“American Dirt”: The book that chilled American publishing

January 26, 2023 • 9:45 am

This three year old novel, which you can buy from Amazon in hardback for only $9.99, is the subject of Pamela Paul’s latest op-ed in the NYT (click on the second image below to read it).  According to Paul, and judging by the news I’ve followed since American Dirt‘s publication, this book had a huge chilling effect on American publishing. It was, Paul maintains, the harbinger of the timorous and self-censoring publishing industry of modern America. But click below to read, and I’ll give a few excerpts.

Paul, as you may know, used to be the editor of the New York Times Book Review, so she knows the ins and outs of publishing, and that informs her harsh critique of how this book—written by Jeanine Cumins and published by Flatiron Press, an imprint of MacMillan—was treated by a woke mob.

Here are two lines from Wikipedia’s bio of Cummins.  See if you can guess what the fracas was about from these:

Cummins’ 2020 novel, American Dirt, tells the story of a mother and bookstore owner in Acapulco, Mexico, who attempts to escape to the United States with her son after their family is killed by a drug cartel.

and

Jeanine Cummins identifies as both white and Latina. In a December 2015 New York Times opinion piece about her cousins’ murder, she mentions her Puerto Rican grandmother but also states “I am white…and in every practical way, my family is mostly white.”

Yes, this is a set-up for an accusation of Cultural Appropriation, and that’s what brought the book down, though it ultimately was translated into 33 languages, sold three million copies, and was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s “Book Club”, which guarantees huge sales. But the social-justice mob that went after this book, ignited by a single blog post, has, for the indefinite future, chilled all of publishing. For crying out loud, some people thought I’d have trouble publishing my children’s book set in India, Mr. Das and His Fifty Cats, because I’m not Indian. And indeed, that “conflict” has been mentioned to me by at least one editor. (No, I haven’t placed the book.)

On to Paul’s take:

The story in brief as she tells it:

Three years ago this month, the novel “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins landed in bookstores on a tsunami of enthusiasm. “Extraordinary,” Stephen King wrote in a pre-publication blurb. “Riveting, timely, a dazzling accomplishment,” raved Julia Alvarez. “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas,” Sandra Cisneros proclaimed. “This is the international story of our times. Masterful.”

The book’s momentum was nonstop. Riding on starred prepublication reviews from the trades, the book, a fast-paced road novel about a Mexican bookseller and her son trying to cross the border to escape a murderous drug cartel, was named an Indie Next List Pick by independent bookstores. Then came the rapturous reviews. “A thrilling adrenaline rush — and insights into the Latin American migrant experience,” raved The Washington Post. Cummins “proves that fiction can be a vehicle for expanding our empathy,” said Time magazine. Finally, the golden ticket: Oprah selected “American Dirt” for her book club. “I was opened, I was shook up, it woke me up,” Winfrey said.

It all fell apart with stunning speed. Following a blistering online campaign against the author and others involved in the book over who gets to write what, and in response to threats of violence against both author and booksellers, Cummins’s publisher, Flatiron Books, canceled her book tour. Cummins’s motives and reputation were smeared; the novel, eviscerated. “We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor,” Flatiron’s president said in a statement.

Looking back now, it’s clear that the “American Dirt” debacle of January 2020 was a harbinger, the moment when the publishing world lost its confidence and ceded moral authority to the worst impulses of its detractors. In the years since, publishers have become wary of what is now thought of as Another American Dirt Situation, which is to say, a book that puts its author and publishing house in the line of fire. This fear now hangs over every step of a fraught process with questions over who can write what, who should blurb  and who can edit permeating what feels like a minefield. Books that would once have been greenlit are now passed over, sensitivity readers are employed on a regular basis, self-censorship is rampant.

A creative industry that used to thrive on risk-taking now shies away from it. And it all stemmed from a single writer posting a discursive and furious takedown of “American Dirt” and its author on a minor blog. Whether out of conviction or cowardice, others quickly jumped on board and a social media rampage ensued, widening into the broader media. In the face of the outcry, the literary world largely folded.

If you want to see an unfair and nasty hit job, I suggest that you read the review of American Dirt below by writer Myriam Gurba, published on the blog Tropics of Meta (click screenshot below).  In the title below, I see Gurba labels Cummins as “pendeja,” which apparently is “a mildly vulgar insult for ‘asshole’ or ‘idiot’ in Spanish” (female form). And “bronca” in Spanish means “row” or “beef”. So the very title begins with an insult:

It’s a short review, but accuses Cummins of cultural appropriation, not having the ethnic credibility to write about Mexico, and, by producing a highly touted book, taking undue credit and quashing the achievements from other Latino authors. Here’s a bit of Gurba’s invective (“gabacha” is a pejorative Spanish word for a non-Hispanic foreigner, a female):

A self-professed gabacha, Jeanine Cummins, wrote a book that sucks. Big time.

Her obra de caca belongs to the great American tradition of doing the following:

  1. Appropriating genius works by people of color
  2. Slapping a coat of mayonesa on them to make palatable to taste buds estados-unidenses and
  3. Repackaging them for mass racially “colorblind” consumption.

Rather than look us in the eye, many gabachos prefer to look down their noses at us. Rather than face that we are their moral and intellectual equals, they happily pity us. Pity is what inspires their sweet tooth for Mexican pain, a craving many of them hide. This denial motivates their spending habits, resulting in a preference for trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf. To satisfy this demand, Cummins tossed together American Dirt, a “road thriller” that wears an I’m-giving-a-voice-to-the-voiceless-masses merkin.

This vicious attack, laced with Spanish slang, is what launched a thousand sensitivity readers and the mentality that makes publishers wary of putting out any books not written by someone with the proper ethnic cred. Although Cummins has Hispanic genes, a 25% DNA titer was apparently not enough to make her qualified to write about Mexico (note that lots of writers with no Hispanic heritage have previously written about Mexico).

People who liked Cummins’s book suddenly retreated (there were some exceptions, including Latino writers) and Cummins was demonized by her fellow writers. She has not been asked to blurb books by other authors, as her name and endorsement are considered toxic.  As Paul says, “if the proposal for ‘American Dirt’ landed on desks today, it wouldn’t get published.”

Here’s Paul’s example about how a Latino who defended writers’ use of “cultural appropriation” was treated:

For some aspiring writers, the mood remains pessimistic. “My take is the only take and the one everyone knows to be true but only admits in private: the literary world only accepts work that aligns with the progressive/woke point of view of rich coastal liberals,” the Latino writer Alex Perez said in an interview with Hobart magazine last fall. “This explains why everything reads and sounds the same, from major publishing houses to vanity zines with a readership of 15.” Shortly after publication of Perez’s interview, Hobart’s staff of editors quit and Perez was widely mocked on social media.

I guess Hobart’s editors saw themselves as HARMED by Perez’s interview.

This whole thing makes me ill. History is filled with great novels about men written by women (Middlemarch), about women written by men (I just finished the Beartown trilogy by Fredrik Backman, most of whose main characters are girls or women, and portrayed with great insight and sensitivity), and about people of one culture written about by those from another (just one example: Kazuo Ishiguro, born in Japan, now living in England, writes fantastic books about a variety of cultures, including robots). I know readers can think of other “exceptions” like these, for we’ve discussed them before.

It baffles me that you have to be from one gender or racial group to write well about it; it violates the very dictum that we’re all humans and share emotions and thoughts, even if our cultures differ. Nor do I buy the argument that Cummins’s writing about Mexico hurts other Latino authors and prevents them from getting attention. Especially these days, good writing is recognized by publishers. The problem is that they bridle if the good writing is about one ethnicity or gender yet produced by writers from another.

In truth, I don’t think you can make a rational argument for why the gender, race, religion, or ethnicity of an author should be ANY factor in judging their writing. Yes, their backgrounds can liven or add worthwhile nuances to a book, but it doesn’t give them a monopoly on describing their culture. In the end, it looks to me that people like Gurba are making a power grab on art, claiming that, because of their DNA, only they have the ability to write meaningfully about their own country or culture.

It’s nuts. But at least Paul, whose writing I like very much (subscribe to her column), ends on somewhat of a high note. For Cummins, despite being demonized and attacked, and despite having inadvertently turned publishing into an orgy of ethnic introspection, wrote a book that was an international bestseller:

History has shown that no matter how much critics, politicians and activists may try, you cannot prevent people from enjoying a novel. This is something the book world, faced with ongoing threats of book banning, should know better than anyone else.

“We can be appalled that people are saying, ‘You can’t teach those books. You can’t have Jacqueline Woodson in a school library.’ But you can’t stand up for Jeanine Cummins?” Ann Patchett said. “It just goes both ways. People who are not reading the book themselves are telling us what we can and cannot read? Maybe they’re not pulling a book from a classroom, but they’re still shaming people so heavily. The whole thing makes me angry, and it breaks my heart.”

Much remains broken in its wake. Jeanine Cummins may have made money, but at a great emotional, social and reputational cost. She wrote a book filled with empathy. The literary world showed her none.

Such is the work of the Authoritarian Left.

Matthew Yglesias: Woke language change isn’t meant to improve society, but to increase inequality

January 22, 2023 • 10:50 am

Now I’m not sure that the word “tribe” in my title is an Approved Progressive Left Term®, but I can’t think of a better one for the nonce. And if that word were erased by the woke, according to this new article by Matthew Yglesias on his Substack site, I wouldn’t have much reason to complain. According to Yglesias, beefing about language changes, like the recent elimination of the word “field” and suggested replacement with “practicum” by the School of Social Work at USC, is going after low-hanging fruit, “one of the lowest forms of reactionary politics”.  Does that make me and my fellow beefers “reactionaries”? Read by clicking the headline, and subscribe if you read regularly:

 

Yglesias, whose work I’m not that familiar with, was inspired by reading a John le Carré novel, A Murder of Quality. The novel apparently involves a British family who comes into money but isn’t of upper-class origin, and so has to learn proper upper-class British manners, like peeling an apple and then quartering it before eating it. This makes no sense to me, but that’s the point: this way of eating signals one’s membership in the club, which is necessary (along with money) to settle onself in the right circles.

Yglesias touts his familiarity with tribal language and behavior by touting his street cred, which, it turns out, is rich-people’s street cred. The guy has gone to all the ritzy and upper-class schools:

I went to a private high school called Dalton in New York which, at the time I attended, was known as a “progressive” school in the sense of its pedagogical philosophy. That was in contrast to a more “conservative” place like Grace Church School where I went for K-8.

But these days, both institutions have become progressive in a political sense. On its website, Dalton has an extensive statement about the school’s commitment to “equity and inclusion” that seems on its face at odds with the basic reality of being a school that charges $57,970 per year in tuition.

And yet not only the schools I attended in New York, but Georgetown Day and Sidwell Friends here in D.C., BBN in BostonHarvard Westlake in LA, and other major Fancy-Pants Prep Schools that I’m familiar with have gone all-in on DEI rhetoric.

Remember Dalton? Read my 2020 post about it here.

But then he asks the topic question:

The obvious question about this is why would exclusive institutions, the primary purpose of which is to provide additional advantages in life to academically talented students with rich parents, be so invested in an ostensibly egalitarian ideology?

Good question. The parents, of course did push back against this ideology, which is what my post is about.

Then Yglesias went to Harvard, and there he learned another trick of the elite: how to tie a bow tie before attending a black-tie dinner:

One of the things I learned at Harvard was how to tie a bow tie. The university, as a deliberately retro move, hosted a lot of black-tie events. Kirkland House had an annual formal dance, and I believe the other houses did, too. But there were many other black-tie events linked to the arts — if you had a friend who was in a play, you might get invited to a black-tie premiere.

I think contemporary university administrators would struggle a little bit to explain why there are black-tie events on campus. But I can tell you that I went to more than one per year, every year, for the four years that I was a student and exactly one since graduating.

And the penny dropped vis-à-vis Carré’s book: these complex language changes, like “practicum” (or “Latinx”, which nearly all Hispanics refuse to use), are actually inegalitarian: they setss the users and speakers apart from the hoi polloi.

Today things are different, and one thing you’d learn in a fancy American school is why you shouldn’t talk about the economic underdevelopment of Africa like this. You’d learn better etiquette. Or at least different etiquette — etiquette that will differentiate you from less sophisticated people who might run around saying offensive things about poverty in the Global South. For instance, a person without a proper education might refer to the countries in question as “the third world” without having read Marc Silver’s January 2021 NPR piece about why this is offensive. But to Bright’s point, speaking differently doesn’t actually change anything.

And that, perhaps, is a big part of the appeal.

In the USC case, and others like it, Yglesias notes that the ostensible motivation for changing words is to be “more inclusive”. And that is the case. “Latinx”, for example, was confected by non-“Latinx” people to erase the supposed misogyny of “Latino” (a male form) and “Latinos” (a general plural which also happens to mean “a group of men”). If you use the neutral “Latinx,” you’re showing that you’re an in-the-know progressive.

Yglesias has a point, though it’s not novel to argue that signs of wokeness are purely performative and accomplish no meaningful social change. Yglesias goes a step further, though, and argues that terms like “practicum” (and I’d add “Latinx” or “global South” here) actually foster inequality by buttressing tribalism.

Now I’m not sure that the terms are intended to buttress inequality, though fostering tribalism is probably a major part of their genesis. But I doubt that they do increase inequality—any more than using woke language reduces inequality.  What I object to, I guess, is how he takes people like me to task—people who beef about the constant turnover of language (my bolding below):

Language is arbitrary and always changing, so personally I find “getting mad at language change” to be one of the lowest forms of reactionary politics. At the same time, it’s worth just applying a little bit of common sense to the question of who is and isn’t included by saying “practicum” instead of “field.” Highly educated people and white-collar workers who spend a lot of time bored at the office staring at computer screens and reading articles are well positioned to have large and flexible vocabularies. We are used to learning new words and learning how to use them.

I am quite fluent in why we don’t characterize non-white people as “minorities” anymore, and even why affirmatively characterizing them as “people of color” is in favor rather than saying “non-white,” which tends to center whiteness. I know what it means to “center” something. I know that URM stands for under-represented minorities, and that we tend not to spell it out because “minorities” is out of favor. I also know what URM means (not Asians) and how URM is distinguished from BIPOC. I don’t talk about third-world countries.

I know these things in large part for the same reason I know how to tie a bow tie. And while everyone knows about Skull & Bones, I also know about Scroll & Key and can tell you which school has eating clubs. But while there may be merit to cultivating a set of esoteric practices for the sake of maintaining a national (or these days, increasingly, global) elite class that can recognize its fellow members, that’s like saying (à la John Rawls) that there may be reasons for even egalitarians to support a certain amount of inequality.

These elite institutions and codes of manners are not egalitarian, not just because manners are insufficient but because their purpose is to be inegalitarian. Changing “field” into “practicum” doesn’t include more people — it’s a new means of excluding people whose information is out of date.

But when I think of it, I’m not mad at language change just because I am a conservative who doesn’t like change. I’m mad at changes like “field” to “practicum” because it’s pompous, unnecessary and stupid given the ubiquity of the word “field” in other contexts, and above all because it’s purely performative. And I guess that’s not so different from what Yglesias thinks. The difference is that he also believes that these languages changes palpably decrease inclusiveness, and thus do the opposite of what the users claim to want.  And there I think he’s wrong. The language changes, regardless of their motivation, don’t change anything about society.

Ideology stomps all over chemistry in a new paper

January 15, 2023 • 12:45 pm

There are two ways I can criticize the uber-woke paper below that was published in from The Journal of Chemical Education (an organ of the American Chemical Society). I could go through it in detail and point out the fallacies and undocumented claims, and note where “progressive” ideology simply overwhelms the science. I could highlight why it’s a bit of hyper-Left propaganda, designed to force students in a Chemistry, Feminism and STEM course to think in a certain way.

Or I could simply mock it as an example of politicized science that is so over the top that it could appear without change in The Onion.

Way #1 would waste a lot of my time, and I’ve gone through this kind of exegesis many times before. Way #2 would bring out the splenetic readers who say that I shouldn’t make fun of dumb papers like this but instead take them apart line by line—that mockery is not an effective weapon.  But it is. Why else would Stanford have remove its list if disapproved words and phrases had not the Wall Street Journal mocked the list? “Mockery makes you look bad,” these jokers would say, “and it’s unintellectual.”

I’m rejecting both ways today in favor of The Third Way: let the paper reveal its own ideology, postmodern craziness, and authoritarianism by just giving quotes. In other words, I’ll let it mock itself.

You can access the paper for free by clicking on the screenshot below, or see the pdf here.

The abstract gives an idea of the purpose of the course: to indoctrinate students in the authors’ brand of feminism, CRT, and other aspects of woke ideology.  It wants to rid chemistry of White Supremacy, for the unquestioned assumption is that chemistry education is riddled with white supremacy. If you read the authors seriously, you’d think that all chemistry teachers put on white robes and burned crosses after school:

ABSTRACT: This article presents an argument on the importance of teaching science with a feminist framework and defines it by acknowledging that all knowledge is historically situated and is influenced by social power and politics. This article presents a pedagogical model for implementing a special topic class on science and feminism for chemistry students at East Carolina University, a rural serving university in North Carolina. We provide the context of developing this class, a curricular model that is presently used (including reading lists, assignments, and student learning outcomes), and qualitative data analysis from online student surveys. The student survey data analysis shows curiosity about the applicability of feminism in science and the development of critical race and gender consciousness and their interaction with science. We present this work as an example of a transformative pedagogical model to dismantle White supremacy in Chemistry.

At the outset they get off on the wrong foot: by asserting that sex is not binary (all bolding is mine):

When scientifically established facts, such as the nonbinary nature of both sex and gender are seen by students of science as a belief, one might ask: Are we being true to scientific knowledge? We use this student comment as a reflection of the subjectivity of how the pedagogical decisions are made in teaching “true science” vs what existing scientific knowledge tells us. This has resulted in the propagation of scientific miseducation for generations.

Sadly, it’s the authors who are miseducated here. Whatever they think, biological sex in vertebrates is binary, and to teach otherwise is the real distortion of education.

They have a new term, too, though I don’t see how it differs from either systemic racism, unconscious bias, or deliberate racism. (The “King’ mentioned, by the way, is not Martin Luther King, Jr.):

King introduced a new term, dysconscious racism, defined as an acceptance of dominant White norms and privileges arising from the uncritical habit of the mind leading to the maintenance of the status quo. In contrast to unconscious bias which has been quoted as involuntary and used in the academy often, King’s idea of dysconcious racism demands a critical analysis of the history of systemic discrimination in the institutions and coming up with effective interventions.

Below is the authoritarianism, breathless in its arrogance. I used to think that it was an exaggeration to compare the radicalization of science with the Lysenko movement in Stalin’s Russia. Now I’m not so sure! We’ve put our feet on that path.  Is there any ideological buzzworda missing in the following paragraph?:

In this article we describe the development, implementation, and student experience from a special topic course in chemistry, Science and Feminism, as a disruptive tool to challenge the status quo in Chemistry. Using Critical Race Theory and intersectional feminism as the framework, this course aimed at creating an intellectual as well as physical space for STEM students at East Carolina University (ECU) where they could explore their identities and how these intersect with the knowledge base and the pedagogy of science by looking at these from historical, political, and feminist lens. The other aim was to shine light, through this process, how scientific epistemology and culture have strong links with capitalism, enslavement, colonization, and exploitation of female-bodied folks. We provide the historical context of teaching this class in our institution, development of the course syllabus, assignments, and evaluations adopted for this course over the past two years as a template for future course development. In the Discussion and Conclusion section, we also provide a short description from qualitative analysis of online student surveys to understand what students thought about the importance of such a STEM course. Finally, this course is intended to produce an affirming space that will allow minoritized students to enter a chemistry class without having to leave their identities at the metaphorical and physical door of STEM classes.

But you’re supposed to leave your identities at the door. Science is science and the pursuit of the truth, and what truths are apprehended, should be independent of the characteristics of the person who does science.

Below is the “all must have prizes” bit.  Sadly, given that there are more candidates for academic jobs than there are jobs, some people aren’t going to make it. Here’s a statement that East Carolina University, where most of the authors come from, put on their website after George Floyd was murdered:

That same year, the Chemistry Department posted an antiracism statement on its Web site, which stated: “…That means we, as a department, must continually self-reflect and ask hard questions of ourselves. Do our pedagogy, assignments, exams, and grading practices help everyone to succeed?”

This means, of course, that if some students don’t succeed, it’s the fault of the teachers. Ergo a new course in which everyone succeeds, and, I suppose, in which there is no ranking of merit.

Here are the four parts of the course, each accompanied by readings from the appropriate propaganda (note: there is NO dissent in the readings, which you can see in the article):

Unit 1 readings (Table 2) focused on introducing students to the history of American feminism and its contribution/effect as felt in STEM epistemology. This unit also comprised of readings that critically looked at the DEI work in the Academy and its connection complicatedness dysconcious racism. As experiential learning, this unit also invited students to think and talk about their individual relationship with the word feminism, STEM culture, and their own identities. The end of the unit assignments was writing a reflection from all the readings and participation in a debate with the topic: Science done by a feminist and feminist practice in science are the same thing.

Unit 2 included readings (Table 2) that exposed students to the historical context of pathologizing the pregnant womb and the construction of gynecology as a White male discipline while utilizing Black and Indigenous bodies as experimental subjects. We further explored the development of (Black, Indigenous, and Brown) races as inferior and pathological throughout the development of modern science. As experiential learning, students participated in discussions on their interaction with the medical system as immigrants, women, women of color, and LGBTQIA2S+ individuals. The end of the unit assignments was writing a reflection from all the readings and participation in a debate with the topic: Health care providers (doctors, dentists, nurses, PA, PT, and administrators) should be required to learn the history of medical racism, sexism, and homo/transphobia and their legacy as part of their licensing process, and it should be an ongoing training than a onetime one. Students were also suggested to watch the 2017 movie, The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks.

Unit 3 explored the development and interrelationship between quantum mechanics, Marxist materialism, Afro-futurism/pessimism, and postcolonial nationalism. To problematize time as a linear social construct, the Copenhagen interpretation of the collapse of wave-particle duality was utilized. The end of the unit assignments was writing a reflection from all the readings and participation in a debate with the topic: past is never dead, it is not even past. The students also had the option of watching the 2020 movie, Antebellum. However, the instructor was flexible on this assignment as some of the African American students did not want to watch it and be triggered. They wrote a reflection on a book on race and gender that they had read.

Unit 4 consisted of reading articles in STEM that used identity (racial/gender/sexuality) as empirical parameters and how that can further propagate the absoluteness of these categories rather than dismantling these constructed realities. The end of the unit assignments was writing a reflection from all the readings and participation. There was no debate for this unit as this was close to the semester end.

Besides the reading assignments, there are essays in which students are expected to parrot back the woke pabulum they’ve been fed:

The final assignment was a full paper with an intervention plan that might be implemented in their own institution/department which will enable students to create a STEM identity which acknowledges and respects their personal identity. For 2021 and 2022 classes, the intervention topics that students wrote about were as follows: the importance of all-gender bathrooms in STEM buildings, the importance of teaching how race, gender, sexuality, etc. are created and pathologized by STEM as a medical college course, how to increase accessibility of STEM as a discipline without erasing the lived experiences of URM students, and how the American STEM identity can incorporate the immigrant student/scholar experience.

At this point I wondered if this course had anything to do with science beyond using the “field” (excuse me) as an example of racism and white supremacy. I don’t think so. It’s ideological propaganda, pure and simple, and even worse than the forms dished out in “studies” courses. ‘

There’s a section on “Social Location of the Authors and Their Relation to This Course.” Here’s just a bit:

M.A.R. participated in the special topic chemistry class in Spring 2021 as a biology graduate student. She is a young adult Filipino cis woman who was raised in a middle-class rural town in North Carolina for most of her childhood by immigrant parents.D.M. consulted on the design and delivery of the course as well as the preparation of this manuscript. He is a middle-aged White cis-gendered man who was raised in a suburban Philadelphia family with a diverse set of adopted and foster siblings. He approaches this work largely trained in a Jesuit social ethics tradition and currently serves as a student affairs educator responsible for community engagement, leadership, and DEI experiential programming.

S.B. designed and taught this class as a special topic in chemistry class in Spring 2021 and then in Spring 2022. They are a middle-aged Indian immigrant working in the US higher education. They identify as gender nonconfirming and a brown-immigrant-queer. They were raised in an upper caste and middle-class, college educated family in an urban environment in India and experiences and understands this world from these complex vantage points. These social locations of S.B. also influenced the texts and topics discussed in this course which centered around the historical relationship of Black and Brown and colonized people with modern STEM discipline.

I’m not sure whether this is relevant for teaching propaganda, though it tells us why it’s being taught. It also help establish the authors’ “identity credibility”.

Finally, there’s the obligatory land acknowledgment at the end. It’s a long one!

The authors acknowledge that this article was conceived, researched, and written on Indigenous land and “We acknowledge the Tuscarora people, who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognize their continuing connection to the land, water, and air that Greenville consumes. We pay respect to the eight state-recognized tribes of North Carolina; Coharie, Eastern Band of Cherokee, Haliwa-Saponi, Lumbee, Meherrin, Occaneechi Band of Saponi, Sappony, and Waccamaw-Siouan, all Nations, and their elders past, present, and emerging”.

Does this help the indigenous Americans? I don’t see how. I’m sure the Native Americans would prefer getting the land back than this faux form of “respect.”

To end, I point out what I think is an error. You can correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there was a “Tuskegee airmen” case that falls under the “history of medical racism”. I believe the authors are referring here to the four-decade “Tuskegee syphilis study” ending in 1972. It truly was a dark episode in the history of medical ethics: an experiment in which black men infected with syphilis were left untreated so that the US Public Health Service could observe the effects of untreated disease. These men could have been treated, but weren’t; they weren’t told what they had; and they were promised medical treatment but lied to.  This could not happen today, but it was a horrible, horrible thing to do to these people, and was certainly motivated in part by racism. Below is the conflation of this study with another group associated with Tuskegee:

The syphilis study had nothing to do, as far as I know, with the Tuskegee airmen, a group of black pilots who fought gallantly during WWII, despite the military having been segregated. They were the first black military aviators, and received many plaudits and decorations for their bravery and work. But the group had, as far as I know, nothing to do with the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, except that both groups of men were associated in some way with the historically black Tuskegee Institute, which later became Tuskegee University. So much for checking the facts!

The Upshot: This is without doubt the most annoying, misguided, and misplaced paper on science education I’ve read in the last five years. The American Chemical Society should be ashamed of itself.

h/t: Anna

Oxford Union debates whether wokeness has gone too far (videos)

January 14, 2023 • 12:20 pm

Last November 18 the Oxford Union debated the proposition, “This House Believes Woke Culture Has Gone Too Far.” The page with all the YouTube videos—eight of them—is here, and I’ll put them below because I run an accommodating website.

The Union has a page summarizing the debate, and gives the result:

. . . the Union voted last night 89-60 in favour of the motion “This House believes woke culture has gone too far.”

On his website, James Lindsay, who was put on the side arguing that woke culture has NOT gone too far, gives his account of the debate and says this:

I don’t intend to give a blow-by-blow summary of the debate. I encourage people to watch my part and the others for that (four speakers argued for ten minutes each, alternating sides). Instead, I want to summarize my argument and what I was doing with it and draw out a couple of important other points. My argument was simple: taken on its own terms, “Woke culture” has not gone too far because it cannot go too far.

Here you go, all eight presentations in order. Why couldn’t they just post a single video?

h/t:  Enrico

USC progressives: you can’t say “field” any longer

January 11, 2023 • 9:40 am

Every day the language policing gets more and more ludicrous, but this example, from the School of Social Work of the University of Southern California, takes the cake.  I can no longer say that “my field is evolutionary biology” because that is racist language. The connection, as outlined in the official letter below from the USC group, is that enslaved people went “into the field” in the antebellum South. That makes the word “field” off limits. But farmers were going into the field long before that!

Now the recommended verbiage is “my practicum is evolutionary biology.” At that point people will say “Whaaaat???” And, as several readers note below, the words “field work” for biologists are also unacceptable; I suppose the alternative is “ecological labor in the great outdoors”.

I don’t think people will buy this change. Note that USC’s stated goal is not just to change language but to “acknowledge inclusion and reject white supremacy, anti-immigrant, and anti-blacknesss ideologies.” I don’t think that this aim will come to mind when someone says “practicum.”

The thing that strikes me is that someone had to see the world “field” as racist, and then take action to expunge it from USC’s language. You have to be sniffing around very hard for offense to do something like that. And I suspect that their goal, in fact, isn’t any of the ones they state, but simply to assert power.  How bizarre that these initiatives actually work in today’s America!

If you think this is fake, it’s not: it’s been reported by quite a few venues. They’re mostly right-wing sites, of course, because the mainstream media would never highlight something like this, as it makes the progressive Left, as well as academia, look too crazy. It’s stuff like this that Republicans use to tar not just the “woke”, but all Democrats and left-centrists.

There are good cases to be made for changing some language, but this isn’t one of them.

George Will excoriates the proposed removal of a statue at Princeton

January 7, 2023 • 11:30 am

UPDATE: Here are Princeton’s standards for “honorific namings,” which I assume apply to statues as well:

  1. Honorific namings for people should recognize rare or exceptional levels of achievement, contributions to the University, and/or commitments to advance core University values.  Those so honored should have to their credit achievements or virtues that the University hopes its students would seek to emulate.
  2. Honorific namings may also recognize or memorialize historical events or milestones in the University’s history.
  3. As the University expands the portfolio of honorific namings on campus, it should take into account the University’s aspiration to be diverse and inclusive. While not every honorific naming need increase the diversity of campus names, the overall trajectory of such namings should do so.

When a conservative columnist says something I agree with on the whole, I have no reservations about highlighting it regardless of the person’s politics. And George Will has been getting more liberal these days.

Will’s latest Washington Post column, written more passionately than is his usual wont, deals with Princeton University’s discussions about removing a statue of John Witherspoon (1723-1794), considered one of the founding fathers of America, and was also the only clergyman who signed the Declaration of Independence (so much for America being founded as a Christian Nation!). This is from his Wikipedia biography:

John Witherspoon (February 5, 1723 – November 15, 1794) was a Scottish-American Presbyterian minister, educator, farmer, slaveholder, and a Founding Father of the United States. Witherspoon embraced the concepts of Scottish common sense realism, and while president of the College of New Jersey (1768–1794; now Princeton University) became an influential figure in the development of the United States’ national character. Politically active, Witherspoon was a delegate from New Jersey to the Second Continental Congress and a signatory to the July 4, 1776, Declaration of Independence. He was the only active clergyman and the only college president to sign the Declaration. Later, he signed the Articles of Confederation and supported ratification of the Constitution of the United States.

Reading on, you’ll see part of what he accomplished for Princeton during his 26-year Presidency:

At the age of 45, [Witherspoon] became the sixth president of the college, later known as Princeton University. Upon his arrival, Witherspoon found the school in debt, with weak instruction, and a library collection which clearly failed to meet student needs. He immediately began fund-raising—locally and back home in Scotland—added three hundred of his own books to the library, and began purchasing scientific equipment including the Rittenhouse orrery, many maps, and a terrestrial globe. Witherspoon instituted numerous reforms, including modeling the syllabus and university structure after that used at the University of Edinburgh and other Scottish universities. He also firmed up entrance requirements, which helped the school compete with Harvard and Yale for scholars.

He also taught belles lettres, chronology (history), and divinity, and his speciality, moral philosophy. Witherspoon was said to be very popular with faculty and students alike. But you can see what’s “problematic” in the second paragraph, and why Princeton is considering removing his statue.

Click to read Will’s column.

Yes, Witherspoon had slaves—two of them. But before you say that such an act damns him for eternity, mandating the removal of his name from everything as well as prompting us to remove his statues, note what Will says about him:

As Princeton’s president, this “animated son of liberty” (John Adams’s description of the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence) ensured the precarious institution’s survival. His students included future congressmen, senators, Supreme Court justices and a president — James Madison stayed an extra year to study with Witherspoon.

Kevin DeYoung, now serving as a Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina, wrote his 2019 doctoral dissertation on Witherspoon. DeYoung’s judgment is that Witherspoon believed three things about slavery, two of them true: Slavery was wrong, immediate emancipation was impossible, but America’s moral evolution would extinguish it within two generations.

DeYoung explains, without drawing conclusions from, three facts: In Scotland, Witherspoon baptized a runaway slave claimed by a member of Witherspoon’s church. At Princeton, Witherspoon tutored free Blacks. And Witherspoon’s will listed two slaves “until they are 28.” He had proposed a New Jersey law to free slaves at that age who were born after the law’s passage.

A university site on Princeton and Slavery says this:

John Knox Witherspoon (1723-1794) served as Princeton’s sixth president from 1768 to 1794. He personally owned slaves and publicly lectured and voted against the abolition of slavery in New Jersey, yet he also tutored several African and African American students. His actions and writings illustrate his sometimes contradictory positions on slavery. Likewise, his children and their families wrestled with the complexities and moral dilemmas of slavery.

Will is exercised by this as an example of authoritarian wokeness, which he sees in those who force people to “adhere to orthodoxy”.

But Will doesn’t get into that orthodoxy. To use the language of the woke, his column lacks “nuance”, and so he just rails against wokeness. This doesn’t mean his column is worthless, but he does miss the main point of why removing Witherspoon’s statue is a perfectly debatable issue. He goes on:

Princeton’s current contretemps, however, fascinatingly illustrates how wokeness, which lacks limiting principles, limits opposition to itself.

. . .Today’s disparagement of Witherspoon is more than just another example of “presentism” — judging the past through the lens of the present. It illustrates how the woke become a suffocating, controlling minority

Princeton’s Committee on Naming has been holding “listening sessions” to ascertain what Princetonians think about the statue. But who is speaking? Princetonians for Free Speech (PFS), an alumni organization much more devoted than the university’s administration and trustees are to viewpoint diversity, notes that “the atmosphere on campus greatly inhibits students, faculty, and others from stating their true views” on “highly politicized issues,” which nowadays most issues become.

Will makes a big deal about the self-censoring of Princeton students, surely because it’s the woke political climate that demands erasure of Witherspoon, but I’m not sure how a discussion of self-censorship, with the data now well known, advances his argument. Nevertheless, Will does point out the fact that debate about Witherspoon should be allowed on campus without being chilled, and adds, which one can’t mention too often, that no, a University is not like your parent’s home where you weren’t allowed to talk back. Your school is not your home and the administration is not your parents, nor are you guaranteed four years’ of mental comfort at Princeton—although the school is doing its best to ensure that!

The data, in case you wanted it:

In the Free Speech Ranking survey by the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), only 55 percent of Princeton students said it was never acceptable to block other students from attending a campus speech, only 25 percent said it was never acceptable to shout down a speaker, only 23 percent said they were very comfortable expressing their views during classroom discussions of political topics. There is no reason to think Princeton significantly differs from FIRE’s finding that only 14 percent of students nationwide would be very comfortable speaking freely in public settings, such as “listening sessions.”

PFS notes that the anti-Witherspoon cohort says Princeton is a “home,” therefore everyone should be protected from feeling “less at home” because of, say, unhappy thoughts occasioned by a statue. But a university is not a “home.” A university’s raison d’être, unlike a family’s, is civil but robust and unsettling questionings and disagreements. (Although a family without controversies sounds unlikely and unappealing.)

But importantly, Will does point out the seeming hypocrisy of “erasing” one Founding Father who had two slaves whom he would free, while leaving on the pedestals other Founders who not only had more slaves, but weren’t as conflicted about it as was Witherspoon—founding fathers like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, who of course are still honored. That’s a good point, and should spark discussion about not only “presentism,” but also about where the line is that separates the damned from the honored. Why does a semi-abolitionist who had two slaves but was also a popular and accomplished President of Princeton, as well as a Founding Father, and a tutor of black people, receive more opprobrium than does Jefferson and Washington, who owned dozens of slaves and treated them poorly?

Unfortunately, although I do bring in wokeness at times, I prefer to show how it damages society rather than just rail about it. In contrast, Will seems to use the statue mainly as an excuse to harp about this new religion. I don’t disagree with him, but he’s leaving out the issues that he says are being ignored by Princeton. This is only a small bit of his jeremiad:

The fires of wokeness will soon be starved of fuel by the sterile monotony of wokeness’s achievement: enforced orthodoxy. Campuses are becoming burned-over places, sullen about the scarcity of things to deplore and cancel within their gates. Beyond those gates, society increasingly regards academia with, at best, bemusement.

Nevertheless, in their leafy quarantine, the woke will have the consolation of vanity. Wokeness has many flavors but one purpose: self-flattery. Wokeness tells its disciples how morally superior they are to almost everyone, ever. The woke have revised the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s maxim about the moral universe to: “The arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward me.”

Bent by such people, a university becomes, as PFS says, “a place where orthodoxy is imposed and only a narrow version of history and knowledge is accepted.” So, not a university.

But the thing is, Will doesn’t menton what kind of argument could be had about this deplatforming. I’ve outlined it a bit above, but will expand a tad more.

If you asked a woke Princeton student who still had a brain (these are very rare), “Why do we keep Washington and Jefferson statues up but want to pull down Witherspoon’s?”, the student would probably say this. “Well, all these Founders owned slaves, but Witherspoon didn’t do enough to compensate for his enslaving two people.”

And that produces the debate we need: “Resolved: Were two slaves enough to erase a man who was not only ambiguous about slavery but did so much good for others?”

My answer to this question would be that we shouldn’t pull down Witherspoon’s statue because he adheres to Coyne’s Criteria for removing honors. Here are the criteria I use:

1.) Was the statue or honor put in place to celebrate something good that a person did rather than the bad?

and

2.) Did the good achieved by the person’s life outweigh the bad?

If the answer to both is “yes”, then you leave the person’s statue up, or keep his name on an award. If you wish to qualify the person’s life with a placard or other virtuous signal saying that NOW WE KNOW SOME OF THE STUFF WAS BAD, that’s ok; it’s just history.

In Witherspoon’s case, the answer to the first question is clearly “yes”.

Further, given what the man did at Princeton, given that he tutored free blacks, baptized a slave, and let his two slaves go free at the age of 28, and given his services in founding the country and revamping Princeton, the answer to the second question, in my view, is “yes”. If he had slaves in a time when that was universally disparaged and very rare, the answer might be different. But now we have a more enlightened view of using other people as chattel than did Witherspoon’s peers. We simply can’t ignore “presentism.” If we did, we would erase the entire history of men who lived before two centuries ago because they all held sexist views.  In sum, although Jefferson infused the founding of America with more of his ideas, and founded the University of Virginia as opposed to being its president, he also had more slaves than did Witherspoon, and therefore hurt more people.

I would say that if Witherspoon hadn’t existed at all, the world would have been a worse place (remember that the slaves he kept would have been the property of someone else, but probably not treated as well).

It is of course a debatable issue, but the hegemony of “presentism” is so strong that we forget that we ourselves will be looked upon in a few centuries as an unenlightened people. One reason, I think, is because we not only eat meat, which itself isn’t a sin, but treat our meat animals very badly and make their lives miserable. And there are other bad things we do, like executing prisoners, keeping them in horrible prison conditions, and usually don’t allow terminally ill people to end their lives with dignity when they want to. As Dr. Pinker constantly reminds us, morality improves, and that should remind us not to demonize everyone in the past who doesn’t adhere strictly to the curent form of morality espoused by the woke.

Here’s the statue that may be removed (image from flickr):

 

An article on the descent of the Unitarian Universalists into terminal wokeness

January 6, 2023 • 12:16 pm

If you want to stop reading because I used the word “wokeness”, in the title, be my guest, but I still haven’t found a word that expresses the same ideology in a concise way. If you have a concise term for the present (an pejorative) use of the term, by all means suggest it. But I asked this question before, and nearly all the readers said “wokeness” is fine.

At any rate, I used to think that Unitarian Universalism was, if you wanted a church, the best church to join. They don’t have a creed, just some humanistic principles, and you can go if you’re of any faith. I went to a service onee, and although I know that UU grew out of Christianity, there was not a single cross to be seen. If you feel that you need a church for the social vibe, then either join the UUs or Quakers. (I myself don’t feel the need for that, but some do).

Lately, however, the UUs (and, to some extent the Quakers) are getting woke; the dislike of Israel and Zionism, and embrace of CRT, are two symptoms of this fulminating “progressivism” (if you want to call it that).

The change in UU first struck me in 2019, when I wrote a piece about the Church’s attack on an antiwoke critic that smacked of authoritarianism and bullying. That piece was quoted by David Cycleback in his own critique of the change in UU published in Free Black Thought (click on screenshot below).

Here’s Cycleback’s bio from the article:

David Cycleback, Ph.D., is a philosopher and cognitive scientist, Director of Center for Artifact Studies, and a member of the British Royal Institute of Philosophy. He has written ten university textbooks, including Nature and Limits of Human Knowledge, Cognitive Science of Religion and Belief Systems, and Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence. His most recent book is Against Illiberalism: A critique of illiberal trends in liberal institutions, with a focus on Unitarian Universalism.

And he uses two quotes from me. One is praise from me used to start the piece:

Evolutionary biologist and religion critic Jerry Coyne (University of Chicago) concurs: “Of all existing religions that claim to be religions, Unitarian Universalism (UU) seems to be the least dogmatic and therefore the least harmful—and perhaps the most liberal and tolerant.”

Then comes Cyclebacks list of the Church’s recent descent into illiberal ideology.

Now not being a UUist, I can’t vouch for what Cycleback, who’s a white religious Jew, has to say about this church, but thought I’d report it as one person’s opinion. It’s certainly not just his alone, though, as my previous piece showed 500 UU ministers acting as penitentes for the church’s supposed white supremacy.

A few quotes is all I’ll give you. I know we have some UU readers, so please speak up and either criticize or support Cycleback’s views:

I am Jewish and I identify with Judaism’s strong tradition of embracing viewpoint diversity and free inquiry. I’m also neurodivergent (autistic and bipolar) and was raised in an academic family that promoted intellectual curiosity. With its slogan, “We don’t have to think alike to love alike,” my local Unitarian Universalist congregation was made for me and people like me.

UU has traditionally been mostly white, and, as with many organizations these days, aspires to become more diverse and welcoming to minorities. I support this goal. I am one of the small number of Jews in UU and the only practicing one in my congregation. Further, part of my research is in neurodiversity, including how to make organizations more welcoming and accommodating of neuroatypical people.

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), however, has chosen a destructive, intolerant approach that not only won’t create racial harmony but will likely attract few minorities to congregations while driving away many liberals.

As happens so often, it’s a small vocal minority who seems to have coopted the UU “theology” and cowed everyone else. This is familiar to me, because it’s how wokeness invades academia. It spreads because nobody dares to oppose the vocal minority, loudly flaunting their virtue, for fear of being called a bigot or a racist:

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), however, has chosen a destructive, intolerant approach that not only won’t create racial harmony but will likely attract few minorities to congregations while driving away many liberals.

In what one UU minister has described as a “coup” by “reactionaries,” the UUA was taken over by a small group of activists who wish to transform UU into an authoritarian, dogmatic church. The UUA has adopted as a kind of theological mandate an extreme, illiberal interpretation of critical race theory (CRT), incorporating the ideas of Ibram X. Kendi, Tema Okun, and Robin DiAngelo.

Rev. Dr. Thandeka, a black Unitarian Universalist minister, spelled out in 2007 the main tenets of the “antiracism” that was already then being adopted by the UUA:

One: All whites in America are racists.

Two: No blacks in American are racist. [… T]hey can’t be racist because racism in this conceptual scheme is defined as prejudice + power.

Three: Whites must be shown that they are racists and confess their racism.

As she pointed out at the time, these three tenets violate the principles of the UU covenant, misunderstand how power actually works in America, and over-attribute racism to white people.

As the three “antiracist” tenets identified by Rev. Dr. Thandeka suggest, the worst excesses of “woke culture” you can think of are now found in the national UU: Dogmatism, religious-like fanaticism and self-righteousness, racial essentialism and neo-racism, censorship, call-out and cancel culture, victimhood culture and caste systems, ideological language and language policing, expectations of ideological and political conformity, authoritarianism, punishment and even expulsion of perceived heretics.

. . .As UUA sees its views as unilateral and dogma, dissent and countering views are not only suppressed but many dissenters shut down and punished.

Longtime UU Ministers Richard Trudeau and Kate Rohde were censured for expressing dissent, Trudeau merely for asking questions in a ministers’ forum. Longtime progressive activist Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof was expelled from the UUA for writing a book criticizing the UUA’s new identity politics.[JAC: My piece was about the treatment of Eklof.] Rev. Rick Davis was removed from the Good Officers program for advocating for Eklof as his Good Officer. A Good Officer’s job is to act as a proverbial public defender for the minister they represent. Davis afterward called the whole process a “kangaroo court” and “a setup to provide a predetermined outcome.” He referred to the ministers association’s discipline procedures as “truly Kafkaesque.” Rev. Cynthia Cain sums up the situation:

UUs everywhere, but particularly clergy and particularly on social media, are afraid to speak their truth. Their fear is due to their perception that not only will they be shamed, shouted down, and piled upon metaphorically, but that they may actually lose their standing with our association and consequently their livelihoods. This I know for certain.

Following the new UUA orthodoxy, many newly ordained ministers work to stifle dissent in congregations. They often platform only the UUA-approved agenda and censor, punish, and even expel dissenting congregants. Congregants have been publicly called out for questioning the orthodoxy and even recommending the reading of unapproved books. A few ministers have promoted the idea that dissenting congregants should be re-educated or asked to leave. One UUA leader singled out older liberal congregants as having to change their way of thinking or leave UU.

I’m quoted again at the very end of the essay (below), but this time with my reservations about the Church:

At the beginning of this essay, I quoted Prof. Jerry Coyne’s praise of UU. However, in the same essay, he also wrote, “Since UU is one of the few ‘religions’ that I haven’t criticized strongly, as it is nondogmatic, liberal, and (I thought) charitable, I was truly disappointed to see it turning into The Evergreen Church of Perpetual Offense.”

How this will all ultimately play out in Unitarian Universalism only time will tell. However, the plummeting membership, dissolving congregations, and increasing strife do not point to a pleasant or productive future. Instead, we appear to be getting an object lesson in how to destroy a liberal church.

The White House launches new program to establish equity in STEMM

January 6, 2023 • 9:30 am

The White House has announced a new Biden-led initiative to improve equity in STEMM fields (the second “M” is now “medicine”) ; you can read the document by clicking on the link below. (It’s a fairly short report, which you can read in. . well, I’m not going to give reading times. It’s short.)  The report diagnoses the problem (unequal representation in science, mostly of racial minorities), gives suppose reasons for those inequities, and proposes five ways to remedy them.

In general the motivation is good, though, as usual, I think that equal opportunity instead of proportional representation should be the goal, for different groups may have different preferences that may lead to “inequities” (representation of groups in proportions not equal to those in the general population). Giving everyone equal opportunity levels the playing field for everyone, so that “inequities” will consequently be due to preferences or other cultural factors rather than bias.

I have only two beefs with Uncle Joe’s plan. First, it explicitly blames inequity in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) on structural barriers and racism. While the “pipeline problem” for minorities—reduced entry of minorities into the pathway to STEMM success—is real, and due to racism in the past, I don’t think there’s much evidence that, as the report asserts (see below), STEMM fields are rife with racism and harassment.  The claim that there’s racism in awarding NIH grants is also cited in the report, but not the later discovery that those inequities were largely due to minorities choosing to apply for grants in field that aren’t funded as often or as heavily as those chosen by non-minority investigators, as well as to having research track records that were, on average, not as good as other applicants. And studies in which investigators were blinded as to applicant’s race and gender also showed no bias. In light of these studies, it’s quite hard to make a case for systemic racism in science, especially now when schools and Ph.D. programs are fighting to increase minority representation.

What I applaud about the initiative is the explicit aim to intervene early, since that’s the only way to equalize opportunity. And that will take lots of will, dosh, and effort; but it’s the only way to ensure that the U.S. really offers everyone the same chance to succeed.  By the time people are of Ph.D. age, it’s too late. You can achieve equity then, but only by changing the criteria for advancement, not by offering equal opportunity.

But that leads to my second beef: there are inequities in nearly all professional fields—not just science but business, entertainment, and so on. Why limit this initiative to STEMM when what we need is a general equalization of opportunity for everyone? Is it because STEMM is more important? Or because a massive restructuring of society to allow equal opportunity wouldn’t fly?  I don’t know. One thing they’re proposing is beefing up the number of teachers with STEMM expertise in minority communities. That is important, and a good early intervention, but doesn’t it apply to secondary-school teachers as a whole, many of whom are woefully underpaid?

I’m not sure if the proposal will fly given that we don’t even have a Congress yet, and when we do it will be a Republican majority one. But the motivation is good, even if I have a few beefs with the execution and rationale.

Here are the five areas where money and effort are to be invested (quote from White House document).

a.) Action Area 1 – Ensure that students, teachers, workers, communities, and others have adequate support to participate in and contribute to science and technology throughout their lifetimes.

b.) Action Area 2 – Address the STEMM teacher shortage—which disproportionately harms underrepresented students—by investing in a strong and diverse teacher pipeline.

c.)  Action Area 3 – Close the funding gap and support researchers and communities who have been historically excluded from access to key resources

d.) Action Area 4 – Scale solutions that root out bias, discrimination, and harassment in the classroom, laboratory, and workplace

e.) Action Area 5 – Promote accountability across the science and technology ecosystem

The first two are fine and needed. #3 and #5 are designed to promote equity rather than equal opportunity, so I have issues with them. One way to remedy a funding gap is to eliminate any indication of race or minority status from grant applications; that is, the reviewers are blind to the nature of the proposers. That won’t completely solve the potential problem of bias (it’s not too hard to find out who is applying), but it will help. But, as noted above, the NIH studies of this showed no evidence of racial or gender bias.

As I show from the quotes below, Biden’s proposals are weakened by assuming that first, what we need is equity rather than equal opportunity, and second, by assuming that the inequities we see today are due to racism and harassment going on in science now. Area 4 is useful in principle, for bias is against the law, but do we really need more DEI committees given that solutions are already in place?

At any rate, the best thing about this initiative is that it proposes to begin interventions at the beginning of education (indeed, they should be in place at the beginning of life).

Here is what I see as overreach by the committee. In the first bullet point, the landmark 2011 study is now known to constitute no evidence whatsoever for bias.

  • Funds and resources are unevenly available, often exacerbating existing disparities, stunting science, and building distrust of the scientific system. Many documented trends have caused these gaps to grow deeper and wider: Persistent late-career funding trends undermine the potential of early innovation, with the average age for receiving a first significant federal or equivalent grant hovering close to 45, and principal investigators (PIs) over 65 receiving twice as many RO1s as those under 36.[xiv] Studies have consistently shown inequities in the allocation of research funding, including a landmark 2011 NIH study which exposed that Black PIs were funded at roughly half the rate of White PIs.[xv] These problems have early roots, with minority-serving institutions (MSIs), emerging institutions, and community colleges receiving on a small fraction of all of the science and technology research and development funds available each year.[xvi] While many initiatives and programs in federal agencies and academic institutions work to advance community priorities, they are chronically underfunded.

The “landmark 2011 study” was the one cited in later analysis of disparities in grant awards, shown to be due to differences in track records and research areas.  It’s intellectually dishonest for this report cite that “landmark 2011 study” without explaining what the analysis really discovered: no “systemic racism.”

  • Bias, discrimination, and harassment plague the science and technology ecosystem, from school to workforce and beyond. Systemic barriers—including bias, racism, sexism, ableism, exclusion, discrimination, cultural disincentives, and chronic underfunding—deter people of all ages from considering, pursuing, and persisting in science and technology careers and limit participation in science and technology. . .

I find this hard to believe, as it doesn’t jibe with my “lived experience”. For example, I discussed the lack of evidence for “ableism” accounting for evolutionary-biology inequities recently. The authors do cite studies for gender bias as well as racial bias, but these studies seem to depend entirely on self-report and are contradicted by the blind tests mentioned above. They shouldn’t be dismissed because of that, of course, for nobody claims that racism and bias are not evinced by some scientists. The claim at issue, however, is that unequal representation of genders and races at the Ph.D. level or above are almost wholly due to “systemic barriers.” This is a diktat, a claim by fiat, and there are alternative explanations. The reason we don’t often hear them is because if you question the claims above, you’ll be tarred as bigoted.

Because there’s still at least a legacy of racism that holds people back, we shouldn’t ignore the problem. The way to solve it, though, is not to indict science for being rife with sexism and racism. That solves nothing. The way to not hold people back is to give them equal opportunity to achieve—to fulfill their ambitions—right at the beginning of life.  That is a cure rather than the Band-aids often offered as remedies.

My interview in L’Express about “progressive” attacks on science

December 27, 2022 • 9:15 am

I was interviewed about a month ago by Thomas Mahler and Laetitia Strauch -Bonart for the French magazine L’Express; the topic was attacks on the Left coming from science. (The title translates as “Big interview. Jerry Coyne: ‘The attacks against science from the left are worrisome.'”)

If you can read French, the link below is free (click screenshot). If you want a not-so-great Google translation into English, simply contact me.

 

 

 

Progressive professors: the root of all evil

December 23, 2022 • 11:00 am

. . . or so says Russell Jacoby, author and Professor Emeritus, Department of History, UCLA. What seems weird to me in his Wikipedia bio is this:

In 2009, he was appointed to the Moishe Gonzales Folding Chair of Critical Theory.

That cannot be true (I used to say that I occupied a “folding chair of biology,” but Moishe Gonzales? No way! Is that a mockery of intersectionalism?).

Anyway, folding chair or not, Jacoby has a good piece at Tablet, a piece that blames the woes of the world on “progressive” (i.e., woke) professors, who are no longer professors because they can’t get university jobs.  In a long-form piece at Tablet, though, Jacoby indicts them because they’ve created the culture-wars in which we’re now embroiled.

Click below to read it for free.

Jacoby first provides a canned history of “public intellectuals,” a position that once existed outside of academia and was remunerative (e.g., Edmund Wilson and Lewis Mumford), but disappeared as inflation outpaced the fees paid to journalists. After that, intellectuals were forced to take jobs at universities. Most of them weren’t explicitly political, but by 1980 most academic “intellectuals” had not only moved to the Left, but began to write in incomprehensible prose that made their “radical” lucubrations inaccessible to the public—ergo not influential. Who in the public has read Judith Butler or Homi Bhabha?  Jacoby reproduces the famous sentence by Butler (below) that won her a Bad Writing Award (a prize that sadly has disappeared). If you can tell me what this Butlerian sentence means, you’re a better person than I:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

This is the reason why, for a long period, professors had almost no influence on public culture.

But then. . . but then Leftist professors began to metastasize into the public, and the trouble began. I’ll give a few excerpts from the piece, which is well written:

But my critics and I both missed something that might not have been obvious 30 years ago. By the late 1990s the rapid expansion of the universities came to a halt, especially in the humanities. Faculty openings slowed or stopped in many fields. Graduate enrollment cratered. In my own department in 10 years we went from accepting over a hundred students for graduate study to under 20 for a simple reason. We could not place our students. The hordes who took courses in critical pedagogy, insurgent sociology, gender studies, radical anthropology, Marxist cinema theory, and postmodernism could no longer hope for university careers.

What became of them? No single answer is possible. They joined the work force. Some became baristas, tech supporters, Amazon staffers and real estate agents. Others with intellectual ambitions found positions with the remaining newspapers and online periodicals, but most often they landed jobs as writers or researchers with liberal government agencies, foundations, or NGOs. In all these capacities they brought along the sensibilities and jargon they learned on campus.

It is the exodus from the universities that explains what is happening in the larger culture. The leftists who would have vanished as assistant professors in conferences on narratology and gender fluidity or disappeared as law professors with unreadable essays on misogynist hegemony and intersectionality have been pushed out into the larger culture. They staff the ballooning diversity and inclusion commissariats that assault us with vapid statements and inane programs couched in the language they learned in school. We are witnessing the invasion of the public square by the campus, an intrusion of academic terms and sensibilities that has leaped the ivy-covered walls aided by social media. The buzz words of the campus—diversity, inclusion, microaggression, power differential, white privilege, group safety—have become the buzz words in public life. Already confusing on campus, they become noxious off campus. “The slovenliness of our language,” declared Orwell in his classic 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” makes it “easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Orwell targeted language that defended “the indefensible” such as the British rule of India, Soviet purges and the bombing of Hiroshima. He offered examples of corrupt language. “The Soviet press is the freest in the world.” The use of euphemisms or lies to defend the indefensible has hardly disappeared: Putin called the invasion of Ukraine “a special military operation,” and anyone calling it a “war” or “invasion” has been arrested.

Yes, this is correct, and I’ve recently discussed the euphemisms that are afflicting everything, with an example from Stanford University’s IT group. Now, of course, we know what the “takeover is”: it’s what happens when “progressive” academics who have taught or taken “studies” courses moves out into society and ensure that we can’t have nice things:

When employees protest that they feel unsafe because their company is publishing an offensive article or book, we know what university courses they have taken. When the ACLU drops any mention of the First Amendment from its annual reports; when one of its directors declares, “First Amendment protections are disproportionately enjoyed by people of power and privilege”; and when its counsels its own lawyers to balance free speech and “offense to marginalized groups,” we know they studied critical race theory. When women are dropped from Planned Parenthood literature with the explanation, “It’s time to retire the terms ‘women’s health care’ and ‘a woman’s right to choose’ … these phrases erase the trans and non-binary people who have abortions.” Or when the NARL (National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws) announces it is replacing the phrase pregnant women with “birthing people” and declares, “We use gender neutral language when talking about pregnancy, because it is not just cis-gender women who get pregnant”; we know those who authored these changes majored in gender studies and critical blather.

We know this, but we have to suffer the consequences. The self-righteous professors have spawned self-righteous students who filter into the public square. The former prospered in their campus enclaves by plumping each other’s brilliance, but they left the rest of us alone. The latter, their students, however, constitute an unmitigated disaster, intellectually and politically, as they enter the workforce. They might be the American version of the old Soviet apparatchiks, functionaries who carry out party policies. Intellectually, they fetishize buzz words (diversity, marginality, power differential, white privilege, group safety, hegemony, gender fluidity and the rest) that they plaster over everything.

Politically, they mark a self-immolation of progressives; they flaunt their exquisite sensibilities and openness, and display exquisite narcissism and insularity. Once upon a time leftists sought to enlarge their constituency by reaching out to the uninitiated. This characterized a left during its most salient phase of popular front politics. No longer. With a credo of group safety the newest generation of leftists does not reach out but reaches in. It operates more like a club for members only than a politics for everyone.

One of the reason Jacoby mentions “harm” and “safety” is because when the NYT published an op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton saying that perhaps the military should intervene if protestors started creating damage, the paper’s staffers said they felt that the piece put them “in danger”. (It still baffles me that nobody laughed out loud at this ludicrous claim. Did they think that Cotton would come to New York and start shooting at them?) And the op-ed editor, James Bennett, was fired.

Jacoby gives several similar examples, but it’s Christmas and you have time to read the piece for yourself. It has a fair amount of good snark, too, including this slap at law professor Catherian MacKinnon, a feminist who became famous for opposing pornography. And again this rings true, and also underscores Jacoby’s point that opposition to freedom of speech now comes almost exclusively from the Left. That is shameful given that free expression was once a hallmark of that shade of the political spectrum.

The first sentence of an article by Catharine A. MacKinnon, a chaired professor at the University of Michigan and Harvard Law schools, who is the leading anti-pornography feminist, runs: “The First Amendment over the last hundred years has mainly become a weapon of the powerful.” She specifies: “A First Amendment appeal is often used to support dominant status and power, backing white supremacy and masculinist misogynistic attacks.” It is a means for “dominant groups to impose and exploit their hegemony.” Note all the buzz words: dominant power, white supremacy, hegemony. The position marks a sharp shift from the traditional civil libertarians, who prized free speech as protection for dissenters. These civil libertarians are now dismissed as misguided First Amendment absolutists or worse, right-wingers, even Fox viewers.

A problem emerges from the half-baked Marxism of the law professors and their students, who toil and tweet in NGO land. Marx did declare that the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas, but qualified that both cleavages exist in the ruling class and that a new revolutionary class challenges the dominant ideas. Perhaps he was wrong, but at least he posited movement and conflict. It could also be noted that the term “hegemony,” a favorite of campus leftists, derives from the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. For all his subtlety and inconsistencies, the imprisoned Gramsci saw social antagonisms as ever-present. As one commentator has put it, “Gramsci’s concept of hegemony” provides the basis for an intellectual elite to engage in a “war of position” that will prepare the way “to overthrow the existing order.”

War of position? Nothing could be further from the minds of these professors, who portray power as omnipresent and static. That the First Amendment is a tool of the powerful, professor MacKinnon’s pathbreaking insight, comes right out of hackneyed Marxism; it could be said with equal truth about any sector of society. “Housing is a weapon of the powerful.” “The media is a weapon of the powerful.” “Education is a weapon of the powerful.” For that matter professor MacKinnon, who teaches to the most privileged at the most elite schools, is a weapon of the powerful.

There’s no solution offered by Jacoby, just a big kvetch about how things are. And, indeed, given that the “studies mills” are still grinding out students who can’t get academic jobs and will thus infest university administrations and the media for years to come, I’ll have been long underground when and if this movement dies out. But before we become one with the clay, we can at least laugh at the people who call us out for saying words like “Hispanic” or “American,” or tell us that free speech causes them “harm” and makes them “unsafe.”

 

h/t: Barry