Michael Moynihan On Afghanistan And Free Speech

One of the handsome hosts of The Fifth Column comes on to kibbitz.

  
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Moynihan is one-third of the The Fifth Column — the sharp, hilarious podcast he does with Kmele Foster and Matt Welch — and he’s a long-time correspondent for Vice. In this episode we mostly cover the cascading news out of Afghanistan, but also bounce around to topics like old media, woke media, neocons and Israel, Big Tech, and third rails. We also reminisce a little about our mutual friend, the late Christopher Hitchens — like that one time Hitch called me a lesbian on air.

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 Moynihan — on our shared bewilderment over anti-vaxxers, on the need for intellectual humility and occasionally eating crow, and on gay men having a very different culture of consent and flirting — head over to our YouTube page.

Two of the subjects that Moynihan and I covered in the episode — wokeness and anti-vaxxers — are discussed by readers below, spurred by previous pods with Wesley Yang and Michael Lewis. This first reader “really enjoyed your conversation with Wesley and his idea of the ‘successor ideology’”:

I appreciated your and Wesley’s suggestion that a kind of racial anxiety feeds into both “woke” and Trumpist takes on culture, specifically the woke anxiety that America will soon (if not already) no longer be primarily black and white, and so they will be less justified in framing their projects in his mode. Yes, I agree! 

I am a mother of two young children. My family mostly hails from the British Isles (though it was a long time ago!) and my husband was born in Iran. Thus our children are, in the current understanding, “biracial” — or if you prefer, “brown” — or “white”? depending on the season? And yet, what an empty, grasping way to look at them! I shudder to think of the day my children will be informed by someone that they are growing up not with vegetarian, Catholic, urban, Persian, Muslim, musical, and Midwestern values and influences, but with “whiteness” or “brownness” to which they must confess some kind of allegiance. The absurdity of this idea should be obvious.

Not just the absurdity, but the toxic crudeness of it all. Another multi-racial perspective from a reader:

A recent piece at The Atlantic, “The Surprising Innovations of Pandemic-Era Sex,” reads like a parody of 1990s POMO-speak: “Many queer people are reimagining their own boundaries and thinking of this reentry period as a time for sexual self-discovery.” When you boil it down to ordinary English, the piece argues that any person should be free to have sex with whomever they wish and however they like.

Well sure. Almost all readers of The Atlantic would agree. Those who don’t will not be persuaded by sentences like, “This drive stems from the fact that many queer and trans people — especially those of color — live under a kind of sociocultural duress in which our livelihoods and human rights are constantly subject to negotiation and popular debate, to say nothing of our physical safety.”

It’s not surprising that the author, Madison Moore, is “an assistant professor of queer studies” at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Their” personal web page is here. I’m not sure how to name this kind of young gay thinker with whom I agree at root, but whose mode of presentation is … risible. They “discourse” only with each other and their university’s uneasy tenure committee.

I myself am a white male gay boomer who bought a home in Central Harlem and lives there happily with my Black boyfriend. I studied for the Ph.D. in English at UCLA, progressing to all but dissertation. If even someone like me finds this kind of writing to be counter-productive for the cause, I’m not sure who else is left to applaud it.

P.S. The conversation with Yang was tremendously fine. The crucial part came when you debated whether the successor ideology was merely a fad, or the ineluctable doom of liberalism, or something in between. Listening, I felt some hope.

I too wince at some of the brain-dead grievance porn that now passes for “queer” discourse. But it’s particularly painful to read it in the pages of the Atlantic. A dissent from a reader:

I tend to concur with your dislike of the “woke” ideas that have increasingly percolated in the media in recent years. However, I think your emphasis is misplaced. In my view, the essential problem with this ideology is its phoniness; the people pushing this rhetoric are from the professional bourgeois class, and many of them aren’t actually concerned about lower strata of society on their own terms — they’re definitely not concerned with the values of the working class and the indigent.

If you accept this premise, then the ideology isn’t quite the threat to the liberal order that is your refrain. And the most effective response is not to continually sound the alarm about the danger of these people, but, rather, to mock them dismissively and then move on to more important topics (climate change, the rejuvenation of right-wing and left-wing authoritarianism, anti-vaxxers, mortality, love, the beauty of a perfect spring day, etc). The alarmism — which is being aped by Trumpist reactionaries — only perpetuates the culture war and doesn’t serve to push beyond it.

Shifting to Covid, many readers have responded to the impassioned dissent from a vaccine holdout, starting with this reader:

To the anti-vaxxer who asked, “What are the long-term side effects of the COVID19 vaccine?” I’m not sure it’s logical to fear the long-term side effects of a vaccine as opposed to the disease itself, whose long-term side effects are also unknown, and whose short-time side effects — particularly for some 600,000+ Americans — are all too well known. 

Another reader looks at the risks:

We know from clinical trials what the side effects of the vaccine tend to be: mild flu symptoms and arm pain for most people, up to myocarditis and sudden death for a small sliver of people: “6,789 reports of death (0.0019%) among people who received a COVID-19 vaccine.” We’ve seen millions of people take the vaccines and no other serious complications emerge. There is a small group of probable side effects linked to a vaccine, because there is always a group of side effects tied to a disease. The reader leaves open that ANYTHING could happen longer term, but we know from other vaccines and disease theory in general that that is not the case.

Another articulates the core reality of society, especially in our hyper-connected times:

To put it briefly, respecting and fulfilling public-health requirements is an important component of the responsibility of being a citizen and justifies the exercise of the limited rights that we enjoy and help us prosper. Are there risks? YES. And we all share them, because the chaos that an unrestrained plague would sow is far, far worse. But the scientists have shared data and analysis methods, and they too have taken the vaccinations, so they’re in the same situation as the rest of us who fulfill their citizen responsibilities. Is your reader’s opinion, backed with unknown credentials, the equivalent of experts in virology, immunology, etc? Especially based on his/her communication style, the answer is NO.

The husband in this video has a very effective communication style:

A softer touch comes from this reader:

Kudos to you for printing the letter from the anti-vaxxer — and not responding to being called a selfish bully! In any case, if your reader wants some of their questions answered, I would recommend one of the American Society of Virology’s vaccine town halls. They have real experts who try to answer whatever questions come up (Vincent Racaniello was on Aug 12th and he has literally written the textbook on virology). Don’t think this will necessarily change anyone’s mind, but everyone deserves to have their questions answered.

A person who has changed minds on this is Frank Luntz, the famed GOP pollster. He volunteered to be featured in an episode of This American Life that hosted a town hall filled with vax holdouts. Here’s some key context from the narrator:

Frank had a stroke a year ago in January, which is actually one of the reasons he wanted to work on this. The experience made him really angry with all the people who weren’t getting vaccinated. He says the stroke was this thing he probably could have prevented if he’d done what the doctor said. But he didn’t take care of himself, didn’t take his medication. And now, seeing people do some version of that, not protecting themselves by getting the vaccine, endangering themselves and others, it was driving him crazy.

Another recommendation from a reader:

This is what I’ve been sharing with people I know who are still hesitant, but it’s a bit of a commitment that I fear they won’t all make: Sam Harris’s discussion with Eric Topol, a cardiologist who famously challenged Trump’s head of the FDA during the vaccine rollout:

A final reader has a quick dissent against me and then addresses the anti-vax reader:

You wrote, “the most potent incentive for vaccination is, to be brutally frank, a sharp rise in mortality rates…” First, that would all be fine if unvaccinated COVID patients only harmed themselves. The fact is that morally (and legally) all those unvaccinated COVID patients will have to be cared for by healthcare workers who have been under extreme duress forever a year and are now asked to suck it up and do it again when an effective vaccine is widely available. (See Ed Yong’s recent article.)  

So I respectfully disagree with your proposition to just “let it rip.” Since local and federal governments cannot mandate vaccinations, our only recourse is to encourage marketplace vaccine mandates. We should also stop the counter-productive demonizing of vaccine refuseniks, and provide local public-health officials adequate support to mount local public-info campaigns that engage trusted community allies to neutralize misinformation and provide non-judgemental evidence-based answers to people’s questions. 

I acknowledge the fear of the writer who defended his choice to remain unvaccinated because there is no guarantee that the vaccine won’t have some long-term side effects. But using that logic, polio would never have been eradicated nor ebola brought under control. Personally speaking, my father suffered polio as a child, an aunt and her newborn baby died from bulbar polio, and my sister is still recovering from a five-month hospital/rehab ordeal due to a near-fatal COVID-19 infection.  I’m firmly in the pro-vaccination column.

That being said, we who are vaccinated took a calculated risk as well. We weighed the risks against the evidence that the vaccine minimizes serious infections and deaths from COVID-19. We made that choice in hopes of returning to a more normal life for us all. What I don’t accept is the right of the unvaccinated to unnecessarily stress healthcare workers, overburden the healthcare system, prolong disruption and viral spread, when a safe vaccine exists.  

On another note, I appreciated your conversation with the incredible Michael Lewis. His analysis of the bumbling efforts of the CDC and government leaders was sobering and enlightening. And God bless him on his own journey through grief.

I hope and pray that we will get through this pandemic. When we do, a lot more humility, empathy and brilliant thinkers like Michael Lewis will be needed to sort out what went wrong and how to fix it before the next pandemic.