Apologies for the double dose of Hitler today—I did consider swapping out one of the stories on taste grounds, but actually they speak to each other. The Third Reich has become an easy, widely accepted shorthand for evil, and that allows everyone to position themselves in relation to it. Both lead stories I’ve chosen this week speak to that in different ways.
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PS. I joined my former New Statesman colleague Rafael Behr on his podcast to talk about culture wars, Scottish politics, Florida and how WhatsApp changed politics.
Peace, Love and Hitler: How Lex Fridman’s Podcast Became A Safe Space for the Anti-Woke Elite (Insider)
In 2019, while working at MIT’s AgeLab, Fridman posted his controversial Tesla study online. It found that “patterns of decreased vigilance, while common in human-machine interaction paradigms, are not inherent to AI-assisted driving” — in other words, that drivers using semiautonomous vehicles remain focused. The findings were a shock to the industry, contradicting decades of research suggesting that humans generally become distracted when partially automated systems kick in.
When Anima Anandkumar, a well-known AI expert, tweeted in 2019 that Fridman ought to submit his work for peer review before seeking press coverage, Fridman blocked her and many of her colleagues, some of whom had never even engaged in the discussion. (Fridman did not respond to several interview requests and requests for comment. He told the historian Dan Carlin during one episode: "Journalists annoy the hell out of me ... So I understand from Putin's perspective that journalism, journalists can be seen as the enemy of the state.")
This profile of AI researcher-turned-podcaster Lex Fridman is pretty savage, documenting how he published a study which purported to show that Tesla drivers’ attention wasn’t sapped by using a semi-autonomous system (which would contradict what we know from research on eg mobile phones and driving). This study made him very popular with Tesla (prop. Elon Musk), but less popular with fellow AI researchers. No matter, because Fridman has now exchanged lab gruntwork for hosting an incredibly successful tech bro podcast, on which he hosted Ye last year in the middle of his bipolar meltdown.
I was introduced to Fridman by one of my favourite Decoding the Gurus episodes, on his insane technomonk morning routine. But I really knew he was a public figure with rich potential a few months ago, when he defended his choice of podcasts guests by saying that he would have loved to interview Hitler: “If you talk to Hitler in 1941, do you empathize with him, or do you push back? Because most journalists would push, because they’re trying to signal to a fellow journalist and to people back home that this, me, the journalist, is on the right side. But if you actually want to understand the person, you should empathize. If you want to be the kind of person that actually understands in the full arc of history, you need to empathize.”
Very happy to clarify that I am one of the journalists who would have pushed back on Hitler. Status-obsessed virtue-signalling twat that I am.
Anyway, beyond the insight into the grubbiness of the alternative media ecosystem—a lot of these people who spend their lives moaning about journalism seem a) not to understand the ethical obligations of journalists in avoiding conflicts of interest, and b) make a lot more money than most journalists—the real treasure of this profile is the poetry from Fridman’s now-deleted blog.
Bad poetry is a true gift, and bad horny poetry might be the best gift of all. A small prize (my gratitude) to any Bluestocking reader who can whip out their Viz Profanisaurus and tell me which part of the female anatomy is being immortalised as “Batman’s cape rack.”
Is Holocaust Education Making Anti-Semitism Worse? (The Atlantic)
In the educational resources I explored, I did not encounter any discussions of sadism—the joy derived from humiliating people, the dopamine hit from landing a laugh at someone else’s expense, the self-righteous high from blaming one’s problems on others—even though this, rather than the fragility of democracy or the passivity of bystanders, is a major origin point of all anti-Semitism. To anyone who has spent 10 seconds online, that sadism is familiar, and its source is familiar too: the fear of being small, and the desire to feel big by making others feel small instead.
The countless Holocaust educational materials I’d perused generally presented Nazis as joylessly efficient. But it is highly inefficient to interrupt mass murder by, say, forcing Jews to dance naked with Torah scrolls, as the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever testified about at the Nuremberg trials, or forcing Jews to make pornographic films, as the educator Chaim A. Kaplan documented in his Warsaw Ghetto diary. Nazis were, among other things, edgelords, in it for the laughs. So, for that matter, were the rest of history’s anti-Semites, then and now. For Americans today, isn’t this the most relevant insight of all?
I’m sure people will find this piece provocative, but I found it completely convincing: in American (and I think, European) schools, there’s a tendency to teach the Holocaust as a Bad Thing Done By Bad People, which happened safely in the past. So it becomes a parable of evil untethered from questions about Jewish identity and history, or contemporary anti-Semitism. And obviously Americans are the heroes in the story, unlike other historical events you might teach in American schools.
“Some of the best-known conspiracy theories, including the JFK assassination, Holocaust denial, and 9/11 being an ‘inside job,”’ were not associated with political views, although they may have been in the past. The authors make the important observation that widely believed conspiracy theories sometimes start out on the Left or Right and become bipartisan over time. Neither the 9/11 “truth” movement nor the JFK conspiracy originated on the far-Right. On the contrary, they most appealed to people who hated George W. Bush and couldn’t face the reality of Kennedy being murdered by a Marxist, respectively.” Christopher Snowdon on respectable conspiracy theories (Quillette).
Aristo feminism latest: a competition to make heraldic arms more gender-equal.
Half of all epileptic “seizures” shown on TikTok are not seizures (PubMed).
Readers of Difficult Women will be aware of my appreciation of the suffragette Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (and her husband Fred). This is her voice—and her unexpected accent! (LSE)
A competition to make the most annoying volume-control interface in the world. Some of these are diabolical (twitter).
Trump being asked what his favourite Bible verse is will be relatable to anyone who has had to wing it (twitter).
“I think I now understand that bereavement is not a discrete event, but a lifelong change, a slow process of coming to terms with loss, exploring its significance and learning to live with (and around) it as best we can. And I realise that my personal losses are compounded by a wider sense of grief and dispossession that is related to living in the world as a woman.” Rachel Hewitt on running and grief (Guardian). I’d recommend her new book to anyone interested in running, women’s history or how to mourn—a disparate group of subjects, I know.
I saw A Little Life this week—the acting was incredible, but the play is so hyperbolically over-the-top in the suffering it loads on to Jude that twice now I have nearly laughed around the 3hr mark, once at the Dutch version and now again at the English version, and it’s not just because I’m a monster. What an incredibly Victorian artwork it is, a panegyric to the suffering saint: it reminded me of Cousin Helen in What Katy Did. Or maybe of the apocryphal Wilde remark about Charles Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”
I also saw a play called Sleepova at the Bush: it’s ending tomorrow so I can’t tell you to look out for it if you’re in London. But wow—so funny and such brilliant dialogue. Watch out for the writer, Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini, who has joined my list of “I’ll try anything you’re involved with.”
See you next time!
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Sadly, the closest the Profanisaurus gets is ‘Batman’s Cave’, which I’ll leave other readers to work out for themselves. Truly his poetry is his own.
Reading The Bluestocking this morning I am taken back to the Hotel Earl just off Washington Square in Greenwich Village circa 1982, where I am alone, watching Arthur Miller’s Playing for Time on the TV – a play about the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz. The experience is infuriating because, as the film draws closer to its conclusion the ad breaks get longer and more frequent. The effect is bleakly comic, with cheery ads for restaurants and car dealers elbowing their way into the horror. Straight out of Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Vanessa Redgrave’s pro-Palestine stance meant the film was banned in Israel and some of the dramatic portrayals were contested by members of the real-life orchestra. Miller himself didn’t mention the play in his autobiography, allegedly because of the antagonism that it kicked up. I have never seen it again, but there was a theme in it that has always stuck with me – not just that we are all responsible to some extent for tolerating appalling behaviour rather than speaking and acting against it, but that, as humans, we are also all capable of the greatest cruelty. This is perhaps our greatest weakness.