New Yorker writer and book author Andrew Marantz and Eric became friends shortly before the 2016 election when Andrew set off to write the first profile of Eric and Geometric Unity, his theory of Physics. Coming from similar ethnic and politically progressive backgrounds they found plenty of common cause.
With the rise of Trump, they then found themselves in subtly different places with Andrew more directly concerned with the rise of the Alt-right and Eric convinced that the Alt-right was likely a response to the transformation of the Democratic Party begun under Bill Clinton into a serious threat to National unity.
In this conversation from November of 2019 in New York City, they discuss Andrew’s theories of the rise of the alt-right and internet trolling as well as the research from his 2019 book Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation. They also explore the contradictions between traditional and woke versions of progressivism and where all of this may be leading the republic. Particularly interesting given the 2019 time of this conversation is the concern with civil unrest and revolution which was shortly to play out in the American street a few months later.
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For a transcript of the audio essay at the beginning of this episode, see link below:
This episode’s conversation was recorded in New York City (and thus away from our home studio in Los Angeles) in November of 2019 with my friend Andrew Marantz of The New Yorker magazine. I’ve known Andrew for a bit over six years now, and so it has been possible to trace our conversation from 2014, and the time just before the Trump and Brexit political discontinuities, into the present. What I found is rather shocking. While I initially viewed Andrew and myself as extremely intellectually compatible—coming as we do from a common cultural background of thinking progressivism—I’ve watched us be increasingly divided by how we are processing recent events.
For example, Andrew and I are both alarmed by what we see as the mainstreaming of dangerous and previously fringe perspectives from the political right. However, I see them as clearly animated by a bottomless pit of far-left delusions, whereas Andrew is more likely to see me as conflating a relatively small number of lefty extremists with well-intentioned (if somewhat sloppy) analysts driven understandably to distraction by the spectacle of a reality TV star and troll in the White House, with 24 seven access to launch codes as Commander in Chief.
In this audio, I find our inability to bridge, and understand, our disconnect fascinating, because I see Andrew as being as intelligent as he is articulate, very well informed, and an excellent exponent of his positions across the board. And since we start culturally from very similar family [and] political orientations and traditions, it is bewildering to watch a chasm suddenly widen between our two perspectives: in 2014, we seem to see a common reality; by the third year of Trump’s presidency, however, we increasingly found ourselves struggling to hear each other despite the fact that we have both been opposed to this administration since the beginning. I suppose that I thought the rise of Trump was understandable (if lamentable) due to anger at what I saw as the monstrous transformation of the Democratic Party—under the Clintons and Dick Morris—into the betrayer of the working American family (as noted by Noam Chomsky and others). Andrew, however, was more likely to see the problem as a long-standing, intrinsically oppressive backwardness in American culture, which with Trump had finally broken out of the fringes and into the mainstream.
I may disagree with Andrew a fair amount more than I used to, but I would still like his voice to be much more widely heard. Along with David Pakman and a handful of others, Andrew strikes me as an excellent voice to analyze and explain what is truly animating the young wing of the progressive left that many of the old-style traditional progressives find so bewildering. Thus, while you find us disagreeing a fair amount here. I feel that I’m always learning from Andrew and his viewpoints, even if he has yet to sway me too far towards his analysis of the leading threats to our common vision of a prosperous, just, and tolerant society.
With that said, I found it interesting to listen to this audio from over half a year ago—when the novel coronavirus was still unknown and well before video of George Floyd’s sickening death focused months of COVID frustration to bring throngs of quarantiners into the streets in protests, riots, peaceful gatherings, and violent revolts around the country. I can’t speak for Andrew, but it is clear from reviewing the audio and video that in November of 2019 I am clearly quite alarmed that we Americans are playing with political fire and that civil unrest, political unraveling, and even revolution are clearly live possibilities just around the corner. As it happens, the recording appears to have taken place the same week as the likely first case of COVID was seen in China—food for thought. I hope you will find my conversation with Andrew thought-provoking.
We will return to my uninterrupted discussion with Andrew Marantz of The New Yorker after some brief words from our sponsors.
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Colin: This audio was recorded outside of our studios and for the first 24 minutes of the discussion, it’s at a slightly lower fidelity [transcriber’s note: a BIT of an understatement]. We apologize for the inconvenience.
Eric Weinstein: Welcome. You’ve found The Portal. I’m your host, Eric Weinstein, and I’m remote in New York City. I’m here with my friend, and author, Andrew Marantz—author of the book Antisocial.
Andrew Marantz: Hey!
EW: Andrew: welcome to The Portal, sir.
AM: Thank you, I found it!
EW: So we’ve been, uh… You and I’ve been going back and forth since before … a lot of changes in both of our lives. And I looked at it, and I think it’s January of 2014 that you and I started interacting.
AM: Is that what it was?
EW: Yeah. And you were supposed to take an interest in some physics stuff I was doing. And then you and I have been on this sort of crazy conversation over the last five plus years.
EW: How would you describe [laughing] what has taken place, in that period of time, that transformed our[?] initial conversation into this sprawling thing that you and I have been a part of?
AM: Yeah. Well, I suppose we should just … do the whole thing.
EW: Let’s do it.
AM: Yeah. So I initially … January 2014—I didn’t go back and look at it, but basically, okay, so … I, in addition to writing this book (all those years ago, I hadn’t written a book—I was a merely a writer at the New Yorker magazine) … And as a reporter at the New Yorker, I’d heard that some dude had given some lecture at Oxford, where he was like, maybe fixing some problems with Einstein or something? I read a piece about it. And I said, “I don’t know what this guy’s on about, but I should meet up with him. And he lives in New York, and maybe I’ll write a ‘Talk of the Town’ piece about it,”—one of these 800 word, you know, “Here’s this guy, maybe he got this physics right, maybe he got it wrong, who’s to say? Blah blah blah.” then we finished our tea and got the check[?] and went home.
And then we sat down and ate a meal. And first of all … I would ask a kind-of journalist who/what/where/when question, like, “So when did you go to Oxford and give this lecture?” And you’d be like, “Okay. Pretend the salt is a nucleus. …”
AM: “… and pretend that light bulb is the 70s.” And I was like, “I think this is gonna be [laughing] a longer and weirder conversation.”
So then we did that for like, three or four hours, in that restaurant. And at the end of it, I was like, “Well, I don’t think I have an 800 word ‘Talk of the Town’ piece. I think I might have a longer, weirder piece.” Also, I didn’t realize when we met up that you weren’t really doing physics for your day job, and you were like, “Well, I was doing some finance-y stuff, and I was doing some sort of economic stuff on the side, and looking at some immigration stuff on the side. And then also, I just took this job with Peter Thiel and I maybe …” I think you were in the process of thinking about moving to the West Coast? I was like, “There are so many more things happening [laughs] in this story. I’m not gonna follow the 800 word version. I’m just gonna keep in touch.”
And then I don’t know. I mean, you can jump in and say. But I basically …. Over the next few years, we kept in touch.
AM: … and I kept trying to find the way to do the Eric Weinstein profile or the- … What was the piece going to be? What was it going to capsulate? And I kept running into several problems—some of which I think I’ve explained to you, some of which I haven’t. Some of the problems were very on the level of basic logistics, like the thing I mentioned where you ask Eric Weinstein a very simple question, he does not give you a very simple answer often. Like: “Where’d you grow up? Did you have siblings?” “Well, the thing about where a person grew up, …
AM: “… it’s like, asking a chicken how they learned to fly.” And so I was like, “Okay, well, I … This is gonna be hard for me, materially, to write this piece—that’s just on the level of literature. …”
EW: [indecipherable] I was just trying to frustrate … making it possible to write the profile …
AM: Well, it was a little- … I mean, you, you know … You speak in these Jesus-like parables, often, and it’s like they make for great pull quotes. Like, …
EW: “Jesus-like parables”
AM: That’s definitely a compliment.
EW: Well, I mean, like … I’m a big fan of one of our top offshoots and the spin-offs, but …
AM: One of the best gay black Jews who has ever existed, but I, um- … But, you know, it made it harder for me to do my expositional job.
AM: And then there was also this thing where it wasn’t really clear what was on- or off-the-record, and what could or could I … I saw a lot of things, but I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to include them. And then there was also, you know, … You, like, invited my family over for dinner, which was lovely and beautiful, but then I was like, “Are we- … Is this- … Am I friends with this person now? Or is that too close? Are we entering the zone where it’s not journalistic anymore? Or …”
EW: We could be “frenemies.”
AM: [laughing] But even that: you know, there are these rules of journalism that are, kind of, passed down through the generations—which we can get into …
EW: Yeah, which are all being violated every four seconds on Twitter. Jeez, are you a stickler for the old way!
AM: I’m trying. I’m trying, alright?
So you know … I just got a little bit confused. Like I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’ll go over to this guy’s house and maybe I’ll get some material to write about him for a piece.” And then, like, Esther Perel was there and we were, like, [laughing] having a party and I was like, “Wait a minute, what is going on here?” So …
EW: Yeah, that was weird. That-
AM: It was fun. But-
EW: Yeah yeah yeah. That was like my 47th birthday party, right? Ordered some cheap kebab and, like, everybody in the world showed up. It was a very strange-
AM: It was great. It was good- But see, … And you know, we should get into it because I … The norms of journalism ARE being violated, and some of that is to the good and some of that-
EW: Yeah, but… Go “gonzo”!
AM: The thing is, like, … Hunter Thompson’s dead, man.
EW: No no no. I don’t mean old-style gonzo—figure out what “gonzo” means for your generation.
AM: Well, I like that idea; I like that impulse. There are ways in which I think it’s fruitful to do that, and to sort of throw the rules out the window.
AM: And look, you know: you would own up to things in the piece, and you used the first person. And I mean, I’m not … The way I write still kind of-
EW: Well look, I was’t necessarily trying to help you write a profile on me. And I think probably the reason the profile ever got written is that I wasn’t really 100% comfortable, because I don’t like the idea of building people up to tear them down. It was very flattering that you took an interest, but, uh … that wasn’t even where I was going with the question. Because a lot of—to turn the tables on you, sir …
AM: Yeah. Yeah!
EW: … you also became this much more nuanced, interesting thing to the world. You and I both weirdly found our way to these alternate dissemination channels. And the fact that we both took an interest in what Mike Cernovich seemed to understand about the world (completely independently from each other, if I recall correctly).
AM: Yeah. Well, the other thing that we should say (in terms of exposition, setting, and narrative) is that in 2014 there was no Intellectual Dark Web, and there was no alt-right, really. (I mean, both of those things kind of existed in some protoplasmic form, but they hadn’t been really NAMED, in the public.) And so, that was before I took an interest in writing a book about the alt-right, and that was before you became the, sort of … spoke of the IDW, or whatever you are.
EW: Well, we don’t even know if that’s A THING. Maybe that doesn’t even really exist except in Bari Weiss’ mind …
EW: Um, you know, that …
AM: We might ALL be a product of Bari Weiss’ mind.
EW: Yeah, it’s possible. …
Okay, so. Here’s where I was really going with the question (obviously[?] I wasn’t very successful in framing it): Boy, was that a different world, five years ago. It’s almost hard to remember how different it was, because the 2016 election and Brexit (I think) let us know that there’s a ton of magma under a very thin crust that’s dying to just shoot out all over the world and create chaos and havok.
Where are we? What time is it right now here in 2019? So, right now, we’re recording this in November in New York City. What do you assume is happening globally? Is this just a bunch of unrelated, coincidental events, where you can’t show any kind of etiology or universal causal structure? Or are we swept up in a THING? Is it technologically-mediated? Is it about the economy and people just bored and want to riot? What do you think’s happening?
AM: Yeah, so I don’t think it’s all unrelated. I do think there are etiologies, but they might not be, like, a grand unified theory, in my mind. I think there is a bit of a … you see a kind of false dichotomy emerging of, “Is it racism? Or is it economic anxiety?” And I think everybody sort of knows that the answer is some of both, and some of either. I mean, definitely some of both (and there’s also some other stuff that isn’t represented by either of those two choices). The “both” part is pretty easy, right? I mean, were voters in the Rust Belt voting for Trump because they were experiencing racial anxiety or economic anxiety? To some degree, the answer has to be both because those two things are correlated.
EW: Yeah, even here, … I would love to figure out what you and I should fight about …
AM: Yeah. Got it.
EW: … in the most constructive way possible …
AM: [indecipherable agreement]
EW: … so let’s try to figure out, like, some really good, constructive, …
AM: I think they’re the most EFFICIENT disagreement we can have is, how much of it … Essentially, a lot of it boils down to, are people expressing something useful or harmful when they are doing the magma-erupting thing? Like, I think … and to quote my book, are people being pro-social or anti-social? I think, if I had to caricature our views, I think I’m more of the, kind of, skeptical … I don’t wanna say pessimistic or cynical, but I tend more toward the view that these eruptions are worth worrying about—where I think you’re a little bit more trusting of the idea that, ultimately, they might be producing something useful and something that-
EW: W-w-wait. What?
AM: In the sense that when I hear- … Well, this could be wrong! But when I hear you talk about how the old structures are being torn down, it seems to me that often you arrive at a place where this is a painful-but-necessary process of, you know, the old structures were so bad that the intervention to tear them down is ultimately more useful than propping them up.
EW: Um … Well, that’s not how I … This is interesting.
EW: No, I think I almost never get a chance to say what it is that I really believe, which is: I’m terrified, … I would like to save the New York Times, Harvard, and the Democratic Party. And they seem to be hell bent on committing some kind of intellectual suicide. And I don’t know what to do about this, because I’ve had one crowd of people saying, “Burn it to the ground” in one ear (and I understand what they’re talking about: there is some kind of intellectual rot), and on the other hand, I’m thinking, “Do you have any idea how difficult it will be to replace these institutions rather than to fix them?”
AM: Right. Well, some of it is semantic: what we mean by “tearing down” versus “propping up” and all that stuff. Yeah yeah, I see you point …
EW: Yeah. But, … And then, for example, in the racial angle: I think a lot of racists voted for Obama. I don’t think that race is necessarily- … How many anti-Semites make sure that they have Jewish lawyers and doctors? It’s not small. So I don’t know that race plays … But even among racists, I don’t necessarily think it behaves the way the supposed “anti-racists” claim it does.
AM: We definitely agree on that.
AM: I think that racism is a much deeper and broader category than it’s often made out to be. I don’t think it is all that useful to talk about racism as individual animus. I don’t think there are that many people in the country who will, sort of, refuse to shake the hand of someone of a different race than themselves. …
EW: Yeah, that’s a pretty short ride.
AM: Yeah, I don’t even think … I mean, I’ve been around Richard Spencer a bunch—I don’t even think he’s in that category. So you know, I’ve spent a lot of time around a lot of really shitty people in order to try to ethnographically understand what they are like, and also as a sort of stand-in for different paths that our country could be going down. And I think it would be a mistake to say, “Well, there are 100 bad apples in this country who experience racial animus in their souls, and those are the people we need to worry about.”
EW: Ok. Now, would you say that you and I both come from, sort of, a progressive milieu?
AM: Yeah, “milieu” for sure. I try to, you know, …
EW: But I feel like we’ve sort of diverged in a lot of ways, although I can still hear you across the chasm.
AM: And I think, I mean … I’m actually interested … So, I’m not sure which things we agree or disagree on. (I mean, actually, a lot of it depends on definition of terms.)
EW: Well … let’s just go through a bunch of stuff …
AM: Yeah, yeah, sure.
EW: … see how that shakes out.
Alright. I guess … I’m very, very worried about reigniting ultra-nationalism, white supremacy, out-and-out racism, return to open misogyny, etc., etc. And I believe these things are a real threat, but mostly unrealized—that to the extent that there are these problems (I do believe in structural oppression and structural unfairness, although I think that the people who talk in these terms are very often talking very incautiously and with a ton of hyperbole and being totally reckless about it. And so I feel like the concept of structural oppression has been so inflated, that we can’t … And not, you know … Ignored in some place that it very much IS, and distorted out of proportion in someplace that it’s quite mild.
So, like, my confusion about this is, I don’t think that the the current woke movement (if you want to call it that) is being at all thoughtful or judicious about its targets, its strategy—it’s just this kind of take over a bunch of sense-making organs where we can’t now conduct civil society without having to pay this tax anytime somebody uses the wrong pronoun or speaks about race or gender in some way that is not part of the official approved set of ways of talking.
AM: Yeah. So that’s … There’s a bunch of stuff in there that I think we agree on. And I think I can find a productive disagreement.
(I also am sitting with my hands folded on the table, not because I wish to appear schoolmarmish or anything, but because I have the New York Jew-y habit of talking with my hands and not …
EW: Let’s gesticulate, brother.
AM: … it’s just ridiculous talking over microphone stands [indecipherable] …
EW: That’s ok!
AM: … so I’m trying to control myself.)
So, look, here’s the deal: yeah, I think the parts of that that are useful to pull at[?], are … I get why people worry about the injudiciousness or the incautiousness. And there are specific instances where I think we would have the same impulse—I think maybe even a majority of them (I don’t know how you’d count) …
EW: I would guess.
AM: Yeah. And so then the question to me is in framing. Like, what I worry about is a strawmanning effect where we look at some … people running through the streets in black masks, setting stuff on fire and go, “That’s the left.” Or … I don’t want people to be setting things on fire. I think that is stupid. But … the question is, how much is it representative of? And how much is the incautiousness ahistorical?
I mean, one thing I- … Just recently- … You know, you talked about occupying sense making structures. So in the 60s, there were PHYSICAL occupations of sense making structures such as-
EW: Straight Hall?
AM: Correct. So I looked back at the SDS demands when they occupied Columbia University, and the demands were, “You can’t build this gym in Harlem. But also you have to end the occupation in Vietnam. You have to free all political prisoners.” That was extremely incautious. It made no logical sense: Columbia University was not in charge of the world’s political prisoners. But we look back on that historically and go, “Sure, there was some injudiciousness, but those people were basically on the right side of history; that was a messed up war; they were protesting for essentially the right things; they grew out of their incautious moment and grew into sensible adults; and Columbia University’s response …”
EW: W-w-wait. You’re [laughing] going for a lot of territory. I don’t necessarily think they grew into sensible adults. But[?] keep going.
AM: Well … And then a part of this is the “they”, right? Who is the “they”? Who is the left? Who are the woke people? Who is the … You know. There is a huge amount of individual variation in ways that … Yeah, sure: there might be some people who are occupying Columbia University who are now-
EW: Look, let’s find them-, let’s …
(By the way, feel free, as another [laughing] [indecipherable] to interrupt me as much as you want.)
AM: Yeah yeah.
So let’s pick it apart.
EW: Okay. I don’t have these feelings. My belief is that you had an extremely dumb war that was chewing up actual lives (both ours and theirs), and you had a, kind of, a dumb protest movement protesting a dumb war. And in some sense, that’s kind of a bit of what we have here—we’ve got a stupid extreme right (that makes me nauseous) and we’ve got a really crazy left response to that. That’s not how I see this shaking out.
The first big adjustment is, I’m astounded that we can’t TALK, at the moment—we cannot figure out a set of common ground truths and allowable moves to sit down and like … How would we adjudicate a dispute? So you know, if we’re going to have, let’s say, an intellectual fight: are we going to use Queensberry Rules? Or are we self-refereeing? Do we agree that we’re not going to bite each other’s ears off.
The fact is, most of us can’t agree what a conversation actually IS, anymore—I think that’s fascinating. And what constitutes an illegal move is an important part of that. I think that … The Boomers look back on the Boomers as young people, and they say, “Well, we were energetic and so full of idealism.” And I look back and I say, “Well, actually, there was a lot of stupidity that was called out in real time.” In particular—and I’ve made this point on a bunch of places—there are all these instances in rock ’n roll where the singers are telling these kids, “You’re out of your mind. You’re … Shut up.” You know, like, … The Rolling Stones: “I went down to the demonstration to get my fair share of abuse.” Or Buffalo Springfield, you know, singing songs and carrying signs mostly saying “Hooray for our side.” You know, there’s like, a million of these references that the protests are just kind of dumb.
AM: Yeah. Even “Revolution” by The Beatles. Yeah …
EW: People[?] carrying pictures of Chairman Mao … Right, all of this stuff … 10 years after “I’d love to change the world.”
EW: So I think it was dumb in real-time.
AM: Sure. But I mean, I guess … that’s a useful … Well, first of all, the Rolling Stones were also like, “He can’t be a man because he don’t smoke the same cigarettes as me.” I mean, they were protesting lots of stuff that, you know, who knew …
But the point being, so John Lennon is an interesting test case of this, right? Sure, he had critiques—he was a very snarky, cynical, dude; he had critiques of everything around him—and yet, he was king of the hippies! And he did the lions and the sleep … bed-ins, and all that stuff.
So I guess, in a way, there’s different ways to read that. One is: even John Lennon thinks you guys are stupid. Another way is: yeah, he has critiques of the people next to him, but it doesn’t mean he stops doing the thing that is-
EW: Well I do think there’s a metacognitive thing about John Lennon, and I do think that he’s a very bizarre and interesting case …
AM: But I think it also illustrates how there might be individual slips into farce or instability, but the larger point is we got to end this fucking war.
EW: Right. Okay. Bit now there really ISN’T a war—we’ve had a black president; …
AM: We also-
EW: W-w-wait. We had universal marriage. …
AM: I don’t think you want to be making the argument right now—with Trump in the White House—that we don’t have big fights to fight. I mean … That’s a very tough argument for you to make.
EW: What do you imagine I’m making? I want to get this guy out …
AM: I know.
EW: … yesterday.
AM: I know! Well, … And I don’t thi- … I believe- … I know that to be …
EW: … and I know that the fastest way I can ensure four more years of Donald Trump is to tell the median American that they’re really out of control, and there’s nothing they can do about it—they should just feel guilty and pay reparations. Like, how badly do I want a Supreme Court with nine conservative-appointed justices? I can’t … Like, I’m lost. What the hell do you think we’re doing?
AM: Well, this … So, we might have a disagreement here, too, in terms of tactics. In terms of goals, neither of us wants nine Kavanaughs on the Court; neither of us wants Trump’s second term. My point in bringing that up was to say, …
EW: But I’m not so dead set against that, that I would, you know …
The question of what the Democratic Party becomes as a counterweight to whatever the Republican Party has become is really important—and it’s not just a question of tactics. I think one of the things is nauseatingly about the American established left—this is like, “Just hold your shit together until after the election.” Right? If that’s what you’re going to say, then you have a really serious problem. Because what you’re doing, is that you’re talking about a tactic. And I’m not talking about a tactic—I’m talking about growing up. I’m talking about being decent.
AM: Yeah. So I guess … You know, again … These are big categories. But to drill down on them, if you … So, let’s take a person in Wisconsin or Michigan (because this is sort of the hypothetical scenario that the pollsters like to run): Are there people … Are there white, working-class people in swing states who are going to feel alienated and offended by talk of white guilt and white privilege? Sure, maybe! But in terms of what we are or not willing to give up or suppress until after the 2020 election, you know, …
EW: I don’t want to hear it. I, Eric, don’t want to hear any more talk about toxic masculinity, male privilege, white privilege, blah, blah, blah. And it’s not because I don’t think that those things are about a real something, and that we really should be remediating some very serious problems. It’s that these concepts have become incredibly powerful as levers, and incredibly toxic, and they’re not serving any goal that I can understand.
AM: So we’re[?] talking about the toxicity of “toxic masculinity”?
EW: I’m … We are talking about the toxicity of telling people that their inalienable qualities make them pariahs in some new ordering that nobody I know voted for.
AM: Yeah. So yeah, I think so I think that’s a mistake …
EW: Like it’s really … I mean, this is an embittering thing and it’s not really about the fact that there’s no point—there IS a point about life being easier if you’re a white person in a country that’s been dominated by white people. I want to examine that. And I don’t want to examine it through the lens of “white privilege” and I don’t want to be told about “white fragility” or “white tears” or “white this” or “white that.”
AM: Well, so … I don’t really get it, then. I mean, if you agree that there … that it is structurally … that society is structurally set up to privilege white people … Do you just not like that the phrase “white privilege” is spoken by people who you just have … other aesthetic disagreements with? It doesn’t sound like you’re disagreeing with the phrase itself.
[transcriber’s note: humane audio quality starts here]
EW: I think, Andrew, the issue is that there’s this closed epistemological system where you can’t escape from … Everything you can possibly say is mapped in some sort of nightmare, woke ELIZA program, and everything is wrong. And once you’ve been through that intellectual traffic circle and you go around and around, you say, “Okay, every every instinct I have is ‘white fragility,’ ‘white tears,’ ‘white guilt,’ ‘white knight.’” After about three minutes, it’s just like, Okay, this is stupid. Why would anyone want to participate in this?”
AM: Yeah, I get that. I get the feeling of being logically trapped. I mean, remember, there’s this thing in Infinite Jest where the guy goes into a 12-step program, and they tell him, “What you are is an alcoholic—if you deny being an alcoholic, that’s just a perfect hallmark that shows us that you’re an alcoholic.” And the David Foster Wallace brain rejects that. And weirdly (and I don’t mean this to have any explanatory power, but just to close the loop) the rest of that novel is him accepting that he actually needs to be in AA. So I don’t think that it is the case that if you are white, you need to be in recovery. I don’t. That’s not the analogy. …
AM: … The analogy is: some things that are framed in an annoying or circular way might be pointing at something that’s useful. So we can pick out bad arguments that are trying to condemn people or make them feel guilty in ways that aren’t useful. But there are better versions of those arguments.
EW: Okay, so this, this is where I think we get to something interesting. I agree that “the left,” and “the woke,” and “progressives” is a very large space. Here’s where it shrinks: who’s willing to stand up and say, “My fellow progressives are completely out of control.”? Almost no one. And the reason is, is that these supposedly empathic people will ruin your life at the drop of a hat, have fun doing it, and … What I did not know about my left-of-center brethren, is that they’ve got an INCREDIBLE taste for vengeance, and for collateral damage. Like, the idea that you got to break a few eggs to make an omelet is totally widespread on[?] the American left. And …
I was just listening to you and Sam Harris go at it. It was also listening to Sam Harris and Chelsea Handler: she keeps saying very clearly, “Oh yeah, we’re in an overcorrection—a necessary overcorrection.” And his point is, “Well, why the necessary OVERcorrection? Why not just a necessary CORRECTION?” And I remembered having Ezra Klein and his wife, Annie Lowrey, over—they were very clear that “progress is messy.” And this … willingness to put up with the destruction of reasonable families and lives on the way to some beautiful utopian tomorrow is nauseating! One I … I just didn’t know! Somehow, I didn’t know that so many of the people that I would think I was politically allied with really don’t care if people get hurt—in fact, they’re kind of excited about it.
AM: Yeah. So there’s a lot in there. I-
EW: That’s insane.
AM: Yeah. So look. Yes. I don’t want there to be an overcorrection when there could just be a correction. I don’t want people to get hurt. And I see your point that there are sometimes people who want to go after things and tear people down (even people who are putatively on their own side). And I see that stuff and it offends me and annoys me just like anyone. I see …
AM: … so, you know …
There’s this-. One of my favorite YouTubers is named ContraPoints. She makes these really—(I wrote a piece about her)—she makes these really fascinating, stylish videos attacking and tearing down the radical right (and other things: gender stuff, whatever). Her core fan base has gone after her, recently, and tried to cancel her over things that, to me, do not seem like cancelable offenses. And I look at that stuff and go, “What are you guys doing? Like, you’re you’re taking the one person who is leading you into some kind of mainstream recognition, and who is actually pulling in people from alternate universes who actually need to hear this stuff, and you’re trying to make HER go away—that seems self defeating to me.” And you can pick out things of that … happening all over the place.
One place where we might be disagreeing is in how widespread and definitive that is of everything. So, I don’t feel that I can’t go in public and say, “I think Nazi-punching is counterproductive. I think setting things on fire is counterproductive. I think that there are … I think language is important, but I also think, in many cases, there are more important things than language. I thought Moonlight was a little overrated.” Like, there are lots of things I can say where I don’t feel that I will immediately be canceled. And so I don’t … I see the problem-
EW: Do you have cancellable views?
AM: I don’t know, I don’t …
EW: Maybe you don’t! Maybe the idea is that you’re aligned …
AM: Well, but I can’t be aligned with the cartoon version of what you’re saying, ‘cause as you list the examples-
EW: Well no no no. … I think that part of it is, is that it’s selective prosecution. I think that one of the things that’s going on is that for some reason, all sorts of people get a pass. It’s like an indulgence system, where, if you have an indulgence from whatever this group of people is who may live within the Beltway in Washington or live in Brooklyn and write these things, you can actually have been a person who made a lot of bad jokes back in the day. I mean, I’m shocked at the number of these super woke people who did Halloween in blackface or had routines making fun of homosexuals. And they frequently view me as somehow affiliated with the right-wing—which I have no … I don’t think that there’s a single way you can really make that argument. So, like … They’re on- … And I don’t think I’ve made any of these kinds of jokes or faux pas, historically!
AM: Yeah. So I don’t think … I mean … I definitely don’t have the indulgence thing, because, a lot of … I mean, again: it’s very hard to define what we mean by “the woke,” but there are definitely people who see The New Yorker as being this kind of big, bad, centrist institution that … I am often perceived as a white guy (just as you’re saying, I mean, the people … a lot of the Nazis I report on DON’T think I’m white—and that’s another discussion, but I think I’m white, and most of the people I speak to do). And so it’s not like I think I get a pass. And I …
EW: But look: let’s try to figure out who’s out here. So there really is a nascent, dangerous right that is trying to emerge into the mainstream and through social media—we’re agreed on that.
EW: … and you’ve been embedded with them and talking to them.
AM: And I think it is kind of the story of our time. (I mean, that’s why I devoted three years to charting it.) And we can get into the specifics of it, because I think it’s important.
EW: So let me cede and agree with you that, not only does that exist it’s, in some sense, almost, ultimately what’s motivating me—because I want to keep that thing in the bottle and I don’t want to getting out. If it gets out of its Petri dish, we’ve got real trouble.
There’s also this other thing (which I don’t understand at all) which is: A bunch of people who are anything but that, who are constantly lumped with that by people who are employed by legacy media structures like Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, NPR. What’s going on with that?
AM: Well, I mean, it depends, right? Sometimes there are lazy misnomers. I mean, I know from reporting on the alt-right for … And it’s not just the alt-right—I’ve been reporting on the breakdown of media systems more generally, how social media fills power vacuums, and specifically (you talk about “gonzo”), specifically going into these rooms where it’s happening, and just watching it happen. So that’s that’s my interest, and I think it’s a test case for lots of larger things (which we can get into). In doing that. I have seen some reporting that’s inaccurate. I have seen Ben Shapiro be called alt-right (when, in fact, he’s attacked all the time by alt-right people). I’ve seen, sometimes things that are just wrong. I’ve seen other things where people are wary of, like …
When you talk about the rejection of, “I don’t want to hear stuff about white fragility and white tears and all that stuff.” I know where you’re coming from. And you’ve already stipulated earlier in the conversation, you’re coming from a place of, “I want social justice to flourish in the land. I want, you know …”
EW: I THOUGHT I wanted that.
EW: No, no: I’m not kidding. Like, I don’t know what- … I have the feeling that we’re talking about The Dress, right? Like, I see this thing so clearly as … This is a terrible perversion of whatever we were on when we were taking a trajectory towards social justice. Like, we took some crazy off ramp and became lunatics. That’s how I see this. It’s not that I don’t believe in the original mission. But I certainly don’t think things’ve got wildly worse racially. I think the fact that we elected a half-white half-Black president was a very interesting thing—it definitely caused a lot of feelings to well up. But I think there’s a ton of misattribution as to why we are where we are. And the thing is, it’s not the underlying ideas. It’s … I don’t believe in trapping people in logical loops and running them around like they’re idiot children told to sit in the corner of a round room, and then laughing when they can’t figure out what they’re supposed to do. I mean, that’s just evil!
EW: Is that not evil?
AM: THAT is [laughs]. But so, yeah … There are lots of ways to read big historical trends. You can read the historical trend of “America had a two-term, biracial president” and point to that as a progress narrative and see the backlash to that. And …
EW: There was progress. There was backlash. It’s an unfinished process.
AM: Yeah! Right.
And so, to me, one of the chief things, one of the kind of philosophical underlayers of the work I’ve been doing (and it’s in the book, but you have to, kind of, look for it carefully—it doesn’t often come up in in the kind of interviews I’ve been doing around the book, but) …
The kind of “patron saint” of the book, intellectually, is this philosopher Richard Rorty who- (Kind of an anti-philosopher, in many ways. And he has a million things to say, and … we could be decoding his work all day. And he’s not the only … there’s a whole American pragmatist tradition that he draws on.) One of my favorite of his books, and the one that I returned to a couple of times in my book, is Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. And what he means … I mean, all three of those concepts are important in interlocking ways. But what he means by “contingency” is, essentially, things are contingent: they’re open to the winds of time and chance, and they can turn out in one way or another way depending on various conditions. And obviously, that sounds obvious when you put it that way. But when you reorient your historical frame away from what philosophers and intellectuals did in Europe through the Enlightenment (and for too long after the Enlightenment), Hegel, Heidegger, Marx, sort of, Ayn Rand—like all these people relying on this notion of, “People are essentially one thing and history is essentially bound to progress in one direction.” He makes a very convincing case that any version of that is counterproductive, and that to really reorient ourselves around contingency (contingency of self, contingency of language, contingency of community) actually brings you a lot closer to having a way of talking about things that helps map … he wouldn’t say reality, but … The point being with all this stuff, we have, very deeply embedded in our American mythos, this notion of, “We are shining city on a hill. We are becoming ever closer to realizing the true ideals of who we are, and should be. And ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.’ Blah, blah, blah.” All that stuff is there in the American fabric SOMEwhere. But there’s a there’s a danger that I see us sometimes slipping into—and I myself have slipped into, tacitly, in the past—of, sort of, assuming that the arc of history is in some sense teleological; the arc of history will inevitably bend toward justice. Rather than the TRUER version …
EW: Yeah, I’m lost here.
AM: Okay. Well, so the reason this matters to the whole “Obama progress” narrative thing is that … If you no longer see it as a narrative with an ending that can be predicted with any reliability, then it’s no longer that helpful to say, “Well, obviously, a country that had a Black president is experiencing some kind of arc of history that is bending toward justice.” In some sense, it may be but in another sense …
EW: I could tell the story that he was not descended from slaves—he was descended from East African graduate students …
AM: Sure. Or the story that, de facto, segregation widened, and wealth inequality widened and …
EW: … etc., etc. I don’t have any problem with that. I’m not telling a simple story. I’m telling talking about something else. I’m talking about the evil of using this network of, I’m going to say, semi-public institutions (like the New York Times or the Democratic Party) to troll the center of the country—the median individual—and tell them, like … “We’re more interested, often, in showing that we can speak Spanish because we believe that no one is illegal, and so, like, let’s get rid of the concept of ‘illegal immigrants.’ Let’s not worry about diluting the vote—we’ll never talk about that. Let’s try to make sure that trans is something that we’re talking about in early stages of development in schools. …” I don’t know. There’s like a ton of weird stuff where it feels like a giant troll. Right? And, “We’re gonna do stuff, and if you object to it, you it’s just going to tell us how bad you are, and we’re going to take victory laps and try to bury your career.” And I think that that thing is actually … I’ve called it “Left Carthyism.”[?] And the, like … Where this comes down for me, is that my family suffered under McCarthyism. And I’m against McCarthyism as a tactic. I don’t like it any better when we do it.
AM: Yeah. So again, I mean-
EW: And by the way (I’m just going to come at it again): I don’t think this is sloppy journalism. I think that everyone knows that Ben Shapiro isn’t a Nazi. I don’t think that there’s ANYONE who thinks Ben Shapiro is a Nazi. I think that Ben Shapiro said a lot of things I don’t like. And I’ve called him out … you know, I call almost NOBODY out—because I don’t like call-out culture—but I’ve said, “Hey, Ben, you know, you’re over-the-line on this one or that one.”
Ben Shapiro isn’t the Nazi—period, the end. Am I wrong?
EW: Okay. Does anyone think ben shapiro is a Nazi? Or even, let’s go further: The concept of Nazism … In some sense, if the Black world is going to tell us what words we can and cannot use, I feel like the Jewish world should tell people, “Stop using the word ‘Nazis’ to describe bad people if they’re not actually Nazis, because that belongs to us. We suffered. (And, now, I’ll take that along with the Roma, the physically disabled, and the homosexuals.) But YOU don’t have a right to call everybody a “Nazi,” ya punk.”
I mean, it’s really an an embittered and angering stupidity to be found in a bunch of people who went to Ivy League schools and are now writing for you know, the nation’s preeminent organs.
AM: Yeah, but we should ask Iggy Pop first if we’re allowed to call people “punks,” but … Yeah. I get it. I just … I think it’s helpful to carve stuff into smaller sample sizes, which is why I bring up Ben Shapiro being called alt-right. I think it’s really useful to stick to individual cases because again, when-
EW: Or my brother is a “racist.”
EW: Okay, so … What fantasy Maoist planet do you have to live on to believe that?
AM: Right. So those are good examples. …
Look, I don’t think there are people who think Ben Shapiro is a Nazi. I think there are people who …
EW: But they call him that because it’s fun!
AM: No, no, they call him “alt-right,” and I think, so …
Again there’s an Occam’s razor thing where, I think the most likely solution there (and I don’t know the people—I don’t remember which publication it was; I don’t know who they were), but I think the most likely solution is, they don’t KNOW that alt-right means white supremacist, anti-Semite—I think they just think alt-right means “high-energy, bellicose, anti-establishment, far right, whatever.”
EW: Look, I don’t … I don’t think there is … I don’t know what to say about this, though. The term “alt-right” got thrown around, by supposed grownups, SO liberally.
AM: Yeah, I chart this very carefully in my book, and I go through how the term got widened to the point where it … this supposedly fringe movement included everyone (including the Republican nominee for president, and all of his chief advisors and all of these massive media institutions). Like-
EW: Is Sam Harris alt-right?
AM: Look: the actual technical definition is that it was a term that Richard Spencer made up to describe himself and his fellow anti-Semitic cronies. But the thing is, we can ascribe malice and, kind of, collusion, or we can … What’s the thing that’s, “Always easier to ascribe stupidity rather than …”
EW: I HATE that thing.
AM: Well, I know!
EW: That aphorism is just wrong!
AM: I don’t think it is, though. Because, you know, …
EW: No, it starts with the word “never.”
AM: Okay, well, so then that version of it is wrong.
AM: But there’s certainly it’s certainly true that an Occam’s razor explanation—CERTAINLY in the world of journalism—is often-
EW: No, you’ve got something very different. You’ve got a bunch of people who talk to each other and think this is a hoot. They think it’s FUNNY.
AM: So let’s take this example, that … The expansion and subsequent contraction of the definition of the term “alt-right.” Steve Bannon gave an interview to Mother Jones in August of 2016, where he said, “I want Breitbart to be the platform for the alt-right.” So to the extent that mainstream journalists were confused about who was or wasn’t alt-right, largely, it was Steve Bannon’s fault because he was telling them, “I’m alt-right. My publication is alt-right. Everyone who likes me and likes Trump is alt-right.” That … Either, the innocent explanation is that he didn’t know that Richard Spencer was behind the term …
EW: But, like … whatever. Breitbart, Steve Bannon, yada yada yada, just for a second.
There’s there’s such different thought patterns on the left, at the moment, that I don’t even think that we get to this level …
AM: But I thought we wanted to talk about specific cases in order to talk about the misapplication …
EW: Let’s come back to it. Just the pattern of guilt-by-association that the left now uses inferentially. Like, the left constantly (and again, I’m going to use this as a generalization) feels that there’s no problem assuming that, because I work for and with my friend Peter Thiel, that I must be somehow a crypto-conservative. Like, “How could you be anything else if you don’t immediately disavow this person from Planet Earth?” Well, that’s not a legitimate thought pattern. And for it to have it so widely spread?
AM: Well of course it’s not. I mean, people have disagreements—and I get this all the time (and I hope that we don’t fall into it here!) where I’m held accountable for everything The New Yorker has ever writt-
EW: I’m not trying to do that at all.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, it strikes me that these patterns have to be called out on our own side. I’m always much more focused … I would like to go back to fighting the excesses of the right directly. But if I have to think about how I’m going to use my efforts to try to contain the evil that is Nazism or white supremacy or anti-Semitism or any of these things, it’s by focusing on my own team and saying, “What are you doing? Did somebody pay us all off? Did did the Republican Party pay us to antagonize people?” I mean, Obama’s talking about this—about the circular firing squads and whatnot. Um …
AM: Well, yeah. But Obama has always had this view. I mean, he didn’t just … yes, he just added the word “woke” to his lexicon because it didn’t exist when he was first running for president, b-
EW: No, but he was also the one, I think, who looked at the Colorado midterm senate elections and realized that, “Well, maybe identity politics is the bright spot for us—let’s go with that.”
AM: Yeah, I mean, Obama has a complicated legacy on this stuff because, on one hand, he had this faith in the arc of history-. I mean, I think this stuff underlies a lot of this. He had this faith that the fever would break, and people would all sort of reliably fall in line, and the Republicans would start to vote in the way that he thought they should logically want to vote. He was wrong about that—deeply wrong.
AM: And … Look, I think th-
EW: Andrew, I think what I’m doing is I’m calling out something …
AM: On your side.
EW: Well … But the problem is, in large measure, a group of people who have a kind of somewhat interoperable set of intellectual moves, who have moved into the sense-making organs. And they agree with each other not to silence each other when they’re hunting people who are trying to make sense in public.
AM: Yeah, so, …
EW: … and it is the cabal aspect of this which is, you know, you’ve got a bunch of people agreeing to things that make no sense. That’s always a concern.
AM: Right. So, yeah, again, it’s really hard to generalize about The Media or The Woke Culture or whatever, but I can try to break it down. I mean … I agree, in theory, with standing up to things on your own side that you think are excessive or make no sense. But if you had to ask me to choose which thing I want to devote more energy to fighting, I … I mean, just going back to that John Lennon example: he wrote one song about the rhetorical excesses of the protesters, and then he went right back to protesting—because that was the more important thing for him to do, to be on the right side of history.
I don’t think that that … I don’t think we’re living in a moment where “Let’s just willy-nilly break a bunch of eggs and see how many omelets we can make.” I don’t ascribe to that. I do think (in many cases, in many ways) we’re living through a moment of great social change, and …
EW: Do you think we’re living through a revolution?
AM: Well, I don’t think the 60s were a revolution, literally. But I think they were a moment of great cultural upheaval.
EW: I think the 60s were a revolution.
AM: In what sense?
EW: Um … Total breakdown of previous norms. I mean, just the entrance of women into the workforce would be enough.
AM: [Yeah.] So in some … Maybe in that broad sense. Then yeah, maybe. I mean, I think we’re in a pretty 1968ish moment.
EW: Yeah, I think it’s gonna get a lot more in 1968ish in … I don’t think we’re done here.
AM: Sure. I think if you’re living in 1968, your primary responsibility is to end the war, reduce the immediate aftermath of racial segregation, …
AM: … have a serious rebuilding of American infrastructure and really repair wealth inequality—all these things that we failed to do. I think that is our role here. So I can certainly find instances where I think this or that New York Times article was rhetorically excessive.
EW: No, but I’m listening to your language: you’re not animated by it. I-
AM: Right, I don’t think that’s the big problem of our society right now. I really don’t. I think the big problem of our society right now is wealth inequality and all those things.
EW: Okay. I find myself … The more of that “New York Times problem” thing that we’re discussing … The more of that that I get into my life, the more I find myself not caring about exactly the things that you care about. And that I would think that I care about. I have to remind myself about my own feelings about structural oppression, for example.
AM: And why do you think that is? That if you s-
EW: ‘Cause I think it’s so STUPID—I think it’s moronic expression of a very important legacy and canon of thought. It’s like, we’re just going to take all of the things that we were working on (that were really hard and interesting and deep) and we’re going to dumb the shit out of it.
AM: Yeah, I guess I just-
EW: … and embitter everyone in the process. And make these things dangerous and bad. Like, I just … I see this abyss of stupid. Somehow.
AM: Yeah, I don’t think that what we’re doing is embittering everyone. I mean, I think … The way we respond to this stuff is always personal—and I got insurance with Sam a little bit: your brother was run out of town; you’ve had, you know, …
EW: N-n-no. Forget my brother run out of town. The New York Times was almost silent as it happened. And fuck those guys. The problem is the silence. The problem is that the very people who are supposed to stand up were nowhere to be found—it’s like high noon and you can’t get a posse together.
AM: Right, so, but … And this is my point, is that we are inevitably shaped by experiences like that that touch us close to home. So I think that you might be over-generalizing and saying, “The New York Times is one of the biggest problems we’re facing” because the New York Times acted in a way that you felt failed you in that instance, and in other instances. Because there are other times where I’ve seen stuff that has worried you about the way the media performs where I think, “Yeah, I just don’t see it that way.” I mean, sometimes I do. And I think, again, it’s useful to point to specific cases. But other times, I just think that that just is the way that, like, …
I remember we had a disagreement about a tweet that the New Yorker put out about one of my pieces. It was a piece about Berkeley and how there were provocateurs coming to Berkeley or people who … Really, what it was, is that there were people coming to campus who Berkeley students were protesting against. And in that case, you know, like, … I think, again, it’s just useful to take specific cases, and to do the “what’s the best of all possible explanations” thing. There was a tweet that said, “Read this article by Andrew Marantz in which he describes a tumultuous semester at Berkeley, when people like Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos came to campus.” And you objected to that and said, “What the fuck? You’re putting my friend Ben Shapiro in this line of deplorables, and trying to create this guilt-by-association thing.” And I sort of responded by saying, “I guess I can see how you could see it that way. Actually, my explanation is, those are the two people who came to the Berkeley campus on that semester, both of which resulted in protests. And in the article, I go into the differences between them, but in a tweet, you’re gonna have to just name the people who came to campus that semester.” Now, there is a possible way of reading that nefariously as, “The agenda of the New Yorker is to tear down anybody on the right and smear them by association.” But in that case, it just wasn’t what was happening. So I worry about over-reading the tea leaves and saying-
EW: Have you ever read the journalists’ code of ethics?
AM: At The Times?
EW: I think there’s a … I forget which is the leading journalists’ association that maintains a code of ethics on the web … And it talks about having to bend over backwards in order to be a journalist, in order to see perspectives that you might not hold, make sure that you’re being true to the story. That’s not happening. And I think that it’s easy to generalize about journalism and the commentariat because people are behaving according to some malware that crept into that system in an amazing fashion. It’s present for everyone outside of it to see.
AM: Yeah, I don’t think that’s true—I think that you see it this way because of …
EW: No, I d- … I’m calling bullshit. Like, I don’t like even using the word “calling out” or “calling bullshit” or like … let’s fucking do it.
EW: You know, when you have a story that everybody wants to hear about—like the Evergreen Gone Mad story—and it is actually playing out in real-time, and it would sell papers, and nobody wants to write about it? Within, like … I can tell you that there was a period of time where people, when they heard my brother’s name, would say, “Oh, wow! That’s your brother?” And I would say, “Oh, are you a Fox News watcher?” Or, you know … It wasn’t registering in NPR, New York Times land, and it was registering over in right-wing media land. And I viewed Fox largely as a propaganda machine. Okay. Well, weird that the propaganda machine is covering news, and …
AM: That’s not that weird, because it’s useful for their purposes. I mean, look, I …
EW: No no: it’s weird that the New York Times is not.
AM: I was interested in it! I texted you about it.
EW: Yeah, sure, in the New York Times op-ed, like
EW: … THAT section of the paper was interested in it.
So this is this weird disconnect. I mean, maybe we just need to understand what the rules are—the rules that … It says “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” and some of us take a kind of aspie impression of that. Like, are you going to really … Is the news going to be ALL of the news that’s fit to print, and stuff that ISN’T fit to print not going to be in the news?
AM: Well, I think we should drill down on that word “fitness” because I have a whole chapter called Fitness and Unfitness in my book, and … One of the things that is interesting to me about social media (and another place where you and I may have some disagreement … and some points of agreement) … I think the definition of fitness—whatever it used to mean (and I think it used to mean a bunch of things)—FIT in. I mean, there was a pun there, right? “Fit” physically—because we only have so much column inches in the paper— and also “fit” in some “hale fellow, well met, we are fit to be together.” And now it means Darwinian fitness. On the internet it means survival of the fittest—if your meme can outcompete my meme, in the Dawkins sense.
EW: Well, yes. And this is a huge concern to (I think) both of us, which is that I am not … I am not coming from the, sort of, “good ideas beat bad ideas” … I think fit ideas beat unfit ideas, and lots of bad ideas are quite fit.
AM: Right. And more and more of them. And the playing field is tilted in really scary ways.
EW: Yeah. I also co-, you know … I’m famous for being in the free speech crowd, but I’m the one who’s constantly saying, “I’m not a free speech absolutist” and I take a ton of crap for that.
AM: Yeah. And I actually don’t get why I’ve taken a ton of crap for that, too, in ways that I don’t fully understand. Like, NOBODY is actually a free speech absolutist.
EW: Well, no, because what happened is that free speech got redefined. So for example, the fact that obscenity doesn’t carry First Amendment protection after 1973 Miller v. California. And then what about Brandenburg v. Ohio, and various clear and present danger? …
AM: Yeah. And we don’t have “fighting words” doctrine anymore.
EW: Right. So there’s all sorts of ways in which free speech gets redefined. Like, free markets don’t exist, but people talk about “the free market is whatever the market is.”
EW: So I think that’s part of the problem … is that some people have this, kind of, very simplistic, Hitchens-type, “free speech is everything. It’s yelling fire in a crowded theater.”
AM: Right. Yes! Even though there is a classic video of Hitchens when a 911 truther comes to his Q&A, and he says, “Get this motherfucker out of here.”
AM: … There’s free speech absolutism for you. No-
So yes: we’re totally in agreement on all that.
EW: Well, like … You know, one of the things I want to talk to you about (which is, maybe will take another conversation), is I’m not positive that the constitution doesn’t need to be re-factored, because, in order to be true to its intent, we have to recognize that there were a lot of implicit things in it, one of which was that speech carried a friction that it no longer carries in the internet.
EW: Well, okay, I’m quite nervous about what [indecipherable] …
AM: No, no: not 100% “Let’s rewrite the constitution.” 100% “That is a thing that is missing from our current interpretation.”
AM: I think it’s 100% true that the framers thought that there was friction in the freedom of the press, and that friction no longer exists—in the same way that the framers thought that it was gonna take you 18 seconds to load a musket, in your well-regulated militia …
EW: I always make this point.
AM: Right. So I think that is a very, very important factor. Now, I don’t trust us in 2019 to rewrite the Constitution.
EW: Well, this is not a time I want to call for a Constitutional Convention. So what we will keep trying to do, is trying to bend the concepts of free speech, of privacy, you know … Like, the “penumbra” argument that came out of, what was it? Griswold and …
EW: … and privacy. I find, actually, when you read the original decision, it’s quite compelling; that the document is too spare to include every freedom that was supposed to be …
AM: That document didn’t even include political parties.
So yes, we are in an age when we can’t afford absolutism.
EW: Right. But we can’t afford to have the stupids duking it out. Like, I really want to tell the far left and the far right to get a room and leave the rest of us alone.
AM: Mm hmm. Sure, …
EW: … because they have an erotic attraction that we seem not to be able to stop.
AM: Sure. I’m fine with that. I think part of the place where we’re, sort of, talking past each other is in: How much of the things that we see do we attribute to the far left or the far right? How big a threat is either one, and how much-
EW: Let’s really do this. I think that there are two totally different, very real threats. The far right is small, in that the part of it that will openly identify with the KKK or march with tiki torches in Charlottesville is not that large. And it’s VERY obviously dangerous. I mean, we can agree on that?
The problem with the far left is really much more bizarre—I don’t really take it to be the antifa stuff; I take it much more to be the support for far left perspectives that have invaded what I would consider to be our mainstream organs. Like, that’s the real danger, is is that you’ve got these people who don’t really want to fully report on antifa; they don’t want to report on Black racism against whites.
AM: Yeah. And this is where, so … I mean (and again, we’re speaking in general terms, so it’s hard, but, you know) I do think the 60s are a useful point of analogy here …
EW: But like, let’s just … To put a … Let’s give the right—the far right—a pitchfork to, you know, get it as a mob in our minds. And the problem on the left, I would say is the thumb. It’s the thumb on the scale which is, kind of, deranging every time I login to Twitter or read The Times, or, you know, tune into a Democratic debate, or whatever it is. I just see that thumb on the scale, and I can’t think about anything else. And that’s the thing, which is like: I’m NOT thinking productively about racism or gender or income inequality. All I do is I see the thumb. I can’t stop seeing the thumb on the scale.
AM: Yeah, I think that [sigh] …
EW: And that thumb IS a generalization that I believe to be true. In other words, it is a collection of people who are talking to each other, who are saying, “Hey, we got to make this happen—let’s put our thumb on the scale.”
AM: There’s a lot of ways to go, but … I mean, one thing is, I think if you’re focusing on the way social justice is being described, rather than on the goal of social justice itself …
EW: What is the goal?
AM: The goal?
EW: Like how do we know when we’ve reached, like … when it’s time to start doing something else with your life because the goals of social justice have been achieved?
AM: There’s lots of ways you could define it. I mean, one way would be, you know, CEOs don’t make 300 times what the average worker makes. One way would be, you don’t have schools that are 98% Black two blocks away from schools that are 98% white. One way would be, … I mean, there’s lots of ways!
EW: Okay, so let’s just take those two examples.
EW: What is it that … If you think about a market as having an embedded morality to it, there’s something about saying, “Okay, we have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders to increase share shareholder value,” and our entire corporate governance system seems to produce this in our current market economy—we’re incentivized, effectively, to do evil, whenever evil benefits shareholders.
AM: Agree with that.
EW: Right, so … Like, we’ve created this killer app which forces good people to do bad things in order to be good people. That thing is not something that I see benefiting from a hugely thoughtful discussion, when we talk about “billionaires shouldn’t exist.” Like “billionaires shouldn’t exist” is kind of like, “Well, let’s just take this incredibly complicated motherboard and here’s a sledgehammer, and let’s see whether we can repair the chips on the motherboard with the sledgehammer.” It’s just …
AM: MAYbe. But some of that is just politics. I mean, Elizabeth Warren spent 40 years teaching bankruptcy law at Harvard—she’s not going to lead with her syllabus; she’s going to lead with Wealth Tax and then get into the fine print on her website.
EW: Well … I’m not even necessarily- … I mean, I hate the idea of a wealth tax, and I hate all of the other ideas that would be necessary to decrease our Gini coefficients. So I think it’s in … The have to go down because otherwise we’re going to just have revolution, we’re going to lose the whole thing. (You know, even if that’s the only concern that you have.) So we have to choose something that’s probably not going to feel good—whether it’s UBI, or some kind of … You know, on the right, I think a lot of the nationalism is about decreasing our Gini coefficients.
But we would benefit from having a thoughtful discussion about, “Here all of the Gini-negative countermeasures we can think of. Do we feel comfortable with any of them? Or do we just want to let this inequality keep rising?”
AM: I agree. I’m all for thoughtful discussion. And I think part of where we’re missing each other here is … I just don’t think that the problem … I don’t think we are as prevented from having thoughtful discussions as I think-
EW: I don’t think YOU are as prevented. I think I can have thoughtful discussions if I do it on my own show.
EW: I DON’T think I can have thoughtful discussions in what I’ve called the Gated Institutional Narrative. I think YOU can be in there. And I don’t know what the difference is between us. I don’t know why, for example … I mean, I’ve always found you extremely insightful and very interesting, so I think it’s great that you’re able to be inside of it. I don’t think that I’m less insightful and less interesting. I just think I can’t come in.
AM: I think you’re likable enough.
EW: I appreciate it.
AM: [laughing] Look, …
EW: Because if you let me in there, I’m going to say, “Restrictionism doesn’t mean xenophobia.”
AM: But I think that’s fine. I don’t think that is as cancelable as you think it is. I mean, I think that …
EW: Well I haven’t been canceled, but I haven’t been invited, either.
AM: Sure. But there are lots of people who aren’t invited into the gated institutions …
EW: But I’m not asking for permission …
AM: Sure! Yeah, I know …
EW: … I’m just gonna do pirate radio …
EW: I think that the fact is, the Gated Institutional Narrative looks insane now (to more and more people).
AM: Right. Well, it’s the “more and more people” thing that I … Look there are so many things conflated together with this. I think there are some people who are looking at the mainstream conversations and saying, “I really don’t know why there isn’t a more robust debate happening about Gini-negative …” you know. There are OTHER people looking at the mainstream conversation and saying, “This makes me feel bad because I am white, and they’re criticizing white people.” And those are very different things. And I think it-
EW: Wait, sorry, I didn’t understand.
AM: So, okay. There, there are some people who … You and I have talked, in the past, about why are people … to the extent that there are people getting radicalized on YouTube, why is that happening?
And I read this paper—did you read this Penn State paper about how that’s, like, maybe not a real thing? This thing about, you know …
EW: You mean that maybe people are actually listening to Sam Harris and getting DEradicalized, because …
EW: … somebody is actually saying, “Hey, you know, that truth that everybody is denying? You’re not out of your mind. AND it doesn’t lead to putting on a white hood.”?
AM: Right, well, … So it’s interesting, … I had very, very mixed feelings about that paper—I think it’s obviously … I think it was an exercise in strawmanning, essentially. They set up-
EW: Yeah, I don’t doubt that. I didn’t look enough at it. I mean, the Data & Society[?] paper was a strawmanning paper on the left, and then there was this thing saying, …
EW: … you know, mayb, that … And then there’s something out of Brazil.
It’s all pretty low-quality scholarship.
AM: So yeah. The “zombie bite” theory … They made up the “zombie bite” theory and then debunked it, which … nobody thinks that people are literally getting bitten by zombies, or even figured really getting bitten by zombies.
But the point I was going to make is: We can get too wrapped up in any one of these overdetermined theories. We can, sort of, say, “The great force that is deranging us as a society is the YouTube algorithm.” I don’t think that is true, in some solitary sense. I do think the YouTube algorithm is really fucked up. And I think that …
I think this is where … I started to say in the beginning, if I had to predict where we were going to disagree the most it would be in: What is it in people that is causing them to defect from the mainstream narrative? My guess would be that you are, in a way, more, sort of, charitable in saying, “The bulk of it is people having these rich, complex, nuanced views that they’re not allowed to say in public.”
EW: N-n-n-n-no. We are not letting- … (sorry.)
Let’s just take immigration. Most people have no idea why they don’t feel great about immigration. Right? They feel shitty. They don’t feel like, “Diversity is our strength”—that doesn’t make them feel good. And my belief is, nobody has fully explained to them the economics and the history of their immigration policy. Like: What happened after the 1965 Immigration Act? And how did the Daughters of the American Revolution impact that? And how did it backfire on them? And then how was this increase in immigration used to push out supply curves to keep wages down?
And the instrumental aspects of this … all they’re given is:
“America: home of the immigrant. Yes or no?”
“You know, well, I don’t want those dirty people cluttering up our shores.”
“I believe that our borders should be open and no people are ‘illegal’.”
That conversation is like the conversation that I’ve talked about where the the pro-life people talk about an eight cell blastula and they call it a “baby”! …
AM: Or it’s like …
… or “fetal tissue”, you know, 12 seconds before birth!
It’s like, who let the morons lead the conversation? I don’t know why the activist viewpoints are allowed INSIDE of our sense-making to the extent that they are.
AM: Yeah, or it’s like … You have to choose: are you with free speech, or are you against it?
AM: I guess … I don’t disagree that these conversations aren’t nuanced enough. I think … I guess if I had to take a stab at why, I would say: because people have short attention spans and it’s hard to convey nuance-
EW: No, they don’t have short attention spans. Which is the same mistake we made with television …
AM: Mm-hmm [affirmative]
EW: … you watch how complicated Game of Thrones plot lines are.
AM: Sure! But Game of Thrones isn’t actually the most popular show in America. The most popular shows in America are The Bachelorette, and Top Chef, and … I mean look, it’s a very multivalent thing. We can read it in multiple ways.
EW: Yeah, but my claim is that both you and I have eaten incredible cuisine and also enjoy stuffing our face with junk food on occasion.
EW: … right? So like, I watch reality TV …
AM: Yeah, me too!
AM: But, as a polity / as a globe / as a country: Salt, sugar and fat are addictive. High-activating emotional incitement is the thing that makes virality run on the internet. The internet is everything now. So we can TALK, at the margins, about whether this good thing will beat this bad thing or vice versa …
EW: Yeah, but why- … Look. As a 54 year old mathematician with moles on my face, why am I recognized in airports?
No! We’re sick of the sound bites. We’re sick of … We know that these tiny little debates that are held on places like CNN, like, “Okay, you guys, we’re gonna blow it out. We’ve got six, maybe even seven minutes allocated to have the four of you really discuss this and we’re gonna drill down.” You know, just like … Nobody believes it! No more- … I could drill down on anything-
AM: Well, so I devote a lot of the book to this-, to the … So I go back to this Joan Didion essay in like 1980, or something, where she is just dunking on CNN again and again, and (not only CNN, but the entire, sort of, Beltway insider class …
EW: By the way, I just love the fact that Joan Didion is somehow taking over the world right now. But keep going-
AM: [laughing] Totally! Well it’s good moment for her.
AM: … And I remember reading that. You know what it was? It was it was 88, I think. It was like, HW Bush versus, what was it … Dukakis. And … she is doing this … what is kind of the national pastime, which is, “Those twerp assholes who are constantly talking to you through your TV, and you can’t talk back to them, and if you do yell back at them you’re just some Archie Bunker in your living room and you have no power: Fuck those guys.”
AM: That is a very strong-. It is the national pastime for a reason: it’s fun and meaningful. And it’s … right. Like, those people are annoying. And the narratives that they push are annoying. But the problem is, it’s reductive to say, you know, “What we need to do is, sort of, smash their narratives to bits, and then we’ll be free of the narrative.” There’s no … And I’m not saying you’re saying that. I’m saying that there are a lot of people … Most people that I’ve encountered, when you take them to the next step of this logic, they go, “The world I want to live in is a world where we don’t have narratives forced down our throat. We want to live in a narrative-free existence where we can just speak the truth.” And it’s a fantasy. It’s like-
EW: Yeah-. No no. But, look … Not on this show, man. Like, on this show we talk about the need for load-bearing fiction, right? And we can’t live narrative-free—humans are narrative-making machines.
AM: It’s just not logically-
EW: … it’s just not possible.
EW: Right. Agreed. Okay. The key issue is that we have the wrong narrative. And my point about immigration was supposed to be that people who recognize that there’s something wrong with the immigration narrative … Nobody’s helping them make a decent, generous point that has nothing to do with immigrants. The key issue is one group of Americans is using immigrants to steal from another group of Americans—like, that’s the BIG issue. And if you’re the stealer, you, you know, you’re trumpeting the the beauty of immigration; if you’re the stealee, you’re thinking like, “Okay, I’m having my pocket picked, and I’m supposed to pretend that I love it.”
AM: Yup! And so part of the issue is that-
EW: … and then the person who DOESN’T love it, and says, “I’m sick of immigrants!” That person is a troglodyte …
EW: … but that person might, in fact, you know, travel abroad, be very ethnically versed[?], might have lots of immigrant friends, … They don’t know how to say “stop picking my pocket” because no one is helping them put together the mystery.
AM: OR … they might be a racist.
EW: There are SOME racists, but there’s nowhere … You cannot find enough racists, in my opinion, to make the argument work that says, “We should be able to infer racism when somebody doesn’t like the levels of immigration.”
Like, if you give people the option of being a xenophilic restrictionist (like: take polls!) you will find that that’s an enormous community and it is denied everywhere. Like, this is the fantastic thing: There’s no recognition that this is even possible
AM: Well, two things. One, it does go back to our initial definition of term-. It really depends how you define “racism.” Because there’s a way of defining it so restrictively that not even Richard Spencer is a racist, as we said. There’s another way of defining it too broadly.
I actually think that there are a lot of people who are casually racist in some meaningful sense …
EW: Are you?
AM: In the “everyone’s a little bit racist” Avenue Q way: sure.
EW: No—I don’t know.
AM: Yeah! Well, I do think there’s a way of reading it that everyone’s a little bit racist. I mean, that’s a song in that musical for a reason. In other words, I don’t think that it’s such a-
EW: So is there like a “normal” amount of racism?
AM: Well, so here’s. So there’s one scene-
EW: A “healthy” amount of racism? “Just enough” racism?
AM: So there’s a scene where … So one of the avenues I went down (and this will connect up, I promise) …
I spent a lot of time in the alt-light side of things. So there’s a dividing line between the alt-light and the alt-right. And that dividing line, essentially, is the “JQ,” which is “the Jewish question.” Richard Spencer is on the Nazi side of the Jewish question, and …
EW: Sorry. What is the Jewish question?
AM: The Jewish question is … There are light versions and heavy versions. The light versions are, “Why are there so many Jews in the media and banking? Just asking the question.” And the heavy version of the Jewish question is, “What are we going to do with all these Jews? Where are we going to put them?” And they’re related. So, you know, there’s a reason that you might want to be suspicious of people who are “just asking the question.”
AM: Okay, so that’s a dividing line where I sort of started this thing, and I go back and flashback and reconstruct things from there, but I sort of have this opening scene of the DeploraBall, and it’s sort of this pan shot, like a Brian De Palma long track- …
EW: (You were there?)
AM: (I was there.)
… everyone in the room, and you are going to come back to them throughout the thing. You know, like one of those, like … that movie Snake Eyes where you have that, like, 17-minute opening shot of the casino, and all the characters-. Or Boogie Nights. All the characters are introduced.
And the reason I was there, was because I was focusing on the people in that room who consider themselves alt-light—they were fine with Jews, they’re just like … troglodytes in other ways: they’re a little misogynist; they’re a little bit xenophobic (they actually are xenophobic); all these other things. And above anything, they just love trolling and “triggering the libs” and “drinking liberal tears” and blah, blah, blah.
So I’m in that room because I’m interested in what happens when the Joan Didion impulse (to desecrate the norms of how the Beltway twerps talk) takes over everything else and deranges itself, and gets drunk on its own power. And then you have people—like who I met at that thing … Like, I met this guy, Lucian Wintrich, who told me, “You know, you really ought to be in my orbit. I’m really interesting.” And I was like, “You’re not, actually. You’re just a troll, and I know what your moves are, and you’re actually just, like, taking Milo’s personality and doing a pale imitation of it. So actually: no thank you.”
And then he went up on stage at the DeploraBall and said, “I have an announcement to make.” And his announcement was, “I’m going to be the White House correspondent from the Gateway Pundit, starting in February.” The Gateway Pundit is a publication that—in my humble view, as a journalist—should not have a White House correspondent. It is utter garbage. And the fact that they now DO have a White House correspondent (and that it’s THIS guy, who I’ve just been talking to), that makes me go, “Oh. Something interesting and terrifying is happening here.” So I ended up-
EW: Something interesting and terrifying is totally happening.
AM: … and so then I ended up following him on the megabus from New York to DC, and instead of, you know, … While I was on my laptop boning-up and trying to figure out how the White House works, because [I’ve never been][?] there, he is watching King of the Hill on his laptop and falling asleep—because his job is to troll, his job is not to know anything.
EW: Well, this … So this is the thing: Donald Trump has, to some extent, been elected to destroy infrastructure that was in place.
AM: Right. And, I think you and I agree that the move is not to destroy it. The move is to …
EW: I THOUGHT the move wasn’t to destroy right. So where I’ve gotten that’s different, is I thought, “Okay, if you believe he’s orange Hitler: orange Hitler has been elected; orange Hitler is in position to wreck the country; it’s time to get SUPER serious about what are we doing.” That did not happen.
AM: I mean, that-. We can have a longer debate about whether that did or didn’t happen.
EW: Well if it did happen, it happened behind closed doors with a group of people I don’t know.
AM: OR … it happened the way that things often happen, which is: when you tear apart norms, you see the effects a little bit later. But that’s a … that’s-
AM: … that’s a sidebar conversation. But, um …
EW: It’s AMAZING to me that we can’t make progress on some sort of core, here.
AM: Well, I think we are making progress!
EW: Ok, alright.
AM: … I do … I think we are, because … The question you asked me is, “how racist am I?” [laughs] but … I think we’re making progress on a lot of things-
EW: By the way: I wouldn’t have brought that up, because I don’t view you as interestingly racist (if you have some racism to you; it’s not something I’ve seen bubble up).
AM: Well …
EW: … you seem perfectly … [laughs]
AM: I think I’m likable enough.
Well, so … here’s how I would answer that. What I … As I stayed in this world, you know … I went to the White House briefing room with this guy and I watched him do his trolling thing, and I thought through … “Is there anything useful to the performance that he’s doing?” And in some sense, sure, these are institutions that deserve to be satirized and caricatured and poked fun at. There’s also a much more dangerous side to this where, as much as you and I could sit here shitting on CNN all day, we have to have a plan for what’s going to happen if we weaken that to the point of meaninglessness. (And I don’t just mean CNN, I mean, all of what you’re calling the sense-making organs.)
EW: Right. R-r-right.
AM: … and I think there are a lot of people doing that with NO plan. (And I don’t only mean the alt-light trolls—I also mean the social media entrepreneurs.)
I mean, the reason that the subtitle of my book is “Online extremists, techno-utopians, and the hijacking of the American conversation” is that I think the techno-utopian social media founders have a huge role to play in this, too. They didn’t have a plan either—they started moving fast and breaking things before they had any sense of what was going to replace the things that they were breaking. And I think, to some extent, they STILL don’t, and …
EW: I don’t think they CAN have a plan.
EW: Well, no. I think a plan is IMPOSSIBLE.
AM: Okay, but you have to have an idea of the kind of world-
EW: No, no. I think that these guys founded things that they are not in a position to refactor; they’ve broken things that they don’t have ANY idea of how to put back together. And I don’t think—if all we wanted to do was “fix Facebook” or “fix Google”—that WE (with the best minds of our society, in an idealized world) could do it. I think it is actually not possible.
AM: I think I agree with that. I think that the difference is, they built these big systems … You know, we were just talking about the deep flaws in our Constitution. As much as we can sit here and criticize the Constitution in 100 different ways, we all basically agree that those were a bunch of serious, committed, intelligent people who were trying to get around a lot of problems that had existed in other systems.
EW: In the only true patriarchy [laughing] we actually have ever had.
EW: It was a true patriarchy.
AM: Oh, yeah, no—they were also slaveholders and they were also evil …
EW: Yeah. Well, but no, no, right. Yeah, I agree.
AM: So, right. So in holding both of those in tension—that people who did really shitty things could be really smart—that …
EW: Well, they also planned for their descendants not to be as shitty as they were.
AM: … that was the hope.
AM: The difference, when the hoodied engineers were building the new information systems, is that they DIDN’T have a plan. And it’s one thing to aspire to a plan and missed the mark. It’s another thing to say, “All we’re going to do is smash idols. And then we’ll just sort of figure it out. But we’ll be rich at that point-“
EW: Well, I think the people who built the internet and the people who built the large tech platforms weren’t always the same people.
AM: Oh, absolutely. No, I’m not talking about the 1969 UCLA internet—I’m talking about the social internet.
EW: Right, so-
AM: The social internet is a whole different layer.
EW: Yeah, the social internet … Yeah, but, you know, it’s one of these things that was dumb in real-time. Like, you know, the whole idea of, “Well, we’re just going to connect the planet and, you know, beauty and hilarity ensues.” … It’s a fairy tale not fit for for dumb children.
AM: And yet it was a fairy tale that held the world in its palm for 10 years.
EW: Yeah, I don’t … but I just don’t … Like, there are these things I don’t think we really believed?
AM: Whether we believed it or not, we let them get away with it for way too long.
EW: Well, I think that the media was complicit in this …
AM: Sure! Of course.
EW: Like, there was a story about the boy geniuses and the-
AM: Constantly! And I quote all this stuff in the book—and the Newsweek covers, and the, just … hagiography. It was a travesty! And then to look back at it, and go, … I even have this one quote that Zuckerberg gave to the New York Times in, like, 2010, when he’s like, you know, “To serve humanity is a humbling task. And when we figure out who we’re serving, we really go-” and I’m, like, does he mean like the Twilight Zone, “To serve man”? Where it’s like, you know, the (spoiler alert) the end of the episode is like, “To serve man as a cookbook.” That’s really what he meant the whole time and nobody either could or would call him out for it.
EW: Well … I don’t think he knew what he was building (I don’t think anybody did know). And I don’t know … But I think that the fears were discussable throughout. (I mean, I think Jaron Lanier, for example, was early on some of the fears about what this stuff would do to commerce.) But the fact is, if you were in the money-making layer, …
I have a general theory, that was born from Davos, which says that the idealism of a time is actually usually the cover story that allows the elite to make the most money. Right? So the story of Davos was about philanthropy, and We Are the World. But, in fact it was a question about, how do you break the bonds to your fellow countrymen, and go seek profits elsewhere, if you want to keep growing when your country is stagnant? (Let’s say.) The tech version of this, is: We need to connect the world so that we can all be comeone as- … You know, but that was a cover for: how do we extract an incredible amount of advertising value.
AM: And data. And yeah, …
EW: And data.
AM: I think we’re really getting somewhere here, because I think, in a way, we have both profound agreement and disagreement on this. I agree with everything you just said; and I agree that it points to something you were you were trying to get at earlier (where we were kind of standing in each other’s way), which is: there ARE narratives. …
AM: … and those narratives can be deeply misguided and counterproductive.
The issue to me is: where are we putting our intellectual firepower? What are we prioritizing? What do we think is the most urgent thing to get out of the way? And I think that’s a good illustration of where the main narrative—not only in the mainstream media, but in investors, and that … the whole national mood. I mean, I remember reporting on this stuff and going, “What if this is all just completely counterproductive?”—and that was an unsayable thing. You couldn’t say, “Making the world more open and connected might …
EW: Yes, you could.
AM: Well, …
EW: I mean, I did.
AM: Sure, sure, sure. Well, I did too. But it was … By unsayable, I don’t mean that I was cancelled. I mean that I was ignored.
EW: Well, this … Okay. So this is this thing I don’t understand, which is, you know how there are these rides in amusement parks that have these signs, “You must be above this height to ride this roller coaster.” I feel like there should be an implicit sign saying, “Your IQ must be below this level to believe this narrative.” And one of them is, “Connecting the world [laughing] could only lead to good things.”
AM: Sure. And …
EW: Who’s dumb enough to believe that? I think …
AM: Everyone for 10 years.
EW: No, nobody.
AM: That is not true.
I mean, again, I think … You impute your own kind of nuanced view to too many people. I think lots of people were just going along with it, because … that was what we were doing.
EW: Well, I mean. I … We all got benefits from being connected to our friends, but we’re all talking in real-time about how much information they had about us.
AM: No, no, WE weren’t all- … I mean, you and I were [laughs]. …
But this is another place where …
EW: No, I don’t-. I mean … I forget what these old movies were, like, Sandra Bullock in The Net, or something like this, you know …
AM: Oh, fine. But that’s … Yeah, but there was also like, You’ve Got Mail at the same time. I mean, there were competing narratives about whether this stuff was-. You know, are you gonna make a horror movie about it or a rom-com about it?
EW: N-n-no, but the issue is: Is it purely positive, or are there significant negatives? I’m not saying that it was purely negative.
AM: Sure. No. Neither am I.
AM: But I DO think that for a long time we really discounted … The reason the book is “anti-social,” because … If you had asked … If you would poll- (I don’t even know if this polling data exists), but if you had polled the average American (certainly the average Egyptian in 2011 or 2012), and said, “Is this innovation of social media on the whole pro-social, anti-social?” I think you would have gotten 90 … above 90% pro-social.
EW: Well, I’m not even … Okay, maybe we’re arguing about different things.
My perspective is … the narrative that is unforgivably stupid, is that the negatives involved in this were small.
AM: Sure. And I … That’s exactly what I’m saying I think most people tacitly believed—if you had asked them, they would have said, …
EW: You[?] can’t possibly believe this.
AM: Well, so, … But I think part of this is that (and I don’t want to be the pessimist, “I don’t believe in people”), but I think you sometimes believe in people too much. I think sometimes you see things and then think, “Well, so most people must see this thing, because I see it.” I just …
EW: Look, I have people constantly complaining about the way I speak, the words I use … thoughts are too abstract; blah, blah, blah. But many of the people complaining about that continue to follow me [laugh].
AM: Oh, of course! And I do believe in the Del Close thing, “You play to the top of your audience’s intelligence.” I believe in that, and I try to do that, too—I try to …
EW: I just don’t worry about their intellience.
AM: Sure. Sure. And I don’t do the thing where I … If you have to look up a word that I used in a sentence, I’m like, “Okay. You have a dictionary.”
AM: I think that’s fine.
AM: The only difference, I think, in what I’m pointing out, is that I don’t then assume that everybody gets it. I want us to move toward a place …
EW: Andrew, I can pick any city, and go into a Starbucks in that city, and meet some relatively unremarkable human being, and have a remarkable conversation with that person, where that person tells me all kinds of things that they believe are wrong, and off, and shifted, about our world.
I believe that there’s something peculiar about the political economy of sense-making.
AM: Yeah, I have the same experience. And I actually … of all the … I’m pretty harsh on a lot of journalistic cliches, but I try to go easy on the journalistic cliche of, “I was talking to my cab driver and I had an interesting conversation…” (You know, people give people like Thomas Friedman, a lot of shit for doing that in his columns.) I think it’s a cliche, but I think it’s actually really useful, because every time I’ve had a conversation with a Lyft driver or a cab driver, it’s a great conversation—like 95% of the time. So I agree with you: people are amazing and fascinating and wonderful and …
EW: You scratch anybody and great stuff comes up[?].
AM: I mean, this is a large part of why I’m a journalist, right?
AM: I don’t think that necessarily means, …
You know, when I was just in Nashville, and I was taking a Lyft to the airport, I had an AMAZING conversation with the driver—who’s a guy who grew up in what was in the Soviet Union, now Ukraine—grew up in an Orthodox family, but converted to the Seventh Day Adventism when he was a kid—he had this magical kind of conversion experience—he is now in training to be a Seventh Day Adventist preacher. All this amazing stuff, right? Wonderful conversation.
And then we’re about to get out of the car and I said, “Oh, you’re from Ukraine. Like, are people in your family following this whole impeachment thing?”
And he goes, like, “Yeahhh, I don’t really think it’s a big deal; I think it’s all kind of made up; and, like, Trump 2020.”
So that’s fine. That’s his view (and he lives in Tennessee, so it’s not a swing state anyway). But my point being, just because I was really bonding with this guy, and we had a great conversation, doesn’t mean we can see eye-to-eye on basic facts, right? So, in a way, that makes me an optimist about humanity—that we can talk and I would love to have a beer[?] with this guy …
EW: Do you and I see eye-to-eye on basic facts?
AM: I think … I don’t know. I mean, it depends what we’re … I think that’s why it’s useful to talk about specific cases. Because I think when we go to generalities and say, “Is the media good or bad for society?” …
EW: Well, okay, so if I were to sum up where you and I are REALLY having our difference, with respect to the media. …
EW: … it’s, I believe that there are these media narratives that, in general, the public is really kind of going along with only begrudgingly because it doesn’t have a seat on the Gated Institutional Narrative. And I find that creepy and weird. Like, for example: the Great Moderation, where we banished volatility from the markets. That was nuts! It was just a nutty, crazy, weird, idiotic thing that I don’t think any smart people believed, but, I believe, was the cover story for making money on Wall Street in the new century.
So that’s one of these examples of … This is one of these moneymaker narratives. One of them is “diversity is our strength” and “immigrants are the lifeblood of America.” One of them is that, “it’s a big world and we’ve got to do our part, because we are the world” and that’s making money through globalization. Then there’s “we banished volatility” which was making money through mortgage backed securities. … Over and over … “connecting the world”, “tech.” … These are just lies.
AM: Sure—we agree that there can be misleading, harmful narratives that are propped up by too many institutions.
EW: Why are the institutions so dumb?
AM: Well, I mean, going back to the Ben Shapiro example where, you know, you saw, sort of, concerted malice, and I saw stupidity—I think that is a helpful rubric, right? When you look at, why is somebody in the media distrustful of somebody saying, “I don’t like immigrants, I don’t really know why I just feel like I don’t want this many immigrants in our country.” And there are two possible explanations that you laid out. One is that these people are kind of inchoate xenophilic restrictionists and they don’t really know how to express it.
EW: No, they will BECOME zenophobic restrictionists because nobody will say, “Hey, here’s how to express your point analytically.”
AM: Sure. Well, so I guess, if we had to generally make a guess as to why the media recoils from that, … And by the way, … I do think you will find xenophilic restrictionist arguments in the mainstream media—in the op-ed pages of The Times, and The Economist, and all the rest of it. I mean, The Economist, I think is mostly that.
EW: No, I think I’m talking about a chilling effect, which is if, I say “restrictionist,” somebody gets to write a piece saying, “Eric Weinstein expressed his dislike of immigrants today when he …” And my point is, you don’t get to do that. Ever.
EW: That move disqualifies you, as a journalist. You should hang up your credentials; you should be fired for that move.
AM: Sure. I get …
EW: You don’t have that, like, … Instant recoil. Like, that is evil.
AM: l … Well, for many reasons. One is, I just know a lot about how the media works, and I know, … I read a lot of stuff. So when somebody does a screenshot of a New York Times headline and says, “Can you believe New York Times headline x?” I sometimes know the person who wrote that piece. I sometimes wrote that piece. So when somebody passes around a headline of my piece that says “Free speech is killing us” and says, “Can you believe the New York Times is anti-free speech?” My response is to say, “Why don’t you read the fucking piece?” So …
EW: N-n-no. I think that person actually has a really interesting point, and I’m going to try to push it so that …
EW: There are games that reporters and editors play with the rest of us. And when you’ve dealt with journalists for a long enough period of time, you know the game called, “Oh, the headline. I’m sorry about that—that was my editor.”
AM: Sure. The bait and switch. Yeah.
EW: Okay. What is that game?
AM: Some of it is economic desperation and needing people to click on stuff to make them hit the paywall.
EW: That game is an evil game. It’s a conscious game, every reporter has been through it enough times.
EW: Yeah. Okay. But, it’s not like, “Well, you just have to understand how reporting works. There’s a reporter and the editor are different functions, and sometimes the headline doesn’t quite match the piece and the reporter doesn’t have control, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
AM: Okay, but is it an evil game that, you know, you walk into a Dollar Store and some things cost more than $1? I mean, it’s capitalism. It’s annoying, and it’s misleading, but it’s not that Dollar General is out to degrade us as a society—it’s that they have to make money.
EW: Okay. So then if the idea is the journalists are not really, … I mean, we view this, in large measure, as you guys have incredible protection under things like New York Times v. Sullivan. So act like a priestly class! Behave in a priestly fashion! Take on the responsibilities of your job. Your job is not just to break stories that need to be broken in the right way. It’s also not to break stories that should not be broken, because they’re wrong and misleading and damaging.
Like … I don’t get it. This is this is a huge, crushing responsibility—to be a journalist.
AM: It is! I think they SHOULD be held to a priestly standard.
EW: Okay, so like, that title … The person objecting to the title, “Free Speech is Killing Us” and you say, “Read the fucking article.” …
EW: … No. The point is: that person had a point.
EW: … which is: what is this? Why did that headline exist?
AM: Because a) it’s true. b) …
EW: Free speech IS killing us?
AM: I mean, we already talked about the ways in which the lack …
EW: Alright, so then you’re NOT objecting to the headline—maybe I misunderstood-
AM: What I’m objecting to, is that people see that, and they think they know everything they need to know. And they just decide, based on their snap judgment, who I am / what my argument is / what they think it means that free speech is killing us …
AM: … Like, if I said. “free enterprise is killing us,” which it obviously, manifestly is.
EW: You mean like, climate, and things? [?]
AM: Yeah! Then I’m a Maoist.
AM: That’s dumb.
EW: Okay …
AM: So … Some of the some of the onus is on people to—instead of scratching that age old image and indulging in the national pastime of saying, Fuck the media”— to say …
EW: Yeah, but that …
I guess what I’m feeling, Andrew, is that we’ve got a media emergency. And honestly, I’m on the other side of it than the side I appear to be on. And it’s just, like, what do we do to save The Times? What do we do to save journalistic standards? How do we get you guys paid so that you’re able to be in the same schools and vacation in the same places as the people you’re covering?
AM: The payment, I will take you up on anytime.
EW: What do you mean?
AM: I’ll take more payment anytime you want.
EW: Well, but that’s my question, which is, we’ve got a business model problem.
EW: The less you pay people, the more ideology you end up getting mixed in to your sense-making.
AM: Well, yeah—the more desperation you get, … I think … Ideology, I mean, there’s …
EW: No, you have a selective effect, where people who are zealots will will take lower financial payment because they will value the psychic blended stream in which they get paid with sanctimony.
AM: That’s fine. Although, I do think again (talking about imputing motives to people), I think there are people who are just, … well, not just, but who are largely trying to be good people, and trying to be on the right side of history.
AM: And so, when you see people experiencing some immediate suspicion of someone who says, “I think we have too much immigration in this country,” sometimes they’re just not paying attention to the nuance of the argument. Other times they are correctly sensing that someone is trying to push a really nefarious agenda. And this isn’t some fringe … You know, a lot of times people respond to the stuff I look at and the work I do by saying, “How many guys in white robes are there really in this country? Why are you looking at this fringe thing?”
I mean, you can talk about specific ways in which this stuff gets smuggled into the mainstream. The New Yorker ran a piece several years ago by Suketu Mehta about immigration in this country, and refugees, and how a lot times refugees who really deserve to be considered for refugee status need to inflate their stories in order to be recognized by the officers. And so they’ll say, “I was raped in the Congo,” when in fact, they were merely mutilated in the Congo—because their stories need to be heard for them to stay in the country.
AM: That true reporting—which, by all accounts would go against the gated narrative of the left media, blah, blah, blah. That was a true story—it was fact-checked; it was run in the New Yorker, because it was a good story.
AM: That was then picked up by Ann Coulter—a, at this point, open proto-white nationalist—to say, “Even the New Yorker admits that we’re being invaded by this hoard of blah, blah, blah.”
So, my point being: I don’t think that there are as many things that you’re not allowed to say as you might worry about. And I also don’t think that there are … I think that when people recoil from hearing memes about immigrants being a problem, they’re right to worry. Now they can still be nuanced about it. But it doesn’t mean that that worry is just a reflex to guard institutional power—it’s also a worry about a very real thing, as you agree.
EW: Yeah. I mean, I’m … Look. I’m very worried about the ember that is the Ku Klux Klan …
AM: But it’s not the Klan—It’s Ann Coulter’s …
EW: N-n-no. I’m not trying to say that.
Yeah, there’s an ember that is the Ku Klux Klan. I’m worried about the tiny number of people that still belong to it, because I don’t know if anything can re-inflate from that. Then there’s the question about the, Ann Coulter, you know, normalization of memes. But, the, …
I guess I see this very differently, where my take on it is that people like you and me have not provided enough explanation for what actually happened around something like immigration that any normal person can figure out why they don’t feel great about America’s current immigration policy. Like, we can feel that the Democratic Party almost wants to open the border? Right? They’re very uncomfortable about the idea of saying “no.” “No people are illegal.” Putting an illegal immigrant on stage, you know, etc, etc, etc. That thing and—there is a version of that on the right: remember the Wall Street Journal, constitutional amendment, “there shall be open borders …
AM: That used to be a Pat Buchanan[?] …
EW: Exactly. Right.
So you know, this is a bipartisan pocket-picking initiative that is mis-portrayed. We haven’t come out with how to be an ethical restrictionist. Why is that?
AM: I don’t know.
EW: Well, that thing …
AM: Well, because there’s a money-making narrative and all that stuff.
EW: Yeah, but like, I’ve been trying to break a story on H1B for probably 25 years. Everybody … the reporters get ahold of it, they say, “Oh my God, this is amazing” I say, “Yes, I’ve been through this a million times. Your editor will spike the story.” “No, no, no, you know, this is documented. I had never seen this before etc, etc, etc.” And then the story always dies.
AM: Well, maybe part of the problem that you might be having is that you are approaching this stuff with more nuance, and more documentation, and more goodwill than …
EW: Well that’s the thing: if that layer can’t handle it, time to close up shop.
EW: Like, I remember being interviewed by the NewsHour on public television, and the guy, in the middle of the interview, stops me and he says, “You know, Eric, we’re not gonna be able to use any of this. Are you for or against immigration?”
EW: And I said, “Well, immigration is like water: you can’t be for or against it. If you need a drink, then it’s a great thing. And if you’re buried under an avalanche, you know, or a tidal wave, it’s deadly.”
And he says, “Well, try to understand this: you have to make this intelligible to my dumbest aunt.” And I said, “I thought you were the NewsHour on public television.” And he says “No. We are the best, and the most intellectual. And you have to take a side so we can get somebody else to take the other side.”
AM: Did he mean “aunt” with a “u” or just “ant”?
I think, yeah, I guess … That’s a problem. I …
EW: No, that isn’t a problem. Like, that is … [laughing] that’s a catastrophe.
Like we’re talking about a world in which we have … the environment is being despoiled; we have nuclear weapons; we’ve got trade regimes that nobody can understand. And you’re telling me that the whole thing has to be conducted at a 65 IQ level? Where are we?
AM: Yeah, I’m not going to disagree that that’s a problem. I think, where we would disagree is that, I don’t put it in the top-five of our problems—I think the environment is being despoiled because of the powerful[?] oil companies …
EW: I could diffuse a lot of the racism and the misogyny and the anti-semitism, if we could go long-form; and if we could get smarter; and we could stop denying all of these truths. Like,-
AM: You’re doing it! And I’m trying to do it in my book—I mean, we’re pushing that stuff out.
I guess I just viewed this as unforgivably dumb. Is … Am I getting this wrong? Is this, like, a much smarter conversation than I understand?
AM: I’m not gonna put myself in the position of saying that CNN is a smarter conversation than you I—that’s not the position I want to take.
The reason I undertook to be in the room with all the stuff I watched happen, is not to say, at the end of it, “And that’s why we need to put all these political dissidents in jail and go back to CNN.” That is not going to happen—that’s not my goal.
I do think, though, that we have to be really nuanced about this stuff. We have to … I think, a huge part of what we have to do in this social media power vacuum is push out better narratives. And I agree with you, there are Game of Thrones narratives that find a huge audience and that’s extremely heartening to me.
EW: Give me some narratives that you think we should be able to push out, if we had much more … Like, if your nuance budget was 10X’d [multiplied by 10]: what would you push out?
AM: All right, well, so … One of them (I mean, just because I started going there before, when you were saying, “How racist are you?”) … I think to be, you know, … “Are you or are you not racist” is similar to, “Do you like water or not?” Right? It’s a complicated thing.
So I think that the … You asked that question rhetorically to say that the answer is no. I’m actually not so sure. So the way that I would push that out (and the way I DID push that out in my book), is to say, “There’s this thing called the JQ. Some people answer it in the affirmative (Yes, the Jews are a problem). A lot of those people can be written out of the national story as those people are unforgivably fringe.” And they are. “And yeah, there might not be that many of them who stand up proudly and show their faces and say I’m a Nazi, but I think they’re representative of something important.”
So I traced the story of this one guy who’s, like, the chief propagandist—kind of, the Cyrano behind the movement in many senses; he’s kind of their esteemed philosopher—and he starts out in bucolic, progressive, New Jersey suburb. He goes to high school with Zach Braff and Lauryn Hill. His father teaches Beowulf in college. It’s the progressive, Volvo, latte-sipping dream. And through a series of turns (that take 100 pages to recount), that guy becomes the leading philosopher of the online, web-savvy neo-nazis.
AM: … what he calls “white nationalism 2.0” because the old stuff—that David Duke and Stormfront stuff—that was, like, really boring Boomer stuff; we’re doing it in the, like, meme-friendly, savvy way.
AM: So I go back and trace this guy and how it happened—again, not because I am interested in sensationalizing this one unrepresentative case …
AM: … but because (for reasons that I explained) I think it is representative of a lot of important stuff.
When I’m tracing it, I’m mostly doing it through his family because when I talk to him, he’s mostly pushing movement propaganda at me, and it’s not that useful. Although, I did have long, long phone conversations with him where we got into some really deep stuff about his family history, and he was about to push, on me, the book that red-pilled him on the JQ …
AM: … and AS he was recommending the book to me, he goes, “Wait. … You’re not a Jew, are you?”
AM: … And I’m like …
EW: [crying laughing]
AM: … kidding me!? Like your entire job is to have good Jew-dar? You brag about it all the time. You talk about how, “I grew up in the Northeast, so I can tell who’s really white, and who’s a shapeshifter Jew pretending to be white. And you couldn’t figure ME out? Like, what are you doing, bro?
EW: Well, yeah, that’s that scene from Exodus where Paul Newman pretends to get an ember in his eye so that the anti-semite who says he could always tell the Jew is talking directly to Paul Newman’s [indecipherable]
AM: Which is bizarre—because Paul Newman is the hardest-to-spot Jew of them all. And yet he is half.
EW: Yeah, okay.
AM: So! I’m delving into this guy’s history.
AM: But I’m also going to his family. His parents are divorced. His father—who, like, didn’t really know where he was; he … his son had kind of fallen off the map, and then—he shows up IN Charlottesville, literally giving a speech next to David Duke. That father says, “I’m out.” He disowns the kid; he tries to never talk to him again. The mother does not disown him and says, “Blood is thicker than water. This is a political disagreement.” And in fact, knowing that he’s going to go be on TV in Charlottesville, she sends him some new shirts, so he looks nice on TV.
Those are the two poles that I’m exploring. And I spend a lot of time with both families. And as I’m with the mother, she starts, you know … She’s a Hillary supporter—she’s telling me all about how she’s working in her church to be a sanctuary provider for undocumented immigrants; and she’s sort of stressing her bona fides in that area, again, and again and again.
And then we start … And then I say, “Well, why do you think this happened to your son?” And she says, “Because of his impure blood—because I have pure Norwegian blood, but his father has that Serbian blood that makes people angry.”
And I said, “Okay, well, it’s no longer entirely a mystery where this guy gets some of the racial essentialism from.”
AM: And then, the easy move, for me, would be to say, “Gawk at that! Look at that!”
EW: Right, right.
AM: And then as I was writing that scene, I tried to really reflect on myself and ask myself that question, “How racist am I?” And I thought back to my childhood and how my grandmother (who is in many ways my favorite person in the world) was constantly telling me, “All people are created equal” and not in the image of God, because she was a militant atheist.
AM: … but … You don’t need God to know that—that’s what it means to be human: That we’re all here; We all have purpose; We all have ensoulment. …
AM: … And then in the next breath, she told me, “You know why you’re so smart? Because of your yiddishe kop.”
AM: So am I racist? I have THAT shit in my brain, somewhere, telling me that my yiddishe kop is what makes me superior being.
EW: Well, okay. But part of the problem is that non-racism got mis-encoded, or anti-racism or whatever you want to call it. For example, let me just take something that- … Let’s go away from race, for a second.
[incredulous voice] “Can you IMAGINE that there are some people who believe that you can tell something about someone’s intelligence from the shape of their head?” Like, that is, you know, a description of phrenology, and the evils of scientific racism from the past. On the other hand, two seconds later, you’ll hear a story about the Zika virus, which can cause microcephaly, which may lead to cognitive impairment. So you’re talking about the shape and size of someone’s head AND something leading to cognitive impairment.
So, we’ve got this really weird issue, which is that we have something which we think is bad—that we want to keep safely locked in our past (for good reason)—and we have something that is scientific, which we want … the best available evidence so that we can take whatever steps we need to remediate a problem. And the two are actually weirdly in conflict. Like, there IS something about the size of your head, and the shape of your head, that may say something about your cognitive functioning. And that’s very uncomfortable. Okay? Well, we mis-encoded something, which is, “Anyone who mentions the size and shape of a head and talks about cognitive functioning, is only doing it because of scientific racism.” Like, that is a memetic complex. And we don’t notice, for some reason, that we’re also consuming stories about Zika virus. So that is, in part what’s going on. Like, at some level …
Is there an Ashkenazi IQ shift? Do you believe that that’s true? Do you believe that there is a heritable component to intelligence (the yiddishe kop comment) that is weirdly encoded in the preference for marrying within the tribe?
AM: Well, so this is a conversation that I’m willing to have with you, that I was not willing to have with the Nazis. And they kept trying to drag me into it and say, “Well, how do you explain Jewish over-representation in banking?” To which I would say, “How do you explain Jewish over-representation in white nationalism?” Because you’ve got Stephen Miller running the show, and …
EW: It’s pretty good answer. [laughs]
So my point being that, Jews are over represented in the circus, Jews are over represented in almost anything you want to pick except for NBA teams. Even NBA ownership.
So … that’s weird. And I think it deserves a separate conversation. …
EW: Well, Jews can’t be over-represented in everything.
AM: Way, way, way more things than … and this is where-
EW: No: VISIBLE things.
AM: Sure. But this is where (to your point) I WANT there to be a media multiplex, where things can be discussed; I WANT there to be a YouTube video where we actually answer the JQ.
EW: Well, look. First of all, I don’t even like the idea that there is a JQ.
AM: But there is man—we gotta answer it! Like this-
EW: No. No, no! There are lots of questions we don’t have to answer. I can IGNORE questions that I don’t want … I can reframe them. I don’t have to …
AM: That’s your “gated narrative,” dude.
EW: Well … this is pirate radio …
EW: I think what’s going on is, is that every society has to discard and orphan some truths. And they throw those truths over the city walls because they’re inconvenient, and then, whatever is lurking outside the city walls takes that truth and polishes it and tries to create a society out of it. So, for example, some of the things that we say in order to combat racism, are scientifically untrue. We throw those truths that are involved over the walls …
AM: Like what?
EW: Well, for example, what is the theory of natural and sexual selection? It’s built off of three concepts: heritability, variation, and differential success. Okay, that says, for example, that widely geographically-separated populations can have entirely different traits. On the other hand, I don’t want to believe that any geographically-separated groups are different on the trait of intelligence, or attractiveness. Right? Like, those are the two traits that we don’t want to vary. So I’m perfectly willing to sign up for a fiction that says, in essence, that the variation is so negligible as to be uninteresting.
AM: Yeah, I mean, that’s a whole …
EW: No, but what I’m trying to get at is, I don’t know that that’s true.
EW: I just … I want it to be true, and I don’t want to investigate it, I don’t want to know if it’s not true. I know that there’s something that ties together males and females within a breeding population, called Fisher’s equivalence. But there isn’t something that ties together widely geographically-separated populations.
AM: Well, and this is where …
EW: … So the problem is, if I want to have a scientific conversation, and I take the political into the scientific, I sound like an idiot. If I want to have a scientific perspective on the political, people will tell me that I’m evil. Right? And so that’s, like, one of these things where it’s like, the shape and size of one’s head, depending upon whether you’re having a Zika conversation (it’s clearly relevant) and if you’re having a phrenology conversation, you can’t even talk about it. Well, that’s, in part, what’s fueling all of these people in the fringe reaches of the right—is that we’ve thrown over certain truths that … they ARE true. I don’t think they mean what Richard Spencer (or evil people) THINK they mean.
AM: And yet, you just said you don’t want to devote energy to addressing the JQ.
So I do think it’s not as simple as, any place where these people can find darkness, is a place where they will gather. That may be true, …
EW: Yeah, but I don’t want to deny, for example, that they’re … Like, Joe Rogan asked me straight-up, “Why is it that Jewish people do so well in Nobel prizes?” And I made a joke out of it, to deflect [indecipherable]—I said, “We cheat at physics.” And … you know, the whole point was, I don’t want to be talking about this. I just don’t like it.
AM: Well you could do the Woody Allen thing, “I’ve cheated in my metaphysics exam: I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”
EW: [laughs] Yeah yeah.
AM: Um …
EW: You know, but, look … Part of what’s happening is, is that like the Stefan Molyneuxs of the world are going to listen for every load-bearing fiction that we create to build a decent society, and he’s gonna say, “Not so fast! That’s not true! That’s not right!”
AM: Well, so, this is a great example. And this one may be deemed “not an argument” by his fans, but …
AM: … We were talking before about, when are you allowed to cast doubt on someone through some, sort of, not-quite-logical chain of insinuation?
AM: I think that the way to deal with people who are acting in bad faith, in some sense, sometimes is to go tit-for-tat with each one of their arguments. And sometimes is to dismiss them because they’re dismissible. And I’m, you know, …
EW: Who’s dismissible?
AM: So, the book that the Nazi was trying to recommend to me in that moment—when he suddenly discovered that I was Jewish. The thing that threw him off, by the way, was my red hair, which, again …
EW: Great cover. The facade[?] is certainly working overtime.
AM: Exactly! Like, come on, man.
… He was trying to recommend to me this book by this disgraced academic named Kevin Macdonald, who is the, kind of, modern Protocols of the Elders of Zion …
AM: I have to be careful because he really wants to sue me. So I don’t want to say anything …
EW: No, I don’t want to get you in trouble.
AM: … But the point is, he has been roundly dismissed by the academic community. People like Steven Pinker have said, “This guy’s not worth my time.” And I think they’re right to say that. And I think that where the Nazis will find cover in that is by saying, “Oh, see, Steven Pinker doesn’t have good counterarguments to each one of this guy’s footnotes, and therefore, he is dodging and weaving and pointing and sputtering and refusing to engage.” Whereas I see that as, Steven Pinker responsibly saying, “This guy’s not allowed in the ring. He doesn’t pass the smell test. His basic hypothesis, that I read in his abstract, is flawed. And ‘sayonara’.”
And so, I don’t think that there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to say, “All ideas are worthy of a response.” And I think where we … Trying to fit a one-size-fits-all solution onto … BECAUSE people will take refuge in the fact that you haven’t refuted this guy point-by-point, therefore we must do that thing-
EW: Look, there’s a problem, in general, with this, as we’ve I think we both agree … that we believe that fit ideas outcompete unfit ideas, rather than good ideas outcompete bad ideas.
AM: Right. Which I think is so deeply terrifying that I think it is the story of our time.
EW: So if that’s our problem, then, in part, … We’ve had fit fictions that have resulted in a better world, that are now very difficult to defend in a world where everybody has this kind of access.
So, you know, I try to bring up the same examples over and over again so people realize (if the example’s well-chosen) what the problem is: There’s nothing I can do about chess statistics. I can choose not to have grants that study IQ in various groups. But I can’t stop people from recording chess statistics. And chess statistics tell some pretty disturbing stories. We don’t know what those stories are exactly. But for example, the male-female story: of the top 100 players, I think only one of them is female. Do we really believe that chess—which doesn’t seem to know anything about your gender—is among the most gender-oppressed activities known to man?
AM: I think it’s a fascinating question. I think there should be a lot of people studying it.
EW: Well, in terms of ability versus interest versus discrimination, …
AM: Stereotype threat, all that stuff.
EW: … Right. But I just … It’s hard for me to imagine a world in which that 99-to-1 statistic is going to be entirely explained by oppression. And then we have the problem of well, “What can and can’t we say about that statistic? And can we IGNORE the statistic?”
I don’t think that our old options are available to us. I don’t think that, you know, we can have three networks that more or less settle on the same news narratives …
AM: Well, we don’t. I mean, those days are over.
EW: Right. But we keep acting like … What is our new imperative? What is our new sense-making regime that we have to invent? Why are we going backwards rather than forwards?
AM: Well, look. I think … I’m all for having nuanced, difficult conversations (obviously: that’s why I’m here). I think that two things can be true: I think it can be true that we have to be honest; and I think it can be true that we have to be careful. And …
EW: Yeah. Do we have to be dishonest? Like I would like to sort of be dishonest about SOME things.
AM: Uh huh. How do you decide?
EW: Well, that’s part of the problem. Like, we[?] have to deal with … Are fictions necessary for the functioning of civil society?
AM: I mean, in a Straussian sense, sure. But, um …
EW: Well, then, is it all about truth? I mean, is there a really strong role for lying? Is there a strong role for crypsis?
AM: I think I would ask the question differently, but I think that the framing is important. In a Rortian sense … The reason that Richard Rorty and pragmatism is this, sort of, patron saint of the book, is that I think that the concept of post-modernism / post-truth / post-structural stuff: all that stuff gets a bad rap. In the sense that, there is some stuff out there that is easily caricatureable, and deeply flawed. There’s other stuff in that sphere (because it’s an entire discipline of stuff) that I think is deeply brilliant, and that we have never reckoned with.
And one of the things that Rorty is is a great synthesizer, where he can read Derrida, and Foucault, and Habermas, and Davidson, and Frege, and all these people, and come out with something useful in … And it’s a lot of things that he comes out with that are useful, and he’s better at reading Derrida, and has more time to read Derrida than I do. But … and he discards a lot of it—most of it. But one thing that he comes out of it with, is to say, “To ask about ‘truth’ and ‘lying’ is to ask the wrong question, because Truth-with-a-capital-T is just not that helpful of a concept. And we have been deranging ourselves for a long time, in our kind of post-Enlightenment haze, trying to get after this thing called ‘objective truth’ that we’re never going to reach and that by trying to reach for it, we are going on a wild goose chase.” And that gets misread as relativism and nihilism and all the rest of it, when, in fact, in his pragmatist way, he wants to move—and this is true of Donald Davidson; It’s true of Dewey; It’s true of all the pragmatists—they want to move towards something that SEEMS a lot like truth, but isn’t Truth-with-a-capital-T. And it’s almost an academic distinction, but it’s an important distinction, in the same way that we can get along with Newtonian mechanics 99% of the time, but when things get really interesting, it breaks down. I think something similar is happening with Truth-with-a-capital-T, where, most of the time, we can live as if we’re just doing the Enlightenment thing, and we’re just playing by Kant’s rules, and we’re just trying to have duty and have truth. But when things get really interesting at the edges, those concepts are holding us back.
EW: Well. This is the thing I had to say to Sam Harris, which is that the things that compete with Truth in my mind are Meaning, Fitness, and Grace. I’m not interested in this deranged … the Jordan Peterson-Sam Harris conversation, where Jordan saw the issue and wanted to fold Fitness into Truth so that self-extinguishing truth was not true. If it led to the destruction of the of the world, then there’s a question about, “Well, does it destroy MEANING to understand the actual truth? When you look at it your beautiful child and you see a bunch of hadrons and leptons held together by photons and gluons …”
AM: With the BEST hadrons. My FAVORITE hadrons.
EW: Well, we’re talking about MY child, so …
AM: [laughs] Oh okay: the second best.
EW: [laughs] Right.
So issues of Meaning and Grace enter into it, and I do think that there’s an Enlightenment ADJUSTMENT, that has to do with not being quite so naive about the role of Truth and our ability to comprehend it.
I do see, however, that there are all of these slippery slopes where those of us who see the adjustments are not successful in setting a stop point on the slippery slope, so that you don’t slide all the way down to the bottom, into oblivion. It seems like, as soon as you understand a little bit of relativism … Like, if I make the point, for example, that there was a problem called the Yamabe conjecture that was solved in the literature for (I think) seven years before somebody realized that the proof was not correct. So even in mathematics (which is close to objectively true) you can have these sorts of situations. People say, “Great news! So even math isn’t objective, [this] means that there is no objective truth, and that this is a tool of the patriarchy.” And I just think, like, “Well, no. You can’t just instantly go insane once you find out that humans are involved and will bring their humanity into every objective thing that they’re doing.”
AM: Yeah. Well, I think there are many, many non-insane ways of talking about the human construction of scientific knowledge. I mean, I think Thomas Merton does it. I think Karl Popper does it. I think, in many ways, Rorty does it. I don’t think that the bumper sticker version of “truth is a human construct” gets us all the way there. I think that’s partly true and partly not true.
EW: Yeah, I guess, the thing that I despair from is that I’m always much more interested in what people like Einstein, Dirac, von Neumann, and Wheeler had to say about scientific truth, rather than Kuhn or Popper, or somebody else like that. Like there’s some there’s some sort of a disconnect …
It’s ASTOUNDING how far you can get with the minorly wrong idea that there is objective truth, and that we can know it. Like I agree that that’s wrong …
AM: THAT is a useful fiction.
EW: … but it’s not THAT wrong …
AM: It’s useful! In 99% of cases, it’s useful.
EW: … and I think that part of the problem is, is that as soon as you say 99 and not 100%, you get into some very weird territory.
Let’s talk about climate (because you brought it up) and let’s also talk about vaccines and HIV. I have an idea of a suite of ideas I’d like to play with with you.
AM: Now we’re on the show. Let’s do it.
Starting with HIV …
AM: Always! Yeah.
EW: Originally, there was a claim that this was an equal-opportunity disease that … just started in the homosexual community, with Haitians, and that it was only a tiny matter of time before it was completely equal-opportunity in the heterosexual population. That idea was not scientifically right, because of the difference in sexual practices between various communities.
Another idea is that vaccines are 100% safe—which … I don’t know anything that’s 100% safe—but somehow, the pro-vaccine argument is very frequently phrased in absolutist terms. And that claim of 100% certainty seems to be incredibly dangerous because certain people say, “Wow, if you said 100%, then I know you’re lying, so it must be that vaccines are super dangerous.”
Then another one would be climate, which is “climate science is settled science.” And there’s something about the sound of that that appeals to one group of people. Like, “People, this is not a question we should be debating. This is absolutely 100% settled scientific fact.” That impulse deranges a different community, which says, “Wow, we can barely even understand the three body problem, and here you’re talking about a vastly more complicated nonlinear interacting system and you’re saying it’s ‘settled science.’ So I know you’re lying.”
Can we talk about how these groups interact in the public sphere with no gatekeepers?
AM: Yeah. So this is another case where I think you and I basically agree on the landscape and, I think, put our emphasis in different places. And I think I’m seeing a pattern here of … where we’re not disagreeing on the premises, we’re disagreeing on where we should put our emphasis and what we should prioritize. And again, my read is that you see yourself in the average person a little bit too much; that you you see what happens to your brain when somebody says something is 100% settled science, and your reaction is to say, “Oh, really? Like, let me get in there and trouble the waters a little bit.” And I think that impulse is there in other people. But I don’t think … I think in many cases, it’s inchoate, and mixed with a whole bunch of other stuff, and kind of impulsive, and kind of inconstant, and kind of can be turned back on itself.
In other words, I think YOUR motives in this stuff are pretty clear, and generally pushing in the same direction. And I think with many people—certainly many of the experiences I’ve had doing careful, long-term reporting on how people develop their ideology—it’s often just way weirder and more chaotic and more unpredictable than we think.
So … of course, it can’t be the case that anything is 100% safe. And we know it’s not because we know there are people who react badly to vaccines.
EW: Okay, now watch. The instant next move, in my experience, is “Andrew Marantz reveals himself as anti-vaxxer on Eric Weinstein podcast program.”
AM: Alright, we’ll say.
EW: Well, no, I’m not saying that it WILL happen to you. I’m saying that my experience with this stuff is, certain people are allowed to say, “Come on. I mean, nothing’s 100% safe.” And other people, the instant they say that, are, like, in a world of pain.
AM: Well, so here’s an interesti-. So I was watching the Mark Zuckerberg hearings in Congress, and he’s being asked, “Is data, the new oil?” And “Are you the new robber baron?” And “Can I run false ads?” And all this stuff.
And then this one Republican Congressman from Florida starts saying, “You know, what I really want to talk to you about is vaccines.” And I go, “Huh, that’s interesting.” And part of me goes, “Well, I’m listening to the words this fellow is saying …” and the words he’s saying are very similar to the words you’re saying: nothing is 100% safe; in fact, we have this $5 billion fund we use to compensate victims who have, you know, had temporary paralysis from vaccines and all these things. And in my head, I’m going, “He hasn’t said anything inaccurate yet. But I bet if I google this guy and dig through his stuff a little bit, he will be interested in some really dangerous stuff that isn’t that is not on the surface of what he’s saying right now.” And lo and behold, if you go back through that guy’s Facebook page, he is spouting some really loony anti-vax conspiracy theory stuff (and he’s a member of Congress).
Now, does that mean that he should be carted out of the room in handcuffs and held in contempt of Congress? No. Does that mean that we can’t, as a society, withstand that that five minute interaction was played on C-SPAN? No. Does it mean that I’m going to cast aspersions on him and write a piece about how he’s a bad person and he cheats on his spouse and …? No. But I think it’s really interesting that he is toying with very, very dangerous, conspiratorial, false memes and spreading them as a member of Congress.
So I think it can be both: I think we can say “nothing is 100% safe” while also having the suspicion that I had—which in that case, and in many cases turned out to be the right suspicion—to say, “Well, what if this guy is Looney Tunes? Shouldn’t we watch out for that?” Rather than assuming he must just be a responsible skeptic.
EW: Ok, but assume that, for the moment, that we took a different tack, and we said, “We think that vaccines are incredibly safe. We don’t know how safe and there is some possibility for damage. But we have to take that risk as a society and we have to spin the roulette wheel for each one of us, given that there are many empty chambers and very few bullets (we believe). And that’s just what we have to do. And you’re all signed up to take the risk and that’s where we are because of herd immunity.” Right?
I think that a lot of people who are in the anti-vax community would say, “Okay, maybe I’m still worried about this, but I don’t have the same energy anymore.” Like, there’s something magical about …
AM: The forbidden fruit?
EW: … No. There’s something magical about being talked down to by people you don’t trust.
AM: Yeah, that’s the forbidden fruit thing. I think …
EW: Well, do not trust God. I mean, like, part of my feeling is, I don’t want to get condescending, but right up at the point where somebody says, “Vaccines are 100% safe, people—wake up!” Like, when somebody says that I just … my brain goes into this other state, which is, “Why are you on TV? Like you’re scientifically not competent to be where you are.”
AM: I don’t really trust God—but that’s a separate conversation.
AM: So … yeah, I see your point. I think …
EW: And I think what I’m doing, Andrew, is that … I don’t think everybody is like me. But I think that a large percentage of the world cannot stand being coerced by someone they see as dumber than themselves.
AM: So if your worry is about being perceived as condescending, my worry is about being perceived as elitist and, you know, “I must be part of the gatekeeper class that tells you what your received narratives are.” That’s the thing I’m worried about slipping into and I …
EW: Wait, say more about this. You view yourself as being part of an elite class?
AM: Well, of course! I mean, I, you know, grew up very lucky and wealthy in the United States of America and I … How could I NOT be part of an elite class? I went to an Ivy League school. I live in New York City. I, you know … I’m not a millionaire or a billionaire, but I …
AM: In what way could I possibly not be?
EW: Well, I, I don’t know. I mean, for example, I also went to an Ivy League school, but my grandfather was a schmatta salesman who went door-to-door selling clothes. I don’t …
AM: Yeah: so he wasn’t elite, and you are.
EW: Okay, so that’s pretty quick, first of all.
AM: Yeah, Mazel Tov!
EW: Uh, okay.
AM: Well, maybe if by “elite” you mean that it has to be some derivation from the Mayflower or something, but that’s not …
EW: Well, I yeah … I just feel like it’s all pretty precarious.
AM: Maybe. Anyway, that …
EW: And, you know, you say you’re not even a millionaire. In the US, it’s hard for me to think about somebody being “elite” if they’re not … I mean, you have an elite SEAT that you sit in …
EW: … and so that’s a great source of power. But I don’t …
AM: Less and less every day, but yeah.
EW: … well, I don’t think that the university does as much for you as you think it’s doing.
AM: Sure. Yeah.
EW: And I don’t think that … I guess, I’m … Here’s where it’s coming from (my surprise): I keep hearing people say, “Well, of course, people like us will be fine.”
AM: Oh, I don’t think that!
EW: … and … Like, I don’t think you’ll be fine, necessarily.
AM: I don’t think that. I don’t think any of us will be fine. [laughing] I think we’re in deep shit. But, I … I mean, a lot of it is semantic. I think there is the 1%, and there’s the 0.001%, and there’s different … there’s class, there’s social capital, blah, blah, blah. There’s a million ways of measuring it. My only point is to say: when I start going down the path of saying, “Hey huddled masses, here’s the better fiction that you need to believe in.” I am in danger of being perceived a elitist because of the seat I sit in.
EW: Well, I think that there’s this concept that might be called the Elite Precariat, which is people who perceive themselves to be elite, because they had some advantage in life, and don’t realize that they’re really not in great shape.
AM: I very much realize that. And I feel very close to unemployablity at every moment of my day.
EW: Well, NOW we’re talking. Like I have REAL economic concerns. I’m running ads against all these programs … I’m trying to make some money to feel much less precarious, because I carry a lot of the insecurity of being the grandson of a seamstress and the used schmatta salesman. And I don’t … Like, all of this talk about “elite”—we sound like we’re the British Royal Family, as opposed to people who narrowly[?] escaped death in Europe.
AM: Yeah yeah yeah. No, I think it can be both.
EW: I just … I just hate the talk.
AM: I get that. I feel very precarious. And I don’t think there’s any sense in being smug.
Look, people say to me, all the time, “Oh, I know, the media business is in trouble. But you’re the New Yorker—you’re going to be fine.” I’m like, …
AM: Have you looked at a P&L sheet lately?
EW: No! No no. But, like, this is the thing! But, like, let’s be more honest and more open: We’re in a precarious situation …
EW: … both of us.
AM: Well, and I also resent the narrative that, that I’ve heard people say, “Oh, well, you know, you just sort of did this safe thing of being, sort of, one of these … sort of, going into the profession of journalism because you wanted to be, kind of, cosseted and …” So it’s a it’s a huge risk. It’s an entrepreneurial risk to …
EW: No! When you share your views—in a world that is as tumultuous as this—you are always a few steps away from unemployability.
AM: Yeah. Not to mention the fact that, even if you don’t get thrown off the boat you’re on, your boat can sink at any moment.
EW: Well … So then let’s just stop pretending … It’s lovely that we both managed to escape Germany during the 1930s and 40s, and to see you here. Let’s stop talking about this “elite status” because it’s obnoxious. And I think it’s … part of it, is it’s a way of remembering (fondly) that we had a high water mark, you know, potentially with an offer of employment or a letter of acceptance at a college.
I don’t think we’re elite.
AM: Sure. Well, I take your point. But, you know, the sense in which I meant it was: if I see to say, “It’s really good that the masses are being, you know … that the useful fiction of the safety of vaccines is being pushed onto them,” and I say that AS sitting in the seat that I—much less, say it in a New Yorker font (with the little diaeresis over the vowels)—I WILL be perceived as elitist, whether you think I’m elite or not.
EW: Well … I mean, this is the funny part, like: people talk about, “Well, you have a platform.” My feeling is, “Yeah, I BUILT this. By … just mouthing off.”
AM: I didn’t build mine. But I-
EW: Okay, so maybe this is part of it: Maybe the idea is that you feel like you’ve inherited something, and that you’re able to speak from that perspective …
AM: And that there’s a bundle of things that go along with it—that are good and bad, and fair and unfair, and earned and unearned …
AM: … and … when I was with these people, who I was embedded with for three years, they would often say, “Oh, well, you WOULD say that, Mr. liberal elite media. Mr. New York …”
EW: Well, okay, so that’s an easy way to take you down. You know, the fact Is that when I’m recognized, very often (like, it’s very funny for me), one of the largest groups of people that appear to listen to this program are like contractors and electricians and people who build things—who have a tremendous amount of improvisation in their day, but they’re like they’re down and dirty, gettin’ it done—and I don’t feel very … I feel much … Like, I have a Harvard PhD. I don’t feel part of that class, because I’m part of the black sheep of that class. Right?
AM: Yeah. And there’s a huge amount of useful variation that we need to keep track of. And I think that a lot of these things, of course, are fictions. And the same … I mean, class, of course, is ultimately a fiction, because we’re supposed to live in this classless society. And yet, speaking of useful fictions, it’s something we need to keep very careful track of. Because for me to deny it and say, “What do you mean!?” that, you know, the fact that I’m writing in this font with the diaereses has has NO meaning in terms of my social capital. And the fact that I am affiliated with this institution … If I were to sit in these rooms where people were slagging me off in that way and say, [incredulous voice] “Whatever do you mean!?”
EW: No, but like … How many of your grandparents have college degrees?
AM: … One.
EW: One. For me. Right? …
EW: First of all, “fist bump” for that, for the American [indecipherable]
AM: I think I’m right. I may need to fact check myself on that. I had one grandmother who was one of the first women ever to go to law school and said, “There’s this woman, Ruth, who’s uptown at Columbia, and I’m downtown at NYU. And we’re, you know, pushing through the doors.” And I had another grandmother who was never able to finish college and was the smartest person I’ve ever met. And so …
That’s all good. That’s all fine. And it can also be the case that I inhabit this space where, for me to say, “Here are the benefits of telling the public that they must take their medicine …”
EW: But that’s not your job, right? Like, I guess what what I’m really feeling about this, is: The public doesn’t want us to be douches.
AM: Mm hmm.
EW: … They don’t mind expertise. They don’t mind the concept of, you know, a priestly caste that has lots of restrictions on it with some benefits that are different from the average man in the street. I think that the key issue is, is that we’re not taking up (somewhat of) elite responsibilities. I feel like it’s my job to digest academic papers and try to make them sound somewhat sensible so that people can, for example, get over their racism, or get over their xenophobia, or get over whatever bad things are creeping into their head, because I’m giving them some intellectual guidance as to … Like, you know, the whole concept of The Portal is escape from the conversations and the political movements that are dragging us down. I mean, …
AM: Yeah, and I think I take the responsibility to act un-douchelike very seriously …
EW: Very good, sir.
AM: Thank you. And what frustrates me is when people don’t go to the trouble of recognizing the work I’m doing—because they see the headline, or they see the font, or they see the association. I mean, you talk about guilt-by-association: I’ve encountered a lot of people who go, “Yeah, what you’re saying might be interesting or true, but I’m never going to read that elitist garbage.”
EW: Well, like … sure, that’s what you read when you’re sipping your lattes in your Volvos …
AM: Yeah, oatmilk … which, by the way: an oatmilk latte is, like, [chef’s kiss] to die for. But I, you know, …
AM: … I own who I am. I just … You know, I would sit there and order soymilk with these guys, and they would call me a “soy boy” and I’d be like, “Yeah, I am who I am. That doesn’t change- … I mean, that’s ‘not an argument’.” And so …
Look, I get it. I get that we inhabit different spaces, and we have different different interlocking identities that do or don’t overlap.
EW: Well, for example, do you believe that … is Mike Cernovich elite?
AM: Elite? No.
EW: Okay. Is he racist?
AM: I mean, I just said I was a little bit racist. So I mean, … He is not a white nationalist in good standing. Because he has a wife who is … may or may not be a person of color (depending on how you define your fictions). And so the white nationalists don’t like him for all kinds of reasons. His best friend … I mean, I go into this-
EW: I mean, he’s married to a Muslim Persian, right?
AM: And I mean, according to her, her parents are more Islamophobic than Mike is. And he … I go into great detail about this in the book, …
EW: But a lot of Muslims think we’re nuts for not taking the problems of Islam seriously. And I’m talking about practicing Muslims.
AM: Sure, right. Which they’re not (as far as I know), but they also … His best friend in college was a black nationalist who, they united on their kind of Good Will Hunting-esque resentment of the elites at their school.
So this is why I go into, you know … Mike is one of a few people who I delve really deeply into in the book. Again, not to pick on him, (although sometimes I [laugh] of course pick on him, because I …)
EW: You’ve picked on him.
AM: … Oh, DEEPLY.
EW: Yeah yeah yeah.
AM: My … The review of my book on cernovich.com is not a strong review [laughs]. I go at him really hard. And I make no apologies for that.
AM: I mean, you can go back and document the entirety of his online career: there’s a huge amount of stuff in there that is disqualifying (I think).
EW: I mean, it’s super disturbing.
EW: Really disturbing.
AM: And so, I don’t do that just to document, and point at the fauna[?], and say, “Look at this bad person.“
EW: Well, but the odd thing is, is that if you bring it up to Mike, he says, “Yeah, fair.”
Yeah. Locker room talk. Yeah …
EW: Well, no … Or that was bad, here’s the place I was in mentally.
AM: Totally. And I go into all that—and I go into it for this specific reason that we live in a world where memetic fitness is going to be the determining factor of what people see and understand about the world. People … We have to understand how people like Cernovich are able to manipulate and pull those levers. At a level that most people in polite society do not want to face[?].
EW: What do you think he’s doing?
AM: I’ve watched him do it.
AM: I sat in the room … I called him pre-election and said, “Hey, it seems to me like you are picking the news narratives that you want to see, and then reverse-engineering and hacking the news cycle to get those into the bloodstream.” And he said, “That’s correct.” And I said, “Can I watch you do it?” And he said, “How is Tuesday?” And I got on a plane to Orange County, California, and sat in his living room, and he … And it’s not just him. There are there are dozens of people at this elite level of … I don’t even want to call it “hacking” because it’s just using the algorithms the way they’re meant to be used. [?: could have been “not meant”]
EW: No, it IS hacking. He’s hacking in …
EW: … to the narrative, using social media … This was what I spotted him doing very early on. And, you know, just the way I take Donald Trump’s tweets very seriously (because I see that they fit a pattern, and that pattern is incredibly fit, if not in a way that makes me happy).
AM: It is maximally fit in the Darwinian sense and minimally fit in the New York Times sense.
EW: Y- … Yes, although the problem is, partially what it’s doing is parasitizing the lack of confidence in the New York Times. And in fact, what one of the things that Mike has understood is that there’s an impulse not to report things and you have to make things so that they can’t be ignored, because the reporters actually know a lot of things that are fit to print and that they won’t print.
AM: And Bannon was good at doing that, too—the parasite thing.
So, what I watched him do was figure out how the news cycle works at a level that- … You know, we talked a lot about micro-targeting, and we talked about the deep, backroom, smoke-filled room, you know, Cambridge Analytica stuff like micro-targeting. One of the terms I coined in the book is macro-targeting. There’s stuff that anybody can do, without any specialized equipment, with a laptop in your living room. You don’t have to know … You don’t have to have Facebook data; you don’t have to know people’s psychological profiles. You know how the limbic system works; you know how timing works; you know how disgust and fear and alarm and all those basic human emotions work. You can cook it up in your kitchen.
So I walk into his house and he says, “Okay, a few bombs just went off in New York, and I want to associate that act of what seems to be terrorism (we didn’t know, yet) with Hillary. I don’t really know whether Hillary was there. I don’t know whether she had anything to do with it. I want to create that association in people’s minds. So … I’m gonna start a Periscope …” And he just opens his iPad and starts a Periscope, and people flock into the comment section and they say, “Okay, what’s our hashtag?” “Hillary’s bringing in the terrorists.” “Hillary is a terrorist.” “Hillary likes terrorism.” “No. That’s all too, like, on-the-nose. People won’t buy it.” They settle on something: “Hillary’s migrants.” Now [laughs], factually, this is a flawed hashtag, because the guy who set off those bombs was not a migrant, he was an American citizen. Okay, but that’s still a useful insinuation—it’s going to suppress voter turnout; it’s going to make people angry; it’s going to be memeable.
They all then go to Twitter at the same time and get that hashtag to start to trend. And it’s pretty easy. You know, we have this fiction that when you look at the sidebar of trending topics on Twitter, that is some kind of neutral heat map of the American consciousness. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s personalized; it’s algorithmic; it’s totally proprietary—Twitter doesn’t explain anything about how it actually works behind the hood (under the hood, behind the … whatever), they just make the, … You know, you have to trust them that what you’re seeing trend is the thing that’s objectively trending, even though different people-
EW: Why do you have to trust?
AM: Well, you have no other choice. I mean, you could NOT trust them. Your choices are ‘trust them’ or ‘not trust them.’
EW: Well … we don’t trust them.
AM: Right. Correct. But, a lot of people do.
And this is again, where-
EW: No, I think, the lower part of our brain … Sure, the part of your brain that buys something that’s priced at $9.99 (rather than $10.03) trusts them.
AM: Yes. And that’s the part of the brain that drives a lot of your …
AM: … purchasing decisions. Right. So one of the things that does, is give journalists permission—whether they’re aware of it, or it’s just a tacit thing—it gives them permission to touch it. It gives them the feeling that they actually have an obligation to touch it, because now it’s objectively a thing. And before there were just some scattered rumors that maybe this act of terrorism in New York might in some way be tied to the Democratic Party. But NOW this is a thing that people are talking about.
EW: Okay, so this is Mike Cernovich in the election cycle of 2016.
AM: And that is the first one I saw. And then I saw him do it two hours later. And then I saw him do it two hours later. And then I saw him do it the next morning. … With enough reliability that he could then explain to me, “Okay, I looked at this stuff—I was some poor kid from Illinois, grew up on a junkyard—and I was able through my own gumption and wit to be able to see, ‘Alright, if I want to get this thing onto this platform, then it’ll leap here, then it’ll go to the Drudge Report, then it’s on Hannity, then Brian Stelter is talking about it, then it’s in the newspaper.’” And almost to the point where it was like a magic trick. I could pick up the newspaper the next day and go, “That one has Cernovich’s fingerprints on it.” Which was terrifying to me. I mean, it was a great magic trick, but it was also like I don’t trust this guy to be reverse engineering our news site.
EW: Well, this is exactly right! But the thing is, is that he invited you in to watch him do it.
AM: Yup. He was proud of it!
EW: Is Jack inviting you in to watch him Engineer Twitter?
AM: He is not. Although the Reddit guys were very open with me—which I was impressed by.
EW: Reddit’s a different … I think Reddit is less curated world.
AM: Yeah. And I … But actually I was there when they started to become curators, like all the rest. Reddit started as freedom from the press, anarchy, libertarian free-for-all. I was there in the room after Charlottesville, when they said, “Fuck these guys. Nuke ‘em!” was the founder’s quote [founders’?]. “If any of these guys who helped organize this rally are on Reddit, I want them gone—nuke ‘em.” And then they let me sit in the room (to their credit) as they went around, and open their laptops, and a bunch of 29-year-olds eating free snacks …
EW: So, maybe this is, like, a really good place to end this installment of our back-and-forth.
I think that every time you have one of these very simplistic statements like, you know, “free speech should be absolute,” something happens where you’ve come to see the cost of taking that kind of an ideological position.
The problem that I have is that I don’t want to open this up at this moment, because I think it’s a terrible moment for us to re-engineer and refactor this thing. But let’s use a look-ahead function: we are going to have to do something, because this idea of “instantaneous communication without friction” creates a global experiment that no one has any understanding of, and there’s no precedent for it in our history. …
AM: THAT should have been the blurb. You want to use that as a blurb for my book? That’s a perfect encapsulation of why I’m spending so much time on these problems.
EW: Yeah, so …
AM: We’re running a really terrifying experiment.
EW: We’re running a terrifying experiment. I believe that there have to be elite gatekeepers—but who are ACTUALLY elite, not … I mean, the reason I hate that term is that I see a bunch of douchebags who are walking around with the name “elite” on them, and, like, nobody’s angry at elite Special Forces. We like having elite Special Forces. But we should have elite scientists being real scientists. We should have elite analysts being elite analysts. A lot of these people are just not that.
So we’re going to need elitism; we’re going to need fictions; we’re going to need some something of consensus; we’re going to need to have some kind of national interest that isn’t exactly The Truth (because I don’t think the truth necessarily belongs to any one group of people). We’re going to have to re-engineer everything that we’re in the process of breaking right now and figure out what its 21st century replacement is. Do you have any idea how that happens?
AM: I thin you’ve charted the right … set of questions. I think …
Look, I mean, you talk about Thomas Kuhn—when he invented the concept of a “paradigm shift,” it wasn’t like the way we use “paradigm shift” today. It wasn’t like, “You know, on my break, I go to the vending machine and, like, I always used to get Dipsy-Doodles, but I just had a paradigm shift and I started getting donuts.” Like, that’s not what that term means.
EW: No, we invented a technology that probably means we have to reef reformat our global hard drive.
AM: Right. And it’s gonna be really scary. And when the five cycles of paradigm shift get played out, what Kuhn predicted is that the one before the successful adoption of the new language, is called “crisis.” I think that’s where we are right now. I think we’re in crisis.
EW: I think we’re in PRE-crisis… I think we’re in a revolution.
EW: But I think … It’s astounding to me how little of it has turned kinetic. So, like, … should we talk about these live broadcasts of synagogue and mosque shootings? Or you know, whatever-
AM: There’s so much we- … Like, I have a lot of things to say about those.
EW: Are you following this doctrine of—I keep trying to talk about it—from Danah Boyd at Data and Society, called “strategic silence”?
AM: Well … sometimes. Sometimes it’s good not to be a transmitter in the same way that you don’t want to be a naive vector for a parasite that you don’t fully understand.
AM: … I don’t think it’s a BLANKET solution.
EW: Well, my question is: who gets to understand where / how strategic silence is applied? Like, I’m much more disturbed by differential application of the rules than I am about any particular set of rules.
AM: Absolutely. There are a lot more conversations we can and should have about this, because I think … we are in a place where we’re playing with a lot of dangerous stuff. And I want the priestly class to be responsible and good at it. And, I think, …
I mean, I was just thinking about the way that, in one of my New Yorker pieces, we were talking about the word “elite”: I wrote a piece where I quoted Mike Cernovich saying, “A vote for Trump was a vote saying ‘Fuck you, you smug, elite, arrogant asshole. You don’t get to tell me what to say.’” And when I wrote that quote in the piece … they ran the entire quote, but then the copy desk wrote “elité” with a little accent aigu over the e, and I went …
EW: That’s funny.
AM: God damn it.
EW: You should have gone nuclear on that.
AM: [laughing] We … I do try not to write words that have … like cooperate, or like … so I avoid the thing …
It’s gonna be …
EW: … go full Spinal Tap.
AM: [belly laughing] If we’re gonna … I think we need to be really, really good at it. I think it’s a high-wire act. I think we need to find our way out of it. And I think, in some cliche sense, the only way out is through.
The reason that I spent so long working on this stuff is not that I wanted to gawk, and take us on a safari through all the weird creatures of the internet—that’s fun, and there are books that I love that are just a fun spin through a subculture. Part of that is, sure, I didn’t think there had been a good genealogy of the weirdos and troglodytes of the internet. And part of that is that I wanted to do that. And I think, on some level, that is just a useful contribution. But I really, really wanted to not get stuck there. I wanted to go beyond that into the idea that this entire world that I’m charting in the book is itself a reductio ad absurdum. And what it shows me, in the reductio ad absurdum sense, is: if we wanted to build a good informational ecosystem, we we would not have ended up anywhere near where we are right now.
AM: … And I don’t think we spend enough time wrestling with how deep that problem is, or understanding the problem. I think we want to go straight to solutions of, “Well, should we break up the companies, or should we regulate the companies in this way, or should we … should I delete my account? Or whatever-“
EW: We go back on everything like that. [dramatic voice] “Is Bitcoin just digital gold?”
AM: Right. “Is blockchain gonna solve all our problems?”
EW: “Is Facebook the new railroad?”
AM: [laughing] Right. It doesn’t get us very far.
AM: I mean, I think the first step is to describe the problem thickly, and responsibly, and describe it NARRATIVELY—I mean, not describe it in some “policy proposal” sense, but describe it in a narrative … vivid sense. That was what I was trying to do—I don’t think I completed the project with this book, but I think it’s a helpful first step to say, “Let’s look squarely at where we are.” And I think until we look squarely at where we are, it would be irresponsible to start talking about solutions.
I do think that people who are responsible (and people of goodwill, and try hard to think clearly and know their stuff) can help lead us to a better place. But I don’t think we should kid ourselves—that it’s going to be tricky, and that journalistic institutions are dying left and right, and some of them are making huge mistakes, and social media is going to take up more and more of the economic power and its doesn’t seem to be very interested in doing responsible things with that power.
So I think we … I see it as an informational crisis that is essentially on par with the climate crisis, or the opiate crisis, or the city infrastructure crisis. And to say, “The opiate crisis is because doctors are bad people who want to over-prescribe pills,” or to say, “It’s because of deaths of despair—because people are experiencing depression; because they’re Bowling Alone.” Or … it might be all of those 10 factors, but to pick any one of them and say, “This is the only thing we need to address …”
EW: Yeah, but the sense-making crisis, to be honest, is the top-level problem, because all of the problems that are underneath it we can’t get at as long as we’re having ridiculous conversations about what even is factually true, even in situations where we KNOW it’s factually true. I mean, largely, … I cannot come up with a solution that doesn’t involve $250,000/year jobs for journalists who are held to very high standards and are fired when they play games with their open bias and activism in their role as journalists. I don’t know how to do things with more precarious journalists—I think we can’t have a journalistic class that is this precarious. Because I think it’s absolutely … The political economy of that is civic suicide.
AM: If you can figure out the grant-making structure …
EW: This is the thing. It’s very hard, when you’re as angry as I am at a bunch of people, to tell them, “You guys need vastly more money.” Which is true, because if you’re going to get better behavior, you have to pay people and then you have to hold them to the standard, which is like, “You are now here as an activist, and this is this is not your job. Your job is to report reality.”
AM: And then there’s a lot to pick at in the … I’m in the middle of reading a book right now called The View from Somewhere, which is about the pernicious myth of journalistic objectivity, and this is another one of these cases …
EW: No, I don’t believe in journalistic objectivity. I do, however, believe that journalists can at LEAST be metacognitive, and … You know, I’ve had the experiences you probably have, of a bunch of journalists laughing about the activism that they slipped into their last piece. Like we’ve … The standards for the profession are now such that people are openly joking about things that they would have at least known to be sheepish about at some point.
AM: Well, in a way, I kind of … I mean, there’s a million things to say. I’m kind of obsessed with this topic and we don’t have time but the …
In a way, I kind of stand slightly outside of that (even though, again, I’m perceived as being sort of in the mainstream bubble—whatever). There’s a huge difference between how The New Yorker approaches that problem and how The New York Times approaches that problem. And the roles that they play in society. The New Yorker doesn’t pretend to have a “paper of record” thing. It doesn’t pretend to cover every story, and to cover it neutrally. The New Yorker is a magazine that prints its editorial in the middle of the magazine every week and tells you where it stands.
AM: Now, that doesn’t mean that I can’t disagree with David, or with my other bosses, on any number of things (and I do, actively). But it does mean that I don’t have to have this pretense of, “I am not a person, I don’t exist.” / “This reporter has noticed that many people are saying some provocative things, blah blah blah.”
I can tell you who I am. And so I don’t face that problem in as visceral a way as The Times and The Post do.
EW: Yeah. I mean, I think … To be honest, I think that there’s room for all sorts of different models in which people talk about their biases. But what we can’t have is people pretending to be unbiased and then, behind the scenes, laughing about how they just put all their biases into that piece and “wasn’t that brilliant, I got it past my editor” you know, all that kind of stuff.
AM: I’m super biased: I really love an oatmilk latte, and I will not brook any … I mean, that’s gonna be my opinion no matter what anybody says.
EW: But, you know, as a guy who’s recently moved and been dealing with a lot of people are doing a lot of manual work: a lot of them are drinking lattes. Some of them with almond. Some of them with …
AM: This is what I’m saying man!
EW: What I’m trying to say is that like, even that oatmilk latte thing is pretty dated because we’re all in this thing together.
AM: Totally. Totally! I mean, the GI tracts of America are way more diverse than we give them credit for, and that GI diversity is our strength.
EW: Andrew, it’s been a pleasure having you.
You’ve been through The Portal with my friend Andrew Marantz, author of the new book Antisocial. Thank you for joining us.
Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple or Stitcher or Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts, and also go over to YouTube, where most of these will appear in video format, and remember to click the subscribe and the bell button to be notified of our next episode.
Andrew, thanks very much.
AM: Thank YOU.
EW: Be well.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai and human-edited by @Nick_N#5749