That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun

by Henry Farrell on December 10, 2018

Tyler Cowen suggests that Tom Lehrer would have been a member of the Intellectual Dark Web.

Lehrer represented the IDW of his day.  He said (sang) things others couldn’t, and his main enemy or target was political correctness.  It surprised me to hear how little many of the battle lines have changed.  Yet Lehrer, while warring against hypocritical political discourse, was in his day on the Left.  (Shades of Eric Weinstein!)  He worried about the “decline of the liberal consensus,” following the Kennedy era.  In 1982 he wrote that he considered feminism, abortion, and affirmative action “more complicated” than the older liberal causes, so perhaps he simply did not blend into the contemporary Left (the piece is interesting more generally).

This is provocative – but it seems basically wrong to me. The more trivial reason why is that Lehrer seems to have stayed on the American left.

“I’m not tempted to write a song about George W. Bush. I couldn’t figure out what sort of song I would write. That’s the problem: I don’t want to satirize George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporise them.” In a phone call to Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post in February 2008, Lehrer instructed Weingarten to “Just tell the people that I am voting for Obama”

The more useful answer is that whatever you think about their respective political positions, their orientations to politics are fundamentally different. Lehrer was an iconoclast. The IDW people, in contrast, are iconolaters. IDWers don’t just want to push back against what they believe to be an emerging orthodoxy. They want to defend a pre-existing orthodoxy of their own (which roughly coheres around a common mythology regarding the ‘Enlightenment’ was and what it still has to offer) against it, and they take their own dogma seriously.  This is why the style of IDW tends more towards thin-skinned self-seriousness, and heavy hectoring. You need a sense of the absurd to be funny.

Perhaps a modern Tom Lehrer would indeed skewer the pieties of the left. Any broad social movement tends towards dogma. All dogmas produce some absurdities, and for that matter, tragedies. But the left is hardly the only source of such pieties, or, perhaps, the most important one. The piece that Tyler links to also has this section:

On the other hand, there are certain dead horses that still merit kicking, such as the late Wernher von Braun, the subject of one of the songs in the show. I say that not out of animosity toward him especially, but because of what he represents. I have been amused over the years at the number of scientists who have enjoyed the song without ever realizing that it was about them.

It’s hard not to be reminded of the ‘we’re only interested in the neutral scientific inquiry’ line that many IDWers take on race and IQ, and the Left’s Hostility and Open Debate.*

Lehrer was entertainingly impatient with the people whose politics he agreed with, but his true venom was reserved for an altogether more important set of shibboleths. Not political correctness, but the Cold War fusion of unthinking patriotism and technocratic politics. There are analogies to that fusion today, but I don’t think they’re on the left.

Update: as happens pretty well every time that I write a post responding to Tyler, whether agreeing or disagreeing, there’s a raft of comments with personal invective aimed towards him, and/or complaining that I shouldn’t be engaging him. And as before, I’m deleting all such comments – opinions about my engagement have already been amply expressed, and there are plenty of other places on the Internet you can express your derogatory opinions about him (or, for that matter, me).

* When I once had the misfortune to be criticized online by Jordan Peterson, I spent several days dealing with multitudes of politely insistent followers demanding that I engage them in lengthy debate on race and IQ, to the point that I eventually had to write this post to fend them off). NB that I am quite sure that Tyler is no more enthusiastic about race-IQ nutters than I am.

Britain convicts human rights defenders of terrorism offence

by Chris Bertram on December 10, 2018

In the UK every day is Brexit day, but today more than most because our hapless Prime Minister’s attempts to persuade Parliament to back her “deal” have run into the sand. The wall-to-wall coverage means that there’s every danger that the state’s victimization of human rights defenders will not get the coverage it should. [The Stansted 15 are a group who took direct action to prevent a flight deporting people from taking off from Stansted Airport last March]( Originally charged with “aggravated trespass”, the prosecutors sought and received permission to accuse them of an obscure terrorism offence involving intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome, a provision of the 1990 Aviation and Maritime Security Act. This was brought in after the Lockerbie bombing of 1988 and carries the possibility of life in prison. The judge in the case instructed the jury to ignore all arguments to the effect that the defendants had prevented a greater evil. It is clear however that they have indeed prevented a great evil, since several of those whose deportation they prevented have now had their cases reassessed and have been granted leave to remain in the UK. I blogged the other day about Candice Delmas’s book *A Duty to Resist*. At least two of her grounds of justified resistance are plainly at stake in this case: first by preventing the *refoulement* of people to jurisdictions where they face persecution, the Stansted 15 were acting in accordance with the natural duty of justice to uphold just institutions in a case where states try to subvert or ignore those institutions; second, the Samaritan duty, acting to prevent great harm and human rights violations to individuals, is in play. The most plausible defences of state authority base themselves on the fact that states make justice possible: in this case it is those who have acted against the state and now face prison who have acted in defence of justice.