Saturday, July 31, 2021

What If We Treated "Liberty" Like "Intersectionality"?

My second lesson of being on the internet is:

2. No matter your ideology, there will always be someone profoundly idiotic who largely agrees with you, and someone profoundly idiotic who largely disagrees with you. Neither fact should be unduly weighted.

I was thinking about this today in relation to an argument I sometimes hear made by critics of "intersectionality" (or "critical race theory" or "microaggressions" or other like terms). Persons, such as myself, will often chide them for "criticizing" a strawman, caricatured version of the term. What they call "intersectionality" bears little resemblance to what one would find if one read the actual, primary source scholarly literature on the subject. In response, these critics might (with varying degrees of begrudging) concede the point -- but, they'll rejoin, these academic sources bear little resemblance to how the terms are being used "in the wild". Their criticism isn't of an academic text, it's of a political practice, and so it is entirely fair game to attack "popular" (if unsophisticated or sophomoric) iterations that holds themselves out to be "critical race theory" from social media influencers, overzealous college students, faddish activists, and so on.

Sometimes, even these examples will betray a lack of context or interpretive charity. But it is not difficult, no doubt, to find genuine cases where someone flies the banner of intersectionality in order to say something profoundly stupid or genuinely offensive. That, after all, is the thesis of my Rule #2. There will be idiots who call themselves "intersectionalists", and (this is a corollary to the rule) they will not be that hard to find.

But here's the rub: we could do this for any political ideology or concept. "Individualism," "freedom", "democracy" -- pick your favorite. 

Take "liberty". As a concept, "liberty" carries a robust philosophical pedigree -- there is much worth reading and contemplating regarding what liberty means, what its contours are, what its political utility is, and what it conceptually can and cannot do. At the same time, right now there are a host of people who, flying the banner of "liberty", are promoting outright crankish and idiotic politics -- claiming "liberty" means the right to hold massive unvaccinated public gatherings without any meaningful health safety measures during a pandemic, or "liberty" means one shouldn't even be exposed to others wearing a cloth mask.

These people are morons. And indeed, in terms of raw numbers, there are far more of these morons than there are morons endorsing "intersectionality". Yet how weird would it be for someone to point to such morons in order to dismiss the idea of "liberty" as a concept? Imagine how it would go: 

Sure, Mill or Hayek or Berlin may be interesting thinkers, but I'm talking about what 'liberty' means 'in the wild.' In practice, 'liberty' means MAGA nutjobs spreading conspiracy theories about how vaccine passports are akin to the Holocaust. That's the 'real' public meaning of freedom today. Therefore we must recognize 'liberty' as a toxic ideology, ensure that the dangerous idea of 'liberty' is one we mustn't ever teach to our children, and whenever anyone in the U.S. or around the world appears to be mobilizing for 'liberty', we must do whatever we can to stem the dangerous tide that threatens our very way of life.

It wouldn't fly, and it shouldn't fly -- not because the identified nutjobs aren't nutjobs, but because the existence of said nutjobs most certainly does not warrant the conclusion that "liberty" is itself inherently dangerous, much less support a campaign to extirpate "liberty" theorists from our educational domains.

When it comes to "liberty", we fully understand that we can indict and dismiss the inevitable idiots who will adopt it as their ideological cloth without suggesting that said idiots' existence means the whole concept of "liberty" is corrupt. The same should hold true for other theories. I do not doubt there are genuinely foolish people who fly the flag of intersectionality or critical race theory or microaggressions. That makes it entirely non-distinct from literally any other prominent ideology or political concept, and it is not cause to sacrifice our own commitment to intellectual fairness and rigorous inquiry.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Assorted Olympic Thoughts

Today is the last day of my beach vacation. It's been a blast, though at some level this was a terrible weekend for me to be at the beach, since it's the Olympics. I love the Olympics, and so for much of the past few days I was all too happy to stay inside and watch obscure sporting events rather than do, you know, beach things (don't worry: I got my share of wonderful-horrible boardwalk cuisine).

The coldest hot take around the Olympics is that they should be abolished -- every "hard-bitten" lefty curmudgeon has their version of this essay somewhere on their hard drive. Interestingly, I agree with several of the underlying criticisms of the Olympics, specifically that they're (a) corrupt as all hell and (b) not even close to the economic boon to their host cities they're promised to be (if anything, they're often an economic albatross). I'll spot both of those, but nonetheless I am pro-Olympics on the simple basis that it is a very rare example of a truly global event that brings representatives of all nations together for something fundamentally happy. I think it is essential to have something of that ilk, and there isn't anything else I can think of that fills or could plausibly full the niche. It is a product of our (dare I say it?) neoliberal era that both the pitch for and against the Olympics is fundamentally economic in character -- the promise of economic revitalization in favor, the reality of resource maldistribution against. The Olympics is not and, just as importantly, should not, be anyone's urban renewal program. The sooner we recalibrate expectations -- that hosting the Olympics is, essentially, a favor to the rest of the world (or, more charitably, a pure prestige/pride project) -- the better we'll be.

Oddly, I am pro-Olympics in the same way I'm pro-United Nations. I think the UN also is a fundamentally corrupt and dysfunctional organization that, to say the least, doesn't follow through on the overwhelming majority of its promises. Nonetheless, I think it is important to have something like the UN just because we need some forum where the nations of the world can come together and express -- in however muddled, inchoate, diplomatically garbled form -- their opinions. Even when it turns out those opinions are kind of hypocritical garbage -- well, that's useful information too. So I happily cop to many of the "abolish the UN" criticisms, without having any interest in actually abolishing the UN.

With respect to these Olympics specifically, my favorite storyline so far definitely is the Austrian cyclist who won gold primarily because the rest of the field forgot she existed. Other highlights have included Katie Ledecky smashing the field in the 1500m, Ariarne Titmus gutting out wins against Ledecky in shorter events (and of course, her coach's viral celebration), the random Tunisian swimmer winning gold out of lane eight as his country is embroiled in political chaos, and the Mongolian judoka, who defected from Iran because his country was forcing him to throw matches against Israelis, dedicating his silver medal to Israel.

The biggest story, of course, is Simone Biles withdrawing from the team gymnastics competition. Biles, predictably, is getting heaps of racist abuse from MAGA sorts who get an obvious erotic thrill out of tearing down talented Black people. To some extent, the only thing that needs to be said to this is "how many medals have you won?" When it comes to the GOAT's decision to compete or not, I'd be entirely fine with an exchange rate here: one medal entitles you to one minute of criticizing Biles.

My favorite sport is boxing (albeit not, oddly, Olympic boxing), and there's an interesting parallel to the Biles discourse in the form of boxing fans criticizing boxers for "quitting". Take a ten count, retire on the stool, or don't emphatically declare to the referee that you want to continue, and you've "quit". At one level, of course part of boxing is that you get punched hard in the face and yet you still keep going. Indeed, much of the appeal of boxing, for me, is the superhuman feats of will that are demonstrated in the ring -- you've been punched in the face so hard you actually topple over, and yet you still continue!  So there's a level in which it comes with the sport that we ask people to keep competing even when they're hurt and wobbled. On a deeper level, it is frankly absurd for fans to be judgmental of fighters who decide they're not in a position to keep getting punched in the face. We're not in their shoes, we don't know what they're going through. A bunch of sideline warriors talking about how tough someone else should be -- in terms of literally asking them to spend more time being violently assaulted -- always rubbed me the wrong way.

Boxing is, in many ways, just a more extreme iteration of all athletics. Some of the most iconic moments in sports history have been when the greats overcome tremendous adversity to nonetheless get the job done -- Michael Jordan with the flu, Kerri Strug on the vault, Kirk Gibson's hobbling home run. We're allowed to be in love with those moments. But ultimately, the athletes are the professionals, and they know what their bodies can and can't do. While not as viscerally violent as boxing, gymnastics is an exceptionally dangerous sport -- all the more so when your head isn't in the right spot. Simone Biles knows the difference between the ordinary pressures and pains of competition, and something that threatens her ability to safely and effectively compete at the level she expects of herself.

The thing is, objectively speaking the "problem" solves itself because it regulates itself. Simone Biles is, it should be needless to say, plenty tough, mentally and physically -- if she wasn't, she'd never have won all those medals. She won a world championship with a kidney stone, for crying out loud! So when someone with her talent and track record tells the world "I'm not in a position to compete at the level I need to", it is the height of arrogance for the rest of us to even indulge in the flicker of thinking "eh, I bet she's exaggerating." Again, obviously high level athletics requires participants to make the choice to dig down against adversity and pain and pressure to nonetheless perform. But by definition, someone at Biles' level does not lack the ability to do that; if she actually did lack that ability it wouldn't be an issue because we'd have never heard of Simone Biles in the first place.

All of this is to say, we were right in our initial instinct: the only person who has any right to criticize Simone Biles is Simone Biles. The very history that makes people feel entitled to demand she keep going is the same history that should compel us to defer to Biles' own assessment of her own situation. She knows competition. She knows pain. She knows her body. She became the GOAT because she knows all these things; nobody wins all those medals while being deterred from competing by a pinprick. So if someone with all that history and all those victories and all those medals says "not today", we should have the humility to trust her.