What’s in a Lane? | Just Visiting

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So I am doing dishes and I switch to Anderson Cooper 360, and within 30 seconds I am hearing noted epidemiologist Andrew Sullivan arguing that we should “let Covid rip” through the population in an effort to achieve herd immunity so we can get back to “living.”

What’s that? Andrew Sullivan isn’t an epidemiologist you say? He’s just a guy with a lot of opinions, many of which have been tragically, historically wrong? (e.g., the Iraq War.)

At times I will marvel at the chutzpah that people like Sullivan seem to possess in not only jumping in to opine about every subject under the sun, but to do so with such certainty. On some level, Sullivan must know that he has no genuine expertise on these subjects. Sullivan can mimic expertise – while talking to Cooper he implores us to look at the data of infections and deaths from the Delta variant in other countries – but he truly doesn’t know anything more than the average person about this subject.

And yet there he is on my TV because contra his plaintive mewling about being “cancelled” when he left New York magazine for his own Substack newsletter, Sullivan receives great credit and deference from people like Anderson Cooper and the Morning Joe crew, and The New York Times, who have been proven to be more than willing to feature Sullivan as he promotes his new collection of essays.

A series of incidents have had me thinking about one’s lane – the space in which you can claim to have genuine expertise and authority – and when it’s okay to stray from that lane, the conditions that should be met to do so with confidence, and what one owes the audience when going outside one’s lane.

Apparently, Sullivan must meet no conditions other than being himself to stray from his lane, whatever it is. There are a number of other Substack personalities who perform similar acts, such as Matthew Yglesias, who frequently weighs in on topics in my lane (education) without apparently knowing anything about it.

Caitlin Flanagan’s recent hatchet job against the University of California over their decision to drop standardized tests in admissions completely fell apart when scrutinized by people who actually know what they’re talking about, resulting in a series of corrections that nonetheless did not manage to dent Flanagan’s certainty about her own correctness. She not only was certain on the wrongness of UC’s policy, she had also somehow deduced the motive behind the decision, a double scoop of hubris.

Perhaps this occurred because Flanagan has determined that her lane is self-appointed resistance against run amok social justice, a position for which she has significant competition.

Erik Levitz, writing at New York magazine, felt prepared to critique Ibram X. Kendi’s work on anti-racism despite self-admittedly not having read the foundational work of Kendi’s scholarship. In what universe does this make sense?

Steven Pinker, highly regarded linguist, thought it might be a fine thing to produce a book on the Enlightenment, a book which actual Enlightenment scholars find laughably wrong. Of course Pinker’s book likely outsold every other book written about the Enlightenment combined in the year of its release.

I think about these things a lot because while I am several rungs below these other folks, I nonetheless get paid in order to develop and share my opinions and analysis. I am hyper-conscious of what I think is my lane and do my best to stay within the bounds of knowing what I’m talking about.

The lines can be blurry, no doubt. In last week’s post, I offered some suppositions about what effect the coronavirus may have on campuses this semester. Like Andrew Sullivan, I’m just a guy who reads stuff by other people about the virus. I have no expertise or knowledge that anyone should heed on the course of the pandemic itself. This is why I attempted to couch my analysis in a general, seems-like-bad-stuff-could-happen, message (a safe bet) before pivoting to an area where I do have some expertise, curricular design and delivery.

It is not that I believe we must stay strictly inside our lanes and never venture beyond our existing expertise or experiences. One of my favorite reading pastimes is to watch Tressie McMillan Cottom expand her lane, as she did recently with a cover story in Vanity Fair about Sean “Diddy” Combs and the recent announcement that she will be a contributing opinion writer to the New York Times. The difference between Cottom venturing into a new (to her) form and Flanagan venturing into a less-familiar subject or Levitz critiquing Kendi is that Cottom actually did her homework. 

I hope we’re all aware enough to recognize that it’s not accidental that Tressie McMillan Cottom must meticulously prepare and produce excellence, while Andrew Sullivan can wing it for them to arrive at similar levels.

Unfortunately, there is too much incentive for “take-having” personalities to stray out of their lanes, or rather, to deny that such a thing as lanes exist. The onus is on the individual to police the limits of their own knowledge and certainty, but that sort of careful analysis has much less currency than letting it rip for the crowd who loves you already.

The response of The Atlantic to Flanagan being caught out also suggests we can’t necessarily expect institutions and publications to police these boundaries when particular favored personalities barge past them.

Lots of people are criticizing Anderson Cooper for having Andrew Sullivan on to pontificate on the pandemic when CNN is larded with actual medical experts, but I feel confident it will have little impact on the channel’s editorial choices. 

But maybe I’m wrong about that because in truth, I’m just a guy who looks at the world and tries his best to figure out what the heck is going on, no different than anyone else. 

Don’t take my word for anything.[1]

 


[1] Unless it’s about writing pedagogy or the structural problems of post-secondary education institutions. I’m pretty darn reliable on that stuff.





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