Should we narrow the First Amendment to forbid speech urging violence?

The limitations on “free speech”, as construed by the courts’ parsing of the First Amendment, are well known. No personal threats, no harassment in the workplace, no child pornography, defamation, or false advertising. And, of course, no calling for violence that will predictably lead to imminent violence.   The Encyclopedia Brittanica describes the law. 

. . . a few narrow categories of speech are not protected from government restrictions. The main such categories are incitement, defamationfraudobscenitychild pornography, fighting words, and threats. As the Supreme Court held in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the government may forbid “incitement”—speech “directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and “likely to incite or produce such action” (such as a speech to a mob urging it to attack a nearby building). But speech urging action at some unspecified future time may not be forbidden.

I’ve been having a discussion of this with my Polish surrogate mother, Malgorzata, who feels that the law doesn’t go far enough: that any speech that calls for violence to people or groups of people should be banned, whether or not violence ensues. (I think she means “personal violence,” like killing or injuring, not damage to property.)  (She is a staunch defender of free speech in general.)

First, what speech should be banned? Her response:

If somebody during Farrakhan speech goes outside and kills a Jew or a gay, the violence was imminent. But if he does it an hour later, or a day later, or a week later (like one of the synagogue shooters) it’s no longer imminent and it’s a protected speech. Will criminalizing all words calling for killing or maiming any other human or group of humans really be detrimental for society? It should not be so difficult to decide which words are calling directly to violence: “Go and kill”; “Go and maim”. X,Y,Z has no right to live”, “All X,Y,Z should be killed”. Are there many more variants of it?

About the time limit corresponding to “imminent,”  I said, “It’s flexible. It’s meant to prevent people from inciting crowds to do immediate violence.  And saying ‘go and kill’ is easier to criminalize than saying ‘the Jews are destroying humanity, we must do something about it,’ which could incite people just as much.”

She responded:

. . . Yes, it could, but with a very, very restrictive law “we must do something about it” would not be banned, but “they must be exterminated” would. It’s more than chilling to hear such blatant calls to murder, to know that people do act on these calls and that many already been murdered, and just do nothing.

When I said that a fuzzy time boundary would be bad for society, and how long after violence-inducing speech was the limit for saying that it violated the First Amendment, she responded this way (I also said that immediate violence, like lynching of blacks in the South), is easy to discern, but that this doesn’t happen any more, she responded:

If you look at Europe and the Middle East, there is an abundance of examples of killing after calls to kill. And I don’t care whether it’s an hour or 100 days. I would be for banning all calls to kill and maim.

Now I have to say that in principle Malgorzata’s point sounds good. What good is done by allowing speech that calls for the killing or maiming of others? Is it good for society to permit that?

But my response would be this. You must allow all speech, however odious and hateful, unless it makes violence happen immediately thereafter, and in a predictable and specific way. If you extend that limit to infinity, so that a lone gunman can write a manifesto citing, say Farrakhan’s hatred of the Jews as a reason he shot up a synagogue, the connection between the speech and the violence because more and more tenuous. Thus the connection must be near-immediate and obvious. And an infinite time limit is of course the same thing as saying that, as Malgorzata opines, no violence need ensue. The call for it alone should be illegal.

But why allow people to call for the extermination of others at all? My response would be that it accomplishes several things. First, it outs one’s opponents rather than having this kind of hatred fester underground. Second, it can inspire discussion. For example, if someone says in a speech, “We should exterminate all the Jews” (this is indeed illegal in several Western countries), then you can ask them “Why?” and answer with counterspeech. If no violence occurs from the statement, then one has a potentially teachable moment.

I don’t want to dwell on this at length; my purpose is to see if readers agree with the courts’ construal of the First Amendment, or with Malgorzata’s view that all calls to kill and maim should be illegal whether or not they lead to violence to people’s bodies.

Weigh in below, please. Malgorzata and I will be reading the comments to respond or clarify.


Pushback from Sean Carroll and others against the Harper’s letter promoting open discourse

UPDATE: In a New York Times article, Thomas Chatterton Williams, a Haper’s writer who helped organize the letter, got specific with some of the incidents that inspired its creation:

He said there wasn’t one particular incident that provoked the letter. But he did cite several recent ones, including the resignation of more than half the board of the National Book Critics Circle over its statement supporting Black Lives Matter, a similar blowup at the Poetry Foundation, and the case of David Shor, a data analyst at a consulting firm who was fired after he tweeted about academic research linking looting and vandalism by protesters to Richard Nixon’s 1968 electoral victory.

Is that good enough to answer those who say that the letter lacked specificity? I could add lots more!


Yesterday I reported on a letter, signed by many luminaries, about the need for open debate and the dangers of repressive “cancel culture,” whether from the Right or Left. The letter was published simultaneously in Harper’s, Le Monde, Die Zeit, La Repubblica, and El País.  Before we look at some pushback, please reread the original short letter:

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

Note that this isn’t particularly controversial, at least to me. It seems incontestable that social-media mobs and other forms of demonization and bullying are indeed narrowing the range of acceptable speech, with strict penalties if you go against acceptable thought (on the Left, that would be “woke” thought, including critical theory).  (See the last Tweet at bottom.) This is in fact a classic defense of free speech, arguing that “justice and freedom cannot exist without each other.”

The letter indicts all parts of the political spectrum, though I think it was meant mainly as a message to the Left: “Don’t be like the Right.” Note as well that although it cites the kinds of censorious behavior that it decries, it doesn’t give specific examples. I think that’s fine, for examples would detract from the general point, and can be found quite easily. As I wrote yesterday:

I bet you could name an example of every action mentioned here (e.g., editors being fired = James Bennet; journalist barred from writing on certain topics = Andrew Sullivan, professor fired for quoting literature in class = Philip Adamo, and so on).

But, as you might expect, the letter brought pushback, some of which came not from its message, but from the identities of the signers. I was saddened, though, to see pushback against the message from physicist Sean Carroll, a man I’ve always admired (and admire still); he’s our Official Website Physicist.®  Here are screenshots of his 10-tweet thread, which you can find here.

Let me respond briefly to these tweets, as I think Sean’s argument—that the Harper’s letter was not only useless, but injurious—is misguided. I’ll take the tweets in their numbered order.

1.) How, exactly, is a letter calling for open discourse, and the withholding of a mob mentality towards those transgressing “accepted” wisdom, “anti-productive”? (The word is “counterproductive”, I think.) Sean’s explanation follows.

2.) Sean says that “some of the signatories have been involved in attempts to silence people they disagree with.” Curiously, though he faults the article for not giving specific examples, Sean declines to name names here, so I have no idea what or whom he’s talking about.  And even if a few have done this, which would be hypocritical, that doesn’t affect the message of the letter. Why not just take it as it is without minutely examining every signatory? After all, who has an unblemished record?

As for “none of them is exactly lacking ways to have their voices be heard,” why is that relevant? They wanted their voices to be heard on an issue that isn’t often discussed in the mainstream liberal press, and thus the letter was published in major media in five countries. What they’re doing is letting their voices be heard at a time critical for describing the tsunami of indictments for Thoughtcrime, Writecrime, and Newspeak.

3.) Sean claims that the “letter declines to engage with substance, instead straw-manning the incidents they object to. We are told, for example, that “professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class.”

There’s no strawmanning here; I can name one or more examples of every behavior cited in the Harper’s piece. It would be counterproductive to divert attention from the article’s message by going into detail about each claim. I could do that for you, and I’ve given several examples, but rest assured that there is no “strawmanning,” which I take to mean a claim by Carrol that the authors are exaggerating these incidents. They aren’t. And, of course, Carroll himself fails to give examples of the “censorious” people who, he says, signed the article.

4.) In the “4/n” tweet, Sean argues that nobody objects to “quoting literature” in a classroom in general, and he’s right. But that isn’t the point of the article. The point was that quoting literature in a classroom that makes people uncomfortable can lead to teachers being fired or disciplined, and that’s happened many times. If you follow my site and others, you’ll easily find such cases. Again, going into detail—giving five or six instances of each claim—would detract from the article’s message.

5.) Same as above: Sean’s beef is that details about the controversies are lacking (are “erased”, to use the argot of the Woke). If the details support the claims, which they do, this doesn’t concern me. The main argument is clear, and is far from a “simple morality play.”

6.) Sean claims that there is no “culture war here”, just the need for principled debate. But yes, there is a kind of culture war, with the Authoritarian Left trying to silence those who violate the dicta of Critical Theory by threatening them with career damage, being called a “racist,” and so on. I am not aware of many people on the Center-Left, like me, trying to silence anybody. In fact, this site is about debate. Note that although Sean says “phrases like ‘cancel culture’ serve to obscure more than clarify,” the Harper’s article doesn’t even use that phrase.

7-10.) This is where I disagree most strongly with Sean. His argument is more or less “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” That is, those who get hurt or “unfairly fired from their job” in the current climate of ideological purity, well, they’re just collateral damage in a tactic that he sees as “a bad strategy in an honorable fight.” But the point is that we all agree that the “fight”, i.e., the battle for equality, inclusion, equity, and against Trumpism, is an honorable fight. The point is that you don’t have to fight dirty.

I disagree that hurting people’s livelihood and reputations is “something we have to accept as part of progress.” No, we do not! Yes, we should push back against that, but by then the damage is done. The point is not to discuss the Cancel Culture, but to change it—to dissolve a culture that prizes bullying and censorship over open but respectful disagreement.  Frankly, I do not see the “weasel words” and “sweeping generalizations” in the Harper’s letter that, claims Sean, “undercut the struggle for equality in the name of free discourse.” Is he saying here that we should accept restrictions on discourse because they hinder the achievement of equality? I’m not sure. But I’m pretty sure that the Harper’s article will not undermine the fight for moral justice.

In truth, I’m not sure what Sean is trying to do with this series of tweets except to say that he’s opposed to the article.


I just noticed that on his blog, P. Z. Myers has also dismissed the Harper’s letter as “whiny”. He also beefs about a lack of detailed description of the incidents—incidents that anybody can find in a moment of Googling:

Shorter Harper’s letter: We elites deplore the fact that people use the internet to criticize us. It’s clear that whoever wrote this had some specific incidents in mind, but chose to remove any details in that second paragraph to prevent anyone from thinking, “wait, that was a fair response to writing stupid ideas.” And the “threat of reprisal” they are concerned about is that people might use the privilege of free speech to disagree with them. The “ideological conformity” they’re concerned about is the growing realization that modern conservatism has poisoned our civilization, is a rotten idea, and maybe, just maybe, rotten ideas ought not to dominate our government.

It all boils down to yet another paean to Free Speech being used to silence anyone who might criticize the status quo. How dare you recoil in disgust at my thinly-veiled call for eugenics, or my distortion of biology to decree that there are only two sexes, or my concern that uppity Blacks should calm down and wait for justice to gently lap against your toes? We have bills to pay, and if you make our conformity to the conservative establishment less bankable, we might have to struggle to pay off the house in the Hamptons!

. . . they say nothing about what’s to be done to end “this stifling atmosphere.” Maybe because what they actually want is to shut everyone else up.

There’s more, but it makes me ill. Nobody is calling for people to shut up or not engage in debate here. As is palpably clear, the letter is simply decrying the tendency of social-justice mobs (and others on the Right), to threaten or try to ruin people’s careers for the most trivial of “sins.” One example is the letter to the Linguistics Society of America trying to strip Pinker of his LSA honors because of a few tweets and one word in a book (mild-mannered). Want more: what about the cancellation of Woody Allen’s memoirs by Hachette? Or the cancellation of young-adult fiction that isn’t sufficiently woke? Or the demonization of J. K. Rowling (who signed the article) for her views on trans women? I could go on, but I’m getting weary of Myers’s well known tendency to go after anyone who’s more famous than he, accusing them, as he does here, of racism, conservatism, and elitism.


The Washington Post has a longish article describing reaction, both pro and con, to the Harper’s letter. You can read that for yourself.


An article at The American Conservative applauds the letter as a useful prod on the Right by the Left. (Am I demonized for citing that site? If so, that just shows the point of the Harper’s article!) The AC article contains several interesting tweets. I’ll show just a couple:

From a Vox writer criticizing one of her colleagues who signed the article. Dog whistles in there!

A retraction from a signer:

And a tweet (which I can’t find on the Twitter feed) from Thomas Chatterton Williams, a writer for the New York Times, a columnist at Harpers, and also one of the letter’s organizers.

The fact that many people agreed with the letter but refused to sign it emphasizes more than anything else the NEED for such a letter.

Williams’s Twitter feed has many good tweets from those who signed the letter or supported it. Have a look.

I end with a new tweet from Pinker

h/t: Chris, cesar

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ oblivousness

The latest Jesus and Mo strip, called “zero,” shows that the pubs of the UK are open again. Moses has also left quarantine, off to wander for a few more decades. As happens so often in this strip, the boys see the mote in another’s eye, but can’t discern the beam in theirs.

And we interrupt for a useful announcement from the author:

Do you think Jesus and Mo is almost funny sometimes? Why not help keep it going by becoming a Patron, like Sean? [Sean won this month’s raffle prize.]

And don’t forget – there’s also the the latest print collection of strips, with a foreword by Jerry Coyne, which you can buy here: [JAC: I get no remuneration from your purchase.]

Readers’ wildlife videos

Rick Longworth makes some nice wildlife videos, complete with music, and here’s one featuring a brood of screech owls. His description is indented, and he adds some owl facts:

A pair of western screech owls (Megascops kennicottii) took over my wood duck box this spring. They are small, about 19-25 cm in length. As I reported earlier, the wood ducks came and inspected the box in May but then flew off. I checked the box a few days later and found it had already been taken by the owls. I filmed them every 4 or 5 days to document the development of the chicks. I knew I would have to open the front of the box briefly to film, so I consulted a local owl expert who said the filming should not interfere with the birds. The young are initially pure white fading to brownish-gray. This plumage is replaced with another developing plumage with darker upper parts and light under parts. Streaking and barring develop as the owl matures.

More info about owls here.

Look at those little cotton balls! But they’ll become relentless predators.


Wednesday: Hili dialogue

We’re at Hump Day now: July 7, 2020: National Chocolate with Almonds Day.  It’s also National Ice Cream Sundae Day (much preferable to chocolate with almonds). I prefer mine at Margie’s Candies, an establishment that is exactly like it was in the 1930s, including the treats. Like the old days, when you order a hot fudge sundae you get a pitcher of the hot fudge (homemade, of course) on the side, with extra for pouring—or drinking.  Here’s a video (the Turtle Sundae is to die for!). This is one reason I love living in Chicago:

News of the Day: You’d think it can’t get worse, but you’d be wrong. The pandemic is surging in all but about 20 states in the U.S. (fortunately, Illinois isn’t one). The situation is especially bad in Georgia, California, and Florida; in the latter state, 56 hospitals have reached full capacity of their ICUs.

Read this NYT report on the conditions in Sweden, which decided to ride out the pandemic without lockdown. It’s grim: lots of deaths and virtually no benefit to the economy from not having lockdowns.

The odious president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonero, who has repeatedly downplayed the threat of the coronavirus over the past months, with many unmasked displays of hugging, being in crowds, and so on, has tested positive for the virus. Brazil of course is a hotspot for the pandemic.

Finally, today’s reported Covid-19 death toll in the U.S. is 131,289, an increase of about 1000 deaths over yesterday’s report (which itself reported an increase of only 400 deaths). The world death toll now stands at 543,882, an increase of about 6000 from yesterday.

If you still want to travel during the pandemic, the New York Times provides a list of countries where Americans can visit, though there may still be some restrictions.

Stuff that happened on July 8 include:

  • 1099 – Some 15,000 starving Christian soldiers begin the siege of Jerusalem by marching in a religious procession around the city as its Muslim defenders watch.
  • 1497 – Vasco da Gama sets sail on the first direct European voyage to India.
  • 1776 – Church bells (possibly including the Liberty Bell) are rung after John Nixon delivers the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence of the United States.
  • 1898 – The death of crime boss Soapy Smith, killed in the Shootout on Juneau Wharf, releases Skagway, Alaska from his iron grip.

Here’s Soapy, killed in Skagway over a gambling debt.

  • 1932 – The Dow Jones Industrial Average reaches its lowest level of the Great Depression, closing at 41.22.
  • 1960 – Francis Gary Powers is charged with espionage resulting from his flight over the Soviet Union.
  • 1994 – Kim Jong-il begins to assume supreme leadership of North Korea upon the death of his father, Kim Il-sung.

Notables born on this day include:

  • 1838 – Eli Lilly, American soldier, chemist, and businessman, founded Eli Lilly and Company (d. 1898)
  • 1867 – Käthe Kollwitz, German painter and sculptor (d. 1945)
  • 1914 – Billy Eckstine, American singer and trumpet player (d. 1993)

Here’s Eckstine in one version (not his best) of “Without a Song“. It still shows off his trumpet-playing and vocal talents. His voice is very mellow.

  • 1926 – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Swiss-American psychiatrist and author (d. 2004)
  • 1944 – Jaimoe, American drummer
  • 1949 – Wolfgang Puck, Austrian-American chef, restaurateur and entrepreneur
  • 1952 – Marianne Williamson, American author and activist
  • 1962 – Joan Osborne, American singer-songwriter and guitarist

I couldn’t decide which of my two favorite Joan Osborne videos to post; both are from the documentary “Standing the Shadows of Motown”, featuring the Funk Brothers, the session musicians who played on many classic Motown hits. Her version of these songs is second only to the originals.

Heat Wave” (original of course by Martha and the Vandellas, written by the inimitable trio of Holland–Dozier–Holland. This will get your morning started right!

What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” (original sung by Jimmy Ruffin, written by William Weatherspoon, Paul Riser, and James Dean.  Like the song above, this is a great classic.

Those who Rested in Peace on July 8 include:

  • 1721 – Elihu Yale, American-English merchant and philanthropist (b. 1649)

Soon to be canceled, though I’d bet a lot of dough that Yale University, hypocritical as it is, will keep its name.

Shelley died in a boating accident at the age of 29. My favorite poem of his is “Ozymandias.” Below is a fairly well-known but inaccurate painting of his funeral (or rather, cremation). The Wikipedia caption is “The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Édouard Fournier (1889). Pictured in the centre are, from left, Trelawny, Hunt, and Byron. In fact, Hunt did not observe the cremation, and Byron left early. Mary Shelley, who is pictured kneeling at left, did not attend the funeral according to customs at the time.”

  • 1939 – Havelock Ellis, English psychologist and author (b. 1859)
  • 1979 – Robert Burns Woodward, American chemist and academic, Nobel Prize laureate (b. 1917)
  • 1994 – Kim Il-sung, North Korean commander and politician, President of North Korea (b. 1912)
  • 2008 – John Templeton, American-born British businessman and philanthropist (b. 1912)
  • 2011 – Betty Ford, First Lady of the United States (b. 1918)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is being mean to the sweet kitty Szaron.

Szaron: Can we do something together?
Hili: Yes, we can ignore each other together.
In Polish:
Szaron: Czy możemy coś zrobić razem?
Hili: Tak, możemy się razem ignorować.

A cartoon from reader Blue, though I’m not sure the reporters check their spines and brains at the door!

From Frans de Waal’s public Facebook page, which attributes the photo this way: “A peregrine falcon looking like a B-2 bomber darting downward as if it is about to demolish a target. By Thomas Kaestner, from San Diego, California.” It’s an amazing photo!


From Jesus of the Day. In truth, a cat does need three tops!

From Titania. The woman’s statement she quotes unbelievably racist, but it’s ok, because racism is the purview only of “majority” populations:

From Barry. Look at all those legs dangling from dad’s chest! After that, a ball of harvestmen:

From Heather Hastie: more red sprites, which I love to feature. Sprites are a form of high-altitude lightning. The tweet says that we really don’t understand what causes the phenomenon, but we actually have a pretty good idea:

Matthew visited his office at Manchester Uni today for the first time in a long time. He had to make an appointment to get in and pick up some stuff. In the meantime, his prized Stegosaurus toy collection is gathering dust.  . .

Anti-Trump Republicans produced this remarkable ad, juxtaposing images to the words of Ronald Reagan:

Who knew?

Sound up to hear this amazing bird call:


Photos of readers

We have but two readers left in the tank, so please send in your contribution, adhering to the style of this feature (2 photos max, preferably but not necessarily of you doing something in lockdown, and a caption).

The Reader of the Day is Steve Rieber, whose wife, Gayle, will feature in tomorrow’s post. I’m surprised at how many bikers we have in this crowd!

Here is a pic of Gayle and I on one of our many motorcycle adventures. We ride all over the eastern sea coast, but mainly in New England. This is us on our 2016 Kawasaki Voyager 1700, on the NC/TN road US 129 known as “The Dragon”, the most traveled motorcycle road in the country.

Also pictured is me making friends in the “Cat Kingdom” section of Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We also visited a couple of cat cafes in Chiang Mai, which combined our love of cats with our appreciation for a good cappuccino.


A major critique of the illiberalism of the Left

This letter, or statement, was just published today in Harper’s, Le Monde, Die Zeit, La Repubblica, and El País.  It’s a really good piece of work, calling out the Right for censoriousness, but, importantly, the Left (most of the signatories seem to be on that side), for restricting debate. I’d like to quote the whole thing, but I’ll reproduce about a third of it because you need to look at the signatories, too. Click on the screenshot to read.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. . .

This paragraph is sandwiched between two others. I bet you could name an example of every action mentioned here (e.g., editors being fired = James Bennet; journalist barred from writing on certain topics = Andrew Sullivan, professor fired for quoting literature in class = Philip Adamo, and so on).

And the signatories are well known, far more credible than the many outraged students who went after Pinker the other day.  Here are just a few I know of (note that they are by no means all “old white men”):

Martin Amis
Noam Chomsky
Roger Cohen
Malcolm Gladwell
Rebecca Goldstein
Jonathan Haidt
Randall Kennedy
Laura Kipnis
Wynton Marsalis
John McWhorter
Steve Pinker
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Katha Pollitt
J. K. Rowling
Salman Rushdie
Judith Shulevitz
Gloria Steinem
Nadine Strossen
Bari Weiss
Garry Wills
Emily Yoffe, etc.

And there are many more. Publicize this letter on social media, and adhere to it in spirit, as I do. Even if we’re fish too small to be on the letter, we can endorse it all over the place. I don’t know who organized this effort, but it’s international and impressive.


New Gary Larson cartoons!

Gary Larson published his wonderful The Far Side cartoons from 1980-1995. And was there a biologist during that period who didn’t have at least one on their office door? (My favorite is this one.)

And then, after 15 years of belly laughs and in-joke humor, Larson retired at only 45.

That was a major bummer. Why, many of us asked, couldn’t he produce at least one cartoon a week, or one a month, just to feed our Far Side jones? Sadly, nada, zilch, and bupkes, though he started a new Far Side site with colorized old cartoons and the promise that there may be some new ones. But again, bupkes. Nothing new, though we could peruse the old cartoons and once again see the man’s genius.

Larson explains the new cartoons on the “New Stuff” page of his website, noting that he didn’t start drawing again because his cartooning pen got clogged:

So a few years ago—finally fed up with my once-loyal but now reliably traitorous pen—I decided to try a digital tablet. I knew nothing about these devices but hoped it would just get me through my annual Christmas card ordeal. I got one, fired it up, and lo and behold, something totally unexpected happened: within moments, I was having fun drawing again. I was stunned at all the tools the thing offered, all the creative potential it contained. I simply had no idea how far these things had evolved. Perhaps fittingly, the first thing I drew was a caveman.

The “New Stuff” that you’ll see here is the result of my journey into the world of digital art. Believe me, this has been a bit of a learning curve for me. I hail from a world of pen and ink, and suddenly I was feeling like I was sitting at the controls of a 747. (True, I don’t get out much.) But as overwhelmed as I was, there was still something familiar there—a sense of adventure. That had always been at the core of what I enjoyed most when I was drawing The Far Side, that sense of exploring, reaching for something, taking some risks, sometimes hitting a home run and sometimes coming up with “Cow tools.” (Let’s not get into that.) But as a jazz teacher once said to me about improvisation, “You want to try and take people somewhere where they might not have been before.” I think that my approach to cartooning was similar—I’m just not sure if even I knew where I was going. But I was having fun.

So here goes. I’ve got my coffee, I’ve got this cool gizmo, and I’ve got no deadlines. And—to borrow from Sherlock Holmes—the game is afoot.

It is indeed! And there’s a new cartoon.

Out of respect for Larson’s request that his cartoons not be reproduced by others, I won’t show it here. But if you click on the screenshot below, you’ll see it. I have to say that although it’s okay, he’s still got a way to go before he attains the achievements of his glory days:

h/t: Matthew Cobb

Two more people take up the cudgels for Pinker

Although Steve Pinker is perfectly capable of defending himself against insane charges by the Woke, as instantiated in a letter asking the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) to remove him from the position as a Distinguished LSA Fellow and designated media expert, I figured that I’d save him the trouble. After all, I’m just a lay reader who is able to compare what the letter said with the actual evidence supporting its indictments. My verdict: the letter should be dismissed with prejudice.

Since I posted my critique of the letter, two more defenses of Pinker have appeared. The first is from a famous linguist, Barbara Partee, who was not only an Inaugural Fellow of the LSA, but also a former President.  In 2014 she got an honorary degree from The University of Chicago, which awards such degrees only to distinguished scholars (no movie stars or Garrison Keillors, thank you). Her opinion, especially as a linguist who was chosen to be LSA President, carries considerable weight.

Her response, published on Medium, can be seen by clicking on the screenshot below.

Her responses are generally similar to mine, but she is a colleague of Steve’s and knew some things I didn’t. Further, she thinks, as did I, that the signatories of the letter showed no awareness of what Pinker wrote in his books. A quote from Partee:

I was shocked and surprised when I learned of this petition, since in my own experience Steven Pinker works hard for racial justice. Steven and I have been working together in the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to help increase the number of Black linguists, and women, in those academies. He’s been playing a leading role in these efforts. I have no doubts about his commitment to social justice. Others who know him better than I do would probably be able to cite more of his work in advocacy and mentoring. The complaints in the petition seem related to the positions he has taken in his books The Better Angels of our Nature and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, positions about progress which are controversial but sincerely held and backed by arguments that may be imperfect but should be answered with other arguments, not with censure, in my opinion. It’s not clear whether the petitioners have read any of those books.

Partee and I differ in only one very trivial matter:  in one of the six indictments of Pinker, all involving a total of five tweets and one word (“mild-mannered” for Bernard Goetz)—a ridiculous social-media rationale for demanding his dethronement from the LSA. Our minor difference is based on this New York Times article.

Pinker issued this tweet about the article:

And the Purity Posse took issue with Steve’s saying “Police don’t shoot blacks disproportionately”, saying this:

Let the record show that Dr. Pinker draws this conclusion from an article that contains the following quote: “The data is unequivocal. Police killings are a race problem: African-Americans are being killed disproportionately and by a wide margin.” (original emphasis) We believe this shows that Dr. Pinker is willing to make dishonest claims in order to obfuscate the role of systemic racism in police violence.\

In fact, if you read the bit after the quote, the article goes on to say that while African-Americans are being killed disproportionately, it may have nothing to do with race per se, but with a higher encounter rate between police and black suspects, for which there’s evidence. (We’ve recently discussed this at length.) As the article said:

Instead, there is another possibility: It is simply that — for reasons that may well include police bias — African-Americans have a very large number of encounters with police officers. Every police encounter contains a risk: The officer might be poorly trained, might act with malice or simply make a mistake, and civilians might do something that is perceived as a threat. The omnipresence of guns exaggerates all these risks.

Such risks exist for people of any race — after all, many people killed by police officers were not black. But having more encounters with police officers, even with officers entirely free of racial bias, can create a greater risk of a fatal shooting.

Arrest data lets us measure this possibility. For the entire country, 28.9 percent of arrestees were African-American. This number is not very different from the 31.8 percent of police-shooting victims who were African-Americans. If police discrimination were a big factor in the actual killings, we would have expected a larger gap between the arrest rate and the police-killing rate.

Right now we don’t know whether this, rather than the racism of police (for which there’s other evidence) is responsible for the “disproportional”.  Partee says that Pinker was “hasty/sloppy” in constructing that tweet, but, she adds, as I did:

It looks to me that Pinker did make a misleading statement in his tweet, but that the petitioners also make a misleading statement by omitting the context of their quote from the article.

Pinker’s tweet: “Data: Police don’t shoot blacks disproportionately. Problem: Not race, but too many police shootings.”

Petitioners’ quote from the article: “The data is unequivocal. Police killings are a race problem: African-Americans are being killed disproportionately and by a wide margin.”

Larger quote from the article: (doesn’t support Pinker’s statement, but it shows that their quote doesn’t represent the article’s point.)

Also, the meaning of “disproportional” is ambiguous here, which could account for Pinker’s tweet. Blacks could be killed by cops disproportionately to their percentage in the general population, which is true, but—and I think this was Steve’s point—they could be killed disproportionately even taking into account a higher encounter rate. That is, if cops on duty encounter blacks twice as often as whites, but kill blacks four times as often as whites, that would be a different form of disproportionality.

But it hardly matters. To me, the signatories’ deliberate distortion of the article’s point—and Steve’s—is far worse than Steve using “disproportional” in a sense different from the article. If you read the article, the point is clear.

And that’s about it. At the end, Dr. Partee expresses sadness that she seems largely alone in her defense of Pinker:

That’s it. I stopped there except for this one last paragraph on July 4th (now on July 6 I’m changing only tenses) so I could share this with my colleagues before I went to bed, since this was so current right then. There was already an interesting long thread on David Pesetsky’s Facebook page. David was careful in his post to not weigh in on the justice of the accusations against Pinker, but to talk only about the wisdom of the two proposed remedies — stripping him of his Fellow status or removing him from the LSA-approved list of media contacts — if the accusations were sound. Most people on the thread said that the LSA should do at least something to acknowledge that they don’t approve of that behavior of Pinker’s. I saw very very few others who seemed to share my opinion that they should do neither because he has done nothing that is inconsistent with the LSA’s principles. I seem to be in a small minority, but I feel quite strongly about it. I may be influenced in part by my husband’s opinions, which derive from his growing up in Communist Russia.

I will add on July 6 only that I no longer feel quite so alone; a few colleagues have expressed agreement with what I’ve written and suggested that I share it more widely, which I am hereby doing.

Beside me, another defender is the estimable Scott Aaronson, who on his website pulls no punches (click on screenshot):

Scott is steamed!

Again and again, spineless institutions have responded to these sorts of ultimatums by capitulating to them. So I confess that the news about Pinker depressed me all weekend. The more time passed, though, the more it looked like the Purity Posse might have actually overplayed its hand this time. Steven Pinker is not weak prey.

Let’s start with what’s missing from the petition: Noam Chomsky pointedly refused to sign. How that must’ve stung his comrades! For that matter, virtually all of the world’s well-known linguists refused to sign. Ray Jackendoff and Michel DeGraff were originally on the petition, but their names turned out to have been forged (were others?).

Note that at least two people’s names were forged or added to the original letter without permission. How did that happen?

Scott goes on:

But despite the flimsiness of the petition, suppose the Linguistics Society of America caved. OK, I mused, how many people have even heard of the Linguistics Society of America, compared to the number who’ve heard of Pinker or read his books? If the LSA expelled Pinker, wouldn’t they be forever known to the world only as the organization that had done that?

I’m tired of the believers in the Enlightenment being constantly on the defensive. “No, I’m not a racist or a misogynist … on the contrary, I’ve spent decades advocating for … yes, I did say that, but you completely misunderstood my meaning, which in context was … please, I’m begging you, can’t we sit and discuss this like human beings?”

It’s time for more of us to stand up and say: yes, I am a center-left extremist. Yes, I’m an Enlightenment fanatic, a radical for liberal moderation and reason. If liberalism is the vanilla of worldviews, then I aspire to be the most intense vanilla anyone has ever tasted. I’m not a closeted fascist. I’m not a watered-down leftist. I’m something else. I consider myself ferociously anti-racist and anti-sexist and anti-homophobic and pro-downtrodden, but I don’t cede to any ideological faction the right to dictate what those terms mean. The world is too complicated, too full of ironies and surprises, for me to outsource my conscience in that way.

Good for Scott. It’s time that all of us stand up against the madness of the Purity Posse and the Authoritarian Left. Each of us who calls them out empowers others to speak up.

A bummer year for American colleges, exacerbated by a new government policy

My Ph.D. alma mater Harvard has announced its attendance policy for the 2020-2021 academic year. As the articles below report (click on screenshots), at that school every single class, large or small, will be taught online. Further, only 40% of the undergraduate students will be allowed on campus at one time. In the fall semester, the first-years (freshmen) will be on campus, as well as those with a pressing need to be on campus to further their education. The first-years will then return home and be replaced in the spring semester by seniors.  The article below doesn’t say whether second- and third-year students will also be present in the spring, but with 40% attendance tops, it seems unlikely.

Nevertheless, Harvard is charging the students full freight: the year’s tuition, about $54,000—a total bummer for students who might not even be on campus. While they’ll save meal and housing fees, and Harvard is offering, as a sop, two free summer-school courses in 2021 for those students who are away from campus the full academic year, that’s not much of an incentive.

In addition, every Harvard student will be tested for coronavirus before arriving on campus, and those living in dorms will be tested every three days.  There will also be social distancing and a change in dining-hall policy to a “touchless food pick-up system.” No more pigging out at all-you-can-eat dining halls!

While Harvard is clearly doing this to avoid the possibility of a viral outbreak on campus, it’s a pretty lousy way to go to school. In my conversations with professors and their students throughout the U.S., I haven’t met a single one who prefers online learning (all things equal) over in-person teaching. I wouldn’t either, though I don’t teach any longer.  And what about those science classes that require labs? There’s no way one can re-create the lab experience online. What about art classes where you create your own works?

The chance to socialize with other students is also much reduced. No parties, social distancing of everyone (perhaps wearing masks), and no discussions with other students, even in small seminars.

I conclude two things. First, were I a Harvard student, I’d take a year off rather than pay $54,000 for a much degraded academic experience. Presumably things will be back to normal in 2021, though if the coronavirus isn’t tamed by then, all bets are off. Some schools (see NYT article below) are penalizing students who take a sabbatical, saying that they might not get dormitory housing if they return.

Second, Harvard has some nerve to charge students full tuition for a year like this, especially when Harvard is so wealthy, with an endowment of $41 billion. Now I know they don’t like to touch the principal, but these are extraordinary circumstances. If Harvard halved its tuition, it would cost them $190 million—less than 5% of its endowment.

It’s especially hard on foreign students, as the U.S. government has just decreed that student visas will not be given to those who plan to attend U.S. universities where all courses are online. And if they’re in the U.S. already, they must return to their home countries. This will affect all foreign students at Harvard, though not at schools like the University of Chicago, where small classes will be taught in person. (Here are the new federal guidelines).

This, too, seems unfair. If American students can come to campus, why not foreign ones? After all, letting 40% of the students return to campus each semester presumes that there is some benefit to being there. And although the feds say this is due to the pandemic, it can’t be useful at Harvard, where all entering students are tested for Covid-19 and then tested every 3 days. It seems to me that a). for students already here, there’s no pandemic rationale for making them go home, and b.) the rules don’t work at Harvard, where all entering students are tested for coronavirus and then tested regularly. Why couldn’t this be done for all students? My view is that the xenophobic Trump administraion is simply doing this as a way to expel foreigners.

Other schools are a bit less restrictive, as this new article in the NYT describes:

As I’ve said, at the University of Chicago all students can come back, but there will be a mixture of remote and in-person classes, students will have to live in single rooms (first- and second-years are required to live in dorms), meals will be takeaway, and the last bit of the fall quarter will be held remotely. We’ll be hard pressed to find accommodations for our 6,500 undergrads.

At Yale, nearly all courses will be taught remotely, but small seminars can still be in-person, allowing foreign students to return. All student will be tested for coronavirus. And everyone will be charged full tuition—about the same as Harvard’s.

Princeton is one of the few Ivies to give a tuition discount: a full 10% off, making it $48,501 for the full year instead of nearly $54,000. How generous! All students will be on campus for only half the year: first- and third-years in fall, first-years and seniors in the spring (this is, of course, to allow “live” graduation).

Finally, Cornell is allowing all students to return to campus, though there’s still a hybrid model of online and in-person classes.  This is also true of Penn.

All in all, college students are getting a bad break this year. My view, which you should take with a grain of salt, is that students should take a year off and do something rewarding: foreign or domestic service, volunteer work, and other forms of “life experience” that are also educational—and would also be safe.

By now, all professors and students know that online learning is a lousy way to get a college education, and for the sciences it’s especially tough. I know that colleges want to keep operating, keep their students safe, but also haul in the dosh, yet this way of dealing with it gives the students a raw deal. At least the schools could halve their tuition! The charging of full tuition for a year in which you’re constrained to take all classes online (as at Harvard), and be on campus only half the academic year, seems unconscionable.