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Elon Musk Tweeted My Cartoon
Commentators on the left set about debunking my ‘lived experience’ with charts and abstractions.
This essay was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on May 2nd, 2022.
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I was out for a walk last Thursday when Elon Musk tweeted a political cartoon that I created in August 2021. It received hundreds of thousands of retweets and more than 1.5 million likes. The stick figure in the middle depicts me, a center-left liberal in 2008, and how the ground had shifted under my feet by 2012 and 2021.
At the outset, I stand happily beside “my fellow liberal,” who is slightly to my left. In 2012 he sprints to the left, dragging out the left end of the political spectrum along and pulling the political “center” closer to me. By 2021 my fellow liberal is a “woke ‘progressive,’” so far to the left that I’m now right of center, even though I haven’t moved.
When my cartoon went viral, it resonated with many people—and caused dissonance in the left-wing media. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent called it a “silly chart” that has been “brutally debunked.” His colleague Philip Bump described it as “simply wrong” and an “obvious exaggeration.” Mr. Bump even provided a series of actual silly charts showing “the average ideological score (using a metric called DW-NOMINATE)” and “evaluations of ideology as measured in the biennial General Social Survey (GSS).”
Debunking a cartoon with a chart is like answering a love poem with a syllogism. Politics and culture, like most of human reality, can’t be reduced to data and abstractions without losing much of their essence. And self-styled progressives, who love to talk about the importance of “lived experience,” are awfully disdainful of their critics.
I created the cartoon to help sort out my feelings of increasing political alienation from the left. I’m a lifelong Democrat. I turned 18 in 2003 and have never voted for a Republican. But over the past decade, and especially the past five years, I’ve watched my party distance itself from the values and principles I hold dear.
People on the left once viewed free speech as sacrosanct and championed speaking truth to power. Now they disparage open expression as a danger to democracy and minorities. The aspiration of judging individuals by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin has given way to identity politics and “equity” initiatives that prioritize group interests over individual rights. Women’s rights, previously understood as relating to their oppression on the basis of sex, is now viewed by the left through the lens of gender identity, which gives priority to men who declare themselves to be women. Today’s progressive can’t even tell you what a woman is. The right may be inconsistent in its support of free speech, individual rights and women’s rights, but the left is consistent in its opposition to all three.
It is important to keep these shifts in mind when evaluating the “accuracy” of my cartoon, because the most common criticism is that it portrays the right as remaining stationary since 2008. A similar drawing depicting specific issues such as abortion, climate change or immigration might tell a different story. But with respect to the important cultural values I have in mind—free speech, individual rights and women’s rights—my cartoon is consistent with the lived experience of many liberals and centrists.
It’s also based on my own. I am an evolutionary biologist, and from 2008 to 2020 I worked to become a university professor. But while working as a postdoctoral fellow at Penn State in 2018, I found myself ostracized by scientific colleagues and people I thought were my close friends because I was unwilling to promote scientifically inaccurate claims about biology to avoid offending those who identify as transgender.
Suddenly, simple truths, supported by both science and common sense—such as “male and female are real biological categories defined by reproductive anatomy”—became taboo. For my great sin of stating plain biological facts and advocating for civil discourse, I endured relentless smears as “transphobic,” “far right,” even a “white supremacist.” Similar experiences have played out for millions across the U.S. and abroad.
I hope many on the left will resist the urge to debunk or dismiss my cartoon and instead use it as an opportunity to understand why so many people feel it describes their experience. Something has happened over the past decade to make many liberals feel politically homeless, and a lack of curiosity about why is a recipe for not only political failure but social strife. It contributes to our increasing inability to have reasonable and compassionate discussions on issues of great importance.
I am heartened to observe that among many of the loudest voices on social media, my cartoon has generated a tremendous amount of discussion. People have created and shared their own versions, which are both entertaining and insightful. I encourage everyone to take the time to draw their own cartoons as a reminder that political parties aren’t static entities and that it’s best to ground yourself in lasting principles instead of a tribal red-vs.-blue mindset.
Individuals also change, and this is more often a healthy sign of growth and maturity than evidence of radicalization. So long as we remain curious and open to civil discourse, our differences become our strength.
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