The Weekly Dish
The Dishcast with Andrew Sullivan
Michael Brendan Dougherty On Spiritual Crises

Michael Brendan Dougherty On Spiritual Crises

The conservative Catholic writer and former atheist discusses "liquid modernity" and the Great Awokening.

Michael is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a prolific writer, primarily for National Review. His first book is My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home, a beautiful memoir I reviewed here.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app” — which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. For three clips of my conversation with Michael — on the countercultural rebellion of teen churchgoers; on the iconoclasm of the Great Awokening; and on a potential conflict with China strengthening US liberalism — head over to our YouTube page. In the last 25 minutes of the episode we go into overtime mode by riffing on gay culture and Ptown.

Our latest episode with evolutionary biologist Carole Hooven was a big hit with listeners. Here’s one:

I expected Hooven to be interesting, but I was curious why you called her a teaching “star” at Harvard. After listening to her, I understand why. I taught for 35 years. To be a great teacher you need to be passionate about your subject and care about your students. This certainly describes Prof. Hooven. It was also nice to see someone passionate about a subject and not obsessed with the response she will get on social media. As she said, follow the data.

Hopefully you will have her back, since I would like to hear more about how society benefits from people with high testosterone, especially those doing dangerous jobs. I’m also interested in how Hooven believes women would respond if men acted more feminine. Many women complain that their husbands don’t do enough housework and help with the children. But how many would really be sexually attracted to men who perform traditional female roles?

Her own story is inspiring. She didn’t focus on her GPA, AP classes and test prep to get into Harvard, but just found something she was passionate about. To Harvard’s credit, they recognized her value.

The reader adds, “Hooven was also excellent on Joe Rogan’s show.” She got teary-eyed on both podcasts, and Rogan got emotional back:

Another reader who liked Hooven:

It was refreshing to hear a conversation with someone who wanted to talk real science and didn’t just cherry-pick scientific research to support some partisan angle. I especially liked that she called out some of the talking points as unproven hypotheses, at best. The political sphere would be so much less toxic if more people engaged in this way.

What I found the most surprising was the assertion that it’s “mainstream” or common opinion that men are somehow being marginalized in modern society, which I see as utterly absurd. Perhaps I am completely out of touch, but I really don’t see anyone trying to force men to be ashamed of their masculinity. It seems to me that this is a phantasm that certain insecure men have conjured up for themselves. I don’t think anyone has a problem with men being men, they just have a problem with men abusing women, or men taking advantage of their superior strength and more competitive nature to keep women out of positions for which they are qualified, or men expecting to be owed sexual gratification as a matter of course. Checking these behaviors doesn’t mean depriving men of their masculinity, it just means expecting men to process their masculinity in ways that don’t harm women.

I agree. But there is also burgeoning misandry on the CT left, which denies any role for biology in society at all. Another reader’s two cents:

I agree that some people are uncomfortable with the fact that all fetuses start out as female and then repurpose tissue to transform to male in the womb. Some men especially take offense to the reality of their early gender fluidity, and that their male bits used to be lady parts. To all those who have trouble accepting it, just ask them: why do men have nipples? It is a vestige of our having started out as female — there is nothing that tissue needed to be repurposed for.

Ah, yes, the nipple point. It’s true! Another reader has a dissent for me:

I enjoy reading and listening to your work even though I don’t always agree with you. Some disagreements come down to a matter of opinion, but you repeated a factual claim I’ve heard you make many times about men wanting more sex than women — across the board, no caveats. I’m a youngish married straight woman with many youngish and oldish married and long-partnered female friends, and my anecdata begs to differ.

The number one complaint I hear from female friends about their long-term partners is that the men are not interested in having sex with their female partners as much as the female partners would like. I’ve heard this enough times that I have come to consider it a cliche, and my friends and I have all frequently wondered why the media depiction is so contrary. I don’t have hard data, but I would suggest that either you put forward some data to back up your frequent claim or stop making it. This question seems much more nuanced to me.

The reader seems to assume that because “men are not interested in having sex with their female partners as much as the female partners would like,” it means they don’t want to have sex — but what if they just want to have sex with other women, even if they never act on it? One piece that tackles the nuance of the question is this Atlantic book review of What Do Women Want: “Women may be more sexually omnivorous than men, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re as hungry.”

Email is still pouring in over the episode with Bryan Caplan, the open borders advocate. This reader wants more like it:

Please please please have more people on who you disagree with. I am not a huge fan of your podcasts when it is with someone who you just explore an area you are already in agreement with. I hung on every word of the Caplan podcast, loved it!

Several more readers continue the debate:

My fiancé’s from Israel, so we got a laugh out of the idea that cultures can mix indefinitely without major existential conflict. It just seems like Caplan believes in his ideas with this religious naïveté but hasn’t actually thought about them too carefully in terms other than economics. It was nice to hear him think through some of the real issues during your debate.

Another reader “found two major flaws in Bryan’s logic”:

The first was that he bases much of his conclusions on economic evidence derived from personal actions. Unfortunately, his examples are hardly controlled studies where the only variable is economic consideration. When he observes that an individual will not pack up and move from a neighborhood with large numbers of immigrants, he concludes this decision is based solely on monetary considerations and an unwillingness to pay for an immigrant-free experience. However, he neglects to consider the multitude of other factors that might be keeping this person in place — job, family, tradition, and other assets of the community. It is far too complex to assume that simply because someone doesn’t take the significant step of moving her home, the number of immigrants in her community is not really important to her.

On that note, another reader quips, “If people had had to pay £100 to have voted for Brexit, how many would have?” Back to the previous reader:

The other leap of his that I have serious trouble with is that he consistently argues his case by observing phenomena that occur in environments of low to moderate immigration and assumes it can be applied under an environment of open borders, where overwhelming numbers of people immigrate. For instance, the idea that there is plenty of unskilled jobs available might hold true if we are talking about numbers of immigrants we have today. It is quite another matter to suggest that this will hold true when the billion people that Caplan envisions moves into this country of 350 million.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Caplan’s perspective on open borders, even though I disagreed with almost all of it. This kind of dialogue is one reason I subscribe to The Dish.

Another adds:

I have one word for Caplan: WATER. As in, where are you going to get the water for a billion + people? Most of the United States is arid or desert, in the best of times. The American West is now in a mega drought — the driest conditions in probably 1200 years. If this keeps up, or heaven forbid gets worse, half of the landmass (or more?) of the US won’t have enough water to support the existing population, let alone a billion more people.

But another reader “liked Caplan’s point that the US has increased 100x in 200 years, so increasing 10x in another 100 years isn’t that big of a deal.” Related to the Caplan pod, another reader offers “an alternative narrative to Brexit which I do not believe gets much air time”:

Co-opting some modern parlance, I think that Britain historically (and psychologically) considers itself “European-adjacent” but not really a formal part of Europe.  From the beginnings of their recorded history with the arrival of Julius Caesar; through their recovery from the Norman invasion of 1066; to modern times, I think that what drives the British psychology is being on the fringes.

They have a romantic attachment to being the home of the little blue barbarians who largely kept to themselves (from a European perspective) while grinding out an empire “the hard way” (to take a phrase from the thoroughly hilarious and insightful boomer bible). Even the successive waves of colonization and conquering eventually just leave rulers that become part of the new push for independent sovereignty after a generation or two.

From the very beginnings of the EU project, the UK has been a willing, even eager participant … as long as they were only toeing the line of membership. When the EU declared that the UK needed to get off the fence and adopt the Euro and acknowledge the primacy of EU law over their national sovereignty, the backlash was immediate.  While Brexit has been marred by accusations of xenophobia, I don’t think that the fear of outsiders alone is what drove their divorce from the EU. The UK would have been perfectly happy to maintain the status quo: their own currency, their own immigration and foreign policy, their own trade agreements, etc — all influenced by the EU (they consider themselves compatible with European morality and history) but not necessarily taking orders from it. 

Simple stories like “we don’t want immigrants” probably appeal to some, but it has never come across as a majority feeling, from my observations. The UK sees the EU as a dysfunctional family, and they want to support it, but they don’t want to be it.  

I agree. There are deep currents to an island nation unconquered for a thousand years that were always incompatible with being just a member of a massive Euro-super-state.

Another reader turns to the episode with Jonathan Rauch and thinks through the implications of CRT:

I really liked this episode. It’s very hard for me to reconcile the principle that liberal democracy depends solely on everyone agreeing to an epistemology based on objectively verifiable facts — which I generally agree with — with what I hear from minorities about their experiences with racism. You can search for “what’s it like to be a black american” or similar words on YouTube and find any number of first-person accounts of experiences that I, at least, am completely blind to. 

Here’s my understanding of your concerns about critical race theory and cancel culture:

  • Our culture and system of government depend on everyone agreeing to evaluate claims of truth through empiricism and objective verification. No one has special knowledge that trumps the process of empiricism and objective verification of facts. In particular, “subjective” or “lived” experience may be powerful for the individual, but subjectivity cannot be the basis for truth claims in a liberal democracy. 

  • The “progressive left,” or whatever we’re calling it, is engaged in a power play that includes completely destroying that formerly shared epistemology, and in the process may replace liberal democracy with a kind of cultural authoritarianism.

  • One of the tools the CRT people use is shouting down dissenting viewpoints through accusations of racism. The racism at issue doesn’t even need to be explicit; it’s now the case that alleged racism can be implicit or structural and not proven to be enough to impose severe penalties on anyone who steps out of the ideological lines of CRT. In particular, if you’re not an oppressed minority, you have no claim to truth, because all truth is subjective — “lived experience.”

  • I don’t know if you’ve said this directly, but let’s go ahead and point out that cultures and governments that have in the past abandoned empirical epistemologies have descended into madness. We’re talking about the same usual suspects whenever we speak in defense of liberal democracy. 

If I have this right, I share your concerns. You’ve also made a point of saying that, for example, the Black experience in America has truly been unjust. When you get into a discussion like the one you had with Jonathan Rauch, it isn’t fair to expect you to issue all those kinds of usual caveats. But the fact is that people haven’t always listened closely to you over time, and I feel you get accused of a point of view that you don’t really hold without qualification.

So you likely agree that, for example, a Black person’s explanation of their experience of racism in America is true. How can we fit that into our project of empiricism? Would a place to start be in the therapist’s office? Do millions of clinical observations of pain and dysfunction caused by social ills like bigotry add up over time to objective knowledge? If so, what can we do about that within our preferred framework of knowledge, short of Ibram Kendi’s “Maoist” (I love how you used that last week) Department of Anti-racism?

One more reader:

There’s an angle that I hope you’ll consider with regard to the debate over the effects of CRT in classrooms, and the general message. I’ll express it imperfectly below and you can do as you please with it. You get close to it here: 

This rubric achieves several things at once. It denies that there is anything really radical or new about CRT; it flatters the half-educated; it blames the controversy entirely on Republican opportunism; and it urges all fair-minded people to defend intellectual freedom and racial sensitivity against these ugly white supremacists.

I would venture a guess that the two sides depicted in that paragraph are both almost entirely white. With some notable individual exceptions, the debate is white vs. white, about blacks. The blacks in the middle, as portrayed by the MSM, have about as much voice as cows in an NPR segment on vegetarianism. The prevailing view casts blacks as helpless, beholden to the charitable engineering of wise white elites. The black man with two medical degrees (in the video clip you retweeted) is on to this and takes offense. 

Kendi himself may be but a token cudgel, useful in beating down the uneducated masses who are too stupid to know that they are racists. It’s as if some of these new high priests are not under the influence of a slippery new ideology but have maybe seen the movie Trading Places one too many times. Some of the currently dominant ideas inadvertently reveal a low opinion of underclass whites, yes, but also blacks.

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