Comments on Substack

I was going to react to something a commenter on William Hogeland's post about Hamilton said regarding the perception that Alexander Hamilton was more "relatable" than the other founders. I think Hogeland was right to push back on this statement. Jefferson has been the most relatable for generations, in spite of Sally Hemings. I think the new interest in Hamilton is 1000% due to the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Ron Chernow's biography is apparently the source of Miranda's excitement over Hamilton, just as it is probably the source of most of the bad history in the narrative. But of course the musical reached an order of magnitude more people than Chernow's book. Unfortunately, I was unable to comment because that is a privilege reserved for paid subscribers.

I wonder if it makes sense for me to unsubscribe from substacks that limit comments to paid "members" of the community. At the very least, my immediate reaction of extreme annoyance and a desire to unsubscribe is probably a good indication to me that I should never limit comments -- at the very least not on posts that unpaid subscribers can see!

In any case, I'm about to take a week away from screens and go on a family vacation. When I return, the first full week of June, I'll be using some of these observations to develop my own substack practice. I'll begin posting on note-making, historical primary sources, open education, my own research, and a blog covering random topics. One of the things I might do in the blog is occasionally react to other things I'm reading in substack and elsewhere. Way back in the beginning of “weblogging”, the medium was imagined as both a place to write original content and a place to curate, comment on, and develop relationships with other bloggers. So we'll see how that goes, this summer.

See you soon! --Dan

Planting and Politics

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In addition to reading, research, and course prep this summer, I'm hoping to get in some exercise and some gardening. My task this morning was prepared the greenhouse soil (removed weeds and leveled the soil a bit), then planting eleven tomato plants and eight peppers. Sometimes I try to grow all my plants from seeds, but this spring I knew I'd be going away on vacation and unable to plant until the first week of June, so I decided to take the easy way out and buy plants. The plants are planted in rows where there are buried soaker hoses, so they are going to get a lot of water. I hosed them down when I planted them, to remove the dust that accumulated on the leaves as I was planting.

As I was working, I listened to a series of podcasts at 1.25 speed. Chris Hedges talked with an author named Will Potter who has just written about how law enforcement has been targeting environmental activists as ecoterrorists. Then there was a Lex podcast with a comedian which was okay but not that memorable. Then I caught the beginning of a conversation between RFK Jr. and David Stockman. I've never been much of a Stockman fan, although it was interesting hearing some of his backstory. He apparently went to divinity school to avoid the Vietnam draft and he says the first campaign he worked on was that of RFK Sr. At least that allowed Stockman and Kennedy a connection on the anti-war issue.

It's interesting to see how politics is developing in this upcoming election cycle. The "uniparty" seems pretty happy with the status quo and the populists on the left and the right seem likely to be left out in the cold again. I read a really stupid substack by Robert Reich this morning, in which he went way out of his way to mischaracterize RFK Jr. in order to make him seem like a lunatic. This seems a bit unnecessary to me, but I suppose it means the corporate Dems are nervous. I saw RFK Jr. described as "Ralph Nader on crack" yesterday. The implication being that he would spoil voter turnout for the Dem candidate and hand the election to a Republican.

I can't help thinking this is the wrong way to look at it, although I suppose we're likely to see a replay of the "lesser of two evils" and "existential crisis of Democracy" tropes in 2024. The parties in power have no incentive to change, as long as they can count on voters responding to these oversimplified depictions of the political world. And I do think the people who support this story (whether that's Mr. Reich or Dr. Richardson), although they are gaining tremendously loyal followings of readers by validating people’s prejudices, are exacerbating the problem by constantly beating that red vs. blue drum.

I do think that a lot of what these "outsider" voices say is of questionable veracity. Some of it's probably a bit paranoid. Some of it may even be pandering. But at least it's challenging and questioning what we're "supposed" to believe, and asking
why we're supposed to believe it and who benefits? The thing about critical thinking is that not every challenge of the conventional wisdom is right. But we won't know if we don't look. One of the things that is typically said (and repeated by the likes of Reich) is that someone like RFK Jr.'s ideas about a certain topic have "all been debunked". But if you dig down a bit, it turns out what Reich says RFK said is inaccurate and what he actually said is a bit more nuanced and complicated. RFK cited a lot of sources in his book; Reich not so many in his takedown. And how many times in the last couple of years have we been assured by the authorities that a dissenting perspective was a tin-foil-hat conspiracy theory, until it turned out to be true?

It's going to be interesting for historians of the future to try to understand this decade. What primary sources will turn out to be valuable? How will they judge today's "muckrakers" and whistle-blowers? What will they consider "yellow journalism"? It's the ten-year anniversary this week of the Snowden revelations. He’s still an exile in Russia. Julian Assange is still a prisoner.

High School Debate

This morning I read another article about the degeneration of High School debating into a highly censored space, where students can be disqualified not only for addressing topics that are out of bounds but also apparently for things they may have tweeted or posted on social media completely outside the context of the debate. This is alarming, but seems to fit with our society's current fascination with "de-platforming" anyone who seems to have stepped over the line in any aspect of their lives, at any time in the past. The worst aspect of this story, to me, continues to be the apparent lack of any type of self-awareness in the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA). I'm just going by what I've read, since I was not a debater in high school and have never interacted with this organization. But I have visited the website and I've read many of the "paradigms" judges publish and they really are out there. Most of the ones I sampled were elaborate explanations of the judge's own beliefs and worldview. As I had imagined debate and judging, I would have expected these personal beliefs to be irrelevant. At least beyond a basic commitment to fairness and impartiality.

I imagine some of these "activist" judges would argue that due to the legacy of systemic oppression (racism, sexism), there may still be some entrenched, invisible assumptions that create disadvantages for some debaters, and that they are trying to level the playing field. But do you really do that by announcing that arguing a position or even favorably mentioning a perspective will automatically result in points off or even disqualification? And in any case, does replacing one set of vague, ill-defined, and largely unspoken biases with another really level the playing field? I thought debating was about collecting evidence, building an argument, and then performing a rhetorical act. The NSDA used to be called the National Forensics League, after all. I imagine we have all heard stories about students instructed to argue the position they disagreed with, on a controversial topic, who learned a lot in the process. How would that ever happen if there's a "right" and a "wrong" position and those arguing the wrong side are predestined to lose?

The other thing that was alarming about the article was that students were actually
rewarded for shifting from debating the issue at hand to ad hominem attacks on their opponents, if they could find something embarrassing the opponent had said on social media. Ratting out other high-schoolers for ideological missteps rather than refuting their arguments in the debate. In addition to being creepy and inculcating a culture of informers that smells a bit like 1984, I think this also reinforces a very binary world-view of good vs. evil. There is no nuance. People are not allowed to be inconsistent, or to hold opinions they may not have fully thought through. Or to be wrong on a particular issue but also perhaps have something meaningful to contribute elsewhere.

This avoidance of nuance and inability to deal with complexity is crippling public discourse. It shows up everywhere; even in the comments section of this story, which I wasn't able to participate in, since it's limited to paid subscribers. As I've observed before, I think this is a flaw of the way some people run their Substacks. Not only is it a disincentive to people to read and engage with the writing (my immediate reaction to locked comments is to consider unsubscribing, and frequently I do) but much worse, it creates an echo-chamber of like-minded commenters. In my opinion, this inevitably dumbs down the discourse. People feel free to make unsubstantiated assertions that they know their fellow enthusiasts won't challenge. An example is the series of comments on "Capitalism" in this comments section. The author of the article had identified himself as a fan of free markets, which wasn't that close to the main point of the article. But a bunch of commenters expressed their opinions about how capitalism "works" and "Communism/Socialism" doesn't, or how capitalism has been around since "somebody set up a fruit stand" in the distant past. Or what type of "communism" the commenter thinks Putin is using in Russia today.

I guess it's possible that even in a more open discussion forum people might have been equally sloppy in their thinking. But it seems like the closed forum creates a safer space for folks to take shortcuts. It's more permissible to avoid specifying what definition of capitalism or socialism they're using or at what scale (fruit stand or global economy?), because like-minded people can be trusted to "get it". Doesn't this fairly rapidly devolve into speaking in coded phrases and ultimately dog-whistling? We dislike Putin and we dislike communism and Russia used to be the USSR, so Putin is a communist. And Bernie is a socialist, so he must be working for Putin. Maybe it's unfair to judge a blog post by the quality of its comments, especially on a site where there are multiple contributors. But doesn't it make you wonder what these paying subscribers are expecting from
this Substack?