NYT, guilt by association, and libraries

It's a relief to see so many thoughtful—albeit blistering—responses to the long-awaited NYT hit piece on Scott Alexander and his erstwhile blog. It means that I'm not crazy for having the reaction I did when I read it, and that I don't need to write much to draw attention to the article's numerous flaws: only to point you to all the existing ones that already do the job. That's only a few, and none of the Twitter threads and dunks. I must say, the immediately striking thing about the piece is how boring and boringly written it is, in such a bone-deep passive-aggressive voice. Why all the fuss (internally, that is, at the NYT) for that?

But: one additional thought. It has to be strange, at the experiential (nay, existential) level, for a writer truly to think that he can damn another writer through nothing but guilt by association. And not just association in general, but association understood, first, as proximate contact (i.e., having read and engaged a "dangerous" or non-mainstream or legitimately Bad author); and, second, as having potentially contributed to the potential acceptance of said unsavory character's unsavory ideas (i.e., not having controlled in advance the judgments one's own readers might make in reading one's engagement of another's writings).

The entire hit piece is structured this way. "Alexander might be an okay dude, but it's possible that his blog might have led some readers to Wrong Thoughts." What I cannot for the life of me understand is what it means for a fellow writer to think this, to have written this way. Does he really suppose the way authors and their works ought to be judged is by the sheer possibility that some readers might draw undesirable conclusions? or misunderstand the authors' views? or go beyond the authors, or follow their evidence or arguments to different ends than the authors?

This view is patently preposterous. It's self-defeating for any writer to hold. And it's even worse as a picture of reading and learning. Imagine it applied to libraries:

  1. Libraries invariably contain books of all kinds.
  2. Some books invariably contain Bad Ideas.
  3. Moreover, All Kinds Of People read books.
  4. Therefore, some people will have Bad Ideas as a result of reading certain books contained in libraries.
  5. Therefore, libraries are Of Questionable Quality.
  6. Therefore, ban all libraries.

There is a real hatred afoot today: a hatred for learning, for thinking, for reading and giving space to ideas and authors outside of a narrow mainstream—whether or not that mainstream is a mushy moderate middle or something else entirely—and this hatred not only animates the hit piece on Alexander, it is a sort of electrical current pulsing through our culture today. Resist it, y'all. Resist it in any way you can.

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