Oct 7, 2022 • 1HR 19M

Frank Bruni On The Silver Linings Of Suffering

The writer talks about the lessons after partially losing his eyesight.

 
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Unafraid conversations about anything

Frank is a longtime writer at the NYT — ranging from White House correspondent to chief restaurant critic to op-ed columnist, and now also a journalism professor at Duke. In his early days at the Detroit Free Press, he was a war correspondent, chief movie critic, and religion writer. We’ve known each other for many years, gay writers of the same generation. His latest book is the bestselling memoir The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found, about aging and optimism after Frank began to go blind.

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). For two clips of our convo — on the opportunities that can be found in suffering, and on the wisdom found in cringey cliches — pop over to our YouTube page. Other topics we touch on include: the AIDS crisis, losing my best friend to the disease, the marriage movement, the alphabet people, psychedelics, Frank’s dog, and the marvelous adaptations of blind people.

Looking back to last week’s episode with Richard Reeves, a listener writes:

I hope his work sparks a reexamination of men, of boys, and especially of fathers. The discussion of divorced dads had me near tears. Andrew, it’s like swimming upstream when you’re a divorced dad in the legal system. There is simply nobody trying to help us out. NOBODY. I’ve been near despair more than a few times in the past decade, and I’m in a relatively privileged, wealthy position.

For example, I spent the last two years battling my ex in court to prevent her from moving out of the state for the second time, seemingly on a whim. It cost me tens of thousands of dollars I don’t have! The first time, I followed her and my daughter from California to NYC to exercise my 35 percent custody. For a decade, it has been a lonely struggle trying to maintain my custody schedule while working in a high-stress job (child support is $2K/mo, and my ex does not work). Institutionally, judicially, every single presumption is tilted toward the mother, and I don’t quite understand how that has been allowed to persist.

Explaining this situation to friends and family without sounding whiny or weak is almost impossible (ex. 1, this email). Hearing my situation acknowledged and knowing I’m not alone is a tremendous feeling, but that is dwarfed by the feeling that folks like you and Richard are out there working, caring, and moving the culture to a better place. 

P.S. Despite the long, painful battle with my ex, all the sacrifice and effort of parenting is worth it. I have a wonderful daughter, and I’m a huge, important part of her life, and she mine. 

I have seen this dynamic in my own family. It’s deeply regressive; and profoundly sexist. Another listener responds to the following clip from Reeves:

I can relate. My story is almost a pure cliche. I’m the oldest, sensitive son of two college profs in the ‘70s. Mom (and Dad, I suppose) were ‘70s feminists. Mom ran off with a woman in ‘78. I was traumatized, spiraled down, turned to drugs and alcohol, have failed at all adult relationships, and I’m still feeling the scars. I’m just starting to deal with it at the ripe age of 60.

Here’s another listener on that clip, regarding the lack of resilience of boys compared to girls:

It’s not on trend, it’s not advertisable, nor does it fit well with pop fiction these days, but it’s a conversation that needs to had. The mindset of progressives has become mired in a cyclical reinforcement of old cliches. This conversation is years early because we’re all still digesting the necessity of women’s empowerment.

I feel for the young boys of all ethnicities who are not growing up with role models in media. There must be a way to empower one gender without it being at the expense of another, devolving into tit-for-tat antics … and conversations like this is how it starts. Thank you, Mr. Sullivan — although by your demeanor, it would seem you’d prefer Andrew — thank you for having this nuanced, articulate conversation with Richard Reeves. I can always rely on the Dishcast to keep things fair, constructive, logical, and empathetic to all sides.

Well that made my day. Another listener:

I especially enjoy your interviews with guests who discuss segments of the population that are struggling, and whose plight receives virtually no media attention (the episode with Maia Szalavitz on drug addiction was one of the better ones).

Your conversation with Richard Reeves continued the theme with a unique niche: half the population. Your guest cited some alarming statistics about the ways in which men and boys are struggling, and I am sure his book has many more.

One of the more eye-opening data sets I have seen is the annual chart from the American Enterprise Institute, in which Mark Perry catalogues how many men/boys fit into a certain category for every 100 women/girls. The stats that most jump out to me are that 68 men are enrolled in graduate schools, 1118 die on the job, and 1331 are incarcerated in federal prisons.

Anecdotally speaking, whenever I show such data to progressives, I get a very disappointing reaction. It is the same reaction that I get when I offer statistics to demonstrate how a lot of Whites are struggling, particularly in the Deep South or in Appalachia: shoulder-shrugging indifference, along with a barely concealed sense that they deserve it. I cannot even pretend to understand such a reaction, because I cannot understand why anyone should be made to suffer for the (admittedly horrific) sins of his ancestors, or why a good individual must suffer for the sins of his group.

I get the sense that today’s progressives view everything as a zero-sum game in which every man who struggles means an opened door for a woman — when quite the contrary, all of society benefits whenever any person succeeds. In fact, the same men who drop out of school, become addicted to drugs, or struggle with severe mental illness are so often the ones who end up committing violent crimes against— and otherwise victimizing — members of the groups more favored by progressives.

I did not disagree with any of Reeves’ proposed solutions, but I think that the first order of business is for influential people to simply acknowledge the problem, take it seriously, and care about it. Plenty of good solutions will naturally follow.

Amen. Next up, a “kinda-newish listener, first-time caller” makes a broader argument about feminism — and identity politics as a whole:

I was born in the ‘90s, so I grew up in a world that has rapidly changed. I was online as early as middle school, with full access to MySpace, GaiaOnline, and chat-boards like Reddit. I remember so much talk about feminism and how much it was needed — which I think is correct. But the older I’ve gotten, and the more I’ve read, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that especially today — when I think we’ve been made more myopic by the internet — we’ve missed the purpose of these movements.

The purpose of feminism, as with any equality movement, is not and should not be to replicate the kind of standards one was rebelling against, just in favor of one’s own group. 

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked the question, “When do you think there will be enough women on the Supreme Court?” and she answered “Nine,” she was only half right. There should be nine women on SCOTUS only if they are judged to be the nine people best for their jobs, not because nine Justices would be some sort of “correction of history.”

I think it’s very hard for people to understand that when you’re trying to change a real problem in society, the solution isn’t necessarily going to put you in the same position as people who were formerly privileged above you. The goal shouldn’t be to get women, or black people, or gay people, or any other minority group to replicate social power and standards in a way that was formerly used against them. Then you’re not changing the underlying structure at all.

A completely gender-neutral approach to appointing people to SCOTUS, to return to the example, is not necessarily going to produce a court run entirely by women. And that should be okay, because that is not actually the point of gender equality. Gender equality is not the fulfillment of quota; it is the expansion of personal freedom within a society.

I think it’s hard to be an activist or progressive in the sense that it requires us to abandon a very human feeling: wanting to punish an injustice in a way that makes you personally feel good. Contrary to being emotionally driven, I think progressive movements are actually incredibly emotionally valid when done well. The purpose is not to make the individual feel good, but to broaden opportunities. 

So, perhaps this is tangential to your episode with Richard Reeves, but I feel like it’s important when talking about how men and boys and their issues have changed and, in many ways, grown over the past 50 years. 

There is a tension here, of course. Getting rid of formal discrimination does not instantly lead to equal opportunity. But, in time, in a free society, individuals can and will flourish. Sticking to liberal principles, even if it means eschewing equity in the short and medium term, is the only coherent and fair way forward. Or you have junked the very essence of the liberal society you claim to believe in.

Here’s another clip from the Reeves episode if you missed it:

This next listener continues the praise for Reeves:

Another week, another must-listen Dishcast. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Reeves’ own podcast, Dialogues, has often been worth a listen. He routinely displays the same even-handed temperament — generous to all sides, searching for answers — that you two shared in your discussion.

Indeed, at the end, you two settled into the ways in which the right and left weigh biology versus socialization in their views of masculinity. I found your conclusion that the left seems to see everything as structural and “the right, partly in reaction, over-weights biology” to be not only correct but broadly correct, applicable to far more than this topic.

I think back to your episode with Briahna Joy Gray, and you two pushed on one another quite a bit.

Your intuition is to not strip people of agency and responsibility, and she believes that structures are largely to blame for any number of societal concerns. Really, though, one resides inside the other: our biology, agency, and responsibility exist inside of systems, structures, and a society over which we have scant control, especially in our youth.

Perhaps my one quibble with Reeves’ parting thoughts is that this relationship between socialization and biology isn’t something that is balanced or weighed as though on a spectrum or scale. More so, it’s that one is nested in the other: our individual biology exists within the structures — familial, societal, religious, legal, etc — into which we’re each born.

That realization, I think, ought to elicit a certain amount of empathy for people born into places, families, or systems that fail to nurture positive traits (and may indeed nurture negative ones). It also should give a successful person a little humility about one’s own standing. No one accomplishes anything in a vacuum.

One has a right to celebrate one’s accomplishments, but surely we should all acknowledge our advantages if only to help others gain them as well. This is not any original insight, of course, but it does provide excellent justification to re-iterate my plea for you to interview Paige Harden. Her book The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality is a data-based exploration of this exact schism in the left/right worldview. It’s the bridge between those on the right who are determinists or boot-strappers, and those on the left who can’t bring themselves to cast a hint of blame on one’s own actions.

The data Harden presents, for example, on the outcomes of highly intelligent people born in various socioeconomic circumstances, are eye-opening. But the same would apply to any number of talents beyond IQ, including the types of male-dominated skills you and Reeves discuss at length (e.g., a young man with great skill for metal fabrication will never discover that skill or the resulting sense of accomplishment either sitting in calculus class in a wealthy suburban school or sleeping in the back of a chaotic inner-city classroom; the environment matters).

Reeves himself interviewed Harden, so I suppose interested Dishheads could just listen to that, but your conversations are distinctive to others when the same figures make the rounds on the podcast circuit, and I think we’d benefit from hearing you two. (Hence my subscription to support the Dish — though, for what it’s worth, I also delight in the idea of hearing you try to sell a lawnmower, just once.)

The reason I’ve delayed inviting Harden is because I find her book really hard, and I want to understand it better before engaging. But maybe I should just ask her directly.

Moving away from Reeves, our popular pod with Louise Perry continues to elicit debate over the fallout of the sexual revolution:

I can’t remember being this deeply upset by an interview. Why? Perry is someone who should be listened to. Someone as obviously thoughtful and perceptive as she should be taken seriously. So when she makes a dangerously clueless claim — and goes unchallenged — it’s infuriating.

Louise’s characterization of parents divorcing “whimsically” is a fantasy. As a parent who has lived through the emotional pain of a divorce, I would happily agree to abstain from sex for the rest of my life before putting my children through another divorce. And the pain of that divorce was insignificant to the emotional pain of raising children in a toxic environment, as a Catholic believing there was no way out.

I should not need to explain the nature of abusive relationships, codependence, personality disorders, and the impact of divorce battles on families — please interview or read anyone with real experience (Randi Kreger, Bill Eddy). Short of that …

No-fault divorce is by far the most important way to protect children from the trauma of a contested divorce. The administrative state cannot begin to understand the nature of an emotionally abusive or toxic relationship. The judicial system is in no position to apportion blame to parents in a harmful marriage. When personality disorders and codependence are involved, appearances are profoundly misleading.

In at-fault divorce cases, one spouse, typically the abuser, will level false accusations. In these case, the judge is more likely to get it wrong, leading to the abuser taking custody of the children.

There are plenty of ways to encourage healthy relationships and keep both parents involved — starting with teaching people to recognize when a relationship is abusive, get the hell out now, and stop modeling dysfunctional behavior in front of their children. Divorce usually ends up on the table about three years too late, after too much of the damage to children has already been done. At that point, the best we can do is to remove conflict from the process and make sure the children don’t lose one of their parents. A two-household family is not a single-parent family.

One day, I’ll write about my own experiences growing up in a household with a deeply dysfunctional marriage which took nearly 50 years to become a divorce. The childhood trauma is very real, and still in large part defines me emotionally.

In the video below, Louise Perry making her case against no-default marriage (speaking to another Dishcast guest, Fraser Nelson):


Next up, some remaining commentary over my column on the Tory implosion. The first reader dissents:

You write that Britons in general (whether pro- or anti-Brexit) prefer immigration from the EU to that from “other parts of the world” (as has happened under Boris). I don’t think that’s correct.

I’m a Brexit supporter, and anecdotally I can tell you there are many of us for whom immigration from the rest of the world (or to put it another way, “The Commonwealth”), as opposed to the EU, was one of the advantages of leaving. Of course we knew that the UK economy needed immigration to survive — but we'd rather our new co-citizens came from Britain’s former colonies than from, say, the countries of Eastern Europe.

This is because, in my (and others’) view, immigration from Commonwealth countries results in less social friction and xenophobia, because it brings with it less (meaning slower) cultural change. Why? Because your average Brit has far more in common with a Pakistani or Nigerian than with a Romanian or a Pole.

There’s the language of course, but also — trivial as this may sound to American ears — there are common interests and cultural frames of reference (e.g. cricket). And after several generations of Commonwealth-origin immigration, there really is a good deal of integration between “white Britain” and British people whose ancestors came from these countries. Trite as it sounds, most white Britons really do have Asian-origin or Black people in their social circles. Yes, friends!

Of course I’m not saying the UK is an Edenic paradise where races live together in perfect harmony at all times, but I really do think we do a better job than many other places. Open borders with the EU threatened this equilibrium, in a way that managed immigration from current and former members of the Commonwealth (and certain other non-white nations, such as the Philippines) does not.

Thanks for that point. Haven’t thought of it like that before. A reader in Singapore pushes back on the common reference to London as “Singapore-on-Thames”:

You mention the belief, by some Brexiters, that the UK ought to be more like my current home. This has always been an odd argument. Leave aside the question of whether a country smaller than New York City in land area, with no hinterland and therefore none of the regional inequalities that so bedevil the UK, is a reasonable model. The larger problem is that the discussion seems to bear no relation to actually-existing Singapore.

Economic life in Singapore is extremely regulated, with a cradle-to-grave welfare state that’s more comprehensive, in some respects, than the UK’s. Housing is the prime example. Over three-quarters of Singaporeans spend their entire lives in “HDB flats” — heavily subsidized public housing, which exists in literally every neighborhood on the island. This is a big reason why inequality here, while substantial, has never come close to that of Hong Kong.

Taxes are low, but they’re rising to meet the needs of an aging population. And tax savings are largely offset by the compulsory savings scheme, which deducts up to 20 percent (!) of your salary every month, no exceptions. Oh, and there’s also compulsory military service for males. Again, no exceptions.

More broadly, the Singapore economic model entails substantial government involvement in every key industry, to the point that you could call it corporatist. The state holding company, Temasek, has controlling stakes in the largest bank, the largest airline, the largest telecom operator, the major port and logistics company, and on and on throughout the economy. In terms of government ownership, it looks more like the pre-Thatcher UK than some free-market paradise.

Singapore is an incredible success story, and an economic miracle compared to basically everywhere else in the region. But its lessons are sort of the opposite of what some Brexiters seem to think. If they want the UK to resemble Singapore, they’re going to need a state that’s more proactive, not less.

Lastly, a reader compares Britain to France:

I just read your article about the failures of the Conservative Party. I think it would be instructive and enlightening to compare Boris Johnson’s tenure to Emmanuel Macron’s. You’ve praised Johnson quite a bit over the past few years, but I feel Macron is the much more skilled politician. Whereas Boris was forced to resign due to self-inflicted injuries, Emmanuel was able to win twice despite low popularity ratings.

Why? Because Macron has been able to run to the middle of the electorate and run against political extremists as a foil. He has been beset by sometimes violent protestors called the Yellow Vests throughout his time in office. He ran against the protestors and he seemed much more reasonable and measured compared to them.  The French public rewarded it.

Johnson, on the other hand, developed an inflated sense of himself due to his victories. He openly courted xenophobes in Britain for political reasons. He broke his own government’s COVID19 protocols and eventually wound up beating himself over it.

I would be willing to bet that in 10 years Macron will be remembered as the more effective leader.

And you may well be proven right. Thanks as always for the smart insight emails: dish@andrewsullivan.com.