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How can you look at me as if I was just another one of your deals?
In this edition: America's moral panic, the voices in our heads, and how the Germans see Britain.
The US has long been the world’s foremost cultural exporter, of course, but many assumed such influence was on the decline, along with its geopolitical power. Recent events suggest otherwise. One of the most striking things about the response to Floyd has been how people across different countries have adopted American slogans, rituals, and terminology. Even in France. I love America but I’m mildly uncomfortable with this wholesale import. Can’t we have our own debate on our own terms? As David Goodhart argues here, with plentiful evidence, the situations of American and British blacks are very different, and when I look at America’s dysfunctional civic culture, I do not think, “Yeah, we Europeans could really do with some of that”. However, it’s also true, as Gary Younge shows, that there’s a long history of transatlantic influence in racial politics. The one thing I absolutely do not want us to adopt is the moral panic that is seizing America’s press and cultural institutions. I’ve been sceptical of the idea that freedom of speech is genuinely is under threat from left-wing authoritarians but the last few weeks have forced me to revise that position. The American rush to judge, shut down and fire anyone who does not subscribe to one quite specific ideology has been a little scary. (This story in particular gave me pause not least because I cited Omar Wassow’s excellent research in my recent New Statesman column.) For some fine counter-blasts read Andrew Sullivan (the penultimate paragraph is a beautiful defence of liberalism as “not just a set of rules”), Matt Taibbi, and Ross Douthat. Read Wassow’s powerful thread on the difference between allying oneself with BLM and caring about black lives. Oh and I haven’t got round to it yet but people tell me Sam Harris’s discussion is great.
This 2019 podcast interview with the religious scholar Diana Walsh Pasulka, expertly conducted by Ezra Klein, is quite marvellous. It’s about UFOs. The New York Times has been taking reports of UFOs seriously, so Klein thought he would too. Pasulka, who is the antithesis of a dry, narrowly focused academic, has written a book about UFO belief as a kind of religion. The conversation bounces around like a pinball, from the origin of purgatory (it was a place in Ireland, apparently - there were caves), to what Pasulka calls the “UFO Fight Club” of scientists and officials who are pursuing UFO research in secret. It also becomes about the nature of knowledge itself - about how we decide what might be true, what’s worth considering and what to dismiss out of hand. Make sure you stay for the story of Pasulka’s encounter with Nietzsche. At one point there is a brief discussion of hearing voices: in the Middle Ages you would assume God, now you’d assume you had a psychiatric disorder. Coincidentally I just came across a breathtaking case study, published in the British Medical Journal, in 1997. A woman started hearing a voice telling her that she had a brain tumour and that she needed to go to hospital for a scan. Turned out the voice was right. Really, you need to read it: scroll down to p17.
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This is the first edition from the new platform. I hope it’s working for you. If you have any problems with it, drop me a note. Also - quite a lot of people joined the list in the last couple of weeks, including many people from the investment industry and quite a few medics. I’d love to know, just out of curiosity, where you came across The Ruffian, so if you’re one of the recent joiners, let me know. Now the crucial part: a new link for you all to share. Please tell everyone you know to sign up here: ianleslie.substack.com
In the last Ruffian I linked to Roland Fryer discussing his research on what happens to black lives following viral incidents (full paper here). I wish evidence like this was more widely discussed. One of the frustrating things about the media’s coverage of recent events is that it gives the impression there’s only one reasonable way to think about this problem and that black Americans speak with one voice. I’m a strong believer in viewpoint diversity, which is partly what my next book is about. You can’t unlock the full benefits of social diversity unless people are encouraged to speak up and disagree with each other. Of course, there is agreement among US blacks on the central questions of whether racism is a social ill, but there’s plenty of disagreement on its centrality, causes and solutions (and I would not assume that the views we hear most often best represent the views of black voters). My own perspective on the issue has been shaped by black thinkers who dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy. I want to introduce you to a few; you may disagree with them but your thinking will be improved by hearing them out (I’m not talking about blowhards like Candace Owen, but learned people who make serious arguments.) First, John McWhorter, here in conversation with his frequent dialogue partner, the economist Glenn Loury (McWhorter is a linguist with a wide-ranging intellect, I linked to his fantastic conversation with Tyler Cowen a while back). Second, Coleman Hughes, a young writer who makes a thoughtful and closely argued case against the BLM approach here, while acknowledging BLM’s achievements, - or watch Hughes summarise his case in person here. Third (and moving away from the immediate debate), Chloé Valdary, who in this 2018 piece argues eloquently against making rigid distinctions between racial identities. Fourth, Thomas Chatterton Williams, who like Valdary is not on board with the current fashion for fetishising “whiteness” and “blackness” (I would place Obama in this camp too, by the way). Valdary and TCW are active on Twitter and certainly worth following. Remember, I’m not trying convert you to anyone’s point of view, but hearing a variety of opinions benefits everyone.
Britain has gone from being 40% coal powered to under 2% in eight years. Astonishing progress.
Joe Biden is up nationally by 9 points, a very big lead, more than enough to sweep away any electoral college disadvantage, if he can hold on to it. Now to the veep stakes. The truth is that vice president picks don’t actually matter much, electorally, but they are a fun thing to obsess over, and I learnt a lot from this pretty comprehensive ranking of runners and riders. I hadn’t even heard of Val Demings before, she seems great. Susan Rice is also interesting and maybe should be higher up the ranking because - and I think this gets somewhat overlooked in analyses like this - Biden will be looking for someone he can work with, and delegate to, in office. Not to mention someone who can succeed him.
The entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreessen is always worth reading or listening to and this is a very good Q&A. I’m reminded, apropos the theme of voices in heads, of a useful distinction that I heard Andreessen make (in this podcast), between a vision and a hallucination. He uses it to talk about how it’s not enough to have a great idea - you need to convince the world that it’s great. The difference between a vision and hallucination is that a vision is something other people can see.
Fascinating Der Spiegel interview with the departing German ambassador to London, Peter Wittig, includes his view on how the Brexit negotiation will go, and a shrewd and diplomatic assessment of Johnson. (I used Google Translate, which works remarkably well).
This is a great thread on how the British police handled disorder during the BLM protests in central London - by running away. That sounds terrible but it was actually smart because it gave them a chance to regroup, while making the protesters assume the position of aggressor. It was also a way of cooperating with sensible protest leaders, who were quick to get their less disciplined allies back into line. Contrast with the approach of the American police, which is often about projecting dominance, and which leads to escalation. As I discovered researching my book, in order to de-escalate anything, from a riot to a marital argument, you have to give up being seen to be dominant. That takes strength.
Something I think is underrated is the tectonic plates of British politics have shifted in the last few months or even weeks. We now have, for the first time in well over a decade, an opposition leader who is rated as more competent and trustworthy than the PM. I suspect that gap is only going to widen. That is huge. (It’s not all down to the Cummings affair but that certainly made Johnson’s predicament much worse.) Seasoned Tory-watchers are now saying it’s inevitable that Johnson will go before the next election. If that perception grows, it changes the rebellion/loyalty calculus for Tory MPs and ministers, and makes it harder for the government to deliver its programme.
This will be of interest only to those who know the song and perhaps not even then but I was blown away to read that Jack and Diane, by John Cougar Mellencamp, features Mick Ronson, Bowie’s Ziggy-era sidekick, on guitar. In fact Ronson more or less co-created the song - he came up with that great clanging riff. Now - two years before J&D was a hit, Dire Straits released what I think is one of the most perfect songs ever, Romeo and Juliet. More recently, Mark Knopfler recorded this heartbreakingly beautiful version of it for Radio 2. “All I do is kiss you through the bars of a rhyme” - I mean, that is crazy good, a pun worthy of the dude himself. (Btw if you read about the background to the song you’ll see that there was pain behind those lyrics.) Bonus: Knopfler talking about his relationship with the guitar.