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What Has Alcohol’s Existence Done to Humans?

todayNovember 9, 2023 4

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Plus: extremism on both the left and the right

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Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf 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

Are humans better or worse off for having beer, wine, and spirits? Or, if you’d prefer introspection, how about you personally?

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

Conversations of Note

Markets and the Good

The Hedgehog Review is running a thought-provoking symposium about our economic order:

Critics of neoliberalism charge that its emphasis on markets over all else progressively gutted vigorous democracy, replacing it with the rule of technocrats … However valid that critique, certain features of neoliberal thinking were, arguably, contributing factors in the three decades—les trentes lorieuses, as the French called them—of widely shared prosperity that followed World War II. But with more fundamentalist neoliberals of the “Chicago school,” championing efficiency and profitability above other social and national goods, policies supporting or condoning union busting, deregulation, downsizing, and offshoring in the name of free trade and comparative advantage began to create the kind of socioeconomic inequality and divisions that inflame politics today, and not only in the United States.

How, then … do we put economics in its proper place?

Accountability for the Powerful

After noting that the United States has moved to the left in recent years, Matt Yglesias argues that “paying attention to and pushing back on unsound left-wing ideas is more important than it used to be, because the odds that such ideas will have meaningful policy influence are higher.”

Asymmetry in Extremism

Damon Linker believes that “the harder-edged activist left—also known as social-justice progressivism or the so-called ‘woke’ left—gets a lot of things wrong,” but worries about the right more:

Donald Trump currently leads the primary field by 46 points. Together he and the other right-populists in the race (Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy) are receiving the support of roughly 77 percent of Republicans. That’s the equivalent of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Cori Bush winning the support of three quarters of Democratic voters—something that at present is pretty close to inconceivable.

But even this doesn’t quite capture the reality of the difference between the two parties—because Trump’s extremism isn’t mainly a function of policy commitments, however much his positions on immigration, trade, and foreign policy are heretical in the context of the Reaganite conservatism that dominated the GOP from 1980 until 2016. No, Trump is a threat to American democracy primarily because of his tactical extremism—that is, his indifference to the rule of law, procedural norms, and above all his defiance of the democratic rules by attempting a self-coup in the two months following the 2020 election.

A Pox on Both Your Houses

Notice that “the right’s tactical extremism is alarming” and “the left’s ideological extremism is alarming” are not contradictory or mutually exclusive observations––both can be true simultaneously!

Missing School Matters

At The Atlantic, Adam Harris highlights an alarming trend:

American schools have tracked absenteeism for more than a century … The teacher calls names. The students say, “Here.” Those who don’t respond are marked absent … In many school districts, average daily attendance has mostly been seen as a goal tied to school funding; the more students a school has, the more money it receives. But over the past decade … schools have started to recognize that attendance is a fundamental contributor to academic success. “Every day matters,” Gottfried told me. “After the first day [missed], test scores decline, and it declines in the same way as it does from the eighth or ninth day missed.”

Those academic consequences have left administrators, teachers, and researchers deeply concerned about the glut of students who are missing a significant amount of school since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Scenes of Evil

Nancy Rommelmann attended a screening of footage documenting various atrocities that Hamas perpetrated on October 7. She recounts the moment in the screening when she cried:

A home security camera showed a young father trying to get his two sons, maybe 9 and 11, to the bomb shelter. It’s early in the morning, they each wear only pajama pants, but they make it to the shelter, and then from the left side of the screen, a hand tosses a bomb. The father’s body tumbles into view. I could feel the audience panic; what will happen to those boys? Then we see; they are led out of the shelter by one of the terrorists; he brings them back into the house. One boy … has had an eye blown out in the explosion that killed their father. A terrorist returns, he drinks soda from their fridge and leads the boys out of the house. We do not see them again. The next shot is of Israeli security forces accompanying their mother, she had not been at the kibbutz during the attack, she is looking for her children when instead she sees her husband’s crumpled body. There is no sound, only the mother’s body shaking, it’s as if her bones have all broken at once and she slides down, the soldiers trying to hold her up as she falls in on herself.

Sabrina Maddeaux, who watched the same footage, argued that “the worst part was the glee” of the perpetrators:

The pure jubilation of Hamas terrorists as they filmed themselves killing and torturing; their excited voices bragging about their atrocities. The videos of them playing with victims’ heads with their feet, and excitedly shooting out the tires of a kibbutz’s ambulance before massacring its residents.

I’ll never forget the gore, but it’s the look of euphoria and pride in the terrorists’ eyes, cheering for the cameras as if they were the ones partying at a music festival that day, that will haunt me.

Better Mental Health Without the High

In The Atlantic, Richard A. Friedman explores a theory aired by some neuroscientists––that some psychiatric benefits of psilocybin and MDMA are independent of the drugs’ better-known effects.

He explains:

Remarkably, just a few doses of either psilocybin or MDMA can produce a rapid, lasting improvement in depression and anxiety symptoms, meaning symptom relief within minutes or hours that lasts up to 12 weeks … The FDA is widely expected to approve MDMA for supervised use sometime in 2024—an extraordinary turnabout for drugs that have long been stigmatized for their possible (if rare) serious harms. From a clinical perspective, this psychedelic revolution is potentially miraculous. An estimated 23 percent of Americans have a mental illness, and a considerable number of them, like my patient, don’t get sufficient relief from therapy or existing medications. Drugs such as psilocybin, ayahuasca, and LSD could help many of these patients—but others won’t be able to tolerate the trip. (By “trip,” I mean the variety of altered mental states that psychedelic drugs can cause, such as the transcendence and mystical experience of LSD and psilocybin, and the bliss and social openness of MDMA.) …

A trip is an extraordinary, consciousness-expanding experience that can offer the tripper new insight into her life and emotions. It also feels pretty damn good. But it’s far from the only effect the drugs have on the human brain.


Provocation of the Week

Kat Rosenfield argues that it is not anyone’s place to try to get others fired for their offensive speech:

Like many creative professionals, I believe unequivocally in the First Amendment—and not just the letter of the law, which prohibits the government from interfering with speech. I believe in the spirit of it, which can and should animate a culture in which freedom of expression is valued, encouraged and defended by every citizen who enjoys its protections.

The list of things I don’t think people should be fired for is virtually endless. That includes political speech … but it also includes provocative food opinions, using your thumb and forefinger to make the “okay” sign, retweeting an off-color joke, getting into an altercation with a stranger at the dog park, and various and sundry interpersonal conflicts that fall under the general category of “being a jerk.” …

Don’t worry: I don’t think the paraglider meme-posters should be fired, either. This is for principled reasons but also practical ones. The idea that having distasteful opinions should render a person de facto unemployable has always struck me as profoundly self-defeating: Even the real jerks among us have families to feed. Unless you want your taxes going to a welfare fund for the canceled (I certainly don’t!), we’ll need to agree that contributing to society is something every capable person must be allowed to do, as opposed to some sort of prize to be reserved exclusively for those who hold the right set of beliefs.

Thanks for your contributions. I read every one that you send. By submitting an email, you’ve agreed to let us use it—in part or in full—in the newsletter and on our website. Published feedback may include a writer’s full name, city, and state, unless otherwise requested in your initial note, and may be edited for length and clarity.



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