This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Every Monday, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Question of the Week
This week’s question is an experiment for me and a creative challenge for you: In two paragraphs or less, can you describe a moral dilemma that your fellow readers would have a hard time resolving? Fact or fiction is fine. I look forward to being confounded by the pickles you put us all in.
Email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll publish a selection of correspondence in Friday’s newsletter.
Conversations of Note
In the United States, few pandemic restrictions remain. In China, things couldn’t be more different, as Bret Stephens highlights. “More than 25 million people remain under strict lockdown, a real-world dystopia in which hovering drones warn residents through loudspeakers to ‘control your soul’s desire for freedom,’” the New York Times columnist observes. “Does anyone still think that China’s handling of the pandemic—its deceits, its mediocre vaccines, a zero-Covid policy that manifestly failed and now this cruel lockdown that has brought hunger and medicine shortages to its richest city—is a model to the rest of the world?”
Certainly not The Washington Post. Its editorial board writes that Shanghai exemplifies China’s failures:
Initially, the plan in Shanghai was to smother the virus fast with a two-part city lockdown. That failed and was abandoned. The authorities then shut tight the entire metropolis of 25 million, saying it would be for just a few days. Six weeks later, it remains in place—and thousands of daily new cases are still being reported. Although the totals are declining, it is still not zero. What’s more, the lockdown has created a severe disruption to global supply chains. Public patience is exhausted, and faith in the party’s ability to govern has eroded. There have been scenes of food rotting in piles while people nearby were hungry, a person stuffed into a body bag while still alive and nightly protests, with people banging pots from balconies.
China’s leaders have boasted for the past two years that their authoritarian methods were capable of ensuring stability and prosperity far better than the chaotic pandemic response in the United States. The party’s basic claim to legitimacy—since it does not rest on democratic choice—is that it knows best and is effective and competent. The Shanghai mess has fueled doubts. On the defensive, Mr. Xi chaired a meeting of the Politburo’s Standing Committee on May 5, after which he vowed to stick with the zero-covid approach and also demanded that no one question or dissent. New Shanghai lockdowns were imposed Monday. Will the outbreak shake the Chinese leadership?
Given the events of the 20th century, I’d bet against leadership by any Communist party, to say nothing of China’s version. Andy Lin of the Financial Times argues on Twitter that the country’s “Zero COVID” approach is the problem:
China has been slow to vaccinate its elderly. Now, it’s even slower. Last week, an average of 0.3mn elderly people received their boosters every day, official figures show. One month ago, it was 0.6mn. 100mn elderly people are still without third doses now. Why this slowdown? Medical experts claim “zero-covid strategy buys time to vaccinate more people”. However, a zero covid policy could instead stall vaccination progress if eradicating the virus overshadows other priorities including vaccinating the most fragile. Since the Shanghai outbreak, cities have been locked down with few reported cases under pressure from Beijing’s zero-covid initiative. The latest example is Zhengzhou, a city of 10mn residents, which went into lockdown last week when “33” covid cases were reported in a day. The pre-emptive lockdowns succeeded in driving down case numbers. “Zero-covid policy is working”, hailed state media, who are urging "persistence" to achieve the “final victory over viruses”. Meanwhile, vaccination campaigns have been sidelined. On May 6, People’s Daily published a statement from the Politburo Standing Committee chaired by Xi on covid strategy. The 1,900-word statement spared “10” words on vaccination effort (marked with red frame), with the rest pledging testing, quarantine, and movement control. Beijing’s words are driving local officials to achieving zero covid, with locals discouraged from going out (and getting jabbed) and medical staff busy testing residents (instead of giving shots). Vaccine refuseniks are emboldened as zero covid holds. Zero covid strategy saves lives when it is balanced with vaccination drive. Zero covid with Chinese characteristics, however, risks creating a vicious circle of pre-emptive lockdowns and slackened vaccination drive.
Care vs. Coddling
Regular readers of The Atlantic will be familiar with “The Coddling of the American Mind,” a 2015 cover story by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, who tried to explain why, “in the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like.”
In conversation with their thesis is a new essay by Kathleen Stock, who is also critical of attempts to police speech on campus:
Lukianoff and Haidt emphasise symmetries between contemporary student attitudes and the kinds of distorting thinking symptomatic of anxiety disorders—catastrophising and negative filtering, for instance. But I think we should also consider potential links with another dysfunctional state of mind. Specifically, we should attend to connections and parallels between what I’ll call the speech-sanitizer mindset and the kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder sometimes called “harm OCD”—a disorder that leaves you convinced that you’re likely to do other people harm, or have somehow already done so, whether you meant to or not. With full-blown OCD of this kind, every action you commit or don’t commit can become mentally freighted with the unending potential to damage others, so that you become wracked with terror and guilt as you scroll through the worst possibilities in your mind and become convinced you are already somehow responsible for them, or will be soon.
Obviously this is a serious and agonising condition, and I’m not saying that it’s the default state for the average student speech protestor. What I am suggesting is that we increasingly live in a culture which encourages us to have thoughts a bit like this. The result for some, and especially the young, seems to be an excessive sense of moral responsibility and guilt, and a desire to expiate by means of public actions such as protesting, open letter-writing, denunciation, and so on - all under the guise of saving others from harm. And at least one widely cited study of Generation Z in the US backs me up, concluding that “To Gen Z, the right beliefs are the ones that don’t hurt anybody”. This, then, is the point I want to stress: that when students attempt to sanitize speech, they mostly do so on behalf of others. They are trying, in some inchoate and instinctive way no doubt, to save others from harm and not (just) themselves.
Good Outcome, Bad Precedent
Cory Doctorow opines on the perils of a world where even the physical objects we buy aren’t wholly ours:
Here’s a delicious story: CNN reports that Russian looters, collaborating with the Russian military, stole 27 pieces of John Deere farm equipment from a dealership in Melitopol, Ukraine, collectively valued at $5,000,000. The equipment was shipped to Chechnya, but it will avail the thieves naught, because the John Deere dealership reached out over the internet and bricked these tractors, using an in-built kill-switch.
Since that story ran last week, I’ve lost track of the number of people who sent it to me. I can see why: it’s a perfect cyberpunk nugget: stolen tractors rendered inert by an over-the-air update, thwarting the bad guys. It could be the climax of a prescient novella in Asimov’s circa 1996.
But I’m here to tell you: this is not a feel-good story … if you scratch the surface of that cinematic comeuppance, what you find is a far scarier parable about the way that cyberwarfare could extrude itself into the physical world. After all, if John Deere’s authorized technicians can reach out and brick any tractor or combine, anywhere in the world, then anyone who suborns, hacks or blackmails a John Deere technician—say, Russia’s storied hacker army, who specialize in mass-scale infrastructure attacks, which they perfected by attacking Ukrainian embedded systems—can do the exact same thing.
Too Rich to Perform This Badly
Elizabeth Bruenig laments the plight of the American child:
American children suffer in ways children living in countries of comparable wealth and development do not: More kids live in relative poverty; more babies die; more grade schoolers routinely miss meals. And American parents—particularly American mothers—suffer too, in ways our international counterparts do not: Our maternal mortality rates are much higher; our options for taking leave to give birth and recover from it are far more limited; our resources for support are radically circumscribed. Our birth rate is as low as it’s ever been, and a rising share of childless young adults in the United States now report that they do not ever plan to have children. This is devastation; this is loss.
My colleague is right: America should do better.
Provocation of the Week
In The Atlantic, the defense attorney Lara Bazelon explains the value of an “apolitical willingness to stand up for all speech, regardless of the speaker’s identity,” and laments that the ACLU, an organization that long took that approach, has begun abandoning it in recent years. She writes:
Progressive causes are near and dear to my heart. I am a feminist and staunch Democrat. As a federal public defender turned law professor, I have spent my career trying to make change in a criminal legal system that is riven with racism and fundamentally unfair to those without status and financial resources. Yet, as someone who understands firsthand that the fundamental rights to free speech and due process exist only as long as competent lawyers are willing to vigorously defend extreme positions and people, I view the ACLU’s hard-left turn with alarm. It smacks of intolerance and choosing sides, precisely what a civil-liberties organization designed to defend the Bill of Rights is meant to oppose. I used to be a proud card-carrying member of the ACLU. Today, when its fundraising mailers and pleas to re-enroll arrive in my mailbox, I toss them in the recycling.
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