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The Importance Of Saying "Yes" To The "But"
The essential practice of qualification in a liberal democracy.
One of the enduring frustrations of living in a politically polarized country is the evaporation of nuance. As the muscles of liberal democracy atrophy, and as cultural tribalism infects everyone’s consciousness, it becomes more and more difficult to say, “Yes, but …”
Everyone hates the but. It complicates; it muddles; it can disable a slogan; and puncture a politically useful myth. We were already headed that way in the discourse, but Trump, and then the Trump Resistance, made everything worse.
The epitome, of course, was the Russia stuff. Between “Trump won the election because of Putin” and “The Russia Hoax,” there was precious little space for qualification. But the truth, it seems obvious now, was somewhere in between: yes, Trump loved Putin, and was happy to welcome campaign assistance from anyone, including Moscow — but no, he wasn’t a Russian agent, there was no “conspiracy,” and Clinton lost the election for far more obvious and provable reasons. The Mueller Report landed somewhere in the middle, because facts — which is why no one liked it. Worse, even to concede a smidgen of a point to the other side became anathema.
Or think of the Covid lab-leak theory. Almost instantly, despite the lack of any solid evidence either way, merely to mention the possibility of an accident was deemed by liberals as proof of racism, xenophobia or Trumpiness. And at a critical juncture, on March 17, 2020, a group of scientists published a report in Nature Medicine that stated, “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” Tony Fauci and Francis Collins of the NIH had encouraged the study, and hailed it when it came out. The language seems clear to me: “clearly show … not a laboratory construct.” No hedging there. After editing, a lab-leak explanation went from “not necessary” to “not plausible.”
We now know, from a trove of unearthed private messages, that none of the scientists believed what they wrote with any certainty. “I literally swivel day by day thinking it is a lab escape or natural,” wrote one of them, while working on the paper. A month after the paper came out, one of the authors was writing: “I’m still not fully convinced that no culture was involved” and “we also can’t fully rule out engineering.”
So why offer certainty when doubt was real? One of them put it in writing:
Given the shit show that would happen if anyone serious accused the Chinese of even accidental release, my feeling is we should say that given there is no evidence of a specifically engineered virus, we cannot possibly distinguish between natural evolution and escape so we are content to ascribing it to natural processes.
Another wrote back: “I totally agree that that’s a very reasonable conclusion. Although I hate when politics is injected into science — but it’s impossible not to.” The editor of Nature Medicine framed the piece thus: “Let’s put conspiracy theories about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 to rest and help to stop spread of misinformation.”
No this wasn’t a plot to issue a bald-faced lie, as the right might have it. But it obviously wasn’t entirely intellectually honest either. In fact, it shows scientists, in their own words, “injecting politics” into science — and playing to the approval of their professional peers and Tony Fauci, with grant money on the line. Fauci, in turn, either had to be a saint or the devil — when, in fact, he was just a flawed, if arrogant, public-health official who got many things right and some things wrong, and is still dodging any accountability for his enthusiasm for engineering fatal viruses of the kind that were being sloppily manipulated in Wuhan.
The Nature Medicine scandal also exposes how willingly the MSM went along with the approved message. Nate Silver notes how “The Times fired their Pulitzer Prize-winning coronavirus reporter in middle of the pandemic — a reporter who saw the lab leak theory as credible — and replaced him with another reporter who dismissed discussion of the lab leak as ‘racist’.” Facebook, at the Biden administration’s request, flagged any discussion of the lab-leak theory as “disinformation.” So not a wicked conspiracy, then, but a confluence of politics, careerism, elite arrogance, and damage control that has permanently weakened trust in public health authorities.
Or take the Hunter Biden saga. We are asked to pick from one menu — the laptop was Russian disinformation, “My son has done nothing wrong,” “this is only about a father’s love for his son” — or another entirely different menu — the Biden “crime family” has tentacles everywhere, there’s “a deep state conspiracy” to treat Hunter as a special case, this all goes back to the “big guy” and Burisma.
How about the “yes, but” option? One version would be: “Yes, Hunter had a drug problem, and his father is showing appropriate compassion. But he was still a grifter and a sleaze who spent his life trying to profit off his family name. The MSM’s dismissal of his laptop as Russian disinformation was appalling. And that plea agreement looks fishy AF.” Another would be: “Yes, Hunter is crooked, but no more so than Jared Kushner, and we still have no real evidence of the president’s involvement.” That wasn’t hard, was it? And how about this one: “Yes, Trump’s family life is a farrago of philandery, and there’s no equivalence in the Biden clan. But an Irish-Catholic paterfamilias refusing to acknowledge the existence of a toddler grand-daughter, because she was born out of wedlock? Incomprehensible.”
A couple more. Yes, immigration is the lifeblood of America … but we need to control the integrity of our borders, and keep the pace of migration to a sustainable level that doesn’t hurt American workers and threaten cultural stability. Yes, we need to recognize and better include trans people in society … but we don’t have to abolish the sex binary, sterilize children before puberty, or teach kindergartners they get to pick their sex like a favorite color. Yes, trans women are women … but not in the same way as those who are biologically women, and we need to honor that distinction in a few, relevant instances, like not having biological dudes swinging their junk in the women’s locker room, FFS.
Yes, we should support Ukraine in its defense against invasion … but it is highly unlikely Kyiv will ever recapture the entire country, and some kind of negotiated settlement is going to be needed in the foreseeable future. Yes, Putin is disgusting … but the alternative could be worse. Yes, DeSantis is a humorless prick who keeps moving to the illiberal right … but he could be the best chance to keep Trump out of the White House. Yes, RFK Jr says some crazy shit and needs to be called out … but he provides some desperately needed competition in the Dem race.
The trouble, of course, is the emotional and tribal inadequacy of these “yes, but”s. You’ll get lambasted by your friends and fellow partisans the second you concede anything to the opposite side. And social media — the recent jet engine for our political discourse — rewards simplicity, emotion and tribalism. But it’s important to point out that the “yes, but” formula is not about “both sides-ing” everything, or picking a middle position every time. It’s about getting things right. Everything is true so long as it is never taken to be more than it is. Context and precision is everything.
To say that Trump was not elected because of Putin is not to defend Trump’s vile tactics, mental derangement, or threat to our democracy. To note the possibility of a lab leak does not mean it’s a certainty, or that ass-covering by US officials is a conspiracy. And it’s still less likely than a natural, biological origin.
To make a distinction between children on the verge of puberty and grown adults when it comes to sex reassignment is not “anti-trans.” It’s about getting a diagnosis right — with a patient who can meaningfully consent to a non-essential procedure. You can support Ukraine’s defense against invasion while not favoring a destabilizing regime change in Russia. We can better confront and acknowledge the deep and pervasive brutality against African-Americans in the last four hundred years; but we don’t have to define America by this original sin, or regard it as a permanent state of affairs.
A liberal democracy is a place where these distinctions can be made, compromises can be forged, and tribal loyalty can be qualified by reality. As it slips away, with the Trump right and the woke left offering us non-negotiable, Manichean views of the world, we can fret and panic and worry.
Or we can start saying “yes, but” more often. And mean it.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: a discussion with Lee Fang on the tensions within the left between class and identity; dissents over a variety of pod episodes and columns; eight notable quotes from the week in news; 19 links to Substack pieces we recommend; a Mental Health Break from Louis CK; window views from San Francisco and Alaska; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
As our annual renewal period winds down, a paid subscriber sends a thoughtful note:
Last year I turned 70, and I’ve had a lifetime’s worth of health issues (both physical and emotional) crammed into the last ten months. This experience has made me mindful of what I appreciate, and I appreciate you a lot, Andrew, and your stellar colleague, Chris.
I frequently disagree with the Dish, but I admire its commitment to bone-deep honesty and openness. As a scholar who worked in local and state government most of my life, I fear confirmation bias above all things, and the Dish is my main corrective for that. And as a person whose professional expertise (legal editing) is often rejected these days by both major parties as mere nitpicking, both the Dish and the VFYW contest suit me down to the ground.
New On The Dishcast: Lee Fang
Lee is an investigative journalist. He was a long-time reporter at The Intercept, and in late 2022 he was one of the recipients of the Twitter Files. He left the MSM this year to launch his own substack at leefang.com.
Listen to the episode here. There you can find two clips of our convo — on how wokeness hurts poor communities, and the unsung successes of the Biden administration. That link also takes you to commentary on last week’s episode with Matt Lewis on “filthy rich politicians,” as well as a variety of pod dissents and other emails.
Browse the Dishcast archive for another conversation you might enjoy (the first 102 episodes are free in their entirety — subscribe to get everything else). Coming up: Josh Barro defending the Biden administration, Michael Moynihan on Oppenheimer and commies, and Vivek Ramaswamy on his vision for America. Please send any guest recs and pod dissent to email@example.com.
Dissent Of The Week: Not The Only One
A reader writes:
A minor point, Andrew, but while it’s true that you had a much loftier post than many of us, you were hardly “the only openly gay journalist in DC” in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. There were a lot of us in the broadcast and print worlds who were also unwilling to stay in the closet just so we could work in the field. I was an NPR news unit producer, and there were several on staff at various levels. Surely you must have run into a few of us at the various watering holes on P Street back in the day.
Don’t forget the lesbian editor who won a legal battle after she was fired from UPI in 1990 for being out of the closet and advocating for us. Lesbian and gay journalists were organizing at the national level during the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights (which I worked on before landing my dream job at NPR.) The Association of LGBTQ Journalists was launched in 1990.
There is no question that you risked a lot by being out, and we have much to thank you for, but there were a number of us breaking open the closet door at that time.
This is indisputably true. Almost as soon as the last newsletter was out the door, I realized I’d worded that wrong. What I meant was that I was the only widely or nationally recognized openly gay journalist, i.e. out in all the major media outlets once I got the job. That meant a ton of attention that made appointing me a real risk. My apologies. I know the courage it took for others to be out back then, and in no way did I mean to minimize it.
Cool Ad Watch
From a long list of “only the coolest shark ads” compiled by Copyranter: “Berlin hosted an international track meet in 2007. The Berlin Aquarium placed this ambient ad on the pole vault mat.”
I recently appeared on the Inked Stained Wretches podcast, co-hosted by Dishcast alum Chris Stirewalt: “Andrew takes us on a journey through his upbringing in traditional media to his days blogging alongside Matt Drudge in the early 2000s and how he ended up on Substack.” We had fun. And here’s a short piece I wrote published today in the WSJ in a symposium on the question: “Have We Ruined Sex?” Money quote:
When I come across young gay men today, they already know everything. They have watched every imaginable porn movie. They know every conceivable sex position and have developed habits around them; they have complicated fetishes; and the first men they’d ever seen were on a screen. I was forced to create my own fantasies; they received theirs passively on their phones and laptops, prepackaged, clinical, relentless, cold.
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of the Dish spotlighting about 20 of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers subjects such as Israel’s turmoil, the Hunter hearings, and Barbenheimer. Below is one example, followed by a brand new substack:
What do DEI trainings actually accomplish? Here’s one tragic story.
A big welcome to David Deming, whom Cowen calls “a highly rated economist, yet still underrated.”
You can also browse all the substacks we follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? (The beagle cartoon was added to hide a big identifying sign that can’t be edited out easily in Photoshop.) Email your guess to email@example.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The deadline for entries is Wednesday night at midnight (PST). The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a free month subscription if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for this week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today. Here’s a followup on last week’s contest:
I’ve been too snowed under with dealings with work, family and an insurance/house-fire rebuild to give proper attention to a VFYW in awhile. Given that you posted last week the wall of vulvas, the vulva chocolate, and other mentions of this part of the female anatomy, “map of Tassie” is a fairly commonplace coy slang in Australia:
Marvellous song! And I can’t believe this slang wasn’t mentioned by your other sleuths.
See you next Friday.