The Importance of Dissent in Wartime

Plus: The limits of what academics can know

Rep. Pramila Jayapal speaking into microphones
Caroline Brehman / CQ Roll Call / Getty

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. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.


Question of the Week

While covering Donald Trump, multiple journalistic outlets published articles questioning his mental fitness. In Pennsylvania, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman is running for the Senate while recovering from a stroke, stoking debate between critics who say he is too sick to serve and supporters, including his wife, who say he is a victim of ableism. Some colleagues of Senator Dianne Feinstein similarly say that she is mentally unfit to serve due to problems related to her advanced age, a critique that others have characterized as ageist. Joe Biden’s age and mental sharpness are also prominent in discussions of whether or not he ought to run for reelection in 2024. How should voters assess the physical and mental fitness of politicians, and how should the press cover such matters?

Send your responses to conor@theatlantic.com or simply reply to this email.


Conversations of Note

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States fought abhorrent enemies. That made it harder to make sound decisions. In war, some people always lack the ability to distinguish between dissent and disloyalty; questioning any strategy or tactic being deployed against particularly odious enemies such as Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, or the terrorist militias that succeeded them felt to many like siding with evil.

Hindsight lays bare our folly. Now that the U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are widely regarded as failures, we can see that, instead of stigmatizing dissenters, we would have been better off encouraging dissent and using the best insights that emerged to improve upon failed approaches. That ought to be our posture in all foreign-policy matters, including the war in Ukraine. Instead, Vladimir Putin’s depravity and the immorality of Russia’s invasion are being treated as if they delegitimize debate in the United States about how America might best respond.

On Monday, the 30 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus sent a letter to the White House urging President Biden to pursue direct negotiations with Russia about the war in Ukraine. The letter began by praising the Biden administration’s “commitment to Ukraine’s legitimate struggle against Russia’s war of aggression” and its determination to avoid direct conflict with Russia before noting “the risk of catastrophic escalation” and what they believe it implies.

In their words:

We are under no illusions regarding the difficulties involved in engaging Russia given its outrageous and illegal invasion … However, if there is a way to end the war while preserving a free and independent Ukraine, it is America’s responsibility to pursue every diplomatic avenue to support such a solution that is acceptable to the people of Ukraine.

… We agree with the Administration’s perspective that it is not America’s place to pressure Ukraine’s government regarding sovereign decisions, and with the principle you have enunciated that there should be “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.” But as legislators responsible for the expenditure of tens of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars in military assistance in the conflict, we believe such involvement in this war also creates a responsibility for the United States to seriously explore all possible avenues, including direct engagement with Russia, to reduce harm and support Ukraine in achieving a peaceful settlement.

The letter was measured and reasonable, whether or not one agrees with the call for direct negotiations. It was met with substantive disagreements from people with different perspectives, as is appropriate. “There is moral and strategic peril in sitting down with Putin too early,” Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, argued on Twitter. “It risks legitimizing his crimes and handing over parts of Ukraine to Russia in an agreement that Putin won’t even honor.”

But the progressive call for direct diplomatic negotiations also provoked the sort of wartime intolerance for dissent that can deprive nations of rigorous public discourse. For example, after The Washington Post published a news article about the letter, headlined “Liberals Urge Biden to Rethink Ukraine Strategy,” the CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis tweeted, “The Washington Post made this its lede story. A small minority of the caucus spoke with their dreadful opinion and the Post is rooting against Biden and Ukraine and democracy. Darkness looms.”

While I dispute that the letter from lawmakers was “dreadful,” I don’t begrudge Jarvis that opinion. But he is wrong to conflate a call for direct diplomacy with “rooting against” democracy, and casting mere reporting on the letter as “rooting against” democracy is as pernicious as it is preposterous. The press ought to report wartime dissents from Congress prominently.

Bill Kristol tweeted this about the letter:

Enough! The leftists—or if you wish progressives—who signed this letter are not ‘liberals.’ It's time finally to reclaim this honorable term. Liberals believe in liberty and the rule of law—and in fighting for liberty, not appeasing brutal dictators.

But there is nothing illiberal or ant-iliberty about urging diplomacy, particularly while clearly stating that the aim of negotiations is trying to determine “if there is a way to end the war while preserving a free and independent Ukraine.” Contra Kristol’s characterization, the letter explicitly values Ukrainian liberty and implicitly favors ongoing fighting against Russia. His claim that the letter favors “appeasing brutal dictators” flagrantly misrepresents it.

Unfortunately, similarly inaccurate and corrosive attacks were everywhere on social media. On Tuesday, the Congressional Democratic Caucus withdrew the letter, saying it had been written in July and that a staff error was to blame for its release. Instead of a debate focused on the substantive merits or demerits of direct U.S. negotiations with Russia, officials and pundits are now focused on discussing the timing and politics of the letter. Having seen even carefully qualified criticism met with flagrant demagoguery and vilification, lawmakers averse to being pilloried and misrepresented may shy away from subjecting U.S. foreign policy to the scrutiny every high-stakes matter warrants, even when existing policy is correct.

The last time the U.S. foreign-policy establishment successfully suppressed dissent by stigmatizing criticism of their approach to a war, the war itself was a catastrophe of historic proportions, and it set the stage for a political backlash that likely culminated in Donald Trump’s election as president. Have they learned nothing from recent history?

An Underreported Catastrophe

The Guardian editorializes on a conflict that is seldom discussed in the United States outside of the Ethiopian diaspora:

Millions displaced. Brutal attacks on civilians. A soaring death toll. Deliberate attacks on infrastructure. And little hope of a negotiated exit. Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region is enduring probably the most brutal and deadly war being waged in the world today. Tens of thousands of combat fatalities have reportedly followed the failure of a ceasefire in August. Yet the world is paying little heed.

Assessing the true toll is impossible given that most communications have been cut off. Researchers at the University of Ghent have estimated that between 380,000 and 600,000 civilian lives alone have been lost, with 30,000-90,000 killed in direct attacks, but most dying for lack of food or healthcare. In a region already beset by hunger, but which had made some significant strides, food has become a weapon of war. Nearly half the population is in severe need of food aid. There is clear evidence of war crimes by all parties, including widespread sexual violence, although civilian casualties are believed to be overwhelmingly Tigrayan.

On Compelling and Forbidding Speech

As Republican legislators in various states sought to ban public schools from teaching or promoting what they typically called “critical race theory” or “divisive concepts,” I published an article explaining an insurmountable challenge for anyone trying to craft such legislation: “Any prohibition broad enough to exclude pernicious dogma risks prohibiting or chilling legitimate instruction,” I wrote, “while any bill so narrow as to avoid a chilling effect is unlikely to effect significant change. The needle is extraordinarily difficult to thread.”

Similar logic applies to attempts to compel speech, as Tim Shampling points out in a City Journal article about DEI statements:

Defenders of DEI statements often ask how such a practice can be problematic. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are positive values, the argument goes; what kind of person would not support them? The implication is that the DEI statements contain an affirmation of self-evident goods to which no good person could object, obvious truths beyond the realm of reasonable contestability. Being asked to testify to one’s support for DEI could give no pause to any sensible person’s conscience. But if the statements are platitudinous and banal, why have they become so popular? Applicants for a position aren’t required to profess allegiance to happiness or good times or kindness or doing the right thing. Departments don’t issue statements acknowledging that the sun rises in the morning, that one should provide for one’s children, or that it is good to try the best one can …

… The more obvious interpretation is that DEI statements have been adopted across academia with such passion and pervasiveness not because they are empty vessels, but because they do express a particular value system and political outlook. DEI statements demonstrate, and align universities with, a way of looking at the world fashionable among faculty and (especially) administrators. But if these professions are meaningful at all, then they curtail academic freedom and abet already-rampant discrimination in academic careers. When demanded in the context of hiring and promotion, DEI statements either serve to downgrade and exclude candidates who are honest about holding views that dissent from progressive orthodoxy on race and gender, or they enjoin applicants to mislead about their views and violate their consciences …  Constrained professions of belief have the tragic quality of being most effective at keeping out people with integrity, people unwilling to distort or lie about their beliefs to get ahead. But this is exactly the kind of person whom academia should prize.

Better to reject all top-down attempts to impose sameness of thought on educators.

Desperate Times Call for Mellow Measures

In the newsletter Sex and the State, Cathy Reisenwitz argues that loneliness is self-reinforcing:

Being starved of something often makes it harder to get enough of it. If I go into a social interaction starved for connection people often pick up on it. Research shows that humans are really good at picking up on subtle cues about the other person’s emotional state.

Any awkwardness, lingering eye contact, nervousness, etc. can betray that I’m lonely. People tend to want to avoid lonely people. They are often afraid a lonely person will violate their boundaries, afraid that the person is lonely because they suck, afraid that loneliness is contagious. Often, all this is even harder because it’s operating subconsciously. Neither I nor the other person might even be consciously aware that I’m lonely.

The vibes will simply be off.

Reisenwitz goes on to offer advice for overcoming loneliness in spite of that dynamic, a task eased by the fact that, in her telling, making connections tends to be a self-reinforcing phenomenon too.

While accepting an award at the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, the economist Glenn Loury delivered the following remarks about the limits of what academics can know:

Social science can capture only a part of the human subject. Our methods project human beings onto those materialistic dimensions that we can then try to fathom. That is, as the objects of scientific inquiry, human subjects must ultimately be treated as mechanisms. Yet, in so doing we social scientists leave out that which most makes a person human. We leave out the soul—what some derisively refer to as “the ghost in the machine.” Still, my fundamental conviction is that we human beings are not defined by our desires at a point and time. Indeed, I even deny that we are defined by our biological inheritance. “God is not finished with us when he deals us our genetic hand,” is how a poet might put it, and poetry has its place. I claim that, as spiritual creatures, the full extent of our humanity transcends that which can be grasped with the deterministic vision that an economist, a sociologist, or a psychologist brings.

If this is right, then it is crucial to grasp the implication that the behavior of freely choosing, socially situated, spiritually endowed human beings will in some essential way be indeterminate, unpredictable, and even mysterious. For, when human agency is driven by what people understand to be meaningful—by what they believe in—then the intersubjective processes of social interaction and mutual stimulation that generate and sustain patterns of belief in human communities become centrally important. But such processes of persuasion, conformity, conversion, myth construction, and the like are open-ended and only weakly constrained by material conditions.

What we believe about the meaning of life powerfully shapes how we act in a given situation, but these beliefs themselves are not deducible as a necessary consequence of our situation. We can always agree to believe differently or more fervently, particularly if those with whom we are socially connected are undergoing a similar transformation. Thus, religious revivals and reformations can sweep through our ranks and change our collective view of the world virtually overnight. We can be moved to make enormous sacrifices on behalf of abstract goals. We are ever capable—as the Czech playwright-turned-politician, Vaclav Havel, has said so well—of “transcending the world of existences.” Put differently, that “ghost” doesn’t dwell within the human “machine.” Instead, it emerges from the intersubjective fervor of the crowd.

All of which is my way of suggesting that “epistemic modesty” is an indispensable virtue for those who would take up the vocation of social scientist.

That’s all for today––see you next week.