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The Opening of the American Mind
I read an issue of The New Yorker
An actual print magazine
I know it’s fashionable to say that Americans are now locked into our intellectual silos, unwilling and even unable to consider ideas that seem threatening or invite the risk of social disapprobation. But I wonder, sometimes, if this is true, or any truer than it has always been. I’m not saying we aren’t polarized in a partisan fashion; we clearly are, and it’s an enormous problem. We are increasingly willing to believe the absolute worst about those we deem our political opponents, and who we increasingly think of as our outright enemies. But beneath that polarization, I wonder whether there isn’t actually more ferment and debate than there was, even though it has to be couched as a debate within political bounds, never something that gives quarter to the enemy.
These thoughts are prompted by a perusal of the September 13, 2021 issue of The New Yorker, a magazine that I used to read regularly and no longer do (but that I still subscribe to because, you know, I’m a New Yorker and an old fart and if there weren’t old issues of The New Yorker lying around I wouldn’t know that I was home). Here are three of the major articles in the issue:
“The Sex Wars,” a think piece by academic Amia Srinivasan, about the ructions within feminism over transgenderism and what it means to be a woman, putting those ructions in a historical context of the past fifty years of feminist argument.
“The Other Afghan Women,” a deeply reported piece by Anand Gopal, about the experiences of the rural women of Helmand province in Afghanistan under the various regimes of the past forty years, and why they long since turned against the American occupation and look at least somewhat hopefully on the Taliban’s return to power.
“Force of Nature,” a profile by staff writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus, about behavior geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden, and her efforts to convince her fellow progressives that the science of genetics is going to tell us more and more about our personalities and aptitudes, and that they need to grapple with that fact and rebuild progressive policies on that foundation rather than stick their fingers in their ears or their heads in the sand.
I thought all three of these pieces were very much worth reading (Gopal’s reporting exceptionally so), and I think it’s safe to say that all of them demanded of their readers a genuinely open mind. Indeed, they were all, in different ways, premised on the notion that we’ve gone wrong precisely by refusing to keep our minds open, by starting with political conclusions (or, even worse, social commitments) and working backwards toward intellectual premises that we believe must be held to reach those conclusions.
This is most obvious with the piece about Harden and behavioral genetics. I feel a little odd highlighting that fact, because I already share many of her views. I already think genes matter (though I’m more on the skeptical end of the spectrum when it comes to confidence that we’re going to get much actionable information out of GWAS any time soon, because we’re still rather far from understanding the mechanisms by which genes affect things like personality or aptitude), and I already think that there’s no real contradiction between that fact and the classic left-wing values of freedom, justice and equality. I’ve made both arguments by way of explaining why it’s wrong to drive Charles Murray out of society rather than vigorously debating him. I believe what I wrote in a piece about Jewish achievement: “Explanations are, ultimately, neither racist nor anti-racist but well-evidenced and plausible or poorly-evidenced and implausible. And in many cases . . . the same kinds of explanations can be deployed in either a racist or anti-racist manner.” If I were a choir, I suppose I could say that Harden (and Lewis-Kraus) are preaching to me.
Except they aren’t. The article is actually quite painstaking at not preaching to the choir, at not trying to attract nods and likes from the folks who already believe the premises of Harden’s work. It’s aimed precisely at the people who are anxious about those premises—and it doesn’t aim to convert them so much as to let them know: This argument is happening. You might want to be informed. Which is, you know, how actual minds are opened, as opposed to confirmed in their preexisting closed state. I can’t see how anyone could read that article and fail to have respect for Harden’s dedication, intelligence and sincerity—but by the same token I can’t see how someone could read it as trying to tell you what to think about the issue, or about Harden. You could perfectly well conclude that she was dedicatedly, intelligently and sincerely just plain wrong. In other words, the article is open-minded about someone who sees herself as trying to open people’s minds, something that requires an open-minded reader to truly appreciate.
The same, I would argue, is true of Srinivasan’s piece. I come to that subject with much less conviction and no particular allegiance to any variety of feminism, but also with no notable antifeminist commitments. So I can hear the multi-sided arguments described in the piece that have caused so much anger—between radical feminists who root their commitment in biology and the experience of inhabiting a female body and those who root it in the social experience of womanhood in a society still largely ordered around male experience and expectation; those who see gender as fluid and creative and those who see it as innate and identity-defining; and many other axes of debate—and say: this is all very interesting!
And that, I think, is Srinivasan’s overarching point: it is all very interesting, but also very fraught (certainly for those butch lesbians and trans men who—understandably—sometimes see their opposites’ ideological commitments as defining them out of existence), and there’s no shortcut out of that fraught state to a state of harmonious agreement. The mutual-anathematization going on between (for example) trans activists and so-called “terfs” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) is both a betrayal of the promise of feminism and a perhaps-necessary phenomenon with a long history within feminism (and therefore, in a sense, not really a betrayal at all). Those who want to have a side picked for them, so they can know they are safely in the right, are kind of out of luck. If you actually care, you’re going to have to engage in that debate, recognize that you will probably piss some people off, maybe even to the point that you regret the position you’ve taken, and take comfort from knowing that this has happened before and will undoubtedly happen again, and that the only way forward is through. I really do applaud her for helping me see these debates that way, as potentially fecund rather than mostly sterile. I count my mind as having been at least partly opened.
It’s least-obviously true for the piece about rural Afghan women, but it’s probably most important to recognize the same dynamic at play in that piece. Why, after all, couldn’t we understand how catastrophically wrong our war in Afghanistan was going? The institutional commitments are easy to identify: the career interests of senior military officers, politicians, think-tankers, etc. But the deeper intellectual failure, at the level of the press and the citizenry, was an aversion to opening our minds to information that contradicted our premises. The Taliban regime was monstrous, and they hosted and supported a terrorist group that attacked America in a truly unprecedented and morally obscene fashion. It does not follow that war against them would not also empower monsters, that we would not be monsters ourselves, or—this is probably most important of all—that those who supported the Taliban did so out of a commitment to monstrousness. “Intersectionality” isn’t just an academic buzzword; in Helmand province, it meant that women who were trapped in bad marriages, who were cynical about the men in their lives, who wanted to learn to read and work and just be allowed to go outside preferred the Taliban not once, but twice, over the alternatives they actually experienced, very much including the regime we sponsored and supported, and whose abandonment we are told is a disgrace because it means betraying Afghanistan’s women (which, I hasten to add, it does mean—it’s just that we betrayed the women of Helmand province long, long ago).
What follows from that realization? If all we learn is “Afghanistan is hopeless,” we haven’t really learned anything at all (from the beginning to the end of the war, most of the people involved believed Afghanistan was hopeless). If all we learn is “war is violence,” we’ll have learned something, but not nearly enough, both because some wars really are necessary (and we still have to know how to fight them) and because we can perfectly well screw up without going to war in many of the same ways that we screwed up in Afghanistan, because we have, and we no doubt will again. Most broadly, what follows is that if you claim to care about a group of people, you have to attend to what they actually say about their experience. That requires open ears, but also an open mind, a willingness, at a minimum, to set aside one’s prior commitments long enough to hear and understand what you are being told.
All of which is why I found this issue of The New Yorker—a magazine that could coast very well on flattering its subscribers’ prejudices, as so much of our press is now incentivized to do—so encouraging. Someone clearly thinks that those subscribers want to be told to think, and given food for thought, and not just grist for the mill. Thank you. More, please.