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Cancel Culture and the Liberal Media
About that New York Times story on Hamline University.
1. The Cultural Left
One of the things I often hear is:
The Democrats have moved so far left!
When I point out in the last two presidential nominating contests, the Democratic party chose the most moderate candidate on offer and that the party’s leadership in both the House and Senate belong to the center left, the response is usually something like:
Not the Democratic party per se, but The Left as it exists everywhere around us in the culture!
And fair enough. Progressive culture lives further out on the political spectrum than the main body of the Democratic party. And liberal culture has, to some real extent, eaten our general culture.
Sometimes this is good—we get racial diversity in Disney movies!
Sometimes this is not good—the culture on many college campuses seems creepily authoritarian.
You should read the whole thing; it’s quite good. But if you just want the relevant details:
An adjunct art professor, Erika López Prater, was teaching about religious art.
Her course had a syllabus in which she warned students that in one class they would be examining pieces of Islamic art from the 14th century, which depicted Muhammad.
On the day of the class she again told students that they would be viewing and discussing the works.
She taught the class.
After the class a Muslim student was upset.
This student accused Prater of “Islamophobia” and complained to the administration.
Hamline’s administration sided with the student and told Prater not to come back to teach there again.
There are lots more details and as I said, you should read the piece because while it looks like a textbook “cancel culture” moment, there are lots of things going on.
First I’ll put my cards on the table: The student who complained about Prater is being ridiculously immature. I’m with Sonny:
But kids do dumb things. They’re kids. That’s why they’re in school—to learn. My real contempt is for the grownups in the administration, who did not act with a surplus of either wisdom or courage.
This seems like as close to an open-and-shut case as you’ll find. The NYT quotes the regional CAIR director doing performative grievance mongering—but then quotes the group’s national director taking a decidedly different line:
Edward Ahmed Mitchell, the deputy executive director of the national chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that he did not have enough information to comment on the Hamline dispute. But while his group discourages visual depictions of the prophet, he said that there was a difference between an act that was un-Islamic and one that was Islamophobic.
“If you drink a beer in front of me, you’re doing something that is un-Islamic, but it’s not Islamophobic,” he said. “If you drink a beer in front of me because you’re deliberately trying to offend me, well then, maybe that has an intent factor.”
“Intent and circumstances matter,” he said, “especially in a university setting, where academic freedom is critical and professors often address sensitive and controversial topics.”
So let’s put the primary aspects of this incident to the side and look at the meta stories.
For starters: The Hamline story is a case of the internal tensions of “diversity.” Prater’s course was attempting to broaden the understanding of religious art outward from the Western canon to include other religions and cultures. This is a liberal imperative.
The complaint against her was that she was insufficiently sensitive to a marginalized group. Which is also a liberal imperative.
So what we have is a tension in the idea of “inclusiveness,” as to whether sensitivity should take precedence over representation. Which is an interesting discussion. And one worth having.
Another aspect of the story is the treatment of adjunct professors. The economics of higher education are broken along many vectors. Tuition, obviously. But also the ballooning of administrative staff, which has put downward pressure on wages for faculty. Which has made adjuncts—who are underpaid, fire-at-will serfs—increasingly attractive to institutions.
It’s a scandal.
But the most interesting part of this story is that it’s from the New York Times.
I don’t know about you, but I hear a lot of complaints about the woke, radical, left-wing New York Times. And sure, the Times is to the left of my own preferences. Also: The NYT opinion page does not seem like a super-fun place to work. And the Times often publishes woke claptrap. The paper is undeniably part of the liberal culture.
Also: No one in America would know the Hamline story if it weren’t for the New York Times putting reporters on the case who did a serious job of exposing it.
All of which is to say that whatever the faults of the “liberal media,” at least it tries to be its own corrective. Not always and not perfectly. Maybe you wish the NYT was 20 percent more critical of liberal excesses. Or 80 percent more critical.
But they try to police their own side, however imperfectly.
Which is absolutely not how business is done on the other side.
It’s hard to tell, but Russian forces may be nearing a breakthrough in Bakhmut.
If it happens, it could be important—less for strategic considerations in Ukraine than for what it might mean for internal Russian politics. Because in Bakhmut, the Russian troops aren’t state-controlled soldiers. They’re privately-owned mercenaries from the Wagner Group. From ISW:
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continues to use reports of Wagner Group success in Soledar to bolster the Wagner Group’s reputation as an effective fighting force. Wagner Group forces claimed to capture territory within Soledar over the past few days, and many Russian sources have discussed the gains as indicators that Wagner Group forces may soon encircle Bakhmut. Combat footage widely circulated on social media on January 9 shows Wagner Group fighters engaging in fierce small arms combat near the city administration building in central Soledar. Several Russian milbloggers remarked on January 8 and 9 that Wagner Group forces are responsible for block-by-block advances in Soledar and other critical settlements northeast of Bakhmut, as well as within Bakhmut. Prigozhin emphasized on January 9 that “exclusively” Wagner Group units are taking ground in Soledar, and noted that Wagner fighters are currently engaged in “fierce battles for the city administration building.” Prigozhin will continue to use both confirmed and fabricated Wagner Group success in Soledar and Bakhmut to promote the Wagner Group as the only Russian force in Ukraine capable of securing tangible gains, as ISW has previously reported.
How do you topple a dictator from within? You control the army. But if you can’t control an army, then controlling a private military with the prestige of the army might be a workable alternative.
Any attempt to push Putin out probably has to go through not just the generals in the Kremlin, but Prigozhin, too. And his position will get stronger if he takes Bakhmut.
If you need to catch up on what some experts like Gen. Mark Hertling, Giselle Donnelly and others are thinking about the war in Ukraine here are some recent articles we published on the site.
3. Network Effects
Cory Doctorow thinks Web 2.0 is boned.
When economists and sociologists theorize about social media, they emphasize ‘‘network effects.’’ A system has ‘‘network effects’’ if it gets more valuable as more people use it. You joined Facebook because you valued the company of the people who were already using it; once you joined, other people joined to hang out with you.
Network effects are powerful drivers of rapid growth. They’re a positive feedback loop, a flywheel that gets faster and faster.
But network effects cut both ways. If a system gets more valuable as it attracts more users, it also gets less valuable as it sheds users. The less valuable a system is to you, the easier it is to leave.
When you leave a system, you have to endure ‘‘switching costs’’ – everything you give up when you change products, services, or habits. Quitting smoking means enduring not just the high switching cost of nicotine withdrawal, but also contending with the painful switching costs of giving up the social camaraderie of the smoking area, the friends you’ve made there, and the friends you might make there in the future.
For social media, the biggest switching cost isn’t learning the ins and outs of a new app or generating a new password: it’s the communities, family members, friends, and customers you lose when you switch away. Leaving aside the complexity of adding friends back in on a new service, there’s the even harder business of getting all those people to leave at the same time as you and go to the same place.
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