Canadian Truckers Polarize American Commentators

Plus: Should we breed octopuses for intelligence?

Canadian protest against vaccine mandates
Ed Jones / AFP / Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely, intriguing conversations and solicits reader responses to one question of the moment. Every Friday, he publishes some of your most thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

With another Valentine’s Day just behind us, I’m reminded of the profound changes in social conceptions of love, marriage, sex, and romance across centuries, and the smaller changes that I’ve witnessed personally during the decades that I’ve been alive. Today’s question concerns today’s norms. In your opinion, what’s the best or worst thing about love, marriage, sex, or romance as conceived in 2022? What would you change if you could? What do we have right? If you have a personal story that captures the zeitgeist as you understand it, tell that too.

Email your answers to conor@theatlantic.com. I’ll publish a selection of correspondence in Friday’s newsletter.

Conversations of Note

In Canada, convoys of long-haul truckers have spent recent weeks occupying streets, blocking bridges, and shutting down border crossings to protest a COVID-vaccine requirement. In a bid to end the protests, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked emergency powers Monday to limit public gatherings and prevent funds donated by the public from reaching the protesters. Meanwhile, trucker protests have spread to several other countries.

At Spiked Online, Sean Collins sides with the truckers in what he understands to be a class conflict:

If there is one word that is repeated by the truckers and their supporters it is “freedom”—freedom from mandates, freedom to live their lives and make their own decisions about their health. It’s an uncomplicated demand, one that people have called for over centuries. And in today’s context, it is a class-based demand. It is the truckers and other workers who have felt the brunt of Covid restrictions, while the Zooming upper classes have been content to stay indoors and get their supplies delivered to them—by truckers.

… Trudeau has played the role of an aloof elitist to a tee. He has dismissed the protesters as a “small fringe minority” who hold “unacceptable” views. By declaring them Nazis and Confederates, Trudeau has labelled the truckers as a foreign enemy within … Trudeau tweeted that truckers “don’t have the right to blockade our economy, or our democracy, or our fellow citizens’ daily lives”—when his restrictions over the past two years have done more harm to the economy and liberty than anything the truckers have done.

At MSNBC, Ryan Cooper frets that the failure of the police to clear the streets in a timely manner is a sign of their political sympathies:

These protests are just the visible part of a larger right-wing occupation movement, and indicative of a worrying anti-government trend. And equally as worrying is how law enforcement on both sides of the border have responded. Ottawa was terrorized for nearly two weeks by a few hundred protesters honking horns day and night, waving Nazi flags, harassing passers-by, and in one case, allegedly attempting to burn down an apartment building.

Canadian police finally cleared off Ambassador Bridge after the blockaders defied a court order to disperse. But … law enforcement in both countries were astoundingly timid in their responses. Canadian cops had been walking on eggshells; we “are taking a diplomatic approach,” the Windsor police chief told reporters. Ottawa police tried to coax the city occupiers out by cutting off their fuel and getting an injunction against honking horns instead of arresting them. As for U.S. law enforcement, there was no sign that the country’s gigantic security apparatus would crack down on the demonstrations. These events show that when law enforcement is genuinely needed to quash a far-right insurgency, it is timid and reluctant to do anything—a dangerous precedent to set.

At The Week, Samuel Goldman recalls the reactions to the protests that followed the death of George Floyd and doesn’t find much consistency:

Media figures and politicians have flipped the script established during the tumults of 2020. At that time, with protests for policing reform in many major cities, progressives mostly defended disruptive tactics like occupations and road shutdowns, if not actual violence, while conservatives called for harsh penalties. Now Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) argues the Canadian truckers are standing up for freedom, while late-night hosts bemoan the economic and social costs.

Some of this shift has to do with growing enthusiasm for gonzo politics on the right. But the real explanation lies deeper. Very few people uphold consistent opinions on the justice of protest tactics, one way or the other. What matters is their assessment of the goal and participants.

But the New York Times editorial board does get points for consistency:

We disagree with the protesters’ cause, but they have a right to be noisy and even disruptive. Protests are a necessary form of expression in a democratic society, particularly for those whose opinions do not command broad popular support. Governments have a responsibility to prevent violence by protesters, but they must be willing to accept some degree of disruption by those seeking to be heard. The challenge for public officials—the same one faced by Minneapolis and other cities in 2020 during the protests after the murder of George Floyd—is to maintain a balance between public health and safety and a functioning society, with the right to free expression.

Entertaining the use of force to disperse or contain legal protests is wrong. As Mr. Trudeau said in November 2020, in expressing his support of a yearlong protest by farmers in India that blocked major highways to New Delhi, “Canada will always be there to defend the right of peaceful protest.”

Jonathan Turley expressed particular concern about Canada’s efforts to deprive the protesters of money from grassroots supporters:

GoFundMe, which previously helped fund arrested Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters, froze more than $10 million raised for Canadian truckers to prevent it from being used to support them.

After the money was frozen by GoFundMe, supporters switched to GiveSendGo to “adopt a trucker.” The Canadian government then moved successfully to freeze millions of donations to the truckers, and the Supreme Court of Canada approved the freeze in a major blow to free speech and associational rights in Canada. The freezing of funds supporting the truckers laid bare the anti-free speech trend sweeping across the world, including in the U.S. There is no principled basis for cutting off the ability of citizens to support other citizens in a campaign of civil disobedience. Although ignored by most in the media, the same claim used by the Trudeau government today could have been used to freeze support for the civil rights era’s freedom marchers or for BLM protesters in 2020.

In Reason, Liz Wolfe argued that “this type of situation—one in which protesters are being freezed out by crowdfunding platforms, one in which the government is threatening to suppress demonstrations and surveil financial transactions—is precisely the use case for crypto.” (Meanwhile, in her Atlantic newsletter, Wait, What?, Molly Jong-Fast contends that the wave of social-media support for the convoy is in large part artificial, pointing out that, “According to Grid, two of the biggest Facebook groups related to the protests—‘Freedom Convoy 2022’ and ‘Convoy to Ottawa 2022’—were created by a Bangladeshi digital-marketing firm.”)

In The Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady argues that there are broader reasons to be concerned about liberty:

Canada is advertised as a modern democracy that respects pluralism. This implies differences of opinion peacefully coexisting on a variety of subjects from assessing health risks to raising and educating children to political philosophy. Individuals, even when in the minority, retain rights to free speech and assembly. Yet in practice Canadians who oppose big government increasingly find they are living under a woke, progressive majoritarianism that believes it owns the truth. Dissidents are hounded out of the public square and even the prime minister cancels contrarians without batting an eye.

The reach of Canada’s administrative state rivals that of its southern neighbor. Ottawa and the provinces have their own versions of health departments and agencies staffed with “experts” who wield enormous power yet don’t answer to the electorate … In theory, Canada’s 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms—which is part of the constitution—ought to protect civil rights. But the Canadian judiciary has been drifting ideologically left for decades. Courts today interpret the constitution through the lens of social justice rather than individual liberty. The state enjoys wide powers to crush dissent.

In contrast, Stephen Marche understands these protests as an extension of American dysfunction:

The truckers matter principally as an example of an American political proxy conflict spilling over our border, and as a harbinger of more such conflicts. Peter Sloly, the Ottawa police chief, has declared that a “sizable element” from the U.S. has been involved in fundraising and organizing. The Ottawa police have been overwhelmed by 911 calls intended to disrupt operations, and “they were coming in from the United States,” according to Sloly. By far, the largest supporters of the trucker convoy on social media are Americans, namely Donald Trump and Elon Musk. (One of Trump’s former “science advisers” has attended rallies.) Republican Senator Ted Cruz is way, way more into the trucker convoy than any Canadian Conservative is. This episode is no doubt just the beginning of the nightmare of living next to the United States in its time of breakdown. As American politics enters a state of complete toxicity, veering into insurgency, its violence and misinformation networks will inevitably spread across the border.

On Caring for Children

Two recent essays in The Atlantic have grappled with questions concerning the rising generation. My colleague Elizabeth Bruenig focuses on their place in liberal societies like the United States:

Our world is structured around the core notion that people are free and equal, and that ideally they ought to be left alone by state and neighbor to manage their own affairs, so long as their activities don’t impose upon others. From these simple premises and a handful of others that follow in close rhyme, we derive our democratic republic; our freedoms of thought, assembly, religion, association, and speech; and our indignation at being told what to do.

In that sense, children are a paradox for liberalism. On the one hand, it’s crucial that they obey adults in their daily life, because they rely on adult competence and judgment to stand in while they develop their own. On the other, the helplessness of children, coupled with the fact that they too are wholly human persons, obligates others to them—meaning, in short, that children both take orders and give them by nature of their very existence. Children are bundles of obligations, theirs and ours to them, and their vulnerability and needs leave little room for the sort of political freedom the imaginary liberal subject is presumed to have.

Mary Katharine Ham worries about the heavy cost that children have paid during the coronavirus pandemic:

A one-size-fits-all approach to risk, and top-down encouragement to take as few risks as possible, may have been reasonable in 2020, before we properly understood how the coronavirus was transmitted and before we had vaccines. Spurning risk analysis made us all worse at it, however, and children have paid the highest price.

Children are the least at-risk population, but in many areas of the country they continue to face draconian mitigation policies … As David Leonhardt wrote in The New York Times, we’ve inflicted “more harm to children in exchange for less harm to adults.” You don’t have to be a psychologist to see something wrong with that exchange. In our focus on one threat, we’ve let a thousand others flourish: learning loss, destabilization of the public-school system due to under-enrollment, self-harm, behavioral problems.

Meanwhile, Ezra Klein recently interviewed Janet Lansbury about her novel approach to parenting.

Provocation of the Week

Richard Ngo works at an organization focused on ensuring that if and when artificial general intelligence is loosed on the world, it benefits all of humanity rather than trapping us in a dystopian future or killing us. On Twitter last week he proposed a rather fraught biological experiment:

Octopuses are surprisingly intelligent, and reproduce at 1 year old. If we’d started a breeding program 50 years ago, we probably could’ve gotten them smarter than dolphins by now. A disappointing failure of the long-term mad science ecosystem. Four specific reasons their brain size could increase rapidly:

  • Their brains don’t need to pass through a birth canal
  • Their head weight is supported by water
  • They could develop many more neurons in their arms
  • They have many many offspring which we could select between

The best time to start an octopus intelligence breeding program was 50 years ago. The second-best time is now! People keep asking why. To them I say: we do this thing not because it is easy, but because it is awesome. More seriously: it would be really great to understand general intelligence better. Seems like an important step towards mitigating risks from AGI.

My gut tells me that that’s a bad idea, and that 50 years hence it would be remembered as deeply unethical, but I suspect that it won’t be long until someone attempts an experiment like it, perhaps using gene-editing technology rather than, or in combination with, selective breeding.

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