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Conversations of Note

Do Uyghur lives matter to Americans? Uyghurs are an ethnic minority group that China’s Communist regime subjugates in internment camps. Their plight is top of mind this week because a figure with ties to the NBA is enmeshed in a controversy about whether we should care.

In a recent podcast interview (condensed in the transcript below to eliminate cross talk from other participants), Chamath Palihapitiya––a part owner of the Golden State Warriors, the CEO of Social Capital, and a member of Virgin Galactic’s board––reacted in the following way to the claim that Joe Biden did a good thing by criticizing China’s mass internment of Uyghur Muslims:

Let’s be honest: Nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs, okay? You bring it up because you really care, and I think that’s nice, that you care. The rest of us don’t care.

I’m telling you a very hard, ugly truth, okay? Of all the things I care about, yes, it is below my line. I care about the fact that our economy could turn on a dime if China invades Taiwan … I care about climate change. I care about America’s crippling and decrepit health-care infrastructure. But if you’re asking me, do I care about a segment of a class of people in another country––not until we can take care of ourselves will I prioritize them over us. And I think a lot of people believe that. And I’m sorry if that’s a hard truth to hear. But every time I say that I care about the Uyghurs, I’m really just lying, if I don’t really care. And so I’d rather not lie to you and tell you the truth. It’s not a priority for me.

After another participant in the podcast asserted that it’s a sad state of global affairs when guarantees in the Declaration of Human Rights take a back seat to “tactical and strategic issues,” Palihapitiya responded, “That’s a luxury belief,” a perspective that he then expounded on:

The reason I think it is a luxury belief is that we don’t do enough domestically to actually express that view in real tangible ways. So until we actually clean up our own house, the idea that we step outside of our borders, with us sort of like morally virtue-signaling about somebody else’s human-rights track record, is deplorable. Look at the number of Black and brown men that are incarcerated for absolutely ridiculous crimes. I don’t know if you saw this past week, but there was a person released from jail because he couldn’t even be protected … in some of these cells they run these fight clubs inside of Rikers Island that are basically tacitly endorsed by the corrections officers that don’t do anything. [For more on that, read this New York Times article.] So if you want to talk about the human rights of people, I think we have a responsibility to take care of our own backyard first. First. And then we can go and basically morally tell other people how they should be running their own countries.

A bit later in the conversation, Palihapitiya professed to have incomplete information about the Uyghurs. And after receiving criticism for his views, he posted this statement to Twitter:

In re-listening to this week’s podcast, I recognize that I come across as lacking empathy. I acknowledge that entirely. As a refugee, my family fled a country with its own set of human rights issues so this is something that is very much a part of my lived experience. To be clear, my belief is that human rights matter, whether in China, the United States, or elsewhere. Full stop.

For the record, it isn’t true that no one in the United States cares about the Uyghurs. Last month, the U.S. government passed bipartisan legislation––the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act––to prohibit imports from China’s Xinjiang region, where hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are imprisoned, absent proof that the goods were not made using forced labor.

Still, I think this controversy illustrates the utility of freewheeling podcasts: Palihapitiya expressed a politically incorrect view that, his own beliefs aside, many people obviously share, given their revealed preferences. I’m glad that he didn’t conform to prevailing sensitivities and suppress his controversial view. By uttering it, he gave people who disagree a chance to respond with the reasons they find his thinking to be wrongheaded––and many have responded. Indeed, the plight of the Uyghurs made a lot more headlines this week as a result of his honesty.

Enes Kanter Freedom, an NBA player who is outspoken about human-rights abuses, tweeted, “When @NBA says we stand for justice, don’t forget there are those who sell their soul for money & business like @chamath the owner of @warriors, who says ‘Nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs’ When genocides happen, it is people like this that let it happen. Shame!”

Palihapitiya’s comments also spurred some commentators to take an uncomfortable look in the mirror.

Here’s Rod Dreher:

You know who else doesn’t care much about the Uyghurs? You and me … I’m ashamed to admit that I’m a lot more like Chamath than I ought to be. Of course I was disgusted by what he said, but when I thought about it, what have I done to bring attention to the plight of the Uyghurs? Unlike most Americans, I actually have a platform … that I could use to do something, however small, to defend those people … But I haven’t done this …

I can console myself by saying that I’m not like Chamath, and would never say that I don’t care about the Uyghurs. I do care! I care in the sense that I wish the Uyghurs well, and hold the correct opinion about the Uyghurs. But honestly, so what? Am I morally that much better than Chamath? I don’t even pray for the Uyghurs, which would cost me nothing. They never cross my mind, except when I read a news story about them, and think, “Those poor people. China is ruled by monsters”—and then move on. Chamath is just saying the quiet part out loud about how the rest of the world really feels about the friendless Uyghurs. Readers, let’s not be like this repulsive guy. I promise to do better here, writing more often about what China is doing to those people.

And my reaction?

Contra Palihapitiya, imperfect countries and people should speak out against the most grave human-rights abuses on the planet. If it were “deplorable” for any country to object to another’s mass imprisonment and abuse of an ethnic minority group until they can “take care of themselves” beyond the quality of America’s current health-care system, or until their own domestic human-rights record surpasses that of the United States in 2022, it would dramatically and counterproductively diminish the number of countries with standing to criticize mass atrocities that warrant universal condemnation. Indeed, it would seem to imply that the U.S. was wrong to criticize the Holocaust––if you think America’s domestic human-rights practices are flawed today, you should have seen them back when we were liberating Buchenwald and prosecuting Nazis.

Empty virtue-signaling can be annoying. America is far from perfect. Some Americans are wrongly incarcerated. And none of those facts bolster the conclusion that fewer Americans should speak up about abused Uyghurs. China reacts negatively when figures associated with the NBA flag the country’s human-rights abuses because they believe such attention can matter.  

[Conor Friedersdorf: Your starkly different perspectives on Omicron]

Debating the Filibuster

Here’s Arizona Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema defending the supermajority rule last week:

American politics are cyclical, and the granting of power in Washington, D.C., is exchanged regularly by the voters from one party to another. This shift of power back and forth means the Senate’s 60-vote threshold has proved maddening to members of both political parties in recent years—viewed either as a weapon of obstruction or a safety net to save the country from radical policies, depending on whether you serve in the majority or the minority.

But what is the legislative filibuster other than a tool that requires new federal policy to be broadly supported by senators representing a broader cross-section of Americans—a guardrail, inevitably viewed as an obstacle by whoever holds the Senate majority, but which in reality ensures that millions of Americans represented by the minority party have a voice in the process? Demands to eliminate this threshold—from whichever party holds the fleeting majority—amount to a group of people separated on two sides of a canyon, shouting to their colleagues that the solution to their shared challenges is to make that rift both wider and deeper.

Here’s Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren denouncing the same rule:

The filibuster is a wicked tool used to kill legislation supported by a majority of Americans of all political parties. And that’s true for protecting the right to vote, and gun-safety legislation, and immigration reform, and codifying Roe [v.] Wade. The filibuster thwarts the will of the people. Today’s filibuster doesn’t encourage debate; it promotes cowardice. Senators can torpedo bills without saying a single word in public or even stepping to the floor of the United States Senate. This is not how a so-called deliberative body should operate. Senators should be required to talk and vote instead of hiding behind a rule.

At Breaking the News, James Fallows writes that the filibuster is “a perversion of the Constitution, not part of its original design,” a conclusion that he backs up with four pieces of evidence:

  • The Constitution includes no mention of the filibuster. None. It provides for simple-majority votes in the Senate, with a very few exceptions—notably impeachment, treaties, and Constitutional amendments.
  • The provision for tie-breaking votes by the Vice President is itself testimony to the “originalist” intent of simple majority-rule in the Senate. Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution says (emphasis added) “the Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided.” Compare this with what the Constitution says about treaties: “The President shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.” That is, if the founders had wanted to specify a super-majority for routine Senate business, they knew how to write that in. They didn’t.
  • The Constitution’s protection of minority interests in the Senate was enacted through the provision of two Senators for every state, large or small. Not in routine blocking power for a minority faction of those Senators.
  • Let’s go to an actual lawyer, Thomas Geoghegan, in his latest excellent essay for The New Republic: “The filibuster is not just a technical violation of Article I [setting up the legislative branch]—though it is precisely that—it’s also a repudiation of its original design. That design created a bicameral legislature, with each house operating by majority rule, to replace the single legislative chamber that operated under the Articles of Confederation by supermajority or unanimous consent.”

At Brown Political Review, Alyssa Merritt interviews a co-author of the book Defending the Filibuster: The Soul of the Senate.

Smart Kid + Chaotic Home Life = Bad GPA

Here’s Fredrik deBoer, in a debate about whether abolishing the SAT makes college admissions fairer, mounting a defense of the embattled test, which institutions are increasingly abandoning:

The SAT is a highly predictively valid test. So why do some data sets suggest otherwise? … Studies that compare SAT results to college grades can only collect data for people who went to college. But there are also people who take the SAT and don’t go to college. Removing them from the data pool before analysis reduces the strength of the correlation.

… Yes, GPA also does a good job of predicting college performance. But remember that it’s possible for two indicators to show strong relationships without perfect or very strong overlap. And in fact there are students who flourish on the SATs while struggling with high school grades—including poor and minority students. We should want students with a diversity of strengths in our institutions. Managing a high GPA over four years typically entails stability at home many students don’t enjoy, especially poorer students. The SAT allows them to demonstrate their talent in a short time frame, without the pressures of daily attendance and long-term work. Here’s the problem with saying that the SAT shows race and income biases: so does GPA, the metric nominated to replace the test!

His interlocutor makes her case against the SAT here.

Provocation of the Week

Back in 2019, Coleman Hughes, then an undergraduate at Columbia University, testified in Congress against a proposal for reparations. This week, he released a rap video that reflects on that day, the criticism he receives as a Black public intellectual who strays from progressive orthodoxy, and his beliefs about race in America. The well-produced finished product is perfect fodder for Up for Debate readers, given that Hughes gives a verse over to an alter ego:

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