A Song of Wolves and Whales

This country is well and truly forked.

1. Cry Wolf

One of the themes we talk about here a lot is how some people go through most of their lives passing as normal, and then suddenly present as insane.

How does this happen? Were they always crazy, but adept at hiding it? Did they have some sort of psychic break? Or is the answer some combination of age-related mental decline and/or substance abuse?

Obviously, you can find examples of all three mechanisms. Dinesh D’Souza’s transformation seems pretty distinct from Rudy Giuliani’s.

The New Republic has a piece asking this question about Naomi Wolf, who is now on her third act in American public life, this time as a Fox-friendly anti-vaxxer. So was she always crazy? Or did something happen?

With each subsequent decade, Wolf has injected a little more madness into the cesspool of weird that we sometimes call “the discourse.” In 2012, she wrote a silly book all about her vagina and not much else: Vagina: A New Biography. (The less said about it the better.) Her most recent book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, about the relationship between the repression of homosexuality and societal attitudes toward divorce and prostitution, came out in 2019; a central argument was based on a historical error so embarrassing that the publisher was forced to unpublish it. (Wolf misunderstood the term “death recorded” to mean that a convict had been executed, when in fact it means the person was pardoned or their sentence commuted.) Still, to fangirl is pleasurable, and for that reason I preferred not to examine my youthful icons too carefully. Remaining loyal to the Naomi Wolf of the early 1990s, I chose to ignore her present-day existence for years. That is, until her recent turn to anti-vax insanity.

Wolf has tweeted that she overheard an Apple employee (who had attended a “top secret demo”) describing vaccine technology that can enable time travel. She has posited that vaccinated people’s urine and feces should be separated in our sewage system until their contaminating effect on our drinking water has been studied. She fears that while pro-vaccine propaganda has emphasized the danger the unvaccinated pose to the vaccinated, we have overlooked how toxic the vaccinated might be. And as the journalist Eoin Higgins reports, she is headlining an anti-vaccination “Juneteenth” event this month in upstate New York. (Yes, the organizers chose that date to suggest that vaccines are slavery.) . . .

When a public intellectual declines this far, we need to ask: Was she always full of shit? . . .

Revisiting The Beauty Myth, I found it beautifully written, accessible, and righteous. I also found it daft.

One of the elements of the book I remember as most persuasive was all the statistics. It turns out, however, that they’re highly questionable. To take just one instance, Wolf gives the reader the impression that eating disorders are an existential threat to the female human. Twice within two pages, she says such disorders have increased “exponentially,” but a 2012 review of historical epidemiological data since 1930 found no such thing. A 2004 academic paper demonstrated that more than two-thirds of Wolf’s anorexia stats were wrong; the author coined the acronym WOLF to describe her approach: “Wolf’s Overdo and Lie Factor.” Citing the 2004 paper at TheNew York Times, Parul Sehgal singled out one harrowing example: Where Wolf placed deaths from eating disorders at 150,000 annually, the actual number at the time was closer to 50 or 60.


Were you surprised by how much of Conservatism Inc. went merrily along with Trumpism?

I was not.

Circa 2015, Conservatism Inc. was stuffed full of people who were obvious frauds: Matt Schlapp, Victor Davis Hanson, Rush Limbaugh, Brent Bozell, Hugh Hewitt, Jerry Falwell Jr., Mark Levin, et cetera and ad nauseam. Of course they would all throw in with a proto-authoritarian game show host if that’s what the party demanded because they were, and always had been, some combination of craven, crazy, and not very bright.

There were, however, a handful of people whose turn surprised me. Bill Bennett was the big one.

In retrospect, I wonder why I was surprised. And I think the answer is because I wanted to believe in him. Bennett’s career had fit squarely into one of my intellectual blind spots, so I saw in him what I wanted to see.

This TNR piece makes it pretty clear that the same thing happened for the left with Naomi Wolf. She didn’t go crazy—she was always a fraud. But people couldn’t see it, because everything about her—her politics, her writing, her brand—hid her in their blind spots. They desperately wanted to think she was a serious person.

But she wasn’t. Not then, and not now.

The lesson here is that we all have blind spots and that the best way to deal with them is to be doubly-suspicious of anyone whose priors align with your own.

Politics only works when everyone is willing to police their own side.

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2. Biden-Putin

We are at a peculiar moment when America is both the global hegemon and a weak, toothless, declining power. A whale.

A hegemon because the United States is:

  • The world’s largest economy.

  • The issuer of the world’s reserve currency.

  • The dominant nuclear power.

  • The only country capable of projecting non-nuclear force anywhere on the face of the earth.

But a whale because:

  • Our political system is within hailing distance of collapse.

What good is it having the most powerful military in the world if your country lacks the political unity to use it? What is the benefit to being the dominant nuclear power if your country is in the midst of a rebellion against minority rule? What does being the world’s largest economy matter if your political system is so vulnerable that explicitly anti-democratic forces are camped out on its doorstep?

The answer, I suppose, is that all of those hegemonic aspects make a direct attack on the American homeland by a sovereign state highly unlikely. But that’s about it. When it comes to defending America’s interests or influencing events elsewhere, good luck.

Because the Biden administration cannot risk doing anything that’s even marginally unpopular and 40 percent of the country is going to object to everything Biden does.

America isn’t a hegemon. It’s a whale. A big, slow-moving, defenseless target whose blubber will continue to be harvested by geostrategic adversaries who understand that our internal politics are in such a dangerous and tenuous place that we are just one well-timed recession or cyberattack from the next Constitutional crisis.

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3. Running While Black

This is the Mitchell Jackson essay on Ahmaud Arbery won the Pulitzer for magazine writing:

Sunday, February 23, 2020 | 1:04pm Time-stamped security footage from an adjacent home shows Maud, who’s out for a run in Brunswick’s Satilla Shores subdivision, wandering up a sunny patch of narrow road and stopping on the spotty lawn of a sand-colored under-construction bungalow addressed 220 Satilla Drive. There’s a red portable toilet in the front yard. The garage is wide open.

Ahmaud, dressed in light-colored low-top Nikes, a white t-shirt, and khaki cargo shorts, loafs on the lawn for a moment before drifting into the building. The security camera records him inside the home, a brightened skeleton of beams and plywood and stacks of sheetrock and piping and wire. There are boxes of materials scattered about and a small forklift pushed in a corner. Maud doesn’t touch any of those things. He looks around, gazes beyond the frame of the camera toward the river behind the house. Maybe he wonders what the home will look like when it’s finished. Maybe he conjures an image of a family who could afford to live in a place so close to water.

Maud ain’t the first person to wander onto the site. Its security cameras have recorded others including a white couple one evening and a pair of white boys one day. On four occasions, it also recorded what appears to be the same person: a slim young Black man with wild natural hair and tattoos on his shoulders and arms, a dude, that by my eye, don’t resemble Maud. Let me add that the homeowner will confirm that nothing was stolen or damaged during any of the visits. . . .

in 1962, legendary track coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman visited New Zealand and met with fellow coach Arthur Lydiard who’d developed a cross-country training program. Bowerman returned to the States excited by what he’d seen. He launched a similar program in Eugene (home of his alma mater and employer, the University of Oregon), wrote a pamphlet on the subject in 1966, and the next year, published a co-written book titled Jogging: A Medically-Approved Physical Fitness Program for all Ages Prepared by a Heart Specialist and a Famous Track Coach. That book became a bestseller and kickstarted jogging as an American pastime.

Let me acknowledge that I am one of the rarest of Americans, one otherwise known as a Black Oregonian. As such, I feel compelled to share a truth about my home state: It’s white. I’m talking banned-Blacks-in-its-state-constitution white. At the time that Bowerman was inspiring Eugene residents to trot miles around their neighborhoods in sweatpants and running shoes, Eugene was a stark 97 percent white. One could argue that the overwhelming whiteness of jogging today may be, in part, a product of Eugene’s demographics. But if we’re keeping it 100, the monolithic character of running can be credited to the ways in which it’s been marketed and to the systemic forces that have placed it somewhere on a continuum between impractical extravagance and unaffordable hazard for scores of people who ain’t white. . . .

Sunday, February 23, 2020 | 1:08pm Maud strolls out the house and in just a few steps, begins to jog. He’s unaware of the witness who called 9-1-1, a man still surveilling him. “He’s running right now. There he goes right now,” says the witness to dispatch. “Okay, what is he doing?” says the dispatcher. “He’s running down the street,” says the man. The footage shows Maud jogging past the Satilla Drive home of Gregory and Travis McMichael—a father and son. Gregory McMichael, an ex-cop stripped of his power to arrest for failure to attend use-of-force training, notices Maud passing his house and deems him suspicious. “Travis, the guy is running down the street,” he hollers. “Let’s go.” For reasons the McMichaels must now account for in court (both have been indicted on nine counts, including felony murder and aggravated assault), they arm themselves—the son with a Remington 870 shotgun and the father with a .357 Magnum—and hop in a white Ford pickup truck.

Read the whole thing and think about freedom and liberty and all the stuff that’s supposed to be so super-duper important to conservatives, but which suddenly disappears when we’re talking about a black kid gunned down by white guys.