The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Yascha Mounk. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Yascha Mounk. Yascha is a writer and academic known for his work on the crisis of democracy and the defense of philosophically liberal values. He is a professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University where he holds appointments in both the School of Advanced International Studies and the SNF Agora Institute. Yascha is also a contributing editor at The Atlantic, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, and the founder of Persuasion. He is also a member of the editorial board at Die Zeit, a German leading publication.
Yascha: Thank you so much. I really look forward to this conversation.
Jim: Yeah. This would be good. I really enjoyed reading the book, and I’ve also looked at, I don’t think I actually dug all the way in, a previous book of yours, The Great Experiment, Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure. It’s on my long reading list, and one of these days I will get to it. Of course, I’ve read numerous of your articles in The Atlantic and elsewhere.
One of my favorite writers, a very sensible guy is rare enough in this world today and, in fact, for a long while, we had one of your essays at The Atlantic, Why the Latest Campus Cancellation Is Different, up on our website for the MIT Free Speech Alliance as one of the lead explanations of the notorious Dorian Abbot affair where a scientist who was invited to give a endowed lecture on the atmosphere of planets around other stars than the sun got dis-invited when a Twitter mob came after him because he had written an essay with another scholar in Newsweek that, in very good faith and measured terms, critiqued the diversity, equity and inclusion program, and proposed an alternative. You did a great job on that, and so you got lots of reads off our website.
Yascha: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
Jim: Yeah. All right. Yascha is also the podcaster on The Good Fight podcast. I like that name. That’s a good name. I wish I’d thought of that. You can also read more about his doings at yaschamounk.com, and you can find him on Twitter at @yascha_mounk. As always, all these links and many more will be on our episode page at jimruttshow.com.
Yascha: This is an incredibly thorough introduction. I feel like I’m learning things about myself.
Jim: Today, we’re going to talk about Yascha’s newest book, which we will actually publish on the pub date of, what did we say it was, the 26th, I think. Right?
Yascha: The 26th of September, today, as you’re listening to this I hope,
Jim: That’s today. This is it.
Yascha: … unless we screw up.
Jim: I don’t think we will. Our producers are good. The new book is called The Identity Trap, A Story of Ideas and Power. This is a topic that’s become quite timely, new. The wave feels, to me, like it’s starting to turn a little bit against this new identitarian tribalism, which has been taking over our institutions at a rapid rate. In fact, our most recent podcast, the previous one to this, by chance turned out to be on the same topic with Susan Neiman. That was an EP 197, Why Left Is Not Woke, so let’s start with that.
From reading your book, it becomes clear that you are a left-of-center guy in general, a progressive. Susan also is. My own politics are a little too heterodox to actually put on the team red, team blue timeline, but if you were forced to project them onto it, I would be somewhere left to center at least on economic and social issues, if not some things particularly around civil liberties where I remain a very strong civil libertarian.
Before we jump into the details of the book, and don’t worry, we will get to those, what do you think is going on that progressives have been captured by a return to tribalism, or is that too strong of a statement?
Yascha: No. I think there’s definitely elements of truth in that statement. I don’t know. It’s strange. I mean, I certainly think of myself as being on the left. I have deep political roots on the left, but a lot of the things that attracted me to the left I think are no longer characteristic of most of it today. One of the things that on this Susan and I agree on, there are some things I disagree with her on, one of the things that used to characterize the left was a certain universalism. The hope was to create a world in which the identity groups into which we’re born come to be less important rather than more important.
That never meant ignoring the fact that there is racism in the world, homophobia in the world, all kinds of forms of discrimination. That never meant that we’re just going to pretend that we’re already in that world, but it did mean that the aspiration for the kind of politics and the kind of society we wanted to create was that the belief that, essentially, what makes us important as human beings is defined by the things we share rather than things that we don’t share, that it might be difficult sometimes to understand people who have different experiences, who are born in a different part of a world, who speak a different language literally, but actually there are forms of communication, whether it’s science or literature, films and movies and novels, that allow us to understand each other’s experiences.
There’s something universal about the human experience that we can relate to and that we can build a form of solidarity with each other on the basis of our joint aspirations for what a society like the United States might become. I do think that, to a striking extent, we have moved away from that. We have moved away from the recognition that our institutions are imperfect and a simultaneous determination to live up to the promises they make, too, in many progressive corners, saying, “Let’s tear those institutions down.”
On a topic like free speech, we have gone from recognizing that that is the key and the crucial tool that has always allowed the most unpopular, the most oppressed, the most marginalized, whether on the basis of their beliefs or scientific opinions or sometimes perhaps their atheism or on the basis of the identity group to which they belong to make a case for their points of view, to organize, to defend themselves against the tyrannical majority from recognizing free speech as this key left-wing value.
We have started in many cases to think of it as a somehow conservative value to think of something that only people on the right could possibly care about. I think all of those are quite deep betrayals of what is most noble in the tradition of the left. Yeah, I think that it has to do with the new set of ideas whose origin development and flaws I chronicle in my new book, in The Identity Trap.
Jim: Yep. That sums it up pretty well. I think of historically the progressives going back to the Enlightenment, people like Diderot and Voltaire, and others and Jefferson, for all of his flaws, all men are created equal, yes, hypocritical could be said by a slave owner and somebody who was betting his slaves. Nonetheless, as you said, it was aspirational, and it was something that people like Martin Luther King and W. E. B. Du Bois could point out, and Frederick Douglas could point out, said, “We demand the delivery of this noble statement that you made in a hypocritical form, but has always been the basis of the American Way and then, later, of much of the West.
It just astounds me that these small percentage of people who people call the wokes, I know you don’t like that term or you don’t use it, but the popular terminology is the wokes, have basically disavowed this tremendous heritage. You give some frightening examples early in the book. Maybe you can recount a little bit about those. I really found the story of Kila Posey to be sort of an eyeopener.
Yascha: Yeah. Kila Posey is a woman I spoke to at some length in researching this book. She’s an African American educator in the suburbs of Atlanta. She has two young daughters who go to elementary school there. She asked the principal of her school whether she could request a particular teacher, which she had done in the past, and the principal said, “Yes, of course. Send me the name,” and so she sent the name, but she wanted one of her daughters to have as a homeroom teacher, and the principal kept demurring and suggesting, “Well, what about this other teacher? Wouldn’t that be more appropriate? Wouldn’t that be better for your child?” Eventually, Kila Posey became impatient with this and said, “Look, what’s going on? You told me I can request the teacher. I requested a teacher. Why won’t you let my daughter go to that class?” The principal of her school said, “Well, that’s not the Black class.”
Now, that sounds like a straightforward, in some ways, well-known story of racial discrimination in the American South of the long echoes of something like segregation until you find out that the principal who said this line is herself a Black woman and, in fact, is somebody who’s deeply influenced by a new set of progressive pedagogical ideas, and those ideas are not that we should emphasize our capacity as humans to understand each other across these kinds of identity lines, not that what’s most important about us is our common humanity, but, on the contrary, that we should, as the name of one very influential organization, proclaims embrace race, that the key task of educators is to get children to see themselves first and foremost as racial beings.
In other contexts, you now have, especially in elite private schools in the United States, teachers coming to first, second, third grade classrooms separating children by race, telling them, “If you’re black, you go over there. If you’re Latino, you go over there. If you’re Asian American, you go over there. If you’re White, you go to that group,” in the hope of making them own this ethnic identity.
One of the things that I find disturbing about this is what you end up doing with the White kids. You then take the White kids into some group and, again, you want them, as Bank Street School on the Upper Westside of Manhattan says, to own the European heritage, to own the whiteness, to think of themselves in ethnic terms as defined by their White race. The goal of this is to get them to disclaim White privilege and to become a consistent anti-racist activists. I think it’s much more likely, if you know anything about history and anything about social psychology, to create a zero-sum conflict between these different groups in which actually you’re going to have more White supremacists than anti-racists.
Jim: It’s funny. I’m glad you mentioned that because I’ve been making that point for many years that, when you decide to divide the teams up, the White team unfortunately has a bad attractor towards jackasses like Trump or, even worse, people over on the far alt right who want to return to a ethnostate or Christian nationalism or vile things like that. It’s so totally obviously predictable to me that, when you divide the teams, the biggest team of all is going to say, “Hey, if we’re playing the game of raw power,” as your buddies, the French post-structuralists like to say, “then why shouldn’t the White team go for its power?” and that’s, unfortunately, as you say, something totally predictable by anybody who actually knows anything about human beings, and why we’d want to encourage that, I have no idea.
Yascha: No. It really befuddles me. I’m a social scientist and so I have a little bit of an inferiority complex towards natural scientists such as yourself. I think our findings are often a little bit less robust and a little bit more contingent, but if there’s one robust finding in social psychology in the last 75 years, it’s what’s called the intergroup contact hypothesis and, roughly speaking, that shows and it’s been shown in thousands of studies in all kinds of different contexts that, when members of groups that have prejudices against each other interact, they tend to reduce their prejudices. That is true especially and predominantly and, sometimes, only when certain conditions are met, when in that situation they are equals, they’re treated as equals in the situation in which they have contacted each other even if they might not be equals in society as a whole because of persisting discrimination.
Secondly, when they have a common goal, when they are put in a position where they’re trying to accomplish something together and they need to rely on each other in order to accomplish that and finally when there is an encouragement from the authority figures in that situation for them to get along when they say, “You need to get along,” now, where’s that the case? I’m not the most sporty guy, I am not a jock, but on sports teams. That is a paradigmatic example of that. One member of a team might be richer than the other or might belong to a group that’s more privileged, but you’re both on the sports field and, in that capacity, you’re equal. You have to win the game. You have to work together in order to vanquish the other team. Your coach is going to be telling you, “Hey, if you have some kind of beef, if you have some disagreement, some conflict, don’t take it out on each other here. We got to work together.”
That allows people the trust to get to know each other and then they can open up and then, in the locker room or over a beverage after the competition, they can talk to each other about their lives and come to have more mutual understanding. Those are the kinds of practices that help us get along better with each other.
What we’re seeing today in many schools, but also in many progressive organizations, even in the way in which many diversity trainings are being held in corporations, is the opposite of that. It is splitting people up. It is telling them we can’t understand each other. It is priming them to the idea that there is conflict that is going to be inevitable. It is in many universities having anonymous hotlines for people to report microaggressions, saying that, “If somebody disagrees with you about a topic, lack affirmative action, for example, then that might be a microaggression where they’re really trying to invalidate your very existence and you should report hem in a unanimous way.” That is going in a systematic way against the insights we’ve derived from social psychology over the last 50 years.
Jim: Yeah, that last one is a particularly pernicious one. Our MIT Free Speech Alliance is working with the broader free speech group, the Alumni Free Speech Association, against these [inaudible 00:16:13] former networks on college campuses. In fact, we’re working behind the scenes on some lawsuits against such things. It’s very pernicious. I mean, again, if we think back what the progressives were doing on college campuses in 1964, advocating for free speech, sticking it to the man, being as obnoxious as you could possibly be sometimes, this reversal is just very, very, very, very strange.
Another example you gave where these theories have had real life consequences and led to many thousands of excess deaths was around COVID. Why don’t you tell us some of those stories?
Yascha: Yeah, my book does a lot of things, by the way, and I’m sure we’ll get to many of those things. It really tells the history of where these ideas come from. It explains how they could go from being influential in universities, but pretty marginal to society as a whole to having real influence in all of these institutions. It offers a careful philosophical critique of the main applications of these ideas in areas from cultural appropriation to free speech to race-sensitive public policies and, finally, it really boils these ideas down to their core tenets. It does a rational reconstruction of them and then outlines how I think philosophical liberals should respond to them.
In writing this whole book, I’ve really tried to go to examples that are of real consequence. I understand that many people who criticize “cancel culture” can sometimes go to examples that are shocking or that are newsworthy, that are really on Twitter, but that might seem like isolated cases. That’s always the response we got, so one of the things I really tried to do in this book is to talk about cases that have obvious takes, and of all of those cases, for one you’re asking about, to me was the most shocking. I mean, it really made me speechless when I followed this during the pandemic.
When we finally got these lifesaving vaccines, they were still being produced at quantities so they were scarce, and every government in the world had to decide how to distribute those scarce vaccines to its population. Now, what virtually all of our peer countries did was to make a little bit of allowance for hospital workers and so on because you obviously want them to be able to work to keep the hospitals going, but other than that, they basically went by descending order of age.
COVID was a disease that was so disproportionately affecting the elderly that that was the most ethical course of action and it also had the advantage of being much easier to roll out. It’s much easier to communicate the publication to the population, “If you’re over 85, you’re eligible now,” and, “If you’re over 80, you’ll be eligible next month,” and so on and so forth.
The key advisory committee to the Centers for Disease Control on this question called ACIP decided that such a course of action would be unethical. Why would it be unethical? Even its own model showed that deviating from this model would increase the fatality rate by between 0.5 to 6.5%, so potentially by thousands of people, it decided it was unethical to roll the vaccines out to elderly first because the elderly happened to be disproportionately White in the United States. An 85-year-old in the United States is more likely to be White than a 35-year-old, and so, instead, it suggested to prioritize essential workers, a group that is much less clearly defined, much harder to communicate and which obviously would immediately lead to political jockeying. In fact, you ended up with movie crews being considered essential workers in the State of California, with finance executives being considered essential workers in New York.
I was considered an essential worker as a university professor in the State of Maryland even though at the time I wasn’t allowed to go and teach in person. The result of this was, first of all, after states adopted a version of these recommendations that were sort of a mix of prioritizing the elderly somewhat and prioritizing essential workers, you ended up with way too many people eligible when vaccines were still very scarce. It was a free-for-all to get vaccine appointments, and so who was able to get those appointments? Well, often, the most privileged and resourceful people in society who could spend hours searching for an available vaccine spot, refreshing websites when they became available.
Jim: That was me. I get up at three o’clock in the morning to do it. I discovered that that was your best shot, at 3:00 AM, because they released a bunch of things. If I had a job, I couldn’t have done that. I was a retired dude, right?
Yascha: Right. A friend of mine programmed a little computer program, a little macro that was able to refresh the CVS website, and that’s how he got his vaccine appointment. I drove out two hours away from where I lived to a rural pharmacy where there was less demand for the vaccine. It actually was supposedly serving equity, but it ended up helping the most privileged in society and, finally, most perversely, it probably, I suspect, increased the death toll for non-White Americans because if you give a lifesaving vaccine to two 25-year- old Black Uber drivers rather than on 80-year-old Black retiree, more Black people are going to die because of how heavily COVID increases in risk as you get older.
Jim: Yeah. I mean, this just strikes me as strikingly bad stuff and yet most people don’t know about it. Right? We’ll talk about it soon, the march through the institutions, whether short or long or both, but the truth is the American people don’t want this. Pew’s polls, which are very high quality, show about 74% of Americans are opposed to thumb on the scale with respect to hiring, with respect to race even if the purpose is to increase diversity, and 75% feel the same way about college admissions. As you pointed out in the book, even California, the land of flakes and nuts, left-wingers of crazy varieties, even in California, they recently brought the anti-Affirmative Action in college admissions, not affirmative action, but I call it thumbs on the scale forms of racial discrimination, and it was voted to keep it recently in California. The idea that there’s actually a social consensus for this stuff is not true. It’s a consensus amongst a certain elite class essentially.
Why don’t you address that a little bit? In fact, I’ll let you talk for a while here. Talk a little bit about the history and how it happened to get embedded amongst the intellectual elites and then how that has leaked out into our leading institutions.
Yascha: Yeah. I think that’s one of the things I really enjoyed researching in this book. I’ve had many hats over the course of my academic career, but my core training in a way is in intellectual history. I studied history of political thought in Cambridge. That’s what I did for my undergraduate degree and the beginnings of my graduate career, and so it was very nice to rediscover my roots as an intellectual historian. There was a debate about what the nature of these ideas are. When you listen to a lot of people on the right, they say, “This is a form of what we call cultural Marxism.” The idea of that, as this is kind of intuitive, is you take something like Marxism, which is obviously an economic doctrine, one that particularly focuses on social classes and the means of production, and you say, “Well, let’s take out class from this. Let’s take out the economic dimension and stuff in these identity categories like race and gender and sexual orientation,” and that’s what you get when you have these ideologies today.
I don’t think that that is right as a matter of intellectual history, and I don’t think that that can explain what this ideology actually looks like today, so my story starts, that’s why you were joking earlier, about my friends, the Postmodernists. My story starts with Michel Foucault in post-war Paris. Foucault is briefly a Marxist, briefly a member of a French communist party that’s listening to Moscow from 1950 to 1953, but he leaves the party in part because of his disgust at the Soviet Union blaming conspiracy of Jewish doctors for the death of Joseph Stalin. He really falls out of that point of view in a profound way, in a way that attracts the eye of many of his intellectual contemporaries like Jean-Paul Sartre. His intellectual starting point becomes the rejection of what he calls grand narratives.
Now, grand narratives are restructuring big, large scale accounts of how the world works and where the laws of history are going to lead it. One grand narrative is, of course, the grand narrative of Marxism, the ideas that Marxists have about how class struggle is going to lead.
Yascha: The ideas that Marxists have about how class struggle is going to lead to revolution, the overthrow of bourgeois capitalism and the arrival of communism.
Another grand narrative that Foucault also rejected was liberalism, was the core ideas of liberal democracy, was the idea that those enlightenment ideals you talked about earlier, Jim, had been able to inspire a better world. But there was various elements of French society in his day, like the criminal justice system or like the treatment of people who were mentally unwell, that was somehow superior to the past, that we’d made progress.
He rejected all of those ideas. There had been no progress. And in fact, we should, according to him, be very skeptical about the kinds of claims to objective truth that were at the core of the Enlightenment project. That skepticism towards the truth, or skepticism towards basic liberal values like those embodied in our democratic institutions becomes one of the first six or seven themes of the identity synthesis that is still with us today.
The second contribution that Foucault starts to make, and that is then picked up by Edward Said, is a re-imagination of how we should think about political power. Now, usually when I ask you how does power work, you might say, “Well, sort of top down, we have laws and things like that. And then through the bureaucratic state and through the police, they are enforced on people at the bottom of society.”
Foucault says, “No, that’s kind of too simple a way of thinking about power,” that true social power lies in these political discourses, lies in the way we talk about the world and in the kinds of concepts, including basic identity categories we use to make sense of what’s happening in the world. And therefore, we should always critically question any kind of form of discourse.
But Foucault himself was quite cynical about this. He ultimately thought that you might be able to challenge one discourse, and there might be a brief moment of freedom in doing so, but then the new discourse that’s going to be its successor is going to be just about as oppressive as the one that preceded it. And so, there’s not going to be any kind of systematic progress at any point.
So in the next step, you have this set of post-colonial thinkers who are deeply influenced by postmodernism, but who, for practical political purposes, want to make it useful for actual political struggle, often for the struggle for recognition of nations that had been colonized, or of groups that had been marginalized. And so, Edward Said is deeply influenced by Foucault, mentions Foucault repeatedly and positively, one of a few thinkers he has laudatory words for.
In his bestselling book, Orientalism, in which he uses a kind of a Foucauldian analysis of discourse to say, “Here is the set of ideas that the West has historically used in order to impose its will on the East,” a set of ideas about what supposedly makes the Orient immature, inferior, such that it must be governed by these Western nations.
But Said didn’t just want to describe this, he wanted to give people, for good reason, the power to fight back against this, to fight for independence and structure the newly independent nations. So, he thought of this kind of discourse, critique, as a mode of political battle. And that’s, I think, the second theme that we get from the identity synthesis, this way of thinking about politics as not just being about public policy or a certain kind of law you want to pass.
But it’s really, essentially, consisting in saying, “This speech is problematic, and therefore we should stop using this kind of term,” a form of cultural critique, which thinks that what is to be a feminist is in part to criticize or celebrate, but in any case, debate the Barbie movie. Right? And that’s something that I think we all recognize, both from how much of academia works today, in fields like media studies, for example, but also much of a public sphere.
A third step, and Jim, you invited me to speak for a while, so I’m going to talk at you for a while to get us through this history.
A third step comes from Gayatri Spivak, another post-colonial thinker, born and raised in Calcutta, in West Bengal, in India, who is deeply influenced again by these postmodernist and latest post-structuralist thinkers. Makes a name as a translator and interpreter of some of these key figures, and who basically agrees with the critique that they have of essentialist accounts of identity, the critiques they have of identity labels, like even that of a homosexual.
Foucault himself is homosexual in our terminology, but does not recognize himself under that label because he thinks it’s too constricting of a variety of human sexual experiences. And so, they’re very skeptical of the idea that these kind of identity terms, whether … Ones that pick up sexual orientation or ones that pick up race, can really get at something essential about human beings, and Spivak agrees with them.
But she says they don’t have a need to speak for Proletarians in France, for example, because perhaps, these white workers in France can speak for themselves. They went to school and they have voting rights and they have certain things that allow them to be effective political agents. But you know what? Perhaps a lot of people in the streets of Calcutta, who did not get a good elementary school education, who might not be able to read and write, who live in much greater poverty, they can’t speak for themselves. Somebody has to speak for them.
And to speak for them, we need stable identity labels. And so, for these strategic purposes, perhaps we should pretend that these essentialist accounts of identity sort of work. And so, she suggests what she calls a form of strategic essentialism, an acceptance of these essentialist categories of identity for strategic political purposes.
Jim: Let me hop in here if you don’t mind.
Jim: This is one of the things that always raises my hackles when I read about strategic essentialism. It’s a very slippery concept, because as I understand it, she understood that essentialism was not correct and that it was actually a moral failing to take an essentialist perspective. And yet, to cynically pretend that essentialism was real, and unfortunately, she understood the difference.
But when you get out into the more broad popular culture, people then digest strategic essentialism and turn it into real essentialism. We hear this all the time in discourse, that somehow I, as a Black woman, are somehow fundamentally different than you as a bisexual Canadian, or whatever, in a way that is very essentialist. Even though the people who developed the strategic essentialism knew that it was a false narrative for cynical purposes. Or maybe not cynical, but for operational; let’s be non-pejorative and say for operational purposes.
And that seems to me a real shame, that somebody would let loose such cynical thinking on the world, that if you thought about it even a little bit, you had to know that the lump and variety of that would just turn into essentialism, which it has.
Yascha: Yeah. So, she wants us to hold this paradox in our mind at the same time. She says at one point, “My search is not one for coherence.” Well, you think, “Well, perhaps it should be!” But she at least is deeply aware, deeply sensitive to the existence of his tension.
And at some level I get her point, right? But you say, “Look, if you’ve been discriminated against on the basis of your identity group, if you’re discriminated against because you’re Black,” then organizing as Black people in order to fight for justice, in order to fight against that kind of discrimination makes a certain amount of sense.
So in the specific political context, I can see where she’s coming from. But she thinks, well, so you have to sort of organize in that way, but then you have to hold in mind, and remember, that these essentialist accounts at the same time aren’t exactly right. And what happens in the end is exactly what you’re saying, which is that the strategic nature of this falls out and all that is left as the essentialism.
And Spivak, to her credit, recognized this. Later in life, she started to say, “My term of strategic essentialism has become …” Basically, she calls it “the union ticket” for straight-up essentialism. People now in these progressive spaces say, “Well, race of course is a social construct,” which roughly speaking I agree with.
But then they go on, as thought it was a natural entity, as thought it was the thing that obviously and forever will structure, and should structure, our social reality.
Jim: And let me hop in here if you don’t mind, because this is a key point. Now and forever, right? And this is another part of this analysis, which I just say, “What the hell are these people thinking?”
And here’s a very, I think, strong and comparable example, which is, in the United States, there was amazing animosity amongst the so-called white ethnics, at a level beyond what the various racial groups are at each other’s throats about today.
For example, my father grew up in inner city Paterson, New Jersey in a bad neighborhood. His was an Irish neighborhood, and there were Italian neighborhoods nearby, and there was Puerto Rican neighborhoods. And these people fought each other in the streets with fists. It was unsafe, physically, not in the neo-pop culture unsafe bullshit, but actually physically unsafe to walk through the wrong neighborhood.
If we look at our writers from that period, people like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, two of my favorite writers, they add the Jews to the Irish and the Italians and the Polish and others, where if you were a Jew in the wrong neighborhood, you’d get your ass beat. And so, this was a much higher level of viciousness and animosity than exists amongst the races today, and that wasn’t that long ago. That was in the 1930s, maybe into the early ’40s. And yet, all that has cooled down to their very minimal amount. It’s not totally gone, but it’s very minimal.
And how did it do that? Through intermarriage, mostly, right? There was significant intermarriage rates. And eventually, the idea of somebody as … Now I am Heinz 57, as we say. I got all kinds of nationalities. I recently discovered one of my grandfathers was a liar, that he was actually three quarters Polish and not half German and half Irish as he claimed. He was actually three quarters Polish and one quarter Norwegian.
Now, he might’ve been adopted and nobody told him, which is possible, but he’s also a mystery man who would never say where he came from. But here was a problem at least as intense as the racial problems we have today, that has essentially attenuated away under a relatively short period of time, less than 100 years, and probably a whole bunch of it having to do with intermarriage.
And our intermarriage rates are actually quite impressive in the United States, if not in places like France, where a third, approximately, of Asian-Americans marry somebody from outside the Asian community. And of course, the Asian community itself is highly heterogeneous. The idea that there’s Asians is a crazy idea. I mean, what does a Yemeni and a Korean have in common? Nothing, basically, other than their countries or their nationalities both end in a vowel.
And then, second-generation Hispanics, over 30% marry somebody from outside their group. American Indians, 50%. Jews, 50% at least, maybe more. Non-religious Jews, 75 or 80%. So, the white ethnic groups and other ethnic groups seem like they’re on … It just seems natural that these problems gradually attenuate, particularly if people pay attention to the actual actions of discrimination.
You made the distinction between being blind to race and being blind to racism, which I thought was a great distinction. I’d never run into that before. I thought that was a wonderful distinction.
And so, as long as we are actively focused on finding and eliminating actual racism, as opposed to the bullshit somebody like Kendi calls racism, which is actually itself racism but we’ll get to that later. Why should we expect ourselves to be locked in a static situation forever? I just do not understand that. Is there any basis for that, or is that just rhetorical stuff these people have made up?
Yascha: No, I think you get to really what the core is of where the disagreement lies, right? The disagreement lies in, have we been able to make progress within our institutions? And therefore, the core task is to live up to their most noble values as fully as we can. Or have we not been able to make any progress, and therefore, what we should do is to rip these institutions up?
And that very explicitly is the view of the sort of people who are the last step in this intellectual history, the founders of critical race theory, who really take us into the present. So, people like Derrick Bell, who does heroic work with the NAACP in the ’60s, helping to desegregate public schools and businesses and other institutions in the American South, but comes to think of that as fundamentally a mistake.
It comes to say that perhaps, segregationist senators were right to critique civil rights lawyers as being more beholden to the integrationist ideals than to the actual interests of their clients. But perhaps we should have not had Brown versus Board of Education, and African Americans should have fought for schools that were separate but truly equal. He says that we need to reject what he calls the defunct racial equality ideology of a civil rights movement.
And a lot of that is based on his thesis of what he calls the permanence of racism. But whenever there is an appearance of racial progress, as with Brown versus Board of Education, that is really just something that serves white self-interest. It just happens, in that particular historical moment, to be of interest to whites to pretend that there’s racial progress. But the moment that those interests shift, it goes away. And so therefore, over the long run, there’s never going to be progress for African Americans.
So, that really is the denial of what you’ve just been saying, the denial of the idea that we could make any kind of form of racial progress. And therefore, the conclusion becomes, well, to help these groups that have been treated unfairly, we need to rip up the Constitution. And we need to rip up all of these universal principles that have never allowed us to make any kind of progress, and make how people are treated explicitly depend on the kind of group of which they’re a part.
And I agree with you, that that is simply a mis-description of history, and it is offensive. Not offensive to the good Americans like you and me living today; it is offensive to the people who suffered in the past. To claim that homosexuals today, that gay people today suffer the same discrimination as 50 years ago is a deep offense to the people who were mistreated and expelled from their jobs, and expelled from their families in the most horrendous way until a few decades ago.
To say that African Americans today suffered the same discriminations but 200 years ago, or 75 years ago, is to insult the memory of people who were enslaved and the memory of people who suffered from explicit forms of racial segregation in the American South. And so, we have to be able to walk into government at the same time. We can recognize that there’s serious injustices in our society that we should take seriously, without coming to the absurd conclusion that we haven’t made progress.
You were talking about the stark boundaries between different white ethnic groups. But even when you look at the relationship between white and non-white groups, there’s been a tremendous transformation. In the 1960s, 95% of Americans felt that interracial marriage was immoral. Today the figure …
Jim: That’s my favorite statistic, by the way. In fact, I have the graph right here in front of me. Yeah, 1961. 4% of Americans thought, between blacks and whites specifically, and now the number is 94% that think Black and white marriage is fine, by white people, including 93% of those in the South. And if that’s not progress, then what is progress?
And of course, this goes to the bigger question, one of my objections to most of these descendants of the post-structuralists is they have their theory, but they don’t put it to the test with the data. And if you actually bring forth the data, then they somehow argue, “Well, that itself is racist, to use data. Data and reason is the white man’s tool,” or some sort of crapola like that.
Because if you just look at, okay, how many Black billionaires are there? There’s some. There were zero in 1960, I guarantee you. Even on an inflation-adjusted basis, how many middle class people, lots more. Is all forms of racism in our society against Black people gone? Of course not. Of course we still have numerous categories of individual racism.
I also like to point out, 94% of Americans are now approving of Black people and white people getting married. That means 6% don’t, which is, how many is that? 18 million Americans disapprove of Black people and white people getting married. So, there are still plenty of actual, authentic racists out there, but they used to be 95% of the adults, now they’re 6%. That is progress. And unfortunately, this is where the thing you mentioned in passing about Foucault, this anti-reason aspect of the post-structuralists.
And I got to ask you, somebody who’s hung out with these people as a social scientist at an elite university, do they actually believe that shit? I mean, when they get cancer, do they go see a witch doctor or do they go to the Johns Hopkins Hospital to be treated? Is this just a word game they play, or do they actually believe there is no objective reality and that reason and data are actually useless as tools?
Yascha: Well, that’s a great question. I think there’s definitely a lot of hypocrisy in those ways of disclaiming reality. Part of it may be conscious hypocrisy; part of it is that it’s just an impossible way to live.
I mean, let’s go away from postmodernist for a moment. Let’s say you’re somebody, a philosopher who studies epistemology, and who has somehow convinced yourself that we just have no proof that the laws of causation work, that reality is there. And these are hard, philosophical problems.
But if, after thinking about this really hard, you get a little bit thirsty, you’re still going to reach out for your glass of water and fully expect that your hand is about to grasp it. So, it’s just very hard to apply that kind of nihilism, or that kind of cynicism, about reality in a consistent way. And that is certainly true of people who believe in these postmodernist ideals as well.
I will say that in some way, Foucault to me is a more sympathetic figure than some of the people he ends up inspiring. Certain, even some of the people who then popularize and vulgarize the theories that I’ve talked about so far over the course of the last 10 years, people like Robin DiAngelo or Ibram X. Kendi. And I think Foucault, with a skepticism towards grand narratives, would in fact have bristled at the fort of somebody like DiAngelo or somebody like Kendi.
So, I’m not a Foucaultian; I don’t buy the basic assumptions about reality that postmodernists have. But I think that it can sometimes provide us with critical tools that are useful, even against the people who later picked up on and ran with their ideas and created one of the less subtle grand narratives that we’ve seen in a long time.
Jim: Yeah. I agree, actually on that. For instance, in my own work on social change, I believe that skepticism about grand narratives is actually very important and useful. And in fact, it is the first step in seeing through reality and seeing that change is possible.
The way I like to describe it is, none of the institutions we have were brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses, right? These were all things that were created over time. They’ve morphed and they changed. And if you read history at all, things like our monetary system have changed tremendously over the last 500 years; our ideas about democracy have changed, all kinds of things are subject to change.
And grand narratives are just a story somebody’s trying to pedal for whatever purposes they have, and it does have some purposes of providing some coherence for society. But you can’t reify them. You can’t say that the Washington synthesis of neoliberalism, circa 1996, was brought down by Moses and Mount Sinai, and is inviolate and may never be changed. And so, that’s what I think is actually useful about the postmodern perspective.
But then, also talk about nihilism. I have studied this stuff a little bit, and I can tell you, you cannot prove that the universe is more than five seconds old and it didn’t wink into existence five seconds ago, with all of our memories in place and all ballistic objects in motion. And then we’ll wink out of existence in five seconds. You cannot prove that as a wrong statement.
But to live your life as if that’s true is literally insane. And yes, 17-year-old college freshmen smoking pot in the lobby of their dorm love to talk about these kinds of ideas. Radical solipsism, essentially, right? But it’s bullshit! You can’t live your life that way.
And yet, somehow, aspects of this have leaked out into what … I mean, I don’t know if college professors are actually serious people anymore, in the humanities in particular, but these would seem to be serious people. And they at least mouth these words in ways that seem like they’re literally insane.
Yascha: Yeah, and it is a very weird tension, right, in the same way in which there is the tension between strategic essentialism, the recognition that these essentializing understandings of these group identities are overly simplistic. And then the verbalization of that recognition then becomes your fig leaf. The union ticket, as Spivak later recognizes, for just completely taking these assumptions for granted.
In the same way, there’s this deep irony in which somebody like Foucault criticizes these grand narratives, but he puts in motion a train in which the most un-self-critical grand narrative you can imagine comes to be so dominant in our social institutions.
And so, one thing that my book does is to retrace the best, the most interesting and most subtle version of these ideas so we can really understand how the themes of wokeness, or the identity synthesis, emerge. How you get the skepticism of absolute truth in Foucault, the use of this politicized form of discourse analysis and the kind of progressives this inspires in Said, the embrace of strategic essentialism and the way that leads into the educational practices we talked about at the beginning of our conversation, the race segregated groups and so on that have their origins in Spivak; the embrace of this deep pessimism about the possibility of progress, and therefore, the rejection of any form of universalism in Derrick Bell.
But the other thing that I then go on to do is to talk about and to explain how these ideas could actually come to escape campus. Right? How is that we …
Jim: Yeah, which one will we go to next? We could go a little bit more into the history of it, but let’s say, how did it escape? Because hen I was in university, 1971 to ’75, right, and I mostly took hard-nosed tech courses at MIT, whatever. But I did-
Jim: Knows tech courses at MIT, whatever. But I was interested in the social science and humanities, and I took some humanities courses. And I still recall taking an anthropology course. And even in 1973 or 1974, the anthropologists were already infected with some of this stuff. And I said, “What the hell is this shit? It certainly isn’t science, whatever the hell it is.” And I just said, “Screw those people” and never looked back. It just seemed to me like some bizarre cult, and even the English department or humanities department had some of that. But again, people jerking each other off in academia, I don’t really care about.
How did it escape and why? Start telling us that story.
Yascha: Yeah, it is a remarkable development and one that even the advocates of these ideas didn’t expect. Kimberly Crenshaw writes a paper in the early 2010s celebrating the 20th anniversary of critical race theory, and saying, “We’ve had all of this influence on universities, but unfortunately, the beliefs of somebody like Barack Obama is as fundamentally at odds with the key tenets of critical race theory, and there’s no hope for us to ever have any kind of real cultural influence, political influence.” And over the next 10 years, it turns out to be wrong. By the end of a decade the two most effective popularizers and vulgarizers of this ideology, Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi, have books at the top of every bestseller list and are on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert and so on and so forth.
So how does that happen? Well, one part of the story is what I’m calling the short march for the institutions. So the fact that by about 2010 a lot of the humanities and the social sciences were deeply steeped in these ideas. That majors, inverse subjects, really came to believe those things. But also if you were an engineering student and you had some distribution requirements and you took some sociology class, you very likely came into contact with some of those ideas as well. The fact that-
Jim: I certainly did, even in 1974.
Yascha: There you are. And you would’ve done in much more extreme way 30, 40 years later. The fact that administrators came to have a much greater role on campus than they did in the past. And we know from polls that administrators skew even more to the left than faculty members. And more importantly, that the brand of leftism is much more anti-liberal and anti-free speech, for example.
And so by 2010, the students who went to these elite universities were very immersed in these ideas. And they went out into tech companies like Google, and they went out into nonprofits, and they went out to intern on Capitol Hill and in various progressive advocacy and nonprofit organizations, and they went to professional firms and consulting and big law and so on. And in all of those places they brought the ideas with them, and they started to use insider activism and other tactics to bring the ideas to the workplace. This was not some kind of great conspiracy theory, but it was an organic result of what happens when you raise a generation of people with those ideas. It was particularly influential in institutions that recruited disproportionately from elite universities, but have a lot of young staff, and particularly that claimed to have a positive mission, whether it’s a nonprofit organization or something like Google with its claim to do no evil. Because that made it very hard for them to say no to the political demands of their young staffers.
And then the second thing that happened is a great transformation in our public sphere because of social media.
Jim: Yeah, let’s put off social media until next.
Jim: This is interesting. Because I think about college and you think about the things you’re exposed to. Some of it sticks and some of it you take the opposite position on. And so if the colleges were turning out a bunch of wokeys in 2010, they were presumably also turning out a bunch of anti wokeys, right? So how did that balance of power get sorted out in organizations?
And I will say, I do a fair bit of CEO coaching and mentoring and advising, et cetera, and I did start to see people in the late 2010s, especially in the not-for-profit world, start feeling like they were being overrun by the wokesy, right? And in fact, I coined an expression, “No wokeys woking at work.” And I strongly suggested to these executives that they treat wokes just like Jehovah’s Witnesses or flat Earthers, and give them one warning, and say, “You want to do that shit at home? Fine. But we ain’t doing that here.” And if they do, fire them. And at least one not-for-profit I was advising fired half their staff because people insisted on bringing their woke to work. It’s to my mind a screwball theory that’s on all fours with Jehovah’s Witnessism or flat Earthism, and that bosses shouldn’t tolerate that shit.
And yet it seems… You related, other people relate this as well. Not only is it obscure little not-for-profits, but even big companies like Coca-Cola. What the hell? Why didn’t the bosses fight back and use Jim Rutz’s saying, “No wokeys woking at work.”
Yascha: So this is a real problem in many progressive organizations, and it’s one that really senior progressive leaders have talked and warned about recently. Mo Mitchell, Maurice Mitchell, who used to be the head of a Working Families Party, a key organizer of a movement for black lives, really a deep and dyed in the wool progressive, has warned in a powerful open letter about the way in which these just internal fights in these progressive organizations are tearing them apart, making them really toxic places to work, distracting them from their missions.
I have a good friend who is a lot more progressive than I am, and who is always skeptical when I always talk about these subjects, and say, “Well, but isn’t the real problem in the [inaudible 00:58:26] society all the injustices that persist?” Which is an understandable point of view. And then I didn’t see her for a little while because of a pandemic, and when I saw her again for the first time at a larger social gathering, she made a beeline straight for me, and she said, “Oh my God, I now get what you’ve been talking about.” Because the organization with a really important progressive mission that she works on, that she’s employed by, tore itself apart over the course of the pandemic. So this has become a really big problem.
So why do these voices have such an outsized influence? There’s a few reasons here. One is to do with a simultaneous transformation of the media and the traditional media. I spoke to one very senior business executive whose name listeners might know if I mentioned it, which I won’t, who said we had a discrimination lawsuit that we faced in our organization. And I went to my lawyers and I said, “Did we do anything wrong here?” And the lawyer said, “No, no, no, no, this is completely frivolous. We can guarantee you that you’re going to win this case. However, you should settle.” He said, “Why should we settle?” And they said, “Well, because the moment, the day, that this lawsuit is filed, there is a huge New York Times story about it, and it’s going to make you look terrible. And the day that you win this lawsuit, two years later, the New York Times is not going to print a word, and if they do, then it’s ten lines somewhere in an inside page and everybody has forgotten about it.”
And so the fact that the media starts to in some ways positively pay a lot more attention to these kinds of scandals, but sometimes in a sensationalist way, sometimes in an uncritical way, sometimes allowing activists to shape the narrative completely, makes people very scared to push back. And then of course you have the high instance of the high profile instances of people being fired.
Let’s take a very simple example. One that has often been overused, but in this context I think is interesting. The term of Latinx. I’m sure you’ve heard that something like 98% of Hispanics disprefer prefer the term, prefer the term Latino or Hispanic, and yet I’m a member of various organizations, I have various hats I wear. Practically every single dean and university president and leader of an institution I have uses the term Latinx. Why are we doing that? Are they idiots who don’t understand this?
No, they’re being perfectly rational because when they use the term Latinx, a majority of the people who get the email roll their eyes, but none of them are going to call for those leaders to be fired. If they don’t use the term, they have a small number of people who are so extremely annoyed, so extremely angry at this, that they are going to stage a protest or do something to really make their life difficult. So part of this is the old collective action problem that economists have described, that when you have very well organized, highly motivated small groups, they often can end up with more political power than less organized, less vocal, less activist majorities.
Jim: That’s of course classic Mancur Olson, right? Logic of Collective Action.
Jim: And Nassim Taleb has also talked about this. The most extreme… If the other people won’t fight back can be buffaloed by a 3%. He shows in a model of his, the 3% can turn society if the people won’t fight back. And I got to tell you, it just makes me mad when you told me that story about the company that settled even when they were in the right. When I was in business, we had a very firm policy. If we were wrong, we bend the knee, apologize, and make a nice settlement. And it did happen. You got humans and companies, some of them do fucked up shit. But if we are in the right, and this was an attempt at extortion, I would rather pay a hundred thousand dollars in legal fees than a $5,000 settlement on moral principles. And once people understood that, guess what? The lawsuits went away, because they had to pay for their own lawsuits. If you settle, all you do is put blood in the water for the sharks.
Yascha: That’s the reason why the United States, unlike some European countries, has for a long time had the policy of not paying for hostages, because of course, you free one hostage and often the hostage is innocent and there’s a great morally compelling case for freeing them, but it just encourages people in that country to take your nationals hostage even more so the next time.
Yascha: I think we’ve violated the principle recently in a number of occasions, but that is a mistake.
Jim: Yeah, I think Biden’s about to do it again with Iran. Give them $6 billion for four prisoners. What the hell? That seems utterly ridiculous. Yeah. What it reminds me of a little bit is, and of course I was on the other side then, the 60s and just after the 60s, where the young people routed the elders in an amazing sweep. By the time I got to college in 1971, we could have women in the dorm 24 hours a day, smoke pot in the lobby, illegally drink beer and have kegs of beer at our parties. None of that would’ve been tolerated at all five years ago. And there was a complete routing of adult authority between about 1966 and 1971 that we call the 60s. And of course it ran into the 70s, et cetera. And maybe this is something similar. Somehow a group of young people routed the authority figures in corporations, and the corporation people were so discombobulated by this assault that they didn’t stand their ground.
Yascha: So I think there’s a lot of similarities. I think there’s also a key difference. I once interviewed Danny Cohn-Bendit, known as Dany le Rouge in France, he is the leader of the student movement in France. And he said, “We were right on a lot of questions of culture and we were dead wrong on politics. And thankfully we won on culture and thank God we lost on politics.” Graduates of my high school in Munich where I grew up for part of my childhood, at least, marched down the main street of Munich at the time, shouting, “Ho, Ho, Hồ Chí Minh, Che Guevara and Lenin”. Those were their heroes, right? So looking back to the 60s, thank God for that movement won on some things like being allowed to have people come over to your dorms when you were an adult at 18, 19, 20 years old, thank God that we have a more sexually free society, but thank God that they lost on wanting to remodel the countries and the image of Hồ Chí Minh, Che Guevara, and Lenin.
And part of that, I think, balanced outcome was that in the day, you had a conservative establishment, in many ways an establishment that is worthy of every critique, that thought of itself as conservative. It thought of itself as trying to defend some of that authority in some of those institutions. And today, of course, you have an establishment that sees itself as the inheritor, not of the establishment of the 1960s, but of the students of the 1960s. And so when this new set of students with a new set of radical ideas, some of which perhaps might even be helpful if we have a social contestation over it and the best of it remains, but a lot of it is let drop. When they made their demands, they didn’t have the same moral self-confidence and the same understanding of their own principles to say, “No, we are going to say no, and you can continue to argue for your things and perhaps some good things will win out. But in the first instance, our task is actually to preserve what is good about our country and what is good about our institutions.”
Instead, they sort of psychologically identified in some ways with those young people, for that really deep down, I may be technically the man I may be CEO of this company, but really I’m one of them. And so I really don’t want to say no to them. And I think THAT that’s a structural difference between the 60s and the period we just went through.
Jim: Yeah, that’s an interesting point. Though, I will say the stampeding and demoralizing of those conservative power bases happened really fast in the 60s. Look at the college pictures, 1966, the guys are wearing skinny ties and blazers in 1971, long hair, t-shirts, bare feet, and a joint, right? Complete route in five years, which is even faster than this thing went down. Though of course, not every institution got routed. It was more things like universities, et cetera. Business wasn’t routed initially.
And that’s the thing that’s interesting here, that the businesses have allowed themselves to be routed to a surprising degree, though the backlash is happening, go woke and go broke. I hope we see more of that actually. I will say, I totally disagree with the anti-trans stuff of the Budweiser go woke, go broke. But other varieties like Disney, I’m definitely in favor of that. Screw those people, right? And the 75% of Americans who are adamantly opposed to thumbs on the scale, racial discrimination, institutionalized and call to anti-racism, we should put that power to work and make these people pay. Maybe they’ll realize that having been intimidated by maybe at most 15% of America into rejecting our enlightenment values is a crazy-ass thing to do and they shouldn’t do it.
Yascha: Well, one of the strange things about this moment is how a relatively small number of people has been able to have outsized influence. And another is that they have been able to claim that they speak on behalf of the most marginalized and the most downtrodden when every piece of evidence we have suggests that that is not the case. So one good study about this, which I’m sure you’ve mentioned at some point on your podcast is called Hidden Tribes by an organization called More in Common, that sort of split the US population down into these different kind of political tribes, which is a little bit more subtle than just Democrat or Republican. And they found that what we call progressive activists who roughly share the set of beliefs that I chronicle in the book are about 8% of the population, that they are disproportionately rich, that they’re very disproportionately highly educated, and that they’re very disproportionately white, and yet they have somehow managed to pass their ideas off as being the natural ideas of non-white people.
You see that in a debate like the one over defunding the police. Most African-Americans in this country for very good reason have concerns about police accountability and police violence, but they want better and more police in their neighborhoods, not less police. When you listen to what progressive activists say on behalf of these groups, you would think that every African-American in this country wants to abolish for police, which is an absurd misunderstanding of what popular opinion actually looks like.
Jim: And of course, there’s the other example of these people out on the fringes, and I say most of them white people, I wonder if I can find my data here, I’ve got it written down someplace. There was a poll done on how many unarmed black people do you think were shot by the police in 2019? And on the left… Damn, if I can find the far left. It was some crazy number, I believe the number was like 10,000, and even a much larger number thought it was 1,000, and the actual number is about 10. It’s like they have spun themselves up into this extraordinarily a false narrative about what’s actually going on. Another one truthfully is the Black Lives Matters movement. If you look at the data carefully, there does not appear to be any excess killings. There is mistreatment by police, and that’s well-documented and it’s real.
But in terms of killings of people by police, it seems exactly as you would expect from the crime rates. And then a guy, Roland Fryer, a black social scientist from Harvard, has done some detailed analysis in 20 American cities, and he actually found that per encounter with the police, blacks were less likely to be killed than whites or Hispanics, and further, that black and Hispanic police were more likely to kill black suspects than were white police. None of these things the wokeys would believe at all. And in fact, if you bring these things up, they say, “Oh, that’s racist to bring that up.” And I go, again, why are you afraid of the data? Look at the data. And people say, “Well, it’s for a good cause.” Well, think about this. I know a number of black people who have young men as children, and they are terrified that their young men are going to be killed by the police.
And in truth, they’re about as likely to get killed by the police if they’re not armed and they’re not committing a crime as they are to be killed by being struck by lightning. It’s just an extraordinarily low number of people that it does happen. I won’t say it doesn’t happen. It does happen. And I would also agree that implicit racism is probably part of the three or four or five times a year that it happens, and it’s horrible that if a black young man pulls a cell phone out, it’s more likely to be interpreted as a gun than a cell phone because of implicit racism. I buy that that’s true, but the actual numbers are tiny. And to put millions of black parents into paranoia states of fear and anxiousness about their children for something that is just objectively not true is grossly cruel. And I’ve never heard anybody talk about that.
Yascha: Well, I think there’s a larger point here about optimism and pessimism in so much of our politics, if you are a pessimist, that’s somehow read as being more morally upstanding. The idea being that if you describe the world as being absolutely terrible in every respect, then you are maximally committed to recognizing the suffering of the least advantage in our society. And so therefore, you are a good guy. Whereas if you want to point out that we’ve made significant progress over the last decades, over the last centuries, then you must somehow be trying to downplay what’s wrong today. And so therefore, you’re callous and you’re somehow suspect, right? But the best guide to actually improving the lives of people in our society who have fewer opportunities, who are less affluent, who perhaps do face more discrimination is to have an accurate analysis, right? That is the fundamental question at heart with this ideology.
Did the values and the institutions of liberal democracy help us make progress? And if so, then to continue to make progress, we have to double down on them and try to live up to these values even more fully, or have they failed to make any progress? And then yes, perhaps the right thing to do is to abolish all these institutions and to start from scratch. That is a fundamentally important question. If you’re motivated by how to make continuing improvements, I have a metaphor for this, right? Imagine that you have a town in which a good number of houses burn down, and you have this series of measures that the villagers undertake to counteract the fire. They install modern fire systems, and they upgrade the equipment of a fire department, and then years later, again, there’s a fire. Well, it matters to know whether there’s fewer fires now than there were 30 years ago or not. Not because you say, “Who cares about the people whose house is burnt down?”
You still care about the people whose houses burnt down. You still should go and help them. You should still help them build up their house and give them some food and make sure they have somewhere to stay tonight when their home is burned down. But if all of the measures that you’ve taken have helped, and in fact this was the one house that doesn’t have the updated fire system yet, then the result is, then the conclusion is, let’s keep going with the program that we’ve embarked on, and perhaps let’s accelerate it. Perhaps let’s do other thing, but we are going in the right direction. If you find that there’s as many fires as there were before, well then clearly your program isn’t working and you have to change tactics.
So to understand what to do, you have to have an accurate view of reality. I’m with a very noble tradition in American political thought that has always recognized the hypocrisy in not living up to our values and concluded that we have to live up to our values. Frederick Douglass, when he was invited to hold a speech celebrating the 4th of July when slavery still existed in the United States-
Jim: -Famous speech, brilliant speech. Brilliant speech.
Yascha: Wonderful speech. He points out the hypocrisy of the people who ask him, the black man, to come talk about how lovely the idea of that all men are born equal is, when a lot of men in the country are enslaved at the time, and a lot of women, right? But he doesn’t say, “Let’s rip up the Constitution.” He says, “By what right are you excluding us, people like me, from the enjoyment of these noble principles? If you really care about those principles, then actually act in accordance with them, become an abolitionist, abolish slavery.” That is why he calls free speech for dread of tyrants, as I mentioned.
That is why Martin Luther King points out a century later that the check written to African Americans by the Bank of Justice may be fraudulent, but he doesn’t say rip it up. He says, let’s demand for the Bank of Justice to honor the check, that America honor the promises it has made to us. That, I think, is the most noble tradition in American history, and that’s the one that we need to live up to. Not to say, “Hey, because there’s ongoing injustices, and even though we’ve made progress that we don’t want to recognize, let’s rip up this whole thing and hope that somehow miraculously that’ll make things better.”
Jim: And I think we’re both on the same page in that we put the L in front of our universal humanism, liberal universal humanism. I did get a little bit contentious with Susan Neiman. She didn’t want to put the L word in front of humanism. I think she’s further to the left and thinks that liberals mean something bad or something. And I said, “Don’t think about it, that it means the libertarians in Germany, where she lives, but it means John Stuart Mill. People like that, right? The great liberal tradition, and that the
Jim: … liberal tradition. That the progressives, of all people, are the ones backing away from liberal, universal humanism is just stark. But to be fair-
Yascha: And the most obvious area of this… In the third part of the book, I really go through some of the main areas to which these ideas have been applied in our common life. And we’ve talked about a few examples, but one of the ones where that debate over universal humanism I think is most stark, is in how to think about cultural appropriation.
Jim: Ah, yes. Oh yeah, let’s talk about that. Talk about another jackass topic that’s somehow gotten loose from screwball land in higher education and has gone out into the world. Yeah, I forgot about that one. It wasn’t even in my notes. Let’s talk about that. It’s got to be one of the more idiotic ideas to ever get common currency. As somebody said, an idea so stupid, only a professor could believe it.
Yascha: George Orwell said versions of that in his work again and again. It’s an idea that’s so stupid, only a highly educated person could possibly believe it, which I think is really beautiful.
Look, sometimes the people who criticize these ideas say, “They’re going too far. These young people today they’re going too far.” I think that’s the wrong way to frame it. Because how can you go too far in fighting against racism and injustice and so on? I’m going to go all out. I’m a convinced anti-racist in the liberal sense. Of course, there’s no going too far. The problem is that these ideas often take us in the wrong direction, that they actually direct us towards-
Jim: They’re just bad. They’re not too far, they’re just bad.
Yascha: Exactly. And I think cultural appropriation is a great example of that. Now, there’s some initial plausibility to the term because it picks up on certain historical examples that in fact were unjust. So the common example that’s given is musicians in the 1950s and 1960s, white musicians who sometimes stole the actual songs of black musicians-
Jim: Music companies that got illiterate black blues guys to sign contracts they hadn’t read, that give all the rights and all the money… the guys get a dollar, $5, when the music company makes a hundred thousand dollars. Huge injustices were done. But that’s just fucking fraud.
Jim: We already have laws against that.
Yascha: My point is that we need to think about whether the term of cultural appropriation actually helps us to express what is bad about those kinds of cases. And the answer is that either there’s a much more straightforward way of expressing what’s bad about them or we shouldn’t actually be worried about them.
So in the case of these examples, there’s many really bad things that happened. One as Jim was just saying is fraud. I tell you verbally, this is what’s in the contract. I’m lying about what’s on the page, that is just straightforward fraud. There’s good laws that actually criminalize that conduct. Another thing that was wrong is that at the time black musicians weren’t able to travel in a lot of the American South, weren’t able to perform in a lot of the American South. A lot of record labels wouldn’t sign black artists because of straight up racial discrimination that all of that was obviously deeply unjust. We don’t need the vocabulary of cultural appropriation to express that. So it’s really important to understand the wrong making feature of these cases. And that’s not cultural appropriation.
I have another example that I think is really telling. There was a jackass frat party at Baylor University called Cinco de Drinko, a kind of persiflage on Cinco de Mayo. And you had a bunch of people come in wearing, a bunch of frat boys and frat girls coming in, sorority sisters, coming in wearing either ponchos and sombreros or construction vests and maids outfits. Now, if you are a little bit analytically acute and you say the problem of this is cultural appropriation, well the problem is cultural appropriation when the students who wore the sombrero did something offensive, but the girl who wore a maid’s outfit did not do anything offensive because after all, the maid’s outfit is a product of western culture. I suppose it’s French or something like that.
But that seems crazy to me. What was offensive about this party is the signal it was sending, that Latino students are somehow inferior, that all that Latinos are good for is to be construction workers and maids. That’s what was offensive about it. And so the terminology of cultural appropriation would wrongly make you assume that one version of this is deeply offensive, if you wear sombrero. But another version of this, the maid’s outfits, which in my mind is if anything more offensive, is not offensive because it wasn’t cultural appropriation. This makes no sense. And so what we should do-
Jim: That was a great example. I love that. And of course just the whole absurdity of it. Why aren’t the Venetians out attacking everybody that uses glass?The Venetians invented glass, god damn it. And every time I see Xi, the prime minister or president of China, with his beautifully tailored English suits, why aren’t the English in an uproar about the cultural appropriation of the English tank suit? It’s just like, what the hell? And as you say in the book, so much of what’s been great about our cultures have been remixing various things from various places. And if we give up on that, our cultures are just going to die. They’re going to be stifled.
We should encourage acknowledgement for sure, and we should certainly always fight against fraud and encourage opportunity for everybody. But you read some of this crazy shit, like a chef isn’t supposed to make sushi because he’s a Czech and not Japanese or something. If you go to Japan, you’ll find a bunch of McDonald’s. What the hell’s going on there? This whole thing is just nuts. We just have a lot of nuttery loose in the world. In fact, one of my good friends coined the expression of the woke mind virus. And I do think that that is a thing. John McWhorter recently wrote a book called Woke as a New Religion, something like that. He also used the woke mind virus analogy, I believe.
But yeah, these crazy ideas have gotten out and stuck in people’s head. So what do we do about it? Sometimes, in some of my days when I’m a little bit more cynical, I say, well, it’s time for the defenestration of the wokes, either metaphorically or if not metaphorically, then literally. How do we get out of this situation?
Yascha: Look, I think first of all actually, we need to take these ideas seriously and understand them so that we can argue against them. I think at the most fundamental level, the way that intellectual debate works is that you muster intellectual arguments. And then you organize and you make those arguments and you make them to each other interpersonally, but you make them in your roles as leaders of institutions or as people who have some amount of influence and power in the world. For a lot of the second half of the 20th century, you would go to a history department or a sociology department or to certain progressive organizations, and there was a fundamental fight ongoing between Marxists and liberals, between people who basically wanted to defend the Soviet Union or who at least were deeply influenced by historical Marxism and people who thought that that was not the right way to understand society.
I think for the next 20 or 25 years, in huge swaths of our institutions, from MIT to many corporations, to many progressive advocacy organizations or facially neutral nonprofits that care about conservation or whatever else, we’re going to have a fight over these ideas in the same kind of way. And so if we want to be effective in arguing against them, we need to be able to actually articulate what is wrong with them. And to do that, we need to understand these ideas. And so one of the core missions I have in this book is to raise the level of arguments that people who are skeptical of these ideas can make. So that’s the first point.
The second point is that we then have to think carefully about how to make those arguments. I conclude the book with a whole set of ideas about how to engage in these kinds of conversations. One point that I make is that we need to claim the moral high ground. I see people falling into two kinds of pitfalls. On the one side, it’s a pitfall where they are so apologetic for the kinds of views that they hold, they’re so scared to disagree with their friends or colleagues or family members on these issues, that they make 17 provisos and explanations before they actually express their point of view. And at that point, they feel guilty. They look guilty. They sound like they’re arguing for something terrible, so that’s not going to work.
The other failure mode I observe is sort of the inverse. There’s always the kid who’s afraid that they’re going to flunk for tests and they don’t even try, because that’ll protect their self image. And sometimes I see people being jerks in that kind of way. Well, look, you’re going to hate me for what I’m going to say anyway, so I’ll just say this in the most provocative way possible and that way I’ve brought it upon myself. And I don’t think that’s helpful either. So claim the moral high ground. Look, I’m arguing for values that I care about deeply, that I believe in deeply. I actually think that they are rooted in some of the most noble American political tradition of some of those thinkers that I’ve talked about. I might be wrong about some things. All of us might be wrong about certain things. I
Jim: I can guarantee we all are wrong about something.
Yascha: Yeah. I’m not ashamed of arguing for these things. And on the contrary, I’m proud to be arguing for these things, because after much reflection I’ve concluded that they are our best chance to build a good, fair, tolerant, vibrant, prosperous, peaceful society. So claim the moral high ground. Don’t make apologies and don’t be a jerk, just argue for what you believe. Part of that is to retain the trust in being able to convince people. That’s a point in which perhaps I disagree with John McWhorter, who’s really interesting and influential on this topic-
Jim: He says, you said you can’t convince them. They’re just like holy rollers, they’re lost to the world. That’s John’s theory.
Yascha: Exactly. But by the way, some holy rollers fall out of their faith. I mean, a lot of societies become less religious than they were in the past.
Jim: True enough. Change happens, right?
Yascha: Yeah. When people change their minds, they do so gradually. You’re never going to… This is something that I think folks like you and me who like rational discussions and debate, sometimes we want the world to be such. You make the one decisive argument and your opponent says, “All right, I surrender. My worldview is wrong. I agree with you, whatever.” That’s not how it works. But people do change their mind over time.
Somebody I describe in the book, Eboo Patel, talks about how he encountered these ideas in college and they helped to explain to him some experiences he had in his childhood and he became a true believer in them. But then he fell out of the faith. He started to realize that it just allowed him to criticize everything without actually doing anything constructive in life. And that some of these ideas were quite simplistic. And today, he’s one of the most effective people arguing against these ideas in his own subtle way.
So remember that people change their mind over time. And try to convince the reasonable majority rather than the extremes. There’s a lot of people who are attracted by these ideas because they’re exercised by injustices in their society, and that’s for the good. We need people who are exercised by those injustices. But they’re also starting to recognize that perhaps we’re throwing the baby out with the bath water, that perhaps in some important ways, we’re really not going in the right direction. Argue with them. That’s my second big audience for this book. I want to give people who are already on board with disliking these ideas, the best possible arguments they can muster, and I want them to be able to give that book as a present to their woker sister, or their woker brother-in-law, so that they can actually get a real conversation going among people who are not extremists, who are decent people, who are reasonable people, but who are perhaps a little bit too tempted by some of these ideas.
And finally, the identity trap is dangerous. Don’t fall into a reactionary trap in response. Because a lot of people who dislike these ideas are united by what they don’t believe, rather than united by what they do believe, there is a risk of becoming knee jerk about it. Saying anything that anybody might somehow describe as woke I’m going to oppose. No. Go back to your first principles. Go back to your own vision of what you want for society. Don’t ask, is this woke or not? Ask, does this a accord of my principles? And if it doesn’t, then explain why not and stand your ground. But be based in your own aspirational hopes for the kind of society you want to build, rather than a knee jerk reaction to what people on the other side are saying.
Jim: Very well said. Very well said. I would add one other, and this comes from my work with the MIT Free Speech Alliance and our exposure to the research done by FIRE, which is a very good organization, not-for-profit, that researches free speech in higher education, and that is the need for courage. A majority of people, of students on college campuses and a slight minority on faculty members, have personally felt unable to say what they think. Sorry, people should say what they think and if there are consequences, that’s the way it is.
But then the second point is they should build institutions. I would say these alumni free speech associations and alliances are very interesting. There’s now dozens of them. They’ll soon be hundreds, and we’ve already gotten some changes at universities. MIT now has a free speech code not dissimilar from Chicago’s, I’d argue it’s a little weaker, but not much. They’ve explicitly ruled out a reprise of the Dorian Abbot affair. The new president in her letter charging the committee to hire a new person to head the DEI efforts at MIT, also, explicitly mentioned, this person also has to take free speech into consideration. This would’ve been nowhere on the table three years ago. And so building institutions is important also. If the wokes marched through the institutions, let’s build us some counter institutions and let’s do it with courage, I think is another part to add to it.
But I also want to address, I know we’ve mostly been dunking on the progressives here, but your last point’s also hugely important. And that is, not to get sucked into the jackassery of the reactionaries, scumbags like Trump and his friends, and he’s not even the worst of the bunch. He’s just a mentally ill individual who shouldn’t be allowed to run a lemonade stand, let alone a major country with 2000 nuclear weapons.
Yascha: I don’t know. I would love to see Trump run a lemonade stand, that would give me a lot of satisfaction. Out there in front of a garage somewhere.
Jim: My guess is he’d piss in the lemonade, just because he could. But there are worse people than Trump out there. There are, I guess they call themselves the alt-right, or maybe they’re not quite as morally bad, but the Christian nationalists, the anti-liberals, Deenen and his bunch. While the wokes piss me off enough, one day a week I wake up and say, god damn it. Maybe I’d even vote for Trump. But then I go, no fucking way. Don’t make that mistake.
Fight for liberalism. Because Liberalism’s under the attack from both sides. The anti-liberal right, Orban, people like that Putin are examples. Who’s that jackass in France? Marine Le Pen. These are illiberal people and it’s even worse a mistake to go in that direction. So hold true to the enlightenment values, to liberalism, to liberal universal humanism.
We are a majority now. We have institutional structures that make it difficult for this majority to have its way, but there may be some interesting things happening in a 2024 election that’s outfit called, what the hell, No Labels. I just last night read the book written by their key thinker. This guy is great. If they actually do pull it off, and particularly if they run doddering Joe and raving Donald, there’s a real opportunity for a truly liberal person to come into the presidency. And their model is, the president and vice president, one would be a Democrat and one would be a Republican, but they would both be centrist people like Joe Manchin or Larry Hogan, or who’s the guy, Barker, I think in Massachusetts. Anyways, sensible people who understand where the majority of the Americans are. Not these two extremes that have been polarized by our institutional structures, particularly the primary system, where the most irate and the most activated small minority in low turnout elections end up nominating these screwballs like Trump or AOC, who don’t really represent the American people. So I see… Go ahead.
Yascha: Oh. We’ll have to do another podcast about the question of No Labels. I’m sympathetic to a candidate who’s nonpartisan and so on. I worry that given the polling No Labels is going to help reelect Donald Trump, but if they get enough voters-
Jim: But they have said that they won’t do that.
Yascha: They have said they won’t do that, I know a lot of very centrist people who are very smart about politics, who are really worried that No Label is going to end up doing that, but that’s not the topic of today. I want to say two other things briefly.
One is the book is called the Identity Trap. It’s a trap at a personal level because it promises people that how they’re going to get their social recognition, how they’re going to get seen in society, which is something we all want in some kind of way, is by defining themselves deep down by these intersection of identities. But that’s never going to allow you to truly be seen for who you are. I mean, you have a sibling probably, I have a sibling. I share many identity categories with my sibling, but that doesn’t mean that I can be recognized in the ways I want by being seen as being identical to my sibling. I have my own identity in the world, which is based on my own values, my own idiosyncrasies, my own tastes. Respect and recognition of that is what we need to really have as social status in society. So that’s one of the reasons why the book is called The Identity Trap.
But the other reason’s that it’s a political trap. And part of the political trap is not just that we’ll have idiotic policies that kill more Americans in areas like the Pandemic as we’ve talked about, it’s also that actually this far right populism of people like Trump and what I’m calling the identity trap might have superficially different beliefs, but they’re mutually reinforcing. One of the ways in which these ideas have come to have so much influence in progressive spaces is that after 2016 when Trump was elected, you couldn’t criticize any of these ideas without being accused of secretly being a traitor, secretly being on the side of Trump. But one of the reasons why Trump might win in 2024, one of the reasons why that election next year is so scary, is that these ideas have come to have such a hold over mainstream institutions that a lot of people are tempted by this trap of saying, “Well, in that case, let’s go and vote for Trump.” So one is the yin to the others yang.
And just finally, we’ve talked a lot about stories of people suffering adverse consequences from arguing back against these ideas. And that is a risk. Everybody has to think for themselves how and when we want to argue against them, but I think that we shouldn’t overstate the risk to such an extent that we become apoplectic. You can do things like organize these wonderful free speech unions at universities. You can advocate, if you’re a faculty member, for the adoption of the Chicago principles or some version of that in your universities. You can respectfully but firmly speak up for liberal humanism in your workplace if you make the arguments in the right way. It’s never going to be entirely risk free, but you know what, as somebody who cares about these ideas and who’s a citizen, you owe it to the rest of us to sometimes stick out your neck a little bit. And I think my mission is to make it easier for you to do that in an effective and thoughtful way, that’s going to maximize the impact you have and minimize the risk.
Jim: Very well said. Let’s get on it folks. There are days when I say we should just pass the law that says, anybody that says offended or problematic should be shot on site. But that’s probably a little extreme. Anyway, I want to thank Yascha Mounk for… I got a little bit more spun up here than I sometimes do. I sometimes try to be a little bit more dispassionate, but I care about this issue a lot, and I think Yascha did a great job of taking us through his thinking and don’t miss his book, the Identity Trap, published today. You heard about it on the Jim Rutt Show, a story of ideas and powers. Thank you very much.
Yascha: Thank you so much, Jim.
Jim: It was great to have you.