Ukraine's "cultural catastrophe," Glenn Greenwald on parental rights, and a surprising NYT article on Israel
TWS Notes on the News #3
Welcome to a new edition of Notes on the News. I wanted to start things off with a word about open access to newspapers, magazines, and journals.
As I said in a recent article on Aaron Swartz, I think people should have access to the knowledge they need to make informed decisions and develop themselves more broadly. Sources of knowledge such as news articles and academic papers shouldn’t just be for the rich.
Of course writers and researchers need to be supported. This is a larger structural question (the kind of question The Whole Social seeks to address), but until such systemic changes are made, I believe support should be voluntary, as it already is with a number of online news sources.
Over the past year and a half of writing, I’ve tried to link more and more to articles that aren’t behind a paywall, but it’s not always possible (as is the case with this writing, in which I refer to a recent New York Times article.) And so I want to share a couple ways to get around paywalls: for news articles, you can use 12ft.io (or if that doesn’t work, you can find more options here). And for scientific articles you can use sci-hub.
But if you are reading people’s work and have the means to support them, please do! And you don’t have to look far to do so, you can always start with the article you’re reading right now :)
[One other quick note: I’ve had a couple nice online conversations that were recorded in the last few weeks. You can find those on The Whole Social’s new Video tab.]
Destroying the soul of society, in Ukraine and beyond
When a New Yorker wants to experience the beauty of their city, they might take a trip to Central Park, or walk the Brooklyn Bridge, or ride the Staten Island Ferry and catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. It seems like everywhere you go is some interesting and iconic place — the Cloisters, Broadway, the Guggenheim, Times Square, the list goes on and on. Now imagine if all those places were destroyed… What would be lost? What would New York be like without such places? What would be its character? And what would it mean to be a New Yorker if the city was just a monotony of streets and shops with no refreshing parks or soaring architecture?
This past October, the UN’s culture agency, Unesco, warned that the Ukrainian equivalent of such places — the monuments, museums, and monasteries that make up the cultural heritage of the country — are being destroyed by the Russian military at an alarming rate. Since the war began at least 207 sites have been damaged — “88 religious sites, 15 museums, 76 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, 18 monuments, and 10 libraries.”
Attacking such sites is nothing new. If one wants to conquer and subsume a people, then one needs to destroy their culture — one needs to erase their identity and replace it with one’s own. As Unesco’s cultural and emergencies director Krista Pikkat put it:
“Cultural heritage is very often collateral damage during wars, but sometimes it’s specifically targeted as it’s the essence of the identity of countries.”
Last spring, the international arts organization Getty said something similar when they warned of a “cultural catastrophe” in Ukraine, saying that cultural heritage is “too often the target of war, another way to destroy and overtake a society by erasing its memory.”
These are strong statements and we should take a moment to reflect on what they actually mean. Culture is the “memory” of a people, it’s the “essence” of its identity. Are these just flowery figures of speech? No. We can feel that they point to a basic truth — that culture is indeed the inner life, the soul of a people.
Of course culture isn’t just expressed in a society’s art and architecture, but in all its creative fruits — its food, clothing, language, customs, philosophy, and worldview. These things create a realm of shared meaning within a community. They say “this is what we care about, this is how we express what lives inside of us.”
But if we can see that culture is core to who we are, why don’t we more actively cultivate it? Why don’t we focus on the creation of new, living culture? Think how different Japanese culture is (with its food, language, and architecture) from Italian culture. What creative forces moved through such societies? And what moves us today?
Identity and meaning isn’t just an artifact of the past, it must be constantly created anew. But what happens when, as a community, we don’t attend to our soul’s development? What happens when we don’t empower people to create out of themselves, but treat them as cogs in a machine? What happens when there’s one hulking Hollywood monoculture dictating how we see artistic success, and one scientific “consensus”dictating what’s information and disinformation?
Not only that: one of the main ways to erase a people’s identity — to commit cultural genocide — is to do what Americans and Canadians did to their indigenous populations: forcefully send their kids away to boarding schools in order to assimilate the dominant group’s culture and forget their own. China still does this today in boarding schools for Tibetan children and “re-education” camps for Uyghurs. As horrifying as this is, it’s not actually fundamentally different from the impulse to homogenize and “standardize” education today. The difference is in degree, not in kind. The idea is the same: to create a monoculture, to impose uniformity on others because we want them to be like us (whether that “us” is conservative or liberal).
And so we can see that there is a cultural catastrophe taking place, not only in Ukraine but globally. There are other, more subtle ways to destroy the soul of a people then through bombs.
Glenn Greenwald on parental rights
On his nightly show System Update, Glenn Greenwald recently took aim at new legislation proposed by Missouri senator Josh Hawley that would make it illegal for children under 16 to access social media. Greenwald takes issue with the fact that Hawley, who is an outspoken supporter of parental rights when it comes to education, is suddenly in favor of taking away parental rights when it comes to social media.
Greenwald is a stickler when it comes to being consistent in one’s principles, which is a breath of fresh air in a world where most people endlessly flip-flop — being passionate about their own rights but indifferent about the rights of their enemies. And Greenwald is right to call Hawley out. Hawley justifies the new law by claiming that it’s somehow pro-parental rights when he’s clearly taking such rights away. But in the process Greenwald reveals inconsistencies in his own views.
He says he agrees with parental rights advocates, who he characterizes as believing that “the responsibility to decide what children learn about political and social issues, and how they learn it, should rest with parents and not with school bureaucrats or elected officials using the force of law.” But what does he mean that parents should decide what children learn and not lawmakers?
By way of example, Greenwald points to an interview he did with Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist. Rufo believes that conservative lawmakers should change the curricula in their states to reflect conservative values, and that liberals should do the same. He respects the fact that the US is a “pluralistic society” and believes it should have a “decentralized system of decision-making.” That sounds wonderful but let’s not fool ourselves: it’s still just lawmakers deciding what children learn. Is it so significant that it’s happening at the state level instead of the federal? (I highly doubt it’s any consolation to the millions of parents who are still in their state’s political and cultural minority.) And how is this different than the system we already have?
Can Greenwald or Rufo actually imagine an educational system where government officials don’t decide the curriculum but parents do? It’s not so difficult: just as politicians shouldn’t tell journalists what to write, they shouldn’t tell teachers what to teach, instead they should simply ensure that each child has the financial resources they need to attend the school of their parent’s choosing; teachers should teach what they want to teach and form schools with like-minded teachers; parents should choose the school that most aligns with their educational values and if there isn’t a school, they should use those resources to homeschool. Schools should be growing smaller, not bigger.
That’s what real parental rights would look like — giving all parents the freedom to decide who will educate their child, or whether they themselves will. Imagine how richly diverse and pluralistic our society would be then.
[You can watch the above-mentioned episode of System Update here (the segment on parental rights is from 6-33 minutes).]
[I’ve also written about educational freedom in a number of other places, including here and here.]
Recent NYT article addresses the contradiction of democracy in a Jewish state
Many people, especially many Israeli citizens, are concerned about the election of a new far-right government in Israel that threatens the integrity of some of their key institutions, including the supreme court.
In December, a Times opinion piece written by their editorial board, “The Ideal of Democracy in a Jewish State Is in Jeopardy,” highlighted some of the dangers posed by the new government. But a more recent Times article by Peter Beinart — “You Can’t Save Democracy in a Jewish State” — takes aim at the editorial board’s most basic assumption: that the idea of democracy and the idea of a Jewish state are compatible in the first place.
The idea of a Jewish state is that Jewish people control the state. The idea of democracy is that everyone has equal control over the state, regardless of their religious or ethnic identity. These ideas are obviously incompatible. As Beinart says “A movement premised on ethnocracy can’t defend the rule of law. Only a movement for equality can.”
Of course this principle doesn’t just apply to Israel but to every country. Every country has elevated certain ethnic-national groups over others. This is the very essence of the nation-state idea, and it will always lead to conflict because no country is homogeneous. Every country will always have minority ethnic groups, so those people, by definition, will always be second class citizens (their language and values will not be the official ones, and there will always be pressure to assimilate to the dominant culture and leave their own culture behind).
This all points to the need to separate nation and state, and not only that, but all of culture and state. Beinart doesn’t get that far, but at least he’s able to start bringing people in the right direction.
[For more on the idea of separating nation and state, read my recent articles on Ukraine and Israel.]
For those who think that consensus should determine what’s information and disinformation — what should be published and what should be censored — the last week of Covid about-faces should give one pause. For much of the pandemic, the clear consensus was that the virus had a natural origin and that masks were effective in fighting it. Only consiracy theorists thought otherwise, and their views were actively censored online because they were considered dangerous to the public. But now those consensus views are being questioned in significant ways, both by the government (the Department of Energy and the FBI have both come out in favor of the lab leak theory) and the legacy media (the NYT published a scathing piece on why masks are entirely ineffective).
If you think the impulse is different, I recommend reading “Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality: A Brief History of the Education of Dominated Cultures in the United States.” In it, the author Joel Spring describes how the US educational system has been used to deculturalize minority groups, and the need for real cultural pluralism — an educational system that allows each cultural group to maintain their own language and values in a “pluralistic society with each different culture existing harmoniously side by side.”
From the NYT article you refer to: "No study — or study of studies — is ever perfect. Science is never absolutely settled. What’s more, the analysis does not prove that proper masks, properly worn, had no benefit at an individual level. People may have good personal reasons to wear masks, and they may have the discipline to wear them consistently. Their choices are their own."
I think there is a distinction to be made between mask mandates, which mean little more than the majority of the populace wearing ineffective masks improperly and often without consistent monitoring, and others, like me, choosing to wear a KN95 mask that fits snugly in crowded indoor settings in public spaces. I think it is misleading not to highlight that distinction.