Welcome to the ninth edition of The Bloom Briefing: Notes from the Resistance. This week, I tackle the second iteration of Trump’s attempts to ban a religion from the country, I disentangle the arguments for and against letting racists speak on campus, I point you in the direction of interesting arguments about the business of national parks, and I address the sexism directed at Kellyanne Conway from the left.
Muslim Ban 2.0
Earlier this week, Trump signed an executive order revising the travel ban on Muslims from seven countries which was struck down by the courts a few weeks ago. The ban now includes only six countries (Iraq was removed), but retains many of the same immoral foundations as its predecessor.
Ban 2.0 is already being challenged in the courts, and it remains to be seen whether or not it can survive judicial review. One of the problems with the first version, as identified by Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security and pointed out by the courts, is that the countries on the ban list pose no particular terroristic threat. The leaked memo from DHS stated that, “country of citizenship is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of potential terrorist activity.” Given that the new ban functions in approximately the same way, we can only hope it suffers a similar fate.
As I wrote about the previous ban, there are many convincing reasons why it will be instrumentally bad for the country. The economics are bad; the politics are bad; the national security implications are bad; and the humanitarian consequences are bad. But these aren’t the principal reasons why we should be against the ban. Instead, we should
“Oppose the Muslim ban because it erases one of the foundational protections enshrined in our Bill of Rights: freedom of religion. With the Executive Order, the Trump Administration has effectively equated the religion of Islam with violence and terrorism, creating two classes of people: Muslims, who pose a national security risk to the country, and everybody else.
While that generic and primary danger remains, the specific dangers of version 2.0 are concisely articulated by Naureen Shah at Time. By virtue of failing so spectacularly with the first attempt, will this attempt now be graded on a curve? And there remains, “an even more serious impact for American Muslims, who face a volatile climate of harassment, discrimination and even violence directed against them.” If this ban remains, that culture will become only more toxic.
Fittingly, there was another incident to drive home that point this week. In yet another hate crime perpetrated against someone who was thought to be Muslim (though was not), in suburban Seattle, a Sikh man working on his car in his driveway was approached by a white man wearing a mask with a gun who told him to, “go back to your own country,” and then fired.
Free Speech on Campus
Earlier this week, a lecture at Middlebury College, an elite liberal arts college in Vermont, was aborted after a series of protests from students. Charles Murray, who sustains abhorrent (and debunked) views about genetic differences between the races was invited to speak by a conservative group on campus. They invited him to speak about his more recent (and highly topical) work on the unraveling of the white working class.
I’m going to set aside questions about whether or not the protest was done well (it wasn’t – a professor was injured) or whether or not the college acted prudently (it didn’t – the prominent attendance of the college president implicitly condoned the invitation). Any discussion that focuses on these questions will be undone by the myriad flaws of the actions and statements made in the emotionally-charged atmosphere on campus.
Instead, I want to imagine the hypothetical scenario in which Murray was going to speak about his views on inherent differences between the races and (as they did in real life) the students occupied the audience with so much volume that he could not deliver the lecture.
The question is: is it good for students to do this? And why or why not? I am on the fence about this. There are a lot of good arguments both for protesting Murray and for allowing him to speak. I’ve teased out the best of them below.
Arguments for why the students were right to disrupt the speech:
Psychological Damage. The mere opening of the debate inflicts psychological damage. Imagine walking through a world in which every day your very humanity is questioned. This is the reality for many Americans of color. Rarely is it said explicitly (although CNN apologized for putting that very thought about Jews in a caption back in November), but allowing Murray (or someone like him) to speak reinforces the notion that certain people’s humanity is a valid subject for debate. Very few of the free speech hawks are people of color, and “My humanity is more important than your right to speech” is a fairly compelling argument.
Postmodernism – speech as power. One could imagine a reasonably decent argument by the protestors that argues that the idea of a free market of ideas is illusory. Such a place does not exist. Those closest to centers of power and raised among the most privileged upbringings have greater access to the distribution of their ideas. A privileged old white man with abhorrent views doesn’t need an additional forum in which to disseminate his bigotry. When the privileged turn that power into the reproduction of damaging views, it is incumbent upon those who resist such views to attempt to prevent their distribution.
Good arguments sometimes lose. Another line of thinking, similar to the one above, is that good ideas don’t always beat out bad ones. In my conversations this week, any number of folks have pointed to Trump’s election as evidence that free speech doesn’t guarantee that the best arguments win. Do we not have an obligation to stop pernicious ideas with persuasive power that have the possibility of resulting in catastrophic consequences?
Liberal means aren’t superior to liberal ends. A focus on liberal ends instead of liberal means is not illustrative of lesser commitment to liberalism. The professed liberalism of free speech defenders (of whom Conor Friedersdorf is among the best) is a defense only of liberal means, not of liberal ends. Murray isn’t a liberal. In fact, the arguments he’s making run directly counter to liberalism. Liberalism must treat all people as equal – it only works in such a world. Folks who defend Murray’s right to speak are more concerned about means than ends. They’d rather have a world where everyone can speak, even if (per number 3 above), that speech can lead to illiberal outcomes.
Double standards. There’s a series of three double-standards employed by those criticizing the protestors.
Sensitivity vs Thuggery. In its race to caricature 19-year-olds in every unflattering way imaginable, student protesters are treated both as special snowflakes, incapable of confronting different arguments, and brown-shirted authoritarian thugs, willing and able to impose their will on everybody else.
Commitment to liberalism. Per number 4, objections to the protest take the form of expression (reasoned, staid argumentation vs. protest) to be more important than the content (racism vs humanity). They’re committed to one part of liberalism more than another. Per number 1 above, who can begrudge the raw assertion of humanity involved in placing one’s body on the grinding gears of liberalism?
Student ability. Criticisms of students treat them as discerning adults, capable of separating good arguments from bad ones, but also as naïve children, incapable of understanding the virtues of free speech. Can students really be both?
Arguments for why Murray should have been allowed to speak:
Good arguments eventually win. The long arc of history bending towards justice. This doesn’t mean hard work isn’t necessary to defeat bad arguments – it is – it’s just that, in the end, we can disprove Murray’s claims about genetic differences between the races just as we can disprove that vaccinations aren’t linked to autism and prove that climate change is real and man-made. Just because we haven’t convinced everyone yet doesn’t mean that we need to stop people from articulating the alternative viewpoint.
Confrontation strengthens. The stronger argument in favor of free speech says that not only do good arguments win out in the end, but that they are strengthened through confrontation. William Deresiewicz (in the best critique I’ve read of liberal-progressive college campus bubbles) made this point in The American Scholar this week:
"That, by the way, is why liberal students (and liberals in general) are so bad at defending their own positions. They never have to, so they never learn to. That is also why it tends to be so easy for conservatives to goad them into incoherent anger. Nothing makes you more enraged than an argument you cannot answer."
The progressive bubbles of college campuses make students unable to articulate good arguments in favor of their positions because alternative points of view are smothered, not even expressed for fear of reprisal. This is also the rejoinder to the above number 3. Why Trump? It’s not that free speech struck a victory for evil; it’s that we forgot how to make convincing argument for liberal and progressive values.
Consequentialism – protesting speech is self-defeating. There is a consequentialist argument for not protesting speech which says that doing so actually undermines one’s goals. Every time students protest a conservative speaker on campuses, it allows the right to write articles about how intolerant, childish, and naïve the left is. It confirms the biases of conservatives (and many moderates who don’t understand why protest may be necessary) across the country.
Limiting speech is procedurally impossible to do well. There’s no good way of deciding who has a right to speak. Who decides who has a right to speak and who doesn’t? Protestors who want to limit the right of someone to speak display tremendous hubris. They have determined that the speech in question (prior to its expression) crosses the line, is demonstrably false, or so morally reprehensible that it should not be allowed to be expressed. Do speech protestors really want such anarchy (for anarchy this is)? Do they really want other people to be able to make the same determinations? Would they be okay with students shouting down a climate scientist at Bob Jones University? The point at which the opportunity to speak and be heard is a topic of debate, questions about make these decisions become immeasurably complex. The safest bet is just to let everyone speak.
The protestors have the same double-standard about themselves that the critiques employ. Protestors often appeal to an authority to stop the speech. But why? If they believe that they are so smart that they have determined truth, then why does an authority need to stop the propagation of falsehoods? Surely these protestors, possessed with pure truth, can simply make cogent arguments to persuade everyone else why the purveyor of falsehoods is wrong. So why, exactly, does the speech need to be stopped? (Maybe argument 1 above.)
There are likely other arguments for and against allowing Murray to speak, but these are, at present, the building blocks of the arguments I’ve read (or heard) on the subject. Let me know what you think. Are one or more of these particularly compelling to you? Why? Do you find one argument to be particularly bad? Why?
The Business Case for America’s Public Lands
In the Los Angeles Times, Yvon Chouinard, founder of sportswear company Patagonia, wrote about the value that protected public lands provide to the economy.
“The business of outdoor recreation, which relies heavily on public lands, supports more jobs (6.1 million) than oil, natural gas and mining combined. Americans spend more on outdoor recreation annually ($646 billion) than on electronics, pharmaceuticals or automobiles.”
From 2008 to 2011, during the height of the recession, the outdoor industry grew 5% every year… Areas in the West with protected lands consistently enjoy better rates of employment and income growth compared to those with no protected lands, a recent study shows. In the 22 years since the Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah was declared a national monument, jobs grew by 38% in two neighboring counties.”
It’s not just that America’s public lands are a national treasure – which they are – it’s that protecting lands creates a recreational resource for all, thereby creating tourism and the various industries that spring up around it.
You’re probably not going to support national parks because they’re good for local economies, but it’s one more argument to have in your quiver the next time you’re confronted by someone who insists that national parks are bad for the economy because they prevent large multi-national corporations from extracting the greatest amount of natural resources from the earth.
Stop Being Sexist to Kellyanne Conway
Kellyanne Conway is a reprehensible human being. She lies repeatedly. She is an amoral opportunist who has sold out whatever values she might once have had to be a talking head for the most racist, sexist, bigoted presidential administration in many years. And she’s said plenty of unsavory things about things about many different groups of people.
None of this makes it okay to treat her differently because she’s a woman. None of this makes it okay to shame her for her clothing or her makeup or her tone of voice or her laugh or her up-speak or any of the hundreds of other things women are disproportionately criticized for on a daily basis. (Susan Chira captured many of the sexist invectives levied at Conway here.)
Our basest impulses are brought out when we are most consumed with rage, but if you find yourself wanting to say sexist things about Kellyanne Conway, you might want to reevaluate how committed you are to principles of gender equality. There’s nothing a woman can do to warrant sexism, just like there’s nothing a Jew can do to warrant anti-Semitism and there’s nothing an African American can do to warrant racism and there’s nothing a lesbian can do to warrant homophobia. These hateful sentiments must be driven from our minds not in most instances, but in all of them.
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