Reason Interviews

Steven Pinker Survives Attempted Cancellation 

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In early July, a group of linguistics researchers published an open letter calling for the Linguistics Society of America (LSA) to revoke the organization's distinguished fellow status from linguist and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Enlightenment Now.

The signatories, many of them graduate and undergraduate students, pointed to years-old tweets of Pinker's that they claimed revealed his racist and sexist biases. Almost immediately, a group of established scholars leapt to his defense. "The letter shows no familiarity with Pinker's work, and takes statements out of context in a way that, with the merest checking, are seen to be represented duplicitously," wrote Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago. Academics from across the disciplinary and political spectrum joined Coyne in rebutting the letter, including linguist (and Reason contributor) John McWhorter, leftist firebrand Noam Chomsky, and formal semantics pioneer Barbara Partee.

In a conversation with Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey on the day the LSA announced it would not take any action against him, Pinker explained what efforts like the LSA letter tell us about the state of debate in America's elite institutions.

Q: This LSA letter is an astonishing document. 

A: I think it's part of a larger mindset that does not see the world as having complex problems that we fail to understand and ought to try to understand better to diagnose and treat, but rather as a kind of warfare between powerful elites and oppressed masses. In the classic Marxist analysis, these would be economic classes, but they've been transformed to racial and sexual classes.

In this mindset, analysis, debate, evidence are just tools—propaganda exercised by those in power. What has to happen is not a deeper understanding of social problems, but a wresting of power from elites and redistributing it to the disenfranchised.

Q: You've said the letter wasn't specifically about you, but it was quite targeted. 

A: It was quite targeted, but it's part of a larger movement seeking monsters to destroy. That is, to look for prominent people and do "offense archeology," which is to troll through tweets and statements seeking to find evidence, however tortured, that there's some kind of prejudice behind them.

Q: The writers of the letter said that by challenging the claim that police are more likely to kill black people than to kill white people, you showed a "willingness to dismiss and downplay racist violence regardless of any evidence." 

A: That's completely wrong. It's an open question to what extent police are racially biased. As a social scientist, I consider it my responsibility to try to understand that in light of the facts. You're literally committing a logical blunder if you hold a belief that police are more likely to shoot unarmed African Americans and you don't count up all the people police shoot. That is by no means a denial of the existence of racism.

There's a distinct question of whether African Americans are subject to more sublethal harassment, and I think your former colleague Radley Balko wrote a very good summary for The Washington Post that shows there is evidence of racial discrimination in harassment and man-handling and arrests. But when it comes to lethal incidents, the evidence suggests that there isn't.

Q: I'm trying to get a sense, from your point of view, of why your critics would misread what you are doing.

A: [There's a] mindset that we evaluate what people mean based on whether the underlying idea is likely to be true or false; that we should use evidence in doing so; that all of us, in large part, start from a position of ignorance when dealing with social problems; and that the imperative is to understand their causes and therefore arrive at the best possible solutions.

There's an alternative mindset in which the content of someone's statements and attempts to evaluate them with respect to evidence are beside the point. The imperative is not to examine ideas that may be true or false; it is to maximize passion and solidarity. Because the elites are already in a position of power and the downtrodden have only their own solidarity and emotional passion as countermeasures, therefore anything that undermines the passion and solidarity is harmful in the struggle. And it is a struggle! It's a kind of warfare that is zero-sum, and the imperative is to change the power balance.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.

 

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  1. The proper response to these people is ‘cancel this bitches’.
    Their all cowards hiding behind a computer screen.

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    2. Their not hiding. Most are students being led by various student groups.
      The proper response to these people is to expel them.

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      2. The proper fix is to get rid of useless degrees where your grade depends on your shouty neo-Marxist slogans. Those arise because government backs student loans and student loans are not subject to bankruptcy, so there is no downside to universities for failing to educate students. If student loans are subject to bankruptcy, universities will stop pushing these faux-degrees and accepting the students who aren’t likely to finish and get real jobs.

        1. Your first point is right on. Making federal student loans dischargeable in bankruptcy wouldn’t help though. The schools neither provide the funds nor service the loans. They get paid no matter what the borrower ends up paying back. It’s the Fed Dept of Ed (taxpayers) that would get stiffed. Now getting the feds out of the student loan business altogether, or at least scaling the programs way back, would certainly help.

          1. That’s why I said stop the government from backing student loans. After that, it doesn’t matter whether student loans come from universities directly or from banks: being real money and a real loss if not repaid, they will immediately stop handing out freebies and accepting students who don’t pay their own way.

            1. Ah, I didn’t infer the ‘stop backing’ part from your original post. Yeah, it’s mind boggling that people don’t make the connection of government intervention to the market with the problems of degree inflation, student loan ‘crisis’, and tuition inflation.

              1. I am reminded of the case, or probably/maybe an academic legend, of the student who, out protesting for BLM and late turning in an essay for Something Studies class, turns in a make-up essay with the words “Black Lives Matter” repeated over the entire ten pages.

                Grade A+

                1. That may be apocryphal, but this ain’t:
                  “…She was the subject of multiple profiles in The New York Times, including a piece extolling her mattress-centric performance art, which doubled as her senior thesis…”
                  https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/07/24/media-circus-surrounding-mattress-girl-case-changed-conversation-sexual-assault

                  Turns out, as I recall, she should have gotten credit for the longest-running lie.

                  1. Well, every good “performance” is a lie.

                  2. Her degree was mattress-centric? That seems like an inappropriate way of earning passing grades.

                    1. What did mattress-girl do for her oral exams?

                    2. Presented orally to the entire panel, of course.

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              2. It took me a long long time to realize one constant refrain from every instance of government meddling and corruption: government meddling itself was the common factor. I came to the conclusion that government is simply incompetent in every thing it does, and the only reason it continues to do them is because people have no way to decline their services. To that pragmatic experience, add the theory of self-ownership, and it puts the lie to that old saw of “to every complicated problem, there is one simple and wrong solution” — the simple fix is get government out of the picture. Freed markets do a fantastic job of solving complicated problems, and the mechanism is irrelevant, as long as it respects self-ownership.

                1. Meddling is just one side of the common human behavior coin.

                  If Heads is “I know better for you and I will therefore tell you or even do for you” then Tails is “somebody tell me what to do or somebody do for me”.

                  Meddling is the perfect complement for the rejection of personal responsibility and autonomy. Advanced players can use both simultaneously.

                  1. The problem is that government follows the natural tendency of all bureaucracies to expend, and unlike business bureaucracies, its ultimate limit of bankruptcy is a lot harder to reach and in effect never happens.

                    And government expansion is defined by how much it meddles. We have long since crossed the point at which government meddles so much in so many ordinary aspects of daily life that for most people, it is literally more profitable, both financially and emotionally, to sic government on other people before they sic government on you, whether that is in private life (adding a swimming pool) or public (expanding a business).

                    People are acting very rationally when they sic government on other people. I bet 90% of people would choose a much smaller government IFFFF it were guaranteed to be cut for everybody across the board. But it has grown too large for that possibility. Any 90% cuts now would leave lots of people with more bennies than most, and the majority would feel they had been ripped off and clamor to get back their bennies, because they’d know there’s no way of removing the remaining 10% bennies.

                2. “…I came to the conclusion that government is simply incompetent in every thing it does,..”

                  It’s easy to dislike government in general on principle; as holder of the monopoly on force, it *always* acts to restrict freedoms.
                  But it’s equally easy to dislike government from utility; it is *always* incompetent and we (as citizens) need to make sure we limit that incompetence by empowering the government to do the least we possibly can.
                  Instead, we have emperor Newsom telling me when I should wear a mask…

                3. How anyone (with a semi-functional mind) think government is running this pandemic properly perplexes me.

                  They’re running it through what big pharma wants. And this Fauci character. He’s like Erik playing in his organ only coming out when there’s a pandemic or epidemic he can fuck up and exploit. A real deep state creature it looks like.

                  I would LOVE to know if anyone ever followed the money with this guy. He ran biowarfare after 9/11 which makes him one powerful dude I would think.

                  Anyway. Sorry but they spent their ‘cred’ card with the pseudo-science of lockdowns and masks.

                  I trust NONE of them. In my country or in the USA.

          2. Or making the universities partly responsible for the debt. Put the universities on the hook for half the debt for the first 10 years of the payback period.

            Does anyone think the antifa crowd pays their loan?

        2. This is so true. I had to take a BS Gen Ed. I ended up taking east Asia. The TA was a bull dyke PhD candidate “studying” wemons rights. All I did regardless of the question was loop it back to how poorly wemon were treated. “what was the result of Korea opening up trade to the Dutch?” “wemon were subjugated in bot the western Dutch sece and in the Koreans tradition”. It was mostly non secuitors. I got an A. There was a small group that I studied with. They were pissed when I told them how I got an A. The dumb dumb, they answered the question and got Bs

          1. Ha, that’s hilarious.

        3. “The proper fix is to get rid of useless degrees”

          The proper response is for a business to stop offering a product people want?

          Your analysis doesn’t even make any sense, and your solution isn’t possible or practical or even wanted by the people who you need to make it happen.

          And it wouldn’t solve the problem anyway.

          1. The proper response is for a business to stop offering a product people want?

            The vast majority of those people only ‘want’ the product all the way to the ‘purchase’ stage because someone else is paying for it. If there’s still a market for it even when they have to pay for it themselves, then I’m sure someone will fill that need.

            Get the FedGov out of the student loan guarantee business, let student loans be dischargeable in bankruptcy, and I suspect that the course catalog of what banks are willing to loan students money to learn will change rapidly. Because I don’t see most banks taking the risk on shelling out a quarter million dollars for a degree in grievance studies.

        4. “The proper fix is to get rid of useless degrees …”

          But, but, for more than 300 years those “useless degrees” were the core of higher education, especially in its role as part of the reproduction of social class. MIT struggled to find students in its early years precisely because the well-to-do had no interest in a “practical” education when they could attend Harvard and concentrate on Latin, Greek, literature and the arts, all marks of an educated elite. Science was for the working class. Are you saying that should change?

          1. Then let people pay for such educations themselves.

            Funny, I knew a “David Taylor” when I was a kid 35 years ago in NoVA, which I remember specifically at this point because my father was also working at the David Taylor Naval Research Facility at the time and it stuck in my head. 😀

            1. “Then let people pay for such educations themselves.”

              For the most part they do.

              My name is fairly common, of course, even here in the D.C. area — speaking of which, I know the David Taylor Model Basin well, drive by it often these days on the beltway going into and out of Virginia. I remember, on a summer job in about 1966, delivering an early model modem to an office at the David Taylor Model Basin, and when I showed my drivers license to get in they looked very surprised, and responded in good humor that they’d better give me a pass….

      3. The proper response to these people is to expel them.

        Universities have no incentive to expel paying customers. The government needs to stop paying the way for students and to granting loans. Let them get loans from private sources who have an incentive to make good investments. That will shrink the student population and close down many universities. The BigBug may be doing some of that for us since some people now see how much they are getting ripped off.

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    3. The LSA letter’s writers are its primary victims.

      The cant of the Cancel Cult warps modern academic english into a postmodern philosophical pidgen that reifies enough rigid designators in the null set to make Saul Kripke wince.

      The only way to rescue these wannabe deep structuralists from their own semantic agression is to question them in their own terms.

       https://vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2020/08/cancel-culture-replaces-tuleremia-as.html

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  2. It’s a kind of warfare that is zero-sum, and the imperative is to change the power balance.

    Truth no longer matters, it’s simply whether something furthers the narrative. White people bad, black people good. Hispanics, Asians, Arabs, Pacific Islanders, indigenous peoples, and others only get shoe-horned in where it fits the narrative.

    1. In deciding what to make of this all, these non-black, non-whites need to understand where they fit in the victimization ranking and what it means for them:
      1. Black
      2. Indigenous
      3. Hispanic
      4. Pacific Islander
      5. Arab
      6. Asians (east and south)
      7. White

      The pie is pieced out from top to bottom and taken from bottom to top.
      Being a woman moves you up a slot or two.

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  4. Depending on how things go in the next couple years, he’ll be either a very lucky man that avoided the wrong think purge, or this will just be a small delay until those grad students become his colleagues and administrators and can get rid of him without resistance.

  5. Pinker is fortunate to have powerful establishment left friends who still see value in his anti-religious polemics, and can silence the Maoists.
    Mike Adams certainly wasn’t so lucky when the Red Guards came for him.

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  7. Good interview, thanks Ron.

    It’s really astonishing how pervasive cancel culture has become, not just among academics and fringe agitators. Even here in rural Kansas I’ve got some friends and acquaintances who seem to be true believers in the societal grievance mantras of racial/social/gender inequalities which excuse nearly any tactic as long as it’s in the service of “justice”.

    Granted, the real crazies are still a small minority, but a motivated few can wreak havoc when they’ve got the implicit support (or a blind eye even) of so many others.

  8. formal semantics pioneer Barbara Partee

    I bet she’s fun! 😀

    1. Actually, she is. Have drunk many a glass of wine with Barbara, but she’s a good personal friend. And, although we disagree on the nature of semantics, she runs a great party. And she’s had a wilder personal life than you might think (by rumor, in any case…)

      1. Hahahaha, awesome. I have to admit, it was just the obvious riff on her last name.

        Though, I’m honestly not certain that I know enough on the topic to even have an opinion on “the nature of semantics”.

  9. Enlightenment Now is a good book and worth reading. Pinker is unfairly biased against libertarians, but the book is terrific never the less.

    1. It is amazing how many books showcase triumphs of individualism while pretending otherwise. “You didn’t build that” sums up the attitude perfectly.

    2. Wait! You’re doing it wrong. If Pinker is unfair to libertarians we must cancel him–and his books.

    3. Pinker’s analysis of the problems of society are insightful. His solutions are not.

  10. Pinker survives only because he is a powerful, well connected intellectual.

    The social justice crowd is actually correct about privileges and power being largely arbitrary and linked to nepotism and historical advantages… in academia.

    The solution is to cancel universities and leave the rest of society alone.

  11. The niggers are at it again. Men like Ibram X. Kendi are controlling this mob. We must stop at nothing to stop these NIGGERS! Throw em in jail!. Fuck these stupid niggers.

    1. ^ Typical Bernie/Harris supporter engaging in a false flag operation. Racism comes easy to Democrats and progressives.

      1. Exactly. Obvious false flag.

        I wouldn’t say there are no racist libertarians but on average libertarians are less so than either the Dems or Repubs.

    2. How many of them fucked your teen daughter’s vagina?

      But I doubt that they popped her cherry, as I suspect you got to her cherry first….

    3. Go back to trolling The Federalist. OOPS! Sorry. I guess you can’t do that anymore.

    4. I’m guessing this is Tony, trying (and failing) to pull a reverse OBL.

      1. Nah, even Tony is smarter than that.

          1. I may disagree with Tony on, well, nearly everything, but at the very least he’s eloquent enough that if he wanted to do a reverse OBL, I don’t think he would just default to base vulgarity.

  12. Stephen Pinker: “The world is not has horrible as we think it is. The world is actually getting better.”

    Wokes: “Burn the blasphemer!”

    That’s basically what it is. Just as a certain segment on the Right refuses to accept the data that shows crimes is in decline, there is a certain segment on the Left that refuses to accept that poverty, racism, sexism, etc., are on the decline.

    1. Indeed.

      Of course, the antigun cult denies that crime is on the decline.

      1. It’s both the antgun crowd AND the lawnorder crowd. Left and Right are agreed that challenges to their narrative must be canceled.

        1. Crime took a bit of a jump this summer; no conservatives denying that.

          “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” H. L. Mencken

          Repeat that every day. It applies to ‘journos’ as well – if it bleeds, it leads.

  13. “This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.”

    I certainly hope it was condensed. Otherwise the interview must have taken place in an elevator between floors, it was so short.

  14. I don’t even know if the would-be cancellers expected to succeed in getting his title revoked or whatever. The important point is nobody is immune, and if a powerful guy who has Noam Chomsky in his corner is at risk, then less-influential people need to be worried.

  15. Linguistics is the least useful discipline of useless disciplines. Followed by cognitive psychology.

    Peddlers of pseudo intellectual claptrap.

    1. Less useful than women’s studies? black studies?

      The first is sexist and the other is racist, of course.

    2. Like I think Michelle’s ‘for the first time I was proud of my country’ was a very telling vector into her mind, one phrase that caught my eye during this pandemic (and there have been many) was, ‘Social justice, before social distance’ from public health officials.

      It’s in the system the virus. And I don’t mean Covid. Social justice intersectionality. It’s a poison now in the medical field.

      What can possibly go wrong?

      The bull shit was harder to detect in March, but I held my skeptical eye. I wanted to give it a month but within a couple of weeks I knew this thing was going to end up being politicized and a threat to our civil liberties. For a couple of weeks I accepted a shut down but as my buddy who is a portfolio manager for a government agency said, ‘You can’t do this for more than 60 days and even then. Once liquidity dries up it’s game over’.

      We all know the destruction it caused in just those two months. Yet, some places are STILL in lockdown without much protesting and we continue to hear these sons of bitches threaten more lockdowns despite knowing the negative trade-offs. In the beginning, they get a pass even if they were panicking but now? It’s malice and criminal.

      Those idiots in Australia and NZ are CRIMINALS.

      The second jargon enters the conversation that’s when your bull shit antennae have to go up. Think ‘Flatten the curve’.

      They assured it was that and to ‘not overwhelm hospitals’. Like snakes selling used parts or a Monorail, they spoke calmly and assuredly that it was only for a couple of months.

      It’s September and they’re doubling down.

        1. It ain’t curves I want to flatten these days.

    3. And this is based on your deep knowledge of the subject? As a long-time libertarian (probably longer than you’ve been alive) and a professional linguist and Professor Emeritus I somewhat disagree. But, of course, you probably haven’t studied Sanskrit, Hittite or finite-state grammars. Or Ancient Hebrew. Or perceptual acoustics. Which makes you an expert, no doubt.

      1. finite-state grammars

        Is that related to the computer science concept of the same name?

        I have an amateur fascination with linguistics, mostly from a historical perspective. The PIE family tree never fails to blow my mind when I try to really encompass it. 😀

      1. Because in both fields these rockstar intellectuals are masters of nothing. They use circular reasoning dressed up in fancy language and impressive quotes to arrive at conclusions we already knew or rejected. They are tautology artists. Endlessly repeating themselves. Fake wizards of reality.

  16. I’d be more worried if Chomsky had not come to Pinker’s defense, because , shades of Saul Kripke, the Cancel Cult’s discourse is as full of rigid designators in the null set as a unicorn wedding reception.

    https://vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2020/09/cancel-culture-as-chinese-finger-trap.html

    1. Flagged for anti-Chinese bigotry.

      /sarc

  17. There’s one way to immunize yourself against cancellation: Be a neo-Nazi.

  18. I think it’s part of a larger mindset that does not see the world as having complex problems that we fail to understand and ought to try to understand better to diagnose and treat, but rather as a kind of warfare between powerful elites and oppressed masses. Sounds like climate change all over again, i.e. we hate western civilization and all that is part of it, and climate change is caused by western technology, so let’s just kill off western civilization in the name of climate change.

    Same carp, only the names have been changed.

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  20. Good for Pinker. But it must be incredibly frustrating to go through it.

    The other day Stephen A. Smith doubled-down on his sophomoric assertion that Nash’s hiring was due to white privilege. It was a logical fallacy given other players like Fischer and Kidd were hired as was Rivers. It’s this kind of lack of context that corrodes discourse.

    The interesting part is Smith didn’t back down and nor did he lose his job. Which is how it should be. No one should lose their job fo an opinion let alone in a domain where they’re paid to give opinions.

    But that wouldn’t happen if he wasn’t black.

    Nappy little hoes.

    Black privilege?

  21. So Reason has joined every mainstream liberal publication anyone’s heard of in denouncing the attempted cancel of Pinker.

    Getting close to 200,000 dead now. Still a long way to go to convince the goobers that there are actually bigger problems in the world than student activists writing open letters.

    1. Derp levels are off the charts tonight.

    2. Go look into Fauci and his fraudulent and criminal behaviour during the Aids epidemic. He’s repeating the scam with Covid.

      Tony. It’s over.

      -Testing is a sham (like it was with Aids) since the virus has never been shown to be isolated. Plus testing with low prevalence only distorts the reality and leads to more false positives. We should not be be testing asymptomatic people because it’s, well, retarded.

      Here you go. Your Idol false god in his own words:

      https://twitter.com/MaykelMatias/status/1302442308701429760

      This guy is the rat that plays off all the sides. He’s a deep swamp creature who does as he’s told and has no shame in shifting back and forth. How this motherfucker continues to be employed is mind blowing.

      -We know deaths have been over stated.

      -Despite rising cases, hospitalizations are muted and the death rate has dropped significantly.

      And that’s just touching the surface.

      This is where all the ‘yeh but long-term effects’ come in and ‘what about the 30 year-old who was ‘otherwise healthy’ emotional bull shit come into play. Outliers are great tools of emotional manipulation.

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  23. Q: You’ve said the letter wasn’t specifically about you, but it was quite targeted.

    A: It was quite targeted, but it’s part of a larger movement seeking monsters to destroy. That is, to look for prominent people and do “offense archeology,” which is to troll through tweets and statements seeking to find evidence, however tortured, that there’s some kind of prejudice behind them.

    I think the word in this case is trawl, RB.

    /pedant

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  25. Pinker is one of my favorites. It was the liberal persecution of him and jordan peterson that led me to become a libertarian. Well, one of the things…

    1. Jordan Peterson (assuming he survives covid) made millions of dollars selling rightwing snake oil to gullible men, and he’s the victim of something?

      When did the manly/whiny little bitch crossover happen? How is it that you can be both now?

      1. You haven’t even read his books have you?

        The 12 Rules of Life; read it; if anyone needs what’s in it, it’s you.

        1. Mommy the gross kid is putting boogers on me!

          I’m calling Peterson a whiny little bitch. And all his followers. So unable to cope with a society that doesn’t fit their 1950s “the world is my cockholster” view of the world that they will wear free speech drag while suing people for libel for being critical of them in reviews. He’s a joke and you’re a joke if you think either his self help book is profound or his philosophical writing is coherent.

        2. I have read it.

          Sophistry. Self help psychology dressed up with crappy biology, quotes from Jung, the Bible and others. Pure snake oil.

          Sure great advice. Make the bed. Get a shower, shave and haircut, put on the big boy pants and get a job. If your daddy didn’t teach you that you ain’t gonna get it from a book.

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  27. This is hardly an interview; more like a conversation. Interviews have questions. No questions were asked during this short conversation. Don’t let the “Q”s at the start of Ron’s statement fool you, focus on the lack of question marks.

  28. His first answer so perfectly summarizes the current mindset of the SJW (Postmodernists).

    People think there are no problems that are just hard to solve. Instead it’s just the elite keeping society from having the needed solutions.

    You can’t fight against SJWs with analysis or even facts, because these are just tools produced by the elite and so are invalid. The scientific method itself is suspect because it’s a product of the imperialistic time period.

    There is no way to win an argument when there is no basis for reasoning.

  29. In view of the problems caused by leftists they should be kicked off campuses till they behave. This includes staff.
    Schools will recover from this faster than from the festering burden of leftists.

    1. So you are on the committee to determine who is to be kicked off campuses and which subjects and curriculum are approved.

      Where have I seen this before?

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