If you’ve known me for more than 10 minutes, you probably know how much I admired my late grandfather, Jerry Lettvin. Jerry taught me a profound love for asking “why” and showed me that pursuing science or engineering came with a responsibility to think deeply about the humanities. I have two indelible memories of him: seeing him poke around with an electrode in a frog’s brain while watching an oscilloscope dance as the pithed frog’s eye “saw” things; and watching him weep with joy, surrounded by at least 3 still-burning cigarettes, teetering piles of paper, and adoring grad students, as he listened to Gould’s rendition of The Goldberg Variations played through a phonograph needle that he’d designed.
I loved my grandfather and had an enormous amount of respect for him, both as a scientist and as a person who thought deeply about ethics and aesthetics and philosophy.
Recently, I was reminded of one of his (many) controversial opinions:
I was of course reminded of this because of the ongoing shitshow around LambdaConf, which is taking place where I live, here in Boulder.
As a recap, if you’ve somehow missed this, LambdaConf invited a guy who writes a “neoreactionary” blog to speak at their conference. This guy’s writing is mostly incomprehensible to me but his justification on Medium (Google it yourself, I don’t want to link to it here) makes it clear that he is not only a racist but also bad at math, statistics and logic.
I was thinking about going to LambdaConf (it’s here in Boulder, after all, and Scala makes my brain feel funny in good ways) but watching the justification/rationalization of the organization for inviting this guy has filled me with sadness and a sense of shame.
I find myself asking: “is LambdaConf’s decision to invite a racist to speak about something technical aligned with what my grandfather espoused? If it was, would that matter?”
So first: it would matter to me if I found myself disagreeing with Jerry, not because I don’t think I should (I disagree with lots of things he said), but because – this is probably clear by now – I respected the hell out of him, and having an opinion different from someone I respect is interesting and bears some unwrapping.
Second: I agree with Jerry about Ezra Pound, and I agree with his decision to be outspoken about it. But again, I could not disagree more with LambdaConf, and I find their justification worse than empty; I find it pernicious and delusional.
By the time the American Academy of Arts & Science got around to thinking of awarding Ezra Pound a medal in 1972, the people he was sympathetic to had been soundly defeated. Mussolini and Hitler were long-dead, and World War II had been over for 27 years. Anti-semitism of course still existed (and still does), but the roots of the Holocaust were generally not denied, and its atrocities were examined. While it’s possible, likely even, that there were anti-semitic members of the Academy, their views would not have been widely accepted or echoed or looked upon with anything but derision in any public sphere. (some context)
My grandfather was a second generation Ukrainian Jew. He had relatives who were killed in the Holocaust, and he was a doctor for the US Army during the Battle of the Bulge. He was hurt both directly and indirectly by Nazism and Fascism, causes Pound vocally supported and worked for. If the people Pound supported won, my grandfather and all of his family would have been murdered.
Saying, “your actions hurt me and the ones I loved, but the art you produced still has value” is a strong position to take. It’s not without problems but it comprises autonomy, and forgiveness, and nuance. It accepts that the actions of the person were awful and unforgivable and accepts the contradiction between awful things people do and the work they create in spite of their reprehensible views. It accepts that there exists right and wrong in the world, and accepts that people are complex and layered and even awful people can sometimes – horribly, implausibly – create beautiful things. That’s fucking hard to do and it is to no small degree irrational and perilous.
I would like to contrast this with the rationalizations – because they are simply rationalizations, without nuance, without depth – used by LambdaConf. The organizers claim to be acting amorally and apolitically. They equate racist writing with “opinions.”
That is cowardly.
Further, the organizers of LambdaConf are white, living in one of the whitest and most affluent, isolated places in the country. We are living in a country that is a long way away from coming to grips with the very real racism that our country was built on. The leading GOP candidate is winning because he is so appealing to racists.
In this climate, the organizers of LambdaConf are making a decision to accept someone who has said – among other things – that black people have lower IQs than white people. The organizers are people who are wholly unaffected by his hatred, and they are speaking for a group of people they do not belong to. They refuse to see the problems with this, and cloak this blindness in the veil of “professional ethics.”
That might be ignorant, or it might be dishonest. I am left thinking that it couldn’t be complete blindness and I am forced to think it is not amoral – as the organizers claim – but rather immoral. Claiming to make a solely rational choice in these circumstances forces one into the repugnant, racist, hateful choice.
I’m ashamed and saddened that this is happening in the town I live in, in the industry I work in, with people I might work with someday.
I would like to think that Jerry would feel the same.