The Astonishing Hubris of a Global Experimental Vaccine
It is an objective, indisputable fact: never in the history of the world has there been a global push to administer an experimental medicine to all of humanity, billions of us, at the same time.
I want you to stop and reflect on that. Imagine the hubris it required both to carry out this plan and to propagandize the world to carry it out.
“Hubris?” you ask. “What do you mean?”
The Covid vaccines are experimental. The FDA has not approved them. Most vaccines require years to test and approve, in no small part because we want to make sure they don’t have dangerous long-term side effects, which they can have; the CDC has published a list of problems with selected approved vaccines. Many experimental vaccines never make it out of the experimental phase. CNN made similar points back when Trump was, wrongheadedly (I thought so at the time) pushing for rapid approval of the Covid vaccines. Of course, the mercurial news organization hastened to forget all that when the Biden administration decided rapid vaccine deployment was a good idea. They shouldn’t have: for all the good they certainly have done, physicians warn us that vaccines can be dangerous for some, and experimental vaccines are, naturally, even more so.
It is an objective, indisputable fact: never in the history of the world has there been a global push to administer an experimental medicine to all of humanity, billions of us, at the same time.
Again, my point is simple and absolutely factual. Again:
You have to be willing to trust the welfare of billions of people not just to the honesty of our leaders and scientists—because things can go wrong for decent people. You must also trust their competence—and not just that, because competent people can make surprising, unforeseeable mistakes. You must also trust that we avoided the worst, that we dodged a bullet, and that they actually succeeded in making a more or less safe vaccine.
Of course, maybe they did. I sure hope so. But what if we discover some horrifically high incidence of catastrophic side-effects that do not show up for two or five or ten years? Scientists tell us that that is possible. It is unfortunately possible that more people will die from these experimental vaccines than would have died from a virus that kills fewer than 1% of those who contract it.
Do not misunderstand me. I am not claiming that is happening. I am not even saying that it is terribly likely. I am saying it is possible, because these are experimental vaccines.
Frankly, the hubris required for carrying out this plan, and for taking the lead in propagandizing the world to carry it out, is jaw-dropping and scary to me. If a world leader is willing to take such gambles with all of humanity, what else are they prepared to do? I really wonder. If suddenly you became a president or top medical system leader or media organization owner, would you want to take an action that, if you were wrong, might spell the death of millions? First, do no harm. We haven’t heard that old medical byword very much recently.
My family received our childhood vaccinations, by the way, with no issues. I am not an anti-vaxxer. I am an anti-global-all-at-once-experimental-vaxxer. There is a big difference.
This is not even to touch the question whether these experimental vaccines should be mandated, i.e., if you should lose your basic civil rights if you fail to be vaccinated. Maybe I will write about that question, definitely a non-medical question, separately another time. There is indeed much, much more to say.
But my present point is simple: experimental vaccine—billions of people—at the same time. It utterly boggles the mind that so many otherwise reasonable people have been influenced to think this is a good idea.
“All encyclopedic content on Wikipedia,” declares a policy page, “must be written from a neutral point of view (NPOV).” This is essential policy, believe it or not. Maybe that will be hard to believe, if you have read many Wikipedia articles on controversial topics lately. But it is true: neutrality is the second of the “Five Pillars” policies that define Wikipedia’s approach to the craft of encyclopedia-writing. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales made a statement that Wikipedia now regards as definitive. “Doing The Right Thing takes many forms,” he wrote, “but perhaps most central is the preservation of our shared vision for the NPOV and for a culture of thoughtful diplomatic honesty.”
Yes, Wikipedia is very earnest about its neutrality.
But what does “neutral” mean? This is easy to misunderstand; many people think it means the same as “objective.” But neutrality is not the same as objectivity. If an encyclopedia is neutral about political, scientific, and religious controversies—the issues that define the ongoing culture war—then you will find competing sides represented carefully and respectfully, even if one side is “objectively” wrong. From a truly neutral article, you would learn why, on a whole variety of issues, conservatives believe one thing, while progressives believe another thing. And then you would be able to make up your own mind.
Is that what Wikipedia offers? As we will see, the answer is No.
What Is “Neutrality,” Anyway?
“Now wait a second,” I can already hear some people saying. “I reject this distinction between objectivity and neutrality. Neutrality does not mean giving equal weight to all opinions. Neutrality means approaching issues without emotion, following standards of logic and science. The neutral approach seeks hard facts and assembles hard-won truths for a critical audience.”
That might be a fine thing, but I am afraid that is not what “neutrality” means, certainly not according to Wikipedia. Logic, science, and factuality are admirable, but the words summing up those ideals are “objectivity” and “rationality.” Neutrality is something else. Wikipedia is supposed to be like Switzerland, proverbially speaking: not casting any side as the enemy, and certainly not taking pot-shots at one side. And this is roughly how Wikipedia still officially characterizes neutrality: “Wikipedia aims to describe disputes, but not engage in them.”
Jimmy Wales is right. We did originally adopt the neutrality policy to foster “a culture of thoughtful diplomatic honesty.” In other words, the way to keep the peace among a radically diverse set of contributors is not to declare winners and losers. But that is only one reason we adopted the policy. There was another key reason: as I have explained, no one has a right to make up your mind for you, especially in an open, global project. That does violence to our basic autonomy and, if the project ever became very large and important, it would place an enormous amount of power in the hands of a ideological cabal. And on Wikipedia, There is no cabal (ask them; they’ll tell you). Such ideological control would turn Wikipedia into an engine of propaganda. The neutrality policy was supposed to prevent that.
There is a crucial difference between propaganda and information that supports individual deliberation. The difference is neutrality.
So does Wikipedia meet its own ideals of neutrality? Let’s find out. I already explored this question by looking for (and easily finding) bias in articles on important topics. In the present article, I take another approach: we can list a few big political issues, briefly summarize the warring views on them, and then look and see whether these views are presented neutrally, in a way that allows the reader to make up his own mind. Does that sound fair? I think it does. And does Wikipedia take such an approach?
I propose to look and see. Which issues in the last year or so have caused the most acrimonious dispute? We can look at the main battlefronts of the culture war: politics, science, and religion. I will spend most of my time on politics.
In U.S. politics, four of the biggest political issues would include:
The Antifa and BLM riots
Alleged election irregularities
Democrats and (most) Republicans were sharply divided on the question of whether Trump’s impeachments had any merit. The Democratic view was that Trump abused his office by encouraging the president of Ukraine to investigate his opponent, Biden. Later, he egged on the January 6 invasion of the Capitol building. The Republican view was that Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president was wholly innocent, that he had committed no “high crime or misdemeanor,” and that Biden was in fact guilty of dirty shenanigans in Ukraine. As to the January 6 invasion, his remarks did not cause it. Of course, there is much, much more to be said on all sides. Now, a neutral Wikipedia would not come down clearly on either side, and would fully lay out the Democratic and the Republican cases fairly and fully. Is that what we see on Wikipedia?
No. As of this writing (and this caveat goes for all of the following), there was a section of the Donald Trump article about the first impeachment (2019-20). That section had absolutely no information about the Republican side in the House impeachment proceedings; only the Democratic side is presented. As to the Senate trial, here is the total extent of Wikipedia’s remarks about the Trump (i.e., majority Republican) position: “Trump’s lawyers did not deny the facts as presented in the charges but said Trump had not broken any laws or obstructed Congress. They argued that the impeachment was ‘constitutionally and legally invalid’ because Trump was not charged with a crime and that abuse of power is not an impeachable offense.” That is all; two transparently biased sentences. Among other things, the article omits the essential point that Trump’s lawyers also denied that there was any abuse of power in the first place.
There is, of course, much more information to be found about the Republican case in the (very long) article, “First impeachment trial of Donald Trump“; but, and I suppose you will just have to take my word for this, the relevant section is extremely biased, for example, dismissing various what it calls “conspiracy theories.”
As to the second impeachment trial (that of January, 2021), in the Donald Trump article, no information is offered on either side about the arguments for impeachment, either in the House or the Senate proceedings. Certainly there is nothing remotely representing the perspective of Trump and his defenders. Again, there is a much longer article, “Second impeachment of Donald Trump,” with a “Background” section that essentially lays out the Democratic case against Trump. No Trump rebuttal is given at all. The rest of the article is also extremely biased; there is a long section of opinions whether Trump should have been impeached. The “Opposition” section (i.e., listing people opposed to impeachment) skips entirely over all House Republican opposition, and presents only Senate opposition.
This is hardly fair, neutral treatment on events that deeply divided the American people. Wikipedia took the Democrats’ side against Trump, period. The articles are so biased, in fact, that it is fair to call them “propaganda.”
The Biden Family Ukraine Scandal
President Biden faced, and has so far easily escaped, two potentially devastating scandals that were unleashed in the 2020 election. One concerned Ukraine and the other concerned the shady business dealings Hunter and his father allegedly had with a company controlled by the Chinese government. The issue dividing Republicans and Democrats here, obviously, was: Was there any evidence of wrongdoing? Not all national-level Republicans thought the scandals were worth talking about, but some certainly did; and a lot of the rank-and-file did. The Democrats, meanwhile, essentially circled the wagons and refused to report on or discuss the issues involved. When they did, they typically issued blanket denials and dismissals.
A neutral handling of the many confusing accusations would not imply that Biden was guilty of anything. But it also would not clear him of all charges. Rather, it would present enough detail about the accusations and the purported evidence for them, leaving nothing important out; then it would explain in some detail how Biden was defended by Democrats and his allies. That much is the least that one would expect to find in a neutral treatment of the scandals. Is that what we see in Wikipedia?
Not at all. We can look at some relevant articles, first about the Ukraine scandal. In the “Campaign” section of the Wikipedia article on Biden, there are two paragraphs explaining the allegations (footnotes and links have been removed from this quotation):
In September 2019, it was reported that Trump had pressured Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate alleged wrongdoing by Biden and his son Hunter Biden. Despite the allegations, as of September 2019, no evidence has been produced of any wrongdoing by the Bidens. The media widely interpreted this pressure to investigate the Bidens as trying to hurt Biden’s chances of winning the presidency, resulting in a political scandal and Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives.
Beginning in 2019, Trump and his allies falsely accused Biden of getting the Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin fired because he was supposedly pursuing an investigation into Burisma Holdings, which employed Hunter Biden. Biden was accused of withholding $1 billion in aid from Ukraine in this effort. In 2015, Biden pressured the Ukrainian parliament to remove Shokin because the United States, the European Union and other international organizations considered Shokin corrupt and ineffective, and in particular because Shokin was not assertively investigating Burisma. The withholding of the $1 billion in aid was part of this official policy.
This is, of course, an obviously one-sided whitewash which takes Biden’s side throughout. In these dismissive paragraphs, one cannot fully make sense of what the case against Biden was even supposed to be; Biden’s withholding of aid is mentioned, but the context and explanation essential to the case are omitted.
Anyone passingly familiar with the story knows there is much more to it. There is nothing here about the fact that Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma paid Joe Biden’s son Hunter approximately $600,000 per annum from 2014 to 2019 to serve on the Board of Directors, never mind that he had no industry experience but only a connection to his father, the Vice President of the United States. Wikipedia even has the temerity to make the claim that “Trump and his allies falsely accused Biden of getting the Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin fired, because he was supposedly pursuing an investigation into Burisma Holdings, which employed Hunter Biden.” While it was in dispute why Biden sought Shokin’s ouster, it is perfectly true that he did so. The statement, in fact, was one Joe Biden specifically made himself—with braggadocio and to laughter—in an infamous video of an interview before the Council on Foreign Relations. The video, of course, is not so much as mentioned by Wikipedia. Nor is there any discussion of Hunter Biden’s infamous laptop and the damning evidence it contained.
Wikipedia does have a whole article titled—indeed, its bias showing right in the title—”Biden-Ukraine conspiracy theory.” It begins, “The Biden–Ukraine conspiracy theory [bold in original] is a series of unevidenced claims centered on the false allegation that while Joe Biden was vice president of the United States, he engaged in corrupt activities relating to the employment of his son Hunter Biden by the Ukrainian gas company Burisma.” There are, of course, a great many people who believe the claims are not “false” and no mere “conspiracy theory.” Their point of view is not presented but dismissed out of hand. The article goes downhill from there, serving essentially as a hit piece on Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and the New York Post, with very few actual details about what the allegations even were. More details can be found in a section of the Hunter Biden article—which is something—but even this reads as a blatantly biased brief written by the Biden family’s own lawyers.
The Biden Family Chinese Deals
At this point, Wikipedia’s defenders might well fall back on their notion that only “reliable sources” are permitted, and, gee, no reliable sources thought much of the above-mentioned video or laptop. “But,” you might well observe, “it was big news for a time. And Wikipedia thought there were no reliable sources at all? Why not?” The reason is that the sources that provide mainstream coverage of conservative points of view, including Fox News, TheNew York Post, and the (U.K.) Daily Mail—as well as pretty much all of newer conservative news media sources, which are the only outlets doing any reporting on many important stories—have all been added to a list of sources “deprecated” for their coverage of political news. This is not a joke and not an exaggeration. Republican-favoring sources, even quite mainstream ones, simply may not be used on Wikipedia, not even to explain a Republican viewpoint. (I will discuss this more in the last section below.)
The Biden China scandal is similar and is treated similarly in Wikipedia. Here, Hunter was a director of a joint venture between an American company, Rosemont Seneca, where Hunter was a partner, and Bohai Capital, a Chinese government-controlled investment firm. The joint venture was called BHR. According to the explosive testimony of Tony Bobulinski, the Bidens’ top executive for handling certain deals in China, Hunter arranged for Jonathan Li, CEO of Bohai Capital, to “shake hands” with his father, and Joe Biden was, according to Bobulinski, directly involved in the deals.
In addition to the Bobulinski interview, a great deal of supporting evidence comes from the same Hunter Biden laptop mentioned above, such as an email indicating that brothers Hunter and Jim Biden, along with “the big guy”—Bobulinski identified him as Joe Biden—would each be assigned equity shares in a business venture with Chinese energy giant CEFC.
Can any of this information on the China Biden scandal be found—even in a twisted, biased form—in the Wikipedia article on Joe Biden? Nope. As of this writing, that article contains not a single word about the China deals, Rosemont Seneca, Tony Bobulinski, the laptop, or the CEFC. But surely information can be found elsewhere on Wikipedia about these matters? Well, yes, there is a little. Most of it is again in the article on Hunter Biden, written in a way to make Hunter look as good as possible, the hapless victim of Trump’s “false charges” (those precise, dismissive words are actually used).
Again, there is much more to the story, but the point is that the Biden scandals deeply divide the American people. An ideologically neutral resource would explain both sides fully and fairly, leaving the reader to make up his own mind. Is that what Wikipedia does? No. Wikipedia is clearly aligned with one side. You might maintain that it is the only legitimate side; but then, that is what many ideologues say of their own side. What you cannot seriously maintain is that Wikipedia’s treatment of the Biden scandals is neutral. It is grossly biased.
The Antifa/BLM riots
Next I propose to look at some articles on the 2020 Antifa and BLM riots. There could not be a starker cultural divide in the American body politic than in the reaction to these riots. The rioting was sparked particularly following the May 26, 2020 death (or, as most people think, killing) of George Floyd. National Democrats generally supported the rioters; portrayed them as “mostly peaceful” activists against fascism and racism, even contributing money to their defense; took seriously the notion that we should “defund the police” or backed similar police “reform” proposals; and stubbornly minimized the months of bloodshed, danger, and destruction the riots caused. Republicans made no secret of their hatred of the riots, if they had no objection to peaceful protests; their contempt for the violent rioters; their sympathy for the afflicted neighborhoods; and their wonder and disbelief at the very suggestion that we should “defund the police.” They also pushed back, somewhat, against the notion that the United States was so woefully racist that the country must make dramatic changes to, e.g., policing practices or anti-white indoctrination at schools. Both sides generally agreed that real examples of police brutality needed to be dealt with more severely and that society, more than ever, had no place for real racism.
A neutral treatment would, of course, give broad factual coverage of such things as where the rioting took place, how many people were arrested, and numbers of injuries and deaths attributable to the rioting. The main Wikipedia article actually seems to do a good job there, as far as I can tell. But in addition, the reaction to the riots on both sides would be fully and fairly canvassed. Varying theories of the causes of the riots would be offered; Democratic theories would dwell, of course, on police brutality and racist attitudes and groups, while Republican theories, acknowledging that to some degree, would also discuss deliberate left-wing organization and dispute the extent of the problems exemplified by the George Floyd case.
Wikipedia’s coverage is, unsurprisingly, very extensive. There is a long summary article, “George Floyd protests,” as well as a “List of George Floyd protests in the United States,” and a long article titled, “2020-2021 United States racial unrest.” The concern that conservatives have is not with any protest, but with political violence in the form of rioting. So let us focus on the last article. The article does helpfully have useful statistics. While labeled “unrest,” there is a “Casualties” section in the article’s infobox, saying there were “At least 25” deaths, injuries to 2000+ law enforcement offers and to “an unknown number of civilians,” and $1–2 billion in property damage. Indeed, after pointing out that 93% of the protests were “peaceful and nondestructive,” the bottom line was that, owing to that pesky remaining 7%, the riots were “the civil disorder event with the highest recorded damage in United States history.” So far, so good: the article in those respects states facts that all sides would want presented.
As one gets farther into the article, however, the bias becomes much more pronounced. “A wave of monument removals”—an odd way to describe the deliberate, illegal destruction of public sculpture—”and name changes has taken place throughout the world, especially in the United States.” But what about the reaction to the riots? It was a “cultural reckoning,” we are told. “Public opinion of racism and discrimination quickly shifted in the wake of the protests, with significantly increased support of the Black Lives Matter movement and acknowledgement of institutional racism.” It is true that there was an increase of support for BLM early on. But support quickly dropped as the organization became associated with destructive violence in black neighborhoods, agitation against police funding, and radical communist views. Even by September of 2020, support had dropped 12% from 67% to 55%, in a Pew poll. The latter point can be found quite a long way down in the article, but it is not mentioned in the more important article introduction (which is all that most people will read), which says simply that BLM enjoyed “significantly increased support.” Also, BLM support later continued to drop to pre-riot levels. Even the New York Times, hardly a conservative mouthpiece, puzzlingly observes, “The data…contradicts the idea that the country underwent a racial reckoning.”
The rest of the article—which, I confess, I did not read entirely, as it is very long—looks like a lovingly detailed Establishment brief about the causes and events of the 2020 riots. As to the causes, one key claim is: “Black people, who account for less than 13% of the American population, are killed by police at a disproportionate rate, being killed at more than twice the rate of white people.” While this is no doubt true, a relevant fact, often cited by Republicans, is omitted: black men are much more likely to commit crimes that might bring a call to the police. Hence, as one study put it, “We found no consistent evidence of racial bias in firearm draws.” Such information, which appears inconsistent with Democratic viewpoints on racial injustice of police, does not seem to be found in the article.
Finally, there is a “Social impact” section. This is focused entirely on broader social and political changes that were supposedly caused by a reaction to the riots (and protests). In this section, and indeed all throughout the article, there is complete silence about the Republican criticism of the riots and of Democratic politicians who supported the violence or pretended that it was not happening; of the conservative backlash against Antifa and BLM; and of resistance to the social fallout such as the “Defund the Police” campaigns and some police “reform” proposals that would make policing much more difficult. There is absolutely no mention of conservative and Republican claims that the riots were deliberately and even centrally organized by left-wing organizations. Criticism of Black Lives Matter cannot be found in the article in any form, despite looming large in the Republican reaction to the riots.
The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election
Then of course there is the disputed 2020 U.S. presidential election. This was controversial not only across party lines, it was a wrenching fight within the Republican Party, with Establishment Republicans and centrists—who never liked Trump much in the first place—facing down Trump and his noisy rank-and-file supporters. Irregularities with massive amounts of mail-in ballots, failure to permit observers, and much more, caused massive uproar from Republicans. It came down to January 6, when Congress was going to vote on whether to accept the Electoral College vote count. As the Wikipedia article on the “Attempts to overturn the 2020 United States presidential election” has it, some 140 House Republicans and 11 Senate Republicans were prepared to lodge objections. Then, of course, the infamous invasion of the Capitol building happened—just in time to make such objections even more politically costly for representatives holding shaky seats.
The above-linked article was bound to be another propaganda piece. And so it is—shot through and through with egregious bias. Here is how it begins:
After the 2020 United States presidential election in which Joe Biden prevailed, then-incumbent Donald Trump, as well as his campaign and his proxies, pursued an aggressive and unprecedented effort to deny and overturn the election. The attempts to overturn the election were described as an attempted coup d’état and an implementation of “the big lie.” Trump and his allies promoted numerous false claims that the election was stolen from Trump through an international communist conspiracy, rigged voting machines, and electoral fraud.
Further down, we have another gem:
Stop the Steal [bold in original] is a far-right and conservative campaign and protest movement in the United States promoting the conspiracy theory that falsely posits that widespread electoral fraud occurred during the 2020 presidential election to deny incumbent President Donald Trump victory over former vice president Joe Biden.
I will not go into more details; you can imagine. There are actually several articles related to irregularities in the 2020 election and its aftermath. In addition to the one discussed above, there is also Republican reactions to Donald Trump’s claims of 2020 election fraud, which states, “Trump falsely claimed to have won the election, and made many false and unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.” Of course, the very title here is a good example of Saul Alinsky’s Rule 11: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it.” In other words, the backlash against the 2020 election was not a broad Republican movement, but only one hated and discredited man’s outrageous and illegal attempt to overturn the election.
Obviously, I could go on and talk about the January 6 Capitol invasion: what really happened? In “2021 United States Capitol Attack,” you will learn that the Capitol “was stormed during a riot and violent attack against the U.S. Congress,” by “a mob of supporters of President Donald Trump” who “attempted to overturn his defeat in the 2020 presidential election.” Never mind that several details here are in dispute. Many Republicans believe a number of leftists and FBI agents were among those who invaded the Capitol building. In any event, precisely what happened is not clear to those of us who have watched hours of video footage of the invasion. I watched with increasing horror and had questions even as it happened.
Republicans are naturally of differing views on Trump’s speech on the day of January 6—some think it was justified, others concede it was irresponsible—but they generally agree that he cannot be blamed for the attack. Such nuanced points of view so unpopular with Wikipedia are, unsurprisingly, not presented in the article at all. Instead, it tells a story that, by omitting key details, makes it sound as if the invasion was a spontaneous uprising of crazy MAGA people that Trump deliberately whipped up into a treasonous rage. Perhaps that is precisely what happened; but a neutral article on the topic would sketch alternate narratives as well, present all the relevant information from which various people build their cases, and leave the reader to make up his own mind about what actually happened.
I hardly need add that Wikipedia is firmly aligned with one political party, and its articles on the 2020 election read like party propaganda.
Other Recent Issues in the Culture War
This article is already long enough and I have made my point, but it will be interesting to dip briefly into other culture war topics, drawn from science and religion, that were in the news in the last year.
In science, even more than global warming (or climate change), there has been significant controversy over Covid-19 and the official measures to combat it. You will not be surprised to learn that Wikipedia debunks everything the Establishment debunks, all conveniently collected into a single article on “COVID-19 misinformation.” Alongside silly things almost no one would take seriously, you can learn that it is “misinformation” to suggest a “Wuhan lab origin” of the virus. You will also be relieved to know that “masks do actually work.”
Another article assures us, “Several researchers, from modelling and demonstrated examples, have concluded that lockdowns are effective at reducing the spread of, and deaths caused by, COVID-19.” Of course, there is no mention of any other research. What about the Covid-19 vaccines: are they effective? Safe? In the COVID-19 vaccine article, the introductory section mentions “demonstrated efficacy as high as 95%,” but nothing about side effects; further down in the article, a very short paragraph in a “Misinformation” section informs us that claims about such side effects are “overblown.” And that is it. You read that right: in an article about the experimental Covid-19 vaccines, the only thing Wikipedia has to say about their side-effects is that concern about them is overblown. Needless to say, you will not find anything in the way of information from the many skeptical physicians and medical researchers, who must not exist.
Let us be clear on something here. You might support Wikipedia’s approach to Covid-19; but you cannot maintain that it is neutral. A neutral approach would acknowledge and fairly represent alternative views on the origin of the virus, the efficacy of masks, the effectiveness and defensibility of lockdowns, and the effectiveness and safety of the Covid-19 vaccines. You might maintain that the articles are better without such an approach; but then what you are saying is that you prefer the articles’ Establishment bias to a neutral approach that would let the reader decide.
In religion, recently, a few different issues have divided conservatives from the more liberal Establishment, represented by mainline denominations and most (but not all) seminaries. One is this: Is Christianity in decline in the West—or just liberal denominations and churches? Wikipedia’s “Decline of Christianity in the Western world” article begins, “The decline of Christianity in the Western world is an ongoing trend. Developed countries with modern, secular educational facilities in the post-World War II era have shifted towards post-Christian, secular, globalized, multicultural and multifaith societies.” But, the article correctly notes, a similar decline is not happening in Latin America and Africa, and even recently, “71% of Western Europeans identified themselves as Christian, according to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center.”
In the section about the United States, the focus is (unsurprisingly) on mainline denominations, despite the fact that they are now among the smaller denominations; even as of ten years ago, taken together, the mainline Protestant denominations had fewer than half the adherents of evangelical and conservative Protestant denominations.” Only at the very end of the article do we learn that “‘intense religion’ including evangelicalism has persisted.” You will not learn, in this article, the name of the single largest Protestant denomination: the Southern Baptist Convention, with 16.2 million members. (The information can be found in the “Southern Baptist Convention” article.) You will also not learn that in an important segment, conservative church membership is actually growing: among others, nondenominational churches were booming as of 2014, and actually outnumbered even the Southern Baptists.
Basically, to hear Wikipedia tell it, Christianity is in decline, because mainline denominations are in decline, and the conservative denominations and churches are barely worth caring about. And I can just hear the response: “Well, yeah. Sounds about right.” But if you agree with the Wikipedia article’s approach, that does not mean it is neutral; the point is that it is clearly biased.
Among the hot-button topics in church politics is one that appears to be causing a schism in the United Methodist Church: same-sex marriage. The relevant article is “Blessing of same-sex unions in Christian churches.” The article has a section with five bullet points offering “Theological views of those who support same-sex unions and/or marriages,” but there is no parallel section—or any information at all, believe it or not—about the theology of those who believe same-sex marriage is unbiblical. Some major denominations that strictly forbid same-sex marriage, like the Southern Baptists, are simply not mentioned in the article.
These contentious issues are exactly where we should expect to see fair treatment of “alternative” views on Wikipedia. But we do not.
This is hardly news, but it bears repeating. Wikipedia openly repudiates neutrality, and therefore it is shamelessly hypocritical in how it continues to pay lip service to its “neutral point of view” policy. Wikipedia’s editors embrace their biases sometimes so fervently that their articles emerge more as propaganda than as reference material.
“But wait,” you say. “Come on. Fine, they’re hypocritical, but dodgy claims to neutrality are just marketing. Why should we care about actual neutrality? For journalists, it is totally passé. Sure, most of them don’t actually want you to make up your own mind on important issues. So? Of course they want experts to declare what is known, and then you should learn that—a lot of times that’s the whole point of ‘journalism.’ And here’s another thing. Wikipedia strongly prefers mainstream secondary sources. When it comes to the culture war, the educated classes, the readers of those mainstream sources, naturally skew liberal. Wikipedia just represents that mainstream view. And that’s reasonable; it is not a fault with Wikipedia. Live with it. It’s the new reality. How do you respond?”
First, I refuse to accept such excuses for the bully tactics of propagandists. Second, it’s also false that Wikipedia just represents the mainstream. Wikipedia does not just mirror the biases found in the mainstream news media, because some of it is conservative or contrarian. A lot of mainstream news stories are broken only in Fox News, the Daily Mail, and the New York Post—all of which are banned from use as sources by Wikipedia. Beyond that, many mainstream sources of conservative, libertarian, or contrarian opinion are banned from Wikipedia as well, including Quillette, The Federalist, and the Daily Caller. Those might be contrarian or conservative, but they are hardly “radical”; they are still mainstream. So, how on earth can such viewpoints ever be given an airing on Wikipedia? Answer: often, they cannot, not if there are no “reliable sources” available to report about them.
In short, and with few exceptions, only globalist, progressive mainstream sources—and sources friendly to globalist progressivism—are permitted.
It is true that Wikipedia permits a few sources, such as Wall Street Journal, Financial Times,Daily Telegraph, and Weekly Standard, which are more often tolerant of conservative viewpoints, but these are (or have become) as often centrist as conservative, and they are generally careful never to leave the current Overton Window of progressive thought. They are the “loyal opposition” of the progressive media hegemony.
Why has Wikipedia systematically purged conservative mainstream media sources? Is it because such sources have become intolerably irresponsible and partisan? That’s what Wikipedians will tell you. As they put it, it is because they do not want what they dismiss as “misinformation,” “conspiracy theories,” etc., to get any hearing. In saying so, they (and similarly biased institutions) are plainly claiming exclusive control over what is thinkable. They want to set the boundaries of the debate, and they want to tell you how to think about it. A good illustration of just how radical Wikipedia’s source-banning policies have become can be seen in their treatment of Newsweek magazine, which is now marked as “no consensus” (i.e., avoid and use with caution), because ownership passed in 2013 to IBT Media, the publisher of the centrist, sometimes conservative-leaning, International Business Times, which is itself deemed “unreliable.”
For these reasons, it is not too far to say that Wikipedia, like many other deeply biased institutions of our brave new digital world, has made itself into a kind of thought police that has de facto shackled conservative viewpoints with which they disagree. Democracy cannot thrive under such conditions: I maintain that Wikipedia has become an opponent of vigorous democracy. Democracy requires that voters be given the full range of views on controversial issues, so that they can make up their minds for themselves. If society’s main information sources march in ideological lockstep, they make a mockery of democracy. Then the wealthy and powerful need only gain control of the few approved organs of acceptable thought; then they will be able to manipulate and ultimately control all important political dialogue.
Last summer, Adolfo Martinez, 30, of Ames, Iowa, stole the LGBTQ pride flag hung above the entrance to the Ames United Church of Christ, and burned it in front of the nearby Dangerous Curves Gentleman’s Club. He pled guilty to the crime—for which he was sentenced to 16 years in the state penitentiary.
This surprising sentence will be infamously controversial. Of course, stealing and destroying property is very wrong. But when the property is a flag, 16 years in prison is ridiculously and obviously excessive.
The Facts and Disposition of the Case
By his own admission, as you can see in a video, Martinez tore down the flag from the church, took it in front of a local dive, and burned it. That was the whole extent of the crime.
Aggravating circumstances made it worse than just that. Martinez is not a pleasant character, to hear Cmdr. Jason Tuttle of the Ames Police tell it. Martinez was a “regular patron” of the bar—where he had been kicked out, after causing a disturbance—in front of which he burned the flag:
He came back [to the bar] at some point and told the bar, the people in the bar, that he was going to burn the place [presumably, the church, not the bar] down, and at that point made a reference to burning “their flag.”
The case files1 indicate that the charges against Martinez were: arson in the third degree (by itself, in Iowa, an aggravated misdemeanor), considered by the court a hate crime; harassment in the third degree (a simple misdemeanor); and reckless use of fire.
Martinez represented himself. Clearly, that was a bad idea.
Story County Attorney Jessica Reynolds said Judge Steve Van Marel “agreed to the 17-year sentence because Martinez has a long history of harassment and is a habitual offender and never showed any remorse.” Maybe he has a long history of serious crime elsewhere, but not in Iowa. According to Iowa court records, the worst he has done in the last four years in Iowa is one count of drunk driving.
Reynolds, the prosecuting attorney, also claimed, “The defendant stated that there was nothing the judge could [do] to stop him from continuing this behavior and that he would continue to do this no matter what.”
Not Actually a Nice Guy, But…
Martinez is shamelessly outspoken against the pieties of the Ames United Church of Christ. “It was an honor to [burn the LGBTQ flag]. It was a blessing from the Lord,” Martinez declared to a KCCI reporter on camera. My view is that this sentence is an official state repudiation of that religious view, and so it violates Martinez’ First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion.
“But given the threatening things he has said, why think so?” you might ask. “Surely it’s not so clear-cut.” That is true. Let me spend some time explaining why it is not, in fact, quite as clear cut as it might appear at first.
Martinez stole and burned a symbolic piece of cloth. He was clearly making a statement that was doubtless obnoxious to everyone in the courtroom. The statement itself is not the crime, but stealing and burning someone else’s property is. He was charged with arson, but of course it was only misdemeanor arson since the burned property was just a flag. Still, his crime was aggravated since it was a hate crime, and as the law is written, this label seems credible.
It is credible, in fairness, maybe not just because of the flag burning but especially because of what he said after the flag burning. See Iowa Code sect. 729A.2: “…committed against a person’s…property because of the person’s…sexual orientation…” He did say some pretty threatening things about the church. Not only did he reportedly (though this is hearsay) threaten to burn the church down, he said on camera: “It is a judgment and is written, to execute vengeance on a heathen and punishments upon the people.” You can easily imagine how ominous such Biblical-sounding language would sound to the worshipers at the Ames United Church of Christ.
So if we are going to be quite fair, we must admit that Martinez’s own statements make it clear that he lacked remorse, and he no doubt continues to believe that the church—and its LGBTQ community—deserved what he gave them. Moreover, if you can credit the prosecutor (I would need to see a direct quote), Martinez threatened to do the crime again.
But let us look even more closely.
The Sentence Represents a Violation of Martinez’s Free Speech
Martinez was not prosecuted or convicted for a barroom threat or invocations of divine justice. That was not his crime. Presumably, if he were imprisoned for a while, that might make him think twice about carrying out any such threats; prevention is a prime purpose of punishment, after all. But it is decidedly not a principle of Anglo-American jurisprudence that criminals should be punished in order to prevent them from committing crimes they have notcommitted, even if they have threatened to do so. Yet if we take the prosecutor, Reynolds, at her word, that seems to be what she and the judge did.
This is, however, not even why Martinez was punished. It is a fig leaf covering a shameful sentence. Let us concede that Martinez stole and burned a flag, was a reckless and drunk driver who smoked pot, issued barroom arson threats, and was wholly unrepentant—and he even implied that he might do it again.
Even if all that is the case, does it deserve 16 years? Of course not. If he were to do the same crime two or three more times, surely he still wouldn’t deserve 16 years, regardless of any sentencing guidelines. In this case, the maximum sentence for third degree arson as a hate crime was five years. Martinez was given 16 years in total just because he had priors. But what was his worst prior in Iowa? Drunk driving. Did you know that the average sentence for rape was about 12 years (in 2006)? So this man, who burned a flag—a gay pride flag—had a more severe sentence than most rapists receive.
Clearly, the real explanation for Martinez’s excessive sentence must be that he expressed something deeply offensive and hateful to the LGBTQ community, period.
Moreover, and importantly, the defendant’s right to free expression by the burning of a flag, upheld by the Supreme Court in Texas v. Johnson, seems not to have been considered in sentencing. After all, national origin is a protected class. But if someone were to steal and burn an American flag, making imprecations and calling for divine vengeance against (say) the outrageously immoral American way of life, would that be a hate crime? Of course not.
Martinez was certainly expressing his religious point of view by burning the flag. He is not free to burn other people’s things; I do not deny that, of course. But neither was the judge free to pretend that the presence of a “hate crime” made it possible to punish the content of Martinez’s speech, and to ignore his freedoms of speech and religion.
Stealing the flag and burning it are punishable misdemeanors, certainly. We can even concede that they should be punished harshly, because Martinez expressed no remorse and made threatening statements. But none of that removes the fact that expressing a religious statement by burning somebody else’s flag is protected free speech. The question is not whether you have a right to burn someone’s property to express your opinion. You absolutely do not. The question is whether the court has the right to mete out more severe punishments for offensive opinions. It absolutely does not, and yet that is precisely what happened in this case. Just because Martinez committed a misdemeanor, it does not follow that the court can regulate the content of Martinez’s speech by sentencing him more harshly for what he had to say.
When hate crime legislation was first introduced, I remember being disturbed and worried about the implications for free speech. This case perfectly illustrates that worry. What can we expect next? Doubtless, certain speech being outlawed on grounds of being the hate crime of harassment directed at a protected class.
Punishing the misdemeanor of third degree arson (flag burning) more severely than a serious felony, like rape, means the court had essentially treated a minor hate crime as hate speech—which, no matter how obnoxious it might have been to the court, is protected by the First Amendment.
Again, it was obnoxious, wrong, and deserving of punishment to steal and destroy the church’s flag. A fine was certainly warranted, and perhaps a bit of jail time. But 16 years for this misdemeanor is such an outrageously imbalanced response that the sentence itself should be made an example of.
– fin –
To access the case files, click here, then input (exactly) “Martinez” for “Last/Firm Name”, “Adolfo” (with an “f”) for “First Name”, set County to Story.[↩]
That’s a question we should be asking more in this day and age of constant surveillance.
I’m toying with a proposal: Anyone who goes into public office should have absolutely no privacy whatsoever. Every movement should be available on video, every email and message logged and read, and every conversation recorded. Even the most top secret and sensitive state negotiations should be watched by duly vetted, randomized—and constantly monitored—professional monitors. As with state secrets, maybe for things like sex, bathroom breaks, etc., only some special monitors would have access.
Whether or not monitors actually saw every moment and heard every word, it would all be there, available to the law, not capable of being tampered with. And perhapswe would want monitors to actually watch it all, people duly tasked to catch any whiff of impropriety.
No one would go into public office then, you say? Nonsense. Power is powerfully attractive. No dishonest, secretive person would go into public office—that seems clear.
It would be humiliating, you say? Well, power ought to be a humbling thing. Only those really willing and able to wield it in the full light of day it should be able to.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant—and power, throughout human history, has so often been so profoundly dirty.
It is not as if we don’t have the technology. (Well, we do if we create legal consequences for tampering with the monitoring devices.)
Power corrupts, they say; but consider that it corrupts primarily in private. If all email, phone, etc., were transacted under massive, constant monitoring, only honest public servants would go into politics.
What state interest—to use the language of the lawyers—is really served by public officials having privacy, in light of the awful consequences of allowing power to be wielded in secret? Is the privacy of a President, Senator, or big city mayor really so important that it outweighs the public’s profound interest in making sure that power is never abused?
We might have a similar legal requirements regarding executives of companies worth over $N. Clearly, they too wield far much power for us to trust them to exercise that power responsibly. They need a rolling, anonymized, and confirmed-independent cadre of monitors.
The precise social and technical requirements of monitors as a citizen role (and, perhaps, profession) would be difficult to work out, granted, but not insurmountable. Monitors might sell secrets? This is why monitors themselves would be monitored. They might collude with each other and with power to overlook misdeeds? This is why they would be unknown to each other and reassigned on a rolling basis. Isn’t there still a need for privacy even for the most powerful positions, in the case of sex or using valuable cryptocurrency keys? These are technical problems with technical solutions, to a certain extent, and the punishment for violating your trust as monitor would be harsh.
What kind of person would a monitor be? Professional monitors would be vetted for honesty, intelligence, and responsibility, I imagine, not unlike judges. It is probably important that the monitors be drawn from pre-vetted but fairly large public pool, not (or not just) a privileged professional class. The role would be like jury duty. And again, the consequences for a monitor divulging legitimate secrets would be very serious.
It is also possible that people would be available only to do random spot checks; or even less, just to monitor that the system is working reliable and recording everything. The mere fact that the data is being saved constantly would probably be an adequate disincentive for most criminal politicians and executives.
Finally, this proposal would make leadership more of a moral calling. That’s what it would be, then, too: difficult and wise leadership, not morally fraught power. It would require real personal sacrifice; it would require you to be on your best behavior, and that your best really can stand up to close scrutiny.
Obviously, I’m not sure of the details. But it sure is fun to think about a system in which there is totalitarian surveillance of the powerful and not of the people.
Totalitarianism only for the powerful—never for the people.
There is a global conflict underway. A good way to understand it is by looking at the different interests that are coming into conflict. And a good place to begin is, of course, with:
The immigrants. People from the “global south” are immigrating north, inspired by the images of prosperity they see on television and the Internet and drawn by ever easier and cheaper transportation and lax immigration policies. In some cases, they are actually escaping real oppression. In most, however, they are merely running from poor, backward, relatively lawless, and restrictive systems. In any case, there is certainly mass immigration, mostly northward.
The conservatives. Conservatives view the demographic and cultural changes that this mass immigration brings with alarm. They have many different concerns:
If demographic trends continue, it is easy to see how Christianity (or more precisely a slightly Christian secularism) might well be replaced in Europe by Islam within a few generations.
Already, the presence of Islam in Europe is changing some legal processes, and Sharia law could well be instituted in some places before that much longer, if the Muslim population continues to grow.
In the United States, immigration from the global south means more Democratic voters and more enthusiasm for socialism. Conservatives don’t like that.
In general, Western civilization (religion, languages, tastes, mores), maybe especially in Europe, are weakened as non-Westerners move in.
In Europe, places that have been largely free of crime for generations are suddenly dangerous. In America, a talking point (I’m not sure how well supported it is by statistics) is that there is more crime if we have more illegal immigrants.
And yes, for some there is surely a racial element to their concern: they don’t want Europe, or America, to become less white.
The nationalists. I make a separate category for the Japanese, Hungarians, and others who are broadly opposed to immigration, period. They may be distinguished from Western conservatives who are often perfectly happy with a fair bit of immigration, just not unregulated, indiscriminate, and too much immigration. The Japanese, Hungarians, and quite a few others simply don’t want to change the character of their societies, as immigration might well do. They look at the effects of immigration on Europe and America and say, “No thank you.”
The progressives. On the other side, there are many progressives and liberals, as well as many libertarians, who essentially want there to be open borders. As with progressives’ demands for censorship, their increasing moral fervor for open borders is evident, but they don’t often want to admit it in so many words. But the reasons for the stance are clear:
These are disadvantaged brown people who need our help. Why not give it to them? To exclude them from sharing in our prosperity is racist.
Indeed, the conservative position is easily dismissed as racist, which by contrast gives progressivism a brighter moral luster. (That isn’t an argument progressives make, but it certainly seems to inspire them.)
We can expect greater support for socialist, globalist projects from immigrants, who are more left-leaning. We can do more for them, and they will be grateful to and supportive of our programs.
If the “Western” or “white” character of European and American civilization are in decline, let it decline. If there are people reproducing more, who can support social programs arriving from other places, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.
The elites. Closely overlapping with, but distinguishable from, the rank-and-file progressive viewpoint is what I will call the elite viewpoint. Their concerns are perhaps hidden and cynical but no less real and influential:
We need cheap laborers and “guest workers.” These immigrants do jobs our own people are not willing to do. Few will actually admit to thinking so, but a view aptly described “elitist” is that society actually needs an underclass and European and American societies need to replenish theirs.
Immigration is shaping into a massive left-right fight, and that’s a good thing—it justifies concentrating power in the hands of the more enlightened power centers of Brussels and Washington, D.C., as well as justifying the seizure of new powers that, formerly, liberals would never have agreed to (such as control of speech and mass surveillance).
This conflict has come to a head recently—why? It seems to be a combination of factors. There has been lax immigration enforcement for generations; this has led to a growing flow (and now a flood) of immigration, including illegal immigration especially recently; there is again especially recently widespread pro-immigrant sentiment on the left and among elites, which has given political cover and support for expanded bases of social support; in recent years, tolerance of illegal immigration has become de rigueur, with signals everywhere in mass media indicating that complaints about illegal immigration is politically incorrect; meanwhile, some of the ill effects of illegal immigration, especially crime in Europe and political chaos in the U.S., have made immigration in general an important hot-button issue; and, finally, the urgency of the issue has radicalized some, who are all but declaring that they are in favor of open borders.
In other words, things are coming to a head especially because our elites and progressives seem increasingly openly in favor of open borders, and the borders really have been opening up. This would seem to entail an enormous change in global civilization; and it makes an adjudication of all of the issues listed above (and below) incredibly important to settle.
In a blog post last March, I asked whether Western civilization is collapsing. In the end, I didn’t find the question all that fruitful. Conservatives say yes, progressives say no or who cares, but it doesn’t seem that anything is going to be settled by discussing that question. I think it might be more enlightening to ask another: What do we want the world to look like?
The main options of immigration policy seem to bear directly on this question: open borders (as many progressives and libertarians want); the status quo (which nobody seems to want, but which seems very difficult to escape); traditional regulated immigration (which we all say we want, except for the explicitly open border radicals, but which the Establishment resists tooth and nail); and very little or no immigration (a la Japan).
The question is what we want the world to look like. It is difficult to clarify exactly what this important question even means.
But perhaps “What immigration policy do we want?” is not the question I want to ask. I’m asking a philosophical question that is, perhaps, prior to or in any event seems logically bound up with questions about immigration policy. The question is what we want the world to look like. It is difficult to clarify exactly what this important question even means.
It is tempting to place before the reader a few choices:
Traditional pluralism. We want a smorgasbord of different nations, each having a different language and culture, a national religion, etc. In other words, more or less how the world was before the advent of globalism…and colonialism.
Monoculturalism. We want a single global monoculture, everyone speaking the same language, having the same secular beliefs, democratic socialist politics, a vibrant culture of entrepreneurship, globally regulated Internet, etc. Eventually, a single world government.
A midway position. Something in between these, more or less like what we have now. Maybe there will be a lingua franca like English and “best practices” for business and technology, and plenty of intermixing, but most countries (there will always be exceptions like the United States and Canada) will retain a national identity, even if they are members of superstates.
Then we might ask on what grounds we can adjudicate among these—and then proceed to the debate.
But this is also not quite an honest sort of debate to have. It is not unlike imagining what your ideal state would be like, and then telling an elaborate story about Utopia. This is fairly useless because unless Utopia is possible, then you’re simply telling a story. If you can’t rationally expect to be able to bring about your Utopia—if there is no clear way to get from here to there—then taking half-steps in that direction might well prove to be disastrous. For example, you might say you want a global secular monoculture, but if you expect to get one by advocating for open borders in the E.U. and the U.S., don’t expect to usher one in anytime soon. How are you going to get the rest of the world on board? And wait a moment—do you want the rest of the world on board? Or is it only the Western world that you want to lose any cultural distinctiveness? Would you prefer to have that (or to tolerate that) in Japan, Indonesia, Somalia, and Argentina?
So I don’t want to invite speculation on what your Globutopia would look like. It seems to me that the question really is “Do we want open borders—and if not, what sort of immigration policy?” after all. This is the relevant question in the sense that it is essentially the question we disagree on.
That is not to say there are not more fundamental questions than that. For example:
Is it preferable that all or the vast majority of people in a country share the same culture—language, religion, traditions, mores, broad political culture (in the U.S., our “civic religion”), etc.?
Is it preferable—if it is possible—that all the world share the same culture?
Is it preferable—if it is possible—that all the world have roughly the same amounts and types of cultural difference among different countries? So it’s not a global monoculture, but global multiculturalism spread out everywhere.
Is it possible for human beings with radically different cultures to get along very well in the same country? If it’s a problem, how much of a problem is it? What is the best solution to that problem?
These are essential, fundamental questions. If we don’t know our answers to these questions, it seems unlikely we will be able to defend our answers to “Do we want open borders?”
I would love to make advance tentative answers to those questions, but they are very difficult and I don’t want to go on for much longer. Probably many of you would be uncomfortable if I were to put these questions to you; that is probably why we don’t talk about these essential questions very much. They are deeply uncomfortable questions. They are politically fraught. But they are still important.
Here are a few notes on the four questions above:
Suppose I say, thinking of a country like Ireland or Japan with a fairly distinctive culture that seems charming in various ways—that seems to benefit in various ways from being homogeneous—that it is a grand thing for everyone to share the same culture. Well, what does that say about the United States or India, countries with large minorities or various distinctive cultures? “Diversity is our strength,” we are told. Is it sometimes a strength and sometimes a weakness? Or what?
Suppose I say, thinking of various dystopias and the morass that is global entertainment culture as interpreted by Hollywood (and its imitators elsewhere), that a global monoculture would be a massive mistake? On the other hand, I’ve observed many college educated people around the world going to similar hotels, restaurants, conferences, entertainment venues, riding in similar cars and trams, using similar tech, starting similar startups, etc., in New York, Paris, Dubai, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. They seem to like it. Everybody is nice and speaks English at their conferences. Is that so bad?
The idea of global multiculturalism (like, Christians and Buddhists in equal numbers everywhere) strikes me as interesting but deeply implausible. Only educated cynics, mostly but not only Westerners, view religion as a smorgasbord that you can pick and choose from. That approach seems insincere and glib. Most of us think there are differences here that really matter. Surely the idea of “global multiculturalism” is not really possible. Is it?
Then there’s the big question: Can people with radically different cultures be expected to get along in the same countries? Well, they certainly have to, that’s for sure. I don’t support religious wars, for example, or race riots, or (as in the U.S. lately) political skirmishes that resemble nothing so much as brawls between fans of opposing sports teams. But if it’s a problem, what’s really the solution? In the U.S., political differences have gotten so bad that some suggest we split the country in two—because we can’t get along. Terrible idea, I’m inclined to think.
I haven’t even mentioned another essential question to our current problem: Do we in the West have any special obligations to the people of the global south, either because their countries were formerly colonized, or because the West is more privileged? That’s a question we might want to answer separately even if we think we have the other ones figured out.
There are, in fact, other crucial and fundamental questions. Here’s another one: Are all cultures of equal value? Should some religions, for example, be stamped out? Don’t act all shocked, now. Some atheists think Christianity should be stamped out. Some conservative Christians want Islam in Europe and America stamped out. Muslims seem to want all other religions stamped out (but maybe especially Judaism). We’re probably all glad that human-sacrificing religions are gone.
What the hell do we want?
We should be talking about all of these issues and not letting them be settled by default by our elites.
Maybe I’ll hazard some answers later, but I’ll give you the floor now, if you’re brave enough.
I’m cognizant that this attention represented some trust of me, i.e., that I wouldn’t hijack this movement for selfish and profit-making ends. I’ve been a heavy social media user since the late 2000s and I’m basically just a disgruntled customer. Since from my small platform I can help organize people online, I thought it was my duty to try to do so. Let me reiterate that I don’t want to start or join an organization or represent any social media company, etc. My interests lie 100% with the users. It is now easy to see the massive latent user demand for decentralized social media, and I want to keep pushing into motion its mass adoption.
Tomorrow or the next day I’ll have a couple new posts for you with a more detailed debriefing and suggestions for next steps. If you want to give me (and everyone reading) some advice, please feel free to use the discussion below for that purpose!
Recent events have suggested that there is a trend afoot in the West: that life is overrated and that death is not so bad. Call it, for lack of a better term, antivitism (from Latin vita, life). People who are aware of their own commitment to this view call it, rather funnily, efilism, which is like lifeism spelled backward, but which makes me think of evilism—which is extremely apt. In any event, I am going with antivitism, mainly because I am talking about a rather broader trend revealed in ways beyond those who declare they support efilism.
I’m not saying there’s a “death cult.” But there is evidence of a rather odd trend that seems to celebrates death or at least that greatly undervalues life. By the end of this post I’ll have a fuller account of the attitude in hand. This attitude may be seen most often among certain young but world-weary activists. I don’t mean just the young and activist, but one less often sees this view among older people, with healthy children, and the politically apathetic.
“All right, what are you on about, Sanger?” you ask.
Well, I’ll tell you.
First let’s consider euthanasia. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that euthanasia advocates are a “death cult.” Insofar as euthanasia is strictly an end-of-life “palliative care” decision and it is passive euthanasia (i.e., the doctor doesn’t actually flip the switch), this doesn’t seem to valorize death or devalue life. It is euthanasia for depression—especially active euthanasia, and even more especially for the young—that would essentially encourage the most fragile among us to give up, to stop living, and to entertain the strange fantasy that dying is OK. Death is preferable, such people say, pretending that they are being sensitive (because all their views are driven by a desire to be sensitive) because it is merciful. Never mind that we’re talking about killing; it’s sensitive killing, and if you aren’t on board, you just don’t understand. The suggestion is that life couldn’t improve, so killing yourself (even if you’re quite young) can be preferable—if that’s what you decide.
The appalling recent case of Noa Pothoven is illustrative. Noa, a 17-year-old victim of repeated sexual assault, killed herself slowly, by not eating or drinking, while her parents and doctors stood by idly. That this was allowed to happen might be written off as a weird Dutch excess. But while people around the world were wringing their hands over the horror, another surprisingly large or at least loud group of people, also quite international, complained bitterly that people were calling this “euthanasia,” as if this label particularly mattered. This semantic dispute went proxy for the real issue: should minors be allowed to kill themselves just because they’re depressed? The answer should be obvious, but for that strange coterie of “antivitists,” death was a sad, tragic, but very welcome blessing for Noa. Her parents and doctors did, the antivitists affirm, just what they should have done: stand by idly while she killed herself.
Only a failure to properly value life and its possibilities, and by comparison to positively value death, could lead one to such a position.
So now perhaps you have an idea of what I mean. Some might immediately want to add abortion to the list of antivitist positions. I’m not so sure. Perhaps it isn’t fair to call all abortion advocates “antivitists.” The pro-life (or anti-abortion) argument here is that a newly-gestating life in the womb is a human life, though not a sentient one, and all human life has a right to live, and snuffing that life out is murder. The killing of a fetus for the convenience of the mother strikes some with great horror.
My view on this, which I don’t hold to very strongly, is that abortion in the first few months is easier to dismiss because the fetus cannot even feel pain. However that might be, abortion after viability is very problematic for me, and for most people. After that point, you must twist yourself in logical knots if you wish the deny the obvious fact that there is a baby that with as much ease could be born into the world as killed (though at much greater expense afterward, if allowed to live). Such “late-term” or “third trimester” abortions show considerable contempt for that little life, particularly when the mother’s life is not at risk. Late-term abortions make up a very small percentage, just 1.3%, of all abortions in the U.S.; but if they should be considered murder, that would still be 35 murders per day in the U.S., of the most innocent and defenseless of all human beings.
However that might be, I certainly think favoring genuine infanticide can qualify you as an antivitist. Even in this case there are exceptions: there are certain cases of babies born brain dead, who will never be sentient or who, for medical reasons, can never know anything but intense physical pain. Killing them is more uncontroversially a mercy when—though it is horribly tragic—there is nothing worth calling a human life that could have been preserved. Peter Singer highlights these sorts of cases. But on my view, obviously, not all birth defects qualify, and certainly the convenience of the mother does not qualify.
But has anyone maintained that outright infanticide of healthy infants, just because the mother doesn’t want a baby, is acceptable? Well, it’s 2020, so I suspect you won’t be surprised when I tell you the answer is, “Yes, of course.” It’s not just campus dudebros who apparently think so. If you want to do a more serious search for answers to this question that don’t take the form of Republicans trash-talking Democrats for favoring late-term abortion, don’t call it “infanticide.” Call it “neonaticide”; the Chicago Tribunereported that “a conservative estimate puts the incidence of neonaticide in the U.S. at 150 to 300 annually.” It so happens that this crime was defended by two freshly-minted Ph.D. ethicists back in 2012; their term for it was the chillingly clinical-sounding “after-birth abortion.” Aren’t you glad that your mother didn’t decide to have an “after-birth abortion”? Anyway that newborns should be permitted to be killed if their mothers don’t want them.
Fortunately, the view never really caught on—unless youwanted to count the aforementioned people who support the killing of viable babies who were extracted from the uterus in order to be killed (i.e., they would survive if they weren’t killed). There would seem to be quite a few of such people, though such people disagree with the “infanticide” epithet.
Clearly, it seems to matter what you call the killing of babies.
Now, I am aware that I keep using a formulation that must sound uncharitable and paradoxical, if not absurd: that some positively prefer, celebrate, or valorize…death. Is that just rhetorical excess on my part? Maybe. But it certainly isn’t excess in the case of the very best example of antivitists: antinatalists. As the Collins Dictionary has it, antinatalism is “a philosophical position that opposes human procreation, holding it to be morally wrong.” They really do dislike life, or at least new life. They think that to be born is to be harmed. Look at how philosopher David Benatar’s book title has it: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.
As interesting as this might be, I’m not going to discuss it in great depth, partly because it isn’t really a massive movement and partly because I don’t feel like debunking easily-debunked philosophical nonsense. The point is that there really is a small minority of people—mostly young and sad people (on Reddit, 80% are under 26 and 59% depressed or suicidal)—who take the position that life is simply a bad thing, and that death would be better, or as Benatar puts it, it would be better never to have been born. These people must really dislike It’s a Wonderful Life (one of my very favorite movies). In it, the angel Clarence disabuses the hapless George of his belief that it would be better if he had never been born.
Along these lines, I would be remiss not to mention those who do not want to procreate; I refer to the childfree movement. Their Reddit group is much larger than the antinatalist one, though they are philosophically largely in alignment. In fairness, most of these people simply want society (especially their own parents) to stop bothering them with expectations to procreate. Of course they’re not necessarily antivitists, let alone part of a “death cult.”
But a sizeable number of people in the movement do believe it is positively wrong to procreate; and they take this seriously, going so far as to declare quite unashamedly that they hate children. This is the populist side of antinatalism. I imagine most people already know that this isn’t some wild-eyed scare-mongering; The New Yorker saw fit to give a platform to the view (quoting Benatar, again, among others). These more passionate childfree antinatalists have dismissive epithets for those who do choose to have children: “breeders.” These people value their own lives, presumably, if they aren’t among the many miserable antinatalists, but not so much the lives of children, i.e., of new people on the face of the earth. Obviously, people who are angered by the addition of new human beings need not valorize death; but it seems fair to say that they do not place a premium on life per se, beyond their own lives and perhaps those of people who are already here (as long as they aren’t children, I guess; one can only wonder at what age they stop being abhorrent).
So there are some views that strike me as being, prima facie, “antivitist” views.
Here’s a problem for my view. People who favor extreme abortion rights, euthanasia rights, antinatalism, and the childfree lifestyle tend to be on the left or libertarian—and the left and libertarians alike are generally opposed to capital punishment. So a challenge to me would go, “Hey Sanger, you said these people favor death. [Well, maybe in the case of some post-viability abortion advocates and antinatalists.] If they were some kind of ‘death cult,’ wouldn’t they be in favor of capital punishment? But they hate capital punishment! So there! These people care about quality of life, of course!”
I can’t disagree. This suggests, then, that there is something more subtle at work than that they simply “celebrate death or greatly undervalue life.” Clearly, we need to draw a distinction. It isn’t a desire for death per se, I think, that characterizes antivitism; it is one’s own death, or that of those one is responsible for, or would be responsible if one did not oppose creating new life. That seems more reasonable, if still rather deranged.
Also, let me concede something before I’m accused of a really gross error. Of course, you wouldn’t have to accept a general principle that human life is not terribly valuable in itself, or that death or never having been born is preferable to life, in order to accept most of the above views. I mean, logic may be chopped in various ways, and I don’t wish to imply that people are part of anything remotely resembling a “death cult” simply because they embrace one of the views described above. Of course that would be wrong.
So what am I saying?
In frank discussions of these topics, one does frequently comes across deeply pessimistic remarks: life is hell; the terminally depressed can’t change; death would be a blessing; it would be better never to have been; new lives are little more than bloodsucking parasites; people who create new life are mere contemptible “breeders.” All of these are, I maintain, undercurrents of ultra-sophisticated, world-weary nihilism that pop up in discussions of late-term abortion rights, euthanasia rights, antinatalism, and the childfree lifestyle. It seems that some wish to impose their own hatred of their own lives on the rest of the world, and that this manifests in support for the positions mentioned. That strikes me as coming from a profoundly misanthropic place, although that word strikes me as not quite right. After all these people don’t just dislike other people, they positively deny the value of their lives. That’s something much darker than old-fashioned, curmudgeonly misanthropy.
Another pessimistic modern sentiment, not discussed above—existentialism—falls under the same umbrella. Our lives are meaningless and absurd; there’s no escape from the nausea induced by our radical freedom in a postmodern world. This isn’t so much misanthropy, either, as more straightforward pessimism that is part and parcel of the rejection (as “false consciousness”) of any religion-based or naturalistic values that might give life meaning.
If there is an antivitist trend, whether rooted in nasty misanthropy or nihilistic pessimism, and if it continues to grow as it has in recent decades, then I suppose the next things to expect would be:
Growing demands for euthanasia rights in more countries, younger ages, and for more trivial reasons.
Antinatalism becomes mainstream. People killing themselves in larger and larger groups, as the Jim Jones cult did at Jonestown.
Maybe I’m onto something. I’m not saying this post clinches the matter. But if I’m right, this would tend to explain why various kinds of morbid and deeply depressing entertainment have become so popular in recent decades.
Talk back: Why should we have more restrictions on “harmful” speech on social media?
This is a different sort of blog post.
Rather than me writing yet another essay to you, I want to open the floor to you. I want you to answer something for me. It’s like the subreddit “Change My View.”
This is aimed specifically at my liberal and progressive friends who are very upset at the social media giants for letting things get so out of hand. See how much of the following applies to you:
You have become increasingly aware of how awful the harassment of women and minorities by the far right has become. You are really, sincerely worried that they have elected Trump, who isn’t just a crass clown (many people agree with that) but basically a proto-fascist. You are convinced that Trump must have gotten elected because of the growing popularity of right-wing extremists. They engage in hate speech. Not only is this why Trump was elected, it’s why people are constantly at each other’s throats today, and why there has been domestic terrorism and mass murder by the right. Therefore, all mature, intelligent observers seem to agree that we need to rein in online hate speech and harmful speech.
I’ve heard all of this a lot, because I’ve sought it out in an attempt to understand it—because it freaks me out. Here’s the thing: I think it’s mostly bullshit. Yes, people (of all political stripes) have gotten nastier, maybe. I didn’t vote for Trump and I dislike him. But beyond that, I think the entire line above isn’t just annoyingly wrong, it’s downright scary. This is largely because I have always greatly valued free speech and this above-summarized mindset has put free speech (and hence other basic liberal democratic/small-r republican values) at risk.
But I’m not going to elaborate my view further now; I mention it only to explain why I want your view first. I’ll save an elaboration of my view in a response to you. What I hope you’ll do, if you agree with the bold bit above, is to explain your sincere, considered position. Do your best to persuade me. Then, sometime in the next week or two, I’ll do my best to persuade you, incorporating all the main points in your replies (assuming I get enough replies).
So please answer: Why should we more aggressively prevent harmful or hate speech, or ban people who engage in such speech, on social media? The “why” is the thing I’m interested in. Don’t answer the question, please, if you don’t agree with the premise of the question.
Here are some sub-questions you might cover:
Did you used to care more about free speech? What has changed your mind about the relative importance of it?
Do you agree with the claim, “Hate speech is not free speech”? Why?
If all you want to say is that “free speech” only restricts government action, and that you don’t think corporate actions can constitute censorship, but please also explain any thoughts you have about why it is so important
If you’re American and you want Uncle Sam to restrict hate speech, why do you think the law can and should be changed now, after allowing it for so many years? (Surely you don’t think Americans are more racist than they were 50 years ago.)
Does it bother you that “hate speech” is very vague and that its application seems to have grown over the years?
If hate speech on the big social media sites bothers you enough to want to get rid of it, what’s your stance toward blogs and forums where racists (or people who want to call racists) congregate?
Where should it end, generally speaking? Would you want the National Review banned? Don’t just say, “Don’t be ridiculous.” If that’s ridiculous, then where do you draw the line between, for example, banning Paul Joseph Watson from Facebook and using government power to take down a conservative opinion journal?
By the way, do you think it’s possible for conservatives and libertarians to be decent people? Honest? Intelligent? Do you think they are all racists? Do you think that articulating all or many conservative or libertarian positions is essentially racist or harmful speech?
Basically, if enough people answer these questions (one or all), I think that’ll give me an idea of how your mind actually works as you think this stuff through. This will enable me to craft the most interesting response to you. I want to understand your actual views fully—i.e., not (necessarily) some academic theory, but your real, on-the-ground, down-to-earth views that results in your political stance.
If you want government censorship through the back door, advocate for social media regulation
Last week, Facebook permanently blocked the accounts of a motley assortment of conservatives, libertarians, and anti-Semites. This set the Internet, especially the free speech loving parts of the Internet, in an uproar. (That would include me.)
Conservatives, who normally cheer for deregulation, demanded the government start regulating social media. This includes two that Facebook booted. Alex Jones predictably and literally screamed for it (no, really; I looked in on the InfoWars website, which still exists, and there he was, screaming for regulation), while Paul Joseph Watson asked, “When are we going see any kind of sensible kind of regulations or laws to stop this?”
We might see them faster than you’d think. Social media critic and free speech liberal Tim Pool is very enthused about a couple of laws in California and in Texas that would indeed make “social media censorship illegal.” They were introduced earlier this year, February in California and last month in Texas.
So, if you’re in favor of free speech, that’s a good thing, right? Not so fast.
Among those who have
been calling for regulation of Facebook is someone you might not
expect: Mark Zuckerberg.
No, this isn’t a joke. I’m perfectly serious. I wasn’t even surprised by the news when it came out last month. If you know enough about giant corporations and the giant bureaucracies that regulate them, you aren’t surprised, either. Last month, I went on at great length explaining why it was a bad idea. (I encourage you to read that piece.)
If you call for a law that “guarantees” that Facebook not ban people for political reasons, your public servants will not stop there, and they might not do that at all. They will inevitably create a new three-letter agency, which we, also inevitably, will soon call words with four letters. Its purview will not be “stop Facebook from banning Republicans for political reasons.” Governments rarely pass legislation aimed at individual corporations, and rarely do they limit themselves to such narrow purposes as “stop banning Republicans for political reasons.” No, its purview will, soon enough, be “to regulate Internet content for fairness” or something equally broad.
If you’re conservative, think about that being implemented by the state of California. If you’re liberal, think how Texas will implement it. Or, if you’re from either side, think about the risks inherent in a federal Internet content regulator.
We must not let this horse out of the barn. It would be potentially disastrous.
A federal Internet content regulator (the phrase is chilling) will doubtless be staffed by former “moderation” executives from Facebook and Twitter, as well as academics who specialize in Internet policy (almost 100% left-wing) and lawyers who specialize in Internet law (ditto).
Approximately half of the laws passed for this agency, at the federal level, will be passed by the Democratic Party; in California, 100% of them will be. Surely well over half of the language of any federal regulations will be crafted by Democratic bureaucrats.
Think about all those bright, progressive Internet activists, the ones who call for Facebook to shut down “hate speech” under its ever-expanding definition. Where do you think they will want to go to work, to make a difference in the world?
And Democrats: imagine what damage the agency might do if staffed by Trump appointees. You often complain about Trump’s attacks on free speech. Imagine if a Trumpist appointee were responsible for a newly-empowered bureaucracy that picks winners and losers whenever someone complains that somebody else should (or should not) be banned.
Still, don’t be surprised if the Democratic-controlled House passes an “Internet fairness” bill with a half-hearted protest at best. The California bill made it through several votes and readings in committee with no protests at all; and remember, California has a supermajority of Democrats. Some of them might eventually put on a show of resistance, but the votes will not be hard to find. Sure, sure, they’ll say to each other: we’ll make the Internet fair. (Seriously, the Republican who proposed this bill must be an idiot.) The Texas bill got push-back from Democrats—doubtless because they knew they wouldn’t be operating the regulatory apparatus—but still passed 18-12. Votes were almost perfectly along party lines. That is very telling: both California Democrats and Texas Republicans are fine with trying to be Facebook’s referee, presumably because it empowers them to regulate political speech. And what if they make different calls? Surely the federal government will have to step in.
So suppose a federal measure is passed. Once that horse has left the barn, Democrats will very reasonably suggest sensible, pragmatic regulations that prevent disinformation, fascism, bullying, Russian meddling, and other Bad Things. Who could oppose such eminently reasonable regulations?
After all, if the Republicans pass this law to prevent themselves from being banned, Democrats will expect something in return. What, you thought this body of law will forevermore be stamped “Republican” if Trump signs it? Not likely. That’s not how it works. You must expect the other side to tweak whatever you pass; that’s what happened to Obamacare, to take the most obvious example.
Look, this situation perfectly illustrates why we have an enormous government today. There’s a problem; both sides agree that the government oughta do something about it; so laws are passed, and refined, and a body of regulations and agencies to write and enforce them are created, and grown, and funded.
Do you really think that, in the end, our speech will be freer? Take the long view. The chances are basically zero.
I’m right. Don’t be a fool. Think this through.
another reason to oppose Internet regulations: they require
expert lawyers and engineers on staff to
guarantee compliance. This will substantially increase the difficulty
of making a website, which, having once been possible for kids to
create in their basements or dorm rooms, will be out
of their reach. As with businesses of old, it will be possible to
start one only with substantial capital.
Oh, sure—for a while, the rules might be applied only to websites over a certain size. But you know how it goes: regulatory agencies will expand their scope. The usual suspects will spot “loopholes” in the laws that permit “unregulated and abusive” smaller websites.
“Oh, but that won’t happen,” you say, “because we’re proposing a law that will make free speech stronger!” No. Haven’t we learned this yet? Your intentions for a new type of law will not determine the shape of that area of law in the long run. Government takes on a life of its own. The only question we need ask ourselves is: “Do we want to ‘go there’ at all?”
The answer is no, we don’t. You are proposing a law that empowers government drones to supervise censorship by corporations and make it “fair,” effectively controlling content, and making it official who may and who may not participate in the public square, and under what circumstances. You know what that sounds like to me? A censor.
This is a terrible idea. It will have precisely the opposite effect to the one you want it to have. That’s why Zuckerberg is now encouraging more regulation and was perfectly happy to work with Angela Merkle four years ago, which became the NetzDG law. Regulating social media is precisely what the would-be censors, similar to the German ones, have proposed in the U.K.
Those are the horror stories free speech defenders tell their children. And you are rushing madly in the same direction because you think you can control the government. Well, good luck with that.
Free speech never was equivalent to some fair quantity of speech; it was always about whether or not you were being silenced by some authorities.
The appalling ignorance spewed about free speech in the last few decades demonstrates how important it is that we teach philosophy, logic, and especially American civics (or the civics of liberal, open societies) in schools.
Those who do know the issues behind free speech—professors, lawyers, philosophers, historians, journalists—must step up to teach and correct about free speech, or this principle will be lost.
Defending important principles of democracy, like free speech, demands courage.
Citizens of a free republic, perhaps especially intellectual and well-spoken citizens, have a positive obligation to exercise that courage.
The thought controllers are utterly convinced that they know best and that others are wrong.
“Why is there a need to think your own thoughts?” the heretics are told. “The truth is known. If you deny it, you are anathema, a heretic, an enemy of the people, a traitor to the state.”
The New Censors insist that their concerns are merely pragmatic, obvious, and eminently reasonable; but that is what most censors have said.
All censorious regimes have in common a furious hatred of the free-thinker, rejection of the individual, hatred of the outsider—the stern demand that we subject our minds to that of a controlling group.
You cannot support censorship without ultimately wanting to impose an entire thought-world.
Indeed, the most passionate new censors today are entirely convinced of their own thoughtworld, indeed they want to impose it on the rest of us, and indeed they have the deepest contempt for those who differ from them, even slightly.
It might be hard for some citizens of an established, old democracy to understand, but thought controllers throughout history have had contempt for the dignity of most people.
Respect for the diversity of individual minds absolutely requires free speech.
This standardizing, collectivizing, controlling impulse is inherently dehumanizing.
We will inevitably lose the habit of thinking and speaking for ourselves, of fearing being ourselves.
Our very dignity rests in our being responsible for our own thoughts.
I hereby license this document under the Creative Commons nc-by-sa 2.0 license. Please feel free to circulate copies, as long as you don’t profit from them and you use my name (and note any changes you happen to make, such as additions and deletions).