Is America experiencing something reminiscent of China’s “Cultural Revolution”? What distinguishes this current moment from other, similar movements?
In this episode, we sit down with Heather Mac Donald, a Manhattan Institute fellow and a contributing editor of City Journal. She is the author of “The War on Cops” and “The Diversity Delusion.”
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Heather Mac Donald, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Heather Mac Donald: It’s an honor, Jan. Thank you for having me back on.
Mr. Jekielek: [In 2016] you wrote a book called “The War on Cops.” We have it here. It’s an incredibly prescient book at this point, given everything that we’re seeing. Tell me about how we got here.
Ms. Mac Donald: … You can go very far back, but certainly the university system has been committed for decades now to the idea that America is systematically biased [and] that any racial, socioeconomic disparities are because of structural racism and white supremacy. Any institution that has more interactions with average black people comes under suspicion. So hatred of cops has been part of the left’s ideology for a long time, and frankly, it’s been part of academic ideology as well. The assumption is that the criminal justice system must be racist, because there is a large overrepresentation of blacks in prison.
The biggest taboo on college campuses is to ever talk about behavior as a determinant of individual outcomes. You’re not allowed to do that. Everything has to be systemic. We’ve got a lot of black people in prison. You can’t talk about crime as a reason why they may be in prison. You have to look for racist explanations, and the police are a prime suspect in that. They do have more interactions with blacks. Why? Because there’s a lot more black victims, and they’re in black communities in order to try and save black lives. To do that, they have to lock up criminals, and disproportionately, those criminals are black.
This ideology has been in place for a long time. It had its first major violent eruption, in the 1960s, actually. Those riots were also anti-cop riots. Policing has changed absolutely and radically since the 1960s. It is now extremely professional. In 2015 and 2016, we had the first iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the same arguments were being made back then, that we were living through an epidemic of racist police violence against blacks. It was wrong then. It’s even more wrong now.
… 2015 and 2016 was a bad time because under this false narrative of endemic police racism, cops understandably backed off of discretionary proactive policing. They became reactive. They did not try to prevent crime before it happened. The result was black lives were taken. Another 2000 blacks were killed in 2015 and 2016 in the first iteration of Black Lives Matter. Now, it’s going to be a bloodbath, because the Black Lives Matter ideology has been embraced and amplified by every mainstream institution in this country.
Before you had the White House as a sounding board. It was pretty darn important that President Obama regularly took to the airwaves to denounce systemic police bias. I would say though, that at this current moment, you don’t have an echo chamber in the White House, thank heavens, but you have even louder amplification of the message in the media, and you have every single corporation, every single investment bank, every single nonprofit, every single symphony, every single art museum repeating this idea, that blacks today live under the tyranny of the police.
We’re already seeing the result. Cops are backing off in protest, understandably, because policing is political. If they’re being told it’s racist to police in inner city communities, it is appropriate that they do less of it. That’s the political message they’re getting. Policing is a political function. We are going to move into a crime surge that is going to dwarf what we saw in 2015 and 2016.
Mr. Jekielek: You call what happened with the police back then the Ferguson effect, so this is the Ferguson effect amplified.
Ms. Mac Donald: This will be the Minneapolis effect. The riots began in Minneapolis after the horrific arrest of George Floyd, something that practically every law enforcement officer in the country has condemned in passionate terms. There is agreement across the country that that was one hell of a bad arrest, but it has been turned into the symbol of policing. And so the violence broke out first in Minneapolis, and it spread across the country. Cops were targeted; their throats were slashed; they were firebombed; they were shot at. A current and a former law enforcement officer were killed. Courthouses were ransacked. The most important institutions of the country in preserving law and order, both symbolic and actual, were destroyed. Cops now feel like they have a target on their backs.
Mr. Jekielek: So fast forward a little bit to this situation in Atlanta, this arrest that I’ve heard you speaking about. I think it’s worth discussing how the situation, in your view, is different from what actually happened to George Floyd.
Ms. Mac Donald: Well, this was a case of actively resisting arrest. Any suspect who steals an officer’s weapon is putting that officer on very crystalline notice that he intends to use it against him. This is not a compliant suspect. George Floyd was handcuffed and on the ground. The proper procedure, once you have a suspect cuffed, is to sit him up and wait for an ambulance. [With] the suspect in Atlanta, … the cops were engaged in wonderful de-escalation tactics. It was the suspect who changed the character of that interaction by all of a sudden starting to fight and grabbing the officer’s taser, using it twice against the officers.
There’s a big deal that’s being made by the anti-cop forces, including the prosecutor in Atlanta, saying that, “Well, a taser is not a lethal weapon. Therefore the cop is not justified in using lethal force.” First of all, it is interesting that two weeks before the murder indictment brought by this Atlanta prosecutor, he had indicted another cop for using a taser on the grounds that it was a lethal weapon. So the prosecutor has done a 180-degree turn at this point. Even if we stipulate that a taser is not lethal, … you could knock a cop out and then steal his gun. In any case, [if] you steal a piece of an officer’s equipment, a weapon, and you use it against him, all bets are off at that point. The officer is justified in using deadly force, because that suspect, again, has sent a signal that he intends to assault an officer.
Mr. Jekielek: I understand there’s this discussion of the blue flu, so to speak, right? I’ll get you to tell us about that as well. In this kind of a situation, it kind of takes the reticence of police to actually be able to police to a whole other level, it would seem.
Ms. Mac Donald: Well, yes, and I would say it’s a complicated matter because an official walkout is illegal. You can’t do that. As I said before, policing is political. Vast swathes of society are saying, “You shouldn’t be in inner-city neighborhoods policing.” In fact, we have the “Defund the Police” movement, and we have important prominent politicians claiming that the police are not just not necessary, but actively oppressive. It is both understandable and I would argue appropriate for the police to modify their level of and types of activity in response to that.
Now, it’s up to the rest of us to send a countervailing message saying, “No, what you’re hearing is not necessarily the voice of the community,” which is certainly my experience. I have never been to an inner-city community meeting where I don’t hear those good people begging for more police, for more enforcement against drug dealers, against kids hanging out on the corners loitering, smoking weed and selling drugs. Those are the voices that MSNBC and the New York Times and CNN have no interest in hearing, but they are out there and the cops believe in those good people.
Nevertheless, I am not going to issue an unequivocal condemnation to cops that say, “We’re just going to drive around in our radio cars and wait for a call to come over the radio, rather than getting out, using our discretionary authority and powers of observation to question a suspect who’s engaging in suspicious behavior. I don’t have probable cause to make an arrest, but I’m going to ask a few questions.” Cops, as we saw with the first iteration of the Ferguson effect, when they got out of their cars, and today, they find themselves surrounded by hostile, jeering crowds, cursing at them, throwing bottles, throwing water, bottles, rocks, you name it.
In Chicago, before the riots got really bad but after the Floyd arrest, you had crowds that were actually trying to interfere with the arrest of a person who’d just engaged in a drive-by shooting, who’d thrown his gun under a car. This guy is a threat to the community, a threat to children. The cops were going in Chicago to make an arrest. The crowd tried to protect the criminal. In another case, he was a suspect in a recent shooting that had a child victim. Again, they tried to pull the guy out of the cop car. It is unbelievably brutal and hostile out there towards cops now, and it’s going to get worse.
Mr. Jekielek: Your contention, basically, is that the cops have not done anything to earn this?
Ms. Mac Donald: Not systemically, no. That is absolutely my contention. …If we’re talking about systemic bias, you address that question looking at data. The data show that policing is driven by crime, not by race. Police shootings are predicted by the rate at which cops encounter armed, violent, resisting suspects. Actually, blacks are shot less than what their violent crime rates would predict. That’s not to say that blacks should be shot more, but they are certainly not shot more than their crime rates would predict.
Last year, there were a grand total of nine allegedly unarmed blacks shot by the police fatally in the entire country. That’s according to The Washington Post database. There were nineteen allegedly unarmed whites fatally shot by the police. [Editor’s Note: These numbers have since been updated by the Washington Post to 14 unarmed blacks and 25 unarmed whites.]
Now, I’m going to qualify the unarmed categorization because this is the Washington Post’s database of fatal police shootings. The Washington Post uses a very generous definition of “unarmed.” You can be counted as an unarmed victim of a fatal police shooting if you grabbed the officer’s gun and were beating him with it or if you were escaping from a lawful car, stopped in a car that had a loaded semi-automatic pistol in the car with you. You still count as unarmed.
Those nine unarmed victims represent 0.1% of all black homicide victims in 2019, assuming that 2019’s numbers were the same as 2018. We only have 2018. There were about 7500 black victims of homicide in 2018. I’m sure 2019 will be roughly the same, so that’s 0.1%. Those other 7500 black homicide victims were shot overwhelmingly by other blacks. There were 235 black victims of fatal police shootings, in total, and about 500 white victims of fatal police shootings. Those 235, like all victims of police shootings, were overwhelmingly armed and dangerous. This is not a systemic problem for blacks. Criminal violence is the problem. [Editor’s Note: These numbers have since been updated by the Washington Post to 250 black victims, 403 white victims.]
Now, are there cops who are officious, who are peremptory, who have lost sight of their indefeasible obligation to treat everyone they encounter with courtesy and respect up to the point where that person no longer deserves it? Of course there are. Are there individual encounters in black communities that could have been prosecuted much more courteously and respectfully? Yes. Also in white communities. But the brush … is too broad.
I speak for people like an elderly woman in the 41st precinct of the South Bronx, who blurted out during a community meeting, “Apropos of nothing. How lovely when we see the police. They are my friends.” That is the experience of a lot of people in black communities, especially the elderly, who are terrified of these fatherless kids who have not been civilized and who depend on the police in order to enjoy some kind of sense of stability and safety.
Mr. Jekielek: This is very interesting. I was looking at your congressional testimony earlier this month. One of the things that you mentioned is that there are some pretty horrific murders that you outline, showing that it’s not racially oriented by police. The question is: is there a discussion of police reform that needs to be had? Certainly, there’s an executive order to that effect from the White House that maybe isn’t focused on race, but something broader.
Ms. Mac Donald: Yeah, I’m hesitant to take the bait. …You do not earn reform by rioting. I was asked by an editor at a prominent newspaper to write an op-ed for them saying, “Well, the protests certainly demand a response. Would you write something that is not defunding but something else?” And my view is, no, not necessarily. It should be addressed on the merits. The problem now is that we are rewarding civil violence. The rioters can legitimately say now they were not political. That was “Rioting [Mainly] for Fun and Profit” as Edward Banfield wrote in The Unheavenly City, but their apologists, of whom there are many, including in the academy, can now say, “Look. Violence gets results.” So, part of me is reluctant to participate in the reform movement.
Had it come up a year ago, I would have absolutely been willing to agree. Yes, the police are desperate for more tactical training. This is hands-on, putting them in realistic scenarios. Places like the NYPD, the New York Police Department, that have a lot of money can build whole villages that cops go through and have to make decisions about how to take cover behind a building, how to call for backup, what to do if there’s a suspect who is run through a street and now you don’t know what store he’s taken refuge in. They can put their cops through very realistic scenario-based training. That would be great if every department could do that.
It would be great if they could get frequent repeats, brushing up on their skills, because they may not keep them all when they’re out on the streets. They do need constant training in controlling their own stress levels—which is what leads to some questionable shootings—de-escalation, talking to people. Those are all good things. Fortunately, in the recent executive order that President Trump signed, he mentioned only those types of policing and was notably silent about the scam of implicit bias training, which was something that the Obama administration embraced for cops.
I sat in on an implicit bias training in Chesterfield, Missouri outside of St. Louis by one of the main progenitors in the field. It was an insult. It was pretending that there are no crime disparities, trying to tell cops that, “Well, you know, that five-foot-four female in this business suit and a briefcase, she may be carrying a gun and is a threat to your life.” Oh, give me a break. That’s not what cops need. They need tactical skills. I would do that. I am happy for that.
As far as union protections, that’s not something I’ve studied deeply. I defer to some police chiefs who I respect who say that it can be very difficult, unduly difficult to take an officer who’s shown a poor temperament off of the force. Other unions are less strong. The police unions range. Some are very assertive and others less so. The unions, in their defense, will say, “We operate in a very political environment. Our police chiefs are often political appointees by our left-wing mayor. There will come a point when they need a scalp thrown to the race activists, and we are there to prevent any kind of political vendetta or lynching against cops.” That’s how they would describe their role, that they’re going to fight to protect every last cop. Does that go too far? Sometimes it might.
Mr. Jekielek: Very interesting. You touched on this blue flu earlier, but I’m wondering if you could just tell us. It’s this catchphrase that’s kind of coursing around right now. What does it mean and what are the implications?
Ms. Mac Donald: Well, I haven’t looked into the specifics right now. It may be that in Atlanta, there is something quasi-official. At the very least, there’s a high absentee rate of officers not coming into work, calling in sick, in protest at what they see as a highly politicized and legally unjustified murder indictment against the cop in the Wendy’s stop.
Again, I can just tell you that I’m ambivalent about it. I think not showing up to work is perhaps a step too far, but I certainly understand if they decide that they are only going to respond to radio calls. If there’s a call that there’s been a shooting or a robbery, they will go and they will take a crime report. As far as stopping somebody who looks like he’s got a gun, but there’s no police call about it, they’re just going to drive on by. That, again, is something that I understand, because that is a purely discretionary activity, and they’re being hammered for doing it. Why should they? It’s not spite. It is that society is sending the message that this is racist, so they’re getting the message. “Okay, if it’s racist, we won’t do it.”
Mr. Jekielek: Heather, something I’m kind of stunned by, just today these reports about President Ulysses Grant’s statue being taken down in Washington DC. Actually, there’s been a spate of these different statues being pulled down: Christopher Columbus, Confederate leaders from the Civil War. But the Ulysses Grant, I was always under the impression he did some good things to end slavery, so to speak. I’m not an expert, but what do you make of this? The other part, of course, is that it seems like it’s all being done with police just kind of watching on the sidelines.
Ms. Mac Donald: I don’t know that I have the philosophical depth to fathom this moment. It is extraordinary. I look for precedents for a civilization turning on itself with such fury. The Chinese Cultural Revolution turned against the universities, which were seen as bastions of elite tradition and culture.
This is different. This is the universities turning against civilization. These hatreds, these fires, these rages, the solipsism, the victimology, [and] the narcissism of ignorance are cultivated on college campuses that have sent the message for the last four decades that racism, sexism, and bigotry are the defining features of America. Students that start college, for decades now, go through their indoctrination into white privilege, into being an ally, which is a ridiculously pretentious term for the alleged hordes of victim groups on college campuses.
All of this being a complete delusion, because there is not a more conventionally defined tolerant institution in human history than an American college campus. It actively celebrates the traits that can still get you stoned to death in many parts of the world—and I’m thinking in particular of Africa and Afghanistan. So the universities have cultivated this hatred.
The American people have turned their eyes away. Meanwhile, it has come to fruition now with this. There was recently a petition in Italy to stop teaching Dante’s Divine Comedy, or at least hedge it around with … a moat [and] fortress walls of trigger warnings about the Islamophobia of this book and the racism of this book. To their credit, a whole slew of Italian academics said, “Are you kidding me? This book is one of the center cornerstones not just of Italian civilization, but of Western civilization.” Emmanuel Macron recently said, “We’re not tearing down statues in France.”
That does not happen in the United States. Our academics are terrified of the mob when they are not actively encouraging it. How a civilization proceeds without respect for its past, without simply an awareness of truth. … The ideas that are embraced by the left of equality and their definition of equality is one that I don’t necessarily accept, which is equality of outcome as opposed to opportunity, but nevertheless, the idea of equality, that is a Western creation! Tolerance is a Western creation. It’s a creation of the Enlightenment.
It’s not tolerant in Iran. You’re not tolerant if you’re in Africa and you’re living under Boko Haram or some of the other Islamic movements there. Good luck being a Christian. So not only is it self-destructive, it’s self-destructive in the service of a lie.
The schools have been watered down for decades now. We are terrified of imposing high standards for learning because of the fear of disparate impact, because of the fear of the academic skills gap, and so K-12 education since the 1960s has been progressively watered down in order to graduate more people and try to lower or narrow the graduation gap and the skills gap, and colleges receiving an ever more ignorant crop of high school seniors who know nothing about writing, who know nothing about language or literature, about history. They’ve lowered their standards. We have a populace now and a college educated populace that is basically ignorant. They don’t know history. … What they know about history is a tale of unending oppression, and that’s all. We’re reaping the rewards.
I keep waiting for there to be something that will arouse mass revolt on the part of the American public. I don’t know if it’s going to be statues. If somehow football was ended, because it’s racist, that may do it. If the NFL was sort of put out of existence. We’ve already tolerated the absurdity of the military being set upon by the gender radicals. We’ve accepted the idea of sex integrated combat units, which is absolutely preposterous. Americans may not think that war is important, but they understand that football is important. If somehow football is targeted, then maybe it’ll get people’s attention. …
Maybe there’s a backlash, an electoral backlash brewing that we’ll see in November. So far the ballot box is still private. They can’t silence that yet, unlike what’s happening everyplace else in our culture [at an] ever accelerating [pace]. The screws are tightening on non-orthodox views in the private sector. It’s not necessarily the government that’s doing this. This is something unforeseen by Orwell and other critics of totalitarianism, that it would be the corporate world that is determined to enforce intellectual orthodoxy. Maybe we’ll get an electoral backlash at both the grotesqueries of the coronavirus lockdowns, followed by the utter abdication of government responsibility with regards to the widespread rioting and looting.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned “they” are silencing, and I’m wondering who the “they” are exactly. We have a whole bunch of students, you contend here and I think convincingly, who have been taught things, … the whole of history through the angle of oppression. Is that the “they?” Who is the “they?”
Ms. Mac Donald: Yeah, the “they” are the educated elites in Google, in Apple, in Microsoft, in YouTube, [and] Amazon that are the products of the college indoctrination, and who do believe that anything that challenges orthodoxies must, by definition, be racist or sexist. We saw this with the firing of James Damore from Google in August of 2018. This is a young computer engineer who wrote a rational fact-based, 10-page memo saying that maybe the diversity training that was being constantly inflicted on Google’s employees was not necessary, because there were other equally plausible explanations for why Google didn’t have 50:50, male:female engineers, explanations based in career preferences, choices that people make in what they study, competitive drive, risk-taking.
Damore actually stayed away from what I think is an equally plausible explanation, which is that the very high-end math skills are not equally distributed among males and females. Larry Summers, the [former] President of Harvard, essayed that hypothesis and had to leave. Google fired Mr. Damore for simply a tentative expression of line of inquiry, because Google said his memo threatened the safety of Google’s female employees. This is pure academic victimology. It is utterly representative of how Twitter, how Facebook goes about evaluating speech. They see—I don’t even want to call it conservative speech. I would call it rational speech—as literally life-threatening. They’re the ones who are shutting things down now.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay, so that’s very interesting. I have to ask you more about that. “Literally life-threatening.” How is it that things which were seemingly innocuous in the past or certainly don’t appear to be literally life-threatening are perceived that way?
Ms. Mac Donald: Well, I think that we’re in an age of narcissism, of sort of hysteria and amplification. Now I may sound hysterical myself. I am getting very worried, I have to say. I’m very pessimistic. Again, I keep coming back to the colleges, because they are the source of all this. They’re these hothouses of self-engrossed victims. Being a victim of a certain sort in the United States today is a ticket to power. It’s a ticket to riches. It’s a ticket to employment, to promotions. Now, post-George Floyd, there’s hundreds of millions of dollars pouring in a gusher out of corporate coffers into victim groups. The idea that speech is threatening and life-threatening is just one aspect of the maudlin self-engrossment that is now cultivated on college campuses.
Mr. Jekielek: Presumably, we’re seeing many media supporting this type of a narrative. We’re seeing, of course, as you mentioned, a significant part of corporate America. Then you suggested there’s this silent group in society that may not agree or maybe isn’t sure, frankly. I think there’s probably a lot of those.
Ms. Mac Donald: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Just tell me about how you see that dynamic?
Ms. Mac Donald: Well, I don’t know. It’s just a hypothesis. … I don’t want to make this partisan or political, but there were Trump voters and they’re still out there. They voted for a very flawed candidate for many reasons, but … one important one was that he did seem to be inoculated against the fear of being accused of politically correct violations. He was seen as somebody that would stand up against this tyranny of opinion.
Let me just add: the media censorship we’re getting now is weird because the left-wing institutions are now turning on their own. We’ve had recently, the head of the New York Times editorial opinion section having to step down for running an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton, making a good faith, reasoned, non-hysterical argument saying that the level of civil destruction of people’s livelihoods that the riots were inflicting, justified—or at least made it plausible or acceptable—to consider the military as an option. This is a perfectly defensible argument. You may disagree with the conclusion, but one is allowed to make it. He had to step down because the employees at the New York Times felt, again, that his op-ed put the lives of black employees in danger. This is insane. He was a left-winger. He had to step down.
The head of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial page had to step down, because they ran an op-ed saying that the riots in Philadelphia were taking away the city’s precious core of historic architecture dating back to the days of Independence, to the colonial time. The Independence Hall was at risk, and the editorial ran under the headline “Buildings Matter, Too.” Well, this too was viewed as somehow life-threatening to blacks. I think it’s a perfectly legitimate and clever headline, but that editor had to step down.
So, we’re now reaching a point where not even people on the left are safe from this. So what happens with the election? I don’t know. I’m not an expert in parsing polls. One can always say that any poll that you don’t like the results of was asking the wrong question or it’s not reliable and that’s certainly the strategy now of the Trump people, because the polls’ numbers don’t look good, but we do know that they also didn’t look good for Trump in 2016, so I don’t know. If it’s the case that there’s declining support for him, it may also be the case that as the summer progresses, and if this madness continues and if it gets covered, [he will gain support again]. Now it’s not covered. That’s the other problem. …The Times hasn’t uncovered the attacks on Grant and some of the other patriots of the American Revolution. Jefferson is down now. …It’s not getting covered.
Mr. Jekielek: George Washington is down from what I’m hearing.
Ms. Mac Donald: George Washington is down. I knew it would happen. I mean, I predicted this several years ago. No way is it going to be limited to the Confederacy. They will go after every last Founder. Whether there’s enough residual knowledge on the part of the American public that these people are worth defending, I don’t know. Some of my colleagues who are optimistic by nature—and I’m a pessimist by nature—are holding out hope that there is going to be a correction, and that there’s sort of forces at work that will stop this. I don’t know. We’ll see.
Mr. Jekielek: Heather, it’s interesting that you mentioned the Trump voters. The day that we’re filming today there’s a giant rally in Tulsa that’s happening.
Ms. Mac Donald: Much disparaged.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s very interesting, because we’ve had giant protests, right?
Ms. Mac Donald: Yes. Oh, the hypocrisy, just is endless. Where to start?
Mr. Jekielek: Well, but the thing that strikes me about the Trump rally … is they are a kind of protest themselves actually.
Ms. Mac Donald: True.
Mr. Jekielek: Right. So anyway, where to start?
Ms. Mac Donald: Well, the hypocrisies. You were alluding to this. We’ve all been under the thumb of the public health establishment, who realized that their newfound power over virtually every aspect of American life depends on abject fear, spreading abject fear in the populace, so that in New York City, if you pass somebody fast on a sidewalk in the outdoor air, wind blowing, trillions, gazillions of atoms of air flowing by you, and you’re not wearing a mask, they will lunge into the street or press themselves against the wall, because they’ll die.
You know, there is no outdoor transmission. It does not happen. Except in extraordinarily rare cases. The CDC’s own contact tracing guidelines say they’re only tracing people who’ve been 15 minutes in the presence of an infected person. These fleeting encounters outdoors on city streets are not how you get infected. Nevertheless, the public health establishment has kept us all in fear.
… Shutting down the economy: it’s never happened before; it’s an outrage. It’s an incredible abuse of government power. We had to shelter in place and couldn’t go into stores. Small businessmen put their life, hope, and efforts now utterly decimated. No meetings of more than 10 people. We’ve heard the stories about people who couldn’t grieve their loved ones in funerals. No church services.
Then we had the riots and the mass protests. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in close quarters, shouting and screaming right next to each other. This public health establishment put out a manifesto saying that systemic racism was as much of a public health threat as COVID-19. Therefore, the protests should continue. Then when they somewhat died down, we’ve gone back to the status quo ante of social distancing. We’re all now supposed to social distancing again and pretend that what we just saw happen didn’t happen. It’s ludicrous! The hypocrisy!
It turns out that the government is determining what protests may occur based on the content of their speech. That is a clear First Amendment violation. If you’re protesting alleged systemic bias in American society, that can go forward; you’re not going to get thrown to the mask police. But if you’re protesting economic lockdowns that are going to throw this country into an economic depression for a generation, you can’t do that. That is a violation … of the government’s duty to be content-neutral when it comes to political speech and assembly. The hypocrisy on that front is astounding.
It was adumbrated by the hypocrisy on the part of the lockdown advocates to a person, every single politician, every single public health expert, every single media pundit, who’s been on TV for the last three months, telling us to stay locked down, that the economy has to shut down. None of those people had lost their jobs. They were all safely employed. They did not fear that their employer would go bankrupt. The CDC’s not going to go bankrupt. The University of Washington, responsible for one of the crazy models, is not going to go bankrupt. Chris Cuomo, CNN is not going to go bankrupt. Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, Gavin Newsom, Governor of California, they’re not going to lose their jobs. They were telling everybody else to just suck it up and lose their jobs. They had no understanding of what was going on. So yes, the Trump supporters are, in one sense, one long rolling protest against a certain hegemony of opinion.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s fascinating how all these things are … conflating with each other.
Ms. Mac Donald: Yeah, they are.
Mr. Jekielek: I don’t know how best to describe this.
Ms. Mac Donald: The coronavirus lockdowns were a cold war on the economy. The riots were a hot war. They have blended together into one big government failure. It’s a very weird period that we’re living through.
Mr. Jekielek: What strikes me about this conflation, so to speak, that I’m seeing is that it speaks to how powerful ideology can be, given everything you’ve said vis-à-vis the actual data or the facts out there. It can be easy to forget about all those things and for well-meaning people to get caught up in the ideology.
Ms. Mac Donald: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: What do you think?
Ms. Mac Donald: We want to believe that we’re governed by reason and facts, but it’s hard to change your mind and people do have predispositions, constitutional dispositions to how they interpret the world. That isn’t to say that education is not profoundly important in shaping people’s worldviews.
It is definitely the case that each side of a debate will tend to discount facts that are inconvenient. Max Weber called these inconvenient facts. He said the purpose of a scientist or a social scientist is to expose students to inconvenient facts, those that cut against their own political beliefs. The role of the academic was not to adopt a political position. It was to be neutral.
There is selection bias. Both sides will embrace those studies that confirm their viewpoints and try to pick holes in those that don’t. So where can facts make an inroad? I don’t know. I have a friend who’s a law professor at Northwestern, who believed that the era of big data would resolve our ideological disputes, that we’d be able to finally solve once and for all whether government welfare is a good thing or a bad thing. This struck me as wildly naive, because we’ve seen, again, the ability to just walk away from countervailing evidence.
The Health and Human Services Department is the gargantuan federal bureaucracy in Washington that oversees endless numbers of government welfare programs and transfer payments and social services and whatnot. They did a very long, very rigorous study of the program Head Start, which is this early education program started in the 60s [as part of] the war on poverty to try and close the achievement gap by giving poor students early learning programs and expanded more and more … trying to get to the parents or do food, whatever.
This study looked at ten years of data and found that any initial improvements in a student’s academic skills from Head Start dissipated in four or five years, and they were back to square one. [The program] had no effect whatsoever. This was finished during the Obama administration. It had no effect whatsoever on Head Start funding. In fact, the people within the administration were still going around saying Head Start works, despite the fact that their own administration had shown in a neutral way that it doesn’t work. It’s very hard to … actually think that data will change anybody’s mind.
Relatedly, as I get older and see more of a scope of history or observe society in a way that maybe our Founding Fathers did—not that I’m comparing myself to them… —what I intuit, at least it feels this way to me, is that one of the great yearnings of human beings is to be judged without partisanship, to actually have a rule of law, to have confidence that you can come before a neutral tribunal, and that there is a realm of decision making that will be arrived at based on neutral principles rather than pre-existing partisan commitments. We yearn, whether it’s in the criminal context or otherwise, that we can come before a judge who will apply the law and not in a results-driven way.
I don’t know if that’s possible or not. It’s certainly the aspiration of the legal system. There was a group of legal academics in the 1920s called the legal realists who were very skeptical towards that idea, and they did think that law is inevitably embedded in the decision maker’s worldview, and that’s probably pretty accurate.
If you come before a court, you really hope that that judge is not going to depend on who the political appointee is. I was saddened when Trump sort of tore away the veils of our legal fictions and said, “Judges are simply a product, a creature of whoever appointed them, you know. Democratic judges and Republican judges.” Supreme Court Justice, Chief Justice John Roberts rightly said, “We don’t have Republican and Democrat justices, we have justices.” Now one could say that’s naive, and deliberately so, but it’s a fiction that we need to live by. I think it goes a little too far to say that judging is itself purely political.
Mr. Jekielek: What you’re describing—and I say this as a Canadian who is an American exceptionalist—I think is the promise of America. … Now I’m interviewing myself, but I think America has been somewhat successful at least, certainly by comparison. Perfection, of course, is a whole different question. …
I think there’s been this progression of increase in skepticism to experts. …Certainly for myself, the populace, everyone. This whole coronavirus and protest [situation], this whole reality that we’ve experienced over the last three months, to me almost feels like a final nail in the coffin of our faith in experts. I myself feel a profound cynicism. Who do we trust, right? I find this very disturbing, and is this like some sort of ontological crisis that we’re heading into?
Ms. Mac Donald: Yes, I agree. I guess I’m still going to hold out for some experts. … I was going to say medicine, medical expertise, that is real. On the other hand, there’s something called the replication crisis, not just social science but [also] in medical studies, where it turns out a lot of studies that get published, they’re peer reviewed. Whether it’s in psychology or medicine, if you try and repeat it, you don’t get the same results. They can’t repeat it! These have been studies that have been taken to be gospel truth for decades! They now are going back and revising it. Whoa, what? But this has all been accepted. Social science and psychology are not my favorite fields, but medical science, you would think that’s pretty non-ideological, [so that’s] what’s really worrisome.
I’m not willing to completely jettison science and expert knowledge, and yet for sure the public health profession has been discredited. Now, that has been political for a long time, not necessarily [just] the Anthony Fauci’s of the world, although we saw some early hypocrisy when he had that infamous interview about Tumblr and various sex mating sites for anonymous hookups. This was in March, I think, he was asked about this, and he was not willing to condemn it [despite it being] a violation of social distancing.
But leaving Fauci aside, the public health field for decades now—and I wrote about this in my very first book, The Burden of Bad Ideas—has been on a political social justice crusade forever. They treat racism as a public health threat, which is what we’ve seen with the response to the riots. Public health, yes, they’ve discredited themselves. Other experts as well, but I still believe that done properly, science is an extraordinary accomplishment of Western civilization. The scientific method [and] randomized, controlled experiments are things of utter beauty, and they will continue to push back the boundaries of ignorance and disease and suffering as long as they’re not put into the political sphere.
Of course now, the STEM fields, the so-called science, technology, engineering, and math, are in the diversity advocates’ crosshairs. The pressure’s already been great to hire scientists based on sex and race. Now post-George Floyd, the pressure is going to come even stronger.
Mr. Jekielek: I know you describe yourself as a pessimist. I think I tend to be more on the optimistic side. You must have some thoughts about practical things that we can do as a society, given the realities of the kind of ideological pigeon holes that people find themselves in, like where we can move forward out of this craziness that we find ourselves in.
Ms. Mac Donald: I would say read great literature, listen to great music, listen to Mozart operas and Brahms and Chopin. Read Greek tragedies and the great classics of children’s literature, Wind in the Willows or even Winnie the Pooh and Middlemarch novels. Lose yourself in beauty and greatness. Experience the heights of eloquence that this civilization has achieved so you realize what’s at stake in these battles.
On a less profound note, don’t be frightened by the charge of racism. If you have other explanations for why there are still economic inequalities than racism, if you see choices that people make, family structure, personal responsibilities as having a larger role in individual outcomes, don’t be browbeaten into accepting the dominant narrative.
My expertise is not trying to figure out common ground. I see my goal as combating idiocy and trying to fight back against what appeared to me to be patent untruths. How you bring people together, I don’t know. It feels to me like we are becoming more divided. I look at my political or ideological opponents, and I don’t know where to begin to find common ground. It seems like the division starts earlier and earlier in one’s worldview and what one knows about the world. So I don’t know. Sometimes I think it’s going to have to be a battle to the finish as opposed to reconciliation.
Mr. Jekielek: Any final words before we finish up?
Ms. Mac Donald: Get out into the fresh air. Get out of your homes. Pursue wisdom and learning and believe that our civilization is worth carrying forward and it must be defended against people who are trying to tear it down.
Mr. Jekielek: Such a pleasure to have you on.
Ms. Mac Donald: Thank you again, Jan.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.