All posts filed under: Media

Blessed Are the Sense-Makers

Years from now, if anyone looks at a line graph (in the OED or Google dictionary) tracking the frequency with which a word is mentioned in print, they may notice the current affinity for the word “narrative.” An already overworked word (by virtue of its abstractness), it is now almost impossible to avoid; we encounter it on a daily basis, especially when reading the news. It is a writer’s job to point out how words become flabby through overuse (such is the visceral aversion to cliché), but that is an elitist’s grievance. More telling is the way in which “narrative” has lately acquired the flavor of a pejorative. The popular connotation, in this case, is one that encourages suspicion. For example, Eric Weinstein likes to refer to what he calls the “Gated Institutional Narrative” (a coinage he uses to indict the insular bias and self-protecting interests of newspapers like the New York Times) to describe a false sense of reality, supported by a phony consensus that is held in place (often in bad faith) by …

Silicon Valley’s ‘Mission Protocol’ Revolution Is Beginning to Attain Critical Mass

In December 2004, during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, I spent a night in one of the many tents that had been pitched in Kiev’s central square. There were five of us inside, and it smelled like cigarettes, black tea, and sweat. Outside, it was snowing. It seemed that everyone—protesters and riot police—had a megaphone. The voices bounced off the square’s gray facades, blending with snippets of shouting, laughter, dogs barking, a couple in a nearby tent having sex. The 25-year-old travel agent who owned the tent I was staying in had taken the bus from the city of Vinnytsia, a few hours to the southwest, with some friends. The group included a medical student and a woman in her third trimester of pregnancy. “We wanted to see history happen,” the tent owner told me. The pregnant woman interjected: “But we didn’t come until we knew it was safe—until other people would be here.” In the former Soviet Union before social media, there was a calculus to demonstrating. If you wanted to demonstrate against the regime, and …

Confusing Cure and Disease

In 2005, I published a book attacking the dogma then bleeding over from pop psychology into American society-at-large. My primary target was the self-esteem movement, which had been entrenched in schools since the late ’70s. By the time of my book’s publication, it was receiving ambient reinforcement everywhere else—notably from “helicopter parents” determined to shield their kids from every ignominy while micromanaging their every success. I have been reminded of these themes amid the cultural colloquy over tennis star Naomi Osaka. Her abrupt withdrawal from the French Open has prompted calls for yet another of our periodic national dialogues, this time on our failures in the area of mental health. Two main points have emerged. The first is that America faces an unprecedented mental health crisis. The second is that we need to work on creating an emotionally responsive world in which we are attuned to early signs of struggle so we can minister to children and young adults whenever they feel at risk. Point one is uncontroversial. America’s mental health does indeed appear to …

When Will Activists (and the Media) Get Honest About Police Shootings?

Minutes before Derek Chauvin was convicted on all three counts of murder and manslaughter, Ma’Khia Bryant, a black teenage girl in Columbus, Ohio, was shot dead by police. Almost immediately, enraged protestors gathered outside police headquarters. “Say Her Name!” they chanted. The New York Times reported that the girl’s grieving mother, Paula Bryant, had told WBNS that her daughter was “a very loving, peaceful little girl.” In an attempt to correct a tendentious version of events immediately promoted by civil rights attorney Ben Crump (and uncritically repeated by the Times) in which the young victim was described as unarmed, the Columbus police department took the unusual step of releasing the officer’s body-worn camera video the same day. During a briefing at which the footage was exhibited for the press, police played the video twice, the second time in slow motion—because events on the ground escalated with such rapidity that it’s the only way to follow what happened: The police officer gets out of his squad car and approaches a group of people milling about in …

Against Dilettantes

“Welcome to the country of amateurs,” a good friend said when I first arrived in England. That was 20 years ago and, now that I’ve had time to think about it, my friend stands corrected. He should have said, “Welcome to the country of dilettantes.” Because there is a difference, you see. While both species belong to the verminous family of the overambitious and the under-qualified, an amateur poses a lower environmental threat. Aware of his limitations, he keeps a certain distance from his subject and treats it with respect. A dilettante, regrettably, does no such thing. Instead, a dilettante dabbles. In anything, everything, trying his hand at things he is not remotely qualified to do. A fellow with no linguistic training writes a book on the English language. Another fellow with no literary training writes a book of literary criticism. Hacks of every genre, from lifestyle to cookery, opine on politics and economics. I meet a lot of publishers. Where I come from, an average publisher has a postgraduate degree in philology and a …

Scott Alexander, Philosopher King of the Weird People

If you (like me) spend an unhealthy amount of time reading about morality and politics online, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex. In the best of all possible worlds, this would be because someone pointed you toward his pun-laden kabbalistic theodicy or his highly accessible musings on psychotropics or his remarkable essay on coordination problems. Alas, Google Trends suggests that search interest in Slate Star Codex spiked dramatically in June of 2020, when its author announced that he was closing the blog to discourage the New York Times from “doxing” him, publicizing his identity in a way that invited negative consequences for his psychiatry career (and his patients). The news media’s response varied—the New Yorker essentially scooped the story, while National Review simply took the Gray Lady to task—but perhaps the most interesting response was the eclectic variety of signatures appearing on an open letter to the Times. Readers of Slate Star Codex may be predominantly childless, educated white men working in the tech industry, but the diversity of …

Making the Profane Sacred

“By making a statute and by defining blasphemy, the church sought to prevent discussion—sought to prevent argument—sought to prevent a man giving his honest opinion. Certainly a tenet, a dogma, a doctrine, is safe when hedged about by a statute that prevents your speaking against it. In the silence of slavery it exists. It lives because lips are locked. It lives because men are slaves.” Robert Ingersoll, 1837 The second (or third in some variants) commandment in the Old Testament is “Thou shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.” During the Hellenistic period, this commandment resulted in a taboo against pronouncing the name of God, Yahweh (translated as I am), replacing it with the word Adonai (my lords). In more modern times, for certain Islamic fundamentalists, misusing the name of the prophet Mohammed is deemed to be punishable by death. And even several Western countries still consider religious blasphemy as a punishable crime. Nevertheless, in most modern Western societies, blasphemy is not effectively prosecuted as a punishable taboo. Instead, we elevate secular …

What We Owe to ‘The Boys in the Band’—and Other Classics of Gay Film

Ryan’s Murphy’s new Netflix production of The Boys in the Band is a time capsule of gay life in New York City, 1968. A group of friends, all but one closeted, get together for a birthday party that makes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf look like a strawberry social. Shame, guilt, fear, and self-loathing rip through a night of pills, alcohol, and panic attacks, ending with the lines, “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse,” and “If we could just not hate ourselves so much… If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.”  I was 18 when I saw the original production, alone, and 19 when I saw the 1970 film adaptation, also alone. I furtively entered and exited the theatre both times, terrified that someone I knew might see me at a show about gays. Would they wonder if I was gay, too? If they guessed, then what? I could end up like those characters, cast off by friends and family, no hope, …

How Availability Cascades are Shaping our Politics

“When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” – Eric Hoffer, 1955 We are the company we keep. Although our beliefs and actions are personal, they are often heavily affected by the people around us. When everyone else seems to be thinking the same way, we may succumb to crowd pressure rather than thinking for ourselves. When all available information seems to indicate that everyone is falling in line with a certain belief, we may be under the influence of an “availability cascade.” Today, our politics and public discourse are being poisoned by availability cascades. Thanks partly to partisan domination of the media and academia, many people are being pressured into publicly espousing beliefs that are not their own. Two components make up an availability cascade: an informational cascade and a reputational cascade. An informational cascade creates genuine changes in people’s beliefs by providing plentiful but misleading information. A reputational cascade is a vicious cycle in which individuals feign expressions of conviction to retain social approval. In the 2007 …

Slack Wars: Corporate America’s Woke Insurgency

Between 2008 and 2019, total newsroom employment in the United States declined by 23 percent. At newspapers, the drop has been more than 50 percent. Journalists are hardly to blame for the underlying causes of this contraction (which include the long-term shift from physical to digital media, and the growing ad-market share controlled by Google and Facebook). But they can be blamed for the gratuitous acts of self-sabotage that are exacerbating the industry’s woes. Many journalists—and even their unions—now seem more preoccupied with denouncing heresies among colleagues than with maintaining their audience and livelihoods. At the New York Times, to take one obvious case study, op-ed editor James Bennet was hounded out in June after publishing a column that reflected widespread frustration with violent social-justice protests. Bari Weiss, one of the newspaper’s brightest stars, decided to follow Bennett out after enduring an internal newsroom campaign of verbal bullying, which included bizarre claims that she was a racist and a Nazi (these slurs targeting a Jewish woman whose recent book is titled How to Fight Anti-Semitism). …