Apr 29

Bari Weiss On Saving Liberalism From Right And Left

I chat with the MSM apostate about critical queer theory and the right-wing backlash.

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Appears in this episode

Andrew Sullivan
Unafraid conversations about anything

Bari was an opinion editor at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times before leaving to create her own op-ed page on Substack, “Common Sense.” She’s also the author of How to Fight Anti-Semitism, and for some reason one of the most reviled figures on Left Twitter, despite being one of the most gifted editors of her generation. We talk groomers and culture war desperation and the amnesia of recent triumphs.

This was a joint podcast, and you’ll be able to hear a somewhat longer version of the discussion next week on Bari’s pod, “Honestly.” You can listen to our version right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app,” which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. For two clips — on wokeness enabling the far right, and on the agonizing choice when it comes to gender theory in schools — head over to our YouTube page.

New transcript just dropped: my conversation with John McWhorter, which is still our most downloaded episode on the Dishcast. We get into his latest book, Woke Racism, and how the successor ideology hurts black kids:

First up in Dishcast feedback this week, a “brief note of appreciation from a longtime reader and subscriber”:

I’ve been following the Dish since the inception of the blogosphere, and your Substack is a welcome addition to my intellectual life, especially the podcasts, which seem to get better and better. The last two — with Nicholas Christakis and Jonathan Haidt — have been especially wonderful. (I’ve also benefited considerably from Johann Hari’s excellent new book, which has largely taken me off social media). There are episodes that have annoyed me (e.g. the one with Anne Applebaum), but I listen because I don’t want to be part of an echo chamber.

Speaking of the Haidt pod, a listener dug up a gem from my favorite philosopher:

I appreciated the episode and Haidt’s recent piece in the Atlantic that invokes the Tower of Babel. The essay you mentioned by Oakeshott on Babel was not, as you worried, easily found, but it’s nonetheless attached:

Oakeshott Tower Of Babel
1.97MB ∙ PDF File
Download
Download

The Haidt episode “sparked many new thoughts” from this listener:

The word “proportion” was mentioned in passing, but I think that word is crucial to understanding the real dysfunction wrought by social media. We have lost all sense of proportion in this post-Babel world. Whether it’s the trans debate — a conversation that really only affects one percent of the population — or CRT in schools, it’s difficult to talk about these heated culture-war topics while holding them in proportion to the real problems facing our society.

The power (or fear) of going viral on Twitter makes proportion impossible, which is one of the reasons why journalism is in such a bad place. Because nuance and context are hard, journalists and media figures — particularly cable news anchors — appear to be simply unequipped to deliver information in a way that holds these things in balance.

Consider the Hunter laptop story. Why was this story “buried” by the media? Was it a conspiracy in which corporate elite journalists just didn’t want Hunter Biden to look bad? Or, more likely, do they intuitively understand that in the post-Babel world, they don’t have the skills and tools to talk about this story, which may not have been the biggest of deals but also didn’t look great in the lead up to a pivotal election? They didn’t want “But her emails” 2.0 — another viral story that had no sense of proportion. Most people couldn’t even tell you what, exactly, was corrupt about Clinton’s emails; they just knew they existed because that’s all anyone talked about, and since it was all anyone was talking about, it must be bad, bad, bad!

The media simply doesn’t know how to function from a place of nuance; it can’t communicate information in a way that holds that information in proportion to its relevance, context, and importance. Is this the fault of social media and viral dynamics? Is it just really bad journalism? Or do journalists have such a low opinion of the polity that they believe most people won’t be bothered to try to understand complicated stories?

Thank god for podcasts!

This next listener also tackles Twitter:

I think it is worth pointing out, as you have, that Twitter is at best 80 million US users (per Newsweek / Statista in 2021) whereas Twitter reported 38 million monetize-able daily active usage in the US in 2021. This number is probably closer to actual usage to account for dormant / duplicate accounts. Normal Americans, outside of radicals (which aren’t normal), don’t engage in the elite masturbatory thing that is Twitter. I am in a demo that should use it but have never had an account, because I view it as a complete and utter waste of time. 

The US Census has the 2021 population at 330 million with 22% under 18 (call it 73 million). I assume some portion of those are on Twitter, but they can’t vote. At the low end, that leaves 180 million voting Americans not on Twitter.

So I think it’s worth reiterating that Twitter is not real life (or a majority of voters). If you were to break it down by ideological lines, I am sure it is further skewed in one direction, you needn't guess which. Today’s “journalists” investigative efforts often seem to largely rely on copy pasting tweets as the “public reaction” — it is no wonder why they are out of touch. 

Furthermore, as Jesse reminded us during this week’s freakout over Elon Musk buying Twitter, “Twitter Is Not America”:

In the United States, Twitter users are statistically younger, wealthier, and more politically liberal than the general population. They are also substantially better educated, according to Pew: 42 percent of sampled users had a college degree, versus 31 percent for U.S. adults broadly. Forty-one percent reported an income of more than $75,000, too, another large difference from the country as a whole. They were far more likely (60 percent) to be Democrats or lean Democratic than to be Republicans or lean Republican (35 percent).

This next listener dissents over the Haidt convo:

I try not to be a scold, but sometimes the temptation is too great. Early in your talk you talked about how you didn’t understand young kids these days — why they are killing themselves at a high rate, since everything for them is so much better than it was in the old days. It sounds just like all of us old guys not getting youngsters. Haidt did talk about how he learned to approach unfamiliar cultures like an anthropologist — a good place to start for us old folks.

While I agree with you about the proliferation of gender types, it was not so long ago that homosexuality raised the same kinds of questions that you ask, and it was looked at the same way. Some people questioned the reality of such a thing, or saw it as a simple choice that perverse people made, or as a psychiatric illness that required treatment, and of course as a crime. I don’t think you intend to imply any of those things, but you do seem to veer in that direction. How people’s identity is created is still an open question — and someday we may know more. 

That said, I agree with you that medical interventions for children is very very premature and should not be happening. Let people grow up first. 

You seem to imply that biology supports a simple dichotomy, but sexual expression is more complex than that. As for cultural/religious acceptance, Joseph Campbell, in The Hero Of A Thousand Faces, discusses some civilizations that saw gender as fluid and containing both male and female elements.

One more thought: although Plato then, and others now, did raise questions about democracy, I fear that the Republican answer is to emulate the worst counter-examples, such as their current infatuation with Orbán’s near dictatorship. Prof. Haidt mentioned Karen Stenner’s work, The Authoritarian Dynamic, in which she reports that 20% of the population has an authoritarian personality type. She also talks about the conditions that stimulate it to express itself — fear and anxiety, the kind that is stirred up by demagogues and unscrupulous politicians, namely Trump. Stenner’s book also has suggestions on how to tamp down the fear. Maybe a conversation with her is in order.

Thanks for the tip. My best response to my reader’s first point is probably at the beginning of my chat with Bari, where I try to make distinctions between the gay and trans movements, and why the conflicts are inevitable and intrinsic. As for fluid gender, I agree! I don’t believe in a gender binary, just a sex binary. In fact, one reason gender expression exists at all — and is comprehensible at all — is precisely its tension with a fixed, binary biological reality.

But I also think this over-states the relevance of “gender identity” for the vast majority of humans. Most of us don’t get up every day thinking of how we are a man or a woman and where we fit on a spectrum — because we don’t really have many conflicts. This looms much larger for trans people for whom it is a daily challenge, and to a lesser extent for gay people whose affect contrasts with the stereotypes of their sex. But for most of us, our gender expression is simply our personality packaged in a binary form of biology. And this isn’t just on a scale of Barbie to G.I. Joe. And seeing it that way — as gender ideology does — strikes me as a regression, not a way forward.

This next listener “loved the Haidt interview, except for one jarring bit”:

You pronounced the Chinese as stupid for suddenly pursuing Zero Covid. Here’s a scary possibility: They know something you don’t know. Suppose the Chinese detected a Covid variant with a 20% death rate, rather than 1.5%. Gotta save face, gotta stamp it out. What we’re seeing is a reasonable consequence. Or it could be a variant immune to SinoVac. I’m not laughing at them, and, with difficulty, not yet condemning them. I’m worrying.

Chill, baby, chill. The chances of a virus crossing from animals to animals to humans in the next decades of rapid climate change is very high. The chances of it wiping out humanity is not negligible. Fuck with the planet the way we have, and the planet is at some point going to fuck you. I know this sounds fatalistic — but in my adult lifetime, I’ve contracted two new viruses, both of which have killed millions.

This next listener worries about the political center in America regaining control:

There was much to agree with in your Dishcast with Haidt about the effects of social media, particularly with regards to how it amplifies polarization. But this analysis feels a bit like blaming kerosene for a fire instead of the arsonist.

The biggest share of responsibility for where we are today lies at the feet of the center-right, center-left, and the institutions that supported them. Free trade, the war on terrorism, the Iraq war, the financial crisis, and the extremely tepid recovery thereafter were all the brainchildren of the center and various elite institutions. They have been complete and utter disasters for most Americans. What is more, the outright refusal of many to take accountability for these disasters — indeed the doubling down and moralizing tone in Haidt’s defense of the center — only leads to greater resentment and polarization. If these are the people who are expected to lead us into brighter days, we are doomed.

Point taken. Lastly, a listener looks ahead to our next episode:

First I wish you a speedy recovery from Covid and your hip surgery. Please do rest sufficiently; I know a lot of people who neglected to do that and are now paying the price.

I am a recent subscriber. After listening to a gazillion of your podcasts on Spotify, I realized it was the decent thing to do! Although I do not always agree with you (especially on the EU, which you seem to misunderstand), I want to thank you for your work and for broadening my horizons, i.e. about gay culture, which I ignorantly thought was synonymous with gay pride parades. And please continue to invite people you disagree with — it’s such an important message, even though, frankly, those episodes are not always the most interesting ones.

Since you are talking to one of my intellectual heroes in your next episode, Francis Fukuyama, I was wondering if I could suggest one or two questions. His End of History and the Last Man is still widely misrepresented by people who either never read it or willingly distort it. Fukuyama is actually one of the very few people who foresaw the possibility of what we are going through now — in that very book. Yet his responses to these deeply ignorant and unfair criticisms are, in every interview of him I have ever read or heard, unfailingly courteous, measured and constructive. I am just wondering how he does it. I would have blown my top. Where does he get the energy?

Although of course he’ll talk about his latest book, if I can make an additional suggestion, please get him to talk about Political Order, his magnum opus in two volumes, and how he responds to the very different views developed in Graeber and Wengrow’s Dawn of Everything.

I look forward to hearing you again, when you feel better!

Yes, he’s a model of reason and restraint. And thanks for the tips. We won’t have time to debate his many works, but I’ll do my best.