Apr 8 • 1HR 30M

Nicholas Christakis On Covid And Friendship

The Yale professor is a renaissance man.

Andrew Sullivan
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Unafraid conversations about anything

Nicholas is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale, where he directs the Human Nature Lab and co-directs the Yale Institute for Network Science. His latest book is Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, and also check out Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. We talk Covid, plagues, and friendship as a virtue.

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 two clips of my convo with Nicholas — on how the two plagues of AIDS and Covid are different, and on the mutual abuse that strengthens a friendship — head to our YouTube page.

Also, heads up: a new transcript is here — for the popular episode with Dominic Cummings. The architect of the Leave campaign had a rare podcast discussion with me, and now you can read it in full.

Here’s a clip of Cummings describing his split with Boris:

Speaking of brilliant Brits from County Durham, last week’s episode with Fiona Hill was also a big hit with listeners. Here’s one:

Just an utterly lively, entertaining, informative interview — and not only regarding Eastern Europe. I loved getting to hear about your respective experiences growing up in different parts of England. Bravo!

Here’s a clip of Fiona and me talking about our mixed feelings over leaving home:

Another listener:

I thoroughly enjoyed this interview with Fiona — and you did too, I could tell. I can’t always grab the nettle of the Newcastle accent, but I could listen to that woman for hours! The Ireland-Ukraine analogy gave me a lot to consider. That insight alone was worth the listen.

Let me suggest one more interesting (if more obscure) analogy: James Madison’s ill-considered and ultimately failed invasion of Canada in 1812-13. I imagine David Frum, a good Canadian lad, will be able to comment on the similarities between Putin’s misbegotten “strategy” and Madison’s “war-hawk” fantasy about liberating the United Empire Loyalists from the Crown. (Oh-boy, did he get that one wrong!)

Another reader jumps on my response to a dissent last week:

“Yep, it was Obama who turned Aleppo into a graveyard...” This is glib and beneath you. The reader was referencing the fact that Russia was given a base in Syria and its combat aircraft now operate there on account of the deal Obama struck with Putin after his “redline” was crossed and he needed a way out. No, Obama wasn’t solely responsible for the debacle in Syria, but he was responsible for Russia now being there (necessitating Israel coordination with Russian military).

This next reader goes another round over Churchill:

You wrote, “But Churchill? One of the greatest statesmen in history equated with the worst president in history? Nah...” Winston Churchill was a magnificent, stalwart wartime leader. Yes, from mid-1940 through late-1941, he may have been the single most important person frustrating the war aims of the Third Reich. And from 1942 to 1945, he managed to keep Britain sitting at the same table as the US and the USSR.

But Churchill was a failure as a war strategist — from the Dardanelles fiasco in the First World War to the “soft-underbelly” Italy slog of the Second. And it was hardly statesmanlike of him to insist on overriding military professionals and screwing things up in the process. But your “one of the greatest statesman in history” claim is most inapt when we look at post-war Churchill and his opposition to decolonization and the dissolution of the empire. He was way too slow, way too begrudging.

I still agree with 84.3% of everything else you say.

Haha. Any decent assessment of Churchill should contain some of his giant flaws. But still …

A fan of the Dishcast asks, “Why don’t you have more academic philosophers on your podcast?”

Your episode with Jim Holt was great (though he is not an academic philosopher, he seems to know his way around many issues), as was the Kathleen Stock episode. But I think it would be really nice to mine this field of philosophy for great discussion. People like Brian Leiter, Alex Byrne, Robert Paul Wolff, and Becky Truvel would make great guests. There is so much going on in academic philosophy that can be interesting and deep, and I think your listeners could really benefit. I mean, if you could get a Alasdair Macintyre or Charles Taylor, that would be incredible. But I’d settle for just about anything — even another visit with Holt.

We have had on academic philosophers, such as Cornel West, as well as academics talking philosophy, such as Roosevelt Montás and Steven Pinker, but thanks for the recommendations. Back to the Jim Holt episode, this next reader, responding to the loving criticism that Jim and I leveled at Hitch, crafts a lengthy defense:

Thank you for inviting us to listen in on that conversation, particularly the reminiscences about Christopher Hitchens. I often visit his old lectures, interviews, and debates via YouTube — either to learn something or just for a laugh. Hearing from those in his private life always adds an extra dimension to even some of those public events, and it’s much appreciated. Some skepticism of his work recently re-emerged, ten years after his death. In particular, via the Dish, I read the Douthat piece on Hitchens being a “victim of decadence,” and now Holt has raised some similar points: Was Hitchens too often wrong? Was he merely a contrarian? Or was it that, as Douthat puts it, “his great talents were expended on causes that have not exactly stood the test of time”?

Douthat and Holt each reference the war in Iraq, of course, because that’s a piece of low-hanging, ripe, juicy mainstream opinion fruit. But even if society has concluded the war was in error, were Hitchens sentiments wasted here? I’m not so sure. While I was always deeply skeptical of the war, I did find myself pausing to think over his empathetic stance on freeing Iraqis from a psychopath, often articulated from the vantage point of the Kurds — a perspective far too humane to have ever eked through Dick Cheney’s pursed lips. Such thinking, rooted in freeing an oppressed people, is hard for me to view too harshly and impossible for me to consider totally aligned with the hawks, who were probably designing the Mission Accomplished banner before a single boot touched the ground.

Hitchens’ legacy perhaps ought not be defined by any particular issue or essay, but by that theme of liberation, argued over a lifetime. His work was often based on what he called socialism — but was, whatever the name, a keen eye cast toward the disenfranchised, overlooked, and oppressed. While he possessed an elite mind who graduated from elite institutions and wrote for elite publications while hosting parties for elites, he nonetheless managed, in his writing, to stand apart with those who felt apart.

We’re privileged that the Dishcast gives us access to the minds of such elites — the Frums and Applebaums — to comment on the world around us. But they are also part of the elite machinery that erected that world, and it shows in their commentary. Hitchens’ ability to convey a more humanistic worldview remains a necessary rarity. Without most of the naïveté of today’s left, he forcefully challenged conventional assumptions and narratives popular among the elite, even as he ostensibly made plans to get drunk with them.

Perhaps to the mind of his detractors, Hitchens’ brand of commentary missed the mark or felt cheap in some way. Indeed, Andrew, you seemed dismissive of his opinions on impeaching Clinton.

But as seemingly half of Substack bemoans the crumbling of liberal institutions, it’s worth remembering that Hitchens was one of the best at pointing the finger at the moldy hypocrites rotting those institutions from the inside. When Hitchens commented to you that “all” the US presidents should have been impeached, I heard at least a kernel of truth that presidents have barely, if ever, been held accountable for a very long list of scandals, abuses of power, wars, wastes of public money, et cetera.

It’s fair to say that Hitchens did more than take down liars, dictators, and hypocrites; he also exposed us to the plights of people around the world with an empathy and urgency that could only come from someone who visited North Korea, walked among the Kurds, voluntarily waterboarded himself, or worked alongside Cuban coffee farmers. Was some of this contrarianism (or even performance art), as you two speculated? There’s certainly reason to wonder.

However, it’s hard to see mere performance when watching him on old episodes of Firing Line.

It’s hard to see mere performance when reading his exploration of the effects of Agent Orange. Or chastising his own on the left, too eager to overlook 9/11 as America’s fault. Or seeing him continue to reflect and share so much as he was dying.

Even I, an obvious admirer of his, bristled on occasion at his smugness, as I did when you recalled to Holt his seeming delight in your drifting from the Catholic Church. And I take Holt’s point about cherry-picking easy targets in the American Bible Belt as he crusaded against religion. Though to be fair to Hitchens’ late life tirades against religion, he also took on every religion and many better armed foes than American evangelicals — my favorite of which has to be this endlessly entertaining Munk debate with (slaughter of?) Tony Blair:

For whatever flaws one can find, I still cherish his humanistic approach, and while I must concede that I didn’t hear you or Holt specifically criticize that, I also didn’t hear much discussion of it at all. To my ear, the critical tone examining some of his work did feel both nitpicked and cherry-picked. I suppose that’s understandable in the confines of what felt more like a chat with and about old friends than a typical podcast.

I’m most grateful for this homage to Hitch. And I agree with it — especially the humanistic and democratic impulse that suffused his work. This was a man who would engage anyone, who could be found still chatting with students hours after he’d given a talk, whose dinner table was a constant symposium. Holt and I were being a little mischievous — if only because some have idolized a man who hated idols.

One more listener this week:

When your conversation with Jim Holt turned to being gay and how today’s gay youth come of age in an accepting environment, I had the impression that you were trying to get Jim to admit that through almost universal societal acceptance, the gay community lost something. Are you in some way nostalgic for a time when being gay was a form of otherness? 

I’m not nostalgic in any moral way. I don’t want to go back. But there was something lost — inevitably. Our reader may want to check out my 2005 essay, “The End of Gay Culture.” It’s included in Out On A Limb, my collection of 30 years of writing.