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Interview

Viewpoint Diversity in Polarizing Times

Andrew Sullivan writer and author
Reihan Salam President, Manhattan Institute
Wed, Jul 29, 2020 EVENTCAST

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Viewpoint Diversity in Polarizing Times

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Interview

Viewpoint Diversity in Polarizing Times

Andrew Sullivan writer and author
Reihan Salam President, Manhattan Institute EVENTCAST 03:00pm—04:00pm
Wednesday July 29
Wednesday July 29 2020
PAST EVENT Wednesday July 29 2020

Andrew Sullivan has been one of America’s most prominent political commentators for the past quarter century. Sullivan’s core appeal as a writer and thinker has always been his fierce independence. Readers of his weekly column know that though Sullivan is a conservative, he is as likely to criticize the Republican Party as he is the excesses of cultural liberalism. Recently, however, many in the media industry have come to see Sullivan’s allergy to consensus as a liability. On July 17 Sullivan announced that his employer, New York Magazine and Vox Media, decided to end their association with him, a decision widely attributed to Sullivan’s high-profile criticisms of progressive orthodoxy on race, gender, and sexual identity issues.

On July 29, we hosted a conversation between Manhattan Institute President, Reihan Salam, and writer and author, Andrew Sullivan, on viewpoint diversity in media, political polarization, and how social media is changing how the country understands itself.

Event Transcript

Reihan Salam:

... in media, political polarization, how social media is changing how the country understands itself, and his important new venture, The Weekly Dish. Throughout our conversation, please feel free to submit questions on whatever platform you're using to watch us, and we will do our best to address them during the Q&A portion. Andrew, thank you for joining us today.

Andrew Sullivan:

You're so welcome, Reihan. It's lovely to see you.

Reihan Salam:

So, one thing I didn't mention is that Andrew has also been a mentor to many writers and thinkers over the years. And I was one of those who had the great benefit of his wisdom, his guidance, and his friendship. Andrew, you first achieved renown in the 1990s as the wunderkind 20-something editor of the New Republic, which you transformed into the most lively and eclectic magazine of its time. This is a very big question, but what do you think is the biggest change in the media climate of today versus what you were dealing with in the 1990s?

Andrew Sullivan:

It's unrecognizable, Reihan, I think. I was fascinated by having a liberal magazine, which was essentially a left-liberal, central-left magazine with some, obviously, strands of neo-conservative though there as well. And just trying to create an atmosphere within the magazine in which we could talk about anything. We could fight about anything, we could debate things, we could hash things out in a way that no one could quite predict and even we couldn't predict. And some of the best work came out of our challenging one another. You may remember some of the great fights between Charles Krauthammer and Leon Wieseltier, or Mike Kinsley going off. I remember just simply arriving at the new Republic before I became editor and Kinsley, God bless him, he told me two things that I should be concerned with as a young intern at the New Republic.

Andrew Sullivan:

And the first was "Write that now, because you won't have the balls to write it in 10 years' time." And the second was, "if you think you've gone too far, you probably haven't gone far enough." And to think of a magazine today in which an editor would tell the writers to go for it, not worrying what will the outside world think. If you think you have a good idea and if you want to express it and if you want to take on somebody else's viewpoint, then that's what makes it interesting. And I tried to just expand that principle into cultural, social trends. We were grappling with the first wave of "wokeness" really, with political correctness in the '90s. And it was a blast. We had fun, we laughed, we fought, we put out a magazine that I think was crackling with energy. And the energy comes from intellectual diversity. It comes from actually caring about what your magazine is doing.

Andrew Sullivan:

What we also had, which has disappeared from magazines, is we had an editorial, unsigned editorial that represented the views of the magazine, and that was what we fought over. And elsewhere in the magazine a thousand flowers were encouraged to bloom and, in fact, fertilized and watered regularly. That, I'm sorry to say, I don't see in many places anymore. In fact, I go from magazine to magazine of the old variety and they all seem almost completely indistinguishable to me. It's the same politics, the same arguments, the same references and the same sort of smug satisfaction that we are on the side of the angels and on the right side of history. That commits two sins. One, it's not true about what's going on in the world. And secondly, it's incredibly dull. It's really boring. I mean, to look at the op-ed page of the New York Times and it's just one identity check after another, is among the dullest experiences one can have online.

Reihan Salam:

I suppose one argument could be that the ambition, the creativity, the energy, the fearlessness derived from a sense of security. A sense of stability, of solidity, that you had a number of writers and thinkers who had that native confidence to make those arguments in that way. Whereas now I wonder if you think that part of what's happened in media, is that you have people who are fundamentally more insecure? They're insecure in a variety of different ways. Perhaps they fear losing their jobs. Perhaps they're insecure along some other dimension. They're afraid of how they'll be characterized. But I wonder if you could elaborate on that? If you think that there is this greater insecurity in some objective sense, that's shaping the media climate today?

Andrew Sullivan:

That's a good, interesting question. I think there's insecurity around identity because of the general principles of critical theory, which insist that an individual's mind is sort of less relevant than the identity of the individual's mind. Therefore only certain people can write about certain things with any credibility. That only a black person could really write about something to do with black issues, or a gay person with gay issues, and so on and so forth. And which other people feel constrained in offering their opinions if they're not the right skin color, gender, or whatever. Whereas in the old days, anybody could write about anything. And the more distant you were from the subject, sometimes the better. You went in like a naive person and tried to understand what was happening in a certain place and time.

Andrew Sullivan:

Secondly, I think yes, there was stability. I mean in the sense that a magazine like the New Republic had been supported for the better part of a century, and it passed from owner to owner who were the kind of wealthy people who thought it was good for them, or whether they had it passion for something, but they would subsidize it. And the entire media landscape, as you know, has completely been exploded by the web. So magazines don't have that proprietary control over readership, any gatekeeper function to speak of. Magazines are being constantly heckled, as it were. And writers are constantly being heckled by Twitter in terms of intimidation, in terms of insults.

Andrew Sullivan:

So that certainly makes you a little less secure. And then of course, none of this stuff is making money and there are no big money people prepared to lose it like there used to be. Because if you owned a magazine like the Atlantic or the The Republic when there were a handful of magazines. And remember we only had 48 pages a week so the number of pieces you could use were much smaller than they are today. I think the Atlantic puts out maybe a 1,000 pieces a month now. Well, inevitably, when it's once a month and puts out 30 articles a month, of course the writers in there are going to feel more secure.

Andrew Sullivan:

The downside is that other writers, less obvious voices, don't get in there. The gates are too high for other people to come in. I think it's a combination of all those things, to be honest with you. And also a collapse in belief in the liberal project, which I think is also fundamental to why these things have broken down. The idea that in fact, liberal discourse is not the way to advance a society, that fully arguing just ideas without them being attached to any kind of identity is itself a delusion and won't help anything.

Andrew Sullivan:

And I think there is a combination, there's the simple fracturing of the media. There's the economic viability or unviability of the media. There is the heckling from outside the media and there is the absence of these grand old beneficent donors who would essentially subsidize a bunch of writers endlessly.

Andrew Sullivan:

Martin Peretz gets a lot of flack, but he created an atmosphere in which a whole bunch of very talented people came together and put out a magazine that was never predictable and always interesting. Well, I won't say always interesting, there's obviously some really boring stuff got through in the end, but nonetheless it was... And it had a sense of mischief and fun. It had a sense of humor.

Andrew Sullivan:

I remember once I did in my time because we were so known for writing critical, caustic pieces about everything. We did a special, nice issue. And I did a [inaudible 00:09:59] based on the cover and we just sent ourselves up a little bit. That doesn't exist anymore. They're all so po-faced and pious and puritanical in a way, let alone compared to the actual now and then you get all old mannish.

Andrew Sullivan:

When I was an intern of the Daily Telegraph on Fleet Street in the '80s where they were still in the old building with the beast, that actual building from Scoop. I worked in and there was a Lord up on the 50th floor who you reported to, and everybody was blind drunk all the time. I mean, it was unbelievable that they could write under these conditions. Their lunches would last for three or four hours. So I've seen such an amazing shift in journalism in my short lifetime. And I have to say, I've rarely been as down about it as I am now.

Reihan Salam:

You referred to some of the new journalist class as pious which I found striking. You've argued that the central fact of contemporary American politics is the decline of organized religion, particularly Christianity, because it encourages people who would otherwise have satisfied their existential yearnings to religion to bring those impulses to their politics. Can you tell us a bit more about that? It's something that's been a recurring theme in your work. And so I'm curious to hear more.

Andrew Sullivan:

Well, I come at this partly because one of the reasons I am a small c conservative in politics, it's because I don't really want politics to resolve my deepest anxieties. I understand that it's a way of organizing society. And I would argue that we have figured out the least worst way of doing that for the time being, I mean, we can always test it. It's called liberal democracy.

Andrew Sullivan:

And therefore my belief in something deeper or more transcendent and more important is inevitably rooted in a sense of the timelessness of Christianity or in other people's cases, some of the other great religions that have been around for thousands of years, have grappled with the questions of human life, human nature, human frailty for thousands of years, and have developed teachings that are extraordinarily subtle and interesting and profound.

Andrew Sullivan:

And the older I get the more grateful I am that that was a world I was introduced to because it both creates perspective on the world as it is, and also gives you some direction in life that is not entirely susceptible to the winds of fortune, whether they be cultural or social or political.

Andrew Sullivan:

And I think people who really don't have that, were never given that or regarded it as a bunch of fairytales that has no more relevance to their lives than Harry Potter. That does not fill the need for meaning. It doesn't fulfill the need for purpose. And I think with the critical theory stuff, it's ironic because originally postmodernism was in fact about disrupting all systems of belief, constantly undermining everything including itself.

Andrew Sullivan:

It was almost playful in its nihilism, if that's a term, but sometime in the '90s and so on, even that became insufficient for people. It's not satisfying emotionally, simply to deconstructing discourses closely. It goes nowhere. And so they had to glean from that certain concepts that they can use to advance society in general.

Andrew Sullivan:

And so you then have it segued into a a new cultural... I mean, these terms are hard to express, and I don't want to use cliches, but a cultural Marxism in a way in which the world is entirely full of conflict, that life is defined by those conflicts. And those conflicts arise at class, but mainly identity driven at this point. And that life is a war between these various groupings.

Andrew Sullivan:

And the goal of course, is to overcome the power dynamics that are involved and to liberate people. Of course, within that structure, there is no real end result. If you think philosophically seriously about it, because power never disappears. It's always evident, it's just re appearing in different guises. You can change it around, but it's still there and you keep struggling. It's this sort of Sisyphean, almost existential idea.

Reihan Salam:

You've written about this in the context of the debate over gay rights. Just that idea of is there a victory? Is there a moment when you can declare that we've achieved what it is we wanted to achieve? But that moment never arrives.

Andrew Sullivan:

Yeah. Except it does arrive and we've gotten there. So, let's get on with our lives. And then I want to get on with my life. Now that we've established civil equality for gay people, I want to figure out what I'm going to do with my life. What job I'm going to do. [inaudible 00:15:20].

Reihan Salam:

Then the constant struggle either needs to be a constant struggle because it is the struggle itself that gives meaning.

Andrew Sullivan:

Yes. And it's funny, it's sort of Marxist in its sense of there are these forces, these oppressive forces that we're unaware of that are being brought to bear on us. But unlike Marxism, there's no happy ending. It isn't some Hegelian dialectic in which these things are going to eventually bring forth a spontaneous communist consciousness in which we're all going to live in peace and glory. No, it's Marxism without a happy ending, all of this, which is incredibly depressing idea. And it also means that you're constantly fixated on your resentments and your envy and your hostility, and it creates a sort of toxic conflictual discourse which is increasingly zero sum, and in which, as you can see on something like Twitter, there is no real discourse. It is simply, you make a statement, who you are is all that really counts.

Andrew Sullivan:

Are you a white man and therefore ineligible to make this point? Are you a trans person and therefore have a right to talk about this? So I think that, yes, I think the absence of religion, the attempt to force into this postmodern discourse, some kind of direction and meaning, all of that is in my view foolish, and it's not going to lead anywhere. It's going to lead to more conflict. It's going to lead to more racism. It's going to lead to more distrust and dislike between various groups in society. In my way, the only way around this is to focus on the individual and the complexity and the uniqueness of each individual.

Reihan Salam:

Given that you're seeing these political struggle sessions, this critical theory informed, but this new kind of quasi religious ideology having emerged and it's filling this kind of need, do you see any prospect for traditional organized religion to experience some revival? To offer an alternative, an off ramp of sorts from this toxicity and resentment that you described?

Andrew Sullivan:

That's the great question. I don't think it can do it using the arguments and the rhetoric and the rubric in which traditional religion has argued. I think it's going to have to come at this from a slightly different point of view, which is to address the existence of people today and the need to find a way of life that makes them happy and that does good in the world. In other words, to focus less on doctrine and more on practice. And I think the good thing that you see in something like BLM and the good thing that you see in some of these movements, even attempts not to be horrible to people, not to dismiss the trans person, because they're trans, not to be cruel and exclude people or talk over them, or assume things about them. All of which I think are very good. But Christianity and the great religions have already addressed this.

Andrew Sullivan:

Of course we should. There is neither Greek nor Jew in Christianity. There's neither male, nor female. Christianity would solve the question of sexism in a way by having everybody as an individual human being having a soul that is absolutely equal in the eyes of God. And I think showing people that Christianity, in my case, or any other, the way to understand love and compassion and forgiveness and living a life that is full of meaning is to do it from the ground up in your practice and your behavior as inspired by what you think are transcendent values. That's what you're aiming for, but you're going at it the wrong end. And you're also trying to do it through coercion and through politics, which is ultimately force, as opposed to through the stirrings of the human heart, which is a much harder and more difficult process, but is in my view the only way forward. The only way through.

Reihan Salam:

One charitable interpretation of this racial justice moment, the aggressive ideology, the desire to narrow the bounds of the discourse is that this is in service to the cause of inclusion. The idea that if we're going to include voices that had previously been marginalized voices, that hadn't really been part of this elite conversation, people who hadn't been public intellectuals and earlier eras, if you're going to do that, you need to constrain the kind of bounds of disagreement, because beliefs that are outside of the acceptable bounds of agreement are beliefs that are all about de-valuing, excluding these new voices that have come to the table. What do you make of the argument that inevitably, as we become a more diverse society, as we accept and embrace that fact, that of course we're going to have to exclude certain voices, that that's just an inevitable consequence of being decent in the way that you describe?

Andrew Sullivan:

No, I don't think it's zero sum. That's my point. I think you can have all sorts of new voices and in something like the blogosphere or something like the internet has brought so many of these people up, but the principles should be not though that they're simply a voice because they have a particular identity, but that their identity also is attached to a very specific voice and argument within the liberal conversation. Liberalism allows everybody to participate. When there are no gatekeepers and you're not excluding people from anything, you're just platforming or non platforming people, then there's plenty of space for all sorts of new voices. And those new voices should gain audiences. And it's possible to gain audiences that way. And goodness knows they have, under the liberal system. Not by this sort of racial agenda quotas. And also that way liberalism's inclusion allows for these different communities and different identities to have different points of view. Whereas in fact, the current leftist version of inclusion is only on the basis that you actually ascribe to critical theory's analysis of the world, which means that-

Reihan Salam:

So it's superficial diversity, but it's not genuine diversity. It's only if you adhere the script.

Andrew Sullivan:

Yes. I mean, how many black conservatives are there on the New York times? How many interesting gender critical trans people are there? How many individuals from various identities that are taking views that aren't necessarily completely in line with what the last version of their identity should be? The conservative gays, for example, or simply liberal gays. I think this is a false idea. The idea that wanting to keep the status the same and the diversity of opinion is somehow a power move against minority voices just doesn't make sense to me. And we know there are plenty of powerful minority voices of different varieties that can be included, but I think that process is gradual. And people are hard because of their abilities, not because of their identity.

Andrew Sullivan:

And it will happen naturally organically as the society diversifies in terms of its races and its cultures and its ethnicities. So I think this is a kind of panic based upon a misreading of what liberalism has been, and liberalism has within itself the solution to these problems. Whereas these people believe that liberalism doesn't really exist. That liberalism is itself a form of white supremacy, repressing deliberately the voices of the oppressed. Now that point of view cannot really coexist with the liberal point of view. It can't. It seeks to dismantle the liberal point of view because it has to, and I think that's where, in fact, critical theory is destroying diversity and not actually exposing the variety of viewpoints that we have out there. It's also deceptive. For example, there's plenty of African Americans who might not be fully on board with Black Lives Matter. There are plenty of people who, I mean, as you know, humans are complicated and none of that complexity is currently reflected.

Reihan Salam:

And one element of that, if you belong to a marginalized group, if you belong to a minority group and you take a dissenting view, you may well be more vulnerable in advancing that view. So you get this false sense of agreement in many cases, I'm sure.

Reihan Salam:

That reminds me. So you mentioned earlier on that in the nineties, you did have this struggle over political correctness. There was this kind of great [awakening 00:00:38] 1.0, let's say, but one gets the sense that the battle was won by the partisans of liberalism, partly through ridicule, partly through the sense that there were many people who were not afraid to make their voices heard. And you also had a group of people in the academic establishment who really did care deeply about these liberal principles and they defended those convictions.

Reihan Salam:

And one gets the sense that now the correlation of forces has shifted. And I wonder, do you ever think about the lessons of that previous moment and what it would look like to push back against this new sense or [inaudible 00:25:17]? If we were to try to revitalize these classical liberal principles, what would it take or are we just in this demographic and economic moment? That's just so markedly different that it would be hard to recreate that coalition now?

Andrew Sullivan:

Well, I think that part of what's happened is that the universities in particular, and they do matter, they may have lost the short-term battle in terms of the salience of political correctness or the sense of being censorious, but they consistently and insistently won the war in terms of who staffed the administrations in universities and who eventually got to teach in universities. Then the rules that apply to people who arrive in universities and was critical theory is enforced.

Andrew Sullivan:

And then you have increasing numbers of graduates of those places who come into the media or into journalism or into academia or into politics, and have never really been exposed to an alternative point of view. And what you found was that these people mainly came of age it seems in the mid 2010s coinciding with the fact that journalism collapsed and so was increasingly economically. And so was relying increasingly on lots of young, poorly paid just out of Ivy league colleges to essentially have an out-sized role in what those magazines and newspapers would do. And they simply couldn't tolerate. They looked away these papers and magazines, where are they contrasted what their critical theory based universities were like. And they were like, "This has to change."

Andrew Sullivan:

And that's what did it, I think that's what did it. It was a critical mass of people who've really bought this idea that liberalism is a farce that there's no truth to it. That is entirely a function of white male supremacy. That everything is really about your identity, that there is no objective truth. That the only way to move forward is to subvert people from particular groups in favor of others, which of course also synchronizes very well with human nature.

Andrew Sullivan:

Everybody human likes to be able to see another person instantly know whether they hate or love them and what critical theory does not explicitly, but what it does in practice is what exactly what white nationalism doesn't practice, which is you see someone you immediately know, friend or enemy, depending on the color of their skin, agenda, whatever. And that is a very powerful psychological force and I think that has taken shape and taken root in people's minds.

Andrew Sullivan:

I don't recognize it myself. I didn't experience that when I was in college or graduate school. And nor did I really understand the fury and anger behind this. This is not simply intellectual change. It is a mission and it is full of passion and fury and anger and intolerance of anything that might stand in its way, which is why we're seeing these and have been seeing these waves and waves of purges of people.

Reihan Salam:

You were a student of Michael Oakeshott, the subject of your dissertation, the subject of one of your many books, and I wonder if you could offer us some thoughts on the lessons of your study of his work for this moment and for this destructive energy we're seeing.

Andrew Sullivan:

I would say this, that for me, being a conservative at this point in history means conserving liberal democracy. Liberal democracy is a very rare and precious achievement. We've sort of emerged in the late 17th, 18th centuries and came to its apogee really in the 20th century, which is so counterintuitive to human nature. It takes real effort in education institutions to sustain it. Innocence before guilt, freedom of viewpoint, regardless of how offensive it is.

Andrew Sullivan:

These very counterintuitive feelings that human beings have, which were, of course also rooted in Christianity to some extent. However it came about it came about contingently, it came about without inevitability, it came about because people in different countries began to organize themselves in certain ways, began to appreciate the special uniqueness of the individual as it emerged in Europe in the modern era, the individual, by which I mean an individual like Montaine or an individual like a character from Shakespeare for the first time individuals who were loved for their own sake.

Andrew Sullivan:

This is what Oakeshott is about. It's about finding and creating the space for individual human beings to flourish and to be their best selves. And this will mean extraordinary diversity of opinion, of character, of personality, and we as assistants have managed to create this. That is both so fecund in terms of its ability to research, and think, and write, and produce art in ways that other regimes never have, but that it's always vulnerable.

Andrew Sullivan:

And the job of the conservative is to quietly persistently attend to these institutions and try and sustain them and try and sustain this particular achievement. I think we're failing. I think that right has clearly failed to do that. In fact, in my view, has sort of veered into an illiberalism of the right to counter the liberalism of the left in such that those who were left defending liberalism as institutions, or as a system of government are increasingly beleaguered by both sides. And the tribalism of both sides means that the defenders of liberal democracy are going to be constantly razzed by people they agree with whether they're on the right or the left.

Reihan Salam:

You were a very sharp critic of Jeremy Corbyn. And you wrote at some length about the ways in which he transformed the labor party. And you also argued that the Corbyn experience offered some lessons for the American center left for America's Democrats. Yet the outcome of this year's democratic primaries might point in a different direction. I wonder if you could offer some thoughts about the Corbyn experience in the context of the American center left?

Andrew Sullivan:

Well, I think that one of the things that conservatives have to really understand, and one of the things that's really creating this moment is the failure of market capitalism in our current time to benefit most people in the society in terms of their sense of self, in terms of the work they do, and in terms of the income they get and the possibility of doing better in the future. The way capitalism and globalization has happened has stripped a lot of people of those possibilities, and it's failing them.

Andrew Sullivan:

They're not better off than their parents were. They're worse off. There are fewer opportunities it seems. That the kind of economy we're creating is not one that people find particularly rewarding or meaningful. And it's also brutally stratified, in which the super elite are really on a whole different planet than the rest of us. That needs to be addressed. You need to address people's inability to get housing that they can afford. You need to address the possibility that they might need to have increased standard of living in ways that the current market capitalism is not providing.

Andrew Sullivan:

Corbyn represented I think, especially for the younger generation, the capacity to upend neoliberal economics, and that was a huge appeal. Equally, to upend Britain's foreign policy entirely, to reorder everything. Now, he failed. When I went there and did a piece on him three years ago, I was interested in why this was happening. But obviously, the extremism of the left undermined all of that and allowed Boris Johnson and the Tories to actually sneak in, get into the middle ground, seek support for working class people, actually identifying with them. Now pouring money into the health service, reversing austerity. Doing ways in which Toryism can appeal to the working in lower middle classes. That's one out.

Andrew Sullivan:

What's also happened in the U.K. is that Corbyn is gone. The new man who's leading it, Keir Starmer, is a much more centrist, competent, interesting person. I went to high school with him for seven years, so I know him quite well. Don't think you need that, but I did. It turns out the public is much more comfortable with the center left than the far left, especially in government. They want competence. They want a sense that you understand them. They don't want revolution. And they certainly don't want revolution with these rather seedy revolutionaries who seem to be extremists and radical in the ways that are really not very liberal. And so I think if Keir Starmer is the future of the left in Britain, it's a much more moderate centrist left. It's one that also is not as internationalist than it was. And it's certainly not as left-wing as it used to be.

Andrew Sullivan:

That's the lesson, I think. I'm not sure whether Biden resolves this or not, because it's hard to now think of him as anything but a transitional figure, as anything but a sort of stop-gap right now. Because they couldn't find anybody else, which is why I suppose the presidential picks are going to be so interesting.

Reihan Salam:

I do wonder. When you think about the conservatism of Boris Johnson, the conservatism that broke through the red wall, this is a more solidaristic conservatism. This is a conservatism that is more inclined to embrace redistribution. Yet, you were a teenage Thatcherite. There was something about that moment, about the individualism, about the spirit of ambition. The idea that this ethic of self-help, of getting on your bike.

Reihan Salam:

I wonder if you think that that's something that's been lost and if that's something that... though of course, there is a winter of discontent about anxieties about even the possibility of upward mobility in many market democracies. I wonder if you'll lament the loss of some of that spirit of energy and ambition that you saw in that era.

Andrew Sullivan:

I do, but it's a different era. Conservatism built on a shoddy understanding is not a rigid or timeless ideology. It is something that responds to the exigencies and the contingencies of a particular moment that it finds itself in. All I can tell you is if you go to London today and compare it to London in the '70s, my goodness. So much individualism, so much vibrancy, so much energy. That is the inheritor of that Thatcher revolution. If you went to England and '70s, it was unbelievably stultifying, incredibly lackluster, completely lacking in energy and passion, full of resentment and anger. These things are going to go in cycles to some extent.

Andrew Sullivan:

I don't think that Britain today is losing its individualistic bent, it's still there. But it requires adjusting. It requires some adjustment to different circumstances, to the role of global capital. To the reassertion of the nation state, for example. And to the protection of people's security, their health security, their retirement security. Some underlying ballast for human beings to feel more secure in their own country and at least feel that their own government cares about them. I don't think that necessarily has to wipe out the previous legacy of individualism in the market economy. I think it can supplement it. I think that's what Boris and Dominic are trying to do.

Reihan Salam:

I wonder. You are both a writer, an intellectual, but you're also an entrepreneur. You built the first great political blog that became a great institution, and now you're going to launch your own newsletter product that is going to be a kind of revival of The Daily Dish in weekly form. Now you did that by forming an intense, personal connection with your readers. And I wonder if you could tell us a bit about what you discovered in building that connection. Who are the kind of people who are your most loyal disciples? I just wonder if you have some thoughts on that, and how that-

Andrew Sullivan:

I hope I have no disciples. I don't want anybody following me at all. Well, look what I hand you. I'll embarrass you by saying we met because you wrote to me on the original Dish way back in the day, if you recall, from MIT. And you were the one of the smartest most interesting people I had come across online. I met all sorts of people online. You helped for a while for the letters page you did, you edited some of the correspondence we had.

Andrew Sullivan:

You'll notice the correspondence that we had is very much not disciples. They are actual hecklers arguing as dissenters constantly. The idea is not to create a mass following of disciples, but to create an atmosphere in which people can relax, can think and talk and debate, can laugh, can go back and forth, can tell their own stories or can argue back with data. I mean, it's more about creating an atmosphere, I think.

Reihan Salam:

Is it your embrace of your own fallibility that allows you to create that kind of conversation? The fact that you've revised your views over time and that you embrace that, do you think that that's what creates the room for that kind of conversation?

Andrew Sullivan:

I think so. I mean, it's not that I am completely all over the map. But I am prepared to listen to arguments and change my mind if I think that's what it is. As I've just explained, I've gone from being a Thatcherite to Boris in many ways. They're not exactly the same, but the times have changed.

Andrew Sullivan:

My goal is moderation and balance within Western liberal democracy. And it's way out of balance right now. Part of what I want to do with The Weekly Dish is to remind people that we have still the opportunity for really liberal media. And I mean liberal with a small L, not a big L. I see that disappearing in Oped pages in major newspapers and in magazines, and I want to do something to prove that there's a market for this kind of curious, skeptical, diverse, full of ideas place. And that's what the [inaudible 00:40:07] really was. And even though it had me as the sort of lodestar, it was really a group of people fighting over stuff I wrote and me interacting with them. And that's a key part of what we're doing now. We're going to have every week we have dissents which I'm forced to deal with.

Andrew Sullivan:

And also as part of that I'm sort of doing a [Twexit 00:40:26], which is a word I want to popularize. Twexit is getting out of Twitter, and trying to create spaces where you can actually have arguments which do not depend upon the identity of the person, their ability to get fame, and concentrate on the arguments and the ideas. And so that's what we're going to try and do as a sort of attempt to balance Twitter. Remember we never had comments section. We always had curated editorial letters that came in, which were not rigged.

Andrew Sullivan:

So yeah, that's what I'm trying to do. I'm not really that much of an entrepreneur. I just got off the phone with these lawyers about setting up a company, and oh my God, it's just like ... I go into a sort of death spiral, the thought of forums and datas and this, that, and the other, and this LLC and this. So that I'm not good at. I'm good at, I guess, I'm good at generating the editorial product people are actually kind of interested in doing. We have about 70,000 people signed up so far, which is great. They're not all paying, but enough of paying at this point for me to definitely increase the salary that I got at New York Magazine. So it's financially a step up for me doing this, which tells you something about the models that are working and the models that are struggling.

Reihan Salam:

That's fascinating. Speaking of dissents Andrew, we have a number of questions from those who've been watching us. One comes from Brad. Why is a lack of affordable housing, broadly speaking, a failure of market capitalism, as opposed to a failure of those in power who want to manage and manipulate housing markets to create the outcomes they prefer?

Andrew Sullivan:

And yes, that's a good point. Isn't it? Yeah. It's a mixture of both. I mean, what I'm trying to say is the current capitalist economy, while generating huge amounts of wealth and opportunities, has not been able to produce a housing stock that enables people to go to those opportunities or to go elsewhere for those opportunities. And the lack of housing, particularly in large cities, is preventing the ability of people to really get going in their lives. And especially for those under 40, it seems the ability to buy your own home is becoming increasingly remote. And that's not something I think that's good for market capitalism. It's important for people to have their homes.

Andrew Sullivan:

And some of that is also environmental controls, zoning controls, all the other things. So maybe I can see that point, maybe it is not just market capitalism. It is also the way it's constructed. But at the same time I think we could do a lot better in cities and towns in generating more housing that people can actually live in and afford.

Reihan Salam:

Miguel asked, "Should we constrain public funds to universities or heavily tax endowments, considering their evangelism of this great awokening?"

Andrew Sullivan:

This is a very difficult subject, because of course we don't want the government to come in and start telling universities what they can and cannot teach. And that's a kind of important principle for me. But if the universities are truly not providing anything like what we might understand to be the humanities, then I think if a government is directly funding some of the stuff, it could also to say, "We also need to see some sense of debate within the university." And I mean now what's happening in Britain now is that they're applying for new grants and help to get through the COVID-19 crisis. And the government is placing some conditions on that aid and saying, "We need you to prove that you have diversity of thought." Which also means, for example, that universities can't just cancel speakers, they can't be a heavy handed attempt to control discourse on those universities.

Andrew Sullivan:

But in general, certainly private universities, I don't want to intervene. It is a catch-22, because how do you actually push back when these people have control, and when they don't believe, as a matter of principle, in allowing differing ideas to exist within the university? In fact, they think those different ideas are oppressive and harsh and damaging to their students. I mean, again, I hate the government getting involved in what people do and do not teach. It just-

Reihan Salam:

It is a very thorny question because in a way you've already had such deep public involvement. And then how do you think about unwinding it? And then do you create a new set of expectations? But it's certainly a challenging question. Marie asks [crosstalk 00:45:21].

Andrew Sullivan:

Are the most important people. And alumni. And I think most parents and alumni are not quite aware of quite how drastically universities have changed in the last decade or so. And well they know, because when their kids come home and they correct them every time they open their mouths, they're beginning to understand what's happening. And maybe also COVID is going to generate, because of the people not going into universities at all, it's going to create a new opportunity for homeschooling or indeed for different kinds of universities online. There's a very ...

Andrew Sullivan:

But personally, I loved and love the great universities of the west. I think there are cathedrals. They are our sacred spaces in a way. And the attempt to end that liberal idea of what a liberal education is, is to me an absolute horror. And the thought that places like Oxford or Harvard or places that I've been a part of are no longer what they were. The idea of these universities don't have their own authority to tell the kids, "No, screw you. Go home. We're not agreeing to this. You will learn what you need to learn here. And we're not going to, certainly your views, the least [inaudible 00:46:41] we should take into [inaudible 00:46:42]." But somehow that class leadership has lost their nerve.

Reihan Salam:

Kind of abdication.

Andrew Sullivan:

Yeah.

Reihan Salam:

Marie asks, "To what extent does the new populist conservatism reflect the intellectual victory of critical theory? Have its opponents adopted its central tenants?"

Andrew Sullivan:

That's a very complicated question because critical theory is such a complicated concept. But insofar as critical theory is essentially illiberal in its understanding of society, it shares to some extent the illiberal rights disdain for liberal society. And it disdains the notion that procedures and rights are the crucial mechanisms by which we determine our future, as opposed to end, goals. Whether the goal be the radical restructure of society around power dynamics and constant dynamic. Or whether it be the inculcation of a Patrick Deneen or Adrian Vermeule style common good idea, which is sort of smuggling in some elements of theocracy into the system. So yes, I do think the two have this extraordinarily symbiotic relationship. And I do think that Trump himself has done more to empower the critical theory left than any single person in the country. He represents an almost caricature of what they believe conservatism and everything they oppose is.

Andrew Sullivan:

And he is a caricature of all those things. And, I think his contempt for procedures and roles and rights, his contempt for constitutional procedures, his belief in the ends always justifying the means, these things have calcified the discourse and each side keeps polarizing the other into an ever and ever deeper illiberalism of the right and left. And I really do think Trump has been terrible for the left in as much as he's empowered the worst elements in them and disempowered the center-left just as he's disempowered center-right. Because how can I as a center-right person defend this guy or this record? I can't. I won't. But I'm associated with it, whether I like it or not because I'm sort of center-right, similarly, the center-left.

Andrew Sullivan:

And this clearing of the center, this sort of purification of both poles has its own logic and its own dynamic I think that continues endlessly until one of the two is resolved. And if Trump is defeated in November, then we'll see what happens. Whether that's an opportunity for liberal democracy to make a push, whether it be a way for people in the center-left to push back against critical race, gender, queer, et cetera theory remains to be seen. But I think probably Trump's absence from the White House is necessary but not sufficient for liberal democracy to revive.

Andrew Sullivan:

When I thought of him and said that his election could be an extinction-level event for liberal democracy, I think even though some people thought that was hyperbole, I think if you understand liberal democracy as this open-ended, free discourse rooted in institutional systems and rules and procedures, then it is and has been almost extinguished in the last four years. And you see the rhetoric and discourse in public being utterly illiberal and increasingly hostile and increasingly toxic. So I think, in fact, I stand by that prediction. Four more years of it, and it will not be able to be revived, I don't think, but we still have a chance.

Reihan Salam:

There was a passage in your farewell piece for New York Magazine, in keeping with what you said a moment ago, you wrote, "I have passionately opposed Donald J. Trump and pioneered marriage equality, supported legalized drugs, criminal justice reform, more redistribution of wealth, aggressive action against climate change, police reform, a realist foreign policy and laws to protect transgender people from discrimination. I was of the first journalists in established media to come out. I was a major, an early supporter of Barack Obama. I intend to vote for Biden in November. It seems to me that if this conservatism is so foul, that many of my peers are embarrassed to be working at the same magazine, but I have no idea what version of conservatism could ever be tolerated."

Reihan Salam:

Can you tell us a bit more about that? Because clearly, you embrace many views that are held by people on the left, and yet there was this sense that there needs to be a cordon sanitaire such that someone with your views can't possibly be published. And I wonder, what does that mean for people who are let's say, to your right, in some sense on those issues? Does that mean that they are further marginalized or does that mean something entirely different?

Andrew Sullivan:

I think it probably means they are further marginalized, to be honest with you. But I think the key reason is not those specific policy issues. By talking about those policy issues, we're talking about legitimate debate about what you think we should do about the environment, or what you think we should do about this or the other. And that's not what they're objecting to. They're objecting to my adherence to a core philosophy of liberal individualism that just does not believe that the cause of identity and the power of groups and society as a form of oppressive conflict. I don't agree with that view of society. I don't believe that America is a fundamentally racist, let alone a white supremacist society in 2020. I don't believe the premises. I refuse to accept them. I think the world is immensely more complicated and interesting place than the caricature that they draw of it. I think that society is better defined by individuals and freedom than groups in power. I think that power becomes a zero-sum entity, whereas liberalism allows for non-zero-sum society. That's what they want. That's what they disagree with me on.

Andrew Sullivan:

And, that's a very basic, very deep distinction. I really believe in liberalism. But I don't think words can harm anyone in any serious way that we need to be worried about. I think violence is physical violence. I believe in absolute freedom of press and of speech. So in other words, I think it's just simply not the endpoint of the policies that I might support for various reasons or not, but it is the philosophy that I stand for, that that's what's been permissible. I don't care if you're female, black, white, gay, straight. I want to know what your argument is and whether it makes sense to me, and whether I can think of something to diffuse it. That's all I care about. And so I don't even share the premises of these people, even begin to share the premises.

Andrew Sullivan:

And so I have to go. Because sometimes I might even make a remark that kind of mocks some of this stuff for its crudity and its simplicity. And I'm not a Marxist. And I don't believe the world is constructed that way. And I'm not a racist. And I don't believe that discussing issues around racism requires one to adopt one position or another. It's a question of reality and understanding reality. And I believe in reality and in truth rather than narratives that have no truth except insofar as they promote one group's power or another. No, I still believe in the possibility of objective reality and objective truth, which we may not at many times be able to understand or get close to. But assuming it's there and that we're using reason to reach it, is so fundamental to my worldview and to my writing, that for those for whom that is not the case, in which writing a sentence as if it doesn't matter whether you're white or black or female or male and so on, that's anathema to them. And they know I don't believe it.

Reihan Salam:

I'm going to attempt to squeeze in two more questions, Andrew. From Robert, how can we protect non-public figures from being canceled in the workplace and calm the fears of coworkers who would otherwise come to their defense? I know this is a tough one, but I'm curious to hear your thoughts.

Andrew Sullivan:

This is the worry about canceling culture. It's not me, but I worry that and that's why I tried to stay within a broadly liberal magazine as long as I could, the worry is, that removing people like me totally-

Reihan Salam:

Who are visible and who hadn't had the means to defend themselves.

Andrew Sullivan:

And have the means to means that people who are just starting their careers, or much lower down the totem pole, or just have a different opinion and a different workplace has nothing to do with journalism whatsoever, are incredibly intimidated, and are told in so many words, you keep your mouth shut, or your job may be at stake. And you see these recent polling that showed that people really do want to fire people who have a different opinion than them. Now this is horrifying. And in the end, because I can't control the power. And the power within most of our cultural media and academic institutions now entirely held by people who believe, solely, in the exercise of power, don't have any concept of the idea of individual liberty. The only solution is to get out and create new institutions that reflect a truly liberal sensibility.

Andrew Sullivan:

And so that's what I'm doing. And I think other than doing it, places like Substacked can find places for writers who still believe in these liberal values. But I also think that people have got to fight back in their workplace. They got to take risks. Intimidation works if you allow yourself to be intimidated. But don't be intimidated, and eventually, sometimes this tide will turn a little bit. But it's very depressing.

Reihan Salam:

Carla has a question, and this will be our last one. Could you comment on the impact of the Me Too movement on the insecurity of writers and journalists to express diversity points?

Andrew Sullivan:

I'm not sure that it constrains people's ... Well maybe it does. Maybe they think I can't, if they're a straight guy, I'm happily ... For obvious reasons, no woman was going to come and complain that I was harassing her at some point or ... But yeah, I suppose in some instances, for example, discussing Me Too, if a writer, you will notice, almost no straight male writers wrote about it at the time. It was all women, a couple of crazy gay men like me, who decided to write about it. But the straight men stayed away from this quite a long way. Why? Because they're terrified that some, what they thought was consensual sex 20 years ago, someone could suddenly come up. So don't take a stand on this. Or if you do, take the stand of complete yes I'm with you entirely. Don't hurt me. And there's an element of that, too. Yes, of coercion of blackmail, of attempted blackmail. Even if people have done nothing wrong, they're scared they might be accused. And the number of false accusations and ruined lives around this is remarkable.

Andrew Sullivan:

So yeah, in that sense, it did prevent some people's points of view. And in some cases, it wrecked people's lives entirely, for reasons that were not clear. So in that sense, yes. But in so far as it did raise awareness of the way men in power can treat women who have less power than them, it was a good thing. And you know, that's the other thing. I think it's a good thing that there is more racial diversity in journalism. I think it's a good thing that gay people are public in their lives. I think it's a good thing that women have been able to protect themselves more from male abuse of power. All of which is good, but if you throw out the liberal baby with that bathwater, it's going to be worse in the future, but the oppressors are going to be slightly different. That's that's all I would say.

Reihan Salam:

Andrew, I promised to let you go at four, and I just want to thank you. It was such a pleasure to have you. Thank you for taking the time to join us and talk to our audience. Thank you, as well, to everyone who joined us this afternoon and sent in your questions. If you'd like to join us for more conversations like this one or support our mission, I'd encourage you to subscribe to our newsletters or consider making a contribution. There are links for doing both in the comments section on your screen.

Reihan Salam:

Andrew, thank you, again. And everyone please consider signing up for the Weekly Dish, which I know is going to be incisive, and provocative, and challenging, and brilliant. And there will be many, many opportunities to disagree zealously with Andrew. I know for a fact, that he welcomes it. So thank you again, Andrew, for joining us.

Andrew Sullivan:

Reihan, it's always a pleasure. Thank you.

Reihan Salam:

Bye.

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