Banner graphic for Studies in the history of science, technology & culture
Your support enables us to further develop this unique collection of scholarly resources: Donate to!

Q U I C K   L I N K S

Learn more about the American school of Pragmatism at Wikipedia.’s detailed study of California’s flawed Good Neighbor Fence Act of 2013 (California Assembly Bill 1404) includes my clarion call for a new kind of democratic governance rooted in a revival of “passionate public deliberation and persuasion” (reasoned argument).
  I believe that a classical agonistic politics of persuasion — not the polling and data-driven demagoguery (calculated appeals designed to manipulate us) which controls policy-making today — best serves the type of pluralist democratic society to which many of us aspire.

I also believe that critical pluralism (a rhetoric of dissensus) offers a much-needed alternative to the sort of decorous “civility” which so many of us are pushing today.
  Too often, “civility” means avoiding the very arguments we ought to be having, because they are so disconcerting, especially in social settings.
  This is how I interpret the fevered response to a discussion between syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review Executive Editor Reihan Salam, with Judy Woodruff moderating, for the PBS NewsHour (“Shields and Salam on Trump-Putin Summit Aftershocks,” first aired 7/20/2018).
  Substituting for the more congenial David Brooks on two occasions that month, Reihan Salam’s second performance provoked an extraordinary 585 (when I viewed the discussion section on 8/2/2018) impassioned comments from (mostly discomfited) posters.
  I personally found Mr. Salam’s intellectual energy refreshing, and although he did not persuade me to his point of view, I still find myself ruminating on his argument even today, as recent events in Jan.–Feb. 2019 — and the growing divide between protean presidential words vs. acts — bolster Reihan Salam’s view of the week’s news in July 2018.
  But my generally positive response to Salam’s rhetorical performance is unusual. The majority of those posting to the NewsHour website — evidently as flustered as Mark Shields by Salam’s desire to engage in a spirited clash of ideas — were so unnerved by the moderated exchange, that they unleashed a flurry of ad hominem attacks, accusing Salam of everything from stupidity, illogic, arrogance, zealotry, boorishness, rudery, and narcissism ... to racialized aggression & thuggery.
  Only rarely does one of Salam’s critics meaningfully engage him on the issues: e.g., “Relax, people. The [weekly Friday] segment isn’t sacrosanct. I enjoyed Salam’s passion for his theories and watching smug Judy and blustering Mark speechless for a change. But the idea that Trump’s speech doesn’t represent his administration isn’t an intentional strategy, it isn’t reassuring, it’s just scary. Trump thinks he’s a businessman negotiating a deal when he is supposed to be a statesman formulating national policy. That ‘actions speak louder than words’ doesn’t fix the problem. There shouldn’t be a dichotomy and Trump isn’t the boss.” (comment posted by “G. Sheldon”)
  Reading through so many intolerant viewers’ remarks, many of which demanded that Salam never again appear on the PBS NewsHoure.g., “Mr. Salam is so rude! I watch Newshour for civil, balanced discussion. Mr. Salam does not meet the minimum standard of civility. HE SHOULD NOT BE INVITED BACK ON THE PROGRAM! Surely, Newshour can find a conservative to politely articulate their point of view.” (comment posted by “suzanne johnson”) — I began to wonder if I had watched the same broadcast as everyone else!
  In particular, I was struck by the number of comments demanding that future PBS NewsHour guests adhere to a particular “code of civility” almost always equated with the more anodyne “civility of Shields and Brooks,” which favors scripted, pat answers (at least on Shields’s part) over the less predictable give-and-take of a rigorous critical encounter.
  As far as I’m concerned, this kind of viewer-preferred “civilized conversation” — designed to tame the assertive man of color for polite society — is no model for the “stunning and unprecedented experiment in interracial democracy” envisioned by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States (see sidebar entry). For this, we need more meaningful contestation: real critical pluralism.
  Also of note: a few of the comments on this NewsHour segment voiced concern about the 50+ newcomers — “liberal trolls in a rage!” over Salam’s disputatious performance — posting for the first time to the NewsHour’s discussion forum. E.g., “The advent of foreign Governments using internet trolls to divide us is rather insidious. We know they exist, but far too often, opposing opinions are mocked, belittled and cast aside by labeling people as a Russian troll.  ¶   Obviously I can’t say for sure that all these first time commenters are Russian trolls but it is obvious that it’s some kind of organized thing. I’d say it has something to do with his [Salam’s] connections to National Review.” (comment posted by “guitarman121”)
  This kind of sophisticated, data-driven demagoguery (by no means unique to the Russian government) presents a real challenge for those of us pushing for a revival of critical pluralism in the postmodern digital public square.
  Honest, probing dialogue with alternative points of view is hard enough for “We the People” without adding unscrupulous, anonymous trolls & bots — which manipulate ratings as well as public sentiment — to the mix.
  At this point, it’s impossible for me to separate the fake outrage in this PBS NewsHour discussion thread from the real.
  And for those of us who still believe in crafting effective persuasion and policy on the basis of shared public values, such manufactured audiences and distorted rhetorical situations — which impair human judgment — are a nightmare scenario come true.


For further confirmation of Reihan Salam’s July 2018 insights concerning what I called above “the growing divide between protean presidential words vs. acts”: see the op-ed by Marc A. Thiessen, “Yes, Trump Makes Nice with Dictators, But his Tough Actions Count More” (posted to The Washington Post website, 7/2/2019).
  Thiessen points out that for Trump supporters, “what he does matters a lot more than what he says”; and “unlike Obama, Trump is taking a hard line with North Korea, Russia, China and Iran.” While “It’s unclear whether Trump’s combination of hard-line policies and soft rhetoric will work,” “so long as Trump does not capitulate on substance, most [conservatives] are willing to give the president some leeway when it comes to personal diplomacy with butchers such as Kim [Jong Un, leader of North Korea].” (M. A. Thiessen, n. pag.)

Quoting David Hume — “Truth springs from argument among friends.” — Jay Heinrichs (aka Figaro), author of Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us about the Art of Persuasion (2007), also writes about the demise of passionate public deliberation in the U.S.: specifically, “Why Americans Can’t Argue” about public affairs, and why a democracy needs “educated citizens who accept the uses of debate, who want to be persuaded, and who have the sophistication to avoid being manipulated.” (n. pag.)
  To speed our education along, Heinrichs practices witty rhetorical analysis at his Figures of Speech Served Fresh blog.
  And his essay critiquing the neglect of rhetorical education, “Why Harvard Destroyed Rhetoric” (2005), offers an interesting explanation for the sorry state of much contemporary political rhetoric, which privileges the epideictic (the discourse of praise/blame) over the deliberative (the discourse of truth & justice).

More voices assert the value of arguing: “Op-Ed: Nothing Like a Heated Exchange to Test Your Beliefs” by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay (Los Angeles Times, 7/21/2019, p. A20).
  True thought — vs. “merely rearranging their prejudices” (as in the William James aphorism quoted above) — is teased out by what the duchess of Newcastle called “Argumental Discourse” — “an Arguing of the mind” (Margaret Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, 1st edn., 1666, h1r and c2v).
  “Forget about healing political divides, overcoming polarization or the dangers of mischaracterizing people who hold different beliefs. Reaching out and speaking with someone who has different ideas is beneficial, not for utopian social reasons, but for your own good — for your ‘belief hygiene.’ You engage in dental hygiene not to bring insurance costs down for the masses, but because you don’t want cavities, pain and gum disease.  ¶   You should engage in belief hygiene for similarly selfish reasons: It’s an opportunity to reflect upon what you believe and why you believe it. If other social goods happen to occur as a byproduct — friendships, increased understanding, changed minds — that’s great.” (P. Boghossian and J. Lindsay, A20)

Katha Pollitt is skeptical that the art of persuasion can fundamentally change hearts & minds in her column, “A Convert’s Zeal? Why changing the minds of conservative white women is a losing game” (The Nation, 17/24 December 2018, vol. 307, no. 15, pp. 6 and 8).
  Pollitt argues here that our experiences influence us more than does the deliberative rhetoric of political antagonists: “Mostly, what changes people’s minds about important convictions is experience: something new and unusual that shakes their settled views. One of the evangelical Beto fans profiled by the Times was moved by her time meeting with a family separated at the border; it could just as easily have been new friends, a religious experience, falling in love, a charismatic teacher, or being surrounded by people with different beliefs.” (Katha Pollitt, 6)
  This comports with some scientists’ rethinking of nurture, and how it — interacting with nature — shapes us. E.g., in Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are (2018), the behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin argues that “What makes us different environmentally are random experiences, not systematic forces like families.”’s LIBRARY page includes a brief commentary on “the old model of the respublica literaria (Republic of Letters), wherein diverse voices discussed a range of interesting issues ... with all ‘the heat and abstracted passion of intellectual inquiry.’”
  A related discussion of Margaret Cavendish’s limited tolerance for divinely-inspired human “variety” adds historical perspective to our own studies of “how people differ, where their differences come from, and whether they can live and work together with these differences.”


For a biologist’s take on “overcoming our tendencies to denigrate other species and people” so that we can more productively live & work with difference (and hopefully prevent the loss of up to 1 million species), see the op-ed: “Are We Really So Different from Other Species?” by Mark W. Moffett (Los Angeles Times, 8/4/2019, p. A19).
  Moffett argues here that “For species facing extinction and for oppressed peoples alike, reconnecting humans with the natural world is imperative.” (A19)


Recognizing that “Through the simple act of storytelling, we can help cultivate both scientific literacy and empathy,” Caroline Van Hemert — a wildlife biologist in Alaska and author of The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds (2019) — recalls the poignant tale of a bilingual golden-crowned sparrow, studied by a bilingual ornithologist specializing in avian vocalizations, Daizaburo Shizuka, as imparted at an annual meeting of the American Ornithological Society.
  Observing that “birds, like humans, have unique dialects that develop through generations of cultural evolution,” Van Hemert concludes, “The ordinary way for Shizuka to share his research would have been to describe his observations of birdsong, draw conclusions about the different populations he observed and leave it at that. The bilingual bird would have been considered an outlier, and ignored. Instead, by sharing its unique story, and its relevance to our own experiences, Shizuka taught us something about birdsong, but also so much more. In that moment, we remembered what it meant to be both scientists and humans.  ¶   In this time of scientific apathy and social divisiveness, we can no longer afford to treat narrative as the antithesis of knowledge. To be good scientists, we need not be emotionless robots. Instead, we have an obligation to add storytelling to our resumes as statisticians, ecologists, naturalists, physiologists, mathematicians and geneticists. By sharing experiences, we expand our collective understanding — about science and about one another. We begin to appreciate how a seemingly minute difference in a three-note birdsong might matter to all of us.” (C. Van Hemert, op-ed, “A Sparrow’s Song Sheds Light on Being Human for Scientists,” Los Angeles Times, 15 March 2020, A17)

Throughout history, there have been instances when the rough-and-tumble of scientific debate turns ugly — and decidedly personal.
  For instance, Robert Hooke was involved in multiple acrimonious disputes over priority (“most notably ... with Newton over the discovery of the principles of gravity and orbital motion,” and with Oldenburg plus Huygens “over the invention of the spring-regulated watch and some other devices”). (Patri J. Pugliese, n. pag.)
  But Hooke’s exchange of animadversions with Hevelius “over the accuracy of plain versus telescopic sights, in the midst of which Hooke remains free in his praise of Hevelius’s accomplishments” (Pugliese, n. pag.) was a model for peer review — “disputes and debates over the facts and the analysis of the facts” conducted with all the heat and abstracted passion of intellectual inquiry.
  Today, this academic ideal is under siege as experts seek to bypass such candid confrontations with one another, and instead resolve their differences by way of litigation in the courts. See Michael Hiltzik’s column, “Professor Didn’t Debate his Critics — He Sued Them” (Los Angeles Times, 11/26/2017, pp. C1 and C6). Also, “Professor Sues Critics of Article on Renewables,” by Rob Nikolewski (San Diego Union-Tribune, 11/3/2017, pp. C1 and C4), who points out that much was at stake here, as Stanford professor Mark Jacobson’s “peer-reviewed scientific article ... has very large implications for our future energy system in California and the United States.” (Rob Nikolewski, C4)
  Jacobson’s lawsuit against the National Academy of Sciences and the lead author of a critical paper was later dropped. SeeA Stanford Professor Drops his Ridiculous Defamation Lawsuit against his Scientific Critics,” by Michael Hiltzik (posted to the website for the Los Angeles Times on 2/23/2018); and “Lawsuit Over Energy Analysis Withdrawn: Professor filed $10M suit against other researchers who disputed his findings,” by Rob Nikolewski (San Diego Union-Tribune, 2/24/2018, pp. C1 and C3).
  But the strategic threat of legal action has had a chilling effect on scientific debate and peer review.
  Learn more about the controversy over Jacobson’s energy research and the $10-million lawsuit he filed in response to contentious peer review at Wikipedia.


The acrimony introduced by Jacobson’s litigation-driven science continues to escalate, with unwarranted accusations of bias and lack of professionalism levelled at UC San Diego professor of international relations, David Victor, who co-authored the 2017 paper criticizing Jacobson’s energy research (foundational to the Green New Deal proposed by Bernie Sanders).
  Victor, accused of being “a shill for the fossil fuel industry” and the Trump administration, is again embroiled in litigation with Jacobson, this time over constitutional issues which Victor (who “disagrees with Trump on nearly all other issues related to climate change”) argues transcend partisan politics. The latest uproar over their dueling climate plans is described in an article by Joshua Emerson Smith, “Buttigieg’s UCSD Climate Adviser Is Taking Fire: Professor says fossil fuel companies can help solve climate crisis” (San Diego Union-Tribune, 12/1/2019, pp. A1 and A17).
  In sum: “Jacobson is now testifying in a federal lawsuit on behalf of 21 young people, organized under the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust, who claim a failure to act on climate change violates their ‘rights to life, liberty, property, and public trust resources ...’  ¶   At the same time, Victor and two other authors on the paper are being paid by the Trump administration to testify in the case, which is known as Juliana v. United States.  ¶   The federal government has argued that ‘there is no fundamental constitutional right to a stable climate system.’  ¶   If the youth prevail, the government could be forced to take dramatic action to curb greenhouse gas. It would also likely set a legal precedent expanding the power of the judicial system in the context of climate change.  ¶   Victor said he opposes the lawsuit because it would violate the separation of powers between the branches of government.  ¶   ‘The case here is not whether the United States should make big reductions in greenhouse gases,’ Victor said. ‘Everyone agrees with that. The case here is whether the doctrine of public trust should be interpreted in an expansive way to create sort of a new set of human rights and legal obligations that would then result in the courts being able to determine large sections of energy policy.’  ¶   Ann Carlson, co-director of UCLA School of Law’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said the litigation has been divisive even among those who support strong action on climate change.  ¶   ‘Many scholars think the litigation is ill-advised, including some highly prominent progressives,’ she said in an email. ‘Serving as an expert in the litigation does not make [Victor] ... a tool of the fossil fuel industry.’” (Joshua Emerson Smith, A17)
  Count me among those scholars who agree with David Victor about the separation of powers, and don’t wish to see our courts setting climate policy or hindering scientific research.

The need for new models of specialist argument — especially when it comes to disputing politicized topics like energy policy and climate science — is the starting point for the book by David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (Tim Duggan Books, 2019).
  In his book review of The Uninhabitable Earth for The Washington Post, “Destruction from Climate Change Will Be ‘Worse, Much Worse, than You Think’” (posted 2/21/2019), Fred Pearce argues that Wallace-Wells’ polemic — which “scares us with tales from a future climate-changed world that transcend climate science” — is long overdue: “Here is a modest proposal: Climate scientists should shut up about global warming. The gatekeepers for what we know and think about climate change should take a vow of silence and let some other people get a word in edgeways. Because, important though the science is, we need to stop defining the great issue of the 21st century in scientific terms.  ¶   If climate change is, as this book successfully argues, a game-changer for everyone, everywhere, all the time, then let’s reflect that in the discourse. We’ve got the science. Let’s bring on the philosophers and playwrights, lawyers and priests, economists and comedians. Society’s response depends on it.” (F. Pearce, n. pag.)
  At least one reader of Pearce’s book review has noted that “defining the great issue of the 21st century in scientific terms” is not really the fundamental problem Pearce and Wallace-Wells suppose it to be: “None of this matters to my neighbors who deny climate change and hate scientists (like me). For them, Wallace-Wells’ future is far, far preferable to a victory by the liberal mob to bring a socialist collapse. They are not at all motivated by scientific skepticism. They are terrified that the Real America is being murdered by liberals, including scientists, who don’t really care about the climate. For them, we just want to use climate change as a vehicle to end their way of life.” (comment posted by “wbjones,” n. pag.)
  Wallace-Wells was interviewed about his book, which critics fault for being unscientific (“alarmist, imprecise and misleading”), by the PBS NewsHour: “Why Climate Change Is an ‘All-Encompassing Threat’” (first aired 3/1/2019). The NewsHour also provides an excerpt from The Uninhabitable Earth, which drew a number of comments, including the following exchange concerning if/how true believers (in the scientific consensus on climate change) should engage with non-believers, rouse a complacent public, and persuade people to take radical action (Wallace-Wells’ mission in writing his book):
  • “[comment posted by “aziel13”:] they [non-specialists and denialists] also dont have to understand it [“the actual science”].  ¶   If its the current product of rigorous scientific research, which it is, then its Most likely true even if they dont understand or believe it.  ¶   But it would be nice if they would admit its a personal belief so we can write them off as having a opinion of no value.” (n. pag.)
  • “[response posted by “fed-up-Redhead”:] Dismissing people who disagree with you or with ‘facts’ merely alienates them rather than trying to find ways to turn them into allies. As with trump — convince them they can financially gain by changing their ways.” (n. pag.)
  • “[to which “aziel13” responded:] Yes... but fighting with them also wastes alot of energy.” (n. pag.)
  • “[to which “justsayin” responded:] Adopting the ‘Go it Alone’ method is not the answer. The more people you can get on board with the realities of global warming and its consequences, the more apt you are to make headway in the fight.” (n. pag.)
  As long as political ideology (more than science) frames the facts for the US public, it’s not at all clear that changing the messenger, or the style of science communications, is going to turn opponents into allies. “fed-up-Redhead” is right: socioeconomic appeals, which bridge the real divisions and differences between us, will be a lot more effective, as reported by Geoffrey Mohan in “Slush Gets Buried in Ideology” (Los Angeles Times, 11/30/2014, p. A2), retitled “Neither Rain nor Snow nor Heat Sways Views on Climate Science” for online posting.
  Mohan here points to a study by a Duke University social psychologist showing “he could strongly shift conservatives’ skepticism about climate change by associating the science with policies that either were antagonistic to their core beliefs (such as small government and unfettered markets), or aligned with them. Skepticism was higher when facts were presented in a context of government regulation, and lower in the context of free-market solutions.  ¶   Study co-author Troy Campbell, a doctoral student at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, showed a similar shift in credulity among liberals with respect to crime statistics and gun ownership policies.  ¶   In other words, it appears that Americans are not coldly weighing the facts, then arguing over policy. Our ideologies and political affiliations are altering how we process facts. This example of ‘motivated’ cognition appears to be driving denial of climate science, according to Campbell.  ¶   ‘People often say that we disagree about the facts, so that leads us to disagree about the solutions,’ Campbell said. ‘But what’s actually happening is that people are disagreeing about the solutions, so we can never really have a good discussion of the facts. That’s a tragic story.’” (G. Mohan, A2)
  For more re. Wallace-Wells’ polemic, The Uninhabitable Earth (2019), see the sidebar entry, added to She-philosopher.​com’s study of California Assembly Bill 1404, re. the extravagant concrete design of the V&A Dundee (design museum in Dundee, Scotland, opened September 2018).

Similar confrontations abound in the health care field, where a growing number of militant, non-specialist activists, riled up by the “fake health news” propagating on social media, are challenging the medical scientific establishment.
  Again, ordinary folks — having to evaluate competing truth claims in difficult, specialist disciplines — are caught in the middle, as documented in the PBS NewsHour feature, “Measles Outbreak Sparks Fears, Renews Tensions over Mandatory Vaccination” (first aired 3/5/2019). SUMMARY: “Over 200 cases of measles have been confirmed in the U.S. in the past few months. About half of them occurred in the Pacific Northwest, leading Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to declare an emergency and the state legislature to propose further restricting, or even eliminating, inoculation exemptions. Nonetheless, opposition to mandatory vaccines remains fierce. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports.”
  Ironically, one of the first casualties of the vociferous debate over mandatory vaccination is debate itself. As pointed out in a comment on the NewsHour piece by “sandra m,” researchers are responding to the clamor by self-censoring in all the wrong ways: “PBS Newshour should report on the growing censorship of vaccine questioners. Writing in the NY Times (Aug. 2018), science investigator Melinda Wenner Moyer complained ‘When I tried to report on unexpected or controversial aspects of vaccine efficacy or safety, scientists often didn’t want to talk with me. When I did get them on the phone, a worrying theme emerged: Scientists are so terrified of the public’s vaccine hesitancy that they are censoring themselves, playing down undesirable findings and perhaps even avoiding undertaking studies that could show unwanted effects. Those who break these unwritten rules are criticized.’ We’re hearing about future censorship of Facebook and Amazon posts that question vaccine policy. How can that help? Hesitant parents need to know that the science behind vaccine policy is good.” (n. pag.)
  And when we become fearful of engaging with dissent like this, there are other repercussions for medical science, as pointed out in a comment posted by “Diana Moses”: “I also want to add my personal complaint about the current atmosphere over vaccinations: it makes it much harder to have a nuanced discussion even about adult vaccinations (flu, shingles) with a doctor if you have a history of adverse reactions to vaccinations, because there’s apparently an assumption that if you have any concerns about vaccination, you must be an anti-vaxxer (as opposed to someone wanting to plan ahead, say, to rearrange your schedule in case you end up again with a high fever for a week after receiving a vaccination — apparently there are some base compounds in some vaccines that some people’s bodies react to).” (n. pag.)
  Also see the comment posted by “Borderlord,” who calls for the right kind of self-censorship, for the right reason (more nuanced, culturally-sensitive messaging): “Vaccination is a good idea, and I support it, but consider the public health people to be complete idiots when they talk about ‘herd immunity’. The phrase plays to the anti-vax crowd’s beliefs that ‘the government’ views us as sheep.” (n. pag.)
  You don’t have to be a rampant individualist or libertarian or anti-vaxer to feel that most of us are being “herded” by a bureaucratic medical establishment that cares more about profits than people. Medical science needs to engage with and dispel this fear, not feed it.

For another point of view on the evolving problem of militant ignorance — “insufferable know-it-alls” who “not only doubt expert advice, but believe themselves to be as smart, or even smarter, than experienced professionals” — see Tom Nichols’ IMHO essay, “The Problem with Thinking You Know More than the Experts” (first aired on the PBS NewsHour, 4/14/2017).
  In summary: “More and more, people don’t care about expert views. That’s according to Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, who says Americans have become insufferable know-it-alls, locked in constant conflict and debate with others over topics they actually know almost nothing about. Nichols shares his humble opinion on how we got here.” (n. pag.)
  There is additional discussion of Nichols’ opining for the NewsHour here.

Margaret Cavendish held that “men should be as free to Opinions as Opinions to them, to let them come and go at pleasure” (M. Cavendish, The Worlds Olio, 1655, 117).
  Click/tap here for an HTML transcription of four essays by the marchioness of Newcastle on opining, ignorance, and knowledge.

An update to the 8/25/2021 POLITICO op-ed (referenced above in the section headed, “PBS NewsHour Closes Its Digital Agon”) describing the group coalescing around the messaging app, #AfghanEvac, whose members are using their expertise to enable friends and former colleagues to escape the reach of Taliban revenge: “On balance the desperate appeals far outnumber the responses that proffer actual help. Even former chiefs of staff to Cabinet secretaries find themselves begging for basic info: ‘any word on what gates are open right now?’ Nevertheless, the diverse group of volunteers — veterans, Hill staffers, private sector employees, members of the intelligence community and human rights advocates — persists through disappointment, frustration, and panic. Driven by anger at their own government’s failures and haunted by personal experience in the decades-long conflict, participating in the #AfghanEvac group is a chance at redemption, to wrench something meaningful from the wreckage of ‘nation-building.’ One member describes it as ‘the finest organization I have been a part of.’” (Erik Edstrom, “‘Anyone Got Any Helos Sitting Around?’: How a Private Network Is Using a Messaging App to Rescue Afghans”, n. pag.)
  The suicide bombing at the airport gate in Kabul, killing 13 American service members and hundreds of Afghans, occurred the next day (8/26/2021), and by 8/30/2021, the U.S. military departure from Afghanistan was completed, stranding 100-200 Americans and countless Afghan allies.
  Their mission not yet accomplished, the paramilitary rescue networks, such as #AfghanEvac profiled by Erik Edstrom, which have helped thousands to safety, continue their life-saving work, and a week later, “existing coordination efforts” with the federal government officially “intensified”: “The White House has approved a recommendation by the nation’s top military officer that the administration intensify cooperation with the ad hoc groups that have been working to evacuate American citizens and at-risk Afghans from the country, a White House and two State Department officials told POLITICO” (Lara Seligman, Erin Banco and Alexander Ward, “White House Approves Partnership with Vets Evacuating U.S. Citizens, Afghan Allies: Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs chair, met with leaders for the first time at the Pentagon on Tuesday [9/7/2021]”, posted to POLITICO website, 9/9/2021).
  According to Seligman, Banco & Ward, at a 9/7/2021 meeting at the Pentagon with Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley, representatives for the various volunteer groups coordinating rescues were told that “the U.S. government, including both the Pentagon and the State Department, would act as the central point of contact.” (n. pag.)
  “During the meeting, Milley was ‘complimentary’ about the volunteer effort, and told attendees to expect ‘regular meetings’ going forward, one group member said. He also said he understands the desire by veterans to help those who fought alongside the U.S., the person said. The withdrawal is deeply personal for Milley, who commanded troops in Afghanistan and often speaks about his experience.” (n. pag.)
  “The new effort will focus in part on deconflicting the various lists of potential evacuees that each of the groups has independently put together, and verifying each person’s status, the official said.” “‘There is a lot of overlap, there is a lot of fuzziness about status,’ said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal issues. For example, the State Department has seen a number of cases in which one group will include the names of American citizens who are ostensibly on the ground trying to get out, but after investigation it turns out those people are actually already in the United States.” (n. pag.)
  “‘This is about coming up with good data and coming up with a common operating picture about really what the pool of people are that outside advocates are most worried about, where are they and how can we try to ... position ourselves to help them depart Afghanistan,’ the senior State Department official said, noting that the challenges until now have involved ‘physically securing access for these people to leave.’” (L. Seligman, E. Banco & A. Ward, n. pag.)
  The intensifying coordination between the military and grassroots vets’ groups is another example where critical pluralism has resulted in improved public service, and contributed to the common good.

NEW  And for a fascinating twist on the 8/25/2021 POLITICO op-ed “‘Anyone Got Any Helos Sitting Around?’” (referenced above in the section headed, “PBS NewsHour Closes Its Digital Agon”) describing activist vets’ groups who step up when government falls down on the job, see: “The Untold Story of the Afghan Women Who Hunted the Taliban: Trained by the U.S. Army, a group of trailblazing Afghan women turned into a formidable force in their homeland. They now live quietly scattered around the U.S., trying to reconcile their past with their present” by Amanda Ripley (posted to POLITICO’s website, 4/8/2022).
  Ripley’s powerful piece discusses the uncertain fate of 39 members of the Female Tactical Platoon — “a covert unit of female Afghan soldiers created and trained by U.S. Special Operations” that “worked alongside elite strike forces,” conducting “some two thousand missions” in the years from its creation in 2011 to 2021 — who were evacuated to the United States following the fall of Kabul in August 2021. Remarkably, the immigration status of these 39 female Afghan soldiers “remains in limbo.”
  As reported by Ripley, “Ellie” (an active-duty U.S. army captain) “and other veterans had spent months helping the women apply for Special Immigrant Visas — a program created by Congress in 2009 to offer safe haven to Afghans who had worked for the U.S. government. But the Platoon members soon learned they may not qualify. The Platoon was created by the Americans but formally under the employment of the Afghan National Army, which meant the women did not have a letter from a U.S. employer, as required for the visa.  ¶   In the meantime, all the Platoon members have to figure out a way to legally stay in America. The Platoon members ultimately evacuated Afghanistan through a program known as humanitarian parole, which means they can stay in the U.S. for up to two years and are entitled to Social Security numbers and work authorization papers. Most have also applied for something known as a Priority 1 visa, designed for refugees facing significant threats back home, but those applications are still pending. It is unclear whether evacuees will be able to receive extensions of the parole status while they wait for resolution, according to the National Immigration Forum.  ¶   In the months to come, the Platoon members may need to apply for asylum — through America’s dysfunctional asylum system, which has over 400,000 cases sitting in a backlog. Doing so may require expensive immigration lawyers and years of bureaucratic wrangling.  ¶   A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House and Senate is drafting language to introduce an Afghan Adjustment Act, which would allow the Platoon members and thousands of other Afghan evacuees living in the United States to apply for permanent status through a more streamlined system (just as Congress has done for Cuban, Vietnamese and Iraqi refugees, among others, in the past). The process could still take years, but it would be easier, cheaper and faster than the asylum system.” (Amanda Ripley, n. pag.)
  In the meantime, this highly-trained (at U.S. taxpayer expense) group of women warriors is being under-utilized. “If the U.S. doesn’t find a way to make use of the talent and experience of this group, their American military counterparts say, it will be a tragedy for both countries. ‘These women have been highly vetted to work alongside U.S. special operations,’ said Ellie. ‘We don’t want them to end up on nightshifts at Walmart in some small town in America. Put them in places where they can make decisions.’” (Amanda Ripley, n. pag.)

Anyone calling, as I am, for an ethical art of engagement & confrontation, born of respect for difference must, of necessity, take up the challenge posed by the meteoric rise of its opposite: the style of specious confrontation (generating more heat than light) perfected by talk radio, reality TV, and social media.
  There is no getting around the fact that such fake confrontation is endlessly entertaining and has great audience appeal. The real deal (generating more light, less heat) is far less dramatic, and the resulting deliberative spectacle much harder to watch unfold over time.
  IMO, a good case study of early-21st-century fake confrontation is Donald Trump, whose finely-tuned persona as a pugnacious, politically-incorrect outsider and change agent (combative, independent, can’t be bought) has taken him all the way to the White House. Whether it will be enough to keep him there is another matter. Already, there are enough contradictions in his performance of the assumed identity to raise questions about its true power.
  As explained by Scott Jennings in his op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, “Why Republicans Will Never Quit Trump: He has earned their forever loyalty for two simple reasons: attitude and gratitude” (3/10/2019, p. A19), the new Republicans coalescing around Trump are filled with enthusiasm by his ability to stick it to the liberal establishment: “Unencumbered by the pablum that traps most politicians, Trump is a perfect mirror when he takes the rally stage. The attendees see themselves in him; they don’t talk or think like politicians, either. And though their lives don’t permit them to attack those they find aggravating, they can live vicariously through a president who does it for them. This is especially true for rural folks, looked down upon as hicks and rubes by the coastal elites for a very long time. Bless your hearts, we do cling to our guns and religion because they are a deeply meaningful part of our heritage.” (S. Jennings, A19)
  Jennings taps into the “actual consumer demands of the Republican marketplace” and reports that, for this segment of the electorate, symbolic shows of strength (and the ability to spin everything as a “win,” whether it is or not) now take precedence over policy and political principle. It is simply assumed that President Trump will continue “doing basic Republican stuff,” so no one need sweat the details (or dollars!).
  I agree that symbolism is important (e.g., it can be helpful to encapsulate the Republican-Democrat debate over immigration in the 2 parties’ choice of symbols: for the Republicans, a forbidding wall stretching the length of the US southern border vs. a welcoming Statue of Liberty for the Democrats). But I also believe that we lose more than we gain when we start substituting symbols (and slogans) for substance.
  According to Jennings’ op-ed, what the rural Republicans who control the Electoral College really want is to be heard and taken seriously: they want their rightful place at the table. But it’s hard to see how Trump’s cartoonish style of confrontation will win for them the respect & influence they crave.
  There is mounting evidence that Trump avoids real confrontations with the establishment. E.g., see the provocative exchange between Shields & Brooks airing on the PBS NewsHour for Friday, 3/1/2019:
  “[DAVID BROOKS:] I spoke to a friend of Trump’s a couple months ago. And he said, you have to remember, this guy hates conflict. He will do it over Twitter. He will never do it face to face.  ¶   And so he’s there with North Korea.
  “[JUDY WOODRUFF:] He said that about President Trump?
  “[DAVID BROOKS:] Trump, yes.  ¶   And so he’s there with North Korea. He doesn’t want to offend the people in the room with him, because he just hates that sort of thing. So he will just kiss up to anybody in the room, and then tweet about them behind their back.
  “[MARK SHIELDS:] Well, he kisses up, but he kicks down. I mean, that’s the character — a lack of character of the man. In other words, you’re nice to people up here, but people who are below you, there’s a mistreatment and a maltreatment.” (n. pag.)
  Others besides Woodruff responded with incredulity to Brooks’ insight: “... Anyone who saw him [Trump] in the room with Schumer and Pelosi, bragging about how proud he would be of shutting down the government, knows that’s not true.” (comment posted by “John Haas,” n. pag.)
  But others developed on it: “Trump avoids confrontations. He wants everyone to admire him — insecure child with a need to be ‘liked’. However, his big mouth and ego will frequently push him over the edge. Chuck and Nancy played him like a cheap fiddle.” (comment posted by “fed-up-Redhead,” n. pag.)
  I, too, thought Trump came off as out of his league in the staged confrontation with Pelosi and Schumer, where the president blustered and talked around and past the others (e.g., he never engaged Pelosi in argument when she challenged his assertions, telling him repeatedly he didn’t have the votes he claimed to have). Unable to keep up with her on the issues, he lost control of the narrative, backing himself into a corner by resorting to his usual hyperbole ... hardly the sort of bold, visionary win-win solution we’ve come to expect from an expert negotiator, whether in business or politics.
  In his LA Times op-ed, Jennings describes Trump as a “marketing virtuoso” who “knows his competitors better than they know themselves” (S. Jennings, A19).
  But this kind of competitive edge is wasted if you can’t use it to grow your market share.
  I see little evidence of that, thus far, and would caution Trump Republican enthusiasts that manipulating the antiquated Electoral College system to foist on this country a president who has twice lost the national popular vote will prove a Pyrrhic victory.

For another point of view from a member of a conservative religious community, also tired of being stereotyped & ridiculed rather than engaged, see the IMHO segment for the PBS NewsHour, “A Jewish Comedian on Why Religious Beliefs Shouldn’t Be Fair Game for Derision” (first aired 4/1/2019).
  SUMMARY: “Comedian Ashley Blaker is an Orthodox Jew. Despite our politically correct modern society, he’s accustomed to strangers judging him by his appearance, making assumptions about his views on Israel and the size of his family. Blaker offers his humble opinion on why religious beliefs shouldn’t be fair game for derision.”

And another story from the cultural divide, this time profiling a trans woman public intellectual and YouTube provocateur characterized as “that rare presence in our clamorous times: an internet voice resonant not with rage but with satire, humor, nuance and an inviting if at times sardonic sense of persuasion” (J. Fleishman, E1): “First, Start a Dialogue: Using provocative humor, YouTuber ContraPoints engages the fringes” by Jeffrey Fleishman (Los Angeles Times, 6/16/2019, pp. E1 and E4–E5), retitled “Transgender YouTube Star ContraPoints Tries to Change Alt-Right Minds” for online posting.
  ContraPoints (aka Natalie Wynn) skewers the “fringe thinking of both left and right” (E4) with video podcasts that “flay her enemies even as she seeks to understand their beliefs” (E1). The popular vlogger, “attuned to the flamboyant and the thoughtful, the popular and the niche” (E5), defies easy categorization and possesses “the unicorn of skills” (E4): a leftist who speaks the language of people who “tend to fall down reactionary alt-right rabbit holes,” and because of this, she can sometimes “get them to reconsider their positions.” (J. Fleishman, E4)
  “‘I want to understand where people are coming from,’ she says. ‘I don’t just want to nail my mind shut, and say whoever disagrees is coming from some inexplicable evil. There’s a reason people buy the things they do. I think I have a more psychological than philosophical approach. I don’t think logic is the main structure in why people believe things. More often it comes from experience and emotion, and I want to understand that and then you can communicate.’” (J. Fleishman, E5)
  This Hobbesian-style insight into rhetorized psychology is given play in ContraPoints’s contribution to the polarizing debate over climate change. In a 24-minute video entitled The Apocalypse, Wynn “plays two characters: an affluent woman sipping champagne in a bathtub, indifferent to global warming, and a scientist trying to convince her of the consequences of rising temperatures. Amid gags — the scientist stabs a watermelon (Earth) — Wynn delves into reports warning of a catastrophe and the politics of climate-change deniers. It’s an erudite lesson in history, economics and the environment spliced with Wynn’s lacerating critiques and the suggestions that rational rebuttals are often not enough to win over opponents.” (J. Fleishman, E5)

The American poet and translator, Brooks Haxton, has probed his own “failure / to communicate” across the generational divide with a younger colleague, observing that “Differences in scale and point of view may be deceptive.” (B. Haxton, 69)
  See the poem, “Don’t Get Me Wrong: In praise of George Starbuck and his poem ‘Of Late’”, by Brooks Haxton (The Progressive, Dec. 2018/Jan. 2019, vol. 82, no. 6, p. 69).

And for an organizational psychologist’s take on constructive confrontation that produces change, that drives the story forward: see the PBS NewsHour Brief But Spectacular episode, “How to Give Feedback So People Hear You’re Trying to Help,” by Adam Grant (first aired 8/9/2018).
  His video op-ed opens: “I read a study not long ago which showed that highly creative adults grew up in families where their parents argued more. Not only argued more, but argued in front of their children, which, as a dad, I just thought was something you’re never supposed to do.  ¶   And yet, the more I read about this research, the more I realized that if you never disagree in front of your kids, they think there’s one right answer to everything, whereas if they see you argue, they realize there might be multiple perspectives on a problem, and they have to learn to think for themselves.  ¶   It’s not how often parents argue that affects kids’ well-being. It’s how constructively they argue.” (n. pag.)

With her suggestive op-ed, “Debate Format Needs Revamp” (San Diego Union-Tribune, 11/15/2019, p. B7), Michelle Sadrena Pledger seeks to “disrupt the traditional [presidential debate] format in favor of one so ancient that its introduction to the national stage might make it appear to be progressive. I’m talking about a public Socratic seminar” — an “evidence-based discussion that helps students listen deeply, establish common ground, build on each other’s ideas and disagree with decorum in pursuit of cooperative learning.” (M. S. Pledger, B7)
  “If we used the Socratic method, not only would potential voters have an opportunity to learn about each candidate’s political stance, they will also witness each candidate’s ability to produce compelling arguments, collaborate, compromise and communicate effectively using logic and reasoning — qualities that are essential to restoring our democracy.” (M. S. Pledger, B7)
  IMO, a Socratic format — valuing “inquiry, critical thinking, evidence-based statements, collective impact and, above all, compassion for the diversity of the human experience” (M. S. Pledger, B7) — is just what is needed if we are to come to grips with such tough public-policy subjects as radical health care reform.
  For an introduction to some of the complexities driving the debate over expensive “Medicare for All” proposals vs. “a public option,” seeThe ‘Public Option’ on Health Care Is a Poison Pill: Some Democratic candidates are pushing it as a free-choice version of Medicare for All. That’s good rhetoric but bad policy” by David U. Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler (The Nation, 309.10, 21 Oct. 2019: 20–26).

To learn more about the engraver of the 17th-century head-piece pictured at upper left (near top of page), see the IN BRIEF biography for Wenceslaus Hollar.


With revisions made to this page on 8/16/2019, I have begun using NEW stickers to make it easier for this page’s many repeat visitors to locate new content, which is evolving at a faster rate than I anticipated when I first created this page.
  I’m still trying to figure out the best way to manage burgeoning scholarly content in slow haste, and have already raised some related issues in another sidebar note, here.
  So, please be patient as you watch me try out new ideas ... make big mistakes ... then correct course, and try again....

Can’t find something you’re sure you learned about here?
  Try using our customized search tool (search box at the top of the right-hand sidebar on this page), which is updated every time new content is added to the public areas of the website, thus ensuring the most comprehensive and reliable searches of She-philosopher.​com.
  Learn more about our ethical, customized search tool here.
  To ensure that you’re viewing She-philosopher.​com’s most recently-updated content (both here and elsewhere at the website), don’t forget to use your browser’s Reload current page button — typically, an icon featuring a broken circle, with arrowhead on one end. For some computers, the keyboard shortcuts, Ctrl+R and F5 or Command-R, will also work; or you can right-click for a context-sensitive menu with the Reload this page button/command.
  Refreshing a page is especially important if you find yourself visiting the same Web page more than once within a relatively short time frame. I may have made modifications to the page in the interim, and you won’t always know this unless you force your browser to access the server (rather than your computer’s cache) to retrieve the requested Web page.

go to TOP of page

First Published:  August 2012 (under different file name)
Revised (substantive):  11 April 2022

Opening quotation markA great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.Closing quotation mark

 WILLIAM JAMES (1842–1910)
physician, psychologist & philosopher associated with the American school of Pragmatism

Critical Pluralism

S O R R Y,  but this page — promoting a rhetoric of constructive engagement and confrontation in which “social groups with differing interests encounter each other in a struggle that produces change, that drives the story forward,” enabling us to live and work together with differences — is still under construction.

printer's decorative block

^ 17th-century head-piece, showing six boys with farm tools, engraved by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–1677).

We apologize for the inconvenience, and hope that you will return to check on its progress another time.

If you have specific questions relating to’s ongoing research projects, contact the website editor.



P B S    N E W S H O U R    C L O S E S    I T S    D I G I T A L    A G O N

I am sorry to report that yet another of the World Wide Web’s experiments in critical pluralism was abandoned in August 2021.

As documented here, the PBS NewsHour has shut down the discussion free-for-all hosted by Disqus which has attracted NewsHour viewers for years:

As of August 25th, 2021, PBS NewsHour is amending the commenting policy on our website and will only allow commenting on specific, moderated articles. We will communicate within the article when commenting has been turned on.

(accessed 8/25/2021)

In place of its formerly free-wheeling discussion boards, the NewsHour will offer moderated discussion — which typically imposes some standard of decorum, more suitable to the powers-that-be than the participants. Plus, NewsHour moderators will further limit viewers’ and visitors’ free speech by selecting which articles — of the many posted to their website — can be publicly, and more decorously, discussed.

Such censorship is most unfortunate, especially given the all-inclusive public broadcasting brand with which it is associated.

Over the years, I have pointed to numerous PBS NewsHour stories precisely because they offer’s international audience something more than just “expert” opinion, which these days is easily found all over the Internet and mainstream/legacy media. In other words, the NewsHour’s formula for coaxing solid information from carefully-selected experts — often while engaging with other experts in moderated, timed conversation — is not unusual. What makes NewsHour reporting compelling for me is when the monologues of experts are tested in dialogue with recalcitrant others, whose wide-ranging experiences, perspectives, researches, and opinions enrich that of the specialist every time. It is my belief that the raw, obstreperous, running commentary of NewsHour regulars — who watch/read and respond to whichever NewsHour segments and posts strike their fancies — adds value to the NewsHour’s journalism.

Rather than embracing this strange alchemy, the NewsHour is joining with other MSM in shutting it down.

As of today [8/25/2021] PBS is eliminating comments for select topics, case in point today’s Jen Psaki briefing. The comment blackout begins. A common theme these days, CNN long ago cut out comments on all their articles, the Guardian soon followed, hopefully PBS doesn’t entirely blackout all their stories. There was a time that almost every major news site allowed comments for all their stories, now only a fraction do. What are they afraid of exactly?

(“Bob,” comment posted to Disqus discussion thread for “WATCH LIVE: Blinken Gives Remarks on Americans Remaining in Afghanistan” by The Associated Press and News Desk [posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 8/25/2021])

If they’re changing to moderated forums by actual human moderators, I can only think they must’ve gotten complaints about the free-for-all of the existing threads. Which means a lot of us aren’t going to be allowed to comment in the future.
   Oh, well. C’est la vie.

(“LLC,” responding to “Bob,” in Disqus discussion thread for “WATCH LIVE: Blinken Gives Remarks on Americans Remaining in Afghanistan” by The Associated Press and News Desk [posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 8/25/2021])

Freedom of expression limited to the extremily rich who control the media and the WEIRD’s who work as journalists; we the little people who might know plenty will no longer have an opportunity to have a word or two on an issue. The powerful shutting us up.

(“Alec Santanach,” comment posted to Disqus discussion thread for “2 U.S. Lawmakers’ Kabul Trip Prompts Biden Administration Fury” by Lolita C. Baldor, of The Associated Press [posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 8/25/2021])

In truth, I learn as much (sometimes a great deal more ;-) from the free-flowing comments of NewsHour viewers/visitors — that is, when “the little people [...] have a word or two on an issue” — as I do from the original NewsHour stories. And that includes the contributions of “noxious contributors” and “nuts,” which IMO add to the mix, even though a majority of the NewsHour’s audience probably doesn’t think so.

You [i.e., “Alec Santanach,” to whom this comment is addressed] may recall from past remarks I made that I have been expecting (edit: and hoping for) a complete silencing of comments. I also find the service (commenting) a dis-service populated by various noxious contributors. Disinformation, misinformation, ignorance, insults and bickering etc flying from every direction/political perspective, (edit: including some journalists), with very few exceptions (among the public and politicians). It has been getting worse and worse, even after somebody/something zapped/de-platformed several of the worst offenders a couple of months ago.
   It was at least a kind of cross-section of US society’s general publics’ attitudes etc. And reflective of trends and pre-occupations, and excessive ignorance.
   My opinion: I do not interpret the new policy the way you (Tonto) describe it at all. But I have no definite rationale/no inside information. I would expect there to be more to it than PBS will admit to, (edit: PBS will put up a smokescreen).
   Coincidentally there has been a surge in pandemic disinformation recently from the likes of JohnG123, Wfeather1940 (new, prolific agent/lobbyist, with an inventory of canned comments), JJJ, and the like.
   Also, the “$80 per hour” spamming has become relentless.

(“Donald Telfer,” comment posted to Disqus discussion thread for “2 U.S. Lawmakers’ Kabul Trip Prompts Biden Administration Fury” by Lolita C. Baldor, of The Associated Press [posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 8/25/2021])

[...] Thinking about what I described earlier about traffic, in recent times some Newshour stories have only had zero, one or two comments, particularly overseas news stories. For a story on Zambia I made the only comment (until my comment had spam replied to it), and the last time I looked, a follow up Zambia story had no comments.
   The overall decline in comments = lack of traffic, is a possible explanation of the possible temporary/permanent cessation of the service. It costs PBS say $25 000 a month (guesswork) and there are I think at any one time about 100 commenters and say 2000 readers (lurkers, people who read comments but never comment). The economic issue and cutting costs was in other cases part of the justification for closing down comments at other media outlets.
   Other possibilities: problems with hacking/internet attacks, policy to force people to use Facebook or Youtube or other alternative channels.
   I/we can all comment on Newshour videos on Youtube (?), but the text-only stories do not appear (sic) on Youtube. Edit: Youtube “Comments are turned off”, Ministry of Truth speaking. [...]

(“Donald Telfer,” again commenting on “2 U.S. Lawmakers’ Kabul Trip Prompts Biden Administration Fury” by Lolita C. Baldor, of The Associated Press [posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 8/25/2021])

To which the addressee of these remarks replied:

Hi Donald,
   Yes, there is ignorance and propaganda and agenda but that’s exactly what we are being fed under the veneer of fair and accurate.
   I disagree, what you got was people who “cared” enough to comment and they do not represent a cross-section of the US; it does give you an inkling but most Americans are MORE ignorant than people posting and LESS concerned about society (exclude the not-so-...whatshouldIcallthem... “centered”) [...].

(“Alec Santanach,” comment posted to Disqus discussion thread for “2 U.S. Lawmakers’ Kabul Trip Prompts Biden Administration Fury” by Lolita C. Baldor, of The Associated Press [posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 8/25/2021])

On the matter of “excessive ignorance,” I hold to the 17th-century truism:

I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him.

— attributed to the Italian polymath,
Galileo Galilei (1564–1642)

As for obtaining an “inkling” into a “cross-section of US society’s general publics’ attitudes etc. [...] reflective of trends and pre-occupations”: that is a rare privilege these days, when most of us are cocooned in information bubbles, as acknowledged in the following exchange between NewsHour discussants “fed-up-Redhead,” “KOB,” “m&m,” and “WoozyCanary”:

   [posted by “KOB”]   Red [here addressing “fed-up-Redhead”] seeing how PBS is closing shop you might want to consider < >. It has a liberal bias but at least you don’t have some of the nuts over there. They won’t put up with them. [...] Also if PBS had assigned one of their interns to moderate this site things might not have devolved. [...] I disagree with people from time to time on there [newsviews]. What they don’t put up with is trolls or insults. You will get blocked for that.
   [posted by “WoozyCanary”]   Meh. The place [newsviews] is run by a bunch of defensive, Dembot control freaks and will censor you for any kind of criticism targeting Democratic establishment corruption, hypocrisy, etc.
   [posted by “m&m”]   do you [“WoozyCanary”] have a suggestion?
   [posted by “WoozyCanary”]   Not really. Most general news outlets have discontinued general discussion forums under stories.  ¶   There are plenty of site with particular ideological leanings that have moderated comments (Reader Supported News, Common Dreams, etc., on the progressive side). Opinions can still range pretty widely, though the MAGAt/disinfo types get booted.

(excerpted from Disqus discussion thread for “2 U.S. Lawmakers’ Kabul Trip Prompts Biden Administration Fury” by Lolita C. Baldor, of The Associated Press [posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 8/25/2021])

So those complaining about a “cancel culture” directed at anti-establishment Trump supporters, right-wing populists, libertarians, kooky conspiracists, racist fringe groups, etc. are not wrong. Too often, their voices are being marginalized (labeled trolls, bots, foreign agents, etc.) rather than engaged.

   [posted by “Prospector”]   Just tried commenting on a new story and I was redirected to a page stating that The Newshour is changing their commenting policy and that comments will be restricted to moderator’s approval. The Ministry of Truth is expanding. This coincides with Step Aside Joe’s [President Biden] crashing approval numbers. Most recent poll gives him 41% approval and 55% disapproval [...] It was anticipated that the situation in Kabul would take a deadly turn and that’s why The Newshour is shutting down free speech.  ¶   Hoka Hey, Ministry of Truth! [...] I figure they’re taking their cues from Twitter and Facebook and will be silencing contrarian voices like ours.  ¶   We’ll see.
   [posted by “EleanordeAqutaine” [sic]]   PBS doesn’t want no stinking opinions expressed that clash with its “Truth”.  ¶   This is a common leftist media response to opinions not sanctified by the left.  ¶   The joke on this, however, is it just pushes non leftists readers and listeners to FOX.  ¶   CNN once had a vibrant comment section that attracted lots. [...] Comment posters on PBS, sure you are upset by the new wave of censorship terror imposed by your masters at PBS.  ¶   There is still freedom to post comments from left to right on FOX.  ¶   Dump PBS and go to FOX.
   [posted by “Truck O’Trolls”]   Faux Noise?  ¶   LOL!  ¶   Commenting is open on the Washington Post and many New York Times articles[.]
   [posted by “KOB”]   They [PBS NewsHour] are pulling a NPR move. That’s what happens when people get too crazy with the constant daily insults.
   [posted by “EleanordeAqutaine” [sic]]   Yes, you are correct! Almost every day there was a comment posted that did not faithfully adhere to the PBS slanted news agenda.  ¶   I actually saw some in support of Trump!  ¶   Some even questioned Biden’s winning the election, a treasonous thought!  ¶   PBS is right to shut everyone up because another comment may again occur that does not meet their editorial agenda.  ¶   I’[m] sorry a faithful lap dog like you [“KOB”] to PBS’s political agenda has also been silenced but sometimes you need to throw the baby out with the wash.
   [posted by “Prospector”]   It’s too bad PBS doesn’t take cues from other news sites that use Disqus and actively monitor comments for violations of site policy. If they did this, PBS staff would be aware of what the buzz is, instead of walling off the Commenterati.
   [posted by “WoozyCanary”]   Not worth their time to “monitor” the reams of dreck you [“Prospector”] MAGAt trolls poop out.
   [posted by “Prospector”]   You [“WoozyCanary”] wouldn’t survive two comments on actively moderated sites. I’ve been there (and here) for more than ten years.

(excerpted from Disqus discussion thread for “2 U.S. Lawmakers’ Kabul Trip Prompts Biden Administration Fury” by Lolita C. Baldor, of The Associated Press [posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 8/25/2021])

Over the years, I have come to value the contrarian contributions of conservative-leaning characters among the NewsHour Commenterati (“Prospector,” “guitarman121,” “Borderlord,” “gvel,” “Bob Johnson,” “virgil,” “WesSeid,” “Hugh Everett,” “Mike,” “Pirovano,” “Jim Davies,” “Pirx’s Co-Pilot,” et al.). Rancorous and cantankerous as the left-right exchanges can get (e.g., “kent allen” vs. just about everyone and “John B, Des Moines” vs. “Prospector”), I almost always learn from them.

I was reminded of this when I sought out unfiltered feedback to President Biden’s emotional speech of 8/26/2021, responding to the ISIS-K attacks outside the Kabul airport that same day — at least 169 Afghans, plus 13 U.S. service members who were evacuating American citizens and others from Afghanistan, were killed — along with Jen Psaki’s press briefing which followed Biden’s speech. There were no comments to be found.

Later that evening, I wanted unfiltered feedback to two NewsHour segments: “Biden Vows to ‘Hunt’ ISIS-K as Evacuations Continue amid Kabul Blast Chaos” and “Analyzing the Risk to U.S. Troops Remaining in Afghanistan until Aug. 31”. Again, there was no discussion (decorous or otherwise ;-) to be found.

As such, little now separates NewsHour reporting from that at POLITICO (which, I should note, I first learned about from another character in the NewsHour Commenterati, “Birdman”). POLITICO ran a related op-ed entitled, “‘Anyone Got Any Helos Sitting Around?’: How a Private Network Is Using a Messaging App to Rescue Afghans: Horrified by U.S. government failures to help former colleagues and friends trapped in Afghanistan, the group is using its connections to fill the breach” by Erik Edstrom (posted to POLITICO website, 8/25/2021). As always, I finished reading this evocative news item at POLITICO wanting more: a NewsHour-style Commenterati free-for-all. Now, there is no such thing to be found at either website.

Like democracy itself, unfiltered discussion associated with critical pluralism is messy and problematic (not to mention frustrating and infuriating ;-). But our 21st-century problems of data-driven demagoguery, disinformation, hate, and bullying can not be allowed to drive such hard-nosed conversations from the public square.

Several NewsHour discussants have suggested that the spread of so much disinformation (especially about the COVID-19 pandemic) on their comments forum contributed to the NewsHour’s decision to cancel the Commenterati.

If so, I would counter that disinformation doesn’t just go away when we censor it; it festers and builds. What people are really thinking and saying in private needs a good public airing if we are to have any hope at all of changing hearts & minds (our own, as well as others’). Aggressive “progs” and “Dems” like “LLC” and “kent allen” are to be applauded for coming back, week after week, to engage even the out-and-out racists (e.g., “American_Renaissance”) on the facts & logic of their arguments. “LLC” and “kent allen” are relentless combatants in the battle of statistics, as are calmer centrists like “gvel,” whose data-driven arguments, repeated over & over, strike me like the Energizer Bunny.

Despite the tedious insults which are hurled back-and-forth as tempers fray, discussants’ willingness to repeatedly engage all those spreading disinformation (featuring cherry-picked statistics & texts) is even more critical now as we enter the next stage in the COVID-19 culture wars, led by Florida’s politically ambitious governor, Ron DeSantis. Governor DeSantis is pushing monoclonal antibody treatments, presented as more effective at combating COVID-19 than vaccines plus masking, making this complicated and tendentious issue the next battleground in the infodemic plaguing all of us. The conservative media outlet, One America News Network, is set to air a two-day series on the treatments, entitled America’s Governor & Florida’s Grit: How Antibody Therapy Combats COVID-19, as reported by Matt Dixon in “Florida Starts Turning on DeSantis” (posted to POLITICO website, 8/27/2021). I would love to hear the NewsHour Commenterati’s take on this. But I no longer can. Cf.Judge Blocks Florida Governor’s Order Banning Mask Mandates” by Terry Spencer and Curt Anderson, of The Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 8/27/2021). The silence enveloping this post-8/25/2021 AP story marks it as ephemeral — yet another entry in the incessant flow of “news” which most of us, busy living our lives, will miss — and less meaningful than it would have been prior to 8/25/2021, when given extended life by the NewsHour’s Commenterati.

Similarly, the PBS NewsHour segment, “Despite Rise in Delta Cases, U.S. Police Forces Push Back against Vaccine Mandates” (first aired, 8/26/2021) would have benefited from the Commenterati’s attention. This is William Brangham’s interview with Art Acevedo, Miami’s chief of police, who supports a vaccine mandate for law enforcement and first responders across the country, and faces rank-and-file resistance:

   [WILLIAM BRANGHAM:]   I know, in Miami, you guys have not instituted a mandate yet. That’s a city decision. But you’re getting pushback already from your union.  ¶   I’d like to read a quote here: “It is the stance of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police that vaccinations are a choice that should be made personally, without coercion or threats. Should chief Art Acevedo attempt to mandate vaccines, we will be forced to challenge said mandate.”

(PBS NewsHour segment, “Despite Rise in Delta Cases, U.S. Police Forces Push Back against Vaccine Mandates” [first aired, 8/26/2021])

Such sentiments extend through the mid-west, to the west coast:

   [WILLIAM BRANGHAM:]   [...] In Chicago, responding to that city’s October vaccine mandate, the head of the police union said his members won’t comply. This has literally lit a bomb underneath the membership. He said: “We're in America, G-damn it. We don’t want to be forced to do anything, period. This ain’t Nazi F-ing Germany.”  ¶   Similarly, in Los Angeles, a city fire department captain went online and blasted the imminent vaccine mandate for all city employees:
   [CAPT. CRISTIAN GRANUCCI, Los Angeles City Fire Department:]   This is not a political issue. This is not left-right. This is not Democrat-Republican. This is not vax-unvax. This is a fight for freedom of choice, free will. This is a fight against tyranny.

(PBS NewsHour segment, “Despite Rise in Delta Cases, U.S. Police Forces Push Back against Vaccine Mandates” [first aired, 8/26/2021])

To claim “This is not a political issue,” when it so clearly is (“a fight against tyranny”), is cognitive dissonance of the sort best probed and resolved by way of critical pluralism. According to the LA City Fire Department captain quoted by William Brangham, the rank-and-file’s beef is not with vaccination per se (“This is not vax-unvax.”), so proliferating disinformation about the vaccine is not what’s driving the pushback, and putting out yet more officially-sanctioned information about the vaccine (as Art Acevedo replies below, “We are paying attention to the information. We’re giving information to folks.”) is not the answer. The real wedge issue is not epistemological, but political: too many of us feel that resisting vaccine/mask mandates (and in a similar vein, recalling California Governor Gavin Newsom — another casualty of our cultural proxy wars) is the only way for disempowered citizens to assert ourselves against unrepresentative government in our dysfunctional republic. I share this experience of unrepresentative government, so I understand people’s exasperation at being told to put up and shut up by the powers-that-be, even as they violate my constitutional right (First Amendment) “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

That said, I am a true believer in public health mandates, despite the personal inconveniences they may cause.

And I believe it’s a strategic mistake to go to war over surrogate issues. Perhaps I spend too much time visiting the 17th century — when tyranny was a near-universal experience, and public health mandates (e.g., every time the plague came to town) were truly Draconian — to take the combative rights rhetoric of early-21st-century U.S. pluto-populists seriously. But I still find myself wondering: in what alternative universe do reasonable citizens equate modern, liberal public health mandates concerning life-saving vaccines with “tyranny” and “Nazi F-ing Germany”?

Unclear as to why rank-and-file police and fire-fighters are resisting commonsense public health injunctions during a pandemic, Chief Acevedo has tried to recontextualize vaccination as a nonpartisan medical issue (“when you want to find out about the weather, you go to a meteorologist”; “When you want to find out about what to do in terms of a vaccine or a virus or a public health issue, you go to the doctors ... you go to the scientists”). Better yet, he continues to actively engage those in his command who come at this wedge issue with less power than he does, sharing with them a unique set of experiences to which they are not privy.

   [WILLIAM BRANGHAM:]   I mean, as you say, Florida is suffering record high cases, near record daily deaths. The hospitals are full. Funeral homes don’t — can’t keep up.  ¶   What is your sense as to why this resistance exists among the rank-and-file?
   [ART ACEVEDO:]   I wish I knew the answer to that.  ¶   Unfortunately, it’s just another indication of the division in this country, where we politicize everything. Like, I encourage people that, when you want to find out about the weather, you go to a meteorologist. When you want to find out about what to do in terms of a vaccine or a virus or a public health issue, you go to the doctors. You go to the scientists.  ¶   And so, luckily, again, with the FDA approval, I think that people are starting to get more comfortable with it. And I’m hopeful that common sense will win the day moving forward.
   [WILLIAM BRANGHAM:]   Do you think this is all partisan politics, though?  ¶   Because I have heard from a lot of people that there are people out there, they may not consult the CDC or epidemiologists or public health officials. Do you feel like you guys have done a good enough job trying to assess rank-and-file’s questions about the vaccine, and then try to address those questions?
   [ART ACEVEDO:]   Yes, we are.  ¶   We are paying attention to the information. We’re giving information to folks. And — but to say that it’s not a political issue, I listened to the sound bite you played earlier, lord, you would think it was beginning of the revolution just because you want somebody to get vaccinated, where the data and the science shows — look, vaccinations are not a new science.  ¶   Vaccinations have been saving lives forever. I’m starting to print and tweet out letters that I do for all peace officers that come to my attention that have died. I have always done line-of-duty death letters.  ¶   And I can tell you, I have signed hundreds of letters for active-duty members of law enforcement.
   [WILLIAM BRANGHAM:]   That’s law enforcement who have died of COVID?
   [ART ACEVEDO:]   Of COVID.  ¶   And it’s been hundreds for me. So I’m tweeting those. I just started tweeting them recently. I did 10 a couple days ago, six last night. I just did 10 more today — two more today. And so they’re just adding up.  ¶   And I can tell you, as I speak to my work force, I don’t think we’re going to have to mandate, because I just got off the phone a little while ago with a member of our department that was very hesitant, for whatever reasons. He’s been in the hospital.  ¶   And he says: Chief, the second I get back to work, and I’m already telling my friends, this has been the worst thing I have ever experienced in my life. I came close to dying. And I am going to get vaccinated in exactly about 90 days as soon as I can, because I bit the bullet. I dodged a bullet, they are saying, and I don’t want my friends to go through this, and I don’t want to see a friend die.

(PBS NewsHour segment, “Despite Rise in Delta Cases, U.S. Police Forces Push Back against Vaccine Mandates” [first aired, 8/26/2021])

This is the power of critical pluralism — an art of engagement & confrontation, grounded in our “overlapping yet irreconcilable experiences”. As that mavin of critical pluralism, Katha Pollitt, observed in 2018, when the nation was convulsed by President Trump’s power grab & ceaseless campaign of disinformation: “what changes people’s minds about important convictions is experience” (see sidebar entry, above right).

It is our worldly experiences — including our encounters with others and their different experiences — that drive hearts and minds and behaviors. Internet communications have transformed such personal encounters in profound ways, and the demand for more, not less, critical pluralism has gone global, penetrating even the elite echelons of the U.S. military, as reported by Nick Niedzwiadek in “Marine Officer Relieved of Duty after Calling Out Senior Leaders about Afghanistan: ‘I am willing to throw it all away to say to my senior leaders, “I demand accountability,”’ Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller said in a video message” (posted to POLITICO website, 8/27/2021).

In a brave new world “Ruled & Governed by Opinion” (Wenceslaus Hollar print, 1641), it is surprising to see the PBS NewsHour give up on the promise of dialogized journalism modeled by its Commenterati. Admittedly, the ensuing free-for-all was nowhere near perfect (more like Bakhtinian carnival ;-) but for scholars like me, it worked — surprisingly well — and I shall miss such a rare opportunity to engage the recalcitrant Other.


go to TOP of page

go up a level:’s IN BRIEF page