Coleman Hughes’s final word on TED

October 5, 2023 • 11:00 am

The Coleman Hughes vs. TED story continues with Hughes putting up a “final response” to his mistreatment by TED.  If you recall (or read my posts here), Hughes gave a full TED talk that was vetted by the organization well in advance. But then his talk was “heterodox,” incorporating Martin Luther King’s mantra into the claim that if you want to improve society, you should do it “color blind” manner. As Hughes emphasized, this doesn’t mean that you ignore color, but you help the underprivileged based on class, not race.

This, of course, didn’t go down well with today’s Authoritarian Leftists, who want race not just to be seen, but to be the dominant characteristic for fixing society. A subgroup of TED employees, ed “Black@TED“, argued that they had been “harmed” by Hughes talk, a ludicrous claim that shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Then TED, via its head Chris Anderson, did several things to try to put an “asterisk” by Hughes’s talk, including asking him to include a “moderated discussion” at the end of his talk’s video, something unique for TED. Hughes quite properly refused. Anderson then agreed to have Hughes’s video go up alone, but that there would be a separately posted video debate with another person; the person turned out to be NYT writer Jamelle Bouie. This condition is again insupportable, further showing TED’s disaffection with Hughes’s views. Finally, according to Hughes, TED did not abide by its agreement to publicize Hughes’s talk like they publicized other talks, resulting in its getting fewer views than comparable talks. That lack of views is important because views are important in boosting the careers of young people (Hughes is just 27).

Finally, as Hughes wrote on The Free Press, he was hit after the talk by a claim from  sociologist Adam Grant, who joined Anderson in a Free Press critique of Hughes’s arguments.  Grant claimed that a meta-analysis of 167 papers showed that “color blind” approaches to alleviating inequality were not as effective as socioeconomic approaches, for color blind methods were apparently were worse at creating “improved intergroup relations.” Hughes didn’t know of this meta-analysis when he wrote his talk, and, apparently, neither did TED, which was supposed to fact-check Hughes’s claims before the talk. Of course pinning blame is not what we need here: we need to know what the meta-analysis actually said (see below).

Well Anderson’s behavior was reprehensible, but what about that meta-analysis? In a new piece at his Substack, “Coleman’s Corner”, Hughes takes up both issues in a pice called ” My last word on TED”. Click below to read it, but subscribe if you read regularly. Hughes also references Jesse Singal, who wrote his own Substack piece on the controversy, strongly defending Hughes.

Re Anderson, Hughes first criticizes the TED-head for not admitting that Hughes’s version of events is right. But there’s more:

Besides that, I have little to say about Chris’s public statements that has not already been said. See Jesse Singal’s substack post, for instance. I will just echo some of Singal’s points here.

Chris seems to view this situation as a dispute between two equally reasonable parties––me on one end and his staff on the other. That is the wrong way to think about this situation.

Here are two key differences between me and his staff:

(1) I believe that there should be all kinds of TED talks: woke ones, anti-woke ones, and apolitical ones. Free speech and viewpoint diversity should reign supreme! But TED’s staff appear to believe that there should be tons of woke talks and zero anti-woke talks. That’s a big difference. I want a bigger tent of allowable ideas, they want a smaller tent.

(2) I believe MLK’s prescription of race-blind, classed-based social policy––as he advocated for in his book Why We Can’t Wait (see point #5 in this post)––is both wise and within the bounds of acceptable opinion. The people on the other side of this appear to believe that anyone who advocates for MLK’s position should be de-platformed. Equally reasonable?

Finally, Chris ought to reframe his view of his staff’s feelings.

For instance, when Chris writes, “Some commenters below just don’t understand how anyone could be upset by a talk arguing for color blindness,” he is straw-manning in spectacular fashion. Sure, somewhere there is probably a person with Asperger’s who truly doesn’t get why someone could get touchy about race. But the vast majority of TED’s critics understand why people get emotional about race––we just don’t think that those emotions should have de facto veto power over what can be argued in a public forum.

Last year, TED had a pro-communism talk (“socialism” is in the title, but “communism” is advocated for in the talk). I bet there was at least one member of the audience who grew up in the Soviet Union or Cuba and was fiercely triggered by this––given the ghastly toll of communism in those nations.

Please realize that this is more than just a contretemps involving a speaker who was ill-treated. It’s about a powerful and influential organization—an organization whose videos may get more views than those from anyplace else—being ideologically captured (partly by Black@TED) in a way that speakers don’t really have freedom of speech. Unless they hew to the approved ideology, speakers may get punished, at Hughes did.  (Remember, though, that TED vets all talks beforehand very carefully.)

Should TED be a mouthpiece for only “progressive” views? I don’t think so, as if you already have those views, a contrary TED talk won’t make you think, which the talks are supposed to do. Of course TED has the right to platform any speaker it wants, but an organization with guts should put on some heterodox talks. (Not by cranks, of course.)

To me the meta-analysis, which I didn’t read, was the more serious criticism. If its results were right, Hughes’s suggestion, while worthy of pondering, wouldn’t be as good as “color-awareness.” But Hughes finds faults with even relying on sociological studies:

My argument didn’t rely on social science––purposely so. For starters, there is a replication crisis in social science. By one estimate almost half of social science findings turn out to be BS, and those BS findings are far more likely to be cited than the real ones. What’s more, combining a bunch of BS studies into a “meta-analysis” doesn’t make them any better. (Kind of like CDOs, as explained by Anthony Bourdain in The Big Short).

So instead of relying on a field of research that’s notoriously unreliable, I relied on other arguments: intellectual history, moral philosophy, and recent real-world case studies. Nobody at TED had a problem with this at the time.

Well, yes, there’s a replication crisis in sociology and psychology (in fact, most everywhere), but I don’t think Hughes should have dismissed sociology in this way. For one thing, the meta-analysis may have included some good work instead of comprising just “a bunch of “BS studies”. Further, relying on “intellectual history, moral philosophy, and case studies” seems to come perilously close to “lived experience”, if not “anecdotal data”. Either way, I think Coleman would have been better served by leaving out these two paragraphs and just analyzes the paper. It looks too dismissive, too petulant.

But Hughes does give his take on the paper, and has two beefs.

There are two levels at which this meta-analysis doesn’t refute my talk. First, as mentioned, you should rate meta-analyses of social psychology studies fairly low on the believability scale to begin with. “A grain of salt” does not begin to approach the attitude we should take towards such studies, given the replication crisis. It is the opposite of “rigorous research”.

But let’s, for the sake of argument, assume that the field of social psychology were super-rigorous. What does this meta-analysis actually claim and do those claims challenge the ones I made in my talk?

The overall structure of the meta-analysis is fairly simple: it examines how four different ideologies–– “color-blindness”, “meritocracy,” “assimilation,” and “multiculturalism”––affect four different outcomes––”prejudice,” “discrimination,” “stereotyping,” and… “support for diversity policies” (like “affirmative action and permissive immigration”, the authors clarify).

Yes, you read that right. In this “rigorous” meta-analysis, one of the ways that success is measured is whether the ideology leads to support for policies like affirmative action. Affirmative Action, in other words, is assumed to be good and treated like an effect rather than a cause. That strikes me as backwards. Shouldn’t the point be to study whether policies like racial affirmative action cause good or bad outcomes? That, certainly, was the point of my talk (or one point of it).

Again, he casts a cold eye on sociological meta-analyses, which he didn’t need to do. His point about affirmative action is correct, but Grant argued in the Free Press that the main effect was on “intergroup relations”, not affirmative action. So here’s Hughes on “intergroup relations.”

 Grant hangs his argument on the paper’s claim that “multiculturalism is more consistently associated with improved intergroup relations than any identity-blind ideology.” In order for me to be right, he argues, I’d have to show the opposite: that the color-blind approach “has greater efficacy than a multicultural approach that acknowledges differences”. And I didn’t do that, so…game, set, match. Right?

Not exactly. It would depend on what this paper means by “multiculturalism”. They define “multiculturalism” as “acknowledging [cultural] differences by learning about, maintaining, or valuing them.” The problem for Grant is that I support this kind of multiculturalism and not a word of my talk suggests otherwise. I’m not against learning about and celebrating cultural differences. I’m against race essentialism and policies that discriminate on the basis of race. I’m not coming for your school assembly on Diwali or Ramadan or Chinese New Year––that stuff is great. I’m coming for your race-based affirmative action, race-based emergency aid, and so forth. (And again, this “rigorous” meta-analysis does not even ask what the effects of those kinds of policies are. A bit strange, no?)

Besides this conceptually-confused and irrelevant meta-analysis, Adam cites some other studies which are paywalled. I don’t want to spend more time on this, so I will not be reading or addressing those here.

And here it seems that Hughes is right IF “multiculturalism” is defined that way. That is, if Grant construes “improved valuing of multiculturalism” as the same as “an improvement in intergroup relations”, then he’s putting one over on the readers. One is a mental construct; the other involves actual behavior.

Jesse Singal has suggested that he might analyze the paper cited by Grant, and I hope he does, as Singal puts his teeth into a paper like a dog attacking a postman’s leg.

We can suspend judgement on the paper until someone does a rigorous dissection of it, but what is clear is that TED treated Hughes abysmally (Hughes didn’t know about this paper), and that the organization shows every sign of having been captured by the Authoritarian Left.


ADDED NOTE: In comment #3 below, Robert Guttentag, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, analyzes the meta-analysis and finds it wanting go read for yourself. It’s longer than comments that I usually allow, but it’s also quite important.


h/t: Steve

Jesse Singal on Coleman Hughes vs. TED

September 30, 2023 • 11:30 am

By now most of us know that Coleman Hughes, a heterodox black thinker, got into trouble when he gave a preapproved TED talk echoing Martin Luther King’s “don’t judge a person by their skin color” trope. Hughes’s point wasn’t that we shouldn’t be aware of color, but what we need to do is concentrate on fixing general societal inequalities, and should do that by a form of socioeconomic affirmative action versus pure race-based affirmative action.

As I said, this talk was approved by TED well in advance. I didn’t realize this, but giving a short TED talk involves months of preparation, which includes interacting with TED people so that they know in advance and approve of everything that is going to be said.  So they knew what Hughes was going to say! Then a group called Black@TED, made up of TED employees, objected to the “let’s not concentrate on race but on well being” trope.  As has been described by Hughes and verified by Chris Anderson (TED’s boss), post-talk objections by this group (and others) to what Hughe saids led to TED’s attempt to put video “asterisks” on the talk.

First TED asked Hughes to okay the release of a single video that included both original TED talk as well as a moderated discussion of it. Hughes naturally bridled at this. It’s unheard of!

TED then offered a deal in which Hughes’s talk could be released as a standalone video, but then there would be a long “debate” released separately (it was, with Jamelle Bouie as the interlocutor).  But TED broke its part of the deal by not promoting Hughes’s talk like other TED talks, so it got relatively few views. (TED talks are, of course, very important for young people’s careers, and Hughes, though spectacularly smart and accomplished, is only 27).

As Jesse Singal describes in his analysis of this fracas below (click on screenshot; you may have to subscribe), TED (or at least its head Chris Anderson) screwed up big time. Given that Hughes’s talk was vetted extensively beforehand, there is no excuse for publishing it with post facto conditions.  This was done solely because Black@Ted (which refused to meet with Hughes) said that the talk would cause “harm”, a palpably ridiculous assertion. What it would cause was discussion.

The other issue came from the social scientist Adam Grant, who, after the talk, claimed that Hughes ignored a meta-analysis by Leslie et al. showing that a “color blind” attempt to achieve equality was less effective than one based on racial awareness. I haven’t read that paper yet, but Hughes has. Here’s his reaction, which I present without agreeing or disagreeing:

I read the paper that Grant referenced, titled “On Melting Pots and Salad Bowls: A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Identity-Blind and Identity-Conscious Diversity Ideologies,” expecting to find arguments against color blindness. I was shocked to find that the paper largely supported my talk. In the results section, the authors write that “colorblindness is negatively related to stereotyping” and “is also negatively related to prejudice.” They also found that “meritocracy is negatively related to discrimination.”

Singal, in his Substack piece below, says he’ll provide an analysis of the Leslie et al.  paper later, and I’ll be sure to call that to your attention. If you want to read it now, be my guest. At any rate, even if Grant is right, his objections came post facto, and why didn’t TED, which is supposed to vet all the empirical claims of a talk in advance, know about it?

Singal is really angry, especially at Anderson, and it shows. I’ll give a few substantial quotes from Singal if you can’t read his site (but do subscribe; he writes about important stuff):

First, Singal on Adam Grant:

Grant is a superstar within psychology, and he claimed that Hughes’s argument was “directly contradicted by an extensive body of rigorous research,” linking to this meta-analysis. I’m hoping to do a more in-depth piece on this particular facet of the controversy soon, if I have time to do enough reading about it. But based on my own knowledge of the field of diversity trainings, I think Grant is badly overstating (1) the strength of the evidence that any one particular approach to framing these issues “works” better than others (though different people define “works” differently, which is part of the problem); and (2) the extent to which that meta-analysis could in any sense “directly contradict” Hughes’s argument.

Singal is good at dissecting papers, so I sure hope he take a look at this one.

But Singal reserves his ire for Anderson, who, he claims, dropped the ball, and that that is irrelevant to what Grant claims. A few quotes:

This was already a ridiculous story, and the available facts suggest Chris Anderson botched it every single step of the way. As anyone who has read about the polished, whirring machine that produces TED Talks knows, the organization does not leave anything to chance in terms of quality and content. TED Talk participants run a bit of a gauntlet, and that includes, obviously, TED knowing exactly what’s going to be said during the talk long before the speaker actually steps onstage. This is far from a poetry slam open mic night.

And then he reveals what I think is the real reason Hughes was given an asterisk:

I can’t say for sure, but based on what we know and the approximately zillion other instances of this sort of dysfunction seizing liberal institutions in the last few years, I would bet that Chris Anderson is far more concerned about an internal revolt, about “Black@TED,” than whether Coleman Hughes’s talk was perfectly in line with a nerdy meta-analysis. And, supporting this theory, his botching continued Wednesday, in a follow-up piece in which The Free Press allowed him and Adam Grant to respond.

Anderson explained that Coleman’s talk “was received with huge enthusiasm by many in the audience. But many others heard it as a dangerous undermining of the fight for progress in race relations. So yes, there was controversy. When people on your own team feel like their identity is being attacked, it’s right to take pause.”

In recent years radical types within liberal organizations have realized that if they utter certain magic phrases, they can extract sympathy and sometimes other concessions from management regardless of the merit of their claim. It has the effect of turning off management’s brain and getting the organization’s leadership instead to react from a fearful, gut-oriented place. A common tactic is to claim that the presence of some person or idea in their workplace constitutes “harm” or makes them less “safe.” In many cases, these claims are on their face ridiculous, but I think the choice of words evolved because some phrases contain implicit threats that whatever the employees are freaking out about could cause legal problems for management. An unsafe workplace summons HR, and once HR is involved, who the hell knows where things could end up?

Yes, it’s the “harm” trope again, a trope that for some reason the Left takes way too seriously.  To think that Hughes’s talk would harm people is ridiculous. In fact, Singal says that if you think you’ve been harmed by that talk, you need therapy. (It’s true unless you’re simply doing performative outrage.) Or, if you don’t want therapy, get another job:

But if these TED staffers aren’t just being strategic in their language — if they genuinely, viscerally feel like “their identity is being attacked” by a black man advocating for a color-blind approach — that’s something they should take up with their therapists.

This is not mean-spirited, for Singal says he’s in therapy, too, partly as a way to dampen his overreactions. He continues:

 . . . If you work for an Ideas organization and you can’t psychologically handle your organization platforming someone expressing a popular view, and you don’t want to seek out therapy to gain more resilience, then you should honestly consider a different line of work. It’s just not a good fit, in the same way journalists who get deeply upset when their colleagues refuse to toe the activist line 100% on some fraught subject should go into PR instead. Jobs like “being a journalist at a major outlet” or “working for TED” are cushy by any sort of international or historical standard, to be sure, but for some people they’re not cushy enough, and such folks should seek out a job that will fully embrace their delicate nature: a big, comfy, plush sofa of a job.

Anyway, back to Chris Anderson. As these employees’ boss, he should obviously not say the mean-sounding things I’m saying.He also shouldn’t suggest his employees go to therapy or find different work. (Though I would reiterate that telling someone who might need therapy to consider it is not, in fact, inherently mean, and the fact that it’s taken as such points to the ongoing stigmatization of mental health care).

But he very easily could have effectively ended this conversation by telling his disgruntled staffers something like this:

We appreciate your feedback and we have heard it, but at the end of the day, as an organization sitting at the intersection of ideas and public speaking, we simply can’t outlaw or restrict speakers’ ability to express popular but contested views — even views some of us disagree with strongly. Heck, for this to be a truly robust and useful and thriving organization, we might have to sometimes platform people expressing certain unpopular views. But this particular case isn’t a close call, frankly. All the available evidence suggests Hughes’s views are popular, his talk was well-researched enough to get a green light from our fact-checking team, and while we seriously value you all as staffers and always welcome your feedback — TED is stronger when you provide that feedback — we simply can’t grant you veto power over individual talks, nor the power to alter preexisting editorial and production processes, especially after an approved talk has already been filmed.

Instead, Anderson appears to have been held hostage by a group of employees making rather hysterical claims — again, sorry for the harsh language, but that’s what this is. And not only did he fail to compassionately but firmly push back against these hysterical claims for the health of his organization (and to prevent the negative PR event that subsequently occurred, which I’m happy to contribute to given how ridiculous this is and how sick I am of these sorts of incidents), he went out of his way, in his response, to reemphasize how seriously he was taking them:

Many people have been genuinely hurt and offended by what they heard Hughes say. This is not what we dream of when we post our talks. I believe real progress can be made on this issue by each side getting greater clarity and insight from the other. We share more in common than we know. We all ultimately want a just world in which all can thrive.

The problem is simply one instantiation of why wokeness has prevailed even though most people aren’t down with it: people are simply too afraid to stand up to accusations of “harm” or “racism”, even if those accusations, like the ones we’re discussing, are ridiculous.

The solution, of course, is what John McWhorter suggested in his anti-racism book: ignore these people and stick up for your principles, which is what Anderson should have done. Singal’s suggested speech for Anderson is right on the money.

In the end, this too will pass, but it’s already besmirched the reputation of TED. And it will only create a Streisand Effect for Hughes, as all the press this kerfuffle is getting can only be good for him,  Even if he got the data wrong about ameliorating equity, which we’ll know soon, he didn’t know about the paper (and TED should have), and the “colorblind” discussion is still relevant in many contexts.

TED stiffs Coleman Hughes for conveying a message ideologically unpalatable to the woke

September 26, 2023 • 11:30 am

Here’s a TED talk by Coleman Hughes, a really smart young guy (he’s just 27) who’s angered the establishment by not hewing to the standard Kendi-an view on “antiracism”. (I was on his podcast and was really impressed by how much evolution he knew given that he’s a writer with a degree in philosophy who works largely on issues of race.) He’s more of the stripe of John McWhorter, saying things that run counter to what black people are expected to say.

And race is what he talks about in this 13-minute TED talk (below). His theme is basically Martin Luther King’s statement, in his “I Have A Dream” speech, that

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Hughes goes on to discuss the obsessions of American with race, which has recently led to a worsening of relations of whites and blacks.  The solution: “color blindness”, not a pretense that you don’t notice race, but “support[ing] a principle that we should try our best to treat people without regard to race, both in our personal lives and our personal policy.”

That sounds good, or used to in the days of MLK, but the “color blindness” trope is not in good stead these days. There are many, for example who think that race is not only the most important aspect of someone’s persona, but should be a dominant aspect in how we treat individuals or members of a racial group. But Hughes points out that the “colorblind” philosophy comes not from conservatives, but from early abolitionists and black antiracists. (Also from Martin Luther King, Jr., whose words are either ignored or criticized these days.)

And then Hughes says this:

“Wouldn’t color-blindness render us unable to fight racism? Wouldn’t it mean getting rid of policies like affirmative action that benefit people of color? I believe that eliminating race-based policies does not equal eliminating policies meant to reduce inequality. It simply means that those policies should be executed on the basis of class instead of race.”

He then gives two good reasons why we should use class- rather than race-based policies and give an example of what he says was a “disastrous race-based policy”: the 2020 “Restaurant Revitalization Fund.”  He also mentions traffic cams, which cannot be racially biased, but are opposed by many because they still yield proportionally more violations by blacks than by whites. This disproportionality, or “inequity”, would indicate to a Kendi-an that the cameras are biased against blacks, but of course that’s ridiculous. The answer is that blacks are violating traffic rules more often. But that answer, which must be the correct one, is unacceptable.

At the end, Hughes answers a question by the moderator involving how to maintain colorblindness while auditioning members of orchestras. He gives a good answer.

You may disagree with Coleman, but it would be hard to unless you’re of the Kendi-an stripe. Hughes wants inequality eliminated, but finding the remedy by using class instead of race asthe best proxy for low status on the equality scale.

Watch the short talk:

So far so good. We have a TED talk that, instead of dispensing feel-good bromides, actually challenges prevailing views and inspires discussion.  But that’s not the way TED felt about it. There was pushback, and Coleman’s talk was released in a way that diluted its message. TED even required that if Coleman’s talk were posted by itself, there had to be a related discussion talk posted separately (it was, involving a 1¼ hour debate with NYT antiracist columnist Jamelle Bouie).  I haven’t watched the debate, but you can see it at the link. It’s a real debate, with fixed times to speak and respond).

Click to read Hughes’s take on his experience, published at The Free Press:

Here’s what Coleman says:

Like any young writer, I am well aware that an invitation to speak at TED can be a career-changing opportunity. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I was invited to appear at this year’s annual conference. What I could not have imagined from an organization whose tagline is “ideas worth spreading” is that it would attempt to suppress my own.

As an independent podcaster and author, I count myself among the lucky few who can make a living doing what they truly love to do. Nothing about my experience with TED could change that. The reason this story matters is not because I was treated poorly, but because it helps explain how organizations can be captured by an ideological minority that bends even the people at the very top to its will. In that, the story of TED is the story of so many crucial and once-trustworthy institutions in American life.

The path to the required ancillary debate was long and convoluted:

TED draws a progressive crowd, so I expected that my talk might upset a handful of people. And indeed, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a handful of scowling faces. But the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The audience applauded; some people even stood up. Throughout the meals and in hallways, people approached me to say they loved it, and those who disagreed with it offered smart and thoughtful criticisms.

But the day after my talk, I heard from Chris Anderson, the head of TED. He told me that a group called “Black@TED”—which TED’s website describes as an “Employee Resource Group that exists to provide a safe space for TED staff who identify as Black”—was “upset” by my talk. Over email, Chris asked if I’d be willing to speak with them privately.

I agreed to speak with them on principle, that principle being that you should always speak with your critics because they may expose crucial blind spots in your worldview. No sooner did I agree to speak with them than Chris told me that Black@TED actually was not willing to speak to me. I never learned why. I hoped that this strange about-face was the end of the drama. But it was only the beginning.

On the final day of the conference, TED held its yearly “town hall”—at which the audience can give feedback on the conference. The event opened with two people denouncing my talk back-to-back. The first woman called my talk “racist” as well as “dangerous and irresponsible”—comments that were met with cheers from the crowd. The second commentator, Otho Kerr, a program director at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, claimed that I was “willing to have us slide back into the days of separate but equal.” (The talk is online, so you can judge for yourself whether those accusations bear any resemblance to reality.)

TED threatened not to post the talk at all, but then agreed to do so if it were part of a single video that included a “moderated conversation” as an “extension” of the talk.  Hughes naturally didn’t like that, as it would out his talk as somehow different from the others, requiring an “asterisk”.  Finally, TED agreed to post the talk above separately and promote it as it would any other TED talk, but that an ancillary “debate” video would also be posted no fewer than two weeks after Coleman’s talk.  Along with this caveat came TED’s failure to promote Hughes’s talk, so that it got many fewer views than comparable talks (some far less challenging).


I held up my end of the bargain. TED did not.

My talk was posted on the TED website on July 28. The debate was posted two weeks later. By the time the debate came out, I had moved on—I assumed that TED had held up its end of the bargain and was no longer paying close attention.

Then, on August 15, Tim Urban––a popular blogger who delivered one of the most viewed TED talks of all time—pointed out that my talk had only a fraction of the views of every other TED talk released around the same time. Urban tweeted:

There have been a million talks about race at TED. For this talk and only for this talk was the speaker required to publicly debate his points after the talk as a condition for having it posted online. As it is, the lack of standard promotion by TED has Coleman’s talk at about 10% of the views of all the other talks surrounding his on their site.

Two days later, I checked to see if Tim was onto something. As of August 17, the two talks released just before mine had 569K and 787K views, respectively, on TED’s website. The two talks released immediately after mine—videos that had less time to circulate than mine—had 460K, 468K views, and 489K views, respectively. My talk, by comparison, had 73K views—only 16 percent of the views of the lowest-performing video in its immediate vicinity.

My debate with Jamelle Bouie—a New York Times columnist with almost half a million followers on X, formerly Twitter—has performed even worse on TED’s website. As of Tuesday, September 19—after having over a month to circulate—it had a whopping 5K views. That makes it the third worst-performing video released by TED in all of 2023.

Either my TED content is performing extremely poorly because it is far less interesting than most of TED’s content, or TED deliberately is not promoting it. A string of evidence points to the latter explanation: unique among the TED talks released around the same time as mine, my talk has still not been reposted to the TED Talks Daily podcast. In fact, it was not even posted to YouTube until I sent an email inquiry.

Given the stimulating nature of Hughes’s talk, at least in my opinion, I attribute its poor viewership to TED’s failure to promote it. Not putting it on YouTube until Hughes forced them to is absolutely unforgivable.

The lesson, as Hughes points out, is that TED shows all the signs of being an “institution captured by the new progressive orthodoxy,” one in danger of becoming “yet another echo chamber.” Indeed, TED is becoming the NPR of public elocution.

I’ve never been a fan of TED: to me it seems to convey bromides that make the audience feel good, telling them what they want to hear. I haven’t found it intellectually challenging, either. This account by Hughes, and the pushback by TED, confirms my opinion.  Please watch the talk above and, whether or not you agree with it, ask yourself if it deserved substandard treatment, to the extent of not even being put on YouTube.

Of course it didn’t deserve that treatment, but got it because its message challenged the progressive orthodoxy of privileged TED viewers, and TED had to somehow punish Hughes for that.

A “progressive” coalition goes after Bret Stephens as our Class Day Speaker; he delivers an excellent address anyway

June 3, 2023 • 11:00 am

You’ll know Bret Stephens as a conservative columnist for the New York Times. He also got his undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago in 1995 and later won a Pulitzer Prize for political commentary. Because of his journalism and association with the University, he was invited to deliver yesterday’s University Class Day speech, an invitation extended by the University. (“Class Day” is the beginning of the Convocation Weekend, or graduation, with the formal cap-and-gown ceremony taking place today.)

The students didn’t like that much, especially because they didn’t have a say in who got to speak.  And the speaker is a conservative who doesn’t hate Israel, which means he’s doubly damned. A coalition of students from the groups below thus wrote a very long Google document (see below the fold) calling Stephens a bigot, a racist, a “bigoted ideologue”, and an “apologist for Israeli apartheid” (yes, the signers included the Students for Justice in Palestine). There’s also a “content warning”. Here are the signers:

CareNotCops [JAC: they want to abolish the police]
Environmental Justice Task Force
Students for Disability Justice
Students for Justice in Palestine
UChicago Against Displacement
UChicago Democratic Socialists of America

They criticize Stephens for many things, the one most relevant to this post being his supposed attempt to suppress the speech of other writers at the NYT. The evidence, however, is merely a Twitter thread by writer Wajahat Ali that is entirely hearsay, saying that Stephens has criticized other writers, written to editors (no evidence is adduced), and has also responded to being criticized with more criticism.  This is thin gruel. I don’t agree with everything Stephens says in the NYT, but one thing I haven’t seen him do is call for suppression of speech.  If he ever did, he’d be violating the principles of the college from which he graduated—the principles he lauded in his talk.

The Chicago Maroon (our student newspaper) reported on the coalition’s criticisms (again, see below the fold), and gave Stephen’s’s response:

In an email to The Maroon, Stephens responded to the statement.

“I read the coalition statement carefully. It is a caricature of my views. It is based on cherry-picked and misleading quotations and bad-faith readings of my work. It also borders on self-parody: To accuse me of being an “imperialist” sounds like 1960s agitprop. For the record, I am not an imperialist, a racist, or anything else the statement accuses me of being.”

In the email statement, Stephens countered that he had a more moderate ideology than what the statement suggested, pointing to some of his political views.

“The more mundane truth is that I’m a moderate conservative and card-carrying NeverTrumper who opposes the Dobbs decision, supports repealing the 2nd Amendment, and favors a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. Last year, the Russian government banned me for life from visiting that country and Tucker Carlson calls me a ‘leftist.’ If this puts me beyond the pale of the ‘coalition,’ it says a lot more about them than it does about me.” (Editor’s note: Stephens included the hyperlinks himself in his emailed statement.)

Well, all the student criticism is fine, even encouraged by our University, for it’s free speech. And to be fair, none of the critics called for the cancelation of Stephens’s speech. As far as I know, it wasn’t disrupted, either.

But Stephens got his own back with his talk, which he reprinted in the NYT. It’s all about the importance of freedom of expression, and gives special encomiums to our recently deceased President and free-speech promoter Bob Zimmer. You can read it by clicking on the link below.

I’ve listened to a lot of anodyne graduation speeches in myu career (this one is really not the official graduation address, which is always delivered by a member of our faculty—today colleague and law professor Tom Ginsburg). It’s the “Class Day” address. Read it by clicking the headline below, and it’s also been archived here.  After reading it, I’m guessing that the University invited Stephens to talk on Class Day precisely so he could impart the lesson below to the departing students. If they wanted to cater to the students, they’d probably invite someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Stephens begins by addressing his critics directly, and then praising two major figures at the University (I don’t know if there was a walkout):

To those of you who are protesting or planning a walkout, I thank you for not seriously disrupting my speech. And though I’m sorry you won’t hear me out, I completely respect your right to protest any speaker you dislike, including me, so long as you honor the Chicago Principles. It is one of the core liberties that all of us have a responsibility to uphold, protect and honor.

To those of you who choose to stay, I thank you for honoring another Chicago principle, one that was dear to my dear friend, Bob Zimmer: Namely, that a serious education is impossible except in an environment of unfettered intellectual challenge — an environment that, in turn, isn’t possible without the opportunity to encounter people and entertain views with whom and with which you might profoundly disagree.To John Boyer, who welcomed me to Chicago in 1991 when I was a nervous 17-year-old freshman, I want to salute you for everything you’ve done to make the college so much better, while preserving what always made it great: the conviction that to think clearly, we must be able to speak freely; that to disagree intelligently, we must first understand the views of our opponents profoundly; that to change people’s minds, we must be open to the possibility that our minds might be changed. All of this asks us to listen charitably, argue candidly, consider deeply, examine and re-examine everything, above all our own deeply held convictions — and, unlike at so many other universities, to respond to ideas we reject with more and better speech, not heckling or censorship.

And the ending (but do read the whole thing):

. . . . You are about to go out into the real world, as real adults, with a real hand in shaping the conditions of our common life. Many of you will soon join and eventually lead great institutions, and a few of you will create significant businesses, NGOs, schools and other institutions of your own. I’m guessing not many of you are thinking: “I want to make them just like the University of Chicago,” at least as far as subzero temperatures, midterms that begin the third week and the food at Valois are concerned.  [JAC: Valois is a downscale cafeteria in Hyde Park, known for its homey and inexpensive food. Barack Obama would occasionally eat there, even as President.]

But I hope you can at least say this: that, at Chicago, you learned that institutions become and remain great not because of the weight of their traditions or the perception of their prestige, but because they are places where the sharpest thinking is given the freest rein, and where strong arguments may meet stronger ones, and where “error of opinion may be tolerated” because “reason is left free to combat it” and where joy and delight are generally found at the point of contact — mental or otherwise.

If you can say this, then Chicago will have served you well. And if you can bring this mind-set and this spirit to the places you will soon make your own, then you will have served Chicago even better.

Go forth, good luck, and thank you.


Stephens delivering the talk:

Click “read more” to see the “coalition statement on Bret Stephens’ Class Day Invitation“:

Continue reading “A “progressive” coalition goes after Bret Stephens as our Class Day Speaker; he delivers an excellent address anyway”

Recently posted: John McWhorter talk on “Understanding the new politics of race”

February 11, 2023 • 11:15 am

Below you can (and should) see John McWhorter‘s 20-minute keynote talk in a January panel called “Towards the Common Good: Rethinking Race in the 21st Century” hosted by The Equiano Project at Emmanuel College and King’s College, Cambridge. The panel included Kenan Malik, columnist for The Observer, Munira Mirza, political advisor and Chief Executive of Civic Future, Dr Alka Seghal Cuthbertand (chair) and Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China, University of Oxford.

I couldn’t find a video of the entire panel, but there’s another 75-minute discussion, featuring McWhorter, Sir Trevor Phillips, Alka Seghal, and Samir Shah, that you can watch here.

Here’s the theme of the discussion from which the video below was taken:

Despite the success of the civil rights movement in the 1960s in transforming the lives of black people, race politics in the US at the start of this century seems more polarised than ever. Racial inequality persists but there are fierce debates over the causes and solutions. Rather than seeking to realise the liberal ideal of a ‘colour-blind’ society, a new anti-racism politics wants to raise consciousness about race and the ‘problem’ of whiteness. Is this leading to more equality and progress or not? How should liberals approach this question? Crucially, how is the US experience influencing what happens in the UK and what can we learn from it?

McWhorter’s keynote deals with a topic he discusses often: the takeover of public discourse by a Social Justice crowd who flaunt their vindictive, authoritarian, and quasi-religious brand of antiracism, whose object is often to destroy the careers and credibility of their opponents. The talk is largely a precis of McWhorter’s book on Woke Antiracism, but has new stuff in it, too.

McWhorter exemplifies the Zeitgeist by describing several incidents. One is the suspension of USC business communication professor Greg Patton for using the Chinese filler pharse “negah. . negah. . negah” (equivalent to “that. . .that. . . that”) to show how people in different cultures use verbal marks of hesitation. But the fact that this Chinese word sounds like the American “n-word” slur was enough to offend students and then get Patton suspended and removed from the course. Intent, in this case, was irrelevant, for “offended” feelings, regardless of a speaker’s intent, are often sufficient to hurt someone’s career or get them fired.  The idea that “intent doesn’t matter” was also what got NYT reporter Donald McNeil Jr. fired for using the n-word in a didactic discussion with a student. As Reason reported:

“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn said in a memo to staffers.

But the newspaper backed off on that (too late for McNeil!) when letting McWhorter himself spell the n-word out in full in his own column. Clearly didactic intent did matter, so long as it was the intent of a black man.

The other issue is a course in the history of Western classical music (including two weeks on jazz) that McWhorter taught for several years at Columbia. The last time, however, there was a new “antiracist” syllabus that omitted Brahms, Chopin, Wagner and replaced them with singer Nina Simone, who, McWhorter says, was a great artist but wasn’t involved in Western classical music. The reason for the change, says McWhorter, was because “two and a half people said so and everybody else was afraid of them.”

Here are two excerpts from his talk that I’ve transcribed that give you the tenor his feelings. But do listen to the whole thing; it’s eloquent and pretty short. Most of us will agree with McWhorter, but we can all use a dose of support from time to time.

He first describes the efforts of woke antiracists as:

. . . a reign of terror enforced by a small number of earnest but misguided people, and the reason that they get their way is because of how much progress we’ve made. Specifically, we in America are a society where the enlightened view is that to be a racist is almost equivalent to being a pedophile—it’s the worst thing you can be called that you’re actually likely to be. That is an accomplishment: that wasn’t true in 1960; that wasn’t really true even in 1980. That is a mark of advance in a society that, frankly, most human societies have not made. If people are a little oversensitive about it, that’s human nature. The fact is something great has happened. But the negative byproduct is that if someone says we have to have Nina Simone instead of Brahms, Chopin, or Wagner, then although almost nobody in the room agrees , they will do it because they know that if that person doesn’t get their way, they’re going to call the Music Department at Columbia “racist” on Twitter where the whole world could see it. . .

I find it ironic that the very success of the civil rights movement is instantiated in the pervasive fear of Americans of being called “racist”.  As McWhorter shows, that is a sign of success, and it’s good. His beef is with the fact that that movement has morphed into an authoritarian “reign of terror.” So what can we do?  As he argues in his book, just say “no” to these people.

. . . We can’t hope to change this by talking to people like that and saying, “Open up to new ideas.” They won’t. And that may sound cynical, but I’m basing it partly on my having experienced these people as an academic for the past 25 years, and especially over the past three. They’re impregnable; they’re thoroughly unreasonable. The issue is getting to most of us—all of the rest of us who are having our lives destroyed or affected negatively, or watching people having their lives destroyed or interfered with because of the actions of a vocal and frightening minority of people who themselves can’t be changed. There’s a bravery that’s necessary at this point. The only way we can keep society from being turned upside down by this religion. . . . we have to have the bravery to tell people like this “no” and to endure that there’s a certain kind of noice they’re going to make. But if we don’t have that bravery, if we don’t realize that being called a “racist” in the public square might not always destroy a life—sometimes, and in many cases, people are just scared— really, if we don’t do it, we’re going to lose what we have thought of as an enlightened society because of certain contingent things that happened during a pandemic and a particularly grisly murder of an innocent man. Just because of chance; just because of Zoom, Slack, boredom, habit, and fear. That is not the way that a mature society should operate.

The ending is quite eloquent, with McWhorter calling us to be “mensches” and stand up to the “misguided and recreational self-focused kind of manipulation” that goes under the name of “antiracism as social justice.” (I think the word “recreational” is quite appropriate.)

Anyway, ye who have ears, listen up

A rediscovered Martin Luther King, Jr. speech

January 16, 2023 • 12:15 pm

Greg Mayer spotted this talk on my colleague Brian Leiter’s website, and I’m stealing it. Listening to it is a good way to remember King on this day, and to see the clarity and focus of his mission. It’s also  chance to appreciate his powerful rhetoric.

The 26-minute speech, rediscovered about eight years ago, was given in 1962, and is about two documents, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence—and how they failed to bring clarity or resolution to America’s “race question.” King recounts how the Founding Fathers were well aware of their failure to bring equality to all Americans.

Here’s the story from NPR:

Last fall, curators and interns at the New York State Museum were digging through their audio archives in an effort to digitize their collection. It was tedious work; the museum houses over 15 million objects. But on this particular day in November, they unearthed a treasure.

As they sifted through box after box, museum director Mark Schaming remembers: “They pull up a little reel-to-reel tape and a piece of masking tape on it is labeled ‘Martin Luther King, Jr., Emancipation Proclamation Speech 1962.’ ”

It’s audio no one knew existed.

That year — 1962 — fell in the midst of the Civil War centennial. At one commemorative event, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller proposed a focus on the Emancipation Proclamation and invited King to speak. No one had heard his speech since. When Schaming listened to the audio, he found it still relevant. “It’s 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation is released, and this promise is still unfulfilled, very much as it is still today in many ways,” the museum director says.

At the end of the speech, King quotes a slave preacher who he says “didn’t quite have his grammar right but uttered words of great symbolic profundity.”

“Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”

The passage, Schaming says, is so powerful it must be heard to be appreciated. You can hear the speech at the New York State Museum‘s online exhibit.

The ending is eerily similar to that of the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech—his final oration before he was murdered.

As you listen to King’s words, you can see the original typed speech go by—complete with King’s emendations, which markedly improve the text. Remember, this is two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.

It’s natural to wonder what King would say, were he still with us, about the racial divisions in America today, the hegemony of identity politics, and the rejection of his dream to have people judged not by their race, but by the content of their character.  Of course, it’s clear that King was expounding identity politics here and throughout his life, but in a way far more salubrious and less divisive than they’re used today.

There’s a loss of sound about 15 minutes in, but the talk quickly resumes.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Reith lecture on literature and freedom of speech

November 30, 2022 • 10:15 am

The Reith Lectures, named after Lord Reith, the BBC’s first director-general, are intended, as Wikipedia notes, “to enrich the intellectual and cultural life of the nation. It is in this spirit that the BBC each year invites a leading figure to deliver the lectures. The aim is to advance public understanding and debate about issues of contemporary interest.”

Delivered on the radio, they’ve been going yearly since 1946, when Bertrand Russell gave the first one. (Only one year was missed—1992, when the Beeb couldn’t find anyone to deliver the talk). Each speaker customarily gives four talks.

This year, however, there will be four Reith lecturers—the first time that more than one speaker has done the series. As the BBC’s Radio 4 page on the lectures notes:

Four speakers will feature in this year’s BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lord Rowan Williams Darren McGarvey and Dr Fiona Hill will deliver lectures inspired by Franklin D Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech. Each speaker will explore one of Roosevelt’s themes: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

The first one is online now, and you’d best listen soon as it will vanish. It’s by acclaimed Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and, according to reader David, who sent me the link, “She’s a powerful and eloquent speaker, and as I listened to her, I couldn’t help thinking of Christopher Hitchens and his robust defence of the same ideas.”  Well, listen for yourself. I’m doing so at the moment, and I like it very much.

Click on screenshot below to go to the “listen” link. There’s a brief introduction, and the lecture proper begins at 3:45.  It’s short (about half an hour), and finishes at 34:23. It’s followed by another half hour of questions by the interlocutor and the audience. If the link disappears, email me for a substitute.

The talk is anti-authoritarian, and Adichie is uncompromising in her defense of free speech (reminiscent of Mill) and in her criticism of book banning. I can’t say that she’s a new incarnation of Hitchens—whose eloquence can never be equaled—but she is, as David says, “powerful and eloquent” in her own way.

One quote from her talk:

“Literature is increasingly viewed through ideological rather than artistic lenses. Nothing demonstrates this better than the recent phenomenon of ‘sensitivity readers’ in the world of publishing—people whose job it is to cleanse unpublished manuscripts of potentially offensive words. This, in my mind, negates the very idea of literature.”

She also takes up (and rejects) the mantra that “speech is violence”.