Good Friday Morning! There’s a new story that could impact everything for the coming weeks and months. Jeffery Epstein is under arrest and prosecutors are trying to take him apart. What Harvey Weinstein was to Hollywood, Epstein is to finance and politics, except far worse. The Miami Herald reports that 12 more victims came forward to investigators. Both Donald Trump and Bill Clinton have connections to Epstein — but then again, so do many influential individuals. Everyone is waiting to see if Epstein squeals on his friends to get a lenient sentence.
At this point, it’s too early to say how this case will go. How Epstein makes money is shrouded in mystery, as is how he managed to get close with so many influential people. I say keep an eye on it because it could potentially go from a big story to a nuclear one if Epstein starts taking out other big names.
This week I’m discussing virtue signaling in relation to the news cycle — links to follow. Also, make sure to check out my debut piece in The Federalist, linked below.
One quick note: Look out for Tim Alberta’s new book coming out this next week: “American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump.” Most political books you can ignore — Alberta’s won’t be one because he has deep relationships with everyone on the right. The Washington Post has an excerpt from it talking about Paul Ryan. Alberta wrote a stunning profile/interview piece two years ago with former House Speaker John Boehner for Politico Magazine. His book should match that piece. He probably has the first real book that will get used by historians to discuss the Trump years.
Where you can find me this week
Will the real Kamala Harris please stand up? – Conservative Institute
Harris’ favorite fallback when she doesn’t want to answer a question is to say: “We should have a conversation about that.” Well, we should have a conversation about Kamala Harris, now that her star is rising after the first debate.
Democrats intent on destroying their one chance at beating Trump – Conservative Institute
Democrats are focusing on destroying Joe Biden. The problem is that he might be their best chance to win.
My debut piece for The Federalist. I argue for increasing spending in replication research as a means to combat the replication crisis plaguing science, as well as addressing the problems of partisan bias across multiple disciplines.
We are men without chests
It doesn’t matter how you count it; I’m a millennial by any metric you create. I was born dead center of the millennial cohort. I mention this because if there’s one thing I know, for better or worse, it’s social media.
Social media has a far broader meaning for me than just Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I used or visited my friend’s pages on MySpace, Xanga, LiveJournal, Blogger; cut my teeth in internet arguing on message boards, and used Facebook when you had to have a school email address to get in (and yes, I got an early invite to Google’s failed social media platform). This list doesn’t count all the various chat platforms I’ve used to communicate with friends.
I’m not on top of things anymore. Facebook and Twitter have combined to sour my interest in any social media these days — though I’m utterly addicted to Twitter, like our Commander in Chief. I begrudgingly got on Instagram — pretty late in the cycle too.
But by far, the most frustrating thing to me about social media is the amount of moral preening that happens on various platforms. Or to use a more accurate phrase: virtue signaling. The more we virtue signal to each other on social media as a group, we show less and less in real life. Group virtue signaling on social media has replaced social action in real life.
I don’t say this as a person free of sin — I’ve argued politics and cultural issues on the internet and social media for the better part of almost two decades. I’m guiltier than anyone. But I do see a growing problem as I step back and observe the map.
But first, some definitions, if you’re sitting there wondering what I’m talking about:
“Virtue-signaling” is also used as a pejorative term, denouncing empty acts of public commitment to unexceptionable good causes such as changing Facebook profile pictures to support a cause, participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge, offering thoughts and prayers after a tragedy, celebrity speeches during award shows, and politicians pandering to constituents on ideological issues.
The term was popularised by James Bartholomew in an article in The Spectator on 18 April 2015 to mean “public, empty gestures intended to convey socially approved attitudes without any associated risk or sacrifice”.
I pulled that from Wikipedia, it had the most straightforward explanation. And the Bartholomew article they quote is gold on this point:
It’s noticeable how often virtue signaling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, ‘I care about the environment more than most people do’ or ‘I care about the poor more than others’, your vanity and self-aggrandizement would be obvious, as it is with Whole Foods. Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness.
What a delight to display your virtue, feel confirmed in your views, enjoy a sense of community, let off some anger and have a laugh all at the same time! It is so easy, too!
No one actually has to do anything. Virtue comes from mere words or even from silently held beliefs. There was a time in the distant past when people thought you could only be virtuous by doing things: by helping the blind man across the road; looking after your elderly parents instead of dumping them in a home; staying in a not-wholly-perfect marriage for the sake of the children. These things involve effort and self-sacrifice. That sounds hard! Much more convenient to achieve virtue by expressing hatred of those who think the health service could be improved by introducing competition.
It’s not that virtue signaling didn’t happen in the past — it did — it just cost more to virtue signal, you had to go out and either dress up for the church functions or go out and do things. Social media dropped the barrier of entry to virtue signaling to zero.
Virtue without cost isn’t worth very much.
Psychology has two concepts that are worth bringing up here: diffusion of responsibility and the bystander effect. There’s an apocryphal story about the murder of Kitty Genovese, a 1964 murder that allegedly happened with 38 people present who did nothing to stop the killer. There’s been considerable questioning of that story since that date, but that likely false story spurred researchers to ask the question: why don’t people act when they see a problem?
First up, diffusion of responsibility. It turns out that the more people there are around you when an event is happening, the more likely you are to think that someone else has already taken proactive steps to do something. Thus, your sense of responsibility drops to zero, and you take no action.
The second is the similar bystander effect, “individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that one of them will help.”
A friend sent me an example a few days ago. It was the viral video of the family at Disney World and a fight breaks between family members. Only a few men tried to break up the fight, and you hear one or two women calling for someone to call security (did they not have a cellphone?). Everyone else mostly just stood around and either watched or caught the event on camera.
In other words, if you’re in a group setting, you’re more likely to follow that group’s actions.
If you go on Facebook right now, you get immediately immersed in the world of your group of people. The average person on Facebook has 338 friend connections. That’s a large group.
That large group is also rife with people following group dynamics, signaling to each other what is right and wrong with little action. The buzzword for this era is: “raising awareness.” Raising awareness means you post a hashtag or change a profile picture to “raise awareness.” In reality, it just means you’re virtue signaling to friends and family that you believe in certain things and are standing by that standard.
That’s often the end of virtue — especially on social media. That awareness isn’t worth much. The expectation is that someone else will donate or do something, but the person posting doesn’t have to do anything. But social media goes a step further and incentivizing not doing anything by encouraging people to film or photograph what’s happening to get famous on social media — instead of taking action.
How many of you watched your social media feeds get consumed by the Nike / Colin Kaepernick / Betsy Ross flag controversy? I have friends who are still posting memes over that story (both sides of the issue).
I’m 95% convinced it was a fake controversy ginned up by Nike for publicity. And the event allowed them to virtue signal their continued commitment to Kaepernick. Nike’s stock popped up the following days. There’s no sign the shoes got created or anything.
The same goes for the perennial think-pieces in the summer that attack air conditioning as sexist or anti-environment, as was the case this year, or the Vox or Slate article that argues the American Revolution was terrible. These aren’t serious people with serious arguments: it’s virtue signaling (I prefer to describe it as moral preening).
The reason we spend so much time signaling virtue is that we no longer base our culture on virtues. But we still expect a virtuous society. C.S. Lewis observed this best when he said:
In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
Restoring virtue to its proper place — inside men’s hearts instead of a hashtag on social media — is the only way to fix culture. Virtue without cost is meaningless. We have to count that cost to bring a virtuous society back to the forefront.
Links of the week
A Herd Has No Mind – Kevin D. Williamson, National Review
Unemployed Fishing – Matt Labash, Drake Magazine
The Spanish Prisoner – Ben Hunt, Epsilon Theory
Democratic Donor Ed Buck Accused of Human Trafficking and Revenge Porn: Court Docs – Tarpley Hitt, The Daily Beast
The true origins of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory. A Yahoo News investigation. – Michael Isikoff, Yahoo News
Nation’s Largest Teachers’ Union Embraces ‘Fundamental Right to Abortion’ – Alexandra DeSanctis, National Review
Florida Sheriff Deputy Arrested After Planting Drugs on Innocent People: Reason uncovered body camera footage of the officer lying about a roadside field test for drugs. – C.J. Ciaramella, Reason Magazine
Warren Staffer Draws Criticism for Anti-Israel Tweet: ‘I would totally be friends with Hamas’ – Adam Kredo, The Washington Free Beacon
France has turned into one of the worldwide threats to free speech – Johnathan Turley, The Hill
Progressive Boomers Are Making It Impossible For Cities To Fix The Housing Crisis: Residents of wealthy neighborhoods are taking extreme measures to block much-needed housing and transportation projects. – Michael Hobbes, The Huffington Post
Conservatism’s Historian: George H. Nash has chronicled the goals and ideals of the American Right for nearly 50 years. – Christian Alejandro Gonzalez, The City-Journal
Africa’s Unsung “Industrial Revolution” – Bright Simons, Center for Global Development
‘These kids are ticking time bombs’: The threat of youth basketball – Baxter Holmes, ESPN
‘This Old House’ Turns 40: The show’s three hosts contemplate how home renovation has evolved over the years. – Ronda Kaysen, The New York Times
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire piece of the week
WASHINGTON, D.C. — According to sources at the White House, President Trump spent a relaxing afternoon shouting from the Truman Balcony as Twitter went down for a short period Thursday.
“THE ECONOMY IS DOING GREAT—THANK YOU, MR. PRESIDENT!” he shouted at no one in particular, according to sources. “The Fake News Media is dishonest and bias—sad! These once-great news channels now have failing ratings as they’ve gone against me. Not good!”
He appeared to berate a pigeon for over 30 seconds as well.
Thanks for reading!