Jennifer Senior On Friendship
The Pulitzer winner and I kibbitz about one of our favorite topics.
Jennifer Senior was a long-time staff writer at New York magazine and a daily book critic for the NYT. Her own book is the bestseller, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. She’s now a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she won a 2022 Pulitzer for “What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind,” a story about 9/11. But in this episode we primarily focus on her essay, “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart.”
You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or click the dropdown menu to add the Dishcast to your podcast feed). For two clips of our convo — on why friends with different politics are increasingly rare, on how Jesus died for his friends — pop over to our YouTube page.
A new transcript is up in honor of what we are still learning about Trump’s attempted violent coup: Bob Woodward and Robert Costa on the perpetual peril of Trump. Below is a segment of that convo — probably the most significant one we’ve had on the Dishcast yet:
Turning to the debate over abortion in the ashes of Roe, a reader dissents:
I’m having a hard time understanding why you’re so misleading about abortion rights in the US compared to other nations, and naive about protection of the other rights under the 14th Amendment. Germany allows abortions up to 12 weeks for any reason, but what’s remarkable about Germany is not the 12-week mark, but that Germany offers pre-natal care, child care, employment guarantees, etc. that make it much easier for a woman if she chooses to go through with her pregnancy. The US doesn’t have anything like this.
And even with the new right in America pretending to hop on board the social insurance train, passing any laws in a conservative-majority Congress that would provide more social services to pregnant women would deliberately NOT address or protect the right of a woman to control her own fertility — that is, to decide to have a child or not. In other words, the interests of a woman’s bodily autonomy and reproductive control would be denied. That makes women, on the whole, unable to live freely in society.
But we don’t have to hop over to Europe to run a comparison. Canada protects abortion rights for any reason, with most clinics providing the procedure up to 23 weeks. This aligns with the (previous) fetal viability cutoff that Roe protected. And recently Mexico decriminalized abortion entirely, which paves the way for full, legal abortion rights.
The US is now the regressive anomaly, not the progressive outlier you insist we are. And your idea that abortion can just be decided via democracy is cute — maybe that would’ve been true in the past — but SCOTUS could care less about the legislative process. You only have to look at their recent gun decision to realize that. You should make these things clear when you discuss abortion, instead of conveniently obfuscating the context and facts.
As far as your confidence that the other rights under the 14th Amendment — gay marriage, access to contraception, etc. — will stand firm, I’m not sure why. Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Coney-Barrett evoked stare decisis in their confirmation hearings, and this turned out to be a shameless lie from all of them. With the conservative majority in place, they could then take up the Dobbs case and use it to overturn Roe entirely — stare decisis be damned.
Alito left the door open to address Obergefell, etc. in his draft opinion, so why would you think Thomas taking it a step further is just him “trolling”? The majority of Americans wanted Roe left in place; its provisions were the compromise that balanced the interests of the woman with that of the fetus that you incorrectly thought was lacking. (Listen to Ezra Klein’s podcast with court expert Dahlia Lithwick to understand why that is).
Yet despite its popularity, Roe was struck down. The majority of Americans support gay marriage. But the conservative court has publicly stated now that they don't care about what Americans want or think. Alito and Thomas have clearly said what they're willing to go after next. Kavanaugh playing footsie with the idea that those other rights are safe is just another lie that you are too willing to fall for, as I was too willing to think they wouldn't, in the end, touch Roe.
As far as healthcare access in Germany, Katie Herzog made that point during our “Real Time” appearance last Friday:
From a “Real Time” watcher:
I disagree with you on quite a few issues, but appreciated your level-headed commentary on Bill Maher’s show. You’re one of the only people I saw today who forcefully made the point that the SCOTUS decision still allows for action by Congress — it’s a crucial point that has been totally lost in this discussion.
From another fan of Bill’s show:
I appreciated your take pointing out that the US is the only country that has made abortion rights a constitutional right, and I do understand your argument that this is something that needs to be decided through the democratic process. But I’m wondering if perhaps, on a deeper level, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Your attitude has been for a long time that America is unique, exceptional, in its supposed commitment to individual freedom, as reflected in its constitution. Doesn’t that imply that enshrining personal rights in its constitution is in fact a perfect evocation to our country’s exceptionalism, what sets it apart from the cynical bickering and proceduralism of European parliamentary systems?
I believe in democracy, tempered by constitutional restraints. So the kind of judicial supremacy you seem to be advocating seems outside that. I repeat that I would not have repealed Roe, for stare decisis and social stability reasons. But for the same reason, I wouldn’t have voted for it in 1973. I also believe that the Court could approximate your vision, in defending minority rights. But women are hardly a minority, and many women — at about the same rate as men — want abortion to be illegal.
Many more dissents, and other reader comments on abortion, here. That roundup addressed the concern over stare decisis that readers keep bringing up. As I wrote then:
Yes, I worry about stare decisis — but it is not an absolute bar to changing precedents. Akhil Amar, the renowned constitutional scholar at Yale, rebuts the same argument. Amar also just appeared on Bari’s podcast, in an episode titled, “The Yale Law Professor Who Is Anti-Roe But Pro-Choice” — a great listen.
Bari addressed the Dobbs decision in her new piece, “The Post-Roe Era Begins.” Another reader looks at the legislative route:
I think President Biden and the Democrats as a whole would be in a far better position with voters today if over the past 18 months they had taken that same “small bites” approach on a variety of other issues: border security, election reform and just about any other challenge where they now have nothing to show the American voters because they approached those issues if they had significant majorities in each house. They could even take this “small bites” approach right now on the abortion issue, given (as you’ve documented) that the vast majority of Americans favor access to abortions with reasonable restrictions. Instead, Chuck Schumer runs a bill that’s even more permissive than Roe.
I know it’s naïve to think we can take politics out of policymaking, but maybe, given the election hand they were dealt, it would have been good politics to pursue progress over progressivism. Right now they’d be running on a far different record (one of being the adults in the room) and could present a much stronger claim for leading our nation. Instead, they wasted a lot of time and opportunity pretending they had the clout to adopt the entire far-left progressive agenda.
Another reader delves into the Court precedents that Democrats are wringing their hands over:
You wrote about Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell: “Thomas also concedes that there could be other constitutional defenses for these previous decisions beyond ‘substantive due process.’”
There is one defense, at least. The 14th Amendment has a due process clause and an equal protection clause. When Casey upheld Roe, the right to abortion was based upon due process, not equal protection. Dobbs found that due process did not guarantee the right to abortion. Equal protection of the laws is different.
If a state allows an opposite-sex couple to marry or have sex, but bans a similarly situated same-sex couple from doing so, then equal protection of the laws is denied based upon sex, in violation of the 14th Amendment. If there were a state where females were banned from obtaining abortions but males were specifically permitted to have abortions, then that would be a denial of equal protection, based upon sex. But there is, of course, no world in which that would happen, and if there were, the state could simply ban males from having abortions as well and cure the equal-protection problem.
Obergefell was based upon both due process and equal protection, so if due process is removed we still have equal protection. Lawrence was decided on due process alone, but it easily could be upheld based upon equal protection. (Justice O’Connor, in concurring in the ruling, said she would have relied upon equal protection instead of due process.) So Lawrence and Obergefell seem safe.
Griswold does not seem safe under equal protection, but it may be safe under other provisions, although no state is currently seriously trying to ban the sale of contraceptives.
Although Bostock was a decision based upon the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and not on the Constitution, Gorsuch ruled that the law that banned sex discrimination in employment applied to gays and transgender people. His reasoning was that if you fire a female employee for being married to a women but don’t fire a male employee for being married to a woman, then you are discriminating based upon the employee’s sex. There is a very strong argument that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause works similarly.
I broadly agree with this. Speaking of the transgender debate, a parent writes:
While I generally agree with your balanced approach, I think you are still missing what is fueling the alarm on the right. As a parent of a 14 year old, I’m very aware of the extraordinary confusion that some teens now face because of the mainstream promotion of gender identities. For many kids, all this is harmless and ridiculous, and they tune it out. For a very tiny number of kids, this information may be extremely necessary, and perhaps even lifesaving, so they don’t feel so alone.
But unfortunately, I believe there is a quite significant number of kids that have come to believe that all their teen problems will be solved if they simply lop off a few body parts.
A few days ago I caught up with a friend who is a wreck because her 14-year-old daughter asked if she could cut off her breasts. This girl has some issues with body anxiety and acceptance, like the majority of teen girls, and has now decided she can avoid all the bad aspects of maturing into a woman by simply becoming a man, which in her mind is closer to remaining a girl, which is what she really wants. The mother is trying to help every way she can, and is about as caring and progressive as a parent can possibly be. But you have to understand how parents today are simply helpless to combat the flood of bizarre, foolish, and/or utterly toxic information that their kids find on the internet, or in social media with their classmates.
We entirely ban our 14-year-old from all social media, and from all internet sites except for those needed for school, because we have seen time and time again how kids’ lives are getting wrecked from all that sludge. Most parents are simply not equipped to handle it. Many aren’t able to police their child as thoroughly as we do, and for those on the right with kids, I believe this very real damage has caused some to turn to any platform such as QAnon or other fringe groups that can make sense of this real trauma and harm to their kids.
If you don’t have kids, it’s very easy to dismiss this as hysteria. But if you are aware of what's happening to kids nowadays, it’s truly terrifying.
Lisa Selin Davis would agree; her new piece on Substack is titled, “It’s a Terrifying Time to Have a Gender-Questioning Kid.” And I completely understand where the reader is coming from. I find the relentless promotion of concepts derived from critical gender and critical queer theory to be destabilizing to kids’ identities, lives and happiness. These woke fanatics are taking the real experience of less than a half percent of the population and imposing it as if it is some kind of choice for everyone else. This is called “inclusion.” It is actually “indoctrination.”
Telling an impressionable gay boy he might be a girl throws a wrench into his psychological development, adding confusion, possible generating bodily mutilation. Making all of this as cool as possible — as so many teachers and schools now do — is downright disturbing. The whole idea that all children can choose their pronouns because the tiniest proportion have gender dysphoria is a form of insanity. But it’s an insanity based on critical theory whose goal is the dismantling of all norms, and deconstruction of objective reality by calling it a function of “white supremacy.”
This next reader has “a theory I’ve wanted to float by you”:
I’m increasingly becoming of the opinion that the modern trans/gender movement is the twisted offspring of something in the gay rights movement that we thought was a good thing but actually wasn’t: the notion that someone is “born that way.”
Today, we increasingly feel the need to diagnose children who were “born a certain way” and then provide medical interventions for something that is aggressively conflating the physical and the mental. (I’m using the historical Abrahamic distinction between the two here, sure there’s a philosophical debate about whether or not this distinction exists.) And that makes perfect sense if you think that the foundation of acceptability for these immutable identities is determined at birth — we have medicine in service of zeitgeist.
I think the original sin here is going with “what we could get done” in the gay rights movement and stopping before we finished the job — of letting everyone know that these are preferences, and you need to respect and love people regardless of the choices they make and not just because they “can’t help it” because they were “born that way.” If we were to do away with this biological imperative driving identity, we’d end up with what we should really be striving for: radical acceptance of personal choices, and deconstruction of gender roles and stereotypes without engaging in pseudoscience.
The trouble with this argument, I think, is that it doesn’t reflect the experience of most gay people. We do not “choose” our orientation. That is the key point — whether that lack of choice is due to biology or early childhood or something else is irrelevant. And genuinely trans people do not choose to be trans either. It’s a profound disjunction between the sex they feel they are and the sex they actually are. It also may be caused by any number of things. But it is involuntary.
The queer left rejects this view entirely — because, in their view, there is no underlying reality to human beings, biological or psychological. It’s all about “narratives” driven by “systems of power,” and being gay or trans is infinitely malleable. That’s why they continuously use a slur word for gays — “queer” — to deconstruct homosexuality itself, and turn it merely into one of many ways in which to dismantle liberal society. I regard the “queer left” as dangerous as the far right in its belief that involuntary homosexual orientation doesn’t exist.
Lastly, a listener “would like to make a couple of suggestions for Dishcast guests”:
1) Razib Khan — he has been blogging for 20 years on genetics, particularly ancient population movements (e.g. Denisovans and Yamnaya). His Unsupervised Learning is currently the second-highest-paid science substack after Scott Alexander. To give you a flavour, his post on the genetic history of Ashkenazi Jews was very popular.
Khan also does culture war stuff, mostly because he is a scientist and believes in truth and science. He has subsequently been the subject of controversy, as you can see from his Wikipedia page — which isn’t really fair, but gives you a flavor. His post “Applying IQ to IQ: Selecting for smarts is important” is the kind of thing that gets him in trouble. He is my favourite public intellectual, in large part because he combines actual hardcore science information with anti-woke skepticism. And he is just generally a very smart and interesting guy. Though I’m a fan of his substack, I’d like to hear him on your podcast because I’d like to find out more about Razib as a person, how he feels about the controversies, etc.
2) Claire Fox — Baroness Fox of Buckley — is a former communist turned libertarian and Brexiteer, once a member of European Parliament and now a life peer in the House of Lords. Her Twitter feed gives a pretty good idea of her interests and views. Here are some clips on cancel culture in higher education; single-sex spaces for women; and a libertarian view on smoking. She broadly belongs to the British “TERF island” of gender-critical feminists. I know you’ve had Kathleen Stock on your podcast already, but Fox’s background, libertarian views and current membership in the House of Lords make her particularly interesting.
I know Razib and deeply admire him and his intellectual courage. And it’s true that, in real life, he’s a hoot, a lively conversationalist, with an amazing life story. Because of his views about the science of genetics and human populations, he is, of course, anathema to the woke left. One good reason to invite him on.