I Didn't Say That #17
This Year for Christmas
Real Life Does Not Fit the Narrative
The Curriculum Wars Are Based on an Illusion
The Marriage of Liberalism and Democracy
The Twitter Files and the Sinister Label of "Misinformation"
The Free Press' Reporting at Twitter
In Defense of Algorithms
This past summer, I threw my phone in a drawer and headed for the mountains of Montana. That's true. It's also a metaphor.
When I teach college journalism classes, I tell my students to go out and report on events as they unfold, letting their stories arise from whatever they find, while ignoring the expectations or preconceived notions they had at the start. The real world, I tell these impressionable young writers, is always more fascinating than the ideas we hold about it. Reality, truth, the bizarre behavior of people in the wild—they will always surprise you.
In our current media climate, where facts are subordinated to various master narratives, and everything is viewed through an ideological lens, my advice might seem obsolete, I realize. For a while now, on broadcast news, in magazines and newspapers—and certainly in “content” that goes viral on social media—there is a conspicuously growing lack of stories that are complex, surprising, and seemingly told for their own sake.
Amanda Fortini, The Free Press
Americans are more united on how to teach our history than we think.
Unfortunately, those who make up the more extreme ends of the political spectrum seem to have an outsized influence in a number of our institutions, including media, political parties, and universities. But Americans should not let these extremists create the illusion that the rest of us are in irreconcilable disagreement on the issue of how to teach history. The vast majority of Americans want students to be taught a curriculum that includes the good parts of the country’s history as well as the bad, that treats historical events and figures as multi-dimensional, and that doesn’t teach students to feel guilty on behalf of previous generations.
Seth Moskowitz, Persuasion
Freedom and democracy may sometimes seem to conflict, but one cannot survive without the other.
Both liberalism and democracy—as words and as ideas—have their roots in the classical world, and there are two stories from Ancient Greece and Rome that define their proper relationship.
The first is the rape of Lucretia, the event that triggered the creation of the Roman republic. According to legend, the son of King Tarquin forced himself on the wife of a Roman patrician, and in outraged response, the Romans overthrew Tarquin and vowed not to have a new king in his place, instead choosing to govern themselves. The purpose of the Roman republic’s democratic institutions was to protect its citizens from the abuse of power by tyrannical rulers.
The second story is the death of Socrates, the Greek philosopher who was executed by the vote of an Athenian jury—one of their democratic institutions—for asking uncomfortable questions about truth and morality. Majority rule can undermine a tyrant, but it can also empower demagogues and unleash popular prejudices.
These two stories sum up the promise and peril of rule by the people. The whole trick of liberal democracy is to create a system that will protect us from Tarquin, while protecting Socrates from us.
Robert Tracinski, Discourse
This is the sinister circularity of “misinformation”: If any idea that might lead others into disagreeing with orthodoxy is by definition a misleading idea, and thus “misinformation” and subject to censorship, what happens when consensus is wrong? How can we even begin the process of correcting false conclusions?
More broadly, the concept reveals the attitude the managerial class has towards the people and our capacities for reason. They have expanded which kind of information is deemed a public hazard—first it was outright lies and propaganda, now it can even be the truth (when not properly sifted, curated, explained by the right people with the right ideas). It is not enough to merely fact-check claims, they must also be “contextualized,” lest someone come to a “bad” conclusion.
Is it any wonder that trust in our experts and authoritative bodies is falling off a cliff?
Sarah Haider, Hold That Thought
If the story of Twitter's former overlords is about their prejudices and power trips, the question now is what Elon Musk will do with the powerful tools they created.
If I took anything away from my week at Twitter, it’s about power. It’s about how a handful of unelected people at a handful of private companies can influence public discourse profoundly.
They can do it because of how good the tools they made are—and how little the public understands them. They can influence the outcome of elections. And they do.
Because all of those people tend to move and think as one, there is something refreshing about Musk barging into the Twitter Tower on Market Street and turning over the tables. But I’m not sure anyone should have that kind of power.
At one point I asked Musk what he makes of this criticism—that just as the old guard at Twitter had too much power, so does he.
“I’m open to ideas,” he said.
Bari Weiss, The Free Press
They're good for us. They might even be good for democracy.
To some extent, the arguments about algorithms are just a new front in the war over free speech. It's not surprising that algorithms, and the platforms they help curate, upset a lot of people. Free speech upsets people, censorship upsets people, and political arguments upset people.
But the war on algorithms is also a way of avoiding looking in the mirror. If algorithms are driving political chaos, we don't have to look at the deeper rot in our democratic systems. If algorithms are driving hate and paranoia, we don't have to grapple with the fact that racism, misogyny, antisemitism, and false beliefs never faded as much as we thought they had. If the algorithms are causing our troubles, we can pass laws to fix the algorithms. If algorithms are the problem, we don't have to fix ourselves.
Blaming algorithms allows us to avoid a harder truth. It's not some mysterious machine mischief that's doing all of this. It's people, in all our messy human glory and misery. Algorithms sort for engagement, which means they sort for what moves us, what motivates us to act and react, what generates interest and attention. Algorithms reflect our passions and predilections back at us.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Reason
The Felice Brothers