Discover more from Links
Links: Best of 2022
Happy holidays! Here’s this year’s set of 4-star links.
The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit. Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.
It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history. But Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families. […]
Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three. To see how, we must understand how social media changed over time—and especially in the several years following 2009. […]
By 2013, social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would “go viral” and make you “internet famous” for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. Your posts rode to fame or ignominy based on the clicks of thousands of strangers, and you in turn contributed thousands of clicks to the game.
This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics: Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action. One of the engineers at Twitter who had worked on the “Retweet” button later revealed that he regretted his contribution because it had made Twitter a nastier place. As he watched Twitter mobs forming through the use of the new tool, he thought to himself, “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.”
As a social psychologist who studies emotion, morality, and politics, I saw this happening too. The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.
It was just this kind of twitchy and explosive spread of anger that James Madison had tried to protect us from as he was drafting the U.S. Constitution. The Framers of the Constitution were excellent social psychologists. They knew that democracy had an Achilles’ heel because it depended on the collective judgment of the people, and democratic communities are subject to “the turbulency and weakness of unruly passions.” The key to designing a sustainable republic, therefore, was to build in mechanisms to slow things down, cool passions, require compromise, and give leaders some insulation from the mania of the moment while still holding them accountable to the people periodically, on Election Day. […]
But that essay continues on to a less quoted yet equally important insight, about democracy’s vulnerability to triviality. Madison notes that people are so prone to factionalism that “where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”
Social media has both magnified and weaponized the frivolous. Is our democracy any healthier now that we’ve had Twitter brawls over Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tax the rich dress at the annual Met Gala, and Melania Trump’s dress at a 9/11 memorial event, which had stitching that kind of looked like a skyscraper? How about Senator Ted Cruz’s tweet criticizing Big Bird for tweeting about getting his COVID vaccine? […]
First, the dart guns of social media give more power to trolls and provocateurs while silencing good citizens. Research by the political scientists Alexander Bor and Michael Bang Petersen found that a small subset of people on social-media platforms are highly concerned with gaining status and are willing to use aggression to do so. […]
Second, the dart guns of social media give more power and voice to the political extremes while reducing the power and voice of the moderate majority. The “Hidden Tribes” study, by the pro-democracy group More in Common, surveyed 8,000 Americans in 2017 and 2018 and identified seven groups that shared beliefs and behaviors. The one furthest to the right, known as the “devoted conservatives,” comprised 6 percent of the U.S. population. The group furthest to the left, the “progressive activists,” comprised 8 percent of the population. The progressive activists were by far the most prolific group on social media: 70 percent had shared political content over the previous year. The devoted conservatives followed, at 56 percent.
These two extreme groups are similar in surprising ways. They are the whitest and richest of the seven groups, which suggests that America is being torn apart by a battle between two subsets of the elite who are not representative of the broader society. What’s more, they are the two groups that show the greatest homogeneity in their moral and political attitudes. This uniformity of opinion, the study’s authors speculate, is likely a result of thought-policing on social media: “Those who express sympathy for the views of opposing groups may experience backlash from their own cohort.” In other words, political extremists don’t just shoot darts at their enemies; they spend a lot of their ammunition targeting dissenters or nuanced thinkers on their own team. In this way, social media makes a political system based on compromise grind to a halt.
Finally, by giving everyone a dart gun, social media deputizes everyone to administer justice with no due process. Platforms like Twitter devolve into the Wild West, with no accountability for vigilantes. A successful attack attracts a barrage of likes and follow-on strikes. Enhanced-virality platforms thereby facilitate massive collective punishment for small or imagined offenses, with real-world consequences, including innocent people losing their jobs and being shamed into suicide. When our public square is governed by mob dynamics unrestrained by due process, we don’t get justice and inclusion; we get a society that ignores context, proportionality, mercy, and truth. […]
What changes are needed? Redesigning democracy for the digital age is far beyond my abilities, but I can suggest three categories of reforms––three goals that must be achieved if democracy is to remain viable in the post-Babel era. We must harden democratic institutions so that they can withstand chronic anger and mistrust, reform social media so that it becomes less socially corrosive, and better prepare the next generation for democratic citizenship in this new age.
Here’s how Longreads described this piece:
Go ahead and give Caitlin Dickerson a Pulitzer. Her examination of the Trump administration’s family separation policy is a reporting tour de force and an American horror story that should be read and studied as long as the republic stands. I could only read it in pieces. One go was too much — my heart couldn’t take it. Dickerson shows that some elected officials and bureaucrats acted out of a toxic combination of malice and ambition, while even more did nothing because they were too cowardly or navel-gazing. She holds them all to account, particularly those with children of their own. “‘Can you hold on? My daughter is about to get in her car to leave and I need to kiss her goodbye,’ one government official said as she was in the middle of describing a spreadsheet of hundreds of complaints from parents searching for their children,” Dickerson writes. A single phrase came to mind when I finished reading: “willing executioners.”
This was published before the tragedy in Uvalde. I sometimes feel obliged to justify a four-star rating (and I have to admit, this one was borderline to me), so I was writing a blurb in my head about how the author, Eric Barton, cleverly took sides in this article while acting as if he hadn’t. And then Uvalde happened, and as of this writing it seems the cops didn’t confront the shooter when they should have, and this thoroughly researched piece became gut-wrenchingly relevant. Now I’d say this is a must-read:
The day 17 people were shot to death inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the only armed officer on the property stood outside, apparently doing nothing. He can explain, and he does—at length. Is he trying to convince the victims’ parents? The survivors? Other cops? Or himself?
Even before the thefts started, the city’s 65,000 delivery workers had tolerated so much: the fluctuating pay, the lengthening routes, the relentless time pressure enforced by mercurial software, the deadly carelessness of drivers, the pouring rain and brutal heat, and the indignity of pissing behind a dumpster because the restaurant that depends on you refuses to let you use its restroom. And every day there were the trivially small items people ordered and the paltry tips they gave — all while calling you a hero and avoiding eye contact. Cesar recently biked from 77th on the Upper East Side 18 blocks south and over the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, then up through Long Island City and over another bridge to Roosevelt Island, all to deliver a single slice of cake for no tip at all. And now he had to worry about losing his bike, purchased with savings on his birthday.
For Cesar and many other delivery workers, the thefts broke something loose. Some started protesting and lobbying, partnering with nonprofits and city officials to propose legislation. Cesar and the Deliveryboys took another tack, forming a civil guard reminiscent of the one that patrolled San Juan Puerto Montaña, the small, mostly Indigenous Me’phaa village where they are from.
Reasonable minds will say this is more of a 3-star link, but it left me with one of those “huh…wow” feelings I often get with 4-star links, possibly because I find prehistory fascinating. Also, the author’s speculations at the end aren’t likely to be right. Still, you should read this. (Note: this is a contest submission and not by Scott Alexander.)
What is the version of prehistory the Davids offer in The Dawn of Everything? It is an anti-story. The Davids are offering up an alternative to (as well as a criticism of) thinkers like Steven Pinker or Jared Diamond or Yuval Noah Harari, all of whom give a standard model of human prehistory that goes small hunter-gatherer tribes → invention of agriculture → civilization (with its associated hierarchies and private property and wealth inequalities). […]
In fact, the Davids argue the standard model of prehistory isn’t supported at all by modern archeological and anthropological evidence; in its place they offer a complexified account, wherein prehistorical humans lived in a panoply of different political arrangements, from extreme egalitarianism to chattel slavery, and that, just like humans in recorded history, they consciously collectively chose to live in the arrangement they did (well, except for the slaves) […]
But the fact that humans were able to invent, and then abandon, agriculture, and have inequality or equality to greater degrees throughout the invention of agriculture, and to continue to have political differentiation after agriculture, all suggests to the Davids that our ancestors, despite (as one might say) having the handicap of living in prehistory, were choosing to live a certain way, not simply driven like automata by environmental inputs or new inventions. They made conscious political choices, just like us. […]
Judging this, I have to say I think the Davids are correct; there is a good case that there were real and serious intellectual contributions from Native Americans in critiquing the inequalities of European civilization, particularly from the articulate and debate-based Iroquoian-speaking nations.
This is a great hand to be holding, but, in a pattern that repeats throughout the book, the Davids overplay it. They claim the idea of inequality arose in Europe entirely through the indigenous critique, essentially proposing that some conversations being held by Jesuits and fur traders in New France were the mono-causal origin of the political Left. […]
What was happening before then? Isn’t that the question we’re most interested in? The primal state of human nature? The vast majority of the Davids’ evidence throughout The Dawn of Everything comes from post-10,000 BC societies. And this is a problem, since even the Davids admit in the book that humans have been around for between 100,000 to 200,000 years.
This is a striking mismatch: let’s say modern humans genetically (mostly) and physically (definitely) were around 100,000 years ago: why does it take 90,000 years to get Göbekli Tepe? This perplexing question is called the “Sapient Paradox.” […]
Is there any hypothesis that fits all these disparate facts? We somehow need there to be (a) an initial condition to humanity that keeps it in a Great Trap for tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of years, and then also (b) we need that initial condition to have led very naturally to the diverse political and cultural experimentation of the Upper Neolithic, which almost looks like it precludes having a single initial condition at all, and finally (c) the explanation would ideally also explains the mechanism by which the violation of Dunbar’s number is important on the steps toward civilization.
How can there be an initial condition that doesn’t lead to predictable developmental stages, and yet still kept us in a Great Trap? All the hypotheses on offer seem to not fit the whole story: neither Rousseau’s version, nor Hobbes’, nor the Davids’ (e.g., if egalitarianism was the initial condition, we should see a lot more of it, and leaving that stage should generally involve a next predictable stage, and this is precisely what we don’t see). All I, all anyone can do, is offer speculations, which should be taken with a grain of salt. But with that said, it does seem to me there is an alternative theory, which tells the story of The Dawn of Everything in a different way. It’s the book I wish the Davids had written.
Unlike many other Disney classics, from “Cinderella” to “Frozen,” this fright fest is not based on a fairy tale. It was adapted from “Bambi: A Life in the Woods,” a 1922 novel by the Austro-Hungarian writer and critic Felix Salten. The book rendered Salten famous; the movie, which altered and overshadowed its source material, rendered him virtually unknown. And it rendered the original “Bambi” obscure, too, even though it had previously been both widely acclaimed and passionately reviled. The English-language version, as translated in 1928 by the soon to be Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers, was enormously popular, earning rave reviews and selling six hundred and fifty thousand copies in the dozen-plus years before the film came out. The original version, meanwhile, was banned and burned in Nazi Germany, where it was regarded as a parable about the treatment of Jews in Europe.
As that suggests, “Bambi” the book is even darker than “Bambi” the movie. […]
Zipes, a professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, who has also translated the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, maintains in his introduction that Chambers got “Bambi” almost as wrong as Disney did. Which raises two questions: How exactly did a tale about the life of a fawn become so contentious, and what is it really about?
Felix Salten was an unlikely figure to write “Bambi,” since he was an ardent hunter who, by his own estimate, shot and killed more than two hundred deer. He was also an unlikely figure to write a parable about Jewish persecution, since, even after the book burnings, he promoted a policy of appeasement toward Nazi Germany. And he was an unlikely figure to write one of the most famous children’s stories of the twentieth century, since he wrote one of its most infamous works of child pornography. […]
But perhaps the most vociferous if also the smallest group of critics consists of devotees of Salten, who recognize how drastically Disney distorted his source material. Although the animals in the novel do converse and in some cases befriend one another across species, their over-all relations are far from benign. In the course of just two pages, a fox tears apart a widely beloved pheasant, a ferret fatally wounds a squirrel, and a flock of crows attacks the young son of Friend Hare—the gentle, anxious figure who becomes Thumper in the movie—leaving him to die in excruciating pain. Later, Bambi himself nearly batters to death a rival who is begging for mercy, while Faline looks on, laughing. Far from being gratuitous, such scenes are, in the author’s telling, the whole point of the novel. Salten insisted that he wrote “Bambi” to educate naïve readers about nature as it really is: a place where life is always contingent on death, where starvation, competition, and predation are the norm.
That motive did not make Salten go easy on human beings. On the contrary: his depiction of our impact on nature is considerably more specific and violent than the one in the film, not to mention sadder. Consider the moment when Bambi, fleeing the hunting party that kills his mother and countless other creatures, comes across the wife of Friend Hare, in a scene that reads like something out of “Regeneration,” Pat Barker’s novel about the First World War:
“Can you help me a little?” she said. Bambi looked at her and shuddered. Her hind leg dangled lifelessly in the snow, dyeing it red and melting it with warm, oozing blood. “Can you help me a little?” she repeated. She spoke as if she were well and whole, almost as if she were happy. “I don’t know what can have happened to me,” she went on. “There’s really no sense to it, but I just can’t seem to walk. . . .”
In the middle of her words she rolled over on her side and died.
Krzyzewski's office is in the top of the tower Duke built in 1999 after he'd won two of his five national championships as its head basketball coach. He is on the sixth floor, and all the other coaches are a level below. Coach only needs to take a right out of his office, then another right down a back stairwell, to get to his assistants. For the past 42 seasons he's called the Duke campus home, bringing his wife and family into the operation — his daughter Debbie Savarino keeps an office down the hall from his — and that is all coming to an end. He's lived a life that would have seemed impossible to his parents in their working-class Polish neighborhood in Chicago. Not long ago, he flew back to his hometown in a private jet, and his best friend from childhood, Dennis "Moe" Mlynski, picked him up in his wife's minivan. The big jet landed as Moe watched from inside the private terminal. The pilot parked a few yards from the door and still a golf cart came to pick up Krzyzewski. Coach saw Moe gearing up to demolish him for being soft and rich as he took his first steps inside.
"Moe, don't say a word," he said. […]
A young Mike Krzyzewski idolized Knight, even as part of him probably hated him, in that way that ambitious people sometimes can't tell the difference. The basketball press made the comparison all the time until Coach K bristled at that, both wanting his mentor's approval and wanting to be seen as his own man. As he started his climb in the sport, Knight loomed large in his mind, especially in the early 1980s. "You could almost see the wheels turning," Bilas says. "What would Knight do?" […]
One of the most poignant parts of this season has been the constant stream of former players coming to meet Coach, bringing family members and children, wanting to be part of the end. He has spent his final season surrounded by the relationships he built over five decades, relationships that remain intact in no small part because he saw firsthand how not to treat someone. There have been rifts along the way, but the relationships always seemed to win out in the end. The people close to Krzyzewski understand that Knight's worst impulses live in Coach K but he has managed to control them.
When I ask him about Knight, he sighs and says, "It's complicated."
Almost every American, from nursery to deathbed, uses Johnson & Johnson products: baby shampoo, Band-Aids, Neosporin, Rogaine, and O.B. tampons; Tylenol, Imodium, Motrin, and Zyrtec; Listerine mouthwash and Nicorette gum; Aveeno lotion and Neutrogena cleanser; catheters and stents for the heart; balloons for dilating the ear, nose, and throat; hemostats and staples; ankle, hip, shoulder, and knee replacements; breast implants; Acuvue contact lenses. But what few of those consumers grasped until a series of baby-powder cases began to go to trial was that, for decades, the company had known that its powders could contain asbestos, among the world’s deadliest carcinogens. […]
In 2020, after juries awarded some of those plaintiffs damages that collectively exceeded billions of dollars, Johnson & Johnson announced that it would no longer supply the talc-based version of its product to American stores.
And then, quietly, the company embraced a strategy to circumvent juries entirely. Deploying a legal maneuver first used by Koch Industries, Johnson & Johnson, a company valued at nearly half a trillion dollars, with a credit rating higher than that of the United States government, declared bankruptcy. Because of that move, the fate of forty thousand current lawsuits and the possibility of future claims by cancer victims or their survivors now rests with a single bankruptcy judge in the company’s home state, New Jersey. If Johnson & Johnson prevails and, as Berg puts it, “weasels its way out of everything,” the case could usher in a new era in which the government has diminished power to enforce consumer-protection laws, citizens don’t get to make their case before a jury of their peers when those laws fail, and even corporations with long histories of documented harm will get to decide how much, if anything, they owe their victims.
In most cases, pleasure yachts are permitted to carry no more than twelve passengers, a rule set by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, which was conceived after the sinking of the Titanic. But those limits do not apply to crew. “So, you might have anything between twelve and fifty crew looking after those twelve guests,” Edmiston, the broker, said. “It’s a level of service you cannot really contemplate until you’ve been fortunate enough to experience it.”
As yachts have grown more capacious, and the limits on passengers have not, more and more space on board has been devoted to staff and to novelties. The latest fashions include imax theatres, hospital equipment that tests for dozens of pathogens, and ski rooms where guests can suit up for a helicopter trip to a mountaintop. The longtime owner, who had returned the previous day from his yacht, told me, “No one today—except for assholes and ridiculous people—lives on land in what you would call a deep and broad luxe life. Yes, people have nice houses and all of that, but it’s unlikely that the ratio of staff to them is what it is on a boat.” After a moment, he added, “Boats are the last place that I think you can get away with it.”
Even among the truly rich, there is a gap between the haves and the have-yachts. One boating guest told me about a conversation with a famous friend who keeps one of the world’s largest yachts. “He said, ‘The boat is the last vestige of what real wealth can do.’ What he meant is, You have a chef, and I have a chef. You have a driver, and I have a driver. You can fly privately, and I fly privately. So, the one place where I can make clear to the world that I am in a different fucking category than you is the boat.”
After Merrigan and I took a tour of Unbridled, he led me out to a waiting tender, staffed by a crew member with an earpiece on a coil. The tender, Merrigan said, would ferry me back to the busy main dock of the Palm Beach show. We bounced across the waves under a pristine sky, and pulled into the marina, where my fellow-gawkers were still trying to talk their way past the greeters. As I walked back into the scrum, Namasté was still there, but it looked smaller than I remembered.