West's weekly round-up: June 13-19
Crime-enabling, why you *should* distrust the experts, and the end of the Uber lifestyle
In my role as media #content provider to loyal subscribers, I’ve decided to send a regular round-up of the most interesting things I’ve read this week. I may even give it a name at some point. This is experimental so the style and format might all change, or it might quietly disappear. Please send any suggestions for articles to include, via email or DM, or in the comments below.
Firstly, ME. This week I’ve written about the unstoppable rise of British twee, why Britain needs a First Amendment to protect us from malicious ‘hate speech’ encroachments, and why some people seem to like criminals.
Late last week Atlantic published a brilliant piece by Nellie Bowles, on how San Francisco became a failed city. The Bay Area is a beautiful place, but it suffers from an extreme version of a problem found across the western world: the nicer, and more comfortable a city, the more terrible its peoples’ politics.
The cliffs, the stairs, the cold clean air, the low-slung beauty of the Sunset, the cafés tucked along narrow streets, then Golden Gate Park drawing you down from the middle of the city all the way to the beach. It’s so goddamn whimsical and inspiring and temperate; so full of redwoods and wild parrots and the smell of weed and sourdough, brightly painted homes and backyard chickens, lines for the oyster bar and gorgeous men in chaps at the leather festival. But it’s maddening because the beauty and the mythology—the preciousness, the self-regard—are part of what has almost killed it. And I, now in early middle age, sometimes wish it weren’t so nice at all.
A couple of years ago, one of my friends saw a man staggering down the street, bleeding. She recognized him as someone who regularly slept outside in the neighborhood, and called 911. Paramedics and police arrived and began treating him, but members of a homeless advocacy group noticed and intervened. They told the man that he didn’t have to get into the ambulance, that he had the right to refuse treatment. So that’s what he did. The paramedics left; the activists left. The man sat on the sidewalk alone, still bleeding. A few months later, he died about a block away.
This approach to drug use and homelessness is distinctly San Franciscan, blending empathy-driven progressivism with California libertarianism.
What San Francisco’s authorities do is enabling on a grand, government-wide level; drug addicts are not only told that their behaviour is acceptable, and it’s their choice, but insulated from the consequences. Everyone else pays the price instead; no one seems to have the moral courage to say that it’s not okay to be zonked out of your skull in the middle of the day, in public places where children should be playing, and you should be doing something with your life.
Things have deteriorated with the election of ultra-soft-on-crime district attorney Chesa Boudin, who came with impeccable Left-wing credentials (so impeccable that his parents were the terrorists David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin). Boudin’s defenders have accused his critics of being Right-wing, God forbid, but as Bowles says, loads of liberals are fed up, too. ‘If it were only the rich, well, the rich can hire private security, or move to the suburbs. And many do. They’re not the only people who live here, and they’re not the only ones who got angry.’
Then there are the housing costs, a more extreme version of a problem affecting every city. I didn’t know that, when current mayor London Breed was elected aged 43, she had only just stopped living with a roommate.
NIMBYism cripples the city, but in my view crime has a huge impact on this issue, too. If you lived in a city, and country, where incivility was so tolerated, why would you want a housing project on your doorstep rather than a pretty, but absurdly useless and wasteful, farm? Successful countries live on trust.
Then there is education, another area where runaway progressive has terrible real-world consequences. She talks about how one school board meeting went.
Brenzel is a music teacher, and at the time he and his husband had a child in public school. Eight seats on the committee were open, and Brenzel was unanimously recommended by the other committee members. But there was a problem: Brenzel is white.
‘“My name’s Mari,” one attendee said. “I’m an openly queer parent of color that uses they/them pronouns.” They noted that the parent committee was already too white (out of 10 sitting members, three were white). This was “really, really problematic,” they said. “I bet there are parents that we can find that are of color and that also are queer … QTPOC voices need to be led first before white queer voices.”
That same month, the board voted to replace the rigorous test that screened applicants for Lowell, San Francisco’s most competitive high school, with a lottery system. López had explained it this way: “Grades and standardized test scores are automatic barriers for students outside of white and Asian communities.” She said they “have shown to be one of the most effective racist policies, considering they’re used to attempt to measure aptitude and intelligence. So the fact that Lowell uses this merit-based system as a step in applying is inherently racist.” Collins echoed that: “‘Merit’ is an inherently racist construct designed and centered on white supremacist framing.”
Twitter isn’t real life, they said.
On the subject of crime, here’s an interview with Charles Fain Lehman of the Manhattan Institute, and the myths about the criminal justice system. He talks about how criminal justice reform came about in the early 20th century, when American life was generally very safe.
Reform was possible, in other words, because crime was less salient of an issue, and so Americans focused less on offenders and more on the system that managed them. Fast forward to the early 2000s, of course, and you see exactly the same pattern: thanks in part to the "tough on crime" movement of the 80s and 90s, crime rates declined to historic lows, cities became safe, and we started to think about the system rather than the criminals again. Thus, the criminal justice reform movement, which starts in states in the 2000s, spreads to the federal level with Obama, grows increasingly radical in the wake of Ferguson, and turns totally nuts after George Floyd's murder.
It's hard to exaggerate how much this reform wrecked American cities in the 1960s, and how strange this surrender was for a country at the pinnacle of its power. Imagine if the middle class had just fled from London’s West End in the Victorian period because the authorities felt they couldn’t handle crime — it would have been absurd. New York went from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Taxi Driver and in less than two years, and it took decades to return civility to civic life — yet many seem intent on repeating the experiment.
Oliver Traldi wrote a very good piece on the experts, and when and why we should actually listen to them, starting with that famously self-satisfied New Yorker cartoon.
A few weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration as President, the New Yorker published a cartoon depicting a mustached, mostly bald man, hand raised high, mouth open in a sort of improbable rhombus, tongue flapping wildly within, saying: “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?” The tableau surely elicited many a self-satisfied chuckle from readers disgusted by the populist energy and establishment distrust that they perceived in Trump’s supporters.
But what exactly is the joke here? Citizens in a democracy are not akin to airline passengers, buckled quietly into their seats and powerless to affect change, their destinations and very lives placed in the hands of professionals guarded by a reinforced door up front. Even brief reflection reveals the cartoonist’s analogy to be comparing like to unlike.
In all these cases, our reliance on expertise means suspending our own judgment and placing our trust in another—that is, giving deference. But we defer in different ways and for different reasons. The pilot we choose not to vote out of the cockpit has skill, what philosophers sometimes call “knowledge how.” We need the pilot to do something for us, but if all goes well we need not alter our own beliefs or behaviors on his say so. At the other extreme, a history teacher might do nothing but express claims, the philosopher’s “knowledge that,” which students are meant to adopt as their own beliefs. Within the medical profession, performing surgery is knowledge-how while diagnosing a headache and recommending two aspirin as the treatment is closer to knowledge-that.
He concludes that ‘we should be far more skeptical of claims of knowledge-that expertise than of knowledge-how. In the latter case, people’s claims of expertise can be substantiated by their ability to deliver objective results. The surgeon with a track record of successful surgeries is easily distinguishable from the charlatan with none. Knowledge-that experts, by contrast, are laying claim to the truth. Sometimes they have it, and are guiding us as reliably as a pilot. Other times they are simply taking us for a ride.’
Read it all — I’d like to come back to the subject because I find it so interesting.
‘Freedom of association is the master freedom,’ Christopher Caldwell wrote: ‘it is the freedom without which political freedom cannot be effectively exercised.’
Freedom of association is almost the first things that authoritarian governments crush, and yet over the decades both Americans and British people have given it up without much of a struggle, usually because they’re told it’s to combat some great moral evil.
A terrible microcosm of what happens when freedom of association is crushed is found in this brilliantly bleak piece on Stanford University, by Ginevra Davis.
Since 2013, Stanford’s administration has executed a top-to-bottom destruction of student social life. Driven by a fear of uncontrollable student spontaneity and a desire to enforce equity on campus, a growing administrative bureaucracy has destroyed almost all of Stanford’s distinctive student culture.
What happened at Stanford is a cultural revolution on the scale of a two-mile college campus. In less than a decade, Stanford’s administration eviscerated a hundred years of undergraduate culture and social groups. They ended decades-old traditions. They drove student groups out of their houses. They scraped names off buildings. They went after long-established hubs of student life, like fraternities and cultural theme houses. In place of it all, Stanford erected a homogenous housing system that sorts new students into perfectly equitable groups named with letters and numbers. All social distinction is gone.
In 2013, the administration took over the student-run anarchist house and painted over the old murals. The next year, Stanford drained the remnants of Lake Lagunita, where students used to gather to host bonfires, and ended the annual anything-but-clothes party known as Exotic Erotic. And the year after that, in 2015, the administration put the notoriously anti-establishment Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band on “super-probation,” the culmination of years of increasing restrictions on their antics.
Stanford’s decision to sanction the Band was a sign of things to come. In response to their sanctions, which included a travel and alcohol ban, the Band leadership penned a forceful rebuttal and noted that Stanford’s signature winds of freedom seemed to have “slowed to a light breeze.” They promised to never be silenced and continue “rocking the f*ck out.” But over the ensuing years, the Band mostly lost its raucous, fraternity-esque culture, and stopped doing anything particularly controversial. Once, the Band mocked Stanford’s rivals with crass marching formations; today, the Band designs all their pranks based on pre-approved themes from the university and clears the final plans with a panel of administrators.
To ensure all the neighborhoods were truly equal, Stanford also had to remove student groups that were too popular or differentiated. As Greek life had declined in the late 2010s, Stanford’s social scene shifted to a group of four European theme houses clustered near the upper Row. The French and Italian houses, in particular, were known for hosting elaborate white-tablecloth dinners for upperclassmen with pizza and crepes. Those had to go. In fact, they all did, German and Slavic too. Without so much as an email, Stanford quietly slashed all four houses overnight. The first three were renamed 610, 620, and 650, respectively.
When Stanford could not remove a student organization for bad behavior, they found other justifications. One such case was the end of Outdoor House, an innocuous haven on the far side of campus for students who liked hiking. The official explanation from Stanford for eliminating the house was that the Outdoor theme “fell short of diversity, equity and inclusion expectations.” The building formerly known as Outdoor House was added to Neighborhood T.
The unsurprising result is that record numbers of students feel that all the joy has been bled out of life. ‘An empty house is safe. A blank slate is fair. In the name of safety and fairness, Stanford destroyed everything that makes people enjoy college and life.’
Once you allow the state to clamp down on your right to socialise or organise with whoever you like — and especially if they cite racism or sexism — your life will be immiserated. The end product, as Davis writes, is more loneliness, the scourge of modern life and the real cause of the ‘mental health crisis’.
‘They are airbnb-ing, deliveroo-eating, uber-riding #freedomfighters!’ Foreign Secretary Liz Truss once said of the millennial generation. Well — not any more. Derek Thompson writes in the Atlantic on ‘The End of the Millennial Lifestyle Subsidy’.
For the past decade, people like me—youngish, urbanish, professionalish—got a sweetheart deal from Uber, the Uber-for-X clones, and that whole mosaic of urban amenities in travel, delivery, food, and retail that vaguely pretended to be tech companies. Almost each time you or I ordered a pizza or hailed a taxi, the company behind that app lost money. In effect, these start-ups, backed by venture capital, were paying us, the consumers, to buy their products.
It was as if Silicon Valley had made a secret pact to subsidize the lifestyles of urban Millennials. As I pointed out three years ago, if you woke up on a Casper mattress, worked out with a Peloton, Ubered to a WeWork, ordered on DoorDash for lunch, took a Lyft home, and ordered dinner through Postmates only to realize your partner had already started on a Blue Apron meal, your household had, in one day, interacted with eight unprofitable companies that collectively lost about $15 billion in one year.’
At the Intercept, Ryan Grim writes about how social justice organisations have basically become insane.
That the institute has spent the course of the Biden administration paralyzed makes it typical of not just the abortion rights community — Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and other reproductive health organizations had similarly been locked in knock-down, drag-out fights between competing factions of their organizations, most often breaking down along staff-versus-management lines. It’s also true of the progressive advocacy space across the board, which has, more or less, effectively ceased to function. The Sierra Club, Demos, the American Civil Liberties Union, Color of Change, the Movement for Black Lives, Human Rights Campaign, Time’s Up, the Sunrise Movement, and many other organizations have seen wrenching and debilitating turmoil in the past couple years.
Mr Burns voice: egg-celent
For years, recruiting young people into the movement felt like a win-win, he said: new energy for the movement and the chance to give a person a lease on a newly liberated life, dedicated to the pursuit of justice. But that’s no longer the case. “I got to a point like three years ago where I had a crisis of faith, like, I don’t even know, most of these spaces on the left are just not — they’re not healthy. Like all these people are just not — they’re not doing well,” he said. “The dynamic, the toxic dynamic of whatever you want to call it — callout culture, cancel culture, whatever — is creating this really intense thing, and no one is able to acknowledge it, no one’s able to talk about it, no one’s able to say how bad it is.”
There is a correlation between social liberalism and mental illness, which one would expect for a number of reasons, but social media has also made it far easier for people with quite serious personality disorders to become involved in politics; they’re especially effective because politics gives them cover for their behaviour, which would otherwise — in a sane world — go punished.
This also explains why so many historically liberal groups have just given up on liberalism.
Internally, staff at the ACLU, concentrated among the younger people there, condemned the decision to defend the rally. Veteran lawyers at the ACLU complained to the New York Times that the new generation “placed less value on free speech, making it uncomfortable for them to express views internally that diverged from progressive orthodoxy.”
Alejandro Agustín Ortiz, a lawyer with the organization’s racial justice project, told the Times that “a dogmatism descends sometimes.”
“You hesitate before you question a belief that is ascendant among your peer group,” he said.’
You already know what I think about this: you have to let people discuss your politics, and it’s childish and unhelpful to refuse to name them. You don’t like woke, fine, you don’t like political correctness, fine, you don’t like identity politics, fine, you don’t like CRT, fine, but please fucking pick some other term then. You’ll notice that I’m still doggedly trying to make “social justice politics” happen - I think it’s simple and neutral and gets the point across - but for fuck’s sake, a writer should be able to tackle a large and immensely culturally influential political tendency without having to accept such a contested word. The current reality is Voldemorting - declaring your politics simply off-limits to discussion by insisting that any name we might use for it is inherently bigoted.
The NY Magazine piece by Sam Adler-Bell gives one stab at a definition: ‘Wokeness refers to the invocation of unintuitive and morally burdensome political norms and ideas in a manner which suggests they are self-evident.’
I prefer ‘race communism’, although I suspect it won’t take off; the central plank of wokeism is ‘equity’, a belief in racial equality of outcomes, an impossible goal that will lead to 1,001 terrible and very-real-world outcomes — and which lots of influential people who know is insane but will go along with it because to argue against ‘isn’t a good look’.
Aris Roussinos has been on the frontline in eastern Ukraine with the Right Sector, for UnHerd. He has produced some startlingly good war journalism.
Brought up in a Russian-speaking Catholic family in Vinnytsia, the daughter of a surgeon, Athena was a poet and English translator before the war, with a sideline writing essays for American college students. She first volunteered for frontline service at age 18, straight from university. With her black hair cut in a neat bob, she was a distinctive presence whenever she returned from special missions in her baggy, second-hand British uniform, shrugging off her heavy body armour and ammunition pouches, and leaning her heavily-customised assault rifle against the table as she lit up a cigarette.
“I’m not a feminist,” she told me. “I don’t like modern feminism, they march around but don’t have solutions for anything.” A child prodigy, she was a contestant on the Russian version of Britain’s Brainiest Kid aged 11, and recently published a letter to the host, a Putin supporter, condemning the Russian invasion. In a perfect illustration of the complexities of the Ukraine war, Athena’s Russian husband, a dissident from Siberia, is fighting in an elite Ukrainian unit in nearly-surrounded Severodonetsk, and her uncle is a senior officer in the Russian army.
This is a wonderful Tanya Gold interview with Rowan Atkinson, all the more so as he refuses to discuss anything personal. Atkinson is famous worldwide as Mr Bean, but to British viewers of a certain age he will always be Blackadder. It is still my favourite ever comedy, helped my love of history and played such a large part in my childhood, as did the wider Elton-Curtis-Fry-Mayall universe. It all came about from one of the great serendipitous comedy meetings.
He took a degree in electrical and electronic engineering at Newcastle University and then went to Oxford University for a masters: his thesis was on self-tuning control systems. And there he met Richard Curtis, later the writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually and the friend who changed his life. In a big flat on the fringes of Oxford they wrote sketch comedy together. Richard “identified me as somebody who could bring scripts to life, and I identified him as somebody who could write scripts,” Atkinson recalls. “So, there was a natural synergy and connection between us but also, we just got on terribly, terribly well and made each other laugh. It just worked.” People who knew him at Oxford said his work was already “fully formed”.
The first series was considered a failure. Ben Elton was brought in to turn Blackadder from a grotesque to a sophisticate, and it was all filmed indoors on wobbling sets and half of Flashheart’s moustache fell off. When I saw the transformation from Atkinson’s Edmund to Elton’s, I realised how gifted he is. Because the first Blackadder is repulsive to look at, repulsive even to imagine. The second Blackadder is defiantly sexy with his malice, his black leather and his snarl. When I tell him this, he looks briefly panicked. Then he thanks me politely.
But Atkinson won’t accept even the premise that he is gifted. His Blackadder colleague Stephen Fry called it fate. “Rowan has not an ounce of showbiz in him,” he said. “It is as if God had an extra jar of comic talent and for a joke, gave it to a nerdy anoraked northern chemist.” It’s a good line but I don’t believe it, because it separates the source of his comedy from himself, and that is impossible.
Atkinson tells me the central joke of Blackadder. “He’s more a victim than anything else,” he says. “He has superiority over Baldrick but obviously he’s very much under those for whom he works.” He is “that slightly downtrodden but clearly quite intelligent man who genuinely thinks that he deserves better, and he should be doing much better than he is but somehow circumstances have conspired against him. He’s just that bloke in the middle, isn’t he? Who’s not going to go up or down.”
It is not well known, but the first Blackadder was originally created with the same character he would portray in series 2-4. You can see the pilot here.
Wrong Side of History passed the 5,000-mark this week, so thank you all. I’m hugely grateful to all subscribers (although especially so to the paid ones). Please do recommend to your friends, and suggest in the comments any topics you’d like discussed or books reviewed.