Andrew Sullivan has an interesting post up in which he semi-apologizes for the Bell Curve and argues that it is important to argue about Israel even if it brings out anti-Semitism just as it was important to discuss racial differences even if it brought out racism. I don’t think it’s a good comparison, but I respect Sullivan for re-visiting the Bell Curve debacle and for standing up to the reverse Jew-baiting, or whatever the phrase is for what Jeff Goldberg, Leon Wieseltier, and others do.
The problems with the discussion around the Bell Curve are, for example: (1) it’s not that surprising that doing well on standardized tests correlates with some measure of success in a society where people are judged by their ability to take standardized test, (2) the correlation coefficients weren’t that high, and (3) race is an artificial construct. I think all three are reasonable arguments against promoting the book. The reason for the popularity of the book, of course, is that scientifically illiterate establishment media types got off on that they were some kind of Churchillian he-men for touching such a taboo topic. Stephen Metcalf nails it:
Imagine that the labels “morally courageous” and “intellectually honest” didn’t refer to inner personal qualities but instead were prizes in a language game. The goal of the game is to be awarded the labels “morally courageous” and “intellectually honest.” To win the prize, you must obey the rules: Never parrot conventional wisdom, and whenever possible, cast yourself as the victim of a speech-suppressing enemy. Any avid consumer of American newspapers and periodicals, especially over the last dozen or so years, will recognize the language game immediately: It’s called “punditry.”
In a way, it’s wrong to single out the popularity of the Bell Curve here. William Saletan’s ignorant flirtation with white supremacism is much worse. And it’s not just this topic of course: Megan McArdle’s brand of bogus analysis is applauded because it seems edgy and gutsy, somehow.
To the extent that debate of Israel brings out anti-Semitism, it’s because Jeff Golberg et al. make it about anti-Semitism. I’ve never heard anyone go from discussing Israel to suggesting that certain portions of our population be forced to live on reservations (as the Bell Curve suggests be done with low IQers). There’s no similarity at all.
EDIT: What I said about that Bell Curve and “reservations” comes from Malcolm Gladwell and may be inaccurate. Okay, here is more precision on what is stated in the book (from Wiki, I do not have an electronic copy of the book):
Moreover, they fear that increasing welfare will create a “custodial state” in “a high-tech and more lavish version of the Indian reservation for some substantial minority of the nation’s population.” They also predict increasing totalitarianism: “It is difficult to imagine the United States preserving its heritage of individualism, equal rights before the law, free people running their own lives, once it is accepted that a significant part of the population must be made permanent wards of the states”.