Monday, October 9, 2023

If Corporations Are People, What About Black Holes?

NPR strikes again.

I've noticed before how their news programs use astronomy as an excuse for flights of erotic fancy.  Last Thursday, though, they took a further step into feel-good, Culture-of-Therapy inanity, giving three minutes of their valuable airtime to an astrophysicist named Regina G. Barber.  Google News kindly sent it my way, showing that the Internet is malicious (if that wasn't already obvious).  "Black holes can teach us how to live our best lives," read the headline, and it was entirely accurate. 

One of my favorite celestial objects in the universe is the black hole.

Granted, I'm an astrophysicist. But I know I'm not alone. People love black holes. They seem to hold a near-mythic status in movies and pop culture.

People, movies, and popular culture love serial killers and zombies too.

What lessons do black holes have to teach us, according to Barber?  Here's the first one.

Lesson One: Push the limits, even if others doubt you

From there she tells how black holes were theorized and their existence eventually confirmed.  Apparently they were sitting out there, light-years away, patiently waiting to be found, pushing the limits against old meanie Albert Einstein's doubt about them.  But his obstructionism "didn't work," and they emerged to take their place in the sun.

And so on.  If you want to know the other two lessons, click through.  Barber concludes:

So, next time you're feeling unsure about your place in the world, remember: "Just because you are not seen, it doesn't mean that you are not there or that you are not, you know, playing a very, very important role," says [fellow astrophysicist Priyamvada] Natarajan.

Black holes have feelings too, just like you.  They too are Somebody.

This is of course all bullshit.  Planets don't dance with each other or kiss each other, and black holes were not waiting for astronomers on Earth to prove their existence.  I'm working on a blog post about meaning and purpose in scientific accounts of the universe, and despite what some philosophers and scientists will tell you, there was never any danger that personification of Nature was going to go away.  I don't know what Barber thought she was doing here; I suspect it's another attempt to make Science and Scientists look like nice guys instead of mean old grinches who want to take away all your illusions.  Luckily for us, black holes are too far away for people to try to pet them.  Barber and Natarajan would be first in line.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

The Democratic Establishment Also Believes, and Trembles


This is pretty good, but I think it's misleading to take all the "Red Wave" predictions from Fox. I don't watch Fox. I do listen to NPR every morning, and they were just as sure as Fox News that the GOP would win big last November; also as disappointed when it didn't pan out. And I can't help wondering what Chris Hayes was saying before the fact. Don't misunderstand me, I think the lefty-Democratic resurgence is great news and I hope it continues. But corporate news coverage is mostly terrible, and Hayes himself as a booster of "meritocracy" is opposed to democracy.

This morning, for example, NPR's Morning Edition aired a brief interview on the UAW strike with Bernie Sanders, which they sought to balance with comments from a guy from the Brookings Institution. Does NPR "balance" its interviews with right-wing politicians and pundits by talking to people from the left? They do not.  If they can, they'll talk to commentators who are further to the right.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Oceania Has Always Been at War with Democracy

A few days ago the MSNBC pundit Mehdi Hasan jeered at the very idea of democracy, with a bogus quotation from Winston Churchill.  Yesterday:

Kissinger infamously said, “I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people."  But what, on Hasan's assumptions, is so bad about that?

P.S. Mehdi Hasan has shown a symptomatic confusion about democracy before.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Surely I Am Coming Literally; or, the Messiah Has All the Lines

Then there was this one.

Followed by:

And later by:

"Simplistic" isn't the word I'd use, but ...

Liberal Christians and secularists love to mock conservative Christians for taking the Bible literally.  They're wrong about that, since conservatives believe the Bible to be inerrant, an illusion that requires a lot of non-literal interpretation to sustain.  Ironically, perhaps, Julian Sanchez here takes the Bible literally: he assumes that the gospel of John is a literal, factual report of Jesus' interaction with Jewish elites.  Anyone who has had any contact with New Testament scholarship will find that especially amusing, because the Fourth Gospel (as scholars often refer to it; it was probably not written by the disciple John) is known as the most "spiritual" gospel, even in Christian tradition.  It doesn't match up with the other three in chronology, style, or its portrayal of Jesus.  Yet, despite their dismissal of the Bible as the fantasies of illiterate Bronze Age shepherds and peasants, they frequently do as Sanchez did here, and take it as straight reportage.  The commenters under his posts follow suit.

The great teacher who must contend with the foolishly literal-minded inquirer is a staple literary device of "spiritual" writing, from Plato's Socrates and the Buddha down to Zen masters and Carlos Castaneda's equally fictitious Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan.  It's also common in any kind of propaganda, religious or political: of course the outsider or unbeliever is a foil, dumber than a box of rocks and existing only to be schooled, though it's probably a vain effort.  The trope allows the teacher to hold forth at great length, and it doesn't hurt that the script is written so that the teacher gets all the gotcha lines, while the opponent can only gape helplessly and confess his stupidity.  It's fun to chuckle at Nicodemus, as Sanchez does, but it's disturbing to realize that he thinks Nicodemus was really that dumb and Jesus was really that smart, and that he himself is very clever to have spotted it.

In one post Sanchez balks at taking John's anti-Jewish polemic at face value, but this is straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel.  I agree that "It’s [sic] seems awfully unlikely, e.g., that the historical disciples really went around talking about 'the Jews' like some foreign group," but I see no reason to take the rest of the gospel material as gospel either.  Does he really believe that a writer who caricatured Jesus' opponents in this one respect would depict them accurately in others?

Another irony is that apologists like to claim that in olden days nobody took religious statements literally, that everybody from high priests on down knew better than that.  This is probably false, but it's true that people in Jesus' time and region were given to elaborate interpretations of religious teachings.  Not only the Hebrew Bible (the New Testament came along later) but the epics of Homer were treated as inerrant texts to be mined for hidden wisdom.  It's said that the Sadducees, the Judean faction who controlled the Temple at the time, insisted on interpreting the Torah literally.  That's unlikely in practice, even if it was their principle, but Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a sect very fond of non-literal readings of Scripture.  The Dead Sea Sect also had secret spiritual teachings, and interpreted the Torah for their own ends.  In all disputes, though, propagandists find it convenient to mock the literal absurdity of their opponents' beliefs and practices (the heathen believe that their graven idols can hear their prayers!).

The gospels do contain material that shows Jesus teaching in riddles so as to confound his hearers, not only those outside but his inner circle of disciples.  The fourth chapter of Mark consists of the Parable of the Sower, the disciples asking what it means, and Jesus explaining the parable while declaring that he teaches in parables in order to prevent outsiders from understanding, repenting, and being saved.  The parallel versions of the story in Matthew and Luke soften this as much as they can, but they retain the idea that no one could understand Jesus' teaching until after he died and was resurrected.  Only then could the Scriptures be opened to their true meaning.  But this idea isn't sustained throughout the gospels.  Most of the time the crowds and Jesus' opponents understand his meaning entirely too well, for example in Mark 12:12 and parallels: "And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them." 

I also think that Julian Sanchez gives Jesus far too much credit for profundity.  Why should Nicodemus have understood Jesus' claim that one must be born again to see the kingdom of Heaven?  His question about it, far from being stupidly literal-minded, is simply feeding Jesus a chance to explain himself -- which, as usual, Jesus takes, though his follow-up is as usual as clear as mud.  Does Sanchez thinks he understands Jesus' pretentious bloviation about sin and salvation in the Fourth Gospel?  He recognizes that "born again" is a pun in the original Greek -- it can also mean "born from above," which isn't self-explanatory either -- but still thinks it means something.  Maybe it does, but what?  I can understand a Christian apologist taking this stance, but why would a self-styled secularist do so?  What does Sanchez thinks "the kingdom of Heaven" refers to?  It's a Christian commonplace that Jesus' Jewish contemporaries had wrong ideas about the Messiah and the kingdom he would establish, but I don't agree that Jesus' ideas, whatever they were, were correct.  Considering that the kingdom he promised did not arrive within a generation, as he promised, it's a safe bet that his ideas were wrong.  (Trying to interpret his teaching to get around that basic stumbling block is a hallmark of fundamentalism, not of secularism.)  The Christian churches have changed their understandings of Jesus' teaching over the millennia, and modern scholars disagree on just about everything aspect of it. 

As an atheist, I am free not to think "the Kingdom of Heaven" has any real referent.  Based on my experience with both modern scholarship and lay atheists' confused efforts to appropriate Jesus' teaching for their own purposes -- efforts which make no sense to me at all -- I don't think they know any more about it than Nicodemus did.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Liberals in Flames

This is pretty funny.  Mehdi Hasan is a British broadcaster who moved to the US in 2015 to work for Al-Jazeera.  He built a reputation as a fiery liberal commentator who boldly Speaks Truth To Power, became a US citizen, and I admit I was surprised when he got a regular spot on MSNBC.  Didn't they already have a fiery liberal commentator who boldly Speaks Truth To Power?  I suppose one more won't hurt.

On Labor Day, Hasan posted on the platform formerly known as Twitter:

First off, Churchill probably didn't say this.  It's a good thing the leftish media are more accurate than Faux News, isn't it?

But, second, that quotation may accurately reflect Churchill's views.

I don't mean to single out Churchill, of course. Much of the English ruling class liked fascism, and so did much of the American ruling class.  From David F. Schmitz's Thank God They're On Our Side: The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1921-1965 (University of North Carolina, 1999) :

American businessmen were no less enthusiastic about Mussolini and his government.  Thomas Lamont of J. P. Morgan remarked after his first meeting with Mussolini that the Italian dictator was “a very upstanding chap.”  He wrote later that Italy was “going to be a great country despite its very limited resources.”  Otto Kahn, of Kuhn, Loeb, praised the recent change of government in Italy at the 1925 meeting of the International Chamber of Commerce.  “Parliamentary wrangling and wasteful impotent bureaucracy” had been replaced by an “efficient and energetic … government,” which had united Italy in “a spirit of order, discipline, hard work, patriotic devotion and faith.”  Ralph Easley of the National Civic Federation wrote to Thomas Lamont after visiting Italy, “I think, were we in Italy, we would all be with Mussolini.”  And Judge Elbert Gary of United States Steel remarked while in Rome in 1923 that “we have here a wonderful renaissance of youthful energy and activity.  A masterhand has, indeed, strongly grasped the hand of the Italian state.”  Gary added that he felt “like turning to my American friends and asking them whether we, too, need a man like Mussolini” [40].

In this case, Mehdi Hasan was complaining because most respondents to a Wall Street Journal poll don't believe that the US economy is in good shape, that inflation has continued to rise, and the like.  I saw some criticisms of the poll's methodology, but I'm less concerned with that here than with an elite journalist's contempt for his audience and for democracy.

He followed up the first post with this one.

I've written before about corporate media hubris, its practitioners' fantasy that their job is to instruct the public in what they consider the correct direction, and their outrage when the rabble doesn't go along with them.  Why does Hasan think that "the media," bad as they are, are responsible for this state of affairs, or that they could fix it?  The corporate media have been pushing corporate propaganda for many years, yet voters reject that propaganda on issues like taxes, health,care, education, "wokeness," etc. The most liberal media outlets were sure there'd be a Red Wave last November, and they were very disappointed when it didn't happen.  They also were sure the US economy would go into recession, and there too their hopes have been frustrated. Does Hasan despise the voters who voted down anti-abortion initiatives, or those in Ohio who rejected a GOP attempt to make it harder to amend the State Constitution? The same media boosted Donald Trump but he lost the popular vote both times. (It was the anti-democratic Electoral College, meant to keep elections in the hands of elites, that gave him the presidency in 2016.)  The fascinating thing about this multibillion-dollar industry is that it is largely irrelevant.  How can the news media instruct the public in the first place when so much of their information is skewed at best, wrong at worst?

The best argument against elitism is a five-minute conversation with an elitist.

P.S. One major reason I've been inactive the past couple of months is that my eight-year-old laptop had slowed down to the point where it was almost unusable: it would freeze for several minutes, and I didn't have the patience to try to write anything more than brief social media posts.  I found a good replacement online, and after a few days transferring files to it from the old one I'm slowly getting used to having a working computer again.  I hope to get back to work here, I have a lot to say.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Let's Go, Bunnies!

I've complained before about the quality of public discussion, and I'm going to try to go a little deeper this time.

The historian Seth Cotlar linked to this article about a 1959 controversy inspired by a children's book, The Rabbits' Wedding by Garth Williams. (The article is paywalled, but as a subscriber Cotlar could share it on Twitter.  If the link from here doesn't work, try clicking through to his tweet.)  Williams is most famous as the illustrator of E. B. White's Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, the Little House on the Prairie books and many others; but he also wrote the text for The Rabbits' Wedding. The book is out of print, shamefully enough, but maybe the article will spur enough interest for a reissue.

According to the article, The Rabbits' Wedding is about a black rabbit and a white rabbit who meet, fall in love, and marry.  Unsurprisingly, the White Citizens' Council organized a nationwide campaign against the book, trying to get it removed from libraries in Alabama, which (just as unsurprisingly) boosted its sales.  The author played coy:

Williams’s wide-eyed innocence mimicked that of his rabbit characters: “I was completely unaware that animals with white fur, such as white polar bears and white dogs and white rabbits, were considered blood relations of white human beings. I was only aware that a white horse next to a black horse looks very picturesque.” He averred that his motivations were innocuous, just craft and thrift: A black-and-white book, with occasional pops of yellow, would cut production costs.

His biographers told the Times

that the artist was gregarious, well connected and vaguely progressive, but no activist. “His first response to attacks on ‘The Rabbits’ Wedding’ is ‘I’m just an artist,’” James Wallace noted. He added that Williams also said he “hopes children enjoy the book and that the voices of hate will never overcome the kind of togetherness ‘The Rabbits’ Wedding’ represents.”

"No activist" and "vaguely progressive" is praising him with faint damns.  "Just an artist" reminds me of the Noble Engineer Robert Heinlein, who liked to claim that he was just an entertainer, a hard-working hack who wrote for money, and that art shouldn't contain a Message - when he wasn't feuding with his publisher to keep the militarist and rugged-individualist messages he'd put into his juvenile SF novels.  He had, he insisted, a right and a duty to educate the young. (He was also anti-racist in his way, so I imagine he would have sided with Williams if he heard about this controversy.)  As the SF writer and critic Joanna Russ wrote, "it seems absolutely impossible to write anything without immediately making all sorts of assumptions about what human nature is, what good and bad behavior consists of, what men ought to be, what women ought to be, which states of mind and character are valuable, which are the opposite, and so on."  Just about everybody who says art should be message-free soon shows that they don't mean it; their messages aren't really messages at all, just Common Sense.  And to be fair to Garth Williams, he initially reacted by "rage-writing a 30-page response to criticism of his picture book," before "settl[ing] on the high road in a statement" to the effect that we should all love each other.

In the climate of late 1950s America, taking the high road was probably a smart move.  Anyway, opinion pieces fought the battle for The Rabbits' Wedding openly and enthusiastically.  But that was then and this is now, and what unsettles me just a wee bit about the article and Cotlar's commentary is that it feels disingenuous.

One commenter on Cotlar's tweet said it out loud: "It was an innocent child's book. They saw what they wanted to see. The hatred that they harbored distorted everything. Unfortunately, that still hasn't changed." This is an example of doublethink that would qualify for the 1984 Hall of Fame. Of course the book was "innocent," whatever that much-abused word means. "(Decades later, Williams would dryly remark, 'I didn’t say that they went to bed together.')"  Children's publishers especially were always hypervigilant about the content of their products, so it's not plausible that they didn't know that they were publishing an allegory about "interracial" love and marriage. (That hypervigilance makes it all the more revealing about the kind of content that they allowed, such as the racism in some of Dr. Seuss's children's books.)  The racists who attacked the book didn't just imagine it: The Rabbits' Wedding was a slap at their beliefs and values, and that was a noble and proper gesture, then and now.  Why pretend otherwise, especially now?

"Innocent" in this context presumably means an absence of explicit sexual content. Think of the critic Joan Acocella, who wants more than anything else to believe that Willa Cather was "innocent," meaning that she died a virgin.  Or the online movie reviewer who wrote a few years ago about Disney's The Fox and the Hound 2 that

In these post-Brokeback Mountain days, it is hard to see Copper and Tod's friendship—their playful wrestling, their longing looks at one another, their efforts to create satisfying relationships with other characters to substitute for their inability to be together—in a completely innocent fashion. But that is neither here nor there.” Is it? Pinsky was saying that because of Ang Lee’s successful film, he could no longer see the frolicking of two talking animals in a children’s animated cartoon as “completely innocent.”

The racists who called The Rabbits' Wedding "salacious" weren't the only ones who saw what their personal obsessions drove them to see. Considering that some adults today are adamant that a marriage is "innocent" -- meaning no exchange of bodily fluids, even in theory -- sexuality clearly makes them uneasy.  I'm reminded of an exchange in the IU student newspaper a couple of decades ago: they published a letter from a bigot fulminating about sodomy, and then a reply from a young woman who cried, "My gay friends would never do something like that!" I've always wondered how she reacted when she learned that in fact they do. Attempts to stir up antigay revulsion by describing our disgusting sexual practices continued into this century, as did indignant denials that respectable Homo-Americans would do such things. And at least one compassionate Christian divine prefers the word "homosexual" to "gay" because the former word "has the advantage of speaking with sharp particularity to the actual issue at stake", probably meaning buttsex.

There's a lot less anxiety around "interracial" relationships than there was sixty years ago, but it hasn't died out altogether. I was surprised by how much it was in evidence in a famously liberal and diverse city like San Francisco. (Which is not to say that all San Franciscans are racist, only that I found more racism than I expected.)  People may talk blithely about color-blindness and not judging others by the color of their skin, but actual differences are another matter.  The same goes for straight liberals (usually male) who are fierce supporters of gay marriage but are pruriently horrified by sodomy.

This curious inability, in 2023, to face the brute reality of controversies found a recent echo when a high school in Howard City, Michigan required two students to remove sweatshirts bearing the motto "Let's Go, Brandon."  Their mother filed suit in support of their First Amendment rights.  For those lucky enough not to know, "Let's Go Brandon" become a "not-so-secret handshake" among MAGA Republicans after a reporter misheard NASCAR fans at Talladega chanting "Fuck Joe Biden."  As a secret, it's on a par with "420," but I suppose that's part of the appeal.  The ACLU and FIRE are on the kids' side, and rightly so.  I might say more about that in another post, but I mention in this one because this time the Right is taking the position of The Rabbits' Wedding's partisans - Hahaha, it's just an innocent allegory! -- and the liberals are fuming that though seemingly clean, the sweatshirts are "salacious"! Think of the innocent children being led astray, their minds polluted by filth! 

I think a better response to "Let's Go Brandon" is to congratulate the MAGA in question for supporting Chicago's new mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, a progressive black Democrat of the type that makes right-wingers foam at the mouth.  The real question ought to be how people in a free society should respond to deliberately provocative expressions, whether they be children's books or t-shirts, and I'll try to take that up soon.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Know Your Place

Clarence Thomas bestie Harlan Crow has so many friends testifying to his good character.  As Law Boy Esq. put it on Twitter, "incredible to watch everyone on the right chime in with 'I am also financially intertwined with the billionaire Nazi guy'."

Among these friends is the notorious Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve and other modern classics.  Murray declared that Crow's "decency, integrity, and kindness" are recognized by everyone who knows him, "[i]ncluding people of the left." (It would be interesting to know who some of those "people of the left" are, but it's not really important.) Murray even dedicated his 2020 book Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class to Crow.

I have to admit that much of what I'm seeing online about Thomas, Crow, and Murray is basically ragegasms, the opiate of liberals and the left.  The people throwing these tantrums don't know how mainstream Murray's views are, by which I mean that they are held not only by the right but by liberals and many leftists.

As I've pointed out before, people who are outraged by scientific rationalizations of race and sex are likely to embrace biological explanations of sexual orientation, gender and other "identity", mental illness, and alcoholism and other addictions.  Racial essentialism is making a comeback too, as shown by the popularity of DNA testing to trace people's "roots."

Murray has sometimes tried to minimize his interest in race, and to foreground the application of his methods and arguments to class.  It's on that issue that liberals agree with him, even if they're not aware of it.  Chris Hayes, the liberal pundit for MSNBC who occupies probably the farthest "left" position in American corporate media, wrote in his 2012 book on meritocracy, "First, kids are not created equal.  Some are much smarter than others.  And second, the hierarchy of brains is entirely distinct from the social hierarchies of race, wealth, and privilege.  That was the idea, anyway" (35), of Hunter College High School's competitive entrance exams to select superior students.  I pointed out in my discussion of his book that Hayes assumes that unequal smartness has something to with how kids are "created," and that the superior kids deserve an elite place in society. Not all liberals would agree with Hayes, but I don't have the impression that many even noticed the problematic position he took here.

It's not true that "the hierarchy of brains is entirely distinct from the social hierarchies of race, wealth, and privilege."  The privileges of wealth, race, and sex have always been justified on the basis of innate virtue.  If they weren't just naturally superior (so goes the claim), the rich, the male, the white wouldn't be on top of the heap; but a look at the Bushes, the Trumps, the Kennedys, the Buckleys, and other American elites should be enough to show that money buys the mediocre and even the inferior a lot of influence and power.  Charles Murray isn't the first social scientist to try to justify those social hierarchies on the basis of biology, and he won't be the last. Many have toiled in that vineyard, and though their fruits have been discredited many times over the past century, there's never a shortage of money to keep them toiling, nor of sensitive journalists who will promote their claims. 

I think that even fewer leftists would agree with Frederik DeBoer, who wrote in 2017 a tortured defense of biological stratification.  Soon after posting it, he deleted it and almost all of his online writing up to that point, so I'll draw here on the extensive quotations I used in my discussion.

To me, the hard political question is the gap after the gaps — the question of what to do with differences in academic and intellectual potential after we have closed the racial and gender achievement gaps. What do we do with differences in academic achievement after they no longer fall along traditional lines of inequality?

I've been trying to find some quotations I remember from Charles Murray that looked very similar to this; no luck.  Murray admits that racism and sexism are real and deplorable, but they are receding, so differences in status and wealth will increasingly be due solely to innate and immutable differences in ability.  The result will be a 'natural' stratification in society as genetically superior marry and live among their own kind.  It's all rather sad, but some are destined to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, and presumably to live in squalor.  Being enlightened scientists, we don't blame them, but we can't pretend that they are as good as we are.

This is, of course, the traditional defense of racial and other hierarchies.  DeBoer was aware that the optics of his position were unfortunate, and he hastily denied that he had any such position in mind,  However:

The bad news is that there now appears to me to be overwhelming evidence that there are profound individual differences in academic potential, that different individual human beings have significantly unequal likelihoods of ascending to various tiers of academic performance. Educational philosophy for centuries has assumed great plasticity in the academic potential of any particular student, that given good teachers and hard work, most anyone can reach most any academic pinnacle. And the case that I would someday like to make, that I have been tinkering with making for many years, is that this appears to be substantially untrue. Instead, it appears that in general and on average, human beings are remarkably static in how they are sorted relative to others in all manner of metrics of academic achievement. In education, with remarkable consistency, the high performers stay high, and the low performers stay low. And it seems likely that this reflects some complex construct that we might call academic talent, which whatever its origins (whether genetic, environmental, parental, neonatal, circumstantial, etc) is far less mutable than has traditionally been understood,

All this may or may not be true.  But first, it's evasive.  While DeBoer strenuously distanced himself from racist or sexist or even classist interpretations of his "case," he seemed to be assuming that low-performing students pop up at random in any population.  How is society to know which kids should be encouraged, and which kids left to their own devices? He didn't say.  Later in this article DeBoer acknowledged that our "metrics" for academic talent are inadequate; he went on hiatus soon after he posted it, but he has returned, and has published a couple of books which apparently (judging from their Amazon listings and reviews) extend his position.  Maybe I'll get to them, maybe I won't.

A few years later I began reading the English novelist Miss Read, whose stories are set in a rural English village and narrated by a kindly but conservative English schoolmarm.  I think Miss Read would have agreed with DeBoer.  She's on the alert for the talented few who can be prepped for advancement to grammar school, but is content to teach most of her pupils no more than the three R's, because they just aren't capable of any more than that. If she were right, England should have remained a rural backwater, populated by barely literate farmers and shopkeepers and the schoolmarms who stuffed the ABCs into their reluctant brains.

But she was wrong.  Most of the kids I went to school with in the 1950s and 1960s, in a semi-rural Indiana town, looked to me like Miss Read's pupils looked to her.  But many or most of them went on to community college and beyond, learned accounting and computer and other skills, which if not intellectual are certainly academic.  What Miss Read and Frederik DeBoer don't seem to realize is that although you can map "achievement" on a graph and individuals may stay much the same relative to each other, the average goes up.  The mediocrities of today know a lot more than the mediocrities of a century ago.

Another related example: When the first digital computers were developed, they were programmed by women - women who essentially created the field of programming.  What they did was considered easy, albeit drudgework that men shouldn't have to bother themselves by doing.  But eventually men moved into the field and women were driven out.  At that point programming came to be regarded as a very difficult, advanced intellectual task beyond the ability of women, something only men were capable of, and women fought their way back into the field with great difficulty against that assumption.  It wasn't the task that changed, or the academic abilities needed to carry it out.  For details, see Claire L. Evans, Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet (Portfolio, 2018).

There's also the little matter that some more intellectual subjects, like reading, writing, history, and others, are taught systematically so as to bore most students.  I say "systematically" because I don't know that anyone sat down and planned it that way, but the results are consistent.  When students are taught with better methods, they learn a lot more, and they learn it eagerly and with interest.  Whether DeBoer would consider that "plasticity," I don't know.  Nor does it matter.  

What matters here is that though DeBoer considers himself a leftist, he basically agrees with the educationally conservative (though condescendingly liberal, in a sense) Miss Read and the right-wing Charles Murray.  Murray's position, however much liberals may deplore it, is in reality one that they hold themselves in many cases.  That's why they react to the mere mention of his name with fury: it's easier than informing themselves and thinking about it.

Individual differences, however "profound," are not a problem.  Society needs differences.  If everybody were Einstein, there'd be no one to do everything that an Einstein doesn't, won't, or can't do.  Schooling should be oriented, not to finding the few who can tolerate boredom enough to learn intellectual skills, but to finding out what each student can do and helping them to learn to do it.  I cheerfully concede that there would be a lot of opposition to doing that, but it's not the result of individual differences.  I also think that DeBoer, Hayes, Miss Read, and their ilk exaggerate the difficulty of most of what must be learned.  The "metrics" we have can't tell us in advance what a child is capable of, though that's the holy grail of certain researchers (and mocked by Michael Young in his satirical novel The Rise of the Meritocracy). Such people are not the friends of human potential, but its opponents, and they can be found all over the political spectrum.