Niall Ferguson On Disasters

The prolific historian has a new book on pandemics, earthquakes, eruptions, and other catastrophes — and if we can ever truly prepare for them.

  
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Niall is one of my oldest and dearest friends, stretching back to our time at Magdalen College. The prolific historian is out with a new book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. One of the hardest convos I’ve yet had. Simply because Niall and I go back so far together, and our friendship is deep, it’s tough to interview him without abandoning objectivity — but I hope I did ok.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app” — which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. For three clips of my conversation with Niall — debating how likely we are screwed as a species; on how the US response to Covid19 differed from its response to the 1957 flu; and on the religious nature of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer — head over to our YouTube page.

Meanwhile, many readers are sounding off on our episode with radfem journalist Julie Bindel. A dissenter of mine:

Bindel was so astute about feminism, society and what needs to change. I hope, actually, that you will go back and carefully listen to her and the nuance of what she says. Like her, I’m not denying biological determinism; I am experiencing it everyday going through perimenopause. However, I felt Bindel expressed these realities with so much more subtlety than you seem to be able to, Andrew, with all due respect.

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari points out that what makes humans special is that we tell stories. “Homo Sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution.” Or, as the theorist Joan Scott has written, “It is not about whether difference exists, but the meaning we make of that difference.”

Humans tell stories, and those stories adapt to our different circumstances more than our evolution determines them. You seem to believe in this biological determinism in which it is ok for women to work in certain professions because it is “natural”. Hogwash. Then gay men would be relegated to being hairdressers and interior designers, and I’m assuming you would like and expect more options for yourself than those? In such a world, the masters of the universe would not be Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos — wimpy men by biological standards — but Hulk Hogan and Steven Seagal.

Our circumstances change, our stories change, we adapt. THIS is what makes us human. Difference will always be there, but the meaning we make of it, what it means for people in our society, can and does change.

The reader seems to misunderstand where I was coming from when I spoke of the gender-equality paradox of Scandinavian countries. I certainly don’t believe in “biological determinism”, just realism about some deep differences between most men and most women that will never be fully overcome. I strongly support any individual, male and female, who breaks out of those patterns.

Another reader found pros and cons with the episode:

Once again, I find myself enjoying a podcast with a person — Julie Bindel — whom I had had no interest in. I found myself agreeing with her on some points, but it was clear that she has little understanding of men and testosterone. Testosterone does not make you violent. But most people committing violence have testosterone. Just because a FTM trans person starts to take testosterone does not mean they will turn violent for the same reason the vast majority of men are not violent.

I agreed with her on sex work. I also feel it is exploitation. I feel the same about pornography. But I don’t have the right to limit your choices. I did not understand her statement about the prostitute hating her client. Many people, such as lawyers, hate their clients. She should have gone more deeply into how we can offer sex workers economic alternatives.

Laura Agustín goes deeper into that last point here, and Julie has a whole book on the subject, The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth. Another reader’s two cents:

All prostitution is not equal. Pimps, drug addiction, violence and intimidation are all abhorrent, and it is right to condemn them. Anyone who abuses women is immoral and a criminal, and women should be protected from them as much as possible.

On the other hand, absent any REAL coercion (money is persuasion, not coercion), any adult should have the option to sell their sexual services if they choose to do so. A person might FEEL like they have no other choice, but that is a sad illusion. We should all do our best to help people in bad situations find better solutions, and to see their own potential.

That’s where I’m at as well. On the topic of transgenderism, which Julie and I only briefly touched on, Dr. Dana Beyer, who appeared on the Dishcast last year, writes in:

As one of the rational and civil trans women to whom you alluded on this podcast, I’d like to reiterate my previous point that Julie Bindel highlighted: much of the dispute is due to confusion about language.

After you described how trans women know who they are, in line with the scientific evidence, she derided it as a “feeling” and stated categorically that there is no difference between male and female brains. That’s a second-wave feminist trope — globally speaking with regards to the brain, as best we know today, there are many more similarities than differences. But the brain is sexually dimorphic, and the nuclei that drive sexual (what we call gender) identity are grossly different between males and females. There’s no spectrum. And trans women are women by virtue of having that specific female brain sex.

So it’s not about feeling; it’s about knowing. I noticed when she mentioned that she might have transitioned as a kid if it had been available that she never said she knew she was a boy. Because her brain sex is female.

She also said categorically again that trans women are not women; they are transwomen. No, we are not a third gender. We are a subset, along with cis women, of the larger set of women. Not the same, but not that different. Saying trans women are not women is grounded in the refusal to recognize the proven existence of gender identity/brain sex, and rightfully engenders a reaction. She prioritizes the phallus, and that does trans women a disservice and leads to conflict.

She then made an interesting observation when she distinguished between post-genital reconstruction women and non-op women. That’s better, but she is still mistaken if she infers that having a penis makes a trans woman a threat in prison or the tennis court. You’re correct in focusing on T and not anatomy. No woman with a limp dick and low T is a threat, and the same holds for such men.

Same thing in sports, because for the most part there are no problems, as there are rules about hormonal transition. A trans girl still doped up on her natural T does have an unfair advantage, but those circumstances are rare.

My only demurral on this is that, even with testosterone suppression, there are some advantages to having grown up with testosterone — bones, muscles, etc. — that will always endure. I would oppose a blanket ban, as some states have pursued. But I do think you can include most trans athletes, who just want to be included, while ensuring that those with obvious, unfair physical advantages do not skew the results. Of course, those kinds of compromise are impossible in our current cultural climate.

Lastly, a quick followup from a reader who months ago said she was “kept from subscribing by a troubling lack of women’s voices and a lack of lesbian presence on the Dish”:

Thank you for the interview with Julie Bindel. What I appreciate about you is that one can often feel your mind expanding to take in thinking unlike your own. I very much appreciate that. Some of us on the progressive side are feeling very alienated and distraught by what is happening to the left, as you are with what is happening on the right.

You’re welcome. I’ve tried to have a decent mix of interviewees — men and women, trans and cis, black and white — without getting too hung up on it. I haven’t been so good at finding people willing to come on who are on the opposite side of politics to me — but I fear that’s because of intense polarization. If you have a creative guest idea that could expand the Dish further, let us know: dish@andrewsullivan.com.

Looking back to my column last week on Trumpism Without Trump, many readers are annoyed at my use of “defund the police” when I wrote:

And by “right on culture”, I do not mean some kind of revived Christianism. I mean affirming a critical but undeniable love of country and its flawed but inspiring history, reforming rather than defunding the police, enforcing the nation’s borders with firmness and compassion, embracing color-blind policies on race, and viewing our common humanity and citizenship as deeper principles than the modern left’s and radical right’s obsession with group identity.

The best dissent from a reader:

When will you stop perpetuating the very thing you’re complaining about with the phrase “defund the police”? Only a narrow sliver of folks on the left think that actually means “get rid of the police” (and they’re wrong). Defunding the police has its roots in something the right should be very familiar with: Defunding education. We cut the budgets of public education all the time and we call it defunding — always under the guise of “trimming the fat” from education.

With “defund the police,” the left is suggesting that with ballooning budgets, these police departments are buying tactical warfare gear and hiring more and more armed officers to handle every social problem that exists. “Defund the police” is meant to mean: reduce their budgets and use the money to hire more social workers, more mental health professionals, more (unarmed) traffic cops and make the whole operation less “commando” and more public servant.

Surely you know this, yes? Yet you continually turn the phrase into some ludicrous idea that it means the left wants to live in a world without police. We would like to live in a world without police that are armed like a military force, who act as judge, jury, and executioner because their authoritah and egos are challenged for a moment.

I understand the phrase is open to attacks such as yours. BLM suffers from this as well — just imagine how deflating it would have been to the right if the left had added from the beginning the unspoken but implicit word “too” to the phrase “black lives matter”.  But I am also aware that Republicans turns every phrase from the left against it. It’s what a party does when they have no good alternatives: just turn everything their opponent says into a game of words. It’s childish.

Can we start having a conversation about the issues and not the phrases? The party that does that is the one I hope is the one with the future.

I could offer you a plethora of op-eds and columns and articles in every mainstream outlet that argue explicitly, that, yes, they want to defund or abolish the police entirely. They even call themselves “abolitionists”. The New Yorker only this month ran a long essay by yet another critical race theorist, supporting the “abolition” of the police and of prisons! I wish liberals would stop denying the radicalism of the woke left, and fight back.

The recent 2020 Democratic autopsy, led by Congressman Sean Maloney, found that “Defund The Police” hurt many Democratic candidates. It’s why House Democrats did so much worse than Biden last year. If I had to guess, given the huge increase in crime and violence in the wake of the “Defund The Police” movement, I’d say that the GOP has a chance of a landslide in the 2022 midterms in the House. In DC, where crime has soared, ending countless black lives, including toddlers, I’ll definitely be voting for anyone opposed to this madness.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Jim Clyburn: