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Ian Buruma On Conmen And Collaborators

Ian Buruma On Conmen And Collaborators

The historian discusses the "hollow men" of WWII and today.

Ian is a historian, a journalist, and an old friend. He’s currently the Paul Williams Professor of Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College, and he served as foreign editor of The Spectator and (briefly) as the editor of The New York Review of Books. He has written many books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, Theater of Cruelty, and The Churchill Complex. His new book is The Collaborators: Three Stories of Deception and Survival in World War II.

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 Trump’s redeeming qualities, and the story of massage therapist for Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler — pop over to our YouTube page.

Other topics: Ian growing up in The Hague; his father the Mennonite minister; his “glamorous” mother from a Jewish family of actors and musicians; Ian studying art history, film, and Chinese; his young life in London, Berlin, Hong Kong, and Tokyo; comparing Japan and the UK as island nations; how dictatorships are rife for fantasy and escape; injecting comedy into dark subjects; the conspiracy theories of the MAGA right and the postmodern left; the 2020 riots; how conservative elites in both parties were once a filter against demagogues like Trump; “the armies of DEI advisers”; Kendi’s collapse, Ian’s praise of heterodox liberals like Pamela Paul; his cancellation at the NYRB for publishing a #MeToo piece; how Trump is “the biggest accelerant of extreme leftism”; how conmen and cult leaders are sensitive to what people want to hear; Jeffrey Dahmer talking to a priest; Bernie Madoff; a Jewish character in Ian’s book who convinced other Jews to pay him to avoid the death camps; Pizzagate; Trump pretending to be other people over the phone; Sydney Powell and Roger Stone; the “dictators’ disease” of headaches and ulcers from paranoia; how servants become spies and go-betweens; Cassidy Hutchinson; debating the merits of Brexit; Keir Starmer; the war in Ukraine; the near impossibility of regaining the Donbas; Kissinger’s solution; and the sunk cost of human lives.

Browse the Dishcast archive for another convo you might enjoy (the first 102 episodes are free in their entirety — subscribe to get everything else). Coming up: Martha Nussbaum on her book Justice For Animals, Spencer Klavan on How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for 5 Modern Crises, and Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft. Also, two NYT columnists: David Brooks and Pamela Paul. Please send any guest recs, pod dissent and other comments to

Our episode with Leor Sapir on gender-dysphoric kids got the highest number of first-day downloads of any convo this year. One fan: “Thank you times infinity for listening to your conscience on this issue — instead of worrying about the people who will scream at you and call you names for putting Leor Sapir on your podcast.” A plea:

Please, my dear friend, DO NOT CHILL OUT! You are right to call out the insanity (the “ideas”) that is destroying our once great nation. Don’t stop shouting the truth. That was an incredibly important episode.

A clip:

Another listener who loved it:

The episode with Sapir was of your best yet, especially when you pressed him on gender identity vis a vis homosexuality. He seemed to get a little rattled — not typical in your convos. Thanks also for noting that testosterone is not a panacea. Debra Soh makes sense to me on this subject. Have you spoken to her?

No, but we had on Carol Hooven, author of T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us. Another listener is starting to change his mind:

I admit I am one of those people who thought in the past that you are a bit too exercised about trans medicine. I now find myself moving in your direction. After listening to your discussion with Leor Sapir, I decided to write you again. 

While I agree with you that treating children to medical interventions — without any clear biological basis — is incoherent, dangerous and just another example of medical hubris, I don’t know if the wait-and-see approach is also mistaken; we just don’t know enough. Unfortunately, most medical education obscures the mind/body problem, and sees all problems as based on biological reality and thus open to biological intervention. As Sapir pointed out, there is no medical test for any form of identity — sexual, gender, religious, ethnic, etc. They’re all deeply embedded in a person’s psyche. No MRI has found the hetero or homosexual circuit in the brain. 

You have talked about your own sense of yourself as always being homosexual, always attracted to men, and always male. My brother did as well. I have always experienced myself as male, and always heterosexual. I, like you, assumed that our experiences were almost universal, fixed at an early age and unchangeable. Where we disagree is that you seem to take the view that biology plays a large role in this identity, while I take a more psychological, developmental view. 

After listening to your various interviews on gender and sexuality, I went looking for recent work on sexual identity. What grabbed my interest, and has now changed my thinking a bit, was the work of Lisa Diamond.

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