Oct 28, 2022 • 1HR 19M

Kathryn Schulz On Love And Grieving

She has a beautiful new memoir.

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Unafraid conversations about anything
photo by Casey Cep

Kathryn is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where she won a National Magazine Award and a Pulitzer Prize for “The Really Big One,” about a future earthquake that will wreak havoc on the Pacific Northwest. She’s also the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, and in this episode we discuss Lost & Found, a memoir about falling madly in love while her father lay dying.

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 how modern society avoids suffering, and how weddings can be a metaphor for America — pop over to our YouTube page.

Other topics: the familial impact of the Holocaust, immigrant resilience, love at first sight, how deep differences enhance a marriage, the assimilation of gays and lesbians, how Americans deal with trauma, and the pitfalls of writing a memoir.

This week’s episode touched on similar themes as the recent one with Frank Bruni, who suddenly went half-blind. Here’s a snippet if you missed it:

Next up, a reader responds to my piece on John Oliver and Jon Stewart:

THANK YOU for that! I’ve discovered something about myself and these infotainers … I hate being ranted at even if I agree with them. It’s exhausting. Oliver and his team in the beginning highlighted some worthy subjects and actually did some journalism. But like them all — Stewart, Bee, Noah, and most podcasters — he is no longer informational nor entertaining, all the while thinking he’s doing 60 Minutes level investigative work. It’s half-assed blaring, designed to play to the troops while patting them on the head and themselves on the back.

Every time I listen, I think: How is this in any way changing one heart or one mind?

Another reader on the Daily Show alums:

Re: Stewart and Oliver: it’s certainly ironic that both Stewart and Tucker Carlson ending up converging on the same demagogic pundit model after the infamous Crossfire exchange in 2004. Say what you will about Crossfire, but at least there was a pretext that both sides were going to discuss an issue in the same space. That back-and-forth spirit might explain the growing interest in shows like Breaking Points with Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti and The Hill’s Rising).

RE: gender affirming care for kids: the solution is for the medical profession to reassess their screening criteria and re-establish benchmarks for care (and enforce them!) to ensure that both false positive AND false negative diagnoses are minimized — not for governments to come in one way or the other (as FL/TX and CA have done). Due to (somewhat justified!) pressure from activists, the gatekeeping has swung too far open after being too rigidly closed (just read some of the older horror stories of trans women denied treatment because they didn't look feminine enough or have the right sexuality). 

So while I really appreciate your concern for the young gay kids who may get caught up in screening for gender dysphoria and be wrongly treated, please keep in mind those kids with actual dysphoria who are going to be told to just “wait — maybe it will resolve and maybe you’ll be gay.” (I was one of them, and it didn’t go away.)

Sure, maybe that is the case for some very large percentage of those kids who report feelings of dysphoria, but even at the high end of 90%, that’s still 10% who have legitimate dysphoria who will be told to just wait indefinitely. What is the care being offered to those kids in a world where gender-affirming care is only accessible upon reaching the age of majority? Or will it be determined that no one should transition, as some of the loudest voices desire?

As an aside, I find the entire topic of trans people frustratingly innumerate. How many people are actually trans (as opposed to the nebulous non-binary or gender non-conforming)? What percentage are accessing medical treatments? How does that access compare to non-trans access of comparable procedures? How many detransistioners are there really? Is that percentage increasing (which would indicate greater error rates in diagnosis), or is it just the overall number increasing (which would be expected as the overall number of trans ID increases but may indicate stable detransition rates)?

And yes, a lot of this is because motivated activists on both sides of the debate have an interest in obscuring the numbers to their benefit (to the extent those numbers exist), as well as ideological capture limiting legitimate scientific inquiry.

I’m basically where you are. I’m against crude bans and government intervention. But I’m worried by the rush of transitions, the critical gender and queer theory that inform them, the rigidity of the US medical establishment, and the Wild West of hormone delivery to the young.

I don’t want all child sex changes banned; I want them safe, moderated, rare, pursued carefully, backed by clinical trials and longterm assessment of cases. If this wave were not accompanied by a crusade to indoctrinate the very young in elementary schools into believing that their sex has nothing to do with their body, I’d rest easier. I just don’t want gay kids being sterilized and maimed for life because of misdiagnosis forged by ideological fervor. And if the medical authorities in the US were even to concede there are many problems with their methods, and engaged them empirically, rather than outright dismissing dissenters as hateful bigots, I’d rest a lot easier. But there are a lot of woke gender theorists out there.

Another reader shifts to the struggle within conservatism:

Something in the back of my mind in your discussion of the Tories and the GOP: Churchill as conservative. I think one of the less appreciated and discussed aspects of Churchill is the way he differentiated conservatism from fascism. His defense of empire and his actions (or lack thereof) in Indian famine are usually the reasons given for canceling him today. But one could argue that his conservatism was something that made him such an effective counter to Hitler. (A similar distinction existed between FDR/Truman’s liberalism and Stalin’s communism.) 

Orwell also gets at this in his essay on Kipling, because one of his main points is that Kipling was a conservative rather than a fascist (and as distasteful as Orwell found conservatives, he found them infinitely preferable to fascists). I think what your piece is getting at is how and where the distinctions between conservatism and fascism will be drawn today. On this front, Liz Cheney’s fate does not bode well for the GOP. 

I also think C.S. Lewis is of relevance here. Few people have ever read his poem, “To the Author of ‘Flowering Rifle.’” I’ve sent it to a number of Never Trumpers who have ignored it, but I think you would be interested. It’s a poem he wrote after the poet Roy Campbell attended a meeting of the Inklings and said that backing General Franco in Spain was a necessary position for Christians to take. Lewis disagreed, and he articulated why in this poem. Seems to me another good distinction between conservatism and fascism. 

Another reader:

In your piece “The Tory Present Is The GOP’s Future,” you note the right’s lack of a policy platform to address their grievances. You present it as if it is just a result of their disorganization or just an omission. Instead, it’s their idea of a feature. They know that, if they had a platform, voters and the opposition would have targets to aim at. If they got power, they’d be expected to implement the platform.

Look how well Trump’s wall served him. The concept is the solution, not the actual wall. Just like Trump, Republicans are only after power. They only pretend to have solutions by making politicky talk.

I fear you’re not wrong. Here’s a listener on one of the leading lights of the New Right:

I’m way behind on my podcasts and only just got around to hearing your conversation with Yoram Hazony — which I found doubly interesting, as an Israeli, and as a self-defined liberal-nationalist. It’s ironic that Hazony runs an institute named for Theodore Herzl, when Herzl was, famously, a classical liberal. Also, Hazony suggested (correctly I think) that Benjamin Netanyahu is basically a NatCon. This is noteworthy because the party he leads, the Likud, was explicitly established as a Liberal-Nationalist party.

I appreciate your comments at the end, expressing understanding for the essential idea of the nation and national identity. Perhaps you’d be interested in an essay I published a couple of years ago, in which — contra Hazony — I argue that the best alternative to “liberal internationalism” is not conservative nationalism, but liberal nationalism.

Finally, I found Hazony’s defense of Trump risible. Like many Trump-supporting people know, he ignored the most obviously glaringly appalling elements of Trump (his contempt for democracy, love of authoritarians, and pretty much everything he said and did from the day after the 2020 election until January 6th), and just said “he’s reckless” etc. The unwillingness of NatCons to truly face up to the unique horror of Trump is the biggest red flag for me, along with their refusal to ever acknowledge what Viktor Orban’s “National Conservatism” has meant for a free press, fair elections and checks-and-balances in Hungary.

Anyway, I’m really loving this podcast series on the right. I bought and am enjoying the Matthew Rose book off the back of your conversation with him.

Another listener:

Your diagnosis of the “NatCon” phenomenon is precise, fair, and prescient. I’m heartened by your willingness to dialogue with some of the more prominent voices within their space in spite of what must be an incessant chorus of voices from the left demanding that you cease and desist “platforming” them. It is only by publicly exposing perspectives to review and critique that we can arrive at an informed conclusion about those perspectives.

The reason that I’m so ardently opposed to postmodern “woke” reasoning is because I’ve read its canon. The manifest intellectual shortcomings of authors like Ibram X. Kendi are obvious to a thoughtful reader. Derrick Bell's academic body is its own case study against his perspective. It’s telling that even Kimberly Crenshaw has sidestepped out of the center of that space to make way for less intellectually inclined lighting rods like Nikole Hannah-Jones on Twitter. I do regret that I couldn’t bring myself to finish reading Robin DiAngelo; her writing style was just punitive. I understand their texts; ergo, I oppose them.

Critics of the New Right from the progressive left, however, fail to adequately describe what “National Conservatism” proponents believe. It’s all vaguely “far right” flattening that encompasses everything from the center-right to Neo Nazism. It fails understand because it refuses to examine. And what it fails to understand, it cannot adequately address. That you are contentious in engaging with “NatCon” thinkers allows for conservatives such as me to examine their arguments. It is work such as yours that has allowed me to find the glaring flaws with the New Right. Thank you.

Well that just made my day. Another listener dissents a bit:

Let me chime in on an issue raised by a reader in last week’s commentaries on the podcasts: your frequent invocation of “woke neo-Marxism.” Your response notwithstanding, it is seriously misleading to diagnose the “ideas now changing America” as neo-Marxist. Furthermore, use of the term awakens uncomfortable echoes of Red-hunting and the illiberal excesses of anti-communism.

The woke vision of history does share one feature with Marxism. It reduces all history to one enduring form of conflict: class conflict in Marxism’s case, conflict between dominant and historically oppressed groups in the case of the successor ideology. The obvious big difference is that the eternally competing groups are defined in Marxism by their relations to the means of production; in wokeness by skin color, gender or sexual identity.

On the other hand, Marx saw the inevitable course of history as progress through stages to a better future; woke ideology seems to be fundamentally cyclical, at least in its more pessimistic variants. Each moment of African-American progress inspires a reactionary backlash. Racism perdures. 

Most importantly, Marxism rests upon a materialist view of history that locates the deep structures of oppression in inequalities of wealth and of control of the means of production. Critical theory — and Foucault and Derrida have to be seen as the chief intellectual progenitors of CRT and queer theory, though room has to be made for the culturalist neo-Marxist Gramsci as well — locates the sources of oppression in language and culture. Here, the general orientation of Marxism is much preferable to that of critical theory, in my opinion. Marxism draws attention to material inequalities and exploitive forms of labor that can be moderated with effective social policies. The successor ideology seeks amelioration through policing language and to conflicts over symbols.

I understand all the nuances — hence “neo-”. (By the way, I think CRT is even gloomier than you do in its understanding of then permanence of “white supremacy” in America. I’ve often called it “Marxism without the happy ending.”) But the founders of CRT were proudly influenced by Marx, and said so. They are incomprehensible without grasping that inheritance. And I use the term “neo-Marxist” far more sparingly than the woke use “fascist.”

This next listener has a guest recommendation:

I was a bit struck by your assertion that New Right thinkers have proved unable to translate “negative insights into positive policy.” Excluding Michael Anton, you have invited New Right thinkers onto the Dishcast who lack, for want of a better phrase, a sense of the whole picture. Sohrab Ahmari is known as much for his personal story as his Catholic integralism, Yoram Hazony is more a scholar of religion than a political philosopher, and Christopher Rufo is an activist.

Each of those individuals could explain a piece of the New Right’s critique of liberalism — the God-shaped void at the heart of liberalism, the reality that CRT has been mainstreamed, etc. However, none seemed equipped to provide a more complete description of the New Right critique of liberalism, to say nothing of what New Right governance might look like. 

If you want a guest with the intellectual heft to explain the possible policy program of the New Right, you should bring Richard Hanania on the Dishcast for an extended discussion. Hanania is perhaps best known for his essays on how civil rights law created wokeness. He has also written about foreign policy and the illusion of grand strategy, the psychodrama of college-educated liberals, and a sociology of the political parties.

While Hanania may not identify as New Right, I think you would find him a formidable spokesman for those on the right who desire an end to wokeness and pointless foreign wars (two critical components of the New Right critique of liberalism). Here are some essays he’s written:

I’m also reading Carl Trueman’s book at the moment, and both these men would be great guests. Thanks as always for the dissents, assents and guest recommendations. If you have any of your own, please send our way: dish@andrewsullivan.com.