Weekend Reading

No doubt many liberals have grown increasingly sensitive to the uses and abuses of language. This might be a consequence of previously marginalized groups demanding respect, or it might have something to do with technological change, as the atomized Internet age gives way to the non-stop commentary of the social-media age. And it may be the case that this focus on language will prove, in the long run, unhelpful to the progressive movement. But it is hard to see how, as Powers argues, “the left is killing free speech” merely by paying too much attention to it. Last month, speaking about criminal-justice reform, President Obama issued twin exhortations. “We should not be tolerating rape in prison,” he said. “And we shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture.” To someone like Powers, this might have sounded faintly oppressive: the President telling citizens what jokes not to tell. Yet our discourse is shaped by innumerable taboos. (Just think of all the things one shouldn’t say about members of the military.) Certainly, some new taboos are emerging, even as some older ones fade away, but no one with Internet access will find it easy to claim that, in general, our speech is more inhibited than it used to be. Taboos discourage some speech, but the system of taboos is also maintained through speech. If you say the unsayable, you might well be shamed—and that shaming can have consequences—but you will not be arrested. Mostly, what inhibits speech is the fear of being spoken about.

Earlier this year, Powers took part in a debate over the proposition that “liberals are stifling intellectual diversity on campus.” One of the people on the other side was Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism. He cited the case of Robert J. Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, who was invited to deliver the commencement address at Haverford College last year, but declined in the face of protests; students had demanded that he apologize for the actions of U.C.B. police officers who arrested seven students during a 2011 demonstration. Powers considers Birgeneau the victim of a “campaign of intolerance,” but Johnston sees him as a perpetrator. “Birgeneau, an administrator who presided over the beating and arrest of student protesters, is portrayed as a free-speech martyr,” he said. “The students who just wanted to talk to him about that are portrayed as his oppressors.” Johnston conceded that “stifling” was worrisome, but insisted that the true culprits were administrators—liberal, perhaps, in political outlook, but motivated merely by “opposition to disruptiveness and clamor.” These days, just about everyone claims to be on the side of free speech.

All the good stuff we grow — tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce — has gotten continually more bland. This has been measured. They have become diluted of nutrients, as well. As we selected crops for agronomic traits like yield, shelf life and disease resistant, we never selected for flavor. And we lost flavor as a result. It’s reverse evolutionary pressure.

Simultaneously, while those flavors were being lost at the farm level, we started producing them in factories and adding them to all sorts of things. We created flavors that were out of context. For tens of thousands of years, the only place we could get the taste of orange was from an orange. Then we created orange flavoring and suddenly we had orange pops, ice cream, candy. These flavored foods deliver deliciousness and calories, but they don’t deliver a diversity of nutrients.

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