The Better Letter: Needed Discipline

Desperate times call for disciplined measures

New Year’s Eve feels like fifty years ago. The coronavirus crisis was a far-off rumbling and it would be 126 days before George Floyd gasped, “I can’t breathe,” and America — indeed, the world — erupted in protest, forcing a reckoning on racism, and maybe a revolution.

In many ways, on the other hand, 1968 feels like yesterday.

It was the most contentious and polarized period I can recall. A revolution seemed inevitable. But it didn’t happen.

And how many times can a man turn his head | And pretend that he just doesn't see | The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind | The answer is blowing in the wind

Those who want a revolution today won’t have an easy go of it. Change of any magnitude, even (especially?) needed and important change, is difficult. Since 1783, American revolution has often seemed like the Second Coming — soon but not yet. Whether the goal is revolution or “mere” reform, there will be big obstacles to overcome. Love is the ultimate answer, but getting to it will always be hard. It's a “Hard Love.”

When the wolves come and hunt me down | I will face them all and stand my ground | 'Cause there's a fire burnin' in me | They will see my strength in this love I found.

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Needed Discipline

Spoiler Alert: We are tribal. Group identity is part of what makes us human and keeps us evolutionarily successful. As Yale’s Paul Bloom has shown: “We are by nature indifferent, even hostile, to strangers; we are prone toward parochialism and bigotry.* Some of our instinctive emotional responses, most notably disgust, spur us to do terrible things, including acts of genocide.” Thus, science establishes that Pelagianism is indeed heresy and, better still, that Tucker Carlson is dead wrong. 

Our parochialism prevents us from seeing clearly, especially when it comes to our own beliefs and tribes. When we see something that confirms our priors, we ask ourselves if the information might be true. If the information is disconfirming, we consider whether it must be true, a wholly different and far more difficult standard. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has observed, disbelieving is very hard and difficult work.

As I have written many times, we like to think that we are like judges, that we carefully gather and evaluate all the relevant facts and data before coming to an objective and well-founded conclusion. Instead, we are much more like lawyers, grasping for any scrap of purported evidence we can exploit to support and preserve our preconceived notions and allegiances while preemptively attacking and dismissing anything that might oppose them. The more educated and intelligent we are, the more likely we are to reject relevant but opposing facts, because we are sophisticated enough to come up with seemingly plausible counter-arguments to what those facts suggest or even to the idea that they are facts.

As Oxford’s Teppo Felin points out, “what people are looking for – rather than what people are merely looking at – determines what is obvious.” It’s Miles’ law: Where you stand depends on where you sit. 

Back in 1989, a Salomon Brothers investment banker was raped and left for dead in New York City’s Central Park. The woman had been abused so brutally that when she was finally discovered, stripped and covered with mud, she had lost three-quarters of her blood and had already turned cold to the touch. Then-Mayor Ed Koch called it “the crime of the century.” Five schoolboys were eventually tried in the case; the “Central Park Five” were all black or Hispanic.

It turns out, however, that the rape of the Central Park jogger had been committed by a career criminal, serial rapist, and murderer named Matias Reyes. Despite the certainty of so many, the widely accepted story about a gang of “wilding” boys who raped the young woman was false. The inconsistent confessions coerced out of the boys under the pressure of hours of police interrogations without being able to speak to their parents were false. And the inevitable convictions of the Central Park Five were also false.

For those who were already convinced of a certain sort of narrative about street crime and black teenagers in the city (like Donald Trump), the Central Park jogger case checked every box. They “knew” what happened…even though it did not. To be clear, as reported by The New York Times, a mob of “teenagers invaded Central Park to assault, rob and harass joggers, bikers and others in a night that came to symbolize an era of rampant crime and racial tensions in the city.” The Central Park Five almost surely were among them and, as reported by the NYPD-appointed Armstrong Commission, may well have contributed to the attack. However, as the Commission conceded, there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the Five were guilty of the crimes with which they were charged.

On the other hand, if you are feeling a bit smug and self-satisfied about your progressive bona fides or about not being a Trumpkin, you should not think you are somehow immune to this very type of problem. The evidence does not support your hubris either.

For people who believed a certain type of narrative about white privilege and preppy rich-kid high-handedness and misadventures at elite universities, the Duke lacrosse scandal was too good not to be true, facts be damned. It checked every box. Three wealthy Duke student-athletes, all of them white, part of a team known for its hard-partying aggressive jocks, were charged with raping a poor black stripper during spring break at an off-campus rental that regularly served as the team’s party house.

Even after the comprehensive dismantling of the accuser’s claims and after the prosecutor was disbarred for multiple acts of blatant misconduct, the underlying narrative remains largely intact because the false accusation “was a virus that landed in the most hospitable petri dish imaginable, a culture rife with unresolved racial, sexual and class tensions and grievances.” Besides, these were not very nice kids and they were taking advantage of a poor black woman. For example: “the players’ behavior at that party was apparently despicable. Among other things, they yelled racial epithets at the two strippers, both of whom were African-American. They acted like spoiled, arrogant rich kids” (more here).

The facts may not have proved out, but they felt true and still do for many. As Jon Stewart said at the time, “those three Duke kids who spent the last year presumed guilty of assaulting a black women because the issue had huge symbolic resonance with the media – turns out they didn’t do anything.”

Thus, for a different set of true believers, the people for whom Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons was written, the players were bad guys despite their exoneration and the prosecutor was merely overzealous for a good cause. Civil libertarians and activists who typically oppose government overreach in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion bent over backward to support a corrupt public official committed to withholding and hiding evidence and to railroading innocent defendants.

Meanwhile, “law and order” conservatives were eager to denounce a system they had so often supported in the face of dreadful disconfirming evidence in the past when the conflicting narratives on offer demanded an either/or conclusion. But you did not see them taking up the struggle of others who may have been wrongly convicted by a corrupt prosecutor but who don’t have the money and the platform to fight back the way the Duke defendants did.

We have seen the same problem play out with respect to the coronavirus lockdown that threw 40 million Americans out of work, including George Floyd. The political left generally accepted this economic calamity as the necessary cost of guarding against COVID-19. They were sometimes shockingly blasé about it, perhaps because a poor economy hurts Donald Trump’s reelection chances.

After Mr. Floyd was killed, however, when protestors begin taking to the streets for a cause they support, social distancing no longer mattered. As Thomas Chatterton Williams pointed out, “Two weeks ago we shamed people for being in the street; today we shame them for not being in the street.” As a result, medical professionals who changed their advice in light of their politics “have hemorrhaged credibility and authority.”

Just this week, a young data scientist tweeted out research suggesting that violent riots are politically harmful to the left. The research was conducted by an African-American studies scholar at Princeton. The research was deemed inconvenient; the data scientist was “canceled” and lost his job.

In related news, The New York Times is under tremendous pressure to stop even attempting to be impartial. “Debate-club democracy — where people of goodwill share a common world of fact but disagree on what should be done — is an expensive illusion to maintain during a presidency that tries to undermine every independent and factual check there is on the executive’s power.”

Republicans are united far less by a desire to support every one of President Trump’s tweets and actions (they don’t) than a reluctance to denounce them. So they hem, haw, and claim they haven’t seen it yet. They scream about the alleged hypocrisy of Democrats not criticizing some outrage on their side and they rail against Hillary Clinton. What-aboutism and moral equivalence are their stock in trade.

They are fighting with ammunition gifted to them by their opponents.

It takes great discipline to avoid overstatement, excessive zealotry, and falsehood in polarized times. But, if you want to do more than preach to the already converted, it’s absolutely necessary.


* While tribalism protects its own, Christianity expressly demands that its adherents reach out charitably to the alien and the stranger. We are exhorted to love our neighbor, yet in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus extends the concept of “neighbor” to include those with whom we are in extreme enmity. As Professor Bloom acknowledges, “This is a radical position.”

It Depends

President Trump has received much (deserved) criticism, after protestors were forcibly dispersed, for walking across Lafayette Square Park in Washington, D.C., to the front of St. John’s Church for a photo-op, using the church and a Bible as props. The church’s priest was expelled from the grounds so the picture could be taken. The photo-op was designed to shore up dwindling (although still strong) support among evangelicals for the president.

Will the president’s holding a Bible aloft become a crucial political turning point? My guess is that it didn’t play as well as the president expected because he doesn’t understand his audience. It even got Ben Sasse out of hibernation.

Karl Barth, the 20th Century’s greatest theologian, was giving a lecture at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary more than 50 years ago when a student stood up holding a Bible and demanded to know whether he believed it to be the Word of God or not. Dr. Barth, who became famous opposing Hitler, replied, “It depends on whether you are holding the book or if it is holding you.” That response seems relevant today, still.

Totally Worth It

Timeless advice from Herman Munster. Empirical evidence that perfect is less than perfect and that the Lake Wobegon Effect is real. White grizzly.

The worst thing I saw last week in the media. This is funny. The sweetest thing I saw last week. The wildest thing. The most significant thing. The weirdest thing. The cutest thing. The nicest thing. The stupidest thing. Unless it was this. The scariest thing. The saddest thing. The best thing. Unless it was this. Or this.

If you’ve been on social media recently, you have seen a viral video of a man on a bicycle angrily assaulting a group of young people putting up flyers in support of the protests over the killing of George Floyd. The behavior was disgusting, and he’s been arrested and charged with second-degree assault. But, for several hours, Twitter “detectives” falsely identified another man, Peter Weinberg, as the culprit, rendering an innocent man subject to abuse and cancellation. Olivia Nuzzi of New York magazine spoke to Weinberg about the experience and wrote about the pitfalls of online justice at the hands of a mob. “He spent the night alone, refreshing Twitter, watching helplessly as people tried to destroy his life.”

The most totally worth it thing of all: my darling bride and I celebrate our 41st wedding anniversary on Tuesday. I was insanely lucky and blessed when she consented to marry me, and even more so now, three children and eight grandchildren (the eighth also set to make an appearance next week) later. In the summer of 1976, she wondered if I’d still love her “tomorrow.”

Today, in 2020, “forever” and “completely” remain amazingly true.

Truer than ever, in fact.


This week’s benediction features Foxes and Fossils, my favorite cover band, with a stirring — and brand new (this week) — version of Todd Rundgren’s classic, Love Is The Answer, featuring a terrific lead vocal and their always pristine harmonies.

Light of the world, shine on me | Love is the answer | Shine on us all, set us free | Love is the answer

Yes, it is.

Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share. Thanks for reading.

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Issue 17 (June 12, 2020)