One of the most common problems with public discourse is the proliferation of noise in the sense of “signals that are random (unpredictable) and carry no useful information.” Noise in the news cycle now threatens to drown out everything else. When Donald Trump called Baltimore “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” CNN anchor Victor Blackwell described it as insulting. Baltimore mayor Bernard C. Jack Young argued that the observation itself was simply illegitimate. “It’s completely unacceptable for the political leader of our country to denigrate a vibrant American City like Baltimore, and to viciously attack U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings a patriot and a hero.”
Although incandescent emotions were exchanged, in the end, it was hard to tell what the entire storm was about. Perhaps the emotions themselves were the object: fireworks, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” And in the current charged atmosphere emotions are easy to gin up. Liberal icon Maureen Dowd found herself under relentless attack for being offensive to someone by looking too expensive.
Then this week, lefty Twitter erected a digital guillotine because I had a book party for my friend Carl Hulse, The Times’s authority on Capitol Hill for decades, attended by family, journalists, Hill denizens and a smattering of lawmakers, including Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Susan Collins.
I, the daughter of a D.C. cop, and Carl, the son of an Illinois plumber, were hilariously painted as decadent aristocrats reveling like Marie Antoinette when we should have been knitting like Madame Defarge.
Taking offense at anything is now common for two reasons: intersectionality and the death of privacy. Intersectionality holds that oppression can come from literally anywhere: class, race, sexual orientation, age, religion, creed, disability, and gender. It can even originate from sources we haven’t even imagined yet. “Critics have pointed out that intersectionality relies entirely on non-objective concepts such as ‘systems of power’ which themselves lack a material reality.” The end of privacy means we are all listening at each other’s keyholes.
The result is a world riddled with provocation; not simply present-day insults but offenses that can actually travel through time. Only two days before Blackwell spoke, CNN’s photo editor Mohammed Elshamy was forced to resign for anti-Semitic tweets he made, not recently but nine years ago at the age of 16.
Yesterday, tweets that I made in 2011 resurfaced in which I made offensive and hateful comments. I want to unequivocally express my apology to everyone, especially those in the Jewish community, who were offended by the tweets. I also want to apologize to my family, friends, and mentors who I am ashamed to have let down in this way.
Nor is Elshamy alone. State governors and Supreme Court nominees have found their school days scrutinized for any trace of political incorrectness. The BBC pointed out that school yearbooks now have the power to destroy lives. “The New York Times trawled through more of Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbooks to find a catalogue of sexist and racist incidents.”
But you don’t have to be famous to be caught up in the furore over their contents… In fact, you don’t even have to have left high school to find yourself in serious trouble over your yearbook photograph: look at the case of Hunter Osborn, an Arizona senior who ended up facing 69 counts of indecent exposure back in 2016.
Why? Because he had exposed himself during a team photo for a dare – the same photo which was later included in the high school yearbook. So, the day the teenager should have been at the prom, he found himself under arrest, wearing an ankle monitor, facing the possibility of a long sentence and having to sign onto the sex offenders register.
This means no public policy issue can be examined in an environment free from hatred. That beau ideal of scientific inquiry, the controlled experiment, is no longer possible or very difficult to achieve. “Most experimental designs measure only one or two variables at a time. Any other factor, which could potentially influence the results, must be correctly controlled.” How can this be done when intersectionality can intrude at any time and spoil the soup? Nowhere is safe, not even math. Recently a “university professor has claimed teaching maths perpetuates ‘unearned’ white privilege.”
“On many levels, mathematics itself operates as Whiteness. Who gets credit for doing and developing mathematics, who is capable in mathematics, and who is seen as part of the mathematical community is generally viewed as White,” she wrote.
Ironically this universal linkage has also made safe spaces impossible. “The term safe space refers to places created for individuals who feel marginalized to come together to communicate regarding their experiences with marginalization … The Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) which claims to represent 200,000 Muslims in Victoria stated that the Muslim community suffered mental health and other problems due to the suspicions to which it is subjected.” But as Maureen Dowd and Mohammed Elshamy discovered, there is nowhere on earth where Woke — and the non-Woke — are safe from each other. The very isolation the ICV craves is made impossible by our mania for linkages. You can always draw a connection to vileness, however distant. Intersectionality and relentless social media guarantee that everyone will find offense everywhere all of the time.
Under the impetus of perpetual outrage, discourse just dissolves into a kind of decoherence which “can be viewed as the loss of information from a system into the environment.” Sense just leaches away, sanity becomes absorbed into the general madness. Meetings start well enough but soon descend into name-calling. There is more and more noise but less and less information. The result is precisely the kind of mental health stress the Islamic Council of Victoria purports to endure. What happens when a polity is trapped in a bath of outrage is a mystery. There is only fiction as a guide.
Hello James, welcome. Do you like the island? My grandmother had an island when I was a boy. Nothing to boast of. You could walk along it in an hour. But for us it was paradise. One summer, we came for a visit and discovered the whole place had become infested with rats. They came on a fishing boat and gorged on the coconut. So how do you get rats off an island? My grandmother showed me. You put an oil drum in a pit and hinge open the lid. Then you coat the lid in the coconut. The rats come for the coconut and plink, plink, plink, plink, plink, plink, plink; they fall into the trap. Then what do you do? Throw it in the ocean? Burn it? No. You just leave it. And then one by one… [mimics rat munching sound] …they start eating each other until there are only two left. The two survivors. Then what do you do? Kill them? No. You release them into the trees. But they will not eat coconut anymore. Now they will only eat rat. You have changed their nature.
We are the rats and we’re running out of coconuts.
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The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, by Ben MacIntyre. Described by John le Carre as ‘the best true spy story I have ever read’, this book follows the true life exploits of KGB double agent and diplomat Oleg Gordievsky.
A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell. The never-before-told story of Virginia Hall, the American spy who changed the course of World War II.
The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, by John le Carre. In this his first memoir, le Carre gives us a glimpse of a writer’s journey over more than six decades, of his imagining and then the search for reality that has given so much life and heart to his fictional characters.
The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920, by Eugene Rogan. The book recreates one of the most important but poorly understood fronts of the First World War, the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. Despite fighting back with great skill and ferocity against the Allied onslaught, the Ottomans were ultimately defeated, clearing the way for a new Middle East that has endured to the present.
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The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific.