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Self in Society Roundup 1

Ukraine, Will Smith's slap, Covid policy, transgender issues, and conspiracies.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
March 28, 2022; ported here on June 5, 2024

A Note on Ukraine

Although I do not have much to say about Ukraine, I wanted to start my first Roundup here by acknowledging the absolute horror of the Russian invasion. Surely the overriding objective should be to try to get Putin to stop mass-murdering Ukrainians without dragging much of the rest of the world into WWIII. The worst case, obviously, is a large-scale nuclear war involving Russia and the United States, which would be catastrophic. The U.S. reasonably can do three main things: arm Ukraine, try to get Putin to a negotiated "off ramp," and loudly condemn the Russian government's actions. I'm worried that an official stance of "regime change," or even talk along those lines by top officials, could make Putin feel even more desperate. Cornered animals are more dangerous. The U.S. does not have the ability to topple Putin anyway, not without likely escalation to WWIII. So why talk about regime change at the official level? Perhaps Putin will be toppled internally, in which case I just hope the next dictator is not even worse. My sense is most people underestimate the danger to the entire world of this moment.

Will Smith's Slap

I watched only the first few minutes of the Oscars live, but I quickly learned of Will Smith striking Chris Rock on stage and saw the video. The background is that Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, has alopecia, which causes hair loss, and has short-cropped hair. I have no idea whether Rock knew about the alopecia when he joked about Jada perhaps performing in a sequel to G.I. Jane, a film in which actor Demi Moore shaves her head. Following is what I Tweeted (lightly edited):

In many contexts, someone doing what Will Smith did would result in criminal charges. During his speech, Smith apologized to the Academy, but not to Chris Rock, the guy he struck. Then Smith tried to make himself out to be the victim. Very bad form. Will Smith is something of a hero to my six-year-old (because of the National Geographic documentaries featuring him), so this is very disappointing.

I didn't know till tonight that Jada Pinkett Smith has alopecia. I just thought she had short hair as an esthetic look. Anyway Chris Rock made either a dumb joke or a cruel one. But why does The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) get to shave his head and he's a bad-ass but women don't get the same cultural treatment? There are some exceptions, of course. Cinema does feature women with shaved heads, often to indicate they're physically powerful as well as beautiful. Following are three examples, from the films Black Panther, Alien 3, and G.I. Jane.
Three bald women actors in famous films.

As a parent, I am trying really hard to teach my son to not engage in violence unless absolutely necessary for self-defense. This morning I talked with him about Smith hitting Rock (I did not show him the video), and I again emphasized that we can choose to disengage rather than escalate a confrontation. What Smith should have done is defend his wife in writing after the fact. Smith needs to remember that many children (and many adults) look up to him, and he needs to do better as a role model.

March 29 Update: Reason has out articles on Chris Rock's remarkable restraint and on the difference between words and violence. Smith offered a mostly-good apology.

Tabarrok on Covid Policy

Economist Alex Tabarrok gave a maddening talk in February reviewing U.S. Covid policy. He notes the pandemic "was an entirely predicted, and predictable, event." Yet, on the whole, the U.S. government failed miserably in its response.

Tabarrok reviews the many failures of government to get a handle on the pandemic, including federal interference with Helen Chu's early efforts to back-test nasal swabs. Thank goodness she defied federal directives and tested for Covid anyway. She found it, of course. (See a New York Times article about this.) He also discusses how the CDC and FDA completely bungled testing.

Operation Warp Speed, on the other hand, was successful at hastening vaccine development, Tabarrok argues (he was involved in researching this). At the same time, the barring of human challenge trials—Tabarrok supports such trials—substantially slowed vaccine development.

Here is a shocking fact: Fast Grants, founded by entrepreneur Patrick Collison and economist Tyler Cowen, "raised over $60 million dollars in funding and disbursed millions before NIH had reviewed a single COVID grant." Fast grants funded a successful rapid test among other things.

Spencer Cox's Statement on Transgender Bill

Utah Governor Spencer Cox, a Republican, vetoed a bill banning the participation of transgender girls in school sports. His remarkable statement is long, so I'll offer highlights.

The original bill allowed most transgender girls to participate in sports:

For the very small number of transgender kids who are looking to find a sense of connection and community–without posing any threat to women's sports–the commission would allow participation. However, the committee would prohibit participation in the rare circumstance of an outlier who could pose a safety threat or dominate a sport in a way that would eliminate competitive opportunities for biological females.

But a substitute bill imposed an absolute ban, even for a "private organization," the Utah High School Athletic Association. Cox said the amended bill guarantees expensive lawsuits.

Here is a key statistic: Of some "75,000 high school kids participating in high school sports in Utah," four are transgender kids, and one is a "transgender student playing girls sports." One!

Cox said:

Four kids and only one of them playing girls sports. That's what all of this is about. Four kids who aren't dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships. Four kids who are just trying to find some friends and feel like they are a part of something. Four kids trying to get through each day. Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few. I don't understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live. And all the research shows that even a little acceptance and connection can reduce suicidality significantly. For that reason, as much as any other, I have taken this action in the hope that we can continue to work together and find a better way. If a veto override occurs, I hope we can work to find ways to show these four kids that we love them and they have a place in our state.

Cox also said, "I must admit, I am not an expert on transgenderism. I struggle to understand so much of it and the science is conflicting. When in doubt however, I always try to err on the side of kindness, mercy and compassion." He seems like a genuinely decent person.

The Utah legislature overrode Cox's veto. In his original statement Cox promised to call a special session to to make the state, rather than school districts and private organizations, responsible for financing the resulting lawsuits.

Cox's approach strikes me as very reasonable. Except perhaps when we're talking about the highest levels of athletic competition, transgender girls or women playing with the other girls or women simply isn't a problem.

Approaching Transgender Issues

I am interested in another possibility when it comes to the participation of transgender women in sports: Just ditch male/female athletic tiers altogether in favor of tiers based on directly relevant physical characteristics, such as muscle mass. (I'm not sure if that measure alone could sensibly be used to draw up tiers, but I figure it would at least be part of the mix.) If drawn up properly, such tiers would put most men together and most women together, but they would put some transgender women with men and some small men with women. It seems to me that would resolve all the relevant issues. But of course lots of people don't want to create fairness in sports. They want to scapegoat transgender kids and indulge their ugly bigotries.

In the news. . . Conservatives had (or tried to have) a field day with Ketanji Brown Jackson's refusal to define "woman." Sensible people realize she was dodging a "gotcha" question.

But in general it is a reasonable question. In a Tweet I attempted to offer a two-part definition, as the answer is to recognize that "woman" means different things in different contexts.

woman(1): Someone born with female reproductive organs including ovaries and a uterus.

woman(2): Anyone who expresses or identifies with traditionally female modes of self-awareness or behavior.

It occurred to me that conservatives often try to play semantic games rather than wrestle with substantive issues. When it comes to transgenderism, they define sex and gender in biological terms, which rules out transgenderism (except as some sort of corruption). When it comes to abortion, they equivocate on the term "human being" to say that a just-fertilized embryo is "human" and a "being" so therefore it is a "human being" in the sense of a person with rights.

Spidey and Conspiracies

Recently I rewatched the excellent film, Spider-Man: Far from Home, the second main film featuring this iteration of the web slinger. Spoiler alert: The theme of the film is that bad actors can spin tales to create false beliefs in order to take advantage of people. There is a shocking moment in the film when the audience is allowed behind the curtain to realize that the apparent story to that point is not the real story, that we have all been lied to, that an apparent hero really is the villain. This is great cinema.

This got me thinking about conspiracy mongering and actual conspiracies. In the context of the film, the villain leads an actual conspiracy to (among other things) generate false conspiracy theories. Often this is the case with false conspiracy theories; there is an actual conspiracy, usually in the banal sense of a group of people loosely working together, to spread the false conspiracy theories. Look, for example, at the orchestrated attempt to promote the bullshit conspiracy theory about Trump winning the election.

On the general topic of conspiracy mongering, I recommend Robert Alan Goldberg's book Enemies Within as well as my 2020 interview with Goldberg.

Quick Takes

Nuclear Power: Colorado space scientist Robert Zubrin is working on a book that makes the case for nuclear energy. Recently he discussed the science and politics of nuclear energy with Alex Epstein. Zubrin says that, had politics not slowed down development of nuclear energy in the United States, we would have "decarbonized" (mostly switched away from fossil fuels) decades ago.

Zelensky: The Wall Street Journal has up a biographical piece about Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who has shown remarkable courage in the face of Putin's murderous onslaught. Zelensky rose to power after playing a teacher-turned-president on TV. Be sure to watch Zelensky's address to the U.S. Congress.

Uhh . . . "What Quantum Mechanics Can Teach Us about Abortion." Absolutely nothing. Say it again. Alex Tabarrok calls it: "'Scientific' American is a joke. Just a total embarrassment."

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