Free Speech And Picking Sides
Why Didn't The Cato Institute Stand Up For Free Thought?
One major party was very obviously absent from the recent four-month kerfuffle over Ilya Shapiro’s hiring at Georgetown University: his longtime employer, The Cato Institute. In my latest Spectator column, I ask: Why?
For expressing this pro-meritocracy view — one held by many Americans, and not just for the job of Supreme Court justice — Shapiro was unfairly punished by another institution captured almost entirely by the leftist mob, which seeks to keep opposing views off campus and out of sight. It was universally condemned by those on the right, and even many respected legal minds on the left.
Or, almost universally. There was an AWOL party in this battle, and their absence was notable from the perspective of D.C. libertarians and free speech activists: Shapiro’s employer, the Cato Institute.
At Cato, Shapiro rose to play an active and influential role as vice president of the Institute and director of the Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies. His work in advancing liberty-focused arguments before the Supreme Court, where Cato’s amicus briefs have put in a strong performance on the winning side of many cases in recent years, was critical in a period when the Court embraced many libertarian legal ideas.
Thankfully, Shapiro landed on his feet, as senior fellow and director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute, allowing him to continue to work in this field. But it remains a mystery why, when one of their most prominent employees was being dragged through the mud over an issue as critical as free speech, Cato did not lend their public support.
The internal dynamic at Cato, according to other staffers, has been driven by an invocation that “we don’t do culture wars” — a view held by older libertarians averse to the right-left conflagrations of recent decades. But Shapiro’s experience, while certainly containing a culture war dynamic, rested on issues of free thought, free speech, and academic freedom — all matters where Cato has historically seen fit to weigh in. Just not in this case.
The lack of support did not go unnoticed by those close to Shapiro, and in an interview, he expressed disappointment that Cato was unwilling to even act as a character witness in his defense.
“Through this ordeal, I really got to know who my friends are and was humbled and gratified to learn there are many of them,” Shapiro said. “I was disappointed to see that Cato, where I’ve devoted 15 years of my life, was not among them.”
Large, well-funded think tanks in Washington are often accused of receiving far too much funding and achieving far too little. Incidents like this can illustrate how these organizations view their role in advocating for their ideas. Whatever the reason for their silence in this case, Cato’s miscalculation is a teachable moment, and an indictment of institutional drift.
Biden’s Blighted Executive Order On Gender
The order itself sweeps much broader than pediatric gender medicine, but that is surely its most controversial element. It should put to rest any remaining doubts over whether the medical scandal of deforming and sterilizing children in order to validate their “internal sense of gender” goes all the way to the top of the American power structure. It undoubtedly does.
The term “conversion therapy” was initially used by gay rights advocates to describe efforts by mental health professionals to make same-sex attracted people heterosexual. In recent years, transgender activists have appropriated the term to target the use of psychotherapy as a measure of first resort for helping minors with gender-related distress to feel comfortable with their bodies. Critics of this approach argue that the only ethical treatment for “gender dysphoria” is “affirmation”—that is, agreeing with a minor’s self-diagnosis. They insist that any effort to explore whether a teenager’s transgender self-identification might result from some other factors—say, a combination of past sexual abuse and depression—is scientifically proven to be deeply harmful. “I have no room in my heart for hatred and I have no time for intolerance,” said HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine, who is transgender, “but we don’t live in a world where everyone feels that way, and this administration understands that more action is needed.”
The idea that it is unscientific and unethical to use psychotherapy as the default treatment for gender dysphoria is demonstrably wrong. The original Dutch Protocol, which laid the foundations for pediatric gender transition, insisted on lengthy psychological prescreening of candidates before prescribing them puberty-blocking drugs. What the Dutch experts knew then, and what researchers know now with even greater confidence, is that minors seeking transition tend to have extraordinarily high rates of mental-health problems, including anxiety, depression, attention-deficit and eating disorders, and autism. The intuition here is simple: if kids are going to give consent to puberty blockers and cross-sex hormone injections, they should first be determined to be mentally stable and competent. The psychological co-morbidities clinicians across the West are used to seeing in (mostly female) teenagers who show up for gender-transition procedures typically precede cross-gender identification and are thought to be in themselves the main causes of suicidality—the dreaded outcome that proponents of the affirm-only approach believe justifies allowing minors to consent to life-altering medical interventions. Existing studies provide no evidence that affirming reduces suicidality, and a new study shows limited evidence that it might worsen the problem.
Affirm-only advocates like to say that their approach has the endorsement of “all major medical associations.” As critics have pointed out, however, the statements of these associations against psychotherapy are based on an egregious misreading of the evidence. For example, when the American Academy of Pediatrics denounced non-affirming approaches as “conversion therapy” in 2018, it based that conclusion entirely on studies done on homosexuality and omitted all relevant studies on youth gender dysphoria. It even interpreted one study as supporting the affirm-only approach, despite the fact that that study explicitly recommended “watchful waiting” (psychotherapy). No one with even superficial familiarity with the politics of gender medicine can take seriously the claim that there is an evidence-grounded consensus in favor of affirmation.
Not only that, but over the past two years medical authorities in Australia, Finland, France, the U.K., and Sweden have recommended severe limitations on affirming therapy, insisting that the evidence for this approach is tenuous at best. The Biden administration is strengthening its commitment to affirming therapy at precisely the moment when the world’s most progressive welfare states are becoming more restrained about the practice.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that on the same day the Biden administration made its announcement, the New York Times Magazine ran a long article acknowledging, for the first time, that affirm-only therapy is controversial among medical experts. The article was by no means as rigorous or as fair as it could have been. Its author, Emily Bazelon, characterizes all opposition to affirming therapy as “right wing,” even as objections have come from feminists, gay rights advocates, and even transgender activists themselves. She acknowledges the role that “social influence” might play in shaping teen identity but vastly underestimates the findings of recent years in regard to “social contagion.” She also understates the growing skepticism within the research community over the safety and reliability of “social transition” and puberty blockers.
Still, Bazelon’s article marks a welcome departure from the newspaper’s previous approach, which framed the debate over pediatric transition as one between enlightened experts and knuckle-dragging bigots. It emphasizes that the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) is slated to revise its Standards of Care this summer by adding, among other things, a requirement for psychological prescreening of adolescents prior to giving them puberty blockers. Because the premise of the affirm-only approach is that prescreening means questioning the veracity of a minor’s identity, even the WPATH seems to be moving to the right of the White House.
The sense of betrayal over the Times piece among gender-affirming trans activists is palpable—and revealing. These activists regard dissemination of their ideology by the nation’s leading public opinion organs as an entitlement; they have zero tolerance for dissent. As Bazelon reports, when transgender doctor Erica Anderson voiced concerns about how the affirm-only approach is driving “sloppy, dangerous care” and agreed to speak to Abigail Shrier, author of Irreversible Damage, the U.S. branch of WPATH censured her and imposed a month-long moratorium on speaking to the “lay press” (read: those who are not mouthpieces for the gender-affirming cohort). In preparation for her article, Bazelon sought an interview with Jack Turban, a medical doctor, zealous partisan of affirm-only, and author of two (largely debunked but still widely cited) studies purporting to show that puberty blockers are suicide-prevention measures. Turban declined, however, claiming through his spokesperson that he “didn’t have time to talk.”
Lavrov Talks To The BBC
Since the Russian army attacked Ukraine nearly four months ago, thousands of civilians have been killed and whole towns reduced to rubble, while millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes.
But on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov looked me in the eye and told me things were not as they seemed.
"We didn't invade Ukraine," he claimed.
"We declared a special military operation because we had absolutely no other way of explaining to the West that dragging Ukraine into Nato was a criminal act."
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, Mr Lavrov has given only a few interviews to Western media.
He repeated the official Kremlin line that there were Nazis in Ukraine. Russian officials often claim that their military is "de-Nazifying" the country. Mr Lavrov caused uproar recently when he tried to justify the Nazi slur regarding Ukraine's president, who is Jewish, by making the ridiculous claim that Adolf Hitler had "Jewish blood".
I quoted to him an official United Nations report about the Ukrainian village of Yahidne, in Chernihiv region, which states that "360 residents, including 74 children and five persons with disabilities, were forced by Russian armed forces to stay for 28 days in the basement of a school… There were no toilet facilities, water…10 older people died".
"Is that fighting Nazis?" I asked.
"It's a great pity," Mr Lavrov said, "but international diplomats, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Secretary-General and other UN representatives, are being put under pressure by the West. And very often they're being used to amplify fake news spread by the West."
"Russia is not squeaky clean. Russia is what it is. And we are not ashamed of showing who we are."
Mr Lavrov, 72, has represented Russia on the international stage for the past 18 years, but Western sanctions have now been imposed on both him and his daughter.
The US has accused him of pursuing a false narrative of Ukraine as the aggressor, and of direct responsibility for Russia's invasion as a member of its Security Council.
I then turned to Russian relations with the UK. It is on Russia's official list of unfriendly countries, and I suggested that to say relations were bad was an understatement.
"I don't think there's even room for manoeuvre any more," Mr Lavrov told me, "because both [Prime Minister Boris] Johnson and [Liz] Truss say openly that we should defeat Russia, we should force Russia to its knees. Go on, then, do it!"
A Hard Moment And Weak Men
Progressives often argue that, since humanity is so plagued by toxic macho autocrats, democracies would benefit from more femininity in global leadership. In a world in which large numbers of men identify as feminist, perhaps it makes sense to put more women in charge. Yet the experience of Ardern, the failure of May and the divisive legacy of Merkel suggest that better gender balance at the G20 is not necessarily the answer to the world’s problems. We won’t hear many feminists cheering if the next woman to win power is Giorgia Meloni, the sister who leads the Brothers of Italy.
For Europhiles on the center-left, the last, best hope of the “rules-based” order is the French president Emmanuel Macron, who has just won re-election easily. Macron also had a painful time last weekend, though: in Sunday’s first round of Assembly elections, he performed worse than any French president since Jacques Chirac in 1997. France’s new far-left Nupes alliance, led by the admirably churlish Jean-Luc Mélenchon, could now stymie the president in his second term. Faced with an obstructive legislature, Macron’s solution may be a series of handpicked “citizens assemblies,” to give the appearance of democratic approval to his legislative agenda — a classic dictatorish move that would be denounced in horror across the world if suggested by a right-wing populist.
Macron may avoid further embarrassment in the second round of the Assembly elections on Sunday if he can successfully carry off another “project fear.” It worked for him in the presidential contest. Unpopular though he is, Macron was rightly confident that a strong majority of French people would, for a third time, reject the grubby nationalist Marine Le Pen. In the coming days, he will try to rally French moderates as well as those who would never normally support him but are affluent enough to dread Mélenchon’s redistributionist aims.
Call it the “fear of something worse” factor. It’s potent stuff. We are supposed to be in the middle of a worldwide democratic struggle between populist nationalism and liberal internationalism. Yet in America, Britain, Italy and France, to name but four, neither movement seems able to sustain democratic majorities. Democratic politics therefore becomes increasingly negative. Candidates win, not because of who they are and what they stand for; rather, it is who they are not and what they stand against. Macron was not Le Pen. Johnson was not Corbyn. Biden was not Trump. Trump was not Hillary Clinton.
The result is what the academic Michael Lind called “turbo-paralysis.” “We may be stuck in a prolonged interregnum between an old system that cannot be recreated and a new system that cannot yet be built,” he wrote. “We may have to endure years of activity without action and motion without movement.”
In such a climate, the political talent pool grows ever more stagnant. A major reason Boris Johnson clung on in the UK last week is that, while Conservatives are increasingly concerned that he is now toxic at the ballot, they can’t think of anybody better. Moreover, if Johnson were to call a snap election, he would still have a reasonable chance of winning, chiefly because his opponent would be Keir Starmer.
Items of Interest
“That was one of your favorite themes: that profusion, replication, popularity wasn't necessarily devaluing, and that time itself made all things rare. You loved to savor the present tense and were more conscious than anyone I have ever met that its every constituent is fleeting.”
— Lionel Shriver