Stray Thoughts: Louis Armstrong, Telephone Sanitizers, Angry Jungians

Short musings on a variety of topics…

I am, as all subscribers of this magazine know, a ditherer. The January/February edition came out in March, the March/April came out in May, and the May/June came out in… well, it’s on its way. About a month back, I made a new grandiose promise to readers: a weekly column of little asides and musings, full of insight and charm. I managed two of them, then I got distracted by other things. Readers grumbled. I am therefore getting back on track, and begging the kind indulgence and forgiveness of our treasured subscribers, donors, and free-riding online perusers.

In my own defense, though, I haven’t exactly been loafing around on French Quarter balconies reading the newspaper and nibbling muffins. (Well, not much.) There are Projects in the works. First, the Current Affairs podcast is up and running! We’ve already put out two full episodes along with a Special Patrons-Only Bonus Episode. In our first episodes, we discuss: the idea of “liberal bias,” whether college admissions should be randomized, job guarantee and Universal Basic Income proposals, our worst former beliefs, and our favorite neglected historical figures. Have a listen, and consider becoming one of our donors! (Podcast is also available through a bunch of podcast download type services, though I don’t really know anything about those.) Another thing distracting us over here at CAHQ: the new Current Affairs newsletter, which just sent out its first edition. All subscribers have begun receiving it and it should be available to the General Public quite soon!

Onto this week’s Musings and Meanderings:

  • In the conservative (sorry, “Classical Liberal”) magazine Quillette, a group of Jungian analysts are upset that a New Republic article criticizing Jordan Peterson made fun of Carl Jung in the process. This spat interests me only because of how obvious it is, even from the Jungians’ own words, that Carl Jung’s ideas were extremely silly: Myths from a Jungian viewpoint are stories of archetypal encounters in which the collective psyche tells us how it undergoes development. Myths are involuntary collective revelations based on unconscious psychic experience; they teach us that archetypal energy is supra-ordinate to human power, and are to culture what dreams are to the individual. Myths provide symbols – including those used by politicians and regimes – that dynamically activate the discovery of new possibilities.” I’d certainly like to see some the latest studies confirming the existence of “archetypal energy”! But it’s also funny to me that conservative publications that spend so much time criticizing the left for paying insufficient attention to empirical evidence are willing to publish vacuous gobbledegook if it happens to be in defense of Jordan Peterson instead of the Social Justice Warriors.
  • The editor of the same magazine, Claire Lehmann, recently offered two critiques of my article on the term social justice warrior. I suggested that even though these “warriors” supposedly dominated the culture, they didn’t seem to have too much public prominence in the same way that the members of the “intellectual dark web” do. I asked who the “social justice warriors” actually are. Lehmann replied with three examples: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Lindy West, and Jessica Valenti. She said I could use Google to find more. These examples prove the point nicely. Coates is a nice start, and Lindy West does write for the New York Times, but by the time we try to name a third one, we’re already grasping. Jessica Valenti is an American columnist at The Guardian, which isn’t even in the top 15 U.S. news sites. (Lehmann says these three figures are “VERY influential.”) It’s weird to say that Coates and West qualify as the sort of people described as “social justice warriors” though. Coates literally praised right-wing columnist Kevin Williamson for the quality of his writing and West’s most famous essay is a story about humanizing and even forgiving vicious sexist trolls. If the central characteristic of the Social Justice mentality is supposedly that it’s intolerant in the name of tolerance, then it’s strange that two out of the only three social justice intellectuals Lehmann names don’t display the dogmatic rigidity that is supposedly the entire reason this ideology is bad. (Lehmann’s second criticism of me is that I thought people were right to be upset with James Damore, a.k.a. The Google Memo Guy, for sending a memo announcing that he wouldn’t empathize with his female coworkers. She says I should have empathized with his lack of empathy: “Damore has admitted that he is most likely on the autism spectrum. To be sensitive or empathetic w/ those on the spectrum means not taking what they say so personally.” I would certainly be willing to forgive and understand Damore, if he said “Ok, I realize that it was a horrible mistake to send a memo to women about their biological differences and saying I would refuse to empathize with their reactions. I have trouble understanding people and sometimes don’t realize when I’ve been acting like an asshole.” Instead, he insisted he was “Fired4Truth” and discriminated against, and paraded himself as a martyr for science. It’s insulting to autistic people to attribute all of this behavior to his being on the spectrum.)
  • I am reading David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs, which is so much fun. Hoping to do a review of it, though I’m trying to stop making promises that I might not necessarily end up keeping. Graeber defines “bullshit jobs” as “a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” The subjective element makes Graeber’s actual social theory a bit rickety, but it doesn’t matter because the book is so charming and the interviews Graeber has conducted with people who think their jobs are pointless are so delightful to read. I do, however, have a small correction. Graeber cites The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which people with pointless jobs are fired off into space. Those loaded onto the ship include Earth’s “telephone sanitizers.” Graeber believes that Adams was satirizing silly jobs, because there is no such thing as a professional “telephone sanitizer,” and in a footnote says that while some people in the ’70s were paid to sanitize phones, they also cleaned other electronic equipment. But I have anecdotal evidence from my parents that this is not so. Both of them worked at an aircraft factory in Britain during the early 1980s, and they distinctly remember that there was a lady whose sole job was to come in and wipe all the telephone mouthpieces. She was an outside contractor who had no other duties (i.e., she did not clean anything but telephones) and apparently could be quite annoying and invasive when she came into your office to sanitize your receiver. My parents swear that there were such people in Britain in the early ’80s, however much this may seem like a reductio ad absurdum of a “bullshit job” from the mind of Douglas Adams.
  • Also reading a biography of Louis Armstrong, the greatest of all 20th century musicians. (I previously suggested that I would sacrifice the entire musical output of several of Charles Murray’s supposedly more accomplished English composers for 10 seconds of Louis Armstrong’s recorded works. I have now decided which 10 seconds: the opening of “West End Blues.“) Armstrong is very likable, and here in New Orleans I cannot say a word against our hometown hero. But he did, apparently, sometimes say disdainful things about many poor black people, giving the whole Why couldn’t they work hard and succeed like I did? This is such a common notion among the extremely successful, and I find it amusing in someone like Armstrong, who was literally the most talented trumpet player in the history of recorded sound. He definitely worked damn hard, but it’s just funny how oblivious one can be. I’ve also been laughing recently about billionaire Home Depot founder Ken Langone’s book I Love Capitalismwhich he wrote because he was puzzled and horrified by the rise of socialistic inclinations among young people. Of course you love capitalism, Ken: It gave you a billion dollars. Old Economy Steven is a very real person. (Although his name is actually Joe.) Here’s Armstrong playing the St. Louis Blues.
  • Both Amusements Editor Lyta Gold and myself were recently interviewed on RJ Eskow’s excellent show The Zero Hour. Listen to our insightful ramblings!
  • I commented recently that in headlines about Gaza, people seem to die violently without any identification of who actually killed them (i.e., the Israeli military). The New York Times has a new entry into this genre: A Woman Dedicated To Saving Lives Loses Hers In Gaza ViolenceEveryone should watch this interview with Razan Al Najjar, the deceased medic, an inspiring woman who was a true humanitarian and whose murder should shock the world’s conscience.
  • I am currently writing an article about Sam Harris, which is predictably overlong. One thing I find particularly horrifying about Harris’ thinking: Because he has the hubris to believe he has developed a “science of morality,” he (like so many others through the ages who have believed science can determine our values) doesn’t notice when he’s advocating quite horrifying things. See, for example, the part of The Moral Landscape in which he says we will eventually get rid of the constitutional protection against self-incrimination (“The prohibition against compelled testimony appears to be a relic of a more superstitious age”). He speaks positively of a time in the future when we will establish “Zones of Obligatory Candor” in which nobody is allowed to lie to anyone. It’s all very disturbing of course.
  • I’ll finish off with this letter from reader Robert Goulden, in response to my article on inequality and healthcare. It’s long, but it makes very helpful points: Your piece yesterday on Tyler Cowen was excellent. Just some comments re. “Of course, I don’t know how feasible it is to ensure universal access to new kinds of medical treatments.” I’m a physician (and a socialist), so tend to think about these issues a lot and can perhaps offer some insight. In short, it’s completely feasible. Here’s why: (1) Expensive drugs are not actually expensive. e.g. one of the new drugs for hepatitis C costs $84,000 for a course of treatment, but the actual manufacturing cost is around $200. The overwhelming chunk of the price you pay is due to the patent. The patent is there to cover the cost of R&D, and as the excellent left economist Dean Baker keeps pointing out, a patent is a state-enforced monopoly which any sincere believer in the ‘free market’ and ‘small government’ should find abhorrent. Even within the confines of capitalism, Baker suggests several pretty moderate alternatives to the patent system which would see the costs of new drugs plummet and largely eliminate any concerns that we can’t afford to treat everyone. (2) The most expensive drugs are typically for rare conditions, so the overall societal cost to treat everyone affected is low. In no small part, their high price is because the diseases they treat are rare, so the drugs companies are having to recover their R&D costs on far fewer individual sales. As a result, while socialised healthcare couldn’t afford a $500,000 drug for everyone, they could easily afford it for the tiny number of people who need it. The relevant example here is CAR-T therapy, a highly effective new treatment used for certain haematological cancers when other treatments don’t work. A treatment course costs around $400,000, one of the most expensive therapies ever created. But the number of people for whom this treatment would be useful is very small. As such, publicly funded health systems (like the UK NHS) have every intention of offering it. I’m originally from the UK and follow medical research very closely. I’m always on the lookout for a treatment which actually works but the NHS don’t offer, and am yet to find a good example. Occasional stories in the press about families crowdfunding to go to the US for some shiny new treatment invariably involve some asshole US doctor selling false hope to desperate people. (3)  Developing most treatments is only viable when they’re made universally available. For any given drug, there simply isn’t enough rich people who need it. Say I develop a new chemotherapy drug for breast cancer. 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer at some point, so 1 in 16 rich people (incorrectly assuming gender wealth equality). The vast majority of breast cancer can be successfully treated with surgery and existing drugs (mostly off patent). Only around 10% are currently not cured, so now we’re down to 1 in 160 rich people. And that’s for the commonest type of cancer. For many drugs, the eligible population is much much smaller. This is why big pharma – unlike the health insurance industry and the US elite in general – doesn’t necessarily have a problem with universal healthcare. It hugely expands their customer base to the point where it becomes viable to develop drugs. Going back to those hepatitis C drugs, some of the most expensive tablets ever sold. Hepatitis C is overwhelmingly a disease of the poor, especially IV drug users as needle-sharing is one of the commonest routes of infection. The drug is economically viable only because many of these affected are so poor they have access to Medicaid, or are vets eligible through the VA (and of course in every other developed country, the state foots the bill for everyone). […] Cowen’s argument isn’t just wrong for using economism to push a morally abhorrent agenda. It’s wrong because it’s based on an economically and scientifically illiterate understanding of how new medicines are developed. Equality of access to medicine isn’t a “mediocre goal”, and nor is it something the left has to defend (only) on moral grounds. Equality of access and a significant role of the state (as both developer and customer) is the only viable basis for modern drug discovery.
    Thank you, Robert! Direct any letters to the editor to editor@currentaffairs.org. I will do my best to reply but sometimes I fail. To all those whose emails I have yet to respond to: I am so, so sorry. Please forgive me. I am working on it.

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