The New York Times comes out against free speech

According to a front page New York Times news (not opinion) article by Adam Liptak ("Weaponizing the First Amendment: How Free Speech Became a Conservative Cudgel"), we must adopt a stance of skepticism toward all this talk of free speech, if we wish to be sophisticated and sensitive, as all good Times readers aspire to be. Free speech? So passé. Only conservatives care about free speech anymore.

That's monumental news--the most influential newspaper in the world, the standard bearer of the Establishment, announcing that free speech is so, like, over.

Free speech is one of my hobby horses, although I don't talk about it much on this blog. In keeping with my decision to put more content on my blog and less on Twitter and Facebook, I'm going to respond to the Times article here. And my, is there a lot to say about it.

The court’s five conservative members, citing the First Amendment, had just dealt public unions a devastating blow. The day before, the same majority had used the First Amendment to reject a California law requiring religiously oriented “crisis pregnancy centers” to provide women with information about abortion.

Conservatives, said Justice Kagan, who is part of the court’s four-member liberal wing, were “weaponizing the First Amendment.”

That's a disquieting thing for a Supreme Court justice to say. Taking a hard line on the First Amendment--the same hard line that has been traditional among liberals--is not to "weaponize" it, as if fundamental principles of the American system were suddenly dangerous weapons, ripe for abuse. The court's progressives believe that a religious pregnancy counseling service is giving medical advice, so it should cover all options, and that includes abortion. But pregnancy advice is not merely medical; it is ethical, religious, political, psychiatric, and deeply personal. Such advice (which, coming from a Christian organization, might include strong pleas not to get an abortion) does not necessarily constitute medical advice at all.

It's pretty damn obvious that requiring religious organizations to share information about abortion, a practice those organizations sincerely consider to be murder, abridges not just their freedom of speech, but also their freedom to practice their religion according to their own conscience. The majority, in their wisdom, agreed with me.

The two decisions were the latest in a stunning run of victories for a conservative agenda that has increasingly been built on the foundation of free speech. Conservative groups, borrowing and building on arguments developed by liberals, have used the First Amendment to justify unlimited campaign spending, discrimination against gay couples and attacks on the regulation of tobacco, pharmaceuticals and guns. ...

There you have it. If certain recent conservative victories were "built on the foundation of free speech," then apparently the problem must be with free speech; it couldn't possibly be because left-wing lawmakers are increasingly wanting to impose their viewpoints on the populace by law. As absurd as it sounds, the Times article really does advance the view that, since those conservative victories are rooted in free speech, there must be something wrong with traditional free speech absolutism.

The article approvingly quotes a Cato Institute lawyer who rightly labels the Court's position, also, as libertarian--mind you, we're talking about a position which is now avowedly the conservative one and which used to be the liberal one:

“The libertarian position has become dominant on the right on First Amendment issues,” said Ilya Shapiro, a lawyer with the Cato Institute. “It simply means that we should be skeptical of government attempts to regulate speech. That used to be an uncontroversial and nonideological point. What’s now being called the libertarian position on speech was in the 1960s the liberal position on speech.”

Maybe it would be more appropriate to say that, for the last 50 years or so, a free speech absolutist position has been uncontroversial and nonideological, one of the areas where Democrats and Republicans could often (not always) agree. But that seems to be changing. The interesting thing about the Times article is that it says that the Republicans, or conservatives, are making free speech into a controversial issue. That doesn't hold water, though. If Republicans are simply standing by the free speech absolutism that characterized mainstream thought on both sides of the aisle for a couple of generations, then when people like Kagan find such absolutism to be a "weaponizing" of the First Amendment, they are the ones who are making free speech ideological.

But let's be precise. Free speech always was ideological; it is part of the American civil religion. But the left's commitment to its own ideological "religion" seems to be getting the upper hand.

And an increasingly conservative judiciary has been more than a little receptive to this [libertarian] argument. A new analysis prepared for The New York Times found that the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has been far more likely to embrace free-speech arguments concerning conservative speech than liberal speech. That is a sharp break from earlier eras.

Again, if, rather suddenly, many more conservative-joined majority decisions are based on free speech rights, that does not necessarily mean that the "sharp break" was due to an unusual, newly radicalized conservative jurisprudence. It could be just as well understood as a reaction to a spate of speech-squelching lawmaking such as the California law forcing Christian "crisis pregnancy centers" to advertise abortion options. So why suppose that it is the conservatives who have made a "sharp break"? Ironically, the next thing the Times says is that it is thinkers on the left who have, strikingly, changed their minds about free speech:

“The left was once not just on board but leading in supporting the broadest First Amendment protections,” said Floyd Abrams, a prominent First Amendment lawyer and a supporter of broad free-speech rights. “Now the progressive community is at least skeptical and sometimes distraught at the level of First Amendment protection which is being afforded in cases brought by litigants on the right.”

Many on the left have traded an absolutist commitment to free speech for one sensitive to the harms it can inflict.

Take pornography and street protests. Liberals were once largely united in fighting to protect sexually explicit materials from government censorship. Now many on the left see pornography as an assault on women’s rights.

In 1977, many liberals supported the right of the American Nazi Party to march among Holocaust survivors in Skokie, Ill. Far fewer supported the free-speech rights of the white nationalists who marched last year in Charlottesville, Va.

This traditional support of free speech, by the way, has been perhaps the single strongest point of agreement between libertarianism in particular and progressivism. But apparently no longer. And so, just as progressives sometimes say that libertarianism is "naïve," now, all of a sudden, the Times can approvingly quote a law professor saying that traditional free speech absolutism is "naïve":

There was a certain naïveté in how liberals used to approach free speech, said Frederick Schauer, a law professor at the University of Virginia.

“Because so many free-speech claims of the 1950s and 1960s involved anti-obscenity claims, or civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests, it was easy for the left to sympathize with the speakers or believe that speech in general was harmless,” he said. “But the claim that speech was harmless or causally inert was never true, even if it has taken recent events to convince the left of that. The question, then, is why the left ever believed otherwise.”

But this is, surely, a paradoxical thing to say. How can it be naïve to be a free speech absolutist, if that jurisprudence held sway for generations? After all, plainly, many free speech rules and policies were implemented. Just as plainly, generations of the most brilliant legal minds were free speech absolutists. It was and remains the Constitutional policy of the nation, as evidenced by the fact that the Supremes unanimously rejected hate speech laws again last year. But Prof. Schauer is pleased to call this policy "naïve" because that is how the snooty law professors who know better than the rest of us prefer to persuade the readers of the Times. All he really means, of course, is that he and his fellow snooty professors now take the cool and edgy position, that of the clearly more enlightened Europeans, that free speech is not "all that," after all.

The article next introduces some just shoddy academic theorizing, in an attempt to justify speech control and censorship:

Some liberals now say that free speech disproportionately protects the powerful and the status quo.

“When I was younger, I had more of the standard liberal view of civil liberties,” said Louis Michael Seidman, a law professor at Georgetown. “And I’ve gradually changed my mind about it. What I have come to see is that it’s a mistake to think of free speech as an effective means to accomplish a more just society.”

To the contrary, free speech reinforces and amplifies injustice, Catharine A. MacKinnon, a law professor at the University of Michigan, wrote in “The Free Speech Century,” a collection of essays to be published this year.

“Once a defense of the powerless, the First Amendment over the last hundred years has mainly become a weapon of the powerful,” she wrote. “Legally, what was, toward the beginning of the 20th century, a shield for radicals, artists and activists, socialists and pacifists, the excluded and the dispossessed, has become a sword for authoritarians, racists and misogynists, Nazis and Klansmen, pornographers and corporations buying elections.”

These are strikingly bold and broad statements. You'd expect a pundit to be making them rather than college professors. It's a mistake to think that free speech contributes to a more just society? Really? It's a "weapon of the powerful"?

I'll get back to the weaponizing thing in a moment, but I'd like to point out that the Times is presenting these two campus radicals as liberals. That's ridiculous. They are both theorists of the far left, purveyors of so-called critical legal studies; MacKinnon considers herself a "post-Marxist." Such people are leftists and not liberals.

Besides, the notion that people who attack American traditions of free speech and First Amendment are liberal, of all things, is patently absurd. If you are so skeptical of free speech absolutism, then you're not a liberal for that reason alone: what is more essential to American liberalism than strong commitment to free speech?

Now let me briefly discuss this notion that free speech is a "weapon of the powerful." To be sure, the powerful have free speech rights, and like it or not, their power gives them the ability to exercise those rights more broadly and effectively than the weak. Welcome to earth; that's nothing new, it will never change, and it becomes much, much worse whenever a radical leftist regime takes over. The obvious fact the powerful enjoy free speech rights, however, does not establish that free speech is not also a deeply important right of the weak. It is, after all, the rights of minorities and of the disempowered that most need protection by the law, considering that the powerful can usually take care of themselves.

There's a striking irony in the article's own examples. They all, with the sole exception of Citizens United, feature the rights of the ordinary, weak citizen protected from the depredations of some of the most powerful governments on earth. Don't believe me?

Relatively weak religious organizations (the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates' total national expenditures for 2009: $759,259) came under attack by the enormously powerful government of California; it was the First Amendment, as interpreted by the SCOTUS majority, that protected their freedom of speech and religion. Nazis and Klansmen are surely some of the most hated and disempowered people in the country at present (and yay for that); like it or not, equality before the law means they have the same speech rights as more decent people. Principled laborers, just regular people, who do not want to support the Democratic principles of their company's unions, were supported against organized union power (and the Democratic government power enmeshed with it). And pornography? Well, to be sure, pornographers can be powerful, but only a very few of them. Most of those who produce and consume porn are not particularly rich or powerful. They're just horny little guys with rights. The free speech rights of the rich and powerful are, by contrast, well protected.

In the great First Amendment cases in the middle of the 20th century, few conservatives spoke up for the protection of political dissenters, including communists and civil rights leaders, comedians using vulgar language on the airwaves or artists exploring sexuality in novels and on film.

In 1971, Robert H. Bork, then a prominent conservative law professor and later a federal judge and Supreme Court nominee, wrote that the First Amendment should be interpreted narrowly in a law-review article that remains one of the most-cited of all time.

“Constitutional protection should be accorded only to speech that is explicitly political,” he wrote. “There is no basis for judicial intervention to protect any other form of expression, be it scientific, literary or that variety of expression we call obscene or pornographic.”

Yes, the conservatives of fifty years ago were awful on First Amendment rights, and a stalwart of that brand was rejected Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Bork's principle, that the First Amendment protects only political speech and not also creative works, was awful and repressive, if refreshingly honest. Bork was the sort of jurist only an arch-conservative could love. So it is amazing that a Times reporter would have the temerity to mention Bork in the context of this article, considering just how loathed he was by the liberals of yesteryear. It's just extraordinary that Bork's principle, which was no doubt considered grotesque by Times readers in the 80s and 90s, might be quoted approvingly in this context and without any comment on Bork's famous history.

I won't quote the entire section, but the article argues that Virginia State Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council (1975) protected "commercial speech" (such as advertising), and that, though liberals helped shape this decision, it opened up a dangerous Pandora's box of uncensored corporations:

That trend has continued, with businesses mounting First Amendment challenges to gun control laws, securities regulations, country-of-origin labels, graphic cigarette warnings and limits on off-label drug marketing.


Liberals also played a key role in creating modern campaign finance law in Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 decision that struck down limits on political spending by individuals and was the basis for [the deeply-hated] Citizens United, the 2010 decision that did away with similar limits for corporations and unions.

So, to be sure, the law has protected the rich and powerful. As well it should. They do have rights that, like it or not, the law is obligated to protect.

To Professor Seidman [quoted above as having outgrown commitment to free speech], cases like these were part of what he describes as a right-wing takeover of the First Amendment since the liberal victories in the years Chief Justice Earl Warren led the Supreme Court.

“With the receding of Warren court liberalism, free-speech law took a sharp right turn,” Professor Seidman wrote in a new article to be published in the Columbia Law Review. “Instead of providing a shield for the powerless, the First Amendment became a sword used by people at the apex of the American hierarchy of power. Among its victims: proponents of campaign finance reform, opponents of cigarette addiction, the L.B.G.T.Q. community, labor unions, animal rights advocates, environmentalists, targets of hate speech and abortion providers.”

The title of the article asked, “Can Free Speech Be Progressive?”

“The answer,” the article said, “is no.”

That question and answer--res ipsa loquitur! It sounds like an unfair criticism of the left that conservative culture warriors might have made in the 90s. But here is someone presented as an educated liberal who has arrived at an enlightened, cutting-edge view and worthy of special mention in the Times.

I didn't have time to read Seidman's paper all the way through, but I had a look; it argues that the First Amendment is used as a "sword" by "people at the apex of the American hierarchy of power." Free speech, he argues, is all right to the extent that it "can advance progressive goals." The problem is that the First Amendment can also undermine those same goals (even if correctly interpreted, apparently). As an argument against free speech absolutism, this is stunning. This writer, this law professor, appears to think it would be adequate grounds for an attack or defense of freedom of speech that the speech advanced or undermined progressive goals--as if there really were no more to it than that. "Just ask yourself," I imagine him saying, "is the principle convenient for our ideology?" This is clearly unscholarly and utterly risible. I can only hope that I have misunderstood the article. To me, it really did read as a parody of a party hack who has decided to try to write a law review paper. Decide for yourself. But to go on with the Times article:

The right turn has been even more pronounced under Chief Justice Roberts.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a larger share of First Amendment cases concerning conservative speech than earlier courts had, according to the study prepared for The Times. And it has ruled in favor of conservative speech at a higher rate than liberal speech as compared to earlier courts.

Has the Roberts court ruled more in favor of "conservative speech"? Maybe, maybe not; but surely "conservative speech" and "liberal speech" alike deserve protection. That much, I would have thought, is absolutely obvious. Yet the Times writer seems not to think so, and in this he follows Seidman, who (it seems) confuses partisanship for scholarship.

Suppose it's true that the Supremes have recently protected conservative speech more than progressive speech. That could be due to the random patterns in the data; the sample sizes (of Supreme Court free speech cases) are surely too small to show statistical significance. It could also be, once again, because conservative speech has come under attack.

But even if the Supremes have recently been unfairly favoring conservative speech, even if they have given conservatives prerogatives not given to progressives, it still does not follow,  and it obviously does not follow--an inference the article writer didn't notice he was making--that, somehow, free speech absolutism is now suddenly only a "conservative" position. Our journalist draws the inference anyway:

The court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren from 1953 to 1969 was almost exclusively concerned with cases concerning liberal speech. Of its 60 free-expression cases, only five, or about 8 percent, challenged the suppression of conservative speech.

The proportion of challenges to restrictions on conservative speech has steadily increased. It rose to 22 percent in the court led by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger from 1969 to 1986; to 42 percent in the court led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist from 1986 to 2005; and to 65 percent in the Roberts court.

Even putting aside my earlier points, this argument is bizarre. Cases protecting conservative speech have risen, from 1969 until today, from 22%, to 42%, to 65% today. The latter number is supposed to establish that freedom of speech is now a "conservative" issue? Consider that in 1969, the number was 22%. Would it have been reasonable, at that time, to conclude that conservatives shouldn't shouldn't have cared at all about free speech, that they were justified in being soft on free speech rights? That's absurd.

Speaking as a former academic--a teacher of logic and critical thinking as well as philosophy of law--I have to say the quality of argumentation here is just depressing. Refuting this sort of thing isn't even fun. And this is the New York frickin' Times. It's impossible to believe that even Justice Kagan would support the partisan hackery on display in the Times article and the law review article.

Indeed, the Supremes are more interesting. You gotta love Supreme Court opinions; they're often well argued, even if they're wrong, and they're so earnest (as they should be!):

On Wednesday, in announcing the decision on public unions, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the court was applying settled and neutral First Amendment principles to protect workers from being forced to say things at odds with their beliefs. He suggested that the decision on public unions should have been unanimous.

“Compelling individuals to mouth support for views they find objectionable violates that cardinal constitutional command, and in most contexts, any such effort would be universally condemned,” he wrote. “Suppose, for example, that the State of Illinois required all residents to sign a document expressing support for a particular set of positions on controversial public issues — say, the platform of one of the major political parties. No one, we trust, would seriously argue that the First Amendment permits this.”

Alito's argument makes a great deal of sense to me, for what it's worth. That's a cogent analogical argument. To be sure, it's just an outline of an argument; see the opinion for the details.

In response, Justice Kagan said the court’s conservatives had found a dangerous tool, “turning the First Amendment into a sword.” The United States, she said, should brace itself.

“Speech is everywhere — a part of every human activity (employment, health care, securities trading, you name it),” she wrote. “For that reason, almost all economic and regulatory policy affects or touches speech. So the majority’s road runs long. And at every stop are black-robed rulers overriding citizens’ choices.”

Speech is everywhere, Kagan rightly observes, and with a few traditional exceptions, every bit of it is protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment's influence does indeed run long, and so it should.

That final sentence, though--well, it's preposterous. "Black-robed rulers" are doing what fearsome thing? By God, they're "overriding citizens' choices"! How dare they! But those "choices" are the laws and regulations passed by powerful government officials, i.e., they are the exercise of government power to censor or even--as in the case of the pregnancy centers--to compel speech. Good God, these black-robed rulers are curtailing the exercise of government power! Somebody stop them!

Anyway, that's the article. It's no big surprise to me that the Times has come out against free speech absolutism, declaring it to be a conservative position, something good progressives ought to resist. But it's dismaying to see it there in black and white. Our world has changed.

By the way, there is almost no mention of hate speech in the article. This is probably it's harder to make the legal case for restrictions on hate speech. The Supreme Court agreed just last year--unanimously--that hate speech is protected, that "ideas that offend" are protected by the First Amendment. You gotta love old liberals. But since the left, especially the young left, is becoming increasingly radical on the issue, I'm still quite apprehensive. After all, the Times has all but declared censorship and compelled speech to be progressive.

So I fully expect there to be growing calls for laws against hate speech in the United States. Support on the American left for such laws is already huge. According to a Cato Institute survey, while "just" 40% of Americans favor banning hate speech--that's actually a lot considering we're talking about doing away with the First Amendment--fully 52% of Democrats (i.e., most of them) support such laws. The number goes up to 61% of Democrats, if we specify that the laws protect black Americans against hate speech. Maybe more troubling is that 66% of Democrats believe hate speech is "violent"; if you believe that, then of course it's a short step to conclude that speech should be banned (as we ban other forms of violence). Interestingly, Cato also asked for Americans' views on the relevant constitutional question; it turns out that 56% of Americans believe that banning hate speech is consistent with the First Amendment. Good thing they aren't on the Supreme Court.

Free speech on campus has increasingly come under attack recently. One of the most telling numbers from the Cato survey was that 68% of students support a confidential "bias reporting system," i.e., they complacently imagine that it's a good idea that there be campus speech monitors, assisted by student informants. Almost as stunning is the fact that 48% of all Americans support such a totalitarian system as well. That's incredibly depressing.

Even if the Supremes remain free speech absolutists for another generation, the left's intensified attack on free speech is deeply consequential. The next presidents might very well include socialists who replace Ginsberg, Breyer, Thomas, and Alito with radical free speech skeptics. It's easy to imagine Kagan and Sotomayor moving more and more in the direction of free speech skepticism.

Besides, not everything depends on the Court. Formerly mainstream Democrats are showing themselves to be increasingly willing to take extreme action. It's not that hard to imagine an independent California with hate speech laws stronger than any in Europe.

Due to its central role in protecting popular sovereignty in a republic, free speech is as important as it gets. The fact that the left is repudiating its former free speech absolutism is much more important than its decision to push for gay marriage. It's probably more important even than immigration or gun control. It's fundamental; it goes to the root of our system.

Free speech skepticism could easily become de rigueur on the left, as gay marriage rights have become. That is actually what I would expect, because if there is one thing that animates progressives today, it is contempt, even utter hatred, for anything they perceive as racist, sexist, homophobic, or anti-immigrant. So powerful is this animus that "reasonable" restrictions of hate speech can be easily sold to them as just good sense. To make matters worse, progressive judgment about what is bigoted in these ways is sometimes inaccurate. "Racist" and "sexist," often used as cudgels in debate, would be "weaponized" indeed by hate speech laws.

So what's a free speech absolutist to do? Well, if you support free speech, push back as effectively as you can when you see your friends and acquaintances moving in the direction of free speech skepticism. This is still a battle for hearts and minds. The Supreme Court frequently follows popular opinion, and there's sadly no reason to think that a future Court might not dismantle many current First Amendment protections.

Learn the arguments; the case for free speech is very strong. There is no intellectually respectable case to be made for censorship. Even from the point of view of cost-benefit analysis, the benefits of tolerating "hate speech" and eschewing compelled speech are substantial, and the downsides are minimal; the risks of censorship and compelled speech are enormous (totalitarianism, the decline of free inquiry). It is, in short, obscene to treat free speech as a mere "tool" that is "weaponized," when censorship and compelled speech throughout history have been very real weapons that have shored up authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.

Positivity and motivation

One thing that almost nobody knows about me is how much time I've spent on self-analysis of one sort or another. I'm deeply impressed by people who are more motivated and self-disciplined than I am, and I frequently try to get to the bottom of the many issues surrounding self-discipline.

Recently I've been toying with the notion that optimism is an important attitudinal key to high motivation. But the more I think about it, the more I think it is not optimism but positivity that matters. These are different. A rough gloss of "optimism" is "the habit of estimating the probability of future events turning out well." By contrast, I'd say "positivity" means "the habit of evaluating one's own achievements and situation, and those of other people, highly." Obviously, this is a vague thing. But if you "look on the bright side," you're positive; if you're depressive and regard your achievements as worthless and your situation as bleak, you're negative.

So, yes, I'm thinking that Norman Vincent Peale's Power of Positive Thinking was right all along. This is also consistent with the fact that cognitive therapy (which is all about replacing negative thoughts with positive ones) is so helpful.

I know people who say they are depressed who nevertheless do work hard. I'm not saying that positivity is perfectly correlated with motivation (or hard work). But as I look back on my own life, at the times that I worked the hardest, I was always at the time quite proud of my work or progress, and more or less satisfied with my circumstances. Was that because I happened to be working harder or producing more at the time? Actually, no. There were other times in my life when I also happened to work hard and get stuff done, but I was dissatisfied with my progress. No--I think I was, at those times, simply focused on the positive. That suggests a hypothesis.

I'll be 50 in a few weeks, and I have thought a great deal about this sort of thing, but I'm not sure I have ever entertained this precise hypothesis: When I am quite positive, i.e., when I dismiss self-criticism and instead take pride in my work (and my circumstances, i.e., "looking on the bright side" of whatever comes my way), then I do happen to be unusually well motivated and hard-working. Positivity causes high motivation. Dwelling on the bright side is a sufficient but not necessary condition for wanting to get stuff done.

It's not optimism about the future that matters most to motivation. It's positivity. Optimism means evaluating the probability of future desired events highly. But if you're in a blue funk, then even if you think it's very likely that you'll achieve x if you set out to do x, you'll be less likely to care about x, or be motivated by the prospect. But if you're quite positive, if you dwell long and hard on how wonderful it will be to achieve x, and you generally look on the bright side regardless, that can be enough to overcome a sober estimate that your chances of success are relatively low.

So I'm going to try this out. There's no great method to follow, however. What I'm describing here is an attitude, not an activity. If you're persuaded by what I've written, and want to try it out with me, then it seems to me what you need to do is reflect on everything in your life--your job, your relationships, your material circumstances, everything--and remind yourself of all of the most positive aspects of it all. Then keep those aspects in mind, and going forward, as you encounter new circumstances and talk with folks, make an effort to dwell on the most positive aspects. If you get a B and you wanted an A, reflect that it's not a C; that the course was difficult; that it is, after all, just one grade; etc. If you finish a piece of work you're proud of and nobody else seems to notice, don't let that stop you from taking pride in your work. And let your attitude come out. If you feel like saying to a coworker, "I really killed it," referring to your job, they'll probably support you if they're decent.

I'm not saying you should be conceited or narcissistic. Don't take other people down a peg just because you start getting more positive about yourself. I also think you should be positive with respect to other people, their qualities and their achievements. If someone says they finished something important, praise them. You might find someone's politics annoying, but don't let that stop you from liking or admiring him or her. Remind yourself that politics are just one not-very-important aspect of a person's life, and that your friend is, after all, very accomplished in this or that way, or funny, or pretty, or whatever their positive traits might be. This will make it easier for you to be more genuinely positive about yourself.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

Why do I get so much work done on airplanes?

Riding in planes ain't so bad. I wholeheartedly believe they're safer than cars--and this is the one actual advantage of having short legs. So I don't mind riding in planes. Maybe, I admit, I even look forward to it a little. But more important than that, I usually get quite a bit of work done on planes. It's surely the lack of distractions, right? No Internet, no family, no workmates, no phone calls, just me and my laptop (or book).

But perhaps there's more than just a lack of distractions that accounts for my productivity while aloft: maybe it's also a sense of agency or freedom. Nobody's about to tell me what to do, and I know it. I have a block of hours that I know I can dispose of in just the way I like. I might be crammed in a 31" (average legroom) by 16.5" (average width) box by rapacious airlines with razor-thin profit margins, but my ability to control my time is positively liberating.

Distraction and lack of agency are both rather puzzling. They seem to be wholly psychological. What, really, is the difference between me sitting at my workstation at home and doing some work and sitting with a laptop in a plane seat? There seems to be nothing more than an awareness that certain things are possible--that I might choose to do something that would (sadly) distract me, or that someone might ask me to do something or interrupt me. I personally lack the ability to turn off that awareness; I can't as it were put myself into airplane mode. But that inability is simply a decision I make. It's not a bad think that I make it. I don't want to be the sort of person who "gives zero f***s." But riding in an airplane cuts us off, temporarily. And that seems to be a good thing, sometimes, for me anyway.

Is it time to move from social media to blogs?

This began as a Twitter thread.

I've finally put my finger on a thing that annoys me—probably, all of us—about social media. When we check in on our friends and colleagues and what they're sharing, we are constantly bombarded with simplistic attacks on our core beliefs, especially political beliefs. "This cannot stand," we say. So we respond. But it's impossible to respond in the brief and fast-paced media of Twitter and Facebook without being simplistic or glib. So the cycle of simplistic glibness never stops.

There are propagandists (and social media people...but I repeat myself) who love and thrive on this simplicity. Their messages are more plausible and easier to get upset about when stated simply and briefly. They love that. That's a feature, not a bug (they think)!

I feel like telling Tweeps and FB friends "Be more reasonable!" and "Use your brain!" and "Chill!" But again—everything seems sooooo important, because our core beliefs are under attack. How can most people be expected to be calm and reasonable? People who take high standards of politeness and methodology seriously naturally feel like quitting. But social media has become important for socializing, PR, career advancement, and (let's face it) the joy of partisanship. "I can't quit you!" we moan. But, to quote a different movie, this aggression will not stand, man. Our betters at Twitter and Facebook agree, and so they have decided to force the worst actors to play nice. But they can't be trusted to identify "the worst actors" fairly. They're choosing the winners.

What's the solution for those of us who care about truth, nuance, and decency—and free speech? I don't know, but I have an idea. Rather than letting Facebook and Twitter (and their creeping censorship) control things, I'm going to try putting content updates on my blog. I'll still use Twitter and Facebook for Everipedia announcements and talk, and I'll link to blog updates from both places. But you'll have to visit my blog to actually read my more personal content. Anyway, I'm going to give that a try.

EU copyright reform could threaten wiki encyclopedias

If we are to believe its critics, under the pending EU copyright reform legislation, the EU would implement a "link tax" across all of Europe. So if you link to a news article, for example, including a text snippet, then you'd have to pay a fee. When Spain tried this, Google News simply discontinued service in the country—that didn't go over too well.

Maybe worse, the new law would require websites that engage the public to set up review processes to proactively remove violations of copyright rules. Those of us who have designed and used collaborative and participatory websites (that'd be most of you reading this) can well understand the difficulty here: it mandates a review process. It would be against the law to follow the publish-then-filter principle that is at the core of open source and open content projects. This could be disastrous for those projects—including, of course, Everipedia and Wikipedia. Let me explain.

The current regulatory regime in the U.S. is defined to a great extent by the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act), which enables websites to declare themselves to be Internet service providers who are not directly responsible for what their users post. If they receive a "takedown request" from someone whose rights are violated—for example, someone whose copyrighted work is reproduced without permission—they must simply take the work down promptly, and the problem goes away. And of course, the DMCA has no requirements whatsoever regarding hyperlinks. (Why on earth would it?)

But under the new EU regime, the Internet wouldn't work that way. You'd have to pay to link to news articles—that would have made Infobitt impossible (among many more). And whenever you designed a form allowing a user to upload information for public consumption, you'd also have to design a whole system enabling the information to be checked for copyright infringement before being posted. Web developers naturally find both ideas absolutely ridiculous, not only because of the expense and technical difficulty, but also because it would interfere with and potentially ruin the social dynamics that make the sites work properly.

Of course, Internet giants like Facebook and Twitter might be able to satisfy the requirements of the law, but so many smaller projects would not. And while Everipedia's new blockchain review process might satisfy the review mechanism requirement (see our white paper), it seems impossible that the literally millions of links from our articles could be paid for—if, as seems likely, they would have to be under the new regime. (Any link to content that is under 20 years old would have to be paid for.)

Wikipedia never would have been able to get a start under this regime. Nor would any small, independent startup. Only giant corporations would be able to satisfy the law's requirements.

But then, maybe that's the point.

The Well-Ordered Life

The well-ordered life may be defined as that set of sound beliefs and good practices which are most conducive to productivity and therefore happiness, at least insofar as as happiness depends on productivity.

The well-ordered life has several types of component: goals; projects, which naturally flow from goals, and which are essentially long-term plans; habits, or actions aimed at the goals and which one aims to do regularly; plans for the day or week; assessments, or evaluating the whole, or stock-taking; and, different from all of these, a set of beliefs and states of attention that support the whole.

Let me explain the general theory behind the claim that the beliefs and practices I have in mind do, in fact, conduce to productivity and thus happiness. There is a way to live, which many of us have practiced at least from time to time and which some people practice quite a lot, which has been variously described as “peak performance,” “getting things done,” “self-discipline,” or as I will put it, a “well-ordered life.”

This generally involves really accepting, really believing in, certain of what might be called life goals. If you do not believe in these goals, the whole thing breaks down. Next, flowing from these goals, you must embrace certain projects; the projects must be broad and long-term, meaning they incorporate many different activities but have a definite end point. These must be tractable and perfectly realistic, and again, you must be fully “on board” with the wisdom of these projects. Projects can include things like writing a paper, working through a tutorial, writing a large computer program, and much more, depending on your career.

This background—your global goals and your significant, big projects—is the backdrop for your daily life. If this backdrop is not well-ordered, then your daily life will fall apart. If you lose faith in your goals, little everyday activities will be hard to do. Similarly, if you decide that a certain project does not serve your goals, you will not be able to motivate yourself to take actions. So you must guard your commitment to your goals and projects jealously, and if it starts to get shaky, you need to reassess as soon as possible.

Your daily life is structured by three main things: habits, plans, and assessments. Your habits are like the structure of your day. They can and probably should include a schedule and are regular activities that move you toward the completion of a project. Plans are like the content of your day. The habits and schedule might give you an outline, but you still need to think through how to flesh out the outline. Finally, there are assessments, which can be done at the same time as plans are done, but which involve evaluating your past performance, introspecting about how you feel about everything, and frankly squashing irrational thoughts that are getting in the way.

Such a life is well-ordered because projects flow from goals, while habits, plans, and assessments are all in service of the projects and, through them, the goals. It is a system with different parts; but the parts all take place in your life, meaning they at bottom take the form of beliefs and actions that you strongly identify with and that actually make up who you are.

This then leads to the last element of the well-ordered life: beliefs that support the whole. As we move through life, we are not in direct control of our beliefs or even most of our actions. We find ourselves believing things or with attitudes that we do not wish or that even surprise or dismay us. These beliefs can greatly support a well-ordered life, but they can also undermine it entirely. If you believe a goal is entirely unattainable, or a project undoable, you will probably lack the motivation needed to pursue it.

This is why assessment, or stock-taking, is so important if you are to maintain a well-ordered life, especially if you tend to be depressed or nervous or your self-confidence is low. You need to explore and, as it were, tidy up your mind.

You should expel any notion that self-discipline is a matter of luck, as if some people have it and others don’t. It is also an error to think self-discipline is a matter of remembering some brilliant insight you or someone else had, or staying in the right frame of mind. Indeed, self-discipline is not any one thing at all. It is, as I said, a system, with various working parts.

It is true that some people just rather naturally fall into the good habits and beliefs that constitute the well-ordered life. But the vast majority of us do not. The better you understand these parts, bear them in mind, and work on them until the whole thing is a finely-tuned machine, the more control you’ll have over your life. This is not easy and, like any complex system, a lot can go wrong. That’s why it’s so necessary to take stock and plan.

How to crowdsource videos via a shared video channel

I got to talking to one of my colleagues here at Everipedia, the encyclopedia of everything, where I am now CIO, about future plans. I had the following idea.

We could create an Everipedia channel--basically, just a YouTube account, but owned by Everipedia and devoted to regularly posting new videos.

We could invite people to submit videos to us; if they're approved, we put branding elements on them and post them. We share some significant amount of the monetization (most of it) with the creator.

We also feature the videos at the top of the Everipedia article about the topic.

Who knows what could happen, but what I  hope would happen is that we'd get a bunch of subscribers, because of all the connections of the video makers (and Everipedia--we collectively have a lot of followers and a lot of traffic). And the more people we got involved, the greater the competition and the better the videos would be.

There are still huge opportunities in the educational video space--so many topics out there simply have no good free videos available.

Others must have organized group channels like this before, but I can't think of who.

What do you think?

Could God have evolved?

1. How a common argument for the existence of God failed—or did it?

As a philosophy instructor, I often taught the topic of arguments for the existence of God. One of the most common arguments, called the argument from design or teleological argument, in one formulation compares God to a watchmaker.

If you were walking along a beach and found some complex machine that certainly appeared to be designed by someone, which did something amazing, then you'd conclude that it had a maker. But here we are in a universe that exhibits far more complexity and design than any machine we've ever devised. Therefore, the universe has a maker as well; we call it God.

This is sometimes called the Watchmaker Argument—since the mechanism our beachcomber finds is usually a watch—and is attributed to William Paley. Variations on this theme could be the single most commonly-advanced argument for God.

The reason the Watchmaker Argument doesn't persuade a lot of philosophers—and quite a few scientists and atheists generally—is that all the purported signs of design can be found in the biological world, and if biological complexity and appearance of design can be explained by natural selection, then God is no longer needed as an explanatory tool.

Some skeptics go a bit further and say that all the minds we have experience of are woefully inadequate for purposes of designing the complexity of life. Therefore, not only are natural mechanisms another explanation, they are a much better explanation, as far as our own experience of minds and designing is concerned.

But here I find myself skeptical of these particular skeptics.

2. Modern technology looks like magic

Recently, probably because I've been studying programming and am understanding the innards of technology better than ever, it has occurred to me very vividly that we may not be able to properly plumb the depths of what minds are capable of achieving. After all, imagine what a medieval peasant would make of modern technology. As lovers of technology often say, it would look like magic, and we would look like gods.

We've been working at this scientific innovation thing for only a few centuries, and we've been aggressively and intelligently innovating technology for maybe one century. Things we do now in 2017 are well into the realm of science fiction of 1917. We literally cannot imagine what scientific discovery and technological innovation will make available to us after 500 or 1000 years. Now let's suppose there are advanced civilizations in the galaxy that have been around for a million years.

Isn't it now hackneyed to observe that life on Earth could be a failed project of some super-advanced alien schoolchild? After all, we already are experimenting with genetic engineering, a field that is ridiculously young. As we unlock the secrets of life, who's to say we will not be able to engineer entirely different types of life, every bit as complex as the life we find on Earth, and to merge with our inventions?

Now, what havoc should these reflections wreak on our religious philosophy?

3. Could an evolved superbeing satisfy the requirements of our religions?

The scientific atheist holds the physical universe in great reverence, as something that exists in its full complexity far beyond the comprehension of human beings. The notion of a primitive "jealous God" of primitive religions is thought laughable, in the face of the immense complexity of the universe that this God is supposed to have created. Our brains are just so much meat, limited and fallible. The notion that anything like us might have created the universe is ridiculous.

Yet it is in observing the development of science and technology, thinking about how we ourselves might be enhanced by that science and technology, that we might come to an opposite conclusion. Perhaps the God of nomadic tent-dwellers couldn't design the universe. But what if there is some alien race that has evolved past where we are now for millions of years. Imagine that there is a billion-year-old superbeing. Is such a being possible? Consider the invention, computability, genetic engineering, and technological marvels we're witnessing today. Many sober heads think the advent of AI may usher in the Singularity within a few decades. What happens a millions years after that? Could the being or beings that evolve create moons? Planets? Suns? Galaxies? Universes?

And why couldn't such a superbeing turn out to be the God of the nomadic tent-dwellers?

Atheists are wrong to dismiss the divine if they do so on grounds that no gods are sufficiently complex to create everything we see around us. They believe in evolution and they see technology evolving all around us. Couldn't god-like beings have evolved elsewhere and gotten here? Could we, after sufficient time, evolve into god-like beings ourselves?

What if it turns out that the advent of the Singularity has the effect of joining us all to the Godhead that is as much technological as it is physical and spiritual? And suppose that's what, in reality, satisfies the ancient Hebrew notions of armageddon and heaven, and the Buddhist notion of nirvana. And suppose that, when that time comes, it is the humble, faithful, just, generous, self-denying, courageous, righteous, respectful, and kind people that are accepted into this union, while the others are not.

4. But I'm still an agnostic

These wild speculations aren't enough to make me any less of an agnostic. I still don't see evidence that God exists, or that the traditional (e.g., Thomistic) conception of God is even coherent or comprehensible. For all we know, the universe is self-existing and life on Earth evolved, and that's all the explanation we should ever expect for anything.

But these considerations do make me much more impressed by the fact that we do not understand how various minds in the universe might evolve, or might have evolved, and how they might have already interacted with the universe we know. There are facts about these matters about which we are ignorant, and the scientific approach is to withhold judgment about them until the data are in.

On intellectual honesty and accepting the humiliation of error

I. The virtue of intellectual honesty.
Honesty is a greatly underrated epistemic virtue.

There is a sound reason for thinking so. It turns out that probably the single greatest source of error is not ignorance but arrogance, not lack of facts but dogmatism. We leap to conclusions that fit with our preconceptions without testing them. Even when we are more circumspect, we frequently rule out views that turn out to be correct because of our biases. Often we take the easy way out and simply accept whatever our friends, religion, or party says is true.

These are natural habits, but there is a solution: intellectual honesty. At root, this means deep commitment to truth over our own current opinion, whatever it might be. That means accepting clear and incontrovertible evidence as a serious constraint on our reasoning. It means refusing to accept inconsistencies in one's thinking. It means rejecting complexity for its own sake, whereby we congratulate ourselves for our cleverness but rarely do justice to the full body of evidence. It means following the evidence where it leads.

The irony is that some other epistemic virtues actually militate against wisdom, or the difficult search for truth.

Intelligence or cleverness, while in themselves an obvious benefit, become a positive hindrance when we become unduly impressed with ourselves and the cleverness of our theories. This is perhaps the single biggest reason I became disappointed with philosophy and left academe; philosophers are far too impressed with complex and clever reasoning, paying no attention to fundamentals. As a result, anyone who works from fundamentals finds it to be child's play (I thought I did, as a grad student) to poke holes in fashionable theories. This is not because I was more clever than those theoreticians but because they simply did not care about certain constraints that I thought were obvious. And it's easy for them in turn to glibly defend their views; so it's a game, and to me it became a very tiresome one.

Another overrated virtue is, for lack of a better name, conventionality. In every society, every group, there is a shared set of beliefs, some of which are true and some of which are false. I find that in both political and academic discussions, following these conventions is held to be a sign of good sense and probity, while flouting them ranges from suspect to silly to evil. But there has never yet been any group of people with a monopoly on truth, and the inherent difficulty of everything we think about means that we are unlikely to find any such group anytime soon. I think most of my liberal friends are—perhaps ironically—quite conventional in how they think about political issues. Obviously conservatives and others can be as well.

Another virtue, vastly overrated today, is being "scientific." Of course, science is one of the greatest inventions of the modern mind, and it continues to produce amazing results. I am also myself deeply committed to the scientific method and empiricism in a broad sense. But it is an enormous mistake to think that the mere existence of a scientific consensus, especially in the soft sciences, means that one may simply accept what science instructs is true. The strength of a scientific theory is not determined by a poll but by the quality of evidence. Yet the history of science is the history of dogmatic groups of scientists having their confidently-held views corrected or entirely replaced. The problem is a social one; scientists want the respect of their peers and as a result are subject to groupthink. In an age of scientism this problem bleeds into the general nonscientific population, with dogmatists attempting to support their views by epistemically unquestionable (but often badly-constructed and inadequate) "studies"; rejecting anyone's argument, regardless how strong, if it is not presented with "scientific support"; and dismissing any non-scientist opining on a subject about which a scientist happens to have some opinion. As wonderful as science is, the fact is that we are far more ignorant than we are knowledgeable, even today, in 2017, and we would do well to remember that.

Here's another overrated virtue: incisiveness. Someone is incisive if he produces trenchant replies that allows his friends to laugh at the victims of his wit. Sometimes, balloons need to be punctured and there is nothing there when deflated—of course. But problems arise when glib wits attack some more complex theories and narratives. It is easy to tear down and hard to build. Fundamentally my issue is that we need to probe theories and narratives that are deeply rooted in facts and evidence, and simply throwing them on the scrap heap in ridicule means we do not fully learn what we can from the author's perspective. In philosophy, I'm often inclined to a kind of syncretistic approach which tips its hat to various competing theories that each seem to have their hands on different parts of the elephant. Even in politics, even if we have some very specific policy recommendation, much has been lost if we simply reject everything the other side says in the rough and tumble of debate.

I could go on, but I want to draw a conclusion here. When we debate and publish with a view to arriving at some well-established conclusions, we are as much performing for others as we are following anything remotely resembling an honest method for seeking the truth. We, with the enthusiastic support of our peers, are sometimes encouraged to think that we have the truth when we are still very far indeed from having demonstrated it. By contrast, sometimes we are shamed for considering certain things that we should feel entirely free to explore, because they do contain part of the truth. These social effects get in the way of the most efficient and genuine truth-seeking. The approach that can be contrasted with all of these problems is intellectual honesty. This entails, or requires, courageous individualism, humility, integrity, and faith or commitment to the cause of truth above ideology.

It's sad that it is so rare.


II. The dangers of avoiding humiliation.

The problem with most people laboring under error (I almost said "stupid people," but many of the people I have in mind are in fact very bright) is that, when they finally realize that they were in error, they can't handle the shame of knowing that they were in error, especially if they held their beliefs with any degree of conviction. Many people find error to be deeply humiliating. Remember the last time you insisted that a word meant one thing and it meant something else, when you cited some misremembered statistic, or when thought you knew someone who turned out to be a stranger. It's no fun!

Hence we are strongly motivated to deny that we are, in fact, in error, which creates the necessity of various defenses. We overvalue supporting evidence ("Well, these studies say...") and undervalue disconfirming evidence ("Those studies must be flawed"). Sometimes we just make up evidence, convincing ourselves that we just somehow know things ("I have a hunch..."). We seek to discredit people who present them with disconfirming evidence, to avoid having to consider or respond to it ("Racist!").

In short, emotional and automatic processes lead us to avoid concluding that we are in error. Since we take conscious interest in defending our views, complex explanatory methods are deployed in the same effort. ("Faith is a virtue.") But these processes and methods, by which we defend our belief systems, militate in favor of further error and against accepting truth. ("Sure, maybe it sounds weird, but so does a lot of stuff in this field.") This is because propositions, whether true or false, tend to come in large clusters or systems that are mutually supporting. Like lies, if you support one, you find yourself committed to many more.

In this way, our desire to avoid the humiliation of error leads us into complex systems of confusion—and, occasionally, into patterns of thinking that can be called simply evil. ("The ends justify the means.") They're evil because the pride involved in supporting systematically wrong systems of thought drives people into patterns of defense go beyond the merely psychological and into the abusive, psychologically damaging, and physical. ("We can't tolerate the intolerant!" "Enemy of the people." "Let him be anathema.")

What makes things worse is that we are not unique atoms each confronting a nonhuman universe, when we are coming to grips with our error. We are members of like-minded communities. We take comfort that others share our beliefs. This spreads out the responsibility for the error. ("So-and-so is so smart, and he believes this.") It is much easier to believe provably false things if many others do as well, and if they are engaged in the same processes and methods in defending themselves and, by extension, their school of thought.

This is how we systematically fail to understand each other. ("Bigot!" "Idiot!") This is why some people want to censor other people. ("Hate speech." "Bad influence.") This is how wars start.

Maybe, just maybe, bad epistemology is an essential cause of bad politics.

(I might be wrong about that.)

It's better to just allow yourself to be humiliated, and go where the truth leads. This is the nature of skepticism.

This, by the way, is why I became a philosopher and why I commend philosophy to you. The mission of philosophy is—for me, and I perhaps too dogmatically assert that it ought to be the mission for others—to systematically dismantle our systems of belief so that we may begin from a firmer foundation and accept only true beliefs.

This was what Socrates and Descartes knew and taught so brilliantly. Begin with what you know on a very firm foundation, things that you can see for yourself ("I know that here is a hand"), things that nobody denies ("Humans live on the surface of the earth"). And as you make inferences, as you inevitably will and must, learn the canons of logic and method so that you can correctly apportion your strength of belief to the strength of the evidence.

There is no way to do all this without frequently practicing philosophy and frequently saying, "This might or might not support my views; I don't know." If you avoid the deeper questions, you are ipso facto being dogmatic and, therefore, subject to the patterns of error described above.

Modern education and culture, or, what did you think would happen?

I. Modern education and culture

Look at where we are in education and culture today. Let's catalog the main issues, shall we?

School children are often not taught to read properly, and too many fall behind and grow up functionally illiterate. Yet students are kept in schools practically all day and are made to do endless amounts of busywork, and then they have to do even more busywork at home. The efficiency of the work they do is appalling, as their textbooks and assignments are all too often ill-conceived, being repetitious, deadly dull, and designed without any consideration for what individual children already know (or don't know). Generally, they aren't taught classics (but more on that below). So despite all that work, despite graduating at rates as high as ever, the average child emerges into adulthood shockingly ignorant. The educational process is regimented; little humans have essentially become cogs in a giant, humorless, bureaucratic machine. The whole process is soul-killing.

Growing up in these bureaucratized intellectual ghettos, it's no wonder that rebellion has become de rigeur, that everyone calls himself an individualist although few really are. Popular culture with each passing generation is more dumbed-down, delivering entertainment that can be effortlessly consumed by maleducated conformist rebels, increasingly avoiding any scintilla of intellectualism, any uncool and boring reference to any of the roots of Western culture. On TV, popular music, and the Internet—the ubiquitous refuges of the young from the horrors of the educational machine that dominates their young lives—one can navigate content of all sorts without any exposure to the classics of literature and the arts, or the root ideas of Western religion and philosophy. If a few lucky students are exposed to these things at their more academic high schools, most are not, and the taste for "the best which has been thought and said" is ruined by the presentation in a system that "critiques" and renders dull as much as it celebrates and usefully explains. It's a wonder if any students emerge with any taste for the classics of Western literature, art, and thought at all.

A problem about Western culture, for the modern world, is that it is intensely critical and challenging. The classics are beautiful, but hard—both difficult to appreciate and presenting lessons that require us to take a hard, critical look at ourselves. Although the classics can be profoundly inspiring and sublime in beauty, they require time, attention, intelligence, seriousness, and sincerity to appreciate. In the context of today's soul-killing schools, students are too exhausted and overworked to meet these challenges. Many students are also too narcissistic—having been told by their parents and teachers that they are already brilliant, having been idolized by popular culture for their cool, attractiveness, and cutting-edge thinking about everything—so the classics require a kind of self-criticism that is wholly foreign to many of them. It is no wonder the classics simply do not "speak to" the youth of today.

Moreover, almost all of the classics were created by white Western men. Spending much time on them is politically regressive, or that is what school teachers are trained to believe. Instead, the left at universities have been building a new kind of more critical culture, at once holding up the grievances of historically marginalized groups as a new gospel, while actually revering popular culture. Teachers and administrators marinade in this left-wing culture of criticism at universities for six or more years, before they make the choices of what pieces of culture are worth exposing to children. So, again, it's a wonder if any students emerge with any taste for the classics.

At the college level, matters have become dire in other ways. Everyone is expected to go to college, and at the same time universities have become corporatized, so that the students are now treated as "customers" whose evaluations determine how professors should teach. So, naturally, grades have inflated—which would have been necessary to coddle the "self-esteem" or narcissism of youth—and the courses themselves have been dumbed down, at least in the humanities. But who needs the humanities? Degrees in the liberal arts generally are held to be a waste of money, especially since college has become so expensive, and fewer people are pursuing such degrees. Even if one believed the knowledge gained through liberal arts degrees to be valuable enough to warrant spending $60,000/year, one spends much of the time, in most of the humanities, marinading in that same left-wing critical culture that produces our schoolteachers—so one wouldn't be exposed to the classics in the way that would incline a student to sign up for one of these degrees in the first place. So it's no wonder if students and their parents are finding it increasingly plausible to skip college altogether. This is a sad mistake, considering that young adults today, navigating a rapidly-changing world, are more in need of the wisdom and intellectual skills inculcated by a liberal arts education than ever before. And most recently, the consequences of our failure to pass on two of the ideals essential to Western thought—free speech and freedom of inquiry—has led to thoroughly illiberal efforts to "shut it down," i.e., prevent politically unpopular ideas from getting a hearing on campus at all. This is all in the name of intersectionality, empowering the disempowered, tearing down bad old ideas, and protecting the sensitive feelings of coddled students.

II. The once-radical ideas that got us here

Our education is degraded, and we are falling away from Western civilization. So how did it come to this? I put it down to a perfect storm of terrible ideas.

(1) To be effective in a fast-changing society, we need up-to-date know-how, not theory. American society developed out of a frontier mentality that placed a premium on a "can-do" attitude, an ability to get things done, with theorizing and book-reading being a waste of time. That might be understandable for the pioneers and peasants of a frontier or pre-industrial society, it is a terrible idea for the complexities of industrial and post-industrial societies, in which wisdom, trained intelligence, and sensitivity to nuance are essentials. Nevertheless, American parents and teachers alike generally seem to agree that practical knowledge and know-how are more important than book-larnin'. You would think that this might have changed with more people than ever going to college. But it has not.

(2) Books are old-fashioned in the Internet age. When, in the 2000s, the Internet came into its own as the locus of modern life, we began to ask, "Is Google making us stupid?" and to "complain" that we lacked the ability to read extended texts (long articles were "tl;dr" and books boring, old, and irrelevant). I think many of us took this to heart. Educated people still do want their children to read, but the habits of adults are slowly dying; you can't expect the children to do better.

(3) Western civilization is evil. "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western civ has got to go," chanted those Stanford students in 1988, which became a watershed moment in the development of Western culture. At the time, it might have seemed a bit of left-wing excess, and just one side of the complex Culture War. But, in fact, it proved to be a taste of things to come. Many Western civilization requirements are long gone. What was once the province of the newly-created Women's Studies and Black Studies departments, and a few left-wing professors, gradually become the dominant viewpoint in all of the humanities. Why study the classics when the classics simply represent the point of view of the oppressor?

(4) Social justice is the new religion. Hand-in-hand with criticism of Western civilization came an increasing respect (which is good), then celebration (which is fine), and finally a veneration (which is undeserved) of everything that has traditionally been set in opposition to Western civilization, especially the usual identity groups: women, races other than white, ethnicities other than Western, religion other than Christianity, sexual orientation other than straight, etc. At universities, making these identity groups equal to straight, white, male, Christian Europeans has become nearly the only thing—apart from environmentalism and a few other such causes—that is taken really seriously. For many academics, intersectionality has replaced both religion and any apolitical ethics to become an all-encompassing worldview.

(5) Psychology is more scientific, accurate, and credible than philosophy and religion, and self-esteem must be cultivated at all costs. The gospel of self-esteem came into being in the 1970s, right around the time when the self-help publishing industry became fashionable. With the collapse of traditional (especially Christian) belief systems, people cast about for general advice on how to live their lives, and psychology delivered. As self-esteem was a key element of much self-help psychology, it was only natural that the parents of Generations X and Y would pull out the stops to protect the feelings and sense of self-worth of their precious darlings.

We have changed. Despite their education, too many of our children cannot read well, and fewer and fewer of us read books. Whatever we do teach or read, it is rarely classical literature. Classics have become an unexplored country, dull and reviled, to many of us. Recent generations are the first in centuries in which the upper echelons of society are quite shockingly ignorant of their own Western heritage. And here I don't just mean books, I mean also basic Western principles, ideas, and values. For many young people, social justice, psychology, and especially popular culture have replaced religion and wisdom literature. Popular culture may be a crass wasteland, yet it guides our youth more than ever, as being the only kind of culture that most of them have preparation and taste for.

We have declined. In past generations, this analysis would have sounded like scaremongering. Today, the analysis has come true; it is a postmortem.

But—and here I speak to the older generation, especially educated old liberals—what did you think would happen? This is precisely what some people did predict in decades past, because society's leaders were teaching a certain set of ideas to the leaders of the next generation:

European civilization colonized and exploited the world; it is irredeemably racist and the main source of the suffering in the world today.

Inequalities are deeply unfair, and white men have the best of everything; so we should celebrate everyone else and take white men down a peg or two.

We must be avoid saying anything that might even be thought to be offensive to disadvantaged identity groups.

Christianity is completely irrational and doesn't deserve a role in public life.

Science, and psychology in particular, studies all we need to know to live and be happy; philosophy and religion are based on muddle-headed superstition.

The self-esteem and sensitivities of young people are precious and must be protected from the buffets that life threatens to give them.

Even today, some of these ideas might sound ridiculous to some of us. But if you've been paying attention, you can't deny that these once-radical ideas have become increasingly mainstream.

III. The radical ideas that might guide our future

The desperate state of education today is predictable, given former trends and earnestly-expressed convictions. It was called scaremongering to say that these ideas were hacking away the roots of Western civilization—and yet they did. So one wonders: What can we predict about the future, based on ideas now growing in popularity, ideas that it is quite reasonable to believe will guide the education and enculturation of the next generation?

Here are some controversial ideas that are in vogue at universities today:

Free speech is a dangerous idea, and it certainly doesn't include hate speech and harmful speech.

What determines whether speech is harmful is whether it causes its listeners to react with emotional pain.

But we can disregard the pain of "privileged" people—"male tears," "white tears," and all that.

Those who are really plugged in know that books aren't really what's important. Know-how is what's important. You can just look up things online that you need to know.

Popular culture is worth careful academic study, at least as much as "the classics" or "high culture."

Higher education isn't important except as a credential to become a corporate drone and in some fields.

Grave inequalities persist, and our very civilization is racist. We ought to tear down and malign all the productions of white men.

White society, and white people (whether they know it or not), are all racist, and all men (whether they know it or not) perpetuate a sexist patriarchy.

Religion isn't just irrational and wrong, it's evil, and we should take steps to stamp it out and perhaps prohibit it.

Reproducing does great harm to the world. Life is an evil. Babies are not to be celebrated. We should stop having them.

All of these ideas have plenty of adherents on campus today. They might well shape the next generation. If so, what might our brave new world look like? Let's listen in to the monologue from a typical, center-left future student, shall we?

"It's 2047. The way some people talk, you'd think it was, I don't know, 2017 or something. Check this out. I heard someone, and I don't care if she was a black woman, actually citing the Bible in class? That triggered a lot of people, and she was kicked out, of course. I doubt they'll let her back in. It just goes to show you how many people still believe that superstitious bullshit, even though it's revolting hate speech. But you know what, I was kind of impressed about what she was reading, before I realized what she was reading. It sounded like Old English. Who reads crap like that these days? Well, I guess she can. But it's still bullshit. You don't have to be able to read it to know that.

"It's not just superstitious bullshit, it's totally irrelevant. Books are so lame! My favorite professors don't teach books, they teach modern media. When I started this major, I swear, I had no idea pop music and movies were so deep. Seriously! So why do we require students to read so many books at all? Last year I was required to read three books for required Communications courses. Everyone knows that books aren't really what's important; knowledge is free for the taking online. Everything's there, instantly! Besides, the most influential thoughts of the last forty years are all in the form of briefer texts online. I'm thinking I might want to drop out. Half of my friends didn't even go to college and are just being trained by their employers. But you know, I think those tend to be the more conservative people, you know? So...

"Anyway, at the very least, it's time to stop requiring that we read any books written before 1970, or maybe 2000, especially if they were written by white men. I mean, of course white people and men are still welcome at our universities, it is perfectly fair that they wait their turn in classroom discussions. I hate it when some white man just starts talking first. You can hear some people hissing when they do. After all, everyone knows that less privileged people have more valid and relevant perspectives, and hearing white people and men—and on some issues, let's face it, hearing ignorant, insensitive white men at all—causes the marginalized great pain. We can't forget that white Western civilization persists even today, despite our best efforts. We renamed the state of Washington, but not the capital of our country—it continues to be named after the very embodiment of a white, slave-owning, breeding patriarch! That pisses me off so much!

"And speaking of breeders...don't get me started on the breeders. We had to fight tooth and nail against the misogynist, patriarchal society just to make it possible to license parents. But now we're allowing almost everyone to be licensed. What's the point? Surely we've got to prevent so many people from breeding. We don't let just anyone drive, right? We need to start imposing some restrictions. I know it's a little simplistic, but sometimes, simple is the best way: we could just, for a while, restrict the number of children white people could have. I know it sounds shocking, but look—everybody knows they use the most resources, they're the most racist, they create the most inequality. And they're still a plurality in this country. So it's really a no-brainer. It's 2047!"

Maybe that sounds over-the-top. But that's the point. There are cutting-edge activist types who would find all of this commendable or at least very plausible. And just think: the cutting-edge ideas of 1987, which would have sounded totally bizarre and radical back then, are totally up-to-date today, in 2017. I'm similarly extrapolating, from the "cutting-edge" ideas of today on the same topics to how those ideas might be evolve in another 30 years.

Also, of course, it could get much worse. Illiberal societies have been much worse at different times and places in history.

Am I predicting that the monologue is what awaits us? No, my crystal ball isn't that accurate and history never unfolds smoothly or predictably. What I'm saying is that it's a natural extrapolation from ideas about education and culture today. Is that what we want? If not, then what kind of thought world are we trying to build?