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David Grann On High-Seas Suffering

David Grann On High-Seas Suffering

The historian-journalist recounts a harrowing shipwreck and extreme survival.

David is an extraordinary investigative reporter, a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, and an old acquaintance. Several of his stories and books have been adapted into major motion pictures, including The Lost City of Z, Old Man and the Gun, and Killers of the Flower Moon. His new book is The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder — and the film rights have already been acquired by Scorsese and DiCaprio.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or on the right side of the player, click “Listen On” to add the Dishcast feed to your favorite podcast app — though Spotify sadly doesn’t accept the paid feed). For two clips of our convo — on the hell of sailing around Cape Horn, and the horrors of scurvy — pop over to our YouTube page.

Other topics: the bygone era of analog journalism; the hacks of Grub Street; David’s ability to write vividly about gore — despite his fear of blood in real life; the intricacies of sailing an 18th century ship; the crazed search for treasure and glory; the role of Lord Byron’s grandfather on the HMS Wager; the racial, class and age diversity of the crew; the incompetence of the captain; the catastrophe of running aground; the drama of mutiny; the tension of feuding camps; the mix of gallantry and brutality; the all-consuming despair of starvation; the ravages of disease; the upholding of civilizational norms even at the ends of the earth; how new leaders emerge under desperate circumstances; the beneficence of the indigenous people called “savages”; the arrogance of hindsight; the court-martials faced by the broken men when they returned to England; reuniting with family members who think you’re dead; and how nautical language has endured in common phrases today.

Browse the Dishcast archive for another conversation you might enjoy (the first 102 episodes are free in their entirety — subscribe to get everything else). Coming up: Tabia Lee on her firing as a DEI director and Matt Lewis on ruling-class elites. Please send your guest recs and pod dissent to

A listener looks back to last week’s episode with post-liberal Patrick Deneen:

This episode was one of the best since Fiona Hill’s (and they’re all very well done).

Professor Deneen teaches at my alma mater, and I hope he spends the rest of his career at Notre Dame, because, in your discussion, it’s obvious he teaches from the texts of the great philosophers. He effectively points out the ills of modern society, but there’s a darker underbelly of his prescription that you did not touch on.

For example, I worked in his hometown of Windsor, CT for 15 years. His discussion of its relative decline (it’s not that bad) without mentioning racial animus, is a real omission. There has been significant white flight out of Windsor. The decline is not all due to the juggernaut of multinational corporations — including the one I worked for — that has significant operations in Windsor.

You briefly mentioned Uganda. I fear that Deneen’s view of gay marriage is closer to theirs than yours. And sidling up to an election denier like JD Vance accomplishes nothing. If we are no longer going to vote because Locke and Co. were wrong about natural rights, then say so. Voting and then rejecting the outcome, because you do not like it, is just intellectually dishonest.

The importance of family life, community, and religious or even non-religious higher purpose remains the single most important idea that conservatives got right in my lifetime. In my view, we can make adjustments to the liberal order, without a regime change.

That’s obviously my view as well. I was really struck by how much this podcast resonated with readers and listeners. Another fan of the episode:

Deneen’s argument, while clearly well-intended, rests on shaky logic. There’s a misplaced sense of inevitability that permeates his ideas.

Yes, the notion of autonomy at the core of liberalism can be taken too far, and perhaps it has been. But as you say, this can be moderated. An analogy: capitalism can lead to and has led to child labor, robber barons, and bathtub gin. But we’ve also seen that a functional government can effectively regulate these things. So why capitalism but not liberalism?

Indeed, liberal government self-regulates all the time. We see it throughout the Western world every day, albeit sometimes more successfully than others. But rather than simply suggest American government isn’t at operating at its best today — election fundraising loopholes, corruption between corporate and state power, policy that favors consumerism too aggressively, etc — he points to the entire “regime” itself. That’s a stretch of epic proportions.

Deneen no doubt would reject the same argument applied in reverse: I could suggest that placing communities, groups, or tribes at the center of societal well-being will inevitably lead to minorities in those communities being abused — be it workers, social outcasts, disabled people, etc — because once you remove the primacy of the individual, the dignity of the individual matters less than the dignity of the communal order. One imagines that he’d push back and suggest that communities could put rules or norms in place to ensure that doesn’t happen. But he doesn’t seem to be willing to admit the same could be true of our liberal order.

I would love to see radical change in the US — some of it aligned with stronger family life, workers rights, and other priorities for Deneen. But if he and other post-liberals want to convince most Americans and Westerners that their path is the wrong one, they need to bring better arguments and better data. Until then, as you say, reform is the path forward.

From another defender of small-l liberalism:

I enjoyed the episode with Deneen but in the end was left thinking about the classic line “Where’s the beef?” It’s clear that Deneen has issues with the current crop of elites on this country (who doesn’t?), but his definition of the regime cuts very broadly — does it include me? — in a way that undermines his thesis.

It’s not a small elite versus a large underclass. It’s a divided society. And that’s where I think Deneen has a blind spot. In order to have regime change, you need to win political arguments, and some of his are deeply unpopular (e.g. enforced Sunday closure laws). Cramming unpopular policies onto people is no path to political victory. I lived in Belgium, a country with much stricter Sunday trading laws, for four years. I loved my time there but, as a father of small children, I much prefer pharmacies and grocery stores being open on Sunday. 

By the way, I thought Zack Beauchamp’s analysis of Deneen’s book was bang on point. Deneen’s misdiagnosis of what’s happening outside of academia discredits his analysis and conclusions.

Another adds, “For all of Deneen’s academic rhetoric, much of it seems to boil down to ‘I miss the uniformity and certainty of the world I grew up in.’” Another:

Hugely enjoy the show! Like you I am a British transplant, now a naturalized citizen. I agree with Deneen’s proposals to reverse aspects of liberalism. But I’ve been grappling with your question as to whether such reversals need to rest on a moral/religious base.

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