July 2023

Public Debate Today

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Reading Substacks and watching YouTube and Rumble videos lately, it seems there are a new batch of “public intellectuals” who a few years ago would probably have just been moderately popular and influential. However, due to cancel culture and the polarization of the past decade (beginning with Clinton/Trump 2016, and continuing through Russiagate, COVID, Hunter Biden, the Ukraine War, etc.), these people have been declared threats to democracy and censored. This seems to be fairly conclusively documented in the Twitter Files, whatever you think of Elon Musk or Matt Taibbi. As a result, these people‘s voices and messages have become amplified and are arguably more influential than they ever would have been without this backlash.

Some of these people are extremely political, on purpose. RFK Jr. of course, is running for President. But others such as Bret Weinstein, Joe Rogan, Aaron Mate, and Glenn Greenwald are for the most part just presenting alternate takes on what’s happening in the world today, most often backed by solid reporting. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everything they say is accurate or equally important. But the market for attention would probably produce different outcomes, if there wasn’t such a continued effort to censor.

Is there a precedent for this in our history? I’m curious whether the “yellow journalism” of the late 19th and early 20th century deserves more attention? Not to mention the Sedition and Espionage Acts of the “Progressive” Wilson administration. I wonder whether there are histories of propagandistic contagions? According to
The New England Psychologist, “‘Mass formation psychosis’ is a term that was used on the Joe Rogan podcast by a formerly respected medical researcher, Robert Malone, M.D.” Does this description suggest they are seriously considering Malone’s observations? But even if the terminology is new, the concept might be traceable to other contagious ideas like the Red Scare in America or Fascism in 1930s Europe. Has anyone written about this yet?

According to reports, 70% of Tony Fauci’s income (the highest-paid government worker) came from his military work. RFK Jr. mentions this in a long interview with Bret Weinstein. He goes on to say that it’s illegal to create bio-weapons,
unless you are also developing vaccines. Gain of function bio-hacking claims to be “dual-use”, but is it really?

The prolific author Uptown Sinclair (
The Jungle was one of over 100 things he published) said “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.“ Beyond self-interest, cognitive dissonance and emotional reactions rather than reason would also obviously be valuable to people who want to get away with stuff. Confusion can lead people to say, “I’m not sure, but to be on the safe side, I’m going to comply.” Add these to the folks who fall in line and obey for the sake of supporting their team, and we may see a lot of smart, well-meaning people doing things like taking the three “vaccines” for flu, COVID, and RSV that are apparently planned for this coming winter. The NIH is calling this combination of respiratory ailments a “tridemic”.

Last year, flu killed 58,000, COVID killed 50,000, and RSV killed 10,000 in America, according to info being repeated in social media. In contrast, the opioid epidemic killed 106,000 Americans in 2021. CDC records suggest that the vast majority of “flu” deaths are actually caused by (bacterial) pneumonia which people become unable to resist after contracting (viral) influenza. So the “flu” situation alone is already more complicated than it is portrayed in public health and media. Maybe we would be better served by understanding the actual situation at a slightly deeper level of complexity? How likely are we to get that, when more than half of TV news is sponsored by big Pharma? Our only hope for trustworthy information may now be the people mainstream media warns us against. I guess we can thank CNN and MSNBC for pointing them out to us.

Back from the Woods

I'm back from the Boundary Waters and getting ready to orient my days around my fall teaching, research, and other activities. I'm going to try to reduce my reliance on technology. Not wearing the Apple watch anymore. Ordered an inexpensive analog-mechanical wristwatch which I'll wear some of the time and my pocket watch other times. I wonder whether I could stop carrying my iPhone all the time. Leave it in my office at work?

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That's not to say I'm not going to continue trying to be somewhat organized and keep track of what I'm working on, how far I walk, when I exercise, and what and when I eat. I'm just going to begin doing that in writing in a planner or on my computer (like this writing I'm doing in Obsidian), rather than via a bunch of apps. The upside is this will save me the annual subscription fees to these apps. At the end of the year, I may even consider dropping my Crossfit membership and doing my workouts in my own home gym. I'm getting value from the "obligation" I feel to go three times a week, based on the high cost of membership. I'm still learning new movements and techniques. So that's money well-spent, I think. But I don't LOVE it enough to keep going once I know what I'm doing, I suspect. This year is a reintroduction for me, to fitness training. Hopefully I'll be able to continue it on my own and get even more out of it, going forward.

During the Boundary Waters trip, we canoed and portaged all morning, found a campsite at the new lake, and then relaxed in hammocks, fished, and swam in the lakes in the afternoons and evenings. The fishermen were pretty successful and we had a couple of good meals of pan-fried Northern and Largemouth Bass. Although the area along the US-Canadian border was pretty extensively logged about a century ago, there were some decent-sized white and red pines and my interest in writing an international history of the pine lumber industry was renewed. I think the scope of this project has increased to the point where the story will probably begin in the Colonial Era on the East Coast and conclude in the 20th century in western Minnesota (the end of the forest and edge of the prairie). That's a very wide geographic and temporal range, so I'll need to come up with some other ways of limiting the focus to make the story interesting and digestible.

I'm sitting in a coffee-shop writing this, waiting for a colleague from the English Department who wants to collaborate on creating a zero-textbook-cost path through the English major. That will be another project I'll be working on this year and I'm looking forward to getting on with that in the fall. The university I work at is facing a budget deficit and "retrenchment". Under our union-negotiated contract, reductions in tenured faculty require the actual elimination of positions and our financial situation is bad enough that it may possibly require a reduction of programs. So even if I get tenure, I won't necessarily have job security. But rather than worrying about that, I'm going to try to focus on pursuing what interests me and trying to make it interesting to others. A fairly big part of that will involve producing history that is available to the general public as well as to my students. I don't intend to try to earn a living on YouTube or Substack unless I absolutely must. But I'm less convinced than I once was, that there's a clear path available to me to continue working in Higher Ed until I'm ready to retire in a decade or so.

Rhetoric vs. Reality on the 4th

Yesterday HCR wrote a short (for her — I typically think her Letters From an American are too long) 4th of July post, reminding us of the most famous words of the Declaration. She immediately recognized that the claim that it was “self-evident” that ”all men are created equal” was a sentiment that only applied to white men and not to the large numbers of blacks, Indians, or women that together formed most of American society at the time. Notwithstanding that contrast with reality, Heather echoed the belief of many historians that the founders were reaching for an ideal and that “America was founded on the radical idea that all men are created equal.”

I’m willing to accept the claim that there was an awareness in the Continental Congress that equality (at least in terms of equal status at birth for white men) was a goal the new nation should claim (especially to distinguish itself from Great Britain)
and should maybe strive towards. The primary sources I have my students read suggest they were already well aware of the problem of slavery in this early convention and the “sectional” positions for and against it in the North and South were beginning to form before the US was even a nation. But so far, the first three paragraphs of the post are similar enough to what one might have seen in history books or 4th of July memorials that I wouldn’t have bothered to comment.

It’s in the fourth paragraph that it goes off the rails a bit, in my opinion. Heather makes a turn and announces, "What the founders declared self-evident was not so clear eighty-seven years later, when southern white men went to war to reshape America into a nation in which African Americans, Indigenous Americans, Chinese, and Irish were locked into a lower status than whites. In that era, equality had become a 'proposition,' rather than 'self-evident.'”

This allows her to claim that the leaders of the Confederacy were trying to change a settled, self-evident truth into a proposition that could be argued. I’m sorry, but this seems to stand in direct contradiction of the reality of the situation in 1861 America, where “African Americans, Indigenous Americans, Chinese, and Irish”
were ”locked into a lower status” than white men. In the South, the North, the East, and the West. Even if we give the Founders the benefit of the doubt and say they held equality as an ideal they wanted the new nation to strive towards, America had not yet become that. Lincoln did not ask in the Gettysburg Address passage Heather quotes whether a nation could be broken by people who disagreed, but whether “any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” I think the key to his question is, “conceived and dedicated” but not yet achieved.

I’m not going to defend the Confederates at all, but I don’t think they were trying to break away from a nation of freedom and equality to create a new hellscape of slavery and “reshape America into a nation in which certain people are better than others”, as Heather claims. So I don’t think she succeeds in drawing an analogy between then and now: that the “idea of human equality” is an American achievement rather than an ideal and that there’s a new group of evil Confederates who want to undo that reality. While I agree with Lincoln that we should “highly resolve” that the sacrifices of those Americans who fought for union and democracy should not be in vain, I think Heather misses the point. Lincoln’s sentiment is laudable but his history is aspirational, not accurate. I understand why Americans mistake the rhetoric of the past for reality, but why do historians?

At St. Olaf

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Yesterday I spent some time sitting in Northfield Minnesota in front of the Chapel and Commons of St. Olaf College. It was about a four and a half hour drive from Bemidji (and then back) to pick up my son Gio, who had been at a music camp there this past week. The campus is on a hilltop at the edge of town -- although not too far out, since I just heard a train horn at a crossing near the Malt-O-Meal factory. Carleton College, the other school in this town, is right up against downtown.

Yes, there are two pretty well-regarded private Liberal Arts colleges in this town of fewer than 21,000 people. This one, Olaf, sits on a hilltop and feels a bit separated from the rest of the world. I walked a couple of miles, circling around the campus a couple of times and zigzagging across all its paths. It reminded me a bit of Hogwarts, although for that matter, in spite of being much closer to downtown, Carleton has a pond and an island with a little meditator's labyrinth.

Admission to both these colleges is very competitive and once admitted students' families can expect to pay a "family contribution" of at least $25,000. My son will not be going to either of these, although he has done summer programs at each. Instead, he will be attending the largest university in the state system for which I work. Will he receive a different education at a state university? Probably. Will it be one that is more in line with his interdisciplinary interests? I hope so.

These questions remind me of the issues currently faced by Higher Ed. What are we doing? For whom? And will it make a difference to our students lives? The answers to questions like these are on a lot of people's minds right now, because they appear to be changing. The
All-In podcasters this week argued about the effects of the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Affirmative Action in college admissions. The “besties” (as they call themselves) tended to focus on admissions to elite schools such as Harvard and Stanford, although there was at least a mention of "all public institutions that take government money." I think Chamath said (I was listening on my drive down so I didn't see who said it) that there was a sense among some advocates that racial quotas were designed to right the wrongs of American history, but only for a time. Whether they have achieved the original goals of leveling the playing field is sure to be debated. But an interesting data point in this debate is that many of the people who agitated for this change were Asian students who felt they were being discriminated against; denied places despite having top credentials.

Another big issue that arose in the
All-In Podcast discussion was legacy enrollment. This is granting spots to the mediocre children of alumni. Although I generally agreed with the speakers that this should be prevented, it also reminded me that in the case of many elite institutions, educational credentials may not really be the whole point. Because educational achievement isn't the whole point. A big part of it is access to a community. The dumb son of a Harvard alum or big donor may actually have better "prospects" of joining the ranks of the plutocracy than the most brilliant minority student, and attending the school will introduce him to the people with whom he’ll be running the world in 25 years. I'd also question the value of adding diverse faces to the class picture of the next generation of plutocrats. Shouldn't we be trying to reduce the outsized role of this group on ruling supposedly-democratic America, rather than jostling for spots in the photo?

In any case, I wonder about the role of institutions like this one, where I was sitting in partial shade in a quiet quad, waiting for a concert to begin. It certainly isn't identical to either Harvard or the state university, and that may be an important point. Higher Ed is big and has many functions in our society. I think the part of it to which I contribute (preparing students to live and work in a complex society) is more valuable than socializing the children of elites. But even this is changing, as we reimagine what type of world we think we're trying to prepare these students to live and work in.