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‘How God Becomes Real’

Anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann

I’ve been dazzled these last few days by How God Becomes Real: Kindling The Presence Of Invisible Others, the new book by Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann. You should know up front that Luhrmann doesn’t approach her work as a religious believer — she does not take a position on whether or not there are gods — but rather seeks to discern how those who believe in God, or gods, or spirits, come to do so. I was drawn to this book in part because I’m a reader and fan of her earlier work, but also because I’m thinking of doing my next book on how to re-enchant the world, living as we do in a WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) culture.

I learned a lot from this book, and having just finished it ten minutes ago, I want to share its arguments with you, because I hope you’ll buy it and read it too.

TML writes:

This is not a claim that gods are not real or that people who are religious feel doubt. Many people of faith never express doubt; they talk as if it were obvious that their gods are real. Yet they go to great lengths in their worship. They build grand cathedrals at vast cost in labor, time, and money. They spend days, even weeks, preparing for rituals, assembling food, building ritual sites, and gathering participants. They create theatrical effects in sacred spaces—the dim lighting in temples, the elaborate staging in evangelical megachurches—that enhance a sense of otherness but are not commanded in the sacred texts. They fast. They wear special clothes. They chant for hours. They set out to pray without ceasing.

Of course, one might say: they believe, and so they build the cathedrals. I am asking what we might learn if we shift our focus: if, rather than presuming that people worship because they believe, we ask instead whether people believe because they worship.

I suggest that prayer and ritual and worship help people to shift from knowing in the abstract that the invisible other is real to feeling that gods and spirits are present in the moment, aware and willing to respond. I will call this “real-making,” and I think that the satisfactions of its process explain—in part—why faiths endure.

By “real-making,” I mean that the task for a person of faith is to believe not just that gods and spirits are there in some abstract way, like dark energy, but that these gods and spirits matter in the here and now. I mean not just that you know that they are real, the way you know that the floor is real (or would, if you paused to think about it), but that they feel real the way your mother’s love feels real. I mean that people of faith come to feel inwardly and intimately that gods or spirits are involved with them. For humans to sustain their involvement with entities who are invisible and matter in a good way to their lives, I suggest that a god must be made real again and again against the evident features of an obdurate world. Humans must somehow be brought to a point from which the altar becomes more than gilded wood, so that the icon’s eyes look back at them, ablaze.

TML says that people have to “kindle” the awareness of their god, through what she calls “realmaking”:

The basic claim is this: that god or spirit—the invisible other—must be made real for people, and that this real-making changes those who do it. When I look at the social practices that surround what we call religion, I see a set of behaviors that change a practitioner’s felt sense of what is real. These behaviors both enable what is unseen to feel more present and alter the person who performs them.

Through her research, she found a few ways that are key to kindling awareness of God’s presence.

First, you have to have a “faith frame” — that is, a framework that allows you to integrate your religious beliefs into your daily life, and to allow you to navigate the cognitive dissonances. For example, the wafer and the wine at a Catholic communion service look like … a wafer and wine. But the Catholic faith frame tells the Catholic that after consecration, they are the Body and Blood of the slain and risen Lord Jesus Christ — not symbolically, but really and truly, in some mystical way.

Second, “Detailed stories help to make gods and spirits feel real.” They allow believers to bring the invisible world and the god(s) and spirit beings living within it vividly to life in their imaginations. Stories take the abstract and make it concrete.

Third, “Talent and training matter.”  TML writes:

 What people do and what they bring to what they do affect the way they experience gods and spirits. People who are able to become absorbed in what they imagine are more likely to have powerful experiences of an invisible other. Practice also helps. People who practice being absorbed in what they imagine during prayer or ritual are also more likely to have such experiences. This absorption blurs the boundary between the inner world and the outer world, which makes it easier for people to turn to a faith frame to make  sense of the world and to experience invisible others as present in a way they feel with their senses.

Fourth: “The way people think about their minds also matters.” TML:

The intimate evidence for gods and spirits often comes from a domain felt to be in between the mind and the world, from the space betwixt a person’s inner awareness and the sensible world—the thought that does not feel like yours, the voice that feels whispered on the wind, the person who feels there and yet beyond the reach of sight. How people in a particular social world represent the mind itself—how they map the human terrain of thinking, feeling, intending, and desiring into a cultural model— shapes the way they attend to these odd moments so that the moments  feel more or less sensory, more or less external, more or less real, more or less like evidence of gods and spirits.

Some combination of these foundational beliefs and practices of attention “kindle” a sense of the divine presence, no matter what your religion. Remember, Luhrmann is an anthropologist describing a phenomenon. We who hold particular religious commitments, or hold a prior commitment to atheistic materialism, may therefore believe that the god or gods that people Luhrmann studied do not exist, or are evil entities. In the book, Luhrmann writes about a Santeria community, which in my Christian view, worships gods who are really demons. Nevertheless, I found in reading TML that there is a real commonality between the way Christians practice the presence of the true God, and the way Santeria worshipers make their demonic gods real.

TML says that we in the West often misunderstand the experiences of non-Western people because of our post-Enlightenment “faith frame”:

It was the Enlightenment that made nature non-agentic, objective, and thus free of human intention, and changed forever the ontological commitments of the West. Animist worlds imagined human-like intentions throughout the world, so that all objects had agency and were different merely in their appearances. A totemic world understood shared human-like agency only in humans and a limited number of nonhuman animals and objects with which these humans identified. And other worlds made complex mappings by analogy, all different from each other. When the naturalism of the postEnlightenment world in effect strips mind from nature, he argues, humans then feel the right to pillage  the world around them.

These are cultural differences in what is real, in what way, and for whom.  There are, in short, varied ways that people judge the relationship between things of the everyday world and what the faith frame treats as real, even if spirits and everyday things are always differently real. It seems likely that Western culture invites people to make a realness judgment categorically: real or not real. That is Descola’s point. The naturalness of the post-Enlightenment world creates a material world that is real and is fundamentally different from the stuff of the mind. Ultimately, G. E. R. Lloyd (2018) remarks, this is our legacy from the Greeks. Other cultures may be more likely to invite people to make that judgment on a continuum:  more or less real. And so Western cultures likely worry about realness in a different way than many other peoples. The evidence still suggests that invisible beings are understood as differently real from everyday objects everywhere. It is just that gods and spirits are likely differently real from everyday objects in different places in different ways.

Put another way, our Western real/not real dualism prevents us from seeing gradations in reality that people from non-Western cultures are more open to. This is not a perfect simile, because one involves metaphysics, and the other doesn’t, but here goes: the ethnobotanist Wade Davis has written about how despite his extensive training, when he went out into the jungles of South America with natives, they could perceive far more differences among the plant life there than he could. They could discern extremely subtle differences between plants on sight. These differences were real — measurably real — which is why this is not the best simile. Still, from the point of view of a religious believer, the fact that pure materialists have a “faith frame” that rules out any evidence for a spiritual dimension to existence makes it impossible for them to see what’s really there.

So, as TML says, the challenge for religious believers is to stay within their faith frame as much as possible, for the sake of making their God or gods real. Again, by “real,” she means “feel real,” which implies no judgment about the existence or non-existence of the deity or spirits. Even if one believes that God really exists, as I do, the truth is that He does not manifest himself like my wife or my neighbor. So if I am to keep myself attentive to the reality of His existence and presence, I am going to have to work at it.

What am I going to have to do, as a Christian?

I’m going to have to engage deeply with the stories in the Bible, and in the lives of the saints. A Christianity that is only moralistic is not going to work. The life of Christ, the journeys of Paul, and the acts of the men and women of the Old Testament — they all have to live vividly in my imagination. And not just in my imagination, but in the imagination of my religious community.

Yes, I’m going to have to embed myself in a religious community built around these shared sacred stories. That community must have a shared sense of what these stories mean, and how we are to relate to them. The community must have a clear set of rules for what it means to be a part of it. And there has to be established rules for interacting with that “invisible other.” People have to have some way of knowing when the community believes God to be present in a special way (e.g., for Catholics, after the consecration of the bread and wine; for charismatics, when people start speaking in tongues, etc.) And, there have to be shared ways of knowing when God responds. This is how people know that what they’re doing is real, that it’s not just make-believe.

Living out the faith frame in community, with others who share your beliefs, both affirms them and makes them feel more real to you. It jumped out at me that in TML’s research, it matters that these faith communities make demands on their members. You can’t really be “seeker-friendly” in the sense of making minimal demands on people, and expect the members of the community to develop a strong sense of God’s reality.

If I’m going to practice the presence of God, then I can’t just sit around and wait for it to happen. I’m going to have to work at it. TML says that people who have stronger imaginations find it easier to feel the presence of the divine, but that everyone can get better at it through training. She relates this experience that happened to her in the 1980s, when she was in England working on her PhD. She was studying a group of witches. TML reports that as she trained her mind in the same way the witches were doing, inexplicable things began happening to her. For example:

I was sitting in a commuter train to London the first time I felt supernatural power rip through me. I was twenty-three, and I was one year into my graduate training in anthropology. I had decided to do my fieldwork among educated white Britons who practiced what they called magic. I thought of this as a clever twist on more traditional anthropological fieldwork about the strange ways of natives who clearly were not “us.” I was on my way to meet some of them, and I had ridden my bike to the station with trepidation and excitement. Now in my seat, as the sheep-dotted countryside rolled by, I was reading a book written by Gareth Knight, a man they called an “adept,” meaning someone deeply knowledgeable and powerful. (The book was Experience of the Inner Worlds.)

The book’s language was dense and abstract. My mind kept slipping as I struggled to grasp what he was talking about, and I wanted so badly to understand. The text spoke of the Holy Spirit and Tibetan masters and an ancient system of Judaic mysticism called Kabbalah. The author wrote that all these were so many names for forces that flowed from a higher spiritual reality into this one through the vehicle of the trained mind. And as I strained to imagine what it would be like to be that vehicle, I began to feel power in my veins—really to feel it, not to imagine it. I grew hot. I became completely alert, more awake than I usually am, and I felt so alive. It seemed that power coursed through me like water through a chute. I wanted to sing. And then wisps of smoke came out of my backpack, in which I had tossed my bicycle lights. I grabbed the lights and snapped them open. In one of them, the batteries were melting.

TLM goes on:

Yet it was not all about training. Practice did not explain my experience when I took that train into London, even taking into account my determined attempt to imagine my way into that author’s world. In fact, people sometimes went looking for books on magic when they had experienced an out-of-the-blue event—an intense sense of invisible presence, for instance—that they felt they could not explain. At the same time, it was also clear that anomalous experiences were more common among those who practiced: those who did the exercises and rituals again and again. What I saw seemed more like an orientation to inner experience, which someone might have by temperament but could also develop through practice. I learned that in the London world of modern magic, the following was commonsense: If you wanted to do magic, you had to practice magic. If you wanted to feel power flow through you and to direct it toward a source, you had to do it again and again, and you had to train, preferably under a seasoned elder.

Some people were naturally better than others. Magicians spoke as if there were people who were naturally good at being psychic, and people who were naturally good at doing rituals. The psychics (they said) did not feel things in their body. They simply knew things and had insights that others did not. Those who were good at doing magic were able to have the distinct sense that power was present. They could feel it moving through them, and they felt as if they could direct it. Those who practiced would get better. People routinely said that over time they experienced power more intensely. Those who practiced found that their mental images grew sharper, and they were more likely to report unusual phenomena: they felt the power, they heard the gods, they saw the spirits.

As I began to read more intensively, I started to realize that what magicians did in their training could be found in other spiritual practices around the world: in Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, shamanism, even spirit possession. The capacities to visualize and to sink into trance-like states seemed to be learnable skills. I began to think that mastery of those skills was associated with intense spiritual experience and the sense that gods and spirits felt real.

And in many ways what they experienced was similar to what the magicians experienced, and they said remarkably similar things about talent and training. The Christians sometimes said that after they began to pray actively, they not only experienced God more vividly, but their inner world became sharper and felt more real, as if those features were side-effects of training. They knew that practice mattered. They thought that powerful experiences were more common in the lives of those who prayed actively. They also knew that predisposition mattered. They were clear that some people had a hard time hearing God, even when they prayed, and they knew that some people had experiences that came out of the blue.

This resonates with my own experience in Orthodoxy. The times I feel farthest from God are inevitably times when I have stopped praying regularly. It really is true that you get out of Orthodoxy what you put into it. When I was in college, and in my early twenties, I longed for religious experience, but I did not want to work at it. I did not want to sacrifice anything for it. I wanted a mystical version of cheap grace. The laws of the spirit world don’t work like that. God loves you whether you feel it or not, but if you want to be truly changed, to dwell in the Spirit, you are going to have to work. This is not about earning salvation; rather, it is about practicing the presence of God, of deepening your relationship with Him, of dying to self so that Christ can live more completely in you. This doesn’t just happen. It takes prayer, fasting, confession, repentance, communion — the same tools that the Church has always given us.

TML says that real-making requires cultivating our attention to sensual details. We have to get out of our heads. We have to learn to see, really see, the sunset, and see not just the beauty of the dusky light on the clouds, but make the imaginative connection between that and its Maker. We have to train our eyes and our ears to pay attention. Again, moralistic religion can’t help you here. I’m not saying that morals don’t matter — not at all! — but only that making God real requires engagement with the body through its senses. The more abstract our sense of God is, the harder it will be to know Him.

Another interesting point: the degree to which we can feel God’s realness depends on how we regard the mind. She says that Westerners usually believe that the mind is like a “citadel” separate from the world. For people in non-Western cultures, the boundary between Mind and World is far more porous — and that helps them be more perceptive of spiritual realities.

TML writes of a study she did comparing how Evangelicals in California, India, and Ghana experienced God’s presence in worship. What she found was that the Americans were more individualized in their experience of God, but the Evangelicals in India and Africa experienced God much more vividly. She writes:

I don’t think that these different rates simply reflect different ways of talking about God. I think that different ways of attending to experience kindle God in different ways.  In all these churches, God spoke through the Bible and through people and in the mind. In all these churches, God was also represented as speaking out loud to ordinary humans—after all, God spoke out loud to Abraham, Moses, Ezekiel, and John of Patmos, and evangelical prayer manuals are filled with vivid, auditory examples of God communicating in words the ear can hear.

Yet because of the way that congregants thought about their minds, God feels real for them in different ways. In Chennai, He felt more real through people. In Accra, He felt more real in the experience of the body, in the felt power of the Holy Spirit. For the Americans, their experience of God was a little less palpable. For them, God seemed to feel less external and more mental. Or, to use the Macmillan dictionary definition, a little less real.

There’s so much more to the book than I’ve indicated here. I just wanted to share with you what excites me. I’m going to be going more deeply into this on my Daily Dreher newsletter tonight and this week. If you would like to consider subscribing — five dollars a month, or $50 per year, for five newsletters per week — check out how to do that here. It’s not a newsletter about politics or the culture war, but about faith, art, and the things that make life worth living.

If you’d like to know more about Tanya Luhrmann’s thought, here’s a short interview with her from 2019:

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James Wilson’s ‘Coyote Fork’

James Wilson, author of 'Coyote Fork' (courtesy Slant Books)

The English novelist James Wilson’s latest work, Coyote Fork, is a taut thriller about a British journalist who finds himself in Silicon Valley, on the trail of killers. What he and his traveling companion Ruth —  a philosophy professor who is being severely harassed by a woke student mob — discover is a mystery that has to do with nothing less than what it means to be human. I found myself unable to put the book down, not only because Wilson keeps the action moving propulsively forward, but also — indeed, mostly — because like in Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose, the search for the truth of what happened to a dead person takes the protagonists on a philosophical, even metaphysical, journey. It’s a journey that has everything to do with the way we live today, in a culture dominated by Big Tech.

I e-mailed Wilson at his home in London, and asked him if he would be willing to answer some questions about the novel, published last year by Slant Books. He kindly agreed, and e-mailed his replies. The interview is below. The last question brought a response from James, about his religious beliefs, that surprised me!


RD: The themes of Coyote Fork — techno-utopianism and progressive cancel culture — could hardly be more timely. What made you decide to write about them?

JW: Like many people during the last decade, I found myself becoming increasingly uneasy about the power of the Internet (though that didn’t stop me using it!). Then, a few years ago, two developments tipped that unease into outright alarm. One was observing the impact of social media on people close to me: how it narrowed sympathies, heightened intolerance, changed decent human beings into self-righteous bullies. The other was an apparently trivial personal experience: travelling home after dinner with some friends in north London, I happened to look at my smartphone. There, blazoned across the screen, was a weather forecast for Sofia. I have never been to Sofia. I had no plans to go to Sofia. But one of our hosts that evening is Bulgarian. I could only conclude that Google hadn’t merely tracked my whereabouts, but in some sense “knew” who I was with.

I decided to dig deeper, to try to discover more about our new Tech masters. What I found convinced me that we are in the middle of the most momentous and far-reaching revolution in human history. Beneath the mesmerising surface spectacle – the Zoom calls, the breath-taking graphics, the instant streaming of any piece of music you want, the excited chatter about colonizing Mars – something much more fundamental was going on. And to me, anyway, that something is profoundly disturbing.

At its heart is the question of what a human being is: a) a complex physical-spiritual entity with a soul, reason, imagination, moral agency; or b) a meat computer, whose reality can be reduced to the data it produces, and which can be re-programmed at will by changing its software? For Silicon Valley the answer is plainly (b).

Here, for instance, is Google’s Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil, speaking in a Rolling Stone interview in 2016: “A person is a mind file. A person is a software program — a very profound one, and we have no back-up. So when our hardware dies, our software dies with it.”

And Kurzweil is devoting massive resources to trying to solve that problem. Many of us, he predicts, will soon be part-cyborg, a hybrid of human and machine. By 2050, he believes, we will have reached what he calls a singularity, the moment when a computer-based super-intelligence surpasses our collective intellectual power, and our only hope of survival will be to transcend the “limitations of our biological bodies and brain” and merge ourselves with it. By uploading our “mind files” to the new man-made deity, we will then be able to enjoy (?) a kind of immortality.

Some bit of me can’t help admiring people like Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil, and warming to their enthusiasm, their audacity, their extraordinary energy. Compared with the last crop of scientists who dominated the airwaves, the New Atheists – who kept picking philosophical fights they couldn’t win, and scolding the rest of us for being so stupid – the giants of Silicon Valley are not only awe-inspiringly brilliant, but appear refreshingly positive and optimistic. But the vision of the future to which they are leading us terrifies me.

And so does the fact that it has attracted so little coverage. Because, to me – given Big Tech’s global reach and unprecedented power to shape behaviour – it seems the most urgent issue of our time. If Dostoyevsky were alive today, I’m pretty certain that it’s what he would be writing about. But I hadn’t seen any contemporary novels tackling the implications head on – so in Coyote Fork (you can’t fault me for lack of ambition!) I wanted to try to fill the gap. And I hope that, for all the seriousness of the subject matter, it still delivers some of the very un-Big Tech pleasures of a good thriller…

It is one of the signal horrors of our time that students get furious at professors who advocate for free thought and skepticism. Coyote Fork’s Ruth Halassian is horribly hounded by the woke mob. What is behind this?

There are many factors at work here, some of which I touch on in my answers to other questions. But a large part of the problem, I think, stems from a crisis of language. As a culture, we no longer agree what words are, what they refer to, what they are for. Instead, we have three more or less contradictory ideas floating around in the ether. Until relatively recently they were able to (sort of) co-exist, but they have been weaponized by the culture wars.

Idea number one – which dates back at least as far as the Middle Ages, but which came to fruition in the “linguistic turn” at the end of the nineteenth century – questions whether language can actually tell us anything objectively true about the world “out there”. It casts doubt, in fact, on whether the world “out there” is knowable to the human mind at all. This, obviously, is enough on its own to weaken the old liberal humanist vision of higher education as a collaborative venture between student and teacher to establish a truth that transcends personal opinion or preference.

Idea number two is the belief associated with thinkers such as Michel Foucault that language is a means by which the powerful in a society assert and maintain their privilege. If you accept that, and your aim is to overturn what you see as the old order, then obviously you will try to seize control of the language yourself, and assign new, revolutionary meanings to it. Once you have done so, you can then systematically punish those deplorables unaware or stubborn enough to persist in speaking as if they were still living under the ancien regime.

There is an odd similarity here to the petty – and often hurtful – linguistic code that was still embedded in the English class system when I was growing up. If, e.g., you heard someone saying “serviette” it not only connoted a piece of cloth or paper for wiping your mouth on, but instantly identified the speaker as “non-U”, because the “U” usage was “napkin”. Only now, of course, the solecism of saying “coloured person” rather “person of colour” can lead, not merely to embarrassment, but to ostracization – and, if you are a professor or a journalist, even, perhaps, to the loss of your job.

The third idea derives from the analogy, almost ubiquitous in Silicon Valley, between human beings and computers. Seen from this point of view, a word or a phrase is no more than a modular bit of code, which – irrespective of context or intention – has an immutable meaning, wherever it is slipped to place. So it makes no difference whether you use the n-word angrily to disparage someone, or in a reflective question about whether it is ever legitimate to use the n-word: in both instances, it carries the same toxic weight, and you bear the same responsibility for uttering it.

Put all those ill-assorted ingredients together, add the all-too-human enthusiasm for shouting “Crucify him!”, and you have the situation poor Ruth Halassian finds herself in.

What is gnosticism, and what role does it play in your plot?

You recently cited an excellent piece on Gnosticism by Edward Feser, which gives a very clear answer to the first part of your question. I would urge anyone interested in how the Gnostic mentality has (re-) entered the contemporary scene to read it.

But, to respond briefly on my own account: although it has historically taken many different forms, Gnosticism – in my understanding – is characterized by the belief that the material world is inherently evil. Typically, it is seen as the creation of a wicked demiurge, such as the Cathars’ Rex Mundi. (I should say, in passing, that I don’t find that a totally incomprehensible conclusion, in view of the suffering we see around us.)

Since, from a Gnostic perspective, most people are blind to this baleful state of affairs, knowledge of the truth (the gnosis) is confined to a small elite of initiates, who pass it down from one generation to the next. The ignorant masses live out their lives irredeemably deceived. The elect devote themselves to esoteric practices designed to free them from the grossness and corruption of Rex Mundi’s handiwork – including, of course, the appetites and instincts that are part of our bodies’ biological inheritance. The aim is eventually to cast off the shackles of the flesh altogether and become pure spirit.

You can see a lot of these tendencies in the ’70s commune I describe in the book. Some people, I think, tend to imagine life in a hippie commune as being a kind of endless drug-fuelled orgy, but in reality – certainly in the commune on which Coyote Fork was very loosely based – it could be extremely hard. And not just physically – although the weather, the isolation, the travails of trying to learn how to farm from scratch certainly took a toll – but emotionally, too. There was a high rate of attrition: what sustained those who stuck it out, I think, was the belief that they were finally breaking free of the chains that had constrained earlier generations, and still constrained the mindless conformists of “straight” society. In some ways, the whole venture was a spiritual rebellion against the pitiful limitations of the human individual. In the face of jealousy, possessiveness, rivalry, anger, neediness – the heroic pioneers were determined to press on regardless along the path of purity.

As I point out below, much of the Gnostic bent of the hippie movement fed through into the culture of Silicon Valley – in particular, the obsession with transhumanism. And, without giving too much away, it is very much in evidence in the character of my tech titan Evan Bone, and in his social media platform, Global Village.

Coyote Fork is the name of a failed hippie commune in northern California. What is the connection between the Sixties communes, and today’s techno-utopianism?

It’s huge. Though a lot of people still, I think, find it surprising, the two phenomena are inextricably intertwined. In fact, today’s Silicon Valley culture is, to a great extent, the improbable love child of, on the one hand, hippie communalism, and, on the other, Ayn Rand’s rampant individualism.

A key figure on the hippie side of the family is Stewart Brand, who in the late 1960s created The Whole Earth Catalogue (described by Steve Jobs as “one of the bibles of my generation”). Brand believed that the advent of the personal computer would liberate humanity from the hierarchies – education, corporations, the military – that had traditionally monopolized power and information, and lead to a historic democratization of knowledge. Many of the nascent tech giants took this as a raison d’être for what they were doing, while at the same time absorbing several of Brand’s other ideas. Particularly important to the way they developed was a belief in “the wisdom of crowds” – which meant that collaborative innovations were preferable to those produced by one individual – and a blasé disregard (still evident in Google’s attitude towards copyright) for private property.

Interestingly, Brand also promoted the notion that “America Needs Indians”. In practice, that often resulted in the members of communes turning to “Indians” – like the character of Many Rivers in Coyote Fork – who would tell them what they wanted to hear.

For anyone interested in exploring these connections more deeply, I would strongly recommend Franklin Foer’s revelatory – and very readable – World Without Mind.

Robert and Ruth are quite paranoid as they move across the landscape searching for answers in what might be murder cases. People who don’t follow the world of surveillance capitalism closely may not realize that you didn’t invent this capability as a plot device. Explain. 

You’re absolutely right: a lot of people don’t realize – as evidenced by the number of times I’ve heard Coyote Fork described as “dystopian”.

As long ago as 2010, Eric Schmidt, then Google’s CEO, told an interviewer, “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

And since then, Silicon Valley’s ability to plunder the insides of our heads has only grown – exponentially. Every time we search online or use a smart device, we are automatically relaying intimate details of our lives to tech companies, who can now predict – with alarming accuracy – what we’re going to buy, where we’re going to go, who we’re going to meet. Increasingly sophisticated algorithms (like the “Tolstoy” Program in Coyote Fork) aim to unlock the secrets of our subjective experience and convert them into a commodity that can be sold, and used to anticipate and control our actions in ever-more minute detail. To quote Eric Schmidt again: “The plural of anecdote is data.”

This pithy assertion – which reminds me of Stalin’s alleged comment, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” – isn’t, I think, simply a matter of commercial calculation. It is the instinctive response of an institutional culture that overwhelmingly fears and distrusts the autonomous world of the imagination – a world that (the ultimate insult!) cannot be measured. By reconfiguring our inner lives as data, that fatal flaw can be overcome, and Palo Alto can breathe easy again, confident that the deepest truth of someone else’s personal experience is what can be said about it from the outside.

So the assault on the privacy of the final redoubt, our own minds, is gathering pace. New face recognition software promises to decode, not merely whether or not we are lying, but our sexual orientation and political views (a big deal, when – as you have been presciently telling us for years – holding the “wrong” political views can now have dire professional and personal consequences). And over the past few months, scientists at Queen Mary’s University in London have developed a system using “neural networks” – which replicate some of the functions of the brain – to decipher people’s emotions via radio antennae.

We can’t say we haven’t been warned. If this is not the way we want to live, we had better do something about it – now.

You posit the Native Americans who have been displaced by wealthy whites as anti-Gnostic. I’m sure some woke reviewer might say that you are being patronizing, but in fact you have spent much of your career advocating for aboriginal tribes, and understand their world. What do they have to teach us?

This is an enormous question (I wrote an entire book on Native American history, The Earth Shall Weep, and still feel I have more to say on the subject!). And it’s also a question that anyone who has worked with indigenous people gets asked a lot – often prompting a set of entirely predictable off-the-peg responses. So I’m going to answer a slightly different question: What have they taught me?

Of course, Native American communities are hugely varied, both culturally and historically. They are not – and never have been – perfect models of prelapsarian bliss: they are prey to all the ills – anger, jealousy, greed, dysfunction, cruelty – of humans everywhere. In many cases, their problems have been grievously exacerbated by (sometimes well-meaning, but usually insensitive, and often brutal) attempts to suppress their languages and religions, transform their ways of life, rewrite the stories by which they understand who they are. (It seems to me this in some ways parallels the assault that many Conservatives feel the Left is now visiting on them, with exactly the same rationale: It is ordained by progress.) Many are plagued with poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, high rates of suicide and accidental death.

But, with all these qualifications, most Native American communities, in my experience – at least, most of those striving, like the little group in Coyote Fork, to hold on to their own value system – share several characteristics that set them apart from much of the larger, non-native society.

One, they believe that they are the work of a creator. Two, their stories tell them that they were placed in a particular landscape, for which – and for the other beings with which they share it – they have some responsibility.

Three, their cultures lay great stress on truth-telling. Language is important: use it recklessly or dishonestly, and you risk disrupting social harmony. I am frequently struck, when I go from the non-native world into an American Indian community, by how much more often I suddenly hear the phrase, “I don’t know”. In their experience, merely sticking another label on something doesn’t change its essential nature. (In some communities, this led to resistance to the substitution of the politically correct “Native American” for “Indian”. Many, many native people still call themselves “Indians”, when the term has all but vanished from polite usage in the wider society.)

Four, there is always laughter in native communities, and much of it derives from what the indigenous writer Gerald Vizenor calls “the Native Tease”. (E.g., the group I visited after my trip to Silicon Valley, teased me – and each other – about the pallor of my skin, and the various gradations of brown in their own, in a way that would have made the latter-day puritans of Palo Alto blench with horror.) Of course, teasing and laughter are not peculiar to native people. But they do appear to be remarkably lacking in the world of Big Tech, and in the rampaging online mobs which Big Tech has armed.

(It’s always perilous trying to define humour – but in many cases, it seems to me, it is a way of acknowledging, and perhaps defusing, the tension between two contrasting realities. But for that to work, the realities have to be – like the different shades of skin colour – unalterable givens. And the native world is full of unalterable givens – many of them difficult and painful.

The Big Tech world, by contrast, appears to recognize no unalterable givens at all. Every myth is there to be busted, every old way of doing something to be destroyed, every limit to be transcended. No two things are solid enough, or stay still long enough, to be a source of humour – even if you were willing to risk censure by laughing at the difference between them. So what Silicon Valley has instead is fun: plastic furniture in bright primary colours, romper room play areas, free ice-cream. Not the same thing.)

Five – and finally – native people tend to see as normal aspects of human experience that we would categorize as “paranormal”. This acceptance stems from a vision of the world, not as inert matter, but as a living entity, and as home to – or interpenetrated with – spiritual forces. Not all those forces are always benign – they can be dark and destructive – but recognizing them, and learning to co-exist with them, is a crucial part of being human.

This last point, in particular, chimes with my own deepest intuitions, but – growing up, as I did, in a post-war Britain that was predominantly kind, safe and decent, but truculently hostile to anything that challenged “common sense” – I found myself, for much of the time, in a minority of one. So it was a huge relief to realize, when I finally reached Indian Country (in case that phrase makes you nervous, the main native newspaper in the U.S. is still called Indian Country Today) that I was not, after all, alone.

Of course – as you suggest in your question – people may accuse me of presenting a romanticized picture. But if it is, it’s a romanticized picture based on spending time in scores of different native communities over more than forty years. In the end, the most any of us can do is speak from our own experience. And my experience is that some of the most intense moments in my life, the moments when I have been most profoundly aware of what it is to be human, have been in those communities.

And, for me, the contrast those communities make with the world of Palo Alto could not be starker. On the one side, you have an elite society of Gnostic wizards, for whom California – indeed, the earth – is no more than an expendable launchpad to send the elect on the first stage of their journey into space; on the other, a group of people who are at home in the place for which they were created, and must do everything in their power to protect it.

Two of the best novels I’ve read in the past year — your realistic thriller Coyote Fork and Paul Kingsnorth’s futuristic dystopia Alexandria — are very different novels by two British writers, both of whom write about the consequences of modern Gnosticism. Paul, who has been a religious seeker for some time, took a strong religious turn after finishing Alexandria, and has become an Orthodox Christian. What is the source of your hope?

Strange as it may seem – or perhaps it’s not strange at all – I too am an Orthodox Christian convert. My wife Paula and I are part of a small Orthodox community in south London founded with the blessing and encouragement of the late Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh.

This isn’t the place to detail my own tortuous spiritual/religious journey: I will only say that, when I see the radiance and serenity of some of our fellow-parishioners at the liturgy, I wish my faith were more like theirs. There are four lines from a poem by Czeslaw Milosz called “Distance” that resonate deeply with me:

There are so many who are good and just, those were rightly chosen
And wherever you walk the earth, they accompany you.
Perhaps it is true that I loved you secretly
But without strong hope to be close to you as they are.

I do, nonetheless, find in Orthodoxy a great – and growing – source of strength and joy. Its beauty; its rootedness; its sense of wonder; its humility in the face of mystery; its concern for the salvation, not only of individual souls, but of the whole of creation; the way its disciplines are incarnated in our bodies, saving us from the illusion that we are pure spirit – all these things, taken together, make it a solid foundation, a base from which to face whatever is coming.

And for me, the act of writing is itself a deep source of hope. ‘Writing,’ as my editor at Slant, Greg Wolfe, says, ‘is not “self-expression.” It is about doing justice to reality.’ And that – for all the disappointments and failures of the writing life – is what I sense I was put here to do.

In the midst of all the gloom, I take great heart from the human capacity to seek and respond to truth and beauty – a capacity that, to me, offers one of the most powerful arguments against the reductionist view that we are merely the product of a blind struggle for genetic survival. And to feel a vocation to try (however inadequately) to bear witness to the truth is to acknowledge that one was brought into existence by some purpose infinitely larger than one’s own purposes. I may never entirely grasp what that larger purpose is – but at least I feel I know what I have to do to serve it.

James Wilson’s Coyote Forkis available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle e-book. If you would like to know more about the author, or even to contact him, visit James Wilson’s homepage.

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General Eclectic: Barstool Conservatives

In this new edition of The General Eclectic podcast, Kale Zelden and I talk about Barstool Conservatives and ecumenical anti-woke alliances, and stuff:

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Race, Police, And Innumeracy

(Photo by John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Here’s a question for you: How many unarmed black men were killed by police in 2019? 

  • About 10
  • About 100
  • About 1,000
  • About 10,000
  • More than 10,000

Make your choice before you read further.

What did you say? I guess “about 100.” I was wrong. The correct answer is “about 10” — the much-lauded Washington Post database said 13 unarmed black men were killed by police that year. Another database, one maintained by data scientists and activists, says 27. Still both numbers are far closer to “about 10” than to any other number.

That question was asked in a study commissioned by Skeptic magazine, the results of which were tweeted by political scientist Zach Goldberg (who is a great follow on Twitter). This is mind-blowing:


You can read the entire piece here. 

Conservatives were by far the most accurate in their estimation. Forty percent of liberals thought the answer must be between 1,000 and more than 10,000 — a number that tops fifty percent for the “very liberal.” Only about one in five liberals, and one in six “very liberals,” got the correct answer. My own guess — about 100 — was the second-highest among conservatives, and on par with what liberals (not “very liberals”) and moderates guessed as their top choice.

Another question: Of those shot and killed by police in 2019, what percentage were black?

Don’t read any further until you have guessed?

I guessed about 50 percent.

I would have been very wrong. The real answer is 26.7 percent.

But then, everybody else was wrong too:


What’s the conclusion here? Race and racially-motivated police violence is a major driver of news and political conflict in this country. But most of us — even conservatives — are badly uninformed about it, and think that it’s a much worse problem than it is.

Where would we have gotten our information? The media.

George Floyd’s lawyer, writing last year in the Washington Post, said:

This cascade of recent cases — Ahmaud Arbery, jogging while black; Breonna Taylor, sleeping while black; and most recently, George Floyd, encountering police while black — has sharpened the focus of all Americans on two inescapable realities: Our society and its institutions place a perilously low value on black lives, and it’s inherently dangerous to be black in America.


And then we hear that nagging thought that keeps coming back and demanding us to face it: How many more deaths have not been captured on video? How long has this been going on without witnesses or documentation? Is this an outlier or is this endemic? And it starts to feel like genocide.

Genocide! Genocide is defined by the Oxford English dictionary as “the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group.”

There are more than 40 million black people in the United States. The killing of between 13 and 27 black people a year in police-involved shootings — not to say whether or not those particular shootings were justified — is not genocide. The idea that the Washington Post would allow a black lawyer to use that kind of incendiary language in an op-ed gives you an idea of why so many Americans think the problem is far worse than it really is.

Similarly, the Gallup poll has consistently found over the last two decades that Americans on average estimate that between one in four and one in five Americans are gay or lesbian. In fact, the number is more between four and five percent. Why the radical overestimation? Well, have you read the papers or magazines, or watched TV in the past 20 years?

UPDATE: Chris Rufo’s comment on these findings:

UPDATE.2: In December 2019, after Elizabeth Warren took up the claim by the LGBT lobby Human Rights Campaign that America was suffering an epidemic of anti-trans murders, I looked into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of all 19 trans people on the HRC’s list for that year. Here’s what I found. There is no hate crime epidemic of anti-trans murder. Most of the dead were street prostitutes — an extremely dangerous line of work. Others were victims of domestic violence, or crimes that did not seem to have anything to do with their gender identity. There were one or two that looked like possible hate crimes. If you happened to be trans, and met a violent end, HRC assumed, for propaganda purposes, that you were murdered for being trans. It’s complete bullshit. But hey, BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER! Yes, they do — but if black trans people, or any people, engage in street prostitution, they have to expect that they will interact with some of the most scummy, violent people in our society, and that this is going to make it more likely that you will meet a bad end.

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Political Cultists Of Our Time

Donald Trump calls his followers off, sort of, on January 6

Well, I didn’t see this coming. One of my state’s US senators, Bill Cassidy, was one of seven GOP senators who voted for Trump’s impeachment. He has sustained severe blowback here in Louisiana. I wrote this letter to the editor of the Baton Rouge paper to support him:

As a conservative voter, I have never been a Never-Trumper and though I have also never been a Donald Trump fan, I recognize he brought a much-needed shake-up to the GOP.

But Trump’s grotesque post-election behavior made me realize that the Never-Trumpers were more correct than I previously thought. Trump’s words and actions regarding the Jan. 6 atrocity merited impeachment and conviction. It gives me no pleasure to conclude this, but had a Democratic president done the same things, I would feel the same way.

I am also proud of Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, for his vote to convict Trump. It was a brave call.

My most recent book, “Live Not By Lies,” is about the lessons contemporary Americans can learn from the experiences of Christian dissidents under Soviet rule. The most difficult thing, but the most necessary thing, was to stand up for the truth, no matter what it cost.

Relatively few people managed to do it, but they kept their honor. I think Cassidy took the true measure of Trump and delivered a truthful verdict. I hope he wears his censure by the Louisiana GOP as a badge of honor.

Attorney General Jeff Landry blamed Cassidy for falling into a “trap laid by Democrats to have Republicans attack Republicans.” I remind Landry that principle is more important than party and truth matters more than tribe.

Besides, the reason we have a Democratic-controlled Senate today is because Trump attacked Georgia Republicans and convinced enough of his voters to stay home in the runoff as a Trump loyalty test. Trump continues to hold the GOP hostage with his threats to start a third party. Trump is tearing apart the GOP, not Cassidy and the GOP senators who voted to hold him accountable.

I am glad Trump re-oriented the GOP towards an adversarial stance to China, started no new wars and opened the ideological doors to a more populist, pro-working-class economics. I am thrilled by his judicial appointments and his defense of unborn life.

But his inability to discipline himself and focus on policy made his presidency one of lost promise. I eagerly await the rise of Republican leaders who can build on the new directions pioneered by Trump.

It is ironic that for the best of Trumpism to succeed in the future, the GOP needs to cut itself off from Trump, an amoral narcissist who disgraced himself, the presidency and his party. I am confident history will vindicate the stance for truth and honor taken by Cassidy and the six other GOP senators.

I didn’t realize the letter was going to run at all, much less today. Until I woke up this morning and received the following e-mail from a friend of 40 years:

I’d like to just let this pass, but I can’t. Support for Trump and his policies is the last straw. I can’t see a way for us to stay friends. You have broken my heart.

Well, that letter makes me sad, but mostly it makes me angry and depressed about the country. Notice that my liberal friend ended our friendship — of four decades! — because in a letter to the editor supporting Trump’s impeachment, I did not express perfect hatred of the man, and everything he did.
I’m still stunned by the fanaticism here. I wrote a letter to the editor supporting the Republican US senator who voted to impeach Trump, and my old liberal friend’s response to that is to end our friendship. Sen. Cassidy told Walter Isaacson the other day that he has lost some friends over his vote, but he was talking about Republican friends. I, however, lost a liberal friend because I didn’t support Cassidy’s impeachment vote in exactly the right way.
What a lousy place this country is in. As I’ve said here many times, I cannot imagine throwing a friend overboard over politics, religion, or anything else. I can see being extremely disappointed in a friend’s behavior, and not wanting to be around them. But to sever the friendship? I would only do that if you insisted on talking about politics, religion, or whatever it is that separated us, in an abusive way. If you’re the kind of person who would not want to be my friend because of my political, religious, or other views, chances are we wouldn’t be good friends anyway. I was a young liberal when I first met this friend. I had not realized that her friendship was conditional on my politics being absolutely the same as hers.
I mean, look, I have friends all over the political and religious spectrum. I have friends who think I’m a crazy liberal, and I have friends who think I’m two tics away from Tomas de Torquemada. If you have a basically good heart, and you like to laugh and tell stories, I’ll find room for you at my table. I quit talking politics with my mom because she’s a diehard Trump fan who thinks I’m too liberal, and we can’t have an exchange that doesn’t end up with us mad at each other. So we don’t talk politics — what’s the big deal? Our relationship is more important to both of us than politics. But not everybody is like that.
I think what my now ex-friend did today was shameful. As I wrote here the other day, I think what Rep. Adam Kinzinger’s family did, casting him out because he voted to impeach Trump, was shameful. What the hell is wrong with people? In the case of the old friend who cut me off today, she believes herself to be a paragon of open-mindedness and tolerance. Many, many conservatives can tell you that some of the most intolerant people in the world are people like this.

I fear that my early responses to questions about the conspiracy-committed have been too passive—too inadequate for the magnitude of the challenge. I’ve advised patience. Give the political moment a chance to calm. Give COVID a chance to pass. Let people come back to church, to attend the way they used to attend—in close contact with people they love.

Recreate the human connections we’ve all missed, and then let’s see if the challenge remains so urgent. Then let’s see if so many millions of Christians continue to flirt with QAnon, believe Antifa attacked the Capitol on January 6, or believe that widespread election fraud cost Trump the 2020 election. These beliefs don’t just undermine our civil society, they often exact great costs in the wrathful hearts of their adherents.

But the more I see the conspiracies play out in real life, the more concerned I grow. When large numbers of people hold beliefs with religious intensity, those beliefs not only provide them with a sense of enduring purpose, they also help them form enduring bonds of friendship and fellowship. The conspiracy isn’t just a set of intellectual convictions, it’s also a source of community. It’s the world in which they live.

Let’s put it another way: The conspiracy becomes part of their elephant.

This is a reference to a metaphor the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses to explain how we reason. The conscious mind, he says, is like the rider of an elephant. The elephant is the 99 percent of things going on in one’s subconscious mind, that conditions how the rider thinks. Here’s what French means:

So how does a conspiracy theory become part of the elephant? When it’s connected to the fabric of your identity, to your community, to your friendships, and to your faith.

Let’s think this through for a moment. Let’s suppose that you forward to your Aunt Edna the absolutely perfect fact check—in 900 words, her commitment to “stop the steal” crumbles into ash. Where does that leave her in her friendships? Where does that leave her in her sense of political purpose? Does it leave her disconnected from her friends in her Bible study? Does it impact her relationship with her husband? What about the online community that’s embraced her and helped her through the loneliness of the pandemic?

All of those consequences are exactly why most of the conspiracy-committed are beyond the reach of even the most potent acts of persuasion. You’re asking the rider to fight the elephant.

So, how do we persuade? We reach the elephant. If your role in another person’s life is (as you see it) the “teller of hard truths,” then you’re at an immense disadvantage when contending for a family member’s heart with the people who share the same lie, but also love them, accept them, and give them a sense of shared purpose.

Interestingly, I just finished last night the anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann’s great new book, which is about how gods become real to people. I’m going to do an epic post on it later today. She says that being embedded in a community in which theological claims are taken as real and valid is a key part of the process. It makes believing in the god more plausible.

French has some good advice for how to respond to Christian friends and family members who are caught up in this cult-like thinking. He ends with:

The longer I look at our bitter and divided culture, the more convinced I am that there are no shortcuts to cultural repair. Politics are important, but it’s relationships that will repair or destroy our land. Do we care enough about our angry relatives that we’re willing to love them back to spiritual health? The answer to that question will be more important than any media reform and any political contest. We simply cannot write off millions of Americans as beyond the reach of truth and hope.

Read the whole thing. I think French’s response is a deeply Christian one, and I don’t know of any better approach, but deep down, I think we’re probably too far gone at this point. One reason that I steered conversations with that liberal friend away from politics is because despite her intelligence and advanced education, she has always been temperamentally incapable of dealing with contrary arguments. She gets mad really fast, and stops listening. That’s regrettable, but it’s certainly possible for mature people to maintain a friendship without talking about politics, or religion, or whatever else might divide the friends.

What we have seen happen, though, on both the Left and the Right, is people lose their ability to see their opponents as human beings. People have lost their own sense of humility, and no longer consider that they might be wrong about something. As my longtime readers know, one of the most intellectually formative events for me was losing faith in the Iraq War, which I had supported without any serious doubts at all. Remembering how confident I was in my backing for the war was a bitter self-reproach. It changed me forever. I have endeavored since then to keep front to mind how fallible my own judgment — and anybody’s judgment — can be. None of us are omniscient, which means that we have to make decisions in time, based on partial information. Even the best informed of us, and the most clear-headed, can make mistakes. You had better not be arrogant in your own judgments, and merciless to those who erred, because the day will come when you will make a big mistake, and will need the mercy of those who were right when you were wrong.

As I write in Live Not By Lies, Hannah Arendt said that two signs of a pre-totalitarian society were 1) preferring lies that served one’s ideological biases to the truth, and 2) valuing loyalty over competence. We can see ample evidence of both factors on the Right and the Left today. You can argue over which side is more in thrall to these vices, but I don’t see how anyone can plausibly argue that this isn’t a widely shared problem with our public discourse — and private discourse too.

David French’s strategy only works in families and among friends who value relationships more than ideology. When you have reached a point, though, in which friends and family cut you off because they believe you are ideologically impure, how do you repair that? When you have reached point where you feel that you cannot be around certain friends and family because they will not stop ranting about their political views, and demanding that everybody agree with them, how do you fix that problem?

In 2018, David Blakenhorn wrote a piece explaining why we are so polarized. He said the fourteenth and final reason is the most important:

The growing influence of certain ways of thinking about each other. These polarizing habits of mind and heart include:

  • Favoring binary (either/or) thinking.

  • Absolutizing one’s preferred values.

  • Viewing uncertainty as a mark of weakness or sin.

  • Indulging in motivated reasoning (always and only looking for evidence that supports your side).

  • Relying on deductive logic (believing that general premises justify specific conclusions).

  • Assuming that one’s opponents are motivated by bad faith.

  • Permitting the desire for approval from an in-group (“my side”) to guide one’s thinking.

  • Succumbing intellectually and spiritually to the desire to dominate others (what Saint Augustine called libido dominandi).

  • Declining for oppositional reasons to agree on basic facts and on the meaning of evidence.

He’s right. If you think this is something that only the Other Side does, you are deluding yourself. I keep recommending the excellent 1980s-era Granada TV documentary series on the Spanish Civil War. I have cued the first episode to the point where a retired Army officer who joined the Nationalist side reflects on the state of the nation just before war broke out. Sounds familiar:

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Amazon Cancels Ryan T. Anderson Book

Jeff Bezos will let you read Hitler, but not Ryan T. Anderson (PBS Frontline)

This is alarming news:

You can still buy the book directly from the publisher, and perhaps from other distributors.

I read the book in 2018, when it came out. It’s first-rate. Anderson is critical of gender ideology, but his book is well-argued and supported by scientific findings. If you don’t agree with him, fine, but give him a chance to make his argument. That’s what we do in a free society.

Amazon is a private business, and in a free society, that means it has the right to refuse to sell anything. Note well that it is selling a pro-trans book titled, Let Harry Become Sally. What’s more, Amazon is also currently selling Hitler’s Mein Kampf

That’s right: Jeff Bezos will sell you Hitler’s autobiography, because he correctly trusts readers to understand that malignant book. But he will not sell you a book by the head of a major American think tank, making an argument critical of gender ideology, because … why?

Last year, a coalition of US publishers, booksellers, and authors wrote to Congress to ask for anti-trust action to fight Amazon’s total dominance of the book industry. Their letter said, in part:

Amazon’s scale of operation and share of the market for book distribution has reached the point that no publisher can afford to be absent from its online store.

A year ago, The New York Times reported that Amazon controlled 50 percent of all book distribution, but for some industry suppliers, the actual figure may be much higher, with Amazon accounting for more than 70 or 80 percent of sales.  Whether it is the negative impact on booksellers of Amazon forcing publishers to predominantly use its platform, the hostile environment for booksellers on Amazon who see no choice but to sell there, or Amazon’s predatory pricing, the point is that Amazon’s concomitant market dominance allows it to engage in systematic below-cost pricing of books to squash competition in the book selling industry as a whole.

Remarkably, what this means is that even booksellers that avoid selling on Amazon cannot avoid suffering the consequences of Amazon’s market dominance.

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating the problem:  it continues to threaten the financial well-being of authors, publishers, and booksellers, some of whom will not survive the year.

Amazon, by contrast, with its ever-extensive operation and data network, has grown only more dominant, enjoying its largest-ever quarterly profits during April, May and June.

Amazon can’t claim it isn’t selling the book because there’s no demand for it. When it was first published, When Harry Became Sally made the bestseller lists. 

This is a nakedly political decision by Amazon, which is more afraid of Americans reading Ryan T. Anderson on gender ideology than they are of Americans reading Hitler on his Kampf.

Here’s what this decision means: given Amazon’s power, no publisher is going to publish future titles critical of gender ideology if they risk those titles being de-listed by Amazon. You can still buy Abigail Shrier’s bestselling Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters  on Amazon — but hurry, because it is probably just a matter of time before Bezos cancels it.

You may be a pro-trans person who is perfectly fine with Amazon doing this. You should think twice. A company with the power to prevent books on certain themes from being published, simply because of its might in the retail sphere, is not always going to make decisions of which you approve. It is time for Congress to take antitrust laws seriously in Amazon’s case.

The novelist and essayist Walter Kirn tweeted the other day that now is the time for people to start buying hard copies of books that might be “problematic” — that is, books that the progressive censors might want to disappear from the culture’s memory. He’s right. Make a list of books — classics, whatever — that might be endangered by the Woke, and start buying hard copies now, for yourself, for your kids, for the future. They will be precious before you know it.

UPDATE: There’s a lot of this going around today:

French responded:

This is a complicated question. I’m not used to siding with David French on these matters, but I can’t see where he’s wrong, unless you take an absolutist view of the First Amendment, which almost nobody does.

Does anyone believe that Twitter should be legally obliged to keep Donald Trump or any politician on its platform? Twitter was correctly dunked, and dunked often, for its double standards. Regarding January 6, Trump behaved abominably, in a way that has no historical precedent for a US president. Still, Twitter might have made the wrong decision there, but it’s easy for me to understand why they made the call that they did. They weren’t banning conservative politicians across the board; they deplatformed a single politician after an extraordinary event that he used their platform to help organize.

Parler is a harder call. I was not on it, but wish they had left it alone. Still, if its organizers could not prevent “an avalanche of violent rhetoric,” and this was in violation of their contract, do people really believe that a law should have prevented Amazon from cutting ties with Parler, despite the contract violation? If not, then French is making a judgment call here. He might be wrong about that, but there’s no hypocrisy regarding his stance against Amazon on the Ryan T. Anderson matter.

As French points out, both the Trump and Parler cases involved extraordinary instances of violent rhetoric, which, in the January 6 case, turned into actual violence. I moderate this blog to keep out violent, abusive rhetoric; if you saw what I didn’t allow on this site, you’d be a lot more depressed by the human condition. I’m not violating anybody’s First Amendment rights. I simply want to enforce certain standards here. There are some readers who think that I’m too permissive, and others who think I’m too restrictive. If I were ever told that I couldn’t moderate the comments, then I would ask not to have a comments section, because exercising editorial judgment is central to my work here.

In Amazon’s case, it is perfectly understandable that they would exercise the right to use editorial judgment in what they sell. Unless you believe that (for example) a Christian bookstore should be obliged morally and legally to sell The Satanic Bible, you also believe that a retailer should have the right to set its own policies. French is complaining here that Amazon has made an error in judgment by delisting Ryan Anderson’s book. He’s not saying that Amazon has broken the law. Where is the hypocrisy?

I have framed the answer to the Amazon problem as one of enforcing antitrust law. The problem with what Amazon has done is not so much that it hurts Ryan Anderson’s sales (though that’s a problem; people deserve to hear his argument!), but that it will have a chilling effect on all future books that take a critical line on progressive gender ideology. As I explain above, if a publisher has reason to believe that Amazon will not sell a title that does not go along with the progressive line, that publisher can’t afford to take a chance on the book. This is because of the tremendous power Amazon’s marketplace share exercises over book retailing.

This is a very big deal! No company should have that kind of power over something as crucial to the functioning of a liberal democracy as publishing. You might cheer for Amazon doing that today, because it makes it more likely that your political opponents will be silenced. But what happens if tomorrow Amazon decides to de-list a prominent title by someone whose views you like? As I said above, if Jeff Bezos became a fundamentalist Christian tomorrow, and started refusing to sell titles that conflicted with his deepest convictions, you would see publishers in this country start to follow Bezos’s line, because they have to be able to sell on Amazon to stay alive. Is that really good for America? Is that the kind of country you want to live in: one in which decisions on what gets published and what doesn’t are made not based on what the audience will buy, but based on what a single company will sell?

Amazon sells Hitler’s Mein Kampf. If I ran Amazon, I wouldn’t sell that, but I understand why they do: because it is of historic significance, and they trust their readers to read it critically. If they will extend that trust to readers on the matter of an Ur-text of fascism, why won’t they do so with a well-reasoned book critical of transgender ideology? It is easy to understand why someone like David French would agree with Amazon and Twitter exercising editorial judgment to deplatform Trump and withdraw support for Parler, but criticize Amazon for this.

More broadly, though, this controversy reminds me of why I am so divided on the French-Ahmari dispute. Both guys are my friends, and I like and respect them both. I agree with Sohrab on the nature of liberalism, but I keep getting stumped on the French rejoinder: “If not liberalism, then what?” Leaving aside moral and intellectual arguments, and focusing just on practical politics, I cannot see any way for social and religious conservatives to protect ourselves in a country that is increasingly neither without standing behind liberal principles. The First Amendment is a liberal institution (if “institution” is the right word). It strictly limits the involvement of the state in suppressing speech, forbidding assembly, and interfering in religion. But one aspect of that limit is that the state can’t compel a retailer to sell books that he doesn’t want to sell, or newspapers from publishing stories that they don’t want to publish. Would you have it any other way? If so, say hello to Lifeway Christian Books selling The Satanic Bible by government decree.

Put another way, I cannot imagine a direct “solution” to the problem of Amazon delisting Ryan’s book that would be constitutional — if it would direct Amazon to keep selling the book. Besides, I don’t want the state telling booksellers what they have to put on their shelves. Again, though, the problem is with Amazon’s power in the book industry. That is something that the government can and should do something about.

But let’s say antitrust action breaks up Amazon’s book business. What happens if all the Little Amazons (cf. the Baby Bells) decide independently not to sell Ryan T. Anderson’s book? This is not hard to conceive happening, given that the Left dominates the publishing industry, and given how puritanical and illiberal the younger publishing workers and executives are. In that case, conservatives would have a problem that would be difficult to solve in a liberal polity. But we aren’t there yet.

Anyway, I am the kind of person who sees all the problems with liberalism, and think it is doomed … but can’t think of any plausible successor to liberalism that would be anything but worse for people like me.

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Jodi Shaw Lives Not By Lies, Pays Price

Jodi Shaw

Jodi Shaw, the brave Smith College whistleblower I interviewed last year when she began speaking out about the racially hostile, anti-white atmosphere at the elite liberal arts school, has resigned her position there. Bari Weiss has the scoop. Here’s the letter Jodi sent to the school’s president:

Dear President McCartney:

I am writing to notify you that effective today, I am resigning from my position as Student Support Coordinator in the Department of Residence Life at Smith College. This has not been an easy decision, as I now face a deeply uncertain future. As a divorced mother of two, the economic uncertainty brought about by this resignation will impact my children as well. But I have no choice. The racially hostile environment that the college has subjected me to for the past two and a half years has left me physically and mentally debilitated. I can no longer work in this environment, nor can I remain silent about a matter so central to basic human dignity and freedom.

I graduated from Smith College in 1993. Those four years were among the best in my life. Naturally, I was over the moon when, years later, I had the opportunity to join Smith as a staff member. I loved my job and I loved being back at Smith.

But the climate — and my place at the college — changed dramatically when, in July 2018, the culture war arrived at our campus when a student accused a white staff member of calling campus security on her because of racial bias. The student, who is black, shared her account of this incident widely on social media, drawing a lot of attention to the college.

Before even investigating the facts of the incident, the college immediately issued a public apology to the student, placed the employee on leave, and announced its intention to create new initiatives, committees, workshops, trainings, and policies aimed at combating “systemic racism” on campus.

In spite of an independent investigation into the incident that found no evidence of racial bias, the college ramped up its initiatives aimed at dismantling the supposed racism that pervades the campus. This only served to support the now prevailing narrative that the incident had been racially motivated and that Smith staff are racist.

Allowing this narrative to dominate has had a profound impact on the Smith community and on me personally. For example, in August 2018, just days before I was to present a library orientation program into which I had poured a tremendous amount of time and effort, and which had previously been approved by my supervisors, I was told that I could not proceed with the planned program. Because it was going to be done in rap form and “because you are white,” as my supervisor told me, that could be viewed as “cultural appropriation.” My supervisor made clear he did not object to a rap in general, nor to the idea of using music to convey orientation information to students. The problem was my skin color.

I was up for a full-time position in the library at that time, and I was essentially informed that my candidacy for that position was dependent upon my ability, in a matter of days, to reinvent a program to which I had devoted months of time.

Humiliated, and knowing my candidacy for the full-time position was now dead in the water, I moved into my current, lower-paying position as Student Support Coordinator in the Department of Residence Life.

As it turned out, my experience in the library was just the beginning. In my new position, I was told on multiple occasions that discussing my personal thoughts and feelings about my skin color is a requirement of my job. I endured racially hostile comments, and was expected to participate in racially prejudicial behavior as a continued condition of my employment. I endured meetings in which another staff member violently banged his fist on the table, chanting “Rich, white women! Rich, white women!” in reference to Smith alumnae. I listened to my supervisor openly name preferred racial quotas for job openings in our department. I was given supplemental literature in which the world’s population was reduced to two categories — “dominant group members” and “subordinated group members” — based solely on characteristics like race.

Every day, I watch my colleagues manage student conflict through the lens of race, projecting rigid assumptions and stereotypes on students, thereby reducing them to the color of their skin. I am asked to do the same, as well as to support a curriculum for students that teaches them to project those same stereotypes and assumptions onto themselves and others. I believe such a curriculum is dehumanizing, prevents authentic connection, and undermines the moral agency of young people who are just beginning to find their way in the world.

Although I have spoken to many staff and faculty at the college who are deeply troubled by all of this, they are too terrified to speak out about it. This illustrates the deeply hostile and fearful culture that pervades Smith College.

The last straw came in January 2020, when I attended a mandatory Residence Life staff retreat focused on racial issues. The hired facilitators asked each member of the department to respond to various personal questions about race and racial identity. When it was my turn to respond, I said “I don’t feel comfortable talking about that.” I was the only person in the room to abstain.

Later, the facilitators told everyone present that a white person’s discomfort at discussing their race is a symptom of “white fragility.” They said that the white person may seem like they are in distress, but that it is actually a “power play.” In other words, because I am white, my genuine discomfort was framed as an act of aggression. I was shamed and humiliated in front of all of my colleagues.

I filed an internal complaint about the hostile environment, but throughout that process, over the course of almost six months, I felt like my complaint was taken less seriously because of my race. I was told that the civil rights law protections were not created to help people like me. And after I filed my complaint, I started to experience retaliatory behavior, like having important aspects of my job taken away without explanation.

Under the guise of racial progress, Smith College has created a racially hostile environment in which individual acts of discrimination and hostility flourish. In this environment, people’s worth as human beings, and the degree to which they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, is determined by the color of their skin. It is an environment in which dissenting from the new critical race orthodoxy — or even failing to swear fealty to it like some kind of McCarthy-era loyalty oath — is grounds for public humiliation and professional retaliation.

I can no longer continue to work in an environment where I am constantly subjected to additional scrutiny because of my skin color. I can no longer work in an environment where I am told, publicly, that my personal feelings of discomfort under such scrutiny are not legitimate but instead are a manifestation of white supremacy. Perhaps most importantly, I can no longer work in an environment where I am expected to apply similar race-based stereotypes and assumptions to others, and where I am told — when I complain about having to engage in what I believe to be discriminatory practices — that there are “legitimate reasons for asking employees to consider race” in order to achieve the college’s “social justice objectives.”

What passes for “progressive” today at Smith and at so many other institutions is regressive. It taps into humanity’s worst instincts to break down into warring factions, and I fear this is rapidly leading us to a very twisted place. It terrifies me that others don’t seem to see that racial segregation and demonization are wrong and dangerous no matter what its victims look like. Being told that any disagreement or feelings of discomfort somehow upholds “white supremacy” is not just morally wrong. It is psychologically abusive.

Equally troubling are the many others who understand and know full well how damaging this is, but do not speak out due to fear of professional retaliation, social censure, and loss of their livelihood and reputation. I fear that by the time people see it, or those who see it manage to screw up the moral courage to speak out, it will be too late.

I wanted to change things at Smith. I hoped that by bringing an internal complaint, I could somehow get the administration to see that their capitulation to critical race orthodoxy was causing real, measurable harm. When that failed, I hoped that drawing public attention to these problems at Smith would finally awaken the administration to this reality. I have come to conclude, however, that the college is so deeply committed to this toxic ideology that the only way for me to escape the racially hostile climate is to resign. It is completely unacceptable that we are now living in a culture in which one must choose between remaining in a racially hostile, psychologically abusive environment or giving up their income.

As a proud Smith alum, I know what a critical role this institution has played in shaping my life and the lives of so many women for one hundred and fifty years. I want to see this institution be the force for good I know it can be. I will not give up fighting against the dangerous pall of orthodoxy that has descended over Smith and so many of our educational institutions.

This was an extremely difficult decision for me and comes at a deep personal cost. I make $45,000 a year; less than a year’s tuition for a Smith student. I was offered a settlement in exchange for my silence, but I turned it down. My need to tell the truth — and to be the kind of woman Smith taught me to be — makes it impossible for me to accept financial security at the expense of remaining silent about something I know is wrong. My children’s future, and indeed, our collective future as a free nation, depends on people having the courage to stand up to this dangerous and divisive ideology, no matter the cost.


Jodi Shaw

Read it all for Bari’s commentary. 

Jodi Shaw says she is taking Smith to court over all this. I hope Shaw hits Smith’s administration so hard with a lawsuit upside the head it makes their teeth rattle. In the meantime, she has to pay the rent and feed herself and her two kids. Unlike Jodi, Smith has very, very deep pockets. If you can help Jodi now, here’s a link to her Go Fund Me. 

Please do! Shaw is extraordinarily brave, and she is fighting for many, many more people than herself. She refused a settlement offer from Smith to shut up and go away quietly.

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Cancelling Lee Chatfield

Lee Chatfield, former Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, and religious liberty advocate (To The Point)

This is an important Live Not By Lies story, because it tells you where things are headed in this society: religious liberty is being seen by elites as nothing more than a cover for bigotry. Excerpt:

The Kalamazoo Community Foundation is the latest organization to end its membership investment with Southwest Michigan First, citing a misalignment of values and vision.

Southwest Michigan First has taken heavy criticism after the regional economic development nonprofit hired former Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield as its CEO last week.

Chatfield, who served as a Republican in the House for 6 years, has taken fire for his policy stances while in the legislature, including in 2019 when he said he would not allow civil rights legislation to come before the House because it would restrict religious freedom.

“We are proud to support the LGBTQ civil rights advocacy agenda,” the Kalamazoo Community Foundation said in a Thursday, Feb. 18 statement. “Our vision of Kalamazoo County as the most equitable place to live can only be realized by centering equity in all our community strategies including economic development.

“Southwest Michigan First’s values and vision for economic development do not align with the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. We have ended our membership investment with Southwest Michigan First effective immediately,” the statement continued.

Chatfield’s job at Southwest Michigan First is nonpartisan. The Kalamazoo Community Foundation is punishing Southwest Michigan First for stances its new CEO took in the legislature. Like this:

Chatfield said previously, during a 2019 media interview, that he would not support a change to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act expanding anti-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity. The former lawmaker noted at the time he does not believe anyone should be discriminated against, but said he believed the proposed change would have infringed on religious beliefs.

Chatfield is right about that. What the Kalamazoo Community Foundation is saying is that religious liberty does not matter when it comes up against civil rights claims for sexual orientation and gender identity. The president of Western Michigan University has also denounced Chatfield’s hiring. 

The Kalamazoo City Commission has withdrawn its contribution to Southwest Michigan First, in protest of Chatfield’s hiring.

Lee Chatfield is the son of a conservative Bible church preacher. Again, he is absolutely correct to say that adding SOGI to civil rights law is going to adversely impact religious liberty. But his views on SOGI and religious liberty have nothing to do with the job he has taken now. This is 100 percent about punishing a Christian for his Biblically orthodox views on LGBT. What these intolerant elites in the region are doing is canceling him, making it impossible for him to work in the public sector because of the kind of Christian he is. They are saying that Lee Chatfield’s accomplishments in the legislature don’t matter. He will never be good enough to lead an economic development organization because of the value he places on religious liberty.

This is not happening in coastal blue America. It’s happening in Michigan. The message it sends is that people are going to have to decide whether their religious convictions matter more to them than worldly success. Again, Chatfield’s new job has nothing to do with LGBT rights. They are punishing him for his religious beliefs. Someone who holds Chatfield’s religious beliefs, and concern for religious liberty, is now not welcome in elite leadership positions.

Pastors, if you are not preparing your people for these realities in this world, you are doing them a disservice. Parents, if you are not preparing your children for the fact that they will be entering a world of employment in which their faith convictions will likely cause them to be discriminated against, and their career advancement checked because they cannot in good conscience sign off on certain principles, then you are failing them. Seriously, it’s coming. When a politician as accomplished as Lee Chatfield — who was Speaker of the Michigan House! — is deemed radioactive by the woke civic leadership class because of his Christian faith convictions, it is a sign of the times. For the people who run Kalamazoo, an elected representative who prizes religious liberty is nothing more than a bigot.

In Kalamazoo, anti-religious bigotry is a job requirement for elite leadership roles.

UPDATE: Well, well, well, now we know something about Lee Chatfield’s character:

Former Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, a Republican who’s the new leader of a southwest Michigan economic development organization, says he will support expanding the state’s civil rights act to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The man he replaced in that role made over $720,000 per year.

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Wanda And The Minimum Wage

Peter Dazeley/GettyImages

Ezra Klein writes about the Romney plan and GOP proposals to help working families:

Wanda Lavender lives in Milwaukee. She’s 39, with six children and one grandchild. She used to be a day care teacher and proud of the work. But after a decade, she was still making $9 an hour. She was a single mother by then, and the money wasn’t enough. So she began working at Popeyes, too. She did both jobs for a time, putting in more than 60 hours a week.

“It took a toll on my health,” she told me. “I have rheumatoid arthritis and sciatica. It degrades your body. It messes with your mental status. You never get to see your kids. You’re always working.”

Here’s the question: Were those years in which Lavender worked night and day barely seeing her children, feeling her body break under the labor, a success of American public policy or a failure?

Now, before I say anything about that, let me send you to Leah Libresco Sargeant’s NYT piece in support of the Romney plan and critical of the Lee-Rubio approach. Excerpt:

In contrast, the position of Mr. Lee and Mr. Rubio isn’t pro-family; it’s pro-employer. Their goal seems to be to fit parents to the needs of increasingly totalizing work, rather than expect jobs to accommodate the needs of families. It’s the same attitude lurking behind the proposal from Kamala Harris when she was a senator, to cover the gap between the ends of school days and workdays. She proposed extending the school day by three hours, rather than shortening the workday. When children and work come into conflict, work usually wins.

It’s almost as if some critics of the Romney plan are asking: How can we work around the demands children place on their parents? This is a shallow liberty that treats parents as equal only if they are equivalent to childless job candidates.

But parents are usually worse employees from their employer’s point of view. What employer prefers someone who could be chronically sleep deprived for months? All else being equal, who would pick the person whose children spend the winter working their way through every stomach bug at school? Pregnancy is a protected category in employment law, just as disability is, because an employer that views its employees simply as raw material will treat anyone facing physical challenges as dispensable.

For employers who see employees as short-term line items, the ideal worker is an unencumbered individual. No kids, no parents old enough to need care, no strong commitment to anyone outside themselves and their work.

I wish to associate myself with this position.

But the thing that struck me in reading the lede to Ezra Klein’s piece was: how do you get to be 39 years old, with six children and one grandchild, and no husband in the house? From The American Prospect magazine:

Lavender works two jobs, 60 to 70 hours per week, and neither job provides health care. One of her jobs is teaching at a day care—she’s worked there for 12 years and has always received $9 per hour. Her other job is at Popeye’s, where she fares no better. “I should be able to make $15 an hour and take care of my children,” she says. “I should be able to keep my gas and electricity paid and pay for child care if I need it. … You get in one of these [low-wage] jobs, and you’re stuck.”

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Lavender keeps going back because she considers her co-workers family but also because she needs the money. She’s the main provider for her children — ages 8, 9, 11, 13, 16 and 19. Her 19-year-old daughter has a son. They all live with Lavender.

“I am the sole breadwinner for my family,” she said, though her daughter recently took a job also at Popeyes.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I’m working long hours and have to come home and homeschool my kids.”

OK, wait a minute. Wanda is clearly working very hard to support the family, but: why did Wanda have six children if she can’t support them? Nobody can raise six kids on low-wage work, with only one income. Is there a government policy shift that can make a radical difference in the lives of people like Wanda, and her children? If we are asking about the failure of public policy in Wanda’s life, shouldn’t we also ask about Wanda’s failures to the same public that she depends on to support her and her large family?

I don’t say this in a “punish the welfare queen” way. Most people who would be affected by a minimum wage increase aren’t raising six children as a single parent. And I don’t know the particular circumstances of Wanda’s life. Her six children and grandchild are growing up in a home without a father, and all of them are in part dependent on Wanda’s fast food worker salary. How can this not be important to the question of what to do about persistent poverty? The black scholar Glenn Loury, in 2018, gave an interview about this topic to the Institute of Family Studies at the University of Virginia. Excerpts:

IFS: To what do you attribute the persistent patterns of social inequality between African Americans and whites that we see today in the United States?

Glenn Loury: My lecture [at UVA] developed off of the contrast between what I call the bias narrative and the development narrative. The bias narrative calls attention to racial discrimination and exclusionary practices of American institutions—black Americans not being treated fairly. So, if the gap is in incarceration, the bias narrative calls attention to the behavior of police and the discriminatory ways in which laws are enforced and attributes the over-representation of blacks in the prisons to the unfair practices of the police and the way in which laws are formulated and enforced.

Agency is a fundamental issue when talking about how African Americans deal with our continued subordinate status in American society.

The development narrative, on the other hand, calls attention to the patterns of behavior and the acquisition of skills and discipline that are characteristic of the African American population. So, in the case of incarceration, the development narrative asks about the behavior of people who find themselves in trouble with the law and calls attention to the background conditions that either do or do not foster restraint on those lawbreaking behaviors. Now, the position that I take is that whereas at the middle of the twentieth century, 50 to 75 years ago, there could be no doubt that the main culprit in accounting for the disadvantage of African Americans was bias of many different kinds (bias in the economy, social relations, and in the political sphere), that is a less credible general account of African American disadvantage in the year 2018. And the development narrative—the one that puts some responsibility on we African Americans ourselves, and the one that wants to look to the processes that people undergo as they mature and become adults and ask whether or not those processes foster people achieving their full potential—that, I think, is a much more significant dimension of the problem today relative to bias than was the case 50 years ago.

I think it’s a combination of things. Opportunities have opened up, but bias hasn’t completely gone away. On the other hand, I think it’s very hard to maintain that bias hasn’t diminished significantly. And when I look at things like the gap in the academic performance of American students by race, or the extent to which the imposition of punishment for lawbreaking falls disproportionately by race, or when I look at the conditions under which children are being raised (and to the extent that those conditions are less than ideal) and the patterns of behavior that lie behind that, that is between parents or prospective parents and the responsibilities that they take for the raising of their children. These are dimensions that I think are relatively more important today and are questions about the behavior of African American people.

IFS: The media response to the latest Raj Chetty study seems to be an example of what you’ve described as the “deficient, accusatory or even dishonest” discourse surrounding our cultural discussion of racial inequality. One pundit said of Chetty’s new findings that “family structure doesn’t explain the racial mobility gap.” Yet, as Brad Wilcox recently wrote here, one underreported finding is “a strong positive association between black father presence [in the neighborhood] and black males’ income.” How important are present and involved black fathers to upward mobility in black communities, particularly for boys?

Glenn Loury: I agree with Brad Wilcox that this important finding and the implications it has for why father absence matters in a negative way for child development has been underplayed by the press. I haven’t done a systematic survey of all the press reports, but from what I’ve seen, they call attention to bias. They say, because the black boys are more likely to have downward mobility, it shows that they’re not facing the same opportunities in society. But of course, father absence is more prevalent in African American households, and to the extent that people congregate in neighborhoods that are relatively racially homogeneous, you’re going to have many more black boys growing up in areas where there are few fathers than you are white boys. And this is something that should be taken more seriously than it has been.

But I don’t think the data available to these researchers are finely gauged enough to permit answering the question that you’ve asked me, which is about the importance of fathers. Although it is suggestive that fathers matter at the level of the neighborhood, if not at the level of the individual household.

If you’re asking Glenn Loury—and this is not a scientific conclusion, it’s just an observation after being a student of these matters for decades—how could it not be true that fathers matter? They’re not the only thing that matters by any means, and a bad father—an abusive, drunken, unsupportive person in the household who happens to be male and may have contributed the genetic material to the production of a child—is certainly no panacea for any kind of social problem. But a neighborhood in which two-thirds of the households are women raising their children alone is a different neighborhood, it would appear, than one in which one-fifth or one-eighth of the households [are headed by lone mothers], and in which the patterns of behavior associated with responsible men who are working and caring for their families are modeled before the young men as a normal practice. But I don’t want to speculate about this because it’s a serious matter.

Now, having identified that it matters is not the same thing as knowing what to do about it. These things are not going to be flipped around by just pulling on a string and everything is going to be made right. These patterns are deep. They’ve been a long time in the making.

When Sen. Patrick Moynihan wrote that report 50 years ago, he was alarmed that it was a 25% or 23% out-of-wedlock birthrate amongst African Americans…Moynihan was very alarmed. He thought the world was coming to an end for black people…Well, those rates of non-marital birth that you saw amongst blacks in the 1960’s are now characteristic of whites broadly in the society. Norms and social practices change. The bottom has not fallen out, although if you believe people like Charles Murray in his book, Coming Apart, or Robert Putnam or J.D. Vance, there’s a whole lot of white people who are not doing so well, and instability in their family lives seems to be associated with that. Again, I’d stress this is the kind of thing that deserves to be studied with precision. But that’s one of the developmental issues that I try to encourage people that think about racial inequality to take more seriously: how we are raising our children and how are they being socialized?

There’s no substitute for the guidance and loving hand of structure, and the teaching and the infusion of norms and establishment of a sense of worth that’s happening inside the households where children are being raised.

School discipline is another area where you get higher suspension rates. And in the bias narrative embraced by the Obama education department in its efforts to get school districts to lower the racial disparity in suspension rates, it basically attributes a high rate of black suspensions in school to school districts being racially biased and not knowing how to handle misbehaving black kids. So, they suspend them, but white kids doing the same thing don’t get suspended.

I don’t find that at all persuasive…What I think is more likely to be the case is that these African American kids, those who end up getting suspended (and not all of them, for sure) are exhibiting patterns of behavior—whether it’s getting into fights or it’s using profanity with the teacher or insubordination—that are a reflection of the failures of their families to socialize them in a manner that instills the behavioral restraints associated with being able to function within that kind of environment. That’s a developmental issue—if the issue is the mother is stressed out, there’s not enough money to go around, or there’s a lot of time the kids are being unsupervised in their behavior. And it’s something that one shouldn’t just speculate about. But if the kids are really not getting the developmental experiences that are crucial to them being able to be effective adults, then that’s a serious problem. And it may actually have something to do with the adult incarceration rate inequality that we end up seeing.

It’s important to emphasize Loury’s point about the white rate of out-of-wedlock childbearing now reaching and maybe exceeding the black rate when the Moynihan Report came out. This is not just a black problem. It’s a vexing problem, though, because no decent society wants to punish children for the failures of their parents, but at the same time, no wise society wants to subsidize the behavior that causes people to be poor and remain poor.

I have a friend, a white male, who works in the inner city, which is to say, in the poor black part of the city where he lives. He grew up in a working poor family. I haven’t spoken with him in a while, but in the past, when we have discussed his work, he speaks as if he is living in a different country when he goes to work. He interacts with the people of that neighborhood every day. He’s a big-hearted man who has struggled to understand them, even as he serves them in his job. The thing that stands out most to him about the people he serves is how the idea of family structure is non-existent, at least compared to the American norm. He says it’s total chaos. He doesn’t say this in a hard-hearted way — in fact, just the opposite. He keeps trying to tell me that what people like me see as normal is light years away from what is normal where he works.

When we’ve talked about this stuff in the past, I’ve asked him: How do things change for the better for those folks? He just shakes his head. He has no idea.

I asked the same question of an older white man in my own city, a man who until recently lived in the poor black part of town, in a house that had been in his family for decades. He talked about how hard the grandparents who lived on his block worked to keep their grandchildren from sinking (the parents’ generation were in jail or strung out on drugs). The white man said that when the grandparent generation dies, only God knows what will happen to the young.

How do things change for the better for those folks? I asked. He doesn’t really know either, but he said that the change is going to have to come from within the black community, because “whites have no authority there.”

Look, it has been amply demonstrated by social scientists that there is an indisputable connection between persistent intergenerational poverty and family structure, and family culture. Glenn Loury talks about that in his interview. This is not just about black family structure, but family structure, period. There is no policy fix that is going to make it feasible for a 39-year-old woman with no husband to raise six kids and a grandchild on a fast-food worker’s salary. That is not an argument against raising the minimum wage — most people who make minimum wage aren’t living in Wanda’s circumstances — but it is frustrating how the foolishness of the choice’s Wanda has made in her life doesn’t seem to cross Ezra Klein’s mind. From his column:

Now, with both President Biden and Senator Mitt Romney proposing ambitious plans for cash grants to parents, irrespective of the parent’s work status, some conservatives are warning that these plans would lead to sloth and single parenthood. It is here that you see how the veneration of work, at any and all costs, has come to dominate conservative policy thinking: Even higher rates of child poverty are a price worth paying for more working mothers. Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio quickly dismissed Romney’s plan as “welfare assistance,” warning that “an essential part of being pro-family is being pro-work.”

Like I said, I’m more in line with Romney’s plan than with the standard conservative plan. Wanda’s kids aren’t abstractions — they are human beings, and I don’t want them to suffer because of decisions their mother made. Nevertheless, Lee and Rubio aren’t necessarily Scrooges for making their point. In their complaints I hear the voice of my late father, who worked long hours at his job, then came home to work his cows, all to make enough money to keep our family afloat in the 1970s. My mom drove a school bus. I did not realize until I was well into adulthood how close to the margins my family lived. My mom and dad kept it from us kids. I went through a crusading liberal period in college in which I held up my dad’s complaints, when I was a kid, about people in line ahead of him at the grocery store buying fine cuts of meat with food stamps, whereas he could only afford ground chuck, and cheaper cuts. This is why he, a Democrat, voted for Reagan. I thought of him as mean-spirited back then. Years later, when I realized how little extra money we had had, and how hard my dad hustled just to pay the bills, I understood that his resentment against the food stamps people was more complicated than I had thought. But you could not have convinced me of that when I was a college liberal. I considered anybody who thought like my dad did as racist.

Now, it is true that there have been massive structural changes in the US economy since the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a lot harder to support your family now. Ideas that made sense in the 1980s need updating today. That said, there will never be a time in which people without the means to support a large family can have such a family without living under serious economic duress. From Klein’s column:

These days, Lavender told me, she works full time at Popeyes. They promised her a promotion if she left her day care job, so now she makes $12 an hour, working 40 to 60 hours a week. I asked her how something like the Romney plan might change her life. “That means the opportunity to return to school, to open my own business. It could mean buying a house so I don’t need to catch the bus to work.”

I’d met Lavender because she’s organizing for a $15 minimum wage, and she said the experience had been transformative. She was considering running for alderwoman in Milwaukee so she could keep fighting for workers like herself. I wondered, as she said that, where she’d find the time. But that, too, is the kind of choice a child allowance could enable — it would give her breathing room to run for office so that in the future policy would be made by people like her, who trusted people like her.

We want Wanda to get elected to public office so she can pass laws that raise wages so that women can have six children with no husband in the house, and afford to buy a house? Where is that money going to come from? From the pockets of people who are more self-disciplined, that’s who. From people who don’t have six kids, even if they would like to have them, because they can’t afford them.

There’s no question that we need to have some serious structural adjustments to America’s economy to make it possible for more people to live stable lives. This is going to have to include redistributing some of the wealth away from the tip-top earners, within whose class it has become concentrated. Standard Reagan-era Republican shibboleths won’t do anymore. On the other hand, people who are busting their butts to work to support their families, and making hard choices to defer gratification for the greater good of the family, are going to wonder why they should subsidize the Wandas of the world, whether they are black, white, Latino, or whatever.

It is hard to build a meaningful sense of solidarity with the working poor if all the solidarity comes from one side. I have a friend who lives in the Baton Rouge area, a white friend, whose extended white family is one hot redneck mess. Lots of kids out of wedlock, divorces, drug and alcohol abuse, welfare fraud, you name it. My friend is just about the only one who works in that family. Everything “happens” to them — they have no sense of moral agency. They think that they are taken advantage of by the world, and the reason other people have stable and productive lives is because those other people are somehow cheating, or are otherwise favored by fortune. My friend excepted, this is a family of layabouts. They believe other people — “society” — ought to be supporting them, but that they have no particular obligation to society to live a certain way. These are white people, but I feel no solidarity with them as a white person. They are pothead mooches who are chiefly responsible for their own miserable situation. The idea that what holds them down can be solved by policymaking in Washington is risible. It royally ticks me off how they exploit my friend’s willingness to work hard, and to keep giving them all money, because my friend doesn’t want to see them suffer.

These people aren’t abstractions either. They are shiftless. They are undeserving. The children born into that clan don’t deserve to suffer either, but it’s hard to know what the morally correct thing to do here is. (And if any of those kids want to make a decent life for themselves, they are going to have to move far away from the clan.) I’m not saying Wanda is like them — Wanda clearly works very hard. But you see the point: poverty in America is not simply a matter of wages.

How do we fix that? Has anybody figured that out yet? Why doesn’t the moral choices Wanda has made concern Ezra Klein? It’s not about “why isn’t Klein shaming Wanda?”, but rather about whether or not the people who are going to be asked to help the world’s Wandas out by paying more for consumer goods to pay her a $15 minimum wage have a right to expect anything from them. We are supposed to pity Wanda for working so hard as the sole supporter of six kids, but can we not ask Wanda why she had six kids with no father in the home? Poverty is about wages, but it is also about culture.

We know that the Great Society doesn’t work. But what does?

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