Good fights

Why we know too much about the virus, how The Beatles argued, and the missing bit of Jordan Peterson's brain.

This is a picture promoting Helen Lewis’s interview with Jordan Peterson, for GQ, from 2018. You’ll note that only one of them is smiling. The video now has nearly 24 million views. People do love a dust-up and the framing was explicitly confrontational, but if you watch it, you’ll see that Helen is not actually bent on ‘destroying’ Peterson; she is genuinely interested in drawing out his ideas. (Full disclosure: Helen is a friend of mine, no I wouldn’t want to be interviewed by her.) She asks Peterson difficult questions, probing for tensions or contradictions, but that’s one way of accomplishing said goal. In other words it would have been perfectly possible for this interview to have been tough but amicable, and for Peterson to have come out very well, but to my mind (his followers disagree) he did not. That’s because in his mind - as we now know - he was being personally attacked. It’s important to say here that I think there’s some truth to Peterson’s complaints about the way that the media treat him; interviewers often seem ignorant of his work and attack a straw man, with the goal being to take down or deride rather than to illuminate. I just don’t think that was the case here. This debate didn’t need to be a zero-sum game, with a winner and a loser, but that’s how he treats it. Right from the start, he is defensive, truculent, impenetrably grumpy. He can’t distinguish between the questioning of his ideas from an assault on him. Part of the fascination of the video is watching Helen attempt to find a way past these defences - not so that she can attack him but so that he can answer more freely. She tries humour, but he’s completely unresponsive to it. And this, to me, is what’s most revealing about the exchange. Humour is a psychological safety valve. People who are deficient in it tend not to be at peace with themselves or others. It can play a crucial role in argument; shared laughter is an instant, physical reminder that we have more in common than the disagreement itself. Peterson seems to be missing that facility altogether. No wonder he seems so ill at ease in this world.

I’d love you to pre-order my new book, CONFLICTED, on the art and science of productive disagreement. Less than a WEEK to go now! (UK 18th, US 23rd). For reasons I explain here, every pre-order helps. If you think you might buy it at any point, buying it now is like doing a favour to me at no cost to yourself.

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How much should we worry about the South African variant of Covid-19? On the face of it, rather a lot. It’s aggressively competitive - it quickly became the dominant strain in South Africa. Like the UK variant, it has a mutation that makes it more transmissible than most strains. And there’s evidence that the vaccines, and the antibodies of previously infected people, are less effective against it. That’s why we’re hearing about it so much and partly why there’s been a rush to secure our borders. But in a perverse stroke of luck, if that’s what it is, we have a strong defence against it: b117. Our homegrown variant is so transmissible that the South African one will find it hard to compete. Now, it might be the SA strain does better for itself when most of the population is immune, at which point its USP - infecting people have gained previous immunity - comes into its own. But that is some way off and we don’t know if it will happen, plus there’s new evidence that vaccines are effective against it. Maybe the UK variant will add a feature from the SA variant at some point, but a booster shot in the autumn should deal with that. So actually, we needn’t worry about it so much. In fact, most of us would be better off if we’d never heard about it at all. As Tom Whipple says in this excellent report in The Times (£), although it feels like we’re in for an endless merry-go-round of mutations, restrictions and vaccinations, that ain’t necessarily so. The virus, like a turbulent adolescent, may simply be in the process of finding itself. It will stop evolving when it becomes optimised for human transmission, by which point it will already be in a form we can cope with. Whipple interviews the virologist Eleanor Riley (there’s a song in that name) and she says something really interesting: “This virus is evolving in real time…and for the first time in human history with genetic sequencing we are watching it happen. And it’s really uncomfortable to watch, and we are panicking.” There are precedents for pandemics but we have an unprecedented amount of information about this one. That’s mainly good - it’s why we got to vaccines so fast - but at the public level it’s a recipe for excessive anxiety and at the policy level for over-reaction, if decision-makers are not careful.


  • Interview with Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina who is good at thinking about how to balance risks, a surprisingly rare skill among public health experts. He makes a great point about how experts and regulators have been treating this like a ‘normal’ epidemic instead of a global emergency. (US focus but much that is applicable to all.)

  • This is a good piece by Ian Birrell on how the WHO is averting its eyes from the possibility that the pandemic started as a lab accident. You do not need to be a biologist to rate this is a significant possibility - in fact you barely need much knowledge at all except that a) China is very big b) The only lab in the country licensed to experiment with deadly pathogens is in Wuhan. c) The outbreak started in Wuhan. None of that proves anything but it’s enough to make the hypothesis worthy of consideration. For a more sophisticated version of the case read this by David Relman of Stanford University. The Biden administration seems to be keeping an open mind.

  • Fantastic clip of Jay Z explaining how he deals with bullies. What he says here reminds me of James Baldwin: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

  • 5 Minutes That Will Make You Love String Quartets (and other forms in the series - excellent idea from the NYT).

  • I’m a fan of the stripped back Q&A interviews we’re seeing a lot these days, at leasts in US and European media. David Marchese is the king of this format. He has an incredible knack for getting famous people who have been interviewed many times to speak candidly and freshly. So it’s interesting to read him being interviewed about how he does it.

  • An erudite, enriching essay on Lucian Freud, twentieth century art, London vs New York…wonderful stuff from Adam Gopnik.

  • Helen Lewis’s acclaimed book Difficult Women is now in paperback.

There’s a clip, legendary among Beatles fans, of George and Paul having an argument over how to play Hey Jude. George wants to add a guitar phrase to the verse, Paul thinks it’s an unnecessary complication (this is the best video version I can find). The clip is from footage of their 1969 sessions, shot for what became the documentary film Let It Be (the footage is being recut and will be released in a different form next year). “The Argument” gets cited to explain the band’s split, but I’m sceptical about that. Conflict doesn’t spell the breakdown of a relationship; in fact, it can be a sign of its vitality. The Beatles almost certainly argued with each other throughout, it’s just that we don’t have tapes for most of it. We do know that each of them save John walked out in a huff following big rows at various points. This forensic and beautifully presented dissection of The Argument suggests that it was fairly mild, albeit tetchy. It also offers a fascinating glimpse into the dynamic of the band at that time. The exchange actually occurred in the course of a much longer argument during a rehearsal of Two Of Us. Most of the debate is about how to play that song, but it’s also about Paul trying to persuade the others to adopt a more systematic approach to the whole project (they were planning to perform the new songs live on TV and he was worried they wouldn’t be ready). Maybe this won’t be interesting to anyone who isn’t a Beatles nerd but even if you’re not, isn’t it incredible have a raw and unfiltered record of one of the all-time great creative collaborations, as it happens - tensions, irritations, disagreements and all? If it is a little boring, that’s interesting too - it shows how magic can grow out of a long series of banal interactions. Anyway - it’s during this extended argument that Paul coins a favourite quote of mine, applicable to any creative process: “It’s complicated now. If we can get it simpler, and then complicate it where it needs to be complicated.” Whether you’re stuck on a song, an essay or a coding project, this is great advice: strip it back to its simplest form and then let the complications force their way in. (A little later, Paul rephrases it: “Let’s get the confusion unconfused, and then confuse it.”) Worth noting that the final version of Two of Us is very different, much simpler, and miles better than their early drafts. Since we have tapes of early takes throughout the band’s recording years, we know that this was typical of The Beatles: they were superb at improving what they started with. I suspect the arguments helped.

Hey did I mention I’d love you to pre-order CONFLICTED?