a student, not her ideas.

Further, the commenter implies that I have no right to comment publicly on a publicly-written editorial because of a status and color differential. The woman was “a fucking teenager”, ergo she should be immune from criticism by someone older—and white. I would have thought that a student writer would welcome engagement with a professor, so long as it was a meaningful engagement in which the student’s ideas are taken seriously.  When students arrive at college, they should be treated as adults and their ideas treated as adult ideas. That’s what college education is all about. Imagine a professor who deferred to the views of her students because they were young! Instead, though, I let “weird adult ‘intellectuals’ engage with the ideas” —exactly as they do in the comments section of the Maroon. (And what are “weird adult intellectuals”?)

Most important, the central point of the comment is an identitarian one: the subject was an “asian eighteen year old”. (I didn’t know how old the woman was, and I don’t really care.) Because of her identity and mine—as a “fully-grown white guy”—she should be immune from criticism. In a way, “Olivia”, as unhinged as he or she may be, is making the student’s point for her: I was engaged in “hate speech” and therefore should “rot in hell.”  And no, I didn’t say that the student’s experiences as a marginalized person were not correct; the argument is about whether people should be censored for speech that others don’t like. That is an “idea”, not a “set of experiences”.

Finally, the writer claims that I have effectively “put the student in danger.” I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous. If you feel “endangered” when someone criticizes your published ideas, then you shouldn’t publish your ideas in the first place, especially under your name. This is the conflation of “criticism” with “harm” that we see so often in arguments against free speech.

“Olivia”, in his/her intemperate and rude diatribe, inadvertently demonstrates many of the features of those who oppose free speech: some people have the right to censor others;  that privilege depends on your position in the hierarchy of oppression, in which those on the lower rungs are deemed immune from criticism but able to criticize everyone “higher up”; that hate speech causes harm, which is reason enough to ban it; and, finally, it’s okay to completely demonize one’s opponents (“you’re a fucking freak and I hope you rot in hell”). That last bit reminds one of the criticism atheists get from religionists, which, I suppose, is what people like Olivia resemble. They are ideological fundamentalists.

It’s telling that “Olivia” from Columbia University won’t divulge his/her name. That’s yet another lesson: social media brings out the worst in people, especially when they are allowed to speak anonymously. Aggressive cowards hide behind pseudonyms.

I stand by my arguments in favor of free speech at The University of Chicago, and urge “Olivia” to learn how to debate ideas rather than identities.

Kamala Harris: the Left starts taking her apart as unprogressive

August 16, 2020 • 1:00 pm

I think it’s great that Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris to be his running mate, which also positions her to be the Democratic Presidential candidate in (likely) 2024 or (if Biden is still healthy) 2028.  It’s time we had a woman on the ticket, and if she’s a racially mixed woman, so much the better. For Harris is not only a woman of color (half Jamaican black, half Indian), but one who’s well qualified for office—smart, eloquent, pugnacious when she has to be, and with a proven track record. (Some will, of course, take issue with her accomplishments.) But I have no beef with those who put her ancestry above her accomplishments, for she remains accomplished and qualified, and to me that’s the most important criterion. If she makes a group proud because of her ancestry, what’s the problem with that?

So I have no beef with those who see her as a role model, and those includes both African Americans and Indian Americans. The article below in yesterday’s New York Times, as you gather from the headlines, collects a bunch of enthusiastic responses to Harris’s candidacy, largely because of her ancestry. While one interviewee bridled at Harris’s record as California’s attorney general, all of them are positive, many because she’s a role model for Indians, blacks, and those who say that her multicultural background mirrors the changing face of America.

When I read the above, I thought, “This is great! Most Americans (and I mean of all Americans) approve of Biden’s choice, and this can only help kick Trump out of office in November, and perhaps even help the Dems win the Senate.  But of course there’s a spoiler: the article below from the Washington Post, which demonstrates the downside of identity politics.  A trap? What kind of trap is Harris’s nomination?

The trap, of course, is that although Harris is a Democrat, and on the Left, she’s not the right kind of Leftist. She’s not progressive enough. Never mind that a more progressive candidate might have been an impediment to a Democratic win, giving ammunition to Trump.

More important, the article, by Sanjena Sathian (an Indian American) is not so much about Harris’s policies as about the policies that she should have given her ancestry, but apparently doesn’t or hasn’t yet sounded off on them. The article shows the danger of concentrating on a candidate’s identity above her policies, for here we have a division in the Left that, to me at least, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The article begins with The Issue:

Recognition is primal. But it can also make us gloss over the complexities of identity — and their unpredictable implications for policy. The heady rush of recognition can lull us into complacency or lead us to quell our deeper ideological convictions.

Okay, well, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, so let’s read on.

Among the beeves that Sathian brings to market are these:

Other Indian Americans have been conservative, but Harris, though not conservative, isn’t progressive enough.

Harris’s selection appears momentous set against Indian Americans’ earliest political success stories: the Southern, Republican governors Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal. It once seemed that, to succeed in public life, Indians had to swap their outsider status for White conservatism. Haley and Jindal changed their names from Nimrata and Piyush, respectively; Jindal espoused the spurious notion of “colorblindness.” That devil’s bargain involved more than external identity markers: Haley has defended the Confederate flag, and therefore white supremacy, and Jindal deployed anti-immigrant rhetoric. Harris, in contrast, talks often about her Indian background, citing her maternal grandfather’s involvement in the Indian freedom struggle as the source of her political ambitions. In that sense, something big has changed.

But in another sense, nothing at all has changed: The real cleavage in Indian American political life hasn’t been a partisan one, between a Republican like Haley and a Democrat like Harris. Indian Americans still reliably vote Democratic. Rather, the divide is between centrists like Harris and progressive South Asians such as Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Rep. Ro Khanna and Bernie Sanders-inspired grass-roots upstarts like democratic socialist Nikil Saval, a candidate for Pennsylvania’s state senate.

Seriously? Nothing has changed? We have a mixed-race woman on the ticket, and one who, in view of Biden’s age, is likely to run for President.  In fact, we have a liberal Indian American, but there are others of similar ancestry who are further toward the Left. Apparently Harris is supposed to be in the latter group, even though that could damage the Democratic ticket.

Harris should be fighting for those issues of greatest importance to immigrants, but doesn’t seem to be.

Harris calls up the question facing many upwardly mobile immigrants: Having arrived, how much trouble do we want to make? In her case, the answer seems to be “not very much.” After years of developing an establishment prosecutorial record, she basically lacked an ideological identity in the primary race, which made her the safe choice for Biden.

But those of us who are new to America should be the most intent on ensuring that this country makes good on the promises of opportunity and equality that brought us here. We should be the ones who most demand just legal systems and fair immigration proceedings; who condemn climate policy that causes unequal harm to the nations our families come from. Indian Americans in particular, who have benefited from policies that favor “high-skilled” foreign workers, are for the first time placed to use our collective social capital and financial privilege to make life more equal. But Indian Americans’ joy at seeing Harris on a national stage suggests that desis risk merely joining the system, not pushing to change it.

This presumes that Harris, as a native-born American, should see herself as an Indian-American/African-American first and as an American second. But the President and Vice President are supposed to work for the country as a whole. Yes, one’s background can (and should) make one more sensitive to some issues, but claiming that Harris will become just another cog in the “assimilation machine” is way premature.

Voting for Biden and Harris at this moment is, in fact, changing the system: the corrupt and malfunctioning system of government created by four years of a narcissistic loon and his Republican flunkies.  Are Indian Americans supposed to be upset at Harris’s nomination because she won’t push to change the system? Well, why don’t we wait and see what, if she and Biden are elected, they will do?  At this point we have no idea, save that they’ll enact saner policies than would Trump and Pence, not to mention the doings of the hidebound conservative Senate.

Harris’s status as half-black, half Indian is problematic because the two groups haven’t always had the same political stands. 

The rush to claim Harris — to Spot her, triumphally, as one of our own — has other pitfalls: Some desis have begun to conflate her Blackness and her Indianness. In political commentary lauding Harris’s ascent, Indian Americans have celebrated Mohandas Gandhi’s connection to the Black civil rights movement and referenced the discrimination that South Asians have historically faced in America. That narrative actively rewrites a history of anti-Blackness in our own community. Gandhi, for example, began his protests on a South African train by positioning himself as above Black people. Another figure being cited as an immigrant rights hero, Bhagat Singh Thind, petitioned the Supreme Court for citizenship in 1923 on the grounds that he was White.

Gandhi, of course, abjured the racism he espoused in South Africa, and one of his followers was Martin Luther King.

Sathian continues her beef:

Desis have been able to take refuge in simulacra of Whiteness in a way that Black Americans cannot. A graduate of Howard University, a historically Black college, Harris emphasizes that her Indian mother brought her to visit family on the subcontinent while also understanding that “she was raising two Black daughters.” If Indians want to claim Harris, we can’t just point to her achievements; we must also engage with the histories at whose intersection she sits.

Like many in my community, I recognize Harris. But I don’t see her selection as a hard-won victory on behalf of immigrants or as the apotheosis of the American Dream — but rather as an identity crisis for a large swath of Indian America. When we see Harris and Biden remove their masks to flash pearly whites this autumn, some of us will decide that we’ve arrived.

But spotting ourselves on the highest stages of public life, and the complacency that brings, opens the door to other toxic ideas, such as nationalism (especially among Hindu Indians). President Trump, in part through his amicable relationship with right-wing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has attempted to woo wealthy Indians; Democrats like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a practicing Hindu, have also cozied up to Modi and his party, earning Indian accolades as a result.

No, we don’t have to engage with intersectional history. That’s pathetic and a diversion. We must engage with Trump and the Republicans. The policies toward India by Trump and Tulsi Gabbard are irrelevant now: Indian Americans will vote Democratic this fall, and more power to them.

Finally, Sathian is worried that Harris might not do do the right things if she becomes the VP. But can’t Sathian wait and see instead of playing Chicken Little? Viz.:

For her part, Harris has stepped carefully with regard to India policy issues, delicately defending Jayapal’s right to criticize India’s stance on the disputed territory of Kashmir and saying that Kashmiris are “not alone in the world,” without making Hindutva (Hindu extremism) a key talking point. If she’s elected, I don’t know that we can expect Harris to use her new power as the most prominent South Asian in America to end Kashmir’s historically long Internet blackoutfor example, or challenge Modi’s virulent majoritarianism. But desis should demand that, just as Black Americans can demand that Harris confront whether her prosecutorial role harmed their community.

Sathian doesn’t seem to recognize that the issues of black Americans are American issues, and those of the execrable Modi government are less important to Americans, bad as things are in India. What we should expect Harris to do as Vice President is to give precedence to things affecting the country she was elected to co-lead, not spend much of her time on issues of marginal significance to most Americans (granted, they are of more significance to Indian Americans, and I hope to hell that Modi is somehow deposed, though it doesn’t look likely).

In the end, Sathian appears to be most upset that Harris—even though she won’t be running the show for four years—will inspire Indian Americans “to belong to, rather than transform, America.”  But you can do both. If our motto “E Pluribus Unum” is to mean anything, it must mean that progress in America depends on both belonging and transforming. For this is a democracy, and if you want to transform, you must do more than make demands; you must appeal to the moral and political sentiments of your fellow Americans, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. That is why Martin Luther King had more success than, I suspect, Black Lives Matter ever will.

A new interview with Steve Pinker

January 9, 2020 • 9:20 am

I’ve often been a defender of Steve Pinker, and it’s because I agree with most of what he says and because I think he’s been unfairly maligned—perhaps the most unfairly maligned public intellectual in the U.S.. But today I’m going to praise and criticize his views, largely praising his views on identity politics but criticizing his views on free will. Both are laid out in an absorbing new interview by Pelle Axelsson on the site IntellectInterviews. (I’m pretty sure Steve would hate the title below!). Click on the screenshot to read it.

There’s a lot of material in this interview: stuff about the evolution of language, the effects of social media, climate change and denialiam, Pinker’s own reading habits, and, as I said, identity politics and free will. I’ll deal only with the last two.

Identity politics (“IP”). I think this is Steve’s most explicit critique of identity politics to date. Here’s what he says:

What are your thoughts on identity politics?

– It’s a regrettable development. Even though it is essential to combat racism, homophobia and sexism, we ought to do so under the principle of fairness, rights and equity. That means each individual should be treated according to his or her merits and not according to the color of their skin, their chromosomes or their sexual orientation. This is different from identity politics, as it is commonly understood, namely that there is a perpetual zero-sum contest for power among racial and sexual cartels. On that view, the source of injustice is not that people have been treated with bigotry or unfairness, but that one group has monopolized power at the expense of others. To rectify that we have to upend the hierarchy and wrest power away from the faction of straight, white males and hand it to factions of gays, racial minorities and women.

– This vision of social change is hard to justify. Modern societies aren’t divided into monolithic armies of a single sex or skin color, and it’s people who suffer or prosper, not categories. Yes, group-based bigotry and exploitation exist, but at the same time there are poor white males who are horribly disadvantaged, women of color born into privilege, and every other combination. To shame or disempower an entire category of people violates the principle of fairness and can have repercussions, such as the election of President You-Know-Who. So identity politics, with its notion of group-based power reassignment, is not the appropriate response to the undeniable existence of racism, sexism and homophobia; the principle of equal rights is.

– Another regrettable form of identity politics is the notion that we should evaluate ideas based on the demographic traits of who advocates them — that an idea should be sidelined if it comes from a white male and taken seriously if it comes from a person with some other combination of gender and skin color. I appreciate where this concern comes from. I’ve often seen brilliant women ignored, interrupted, talked over and mansplained, and have heard of many more. This and other injustices must be called out and eliminated. But that’s different from considering the ideas themselves based on who talks about them. The existence of anthropogenic climate change, for example, is true regardless of who discovered it. It’s insulting to women and people of color to evaluate their opinions based on their census traits, as if they all thought alike, or their arguments could not stand on their merits.

I pretty much agree with this (and the claim that identity politics played a role in Trump’s election), although the source of IP is a combination of bigotry and power.  After all, if whites didn’t have power in this country, there wouldn’t have been slavery or Jim Crow laws, for it was whites who made those laws and had the power, via politic and police, to enforce them.

I also agree that our goal is to give everyone equal rights, though I’m not sure whether Steve thinks that attaining that goal requires some form of time-limited race- or gender-based affirmative action. (I myself favor a limited form of affirmative action, but one that takes not just race and gender into account, but things like poverty, general background, degree of “privilege” in one’s upbringing, age, and so on.)  I agree more strongly with the notion that the validity of an idea depends not on its source but its content, which means that the views and prescriptions of “minoritized” people, who should have a voice and to whom we should listen, aren’t automatically correct—even on issues of oppression. Nor are the views of straight people, white people, men, or older people to be dismissed on grounds of sex, sexua preference, race, or age.

Free will. In the first sentence of his response below, Steve clearly takes the position of a determinist, but then tries to identify what free will can mean, opposing it—to my mind, somewhat misleadingly—with autonomic reflexes, and confusing freedom with predictability:

How do you view free will?
– Like most scientists and modern philosphers [sic], I don’t think that every time we make a decision a miracle happens. It’s all brain physiology. But “free will” does refer to a distinct neurobiological phenomenon. When people refer to “free will,” they are singling out a neurophysiological process that is distinct from the one that gives rise to reflexive or impulsive responses. The brain contains complex circuitry, mostly concentrated in prefrontal cortex, which takes in information from many sources, including memory, current goals, understanding of the social situation and internal models of what would happen in hypothetical futures. These include anticipations of reward and punishment, praise and blame, respect and shame. Also, the output of those circuits is not completely predictable; it can be deflected by chaotic or random elements in the brain. The decision process that we call “free will” is not completely predictable, and it is unfathomably complex, but that does not mean that it takes place outside of information processing by neural networks.

If it’s all brain physiology, then it’s all naturalism and materialism, and therefore decisions obey the laws of physics and we couldn’t have decided otherwise. In other words, “a miracle happens” is a somewhat obscure way of characterizing “libertarian free will”. In other words, I think the first sentence is an admission that we couldn’t have chosen otherwise when we make a decision or commit an act. That’s an important admission because it’s a deterministic view of behavior, which, to me at least, has enormous consequences in how we reward and punish others, and in how we view other people.

In the next question, below, he says that there are factors that could have made us behave otherwise in a situation, but I think that he’s wrong in general (see below).

I’m not sure about the absolute distinctness of a reflexive instinct from a “reasoned” one. Insofar as determinism is concerned, they’re both determined and not controllable by “will”. The former may not involve the brain at all, but it’s all neurons and the laws of physics—as is a “decision” based on taking into account the workings of an evolved and adapted brain. Yes, the latter are far more complex, but both reflexes and decisions obey the laws of physics, i.e., you could not have behaved other that how you did.  In terms of what most people think of as “free will,” which is “I could have decided otherwise” free will, predictability is irrelevant. I suppose Steve is offering a form of compatibilism here: if your brain works through its hardware and software and comes up with a decision, that is “free will”, while if you jerk your leg when your knee is tapped, that is not free will. That’s Dan Dennett’s view of free will: a decision that passes through a brain’s processing, if that brain is sufficiently complex, is what he calls a decision made by free will.

But “reflexive” vs. “processed output” behaviors are relevant for things like praise, blame or punishment. If you kick someone because you’re mad at them, that’s a different matter from kicking them because they happen to walk by when a doctor is testing your reflexes. As I’ve always said, in cases like these you’re “responsible” in both situations because you are the actor who did the kicking, but what society does about it is—and should be—very different. Likewise with crime and punishment. There are reasons to sequester lawbreakers and miscreants, namely to deter others, to reform people who habitually do bad things, and to keep bad people from further injuring society. That view of crime and punishment doesn’t contain anything about whether someone committed a crime of their own “free will”, because even in the case of a premeditated murder the criminal had no “choice”. In fact, there is no way to construe “free will” in a way that will always be useful in a court of law. What we need to figure out are what are the deterministic factors that caused a problematic act, and then the best way to mitigate them.

And what about intermediate situations? If you jump out of the way of a speeding car, is that reflex or Pinker’s “free will”? There is brain processing involved, but also reflex and hormones.

Dragging “predictability” into the issue doesn’t add anything as far as I can see. Find out if someone did an harmful act, and then you can determine how to proceed in the best interests of both society and the malefactor. In many cases, treatment rather than punishment should be prescribed, or even a change in the law, as with the increasing legalization of marijuana.

Now, about predictability. Here’s the next exchange:

If we knew every bit of information existing in the brain, we could still not predict the next choice?

– Theoretically, maybe. Perhaps some Laplacian demon that knew the entire connectome of the brain, and the position and velocity of every ion and every neurotransmitter molecule, could deduce the trillions of neural firings that would take place in the ensuing moments. Though perhaps not — it’s conceivable that there are quantum effects in the brain, or thermal noise or Brownian motion in the molecules in the brain that fall below the threshold of any physically realizable measurement device. In that case, even Laplace’s demon may not be able to predict with certainty wat [sic] we will do.

– At the same time, we all can predict human behavior statistically. Clearly, the fact that society, not to mention everyday social life, functions more or less coherently means that behavior must be in large part predictable, so that our laws, norms, threats and promises can be effective. Otherwise we would be solitary hermits who just happen to share the same space, randomly bumping off each other, rather than families and institutions and societies. That doesn’t require us to predict each other’s behavior down to the last sentence and action.

First of all, predictability has nothing to do with most people’s concept of free will, which involves volition:  you make a decision but could have made another decision. But, as Steve says, a decision is not a “miracle.” And yes, we know enough about people to be able to roughly predict whether or not they’ll do something. But I defy you to predict what I’ll have for dinner on Friday! That will be determined on Friday, but this lack of predictability doesn’t mean my decision about victuals is freely made.

Further, the only factor that can make you “decide otherwise” is not volition, but the unpredictability of quantum mechanics. Factors like “thermal noise” or “chaotic or random elements in the brain”, while making decision hard or impossible to predict, are still deterministic, and thus should not be limped with quantum-mechanical factors . But none of these so-called random factors have anything to do with whether or not we have free will unjder most people’s construal of that term. Random factors are not part of volition, be they based on quantum mechanics or Brownian motion.  With the exception of quantum-mechanical indeterminacy, a deterministic view of human choice and behavior is independent of predictability.

h/t: Barry

What’s the difference between identity politics and older movements for gay rights, women’s rights, and civil rights?

September 26, 2018 • 1:15 pm

If you’re like me and abhor discrimination against gays, women, or ethnic minorities, and have worked for their equality in the past—and yet are also uncomfortable with “identity politics”—you need to do some hard thinking. Why is it okay to be in favor of all the “rights” movements I just mentioned, yet not be in favor of the kind of identity politics that claims, for example, that blacks can’t be racists and women can’t be sexists? Or that people like Ben Shapiro must be censored but people like Linda Sarsour are heroes.  Is it a false distinction, and we’re really reverting to conservatism in our dotage, or is there a real difference between being liberal and espousing identity politics? I’ve discussed this before, and feel that one can sensibly support the liberal causes given above while decrying the identity politics beloved by many Leftists—and increasingly infecting mainstream liberal media like The New Yorker and The New York Times.

The best discussion of the difference I’ve seen between identity politics and classical liberalism, with the latter favoring equal rights, treatment, and opportunities for all, is discussed in the article below by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, just published in Areo (click on screenshot). This is a must-read piece.

The difference between liberal egalitarianism and identity politics rests, as I’ve said, on the difference between striving for universal rights and striving for narrower group rights that aren’t subsumed in a larger agenda. The former is the task of classical liberalism; the latter of identity politics which, in contrast to the liberal agenda, is divisive.

Let’s see what Pluckrose and Lindsay say about the difference. (Their premise, which is supported quite well, is that identity politics is an extension of postmodernism that claims simultaneously that there is no objective truth but then bases its politics on the objective reality of minority groups and of the oppression of some groups by others. I’ve collected a few quotes (indented) under three topics, but you really should read their whole piece.

What is liberalism and how does it differ from identity politics?

It is vital to distinguish between universal liberalism and identity politics and recognize what they share in common alongside how they differ. Both see and oppose inequality and seek to remedy it, but they do so with very different conceptions of society and use different approaches. These differences matter. Universal liberalism focuses on individuality and shared humanity and seeks to achieve a society in which every individual is equally able to access every right, freedom, and opportunity that our shared societies provide. Identity politics focuses explicitly on group identity and seeks political empowerment by promoting that group as a monolithic, marginalized entity distinct from and polarized against another group depicted as a monolithic privileged entity.

. . . The Civil Rights Movement, second-wave liberal feminism, and Gay Pride functioned explicitly on these values of universal human rights and did so to forward the worth of the individual regardless of status of race, gender, sex, sexuality, or other markers of identity. They proceeded by appealing directly to universal human rights applying universally. They demanded that people of color, women, and sexual minorities no longer be discriminated against and treated as second class citizens. They insisted that within a liberal society that makes good on its promises to its citizens, everyone should be given the full range of rights, freedoms, and opportunities.

Pluckrose and Lindsay then cite the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, an architect of critical race theory, to underscore the difference between classical liberalism and identity politics:

Crenshaw explicitly rejected universality, at least in the political context in which she wrote, and intersectional feminists and critical race theorists have continued to do so. She wrote:

We all can recognize the distinction between the claims “I am Black” and the claim “I am a person who happens to be Black.” “I am Black” takes the socially imposed identity and empowers it as an anchor of subjectivity. “I am Black” becomes not simply a statement of resistance but also a positive discourse of self-identification, intimately linked to celebratory statements like the Black nationalist “Black is beautiful.” “I am a person who happens to be Black,” on the other hand, achieves self-identification by straining for a certain universality (in effect, “I am first a person”) and for a concommitant dismissal of the imposed category (“Black”) as contingent, circumstantial, nondeterminant.

Within this framework, far from becoming irrelevant socially, gender and race are the sites of political activism.

What are the dangers of identity politics? Pluckrose and Lindsay identify three problems.

The problems with the identity politics approach are:

  • Epistemological: It relies on highly dubious social constructivist theory and consequently produces heavily biased readings of situations.
  • Psychological: Its sole focus on identity is divisive, reduces empathy between groups, and goes against core moral intuitions of fairness and reciprocity.
  • Social: By failing to uphold principles of non-discrimination consistently, it threatens to damage or even undo social taboos against judging people by their race, gender, or sexuality.

By relying so heavily on social constructivist perceptions of society—which sees it in terms of hierarchies of power perpetuated in discourse and on lived experience—as an authoritative form of identity-based knowledge that cannot be disagreed with by anyone outside that group, identity politics feeds, legitimates, and builds upon itself. Because it starts with the assumption that a power imbalance characterizes any interaction between people seen as having a privileged identity and people seen as having a marginalized identity and assumes that this can be shown by interpreting the language of the privileged through this lens and regarding the perception of the marginalized as authoritative, it is prone to highly ideologically motivated confirmation bias.

As for the dubious claim that sexism and racism instantiate a combination of power and privilege rather than bigotry alone, they say this:

It is generally a terrible idea to have different rules of behavior dependent on identity because it goes against the most common sense of fairness and reciprocity which seems to be pretty hardwired. It is also antithetical to universal liberalism and precisely the opposite of what civil rights movements fought to obtain. Identity politics which argues that prejudice against white people and men is acceptable while prejudice against people of color and women is not do still work on a sense of fairness, equality, and reciprocity but it is reparative. It attempts to restore a balance by “evening the score” a little, particularly thinking historically.

I suspect it is this kind of hypocrisy—this “it’s okay when we do it” attitude—that rankles many of us about identity politics. I don’t think ‘reparative’ in itself is a bad way to think, as we need to restore people’s equality by addressing historical inequities, like the poorer schools available in inner-city neighborhoods. But that’s not the same as a form of retribution embodied in the constant demonization of those less oppressed.

What is to be done? Easier said than done, according to Lindsay and Pluckrose. What’s easy is to simply reject this kind of attitude and work for universal rights and a consistent standard of rights that applies to everyone. That’s easy to say, and that’s what I’ve been doing here for years, but what’s hard is that realizing that such a stand leaves you open to accusations of racism and sexism. And those words are anathema to all liberals. Still, we should be willing to tolerate the slurs and the accusations that we’re “alt-righters” if we’re to uphold classical liberal values. As Pluckrose and Lindsay say:

There is a need for liberals of all kinds to push back against the identity politics approach. If we really value principles of not judging people by their race, gender, or sexuality, we must value them consistently. If we want to continue the work of the civil rights movements, we must recognize that identity politics are not doing that, are not working, and may even be undermining the good they achieved. And we must recognize that this originates with and is aided and abetted by Social Justice scholarship, rooted in postmodernism, and diversified into many forms of grievance studies.

We need to call for a more rigorous approach to social justice issues. This should be one which does not rely on a belief in a society dominated by systems of power and privilege perpetuated in discourse, utilizes highly ideologically motivated confirmation bias as an interpretive technique, or regards lived experience interpreted in this way to be authoritative.

. . . Society simply works much better when different segments of it are able to empathize with each other, recognize how much they have in common, and form their relationships, personal and intellectual, with others based on their individual traits, interests, and shared goals. There is very little reason to assume that the people who will understand you best and share your interests and goals will have the same skin color, the same genitalia or gender identity, or the same sexuality. People of all races, genders, and sexualities are intellectually and ideologically diverse. Those who speak authoritatively of “women’s experiences” or ask one to “listen to people of color/trans people” are attempting to constrain individuals from those groups to one specific ideology and conception of society. This is not acceptable, and it certainly isn’t liberal.

. . . Universality does not require assuming that racism, sexism, or homophobia does not exist. Neither does it assume that there is no work left to do to oppose these problems and defend vulnerable racial or religious minorities, protect women’s reproductive freedom, and hold on to LGBT rights. When the need to do all of those things is presented in terms of universal human rights and fairness, it will find much more support than when it is presented in terms of incomprehensible theory, irrationalism, biased interpretations of interactions, cruel irony, demands for reparative justice, and abandonment of the principle of non-discrimination against people by identity markers.

h/t: Grania

Drink a Heineken, save the world

April 30, 2017 • 9:00 am

by Grania Spingies

You’d think that after the Pepsi fiasco a few weeks ago, any advertising agency – or any product producer about to launch a new campaign – would consider the mockery and derision aimed at the soft drink purveyor and demand that any similar campaign in the works suggesting that their own product could  in some way engineer social transformation be aborted immediately.

However, Heineken decided not to take the road of caution and went ahead with its own version of giving the world a coke. On the one hand, there is simply no good reason for any beverage vendor to try to flog their wares by trying to insinuate that they can make a meaningful contribution to transforming society in a positive way. On the other, Heineken’s latest attempt is by no means the worst in the recent spate of painfully self-conscious “socially aware” advertisements peddling mass produced beverages. Pepsi has claimed that title and will forever be the champion of the most inept and crass attempt to cash in on feel-good commercialism. Here’s a Canadian example of beer creating racial harmony. Is there anything that fermented hop-flavored sugar water cannot do?

What the Heineken ad did was select a small group of people with opposing political and social views and put them through ice-breaking and team-building exercises; with the big “reveal” coming on completion of the task, leaving the participants in the awkward situation of realising that the person they had been getting along with up to that point was in fact someone that they would normally not only have nothing to do with, but probably actively despise. At that point the cheesiness ensues when all the teams opted to sit down and have a beer and a chat with their former team-mate, possibly overcoming and confronting the issues that would normally polorise them.

But what saves the advert is not that it claims that a Heineken can bridge social divides. In fact the advert neatly avoids that trap. The product is certainly placed prominently in the final scenes of the advertisement, however it is clear that the catalyst is not the beer but the connections that have been built during the team-building exercises.

It is actually a fairly savvy acknowledgement that we all tend to label ourselves and present a small thumbnail version to the world, especially in these days of social media; and this leads to snap judgements and very often complete ignorance of the other side. Sometimes otherwise decent people can hold ignorant views. Sometimes, those people can start to change their minds.

Watch for yourself.

I can’t say I am a much of a fan of this new trend of socially aware ware-hawking. If I want a drink I don’t need to think that I am drinking a “woke” drink. I just want the flavor – or the alcohol.

Maybe beer companies should stick to being funny, it probably works better.



h/t: Pyers