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YLC Event

Young Leaders Circle with Christopher Rufo

Christopher F. Rufo Contributing Editor, City Journal
Reihan Salam President, Manhattan Institute
Wed, Sep 16, 2020 EVENTCAST

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Young Leaders Circle with Christopher Rufo

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YLC Event

Young Leaders Circle with Christopher Rufo

Christopher F. Rufo Contributing Editor, City Journal Reihan Salam President, Manhattan Institute EVENTCAST 02:00pm—03:00pm
Wednesday September 16
Wednesday September 16 2020
PAST EVENT Wednesday September 16 2020

Growing homeless encampments; spikes in crime against property and people; and, in some locales, riots and looting: These are but a few of the symptoms of disorder afflicting America’s cities, including Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago—and most recently, Kenosha. To the extent that such symptoms are the result of misguided policy decisions, what lessons should New York’s policy makers take from these cities’ mistakes? How can New York save itself from going down the same path?

On September 16th, Manhattan Institute president Reihan Salam will interview City Journal contributing editor Christopher Rufo on these and other questions. Rufo, who joined City Journal in December, has established himself as an authority on the negative consequences of sometimes well-intentioned progressive policies designed to address homelessness, opioid addiction, incarceration, and other urban problems. A filmmaker and journalist, Rufo has directed five documentaries, his most recent being, “Chaos by the Bay: The Truth About Homelessness in San Francisco,” which depicts the consequences of San Francisco’s decision to decriminalize drug use, ignore property crimes committed by the homeless, and decarcerate half of its convicted felons.

Event Transcript

Reihan Salam:

Good afternoon, everyone. And welcome to the first Young Leaders Circle event of the fall. I'm Reihan Salam, president of the Manhattan Institute. And I'm thrilled to be here today with Chris Rufo contributing editor at City Journal, documentary filmmaker and director of the Discovery Institute Center on Wealth, Poverty, and Morality.

Reihan Salam:

Chris is a gifted storyteller who has a knack for finding and telling stories that legacy media ignores, often because they know the stories Chris's reporting would unsettle their audiences and challenge their ideological convictions. But that hasn't stopped. Chris, who has been tireless in his efforts to understand the roots of urban poverty and dysfunction.

Reihan Salam:

Chris has been on the ground in San Francisco capturing in vivid detail, one of the paradoxes of American life. Why many of our richest and most economically successful cities are plagued by addiction and street homelessness. Today, Chris and I will discuss this thinking on San Francisco and his latest film Chaos By The Day.

Reihan Salam:

We'll also cover some of Chris's other recent work, including his reporting on the federal government's use of diversity training, which often incorporate some of the most controversial tenets of critical race theory. Throughout our conversation, we'd love for you to submit any questions you might have, and we'll be sure to get to as many of them as possible.

Reihan Salam:

Before jumping in, I'd also like to say a quick word about YLC programming going forward. In addition to our standard monthly events, we're planning on adding more book talks and virtual engagement opportunities with our speakers. And we're thinking hard about how we can facilitate meaningful interaction among members while we await the return of in-person events.

Reihan Salam:

All of us at MI are very excited for what's in store for YLC, and we're thrilled to kick it all off today with Chris Rufo. Chris, thanks very much for joining us.

Christopher Rufo:

It's great to be with you.

Reihan Salam:

Chris, you didn't start out as an activist. You had a very successful career as a filmmaker covering the glories of traveling in Mongolia. You made an amazing, inspiring movie about weaker baseball players and another one about senior citizens who have embraced competitive sports. What is it that made you into the kind of activist reporting machine that you are right now?

Christopher Rufo:

Well, it's been a long journey and I think, looking back I started as a young person in my teenage years and then starting into college as a kind of committed a young man of the left. And it was very much very progressive in my political orientation. And then kind of had a great disillusionment in my early twenties, as I was involved on campus at Georgetown in kind of left wing school politics and became disillusioned.

Christopher Rufo:

Felt like fundamentally the idea is to stop working. And then there was just such a pervasive phoniness to a lot of the kind of kind elite left-wing agitation on campus that really kind of undermined my convictions. I had thought maybe getting into politics at that time and then set off on a different journey, spent the next decade as a documentary filmmaker, working for PBS, sold the film to Netflix.

Christopher Rufo:

Working for International TV, and had a chance really to go out and explore and to visit dozens and dozens of countries to work in some of the most far away places. And meanwhile, kind of under the surface of my documentary filmmaking work, I was reassessing my own political ideas. And kind of launched it head first into my own political education, and then slowly found myself drifting towards the center and then it kind of libertarian phase.

Christopher Rufo:

And now I'm a more kind of, I like to think of it as a more mature conservative kind of political base. And I think too, I became kind of aware as I was working in the filmmaking world that there was also a dead end there. Documentary filmmaking is a very ideologically committed, an ideological uniform space. And I felt like that the kind of ideas and interests that I had were really no longer fitting and transitioned to writing...

Christopher Rufo:

I started to do some writing, political reporting and really City Journal at the Manhattan Institute was the big kind of start that set me on this path and working with the great editors there, that encouraged this way of thinking. Since then, merged the two. Merge the storytelling and the filmmaking with that kind of political essay work and reporting. And that's where I find myself today.

Reihan Salam:

Chris, at the risk of getting a little bit more personal here, I do want to note that, YLC is a group of young urban professionals. These are people who have a range of different political beliefs, but they're committed to urban life. And you yourself are someone who spent many of your best years in Seattle, growing a family, growing a business.

Reihan Salam:

And if I recall correctly, there was a moment when you were thinking about getting involved in the political life of Seattle. I'm just kind of curious, can you share a bit about that experience and how that might've affected your worldview?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah, absolutely. I was kind of really starting to study the issues of homelessness, addiction, mental illness, because they were issues when we were living in the city of Seattle that were really unfolding all around us. And I really tried to unravel this paradox. How is it possible that Seattle and King County, if you kind of total the public and private expenditures, spend a billion dollars a year on homelessness for 12,000 people, about $80,000 per person per year, and yet the problem gets worse and worse and worse.

Christopher Rufo:

And as I unraveled that kind of political paradox, I realized that the foundation was a kind of extra permissive and kind of pseudo, compassionate, political culture and political policy. And I very naively at the encouragement of my neighbors and friends put my hat in the ring for a city council race thinking that we would have a robust exchange of policy ideas, and maybe I could do some good for my neighborhood and my district and the people around me.

Christopher Rufo:

And I really just got knocked flat on my back. I had a rude introduction to kind of bare knuckled, urban politics. And as soon as I started kind of contesting the dominant progressive ideology just kind of was just blown away by a whirlwind of concerted efforts to attack me, attack my family, both in the kind of above ground, kind of policy debate which I welcomed and was happy to mix it up with folks.

Christopher Rufo:

But then it got very personal. It was kind of a stalking, harassment, vandalism of my house, tracking down where my kids go to school and posting threats around the actual school building. And at that moment I was totally unprepared, totally naive, totally kind of just blown back and and immediately kind of got myself out of the political ring but really kind of redoubled my conviction, that there is something deeply wrong in the political culture of our biggest cities.

Christopher Rufo:

That are the kind of dominant knowledge and economic machines of the United States. And I kind of thought, wow, if this is happening to me, and it was kind of a difficult experience, how can I keep kind of in this fight, but do it in a way that is more sophisticated and more effective. And I think that luckily I've had much more impact and much more fun frankly.

Christopher Rufo:

Really attacking the ideological foundations, attacking it, intellectually, attacking it through investigative reporting. And this kind of... At the time felt like a curse actually turned into a huge blessing and something that I'm very excited to keep pursuing.

Reihan Salam:

I know it's tough to try to inhabit the minds of other people, but what do you think it was that was the most inciting about your platform? About the ideas that you were introducing? What is it that infuriated people so much, because I've got to say, I've known you for a while. You just strike me as an incredibly decent, generous, compassionate person who is always willing to meet people halfway, at least when you're having a conversation, you're an open minded person. So what is it that caused this rageful response?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah, I think it's a couple of things. And I appreciate you saying that because I really do try to be open with anyone that is happy to do a discourse. I'm familiar with the ideas on the left. I used to have those ideas. So I'm sympathetic to people and really understand why they think what they think. But what's emerged is something that is very different than the kind of progressive left of the past.

Christopher Rufo:

We have a really kind of militant destructive Alliance that is political in nature. The kind of democratic socialist organizations aligned with the kind of black shirted street brawlers of Antifa and others. And I learned very quickly those folks who are highly organized in the cities are not interested in a dialogue. And I think what went through their minds is that I released an ad at the beginning of this campaign using my skills as a documentary filmmaker.

Christopher Rufo:

And it kind of went viral all over the city and people were finally thinking, "Wow, this could be the moment where things turn." And it got a lot of attention. And in the ad, I coined a phrase, "The activist class." And the idea was that the policies in the city of Seattle don't reflect the popular views of the inhabitants of the city or voters.

Christopher Rufo:

It's really been captured by the activist class that has kind of captured our institutions. And I think framing it that way was both kind of linguistically really putting my finger on the problem. But from what I didn't know at the time is that the activist class really didn't like being called out in that way. And then from that moment, it's kind of bizarre campaign against me.

Christopher Rufo:

And it was frankly very tough. Very difficult, very difficult on my family, very difficult on my friends at the time. Say again.

Reihan Salam:

Did it affect any of your friendships?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah. It strengthened my friendships, frankly with a lot of people. People who were really kind of generous and offered their support and protection and help. But then I think, and the other side of the spectrum, it created this kind of bizarre dividing line where some of the people I've worked with, and had been friends with for a long time really felt like it was a moment that they had to choose political camps. So I kind of let go of some friends, made deeper relationships.

Christopher Rufo:

Honestly, after this experience, and I think this is really valuable to know for people that are listening that are in the kind of young professionals in these urban centers. One of the things that really was probably most valuable personally to me, I assembled a group of guys, men that were kind of philosophically aligned. And we started meeting monthly in these kinds of private dinner sessions.

Christopher Rufo:

These were successful people in business and tech and lawyers and real estate that we had kind of the same orientation. We had a common bond but they felt like, Ooh, I can't really speak out at work. I can't speak out to anyone. I feel very isolated. And just having that bond of people was just like a renewal every month. And it was kind of fun. We felt like we had a bit of a secret society of like-minded kind of urban dissidents. And that was really something that carried me through and continues to carry me through to this day.

Reihan Salam:

I wonder, were there skills that you picked up over the course of your documentary film work that have informed your work as a reporter now? Because when you're covering homelessness and Seattle and San Francisco and other major cities, you're not just doing this in a superficial way, you are really getting deeply involved.

Reihan Salam:

You're talking to a wide range of people, people that most of us never really have these kinds of in depth conversations with. So I'm curious about the skills that you learned and how you're applying them now.

Christopher Rufo:

Absolutely. Foundational for me, I think a couple of skills are involved. First is actually going out in the field when you're making a documentary. You can't make a documentary in a library. You actually have to go out and get a deep kind of long look hard on the ground reporting. You have to be there in the moment when people are getting buried, people are getting married, people are getting born.

Christopher Rufo:

You want to be at those kind of extreme moments in people's lives. So, looking at homelessness and addiction, it's like I have no problem calling the local jail and setting up and being face to face with people who are incarcerated and observing details, looking into the story or showing up under a bridge at a drug encampment and trying to kind of gain access to the people's lives and observations and stories.

Christopher Rufo:

So, I think the on the ground reporting and the kind of fearlessly going out into the world is won. But then I think also you learn in the filmmaking world how to painstakingly craft a story and a narrative that is character driven that is evocative, that emerges from people's real experience. And I think in some of the essays that I've produced for you at City Journal, I really drew on those skills to try to give a human face to some of these policy challenges.

Christopher Rufo:

And then try to really consciously craft a new vocabulary because the vocabulary of the entertainment left is very well developed. It's very sophisticated, it's very persuasive. And I think I've been able to kind of steal the knowledge from that and trying to get out of the kind of rut of the 1980s kind of write vocabulary and try to bring a kind of new moral language to the reporting that I'm doing.

Christopher Rufo:

And I like to hope at least that that extends the debate extends a kind of olive branch to people on the center. So if you're even maybe a disaffected or disenchanted liberal in San Francisco, and you watch my film about San Francisco, you might say, "All right, this guy seems to be not really 100% on board, but these things that he's saying make a lot of sense, this way of framing the issue."

Christopher Rufo:

And I think the most important thing is really trying to contest these ideas on the grounds of the ideological left because they've really kind of dominated the epistemology of the kind of modern city. And I think we need to try to take it back.

Reihan Salam:

Your observation about epistemology strikes me as really interesting. So I wonder, if you were studying homelessness in a more scholarly distanced way, doing it by going to the library as you say, rather than doing this kind of on the ground reporting, what is it that you miss? Is it because the scholars, the social scientists that do this work typically, the journalists who typically cover this have such a strong ideological perspective that it blinkers that in some way, whereas when you're speaking to people directly, when it's unmediated by that you're exposing things that you wouldn't otherwise get, is that kind of what you've been finding?

Christopher Rufo:

I think that's right. And I'll give you an example that illustrates that quite well. So I just finished a paper, if you're in a big city and you have a homelessness problem, you've probably heard of Housing First. It's this idea that the solution to homelessness is to provide a permanent supportive housing kind of apartment units to the homeless, with no requirements to participate in drug treatment, mental health treatment, job training, et cetera.

Christopher Rufo:

And the social sciences say, "We've solved homelessness." I mean, that was the rhetoric in 2014, 2015.Wwe know how to solve homelessness. And then since then, we've spent billions and billions of dollars on this program. And if you look at the scientific literature and you'll say, "Well, what do you mean you've solved homelessness? How does this actually work?"

Christopher Rufo:

And what they do is they reduce complex human experience to a single variable. It's a kind of rudimentary positivism. And the idea is that if you take someone off the streets and if the housing retention looks good, you've solved the problem. So housing first, you're providing a free housing unit to someone who in 75% of cases has a severe drug addiction or a severe mental illness according to HMIS data.

Christopher Rufo:

You're taking them off the street, you're putting them on a free apartment. It's kind of logical that you're going to have high housing retention. There's no responsibilities, no requirements. You can kind of live the same lifestyle that you were on the streets in a free apartment. And they're saying, "Well, we have 80% housing retention after one year or two years. So, homelessness solved.

Christopher Rufo:

The problem though is very simple. If you actually go to any of these apartment units, you realize that what they've done is they've transferred the pathologies on the streets and they become now pathologies in permanent supportive housing complexes. And the literature if you dig below the top line surface supports this 100%.

Christopher Rufo:

The literature where they're saying this is a success actually says in almost all of the cases of these permanent supportive housing units, housing first doesn't do anything to reduce substance abuse. Doesn't do anything to alleviate a psychiatric symptoms. And doesn't even actually lead to saving people's lives. In some studies, people who are given these permanent supportive housing units are actually more likely to die than people who are simply left on the streets.

Christopher Rufo:

So you look the literature in a kind of more 360 view, you see you kind of corroborate or challenge it by kind of real on the ground reporting view of trying to see, "Hey, how is the literature match to the real experience?" And then you have a totally different story that kind of blows up the preconceptions and the policy presuppositions that dominate our kind of modern policymaking.

Reihan Salam:

Tell us a bit about the origins of Chaos By The Bay. What is it that inclined you to make the film in the first place? What is it that surprised you the most as you were making it?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah, I had a kind of a generous benefactor and said, "Hey, Chris, you've been doing great work on homelessness and addiction and mental illness. You've been writing these policy papers, but we really want you to translate your research into a short film." And a series of short films actually, I'm going to have another one coming out at the beginning of next month. And then another one, hopefully before the end of the year.

Christopher Rufo:

But the film is something I've been covering from a distance, which is San Francisco homelessness, which I think is one of the cities that has the most challenging populations. And I was really interested in this single statistic where San Francisco has about 4,000 people who suffer from what's called the Perilous Trifecta. They're simultaneously homeless, have a severe drug addiction, and are severely mentally ill. And I mean, this is kind of what I think of this, the deepest kind of public policy and social policy challenge in American cities, all focused in this one kind of hardened population.

Christopher Rufo:

And I really wanted to look at what is it actually like on the streets? And thinking, I want to actually show people what an open air drug market that's run by Honduran cartels. Actually looks like in the day to day. So we set up shop in the kind of most active opener drug market, you have dozens of drug dealers, just brazenly dealing drugs in broad daylight.

Christopher Rufo:

And then you have this kind of community and economy and world that surrounds it. So I wanted to show that, which is a little bit scary and a little bit dangerous sometimes, but that's a part of the fun of making a film. And I also wanted to show a kind of the political narrative. So I interviewed one of the kind of most progressive council members and she laid it out.

Christopher Rufo:

She says, "Homelessness is caused by capitalism, by Republican greed and by the federal government disinvesting from housing as a human right, et cetera, et cetera. I kind of patiently and politely dismantled some of those ideas in front of her and to her. And by the end of the conversation, she said, "Wow, that's great. I never heard of any of that stuff can you send me some of the papers you're referring to?"

Christopher Rufo:

So it was quite a kind of realization for me that a lot of people run the policy and these places are good hearted. People are very intelligent. People are compassionate people, but they don't even have access or awareness of a different way of thinking. And trying to get a lot of that complexity boiled down to 11 minutes, but I think what's cool is it really kind of struck off a conversation.

Christopher Rufo:

There were people in San Francisco that denounced the film and people that celebrated the film. And I think at the end of the day, and at least kind of injected a moment of kind of seed of doubt in the minds of people who just think unlimited compassion is the answer. And I think I show fairly clearly that Dad's more complicated than that.

Reihan Salam:

You know, that there are 4,000 people in San Francisco at any given time who are suffering from that trifecta. And there's a larger homeless population of about 18,000 or so people, the city of San Francisco is spending a vast amount in the film, you side $1 billion for 18,000 households. That's $55,000 per individual. Tell us a little bit about how that money gets from here to there. How is it that you're spending that much money with so little impact on that population?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah. So a couple of things, one is that there's direct spending on homelessness and then there's what I think could be quantified as indirect spending. So if you look at San Francisco County jail, about 40% of the people who are arrested and put in jail incarcerated are homeless. If you look at fire department about a third of their time and resources are devoted to homelessness.

Christopher Rufo:

If you look at the emergency psychiatric services, I think it's somewhere around two thirds. So every institution has these kind of hidden costs of homelessness because, frankly, what we've done is that we've we've kind of reduced the psychiatric capacity by longterm psychiatric bed capacity by somewhere between 94 and 97%.

Christopher Rufo:

And we've created what I call an invisible asylum. That is the street, which is people in tents on the street that are severely mentally ill. The jail cell, again, 40% of the people that cycle in and out of San Francisco city County jail are, are mentally ill.

Christopher Rufo:

And then the emergency psychiatric ward, which is again a much higher percentage. So we're kind of, we're doing that, which I think is a huge human tragedy and a real cruel system. And then we're also spending money on homelessness, purportedly on homelessness directly. That is a huge sum that doesn't actually do anything to improve human lives.

Christopher Rufo:

And when you add together, you've created what I think is cheekily called a homeless industrial complex, where the majority of that money it's well north of a billion dollars a year in San Francisco is kind of sucked up by the permanent bureaucracy that is both direct public expenditure. And then I think more insidiously, a kind of nonprofit class that has really profited off the misery of people on the streets.

Christopher Rufo:

And even if most of the actual frontline workers, I think again, are compassionate and well-intentioned they have these real incentives where... I think that the latest numbers on migration are well over half of the people, 40 to 50% plus of people in San Francisco became homeless somewhere else and then migrated into the city because of its permissive policy regime.

Christopher Rufo:

So you have like this real nightmare where no matter how much money you're spending, you're incentivizing kind of in migration of kind of dense kind of pathological phenomenon. And you create an impossible situation where you dump more money in and you're seeing more and more problems on the output.

Reihan Salam:

Can you tell us a bit about the different components of the homeless population? So you have this kind of single male component. You have a group of people who are oftentimes kind of violent, severely, mentally ill, but it does seem as though in a region like San Francisco, you all see this in Seattle, you do have some family homelessness. You do have some people who have a very different profile. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah, absolutely. I think the numbers, and again, I have to find my citations, but I think it's maybe about 20% ish that are kind of family homelessness or what I think of as hard times, homelessness. These are people that are independent, that are hardworking, that are kind of employed that are stable, who encounter some catastrophic event.

Christopher Rufo:

Whether it's a divorce or domestic violence or a medical issue or a lost job, or some kind of some kind of catastrophic event. And actually to the system's credit, the system is very, very good at helping people in that bucket and helping people in that situation, because they don't want to be homeless. They don't want to be on the street. They don't have any underlying conditions that prevents them from getting back on their feet. And, and I think we should very much prioritize those folks in our systems. We do to the large extent.

Christopher Rufo:

Seattle, San Francisco, LA are actually very good to making sure that there are really no kids on the streets, no families on the streets. But the reason it works is because you have a high rate of compliance. If you're a father and you have two kids, and let's say your wife dies tragically and you lose a job or have a medical condition, you're going to do whatever it takes to keep your kids inside and get back on your feet.

Christopher Rufo:

So that in a way is the kind of locus of greatest success, but also the kind of easiest cases. So, it's like spare no expense. I mean, these are folks who truly need a functioning safety net. And it's a very different profile, a very different set of issues than the kind of single male 24 to 49 that in 75 to 78% of the cases is unsheltered, addicted, and mentally.

Reihan Salam:

There's been a political transformation over the past decade, decade and a half all along the West coast. Do you see to some extent nationally in which there's a sharp turn against what you might call law and order policies. California was a great innovator on three strikes and you're out and much else in response to the crack epidemic and that massive crime wave.

Reihan Salam:

But now it seems as though the state has veered industry dramatically different direction where the idea of a punitive approach is stigmatized. And I wonder what you think about that. You know, why are people so averse to the idea that if you are a persistent lawbreaker, if you are guilty of so-called petty crimes, we ought to take a more permissive approach. Is that part of what's kind of shaping this chaotic environment in San Francisco the streets in San Francisco and other West coast cities?

Christopher Rufo:

100% it is. And I'll be actually in the next issue of city journal. I'm I'm publishing a report on this movement in, in the city of Seattle using some kind of leaked documents and public reporting, et cetera. And it, it really shows this effort at, at what I think of as deconstructing justice.

Christopher Rufo:

And I think the important kind of background on this is that the real kind of what I think without much of an exaggeration, almost revolutionary progressive politics in our big cities has identified the criminal justice system, prosecutors, offices, jails and kind of probation departments, et cetera, as really the last institution over which they do not have control.

Christopher Rufo:

It's seen as the last kind of vestige of conservatism law and order, in their terms, "Fascism." And what they've done is they've made a concerted political effort to say, "Hey, we're going to run progressive prosecutors that decriminalize as much as we can." We're going to run a kind of a campaign to shut down jails. They've shut down entire jails in San Francisco.

Christopher Rufo:

They're now the County executive, a story that I broke in Seattle in the Seattle King County is trying to actually shut down almost two thirds of the total jail capacity. And, and then they're trying to kind of curtail the power or even outright abolish some parts or all of the municipal court system. And it's all part of this kind of concerted effort to kind of have a total control and, and kind of the rhetoric on the streets that is now being kind of supported by the political classes that the kind of criminal justice system is the only thing that is holding us back from ushering in kind of municipal utopia.

Christopher Rufo:

And I think that, it's frightening, it's shocking. It goes against all of the incredible kind of intellectual and practical political progress that was made under the broken windows theory. And we're really throwing that out to usher in this new hyper progressive utopia and the early results are not encouraging. The earlier the results are a disaster. You have a kind of immediate of back of some of the crime disorder, public camping, drug consumption, homicide, shootings, all of those things that were you know, we're kind of on the downtrend are now spiking back up.

Reihan Salam:

So you've documented the effect of this permissiveness, this highly ideological approach to public order in cities. You've also recently been doing some work on how this highly ideological perspective is entering federal bureaucracies, specifically diversity and equity training that has its own kind of progressive utopianism behind it that is being imposed literally in the workplace for people who work for the federal government.

Reihan Salam:

Can you tell us a bit about how that got on your radar in the first place? You know, it's obviously a pretty big departure from the kind of on the ground work you've been doing in cities. So how did that first come to your attention?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah, I kind of stumbled into this new reporting a bit backwards. I had an anonymous tip from a city of Seattle employee that knew that if they went to the Seattle Times, they probably wouldn't get any traction. They said, "Hey, do a records request because the city of Seattle office of civil rights is now racially segregating their diversity training program."

Christopher Rufo:

There is a training for white employees that's called interrupting whiteness and internalized racial superiority. That is now requiring employees essentially like denounced themselves publicly in front of the group. And then there's a separate training for POCs, People Of Color. And so I filed a records request forgot about it. Two months later, I get the documents, it breaks into kind of an explosive story that's now actually being investigated by the department of justice as a civil rights violation.

Christopher Rufo:

And then I started getting leaks from all these other institutions, and I realized that critical race theory which is this idea that our constitution, our legal system, our social institutions are all kind of a mask for white supremacy and racial oppression that must be kind of deconstructed and dismantled and kind of reconstructed along the lines of group identity is at the heart of this.

Christopher Rufo:

And it's actually kind of pervaded everywhere from the kind of local school districts all over the country to the highest levels of the federal government. And some of these trainings are really horrific and you and I talked earlier, I think diversity is great. I think inclusion is awesome. I think equality is paramount. But these trainings are not those things.

Christopher Rufo:

These trainings are really insidious and toxic and likely illegal frankly, because they constitute race-based harassment and really revive some of the ugly racial concepts of the 1910s and 1920s. And that's where it's going. Yeah.

Reihan Salam:

Your reporting has already had an enormous impact, including the fact that you're reporting on diversity training in the federal bureaucracy led to a White House executive order pledging to unwind these trainings, but there's also been resistance from a number of employees within federal agencies that want to keep their diversity programming exactly as had been the case prior to the executive order. What is your thought on this battle between the white house and this larger executive branch bureaucracy? What's going on there?

Christopher Rufo:

I think it's a couple of things. One, I think is that it might be some just bureaucratic inertia. People are resistant to change what they're doing, what they've scheduled, what they've planned, but I think, and my kind of whistleblower sources from multiple departments have told me this and kind of verified my suspicion is that, critical race theory which is kind of identity politics grafted onto a Marxian oppressor or oppressed dynamic is the default ideology of the kind of technocratic class and the default ideology of the federal institutions.

Christopher Rufo:

And it's captured the minds and policies within the institutions. And frankly, they probably don't like the president, a lot of people don't, and I totally understand that. And they're kind of saying, "Well, no one is going to rat us out. No one is going to hold us accountable we're just going to do it anyways." And I think this is... In one thing it's like not a big deal, right?

Christopher Rufo:

In one way, it's like, "Well, it's a diversity training in some department." It's like, oh, blah, blah, blah, who cares? But on principle, it's actually a huge deal. And when you have a president of the United States that exists issues and explicit executive command telling his indirect employees to do XYZ they're obligated to do XYZ and actually refusing to do so undermines our constitutional order.

Christopher Rufo:

It undermines the kind of norms that we need to have. And I think exposes a deep problem that if we have a kind of administrative state that feels like it can operate independently of the president, who's duly elected. We have a kind of fourth branch of government that last time I checked the constitution didn't exist.

Christopher Rufo:

And I think some great scholars at Claremont Institute are our mutual friends have talked about the consequences of the kind of permanent administrative bureaucracy. And I think this story kind of neatly grafts onto to conservative intellectual concerns. One is that identity politics, group identity supplanting, or kind of replacing the kind of individual protection under the law of the 14th amendment. And the civil rights act is a danger. And then also the kind of structural permanent bureaucracy that is separate from the political power is another big concern.

Reihan Salam:

Chris, we have a number of questions from the audience that I'd like to share with you. So one is from David, does there need to be more cultural, sensory awareness towards drugs and alcohol? Tyler Callen has quipped that we should all be more like Mormons is it on something. I mean, you've seen the ravages of addiction on the street, and I wonder if you think that would be an appropriate response culturally, if not from government.

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah, absolutely. It's almost foreign to me. I feel like for most of my life, even my adult life, I was kind of more libertarian in my orientation, but I think having studied these issues over and over, I realized that if you are a kind of let's say, affluent educated, sophisticated person, you can navigate a kind of libertarian policy and cultural regime effortlessly.

Christopher Rufo:

I probably, and maybe many of the people that are listening are unlikely to be kind of introduced to a social environment where it has a high rate of meth and heroin use. But for people for whom the circumstances of life, put them into an environment where that's not the case, a libertarian policy regime or kind of hyper progressive policy regime is something that is very dangerous.

Christopher Rufo:

And I think are very destructive. And I think the idea about Mormons is right. I mean, it's by no mistake that you have a kind of... Actually a very successful, some very successful policies and programs in the Mormon church and in all of my field reporting something that is that I've seen over and over and over, that the most successful institutions that get people out of addiction that get people out of prostitution that get people out of kind of a family breakdown that get people out of these kind of these kind of nightmarish traps are faith based organizations.

Christopher Rufo:

And they're not just saying, "Hey, we're going to get you into cognitive behavioral therapy. We're going to get you a kind of Suboxone prescription." They're actually saying this is the right way to do it. This is the wrong way to do it. We can show you a better way we can transform your life, and I've just been blown away and oftentimes reduced to tears.

Christopher Rufo:

When you see someone that the system has given up on be renewed. You see their mugshot from maybe a year prior, this kind of face of despair. And then you see them looking at you straight in the eyes with this kind of physical renewal, a different human being. And then you ask them, "What got you there?" And they say, "I joined this church, I joined this program."

Christopher Rufo:

And I think that has a lot to do with it. And I think we need to kind of really push from the kind of policy perspective at these alternatives that deliver human transformation that I think lights up people's possibilities and certainly lights up me as an observer.

Reihan Salam:

Christine asks one gets the feeling that the next great crusade for urban social liberalism is the legalization of sex work. Does Chris agree that this is the next frontier for the activist class? What would be the impact of that policy change?

Christopher Rufo:

I think that's one of them, for sure. I think sex work formerly known as prostitution is a real kind of concern in a real kind of movement that we're already seeing decriminalized in San Francisco, decriminalized in Seattle, I imagine LA if they haven't gotten there is next. And I think it is probably going to end up as something that is a very destructive.

Christopher Rufo:

And I think there's a kind of naivete where the people who are kind of managing so-called sex work in many cases are kind of a violent criminal enterprise, and there's a tremendous amount of abuse trafficking kind of underage activity. And I don't think what we'll see is a kind of controlled kind of Amsterdam red light district that is for better or for worse kind of regulated and kind of legalized and kind of managed by kind of semi white, white kind of above board institutions.

Christopher Rufo:

I think you're going to have a hybrid of kind of... It's kind of officially illegal, but unofficially decriminalized. And you're going to have almost the worst of both worlds where you're going to have criminal enterprises that are running these and law enforcement will have no mechanism for shutting them down. I don't know. I really can't say exactly how it will turn out, but I certainly have my eye on it.

Reihan Salam:

Is that because you think that, whereas in some countries they'd have the administrative capacity and they're willing to impose the kind of stringent regulations you need to keep legal sex work reasonably safe, you just don't think that's what you'd actually get in US cities instead you'd get this kind of chaotic approach?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah. From what I understand, and again, my knowledge is kind of cursory, but in Amsterdam you might have storefronts, you might have kind of management they're paying taxes, they have kind of STD testing and regulations posted. I really don't know. But that's kind of my impression of it from what I read. But you're not going to get that in the United States.

Christopher Rufo:

You're going to get this kind of hodgepodge of it's decriminalized, but the economic structures are the same as they were before. And I've reported on this stuff. I've met a lot of people that are involved in this. It is an absolute nightmare for women. It's an absolute nightmare for addiction and abuse, mental illness and kind of predation.

Christopher Rufo:

And I think if you want to look at kind of oppressed class, I think that you'd find it there. And I think that these are people who really need an Avenue out, and I'm afraid that this kind of decriminalization would actually keep people trapped in.

Reihan Salam:

Diane asks, the activist class Chris speaks of is clearly a minority, even in the most liberal cities, how do they do such a good job of getting their preoccupations injected into the media and public conversation?

Christopher Rufo:

That's the million dollar question. I'll give you answer. They're a minority, absolutely. Like it's probably, I don't know, 5% maybe that could be kind of defined as the activist class, maybe a little bit less. And if you look at the public polling data, it's actually really remarkable. They have a truly minority position where in California, in Seattle and Oregon, you have outright majorities of voters that want things like a ban on public homeless encampments an outright ban.

Christopher Rufo:

And yet all these cities are going in the complete opposite direction. And you say, "Well, how is that possible? The people want this, but the activists want this and the activists get their way." I think it's what, you know the author Nassim Taleb calls, the dictatorship of the intolerant minority. I think that's the kind of thing that he says.

Christopher Rufo:

Intellectual minority, or kind of political minority. Basically, who's going to oppose these people. They're highly organized. They have a full time infrastructure of activists and intellectuals and media and reporters and they have political muscle where they have it through the kind of political institutions in these cities where they can knock doors, they can drop flyers, they can they can put feet on the street for protests.

Christopher Rufo:

And if there's any threat to their kind of large ass coming from city hall, they can immediately show up with 250 people in matching T-shirts to kind of bully the councils to doing what they want. And frankly, there's no opposition. The business community is kind of terrified they're in, at best to kind of feeble defensive crouch.

Christopher Rufo:

There's no real moderate political factions that are organized in any meaningful way. And, and essentially they run the show with no institutional counterbalance, no institutional opposition, and therefore they can kind of just see how far they push. And in the last six months, what they've added is outright political violence and intimidation where they're saying in Seattle, "Well, the police officers Guild is the kind of last institution that is opposing us. So we're going to go to their office and burn it down. Even though we know people are inside."

Christopher Rufo:

I mean, this is happening in American city and the political class the police officer's skill, they interviewed him, and it's going to come out in my upcoming short documentary. He's like, "Where is everyone? I thought burning down the offices of your political opponents is outside the bounds of kind of American civil society and civil discourse. And yet nobody is coming to our defense. And that's the ball game. When it comes down to it, they will literally burn down your office to get what they want. And I think it's a very scary moment in American politics.

Reihan Salam:

This feeds into a question from Hannah. It seems like the Pacific Northwest has a particularly unhealthy political culture among the left wing of the Antifa sensibility is overrepresented. And there's also the white nationalist fringe on the right. How Chris make sense of this regional dysfunction?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah, yeah you're right. There is a kind of fringe movements on both sides and you have them really playing into each other. And I monitor this stuff and, and obviously it goes without saying, I reject the kind of fringe and extreme politics on the left, just as much as I reject extreme and fringe politics on the right. And yet they're both here and it's almost like they have a kind of symbiotic relationship where one kind of hard right group will say, "We're going to March on the streets of Portland."

Christopher Rufo:

And then the kind of hard left mirror image counterparts, we'll say we're going to March against them. And then they have these weird like kind of like LARPing battles where they literally just fight each other in the streets and they represent these kind of fringe groups, but they dominate the kind of media ecosystem. They dominate the kind of political consciousness because they have this kind of clash.

Christopher Rufo:

And I really think it's something quite destructive, quite frightening. And I think quite corrosive because institutionally the kind of progressive movement dominates these cities. And that's where I'm kind of focused on my critique. But the kind of right wing violence and kind of caricature of some of these organizations gives the progressive out where they can say, "Well, it's just these bad, crazy people that oppose us."

Christopher Rufo:

And in that way, they can kind of offload responsibility onto the president, onto Republicans, nationally onto the kind of a homegrown right wing. And I think what we don't have as a real substantive debate on the substance and on the merits. And I think that political dynamic is unfortunately part of that reason we don't have it.

Reihan Salam:

Question from Naomi. Why does Chris think the business community is so timid? In the age of Zoom and globalization isn't capital more mobile than ever? Is it because they need college educated talent? Are they less mobile than we think?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah, this is going to get me in... There's wide views and I'll just be kind of blunt with mine is that corporations by nature are cowardly. And what I mean by that is that their risk averse more than anything because corporations, especially tech companies in these big cities are doing very well. They're very profitable. They have amazing talent. They have amazing business models they're global scope and scale.

Christopher Rufo:

So they're really not that concerned at what happens locally. It's kind of secondary to their kind of global ambitions, which I think is good. We want innovation. We want these companies. My wife works for one of these great companies... But they're risk averse and I know the territory. They know that if Microsoft or Amazon or Google or a Facebook or a Twitter, if they come out and say, "We are opposing the city government. We are opposing the progressive ideas on taxes or whatever, whatever.

Christopher Rufo:

They're not going to do it because there's a huge price to pay, and the risk is not worth it, both internally and externally to the corporation. And therefore what they've done is they've adopted a policy that I think is essentially kind of complying on social issues and fighting under the surface on economic issues where they'll say, "Yeah, we agree with you."

Christopher Rufo:

Well essentially, in some cases, the companies are literally saying we understand the rage of the streets, and we understand why they are literally burning down our buildings during the initial parts of the riots. And we're going to do more to comply with these kinds of social justice, mandates X, Y, and Z. Because a burned down building for a major corporation is not really a big deal to their bottom line.

Christopher Rufo:

A down building is a huge deal for a small family business. So there is a kind of asymmetry of risk and an asymmetry of damage. And then companies, I think what you're seeing now is they're saying, "Ah, we're not going to fight the culture war. We can't do that. That's a huge downside risk." But if the taxes start coming in, if the quality of life starts declining, and if the loony political class in these cities starts to really going after our bottom line, as you suggest the questioner, we're going to kind of disperse our workforce.

Christopher Rufo:

We're already seeing that. Amazon has announced they're moving 10,000 employees, at least out of the city of Seattle. That's more than likely. And they're just going to take the path of least resistance.

Reihan Salam:

So, it's not a frontal attack. It's not actually confronting the forces of disorder. It's just paying lip service to them, and then actually abandoning the city in the background.

Christopher Rufo:

I think that's right. I think that they're going to pay kind of lip service and meet the kind of almost extortionary demands of activists by contributing to social socially progressive or social libertarian causes, which are popular, but they are very kind of economically libertarian and economically conservative in a way.

Christopher Rufo:

And they are behind the scenes going to protect their interests. They're going to distribute their risks so that the companies aren't kind of predominantly focused in issues in places where they have economic risk, they're going to distribute their risk. And they're going to kind of fight behind the scenes on economic issues.

Christopher Rufo:

So, you have this kind of uncomfortable Alliance that is corporate power. And this is something I haven't reported on extensively, but I really am interested in diving in deeper because I think it's a very, very important issue in my sense, both in New York and Seattle and San Francisco, is that we're going to start to see a lot of movement in the next six to 12 months that were kind of motivated kind of tectonically by politics, but then accelerated maybe 10X by COVID and the kind of ease and facilitation of kind of Zoom meetings like we're doing today.

Reihan Salam:

Chris, I know your time is limited. So just a couple more questions and here we're going to pivot to homelessness. Tell us about the role that large mental institutions might play in treating the severely mentally ill or homeless. This is a question from Emily. Do you believe that a more paternalistic approach might actually do some good, whereas the problem that, because the reputation of these large institutions from the kind of mid century Europe is so negative, that you can never actually go back to that as a solution?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah. I mean, you can never go backwards. You don't want to just replicate the kind of asylum of 1950, but we need to have kind of modern state hospitals. And for many people that's kind of like a third rail, but the more I've looked into it, the more I think it's necessary. And I'll give you some context. Emptying out the mental institutions, mental hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, state hospitals, is a bipartisan... Has been a bipartisan trend for the last 50 years.

Christopher Rufo:

It started with JFK in, I believe 1965. And it's continued up until this day. And since the high watermark, we've reduced our longterm state psychiatric bed capacity per capita by something, something between 95 and 97%. So we have somewhere between five and 3% of the capacity that we did per capita as we did in 1955. And as I mentioned earlier, we've created an invisible asylum of jail cells, homeless encampments and short term psychiatric triage.

Christopher Rufo:

And this was done in the name of compassion but I think is enormously cruel and really condemns people who are suffering through no fault of their own to a life of misery, a life of pain, a life of indignity and a life that will end in early death. And I think there's a great bipartisan momentum actually leading the way here where I am in Washington state, where we have Republicans and Democrats coming together in the last five years and saying...

Christopher Rufo:

Republicans are saying, "Hey, this is something that's worth spending money on. We're going to actually totally be in support of even raising revenues to pay for it." And Democrats realizing, we went too far with kind of this, you have a civil right to be a mentally ill and living on the streets. So there's this beautiful bipartisan moment and movement that is starting to emerge in state legislatures.

Christopher Rufo:

That I think is a huge issue, and I think is really one of the key moral issues of our time, because you can't look at someone that is a schizophrenia, addicted to meth, living under a bridge and say, "This is the system that we really need. It reflects our highest values." And I think that we need change and we need to build up the state hospital capacity and the ability to... It is an unpopular word.

Christopher Rufo:

We need to build up kind of the capacity of coercion. I'm not going to sugar coat it. That's really what we need for those extreme cases in order to help those families help those people.

Reihan Salam:

And so you're cautiously optimistic that the policy conversation is moving in that direction?

Christopher Rufo:

I'm not even cautiously, I'm optimistic. This is one of the few places. I'm pessimistic in so many areas on these issues. Like it's like a trail of despairs. But on this issue, I'm very optimistic. You have people even in San Francisco city, a state legislator calling for a bit more of a conservatorship model. In San Francisco city politics, they're actually doing some really good work on mental health reform.

Christopher Rufo:

And then, conservative legislators from small towns, and interior California, interior Oregon, interior Washington state, that are very conservative, there are saying, "You know what? I'm seeing people suffering on the streets of Spokane Washington. We need to do something. Let's work together to rebuild our capacity. And I'm very excited and again, Manhattan Institute has done some great work with DJ Jaffe who I believe just passed away, and others that are really been fighting this fight for years. And that foundational work is starting to pay off.

Reihan Salam:

One last question for you, Chris. The chaos that we're seeing on the streets of Seattle and other major American cities, what is it that we as citizens can do to push back against it? What is it that you'd recommend that we do to kind of turn the tide in this fight against chaos?

Christopher Rufo:

Do whatever you can. And I think that the key value that I think is needed is courage. And it's courage to speak out. It's courage to speak your mind. It's courage to say, no. It's courage to put out an alternative viewpoint. It's all of those things. And, what I would say for people who are just individuals go as far as you can.

Christopher Rufo:

You may not be able to kind of go out there and fight the fight in public, but contribute to an organization that does. You may not be wanting to kind of blow the whistle against an institution that is doing something wrong, but send the documents to a reporter who will. And then try to create at least in whatever way you can and you feel like you're able to push back against some of the destructive ideas that are driving this, because I think we need to have a moral clarity, and a kind of moral certainty that the policies that are in place now are hurting people and are cruel in practice.

Christopher Rufo:

And we need to have the kind of conviction that really communicates to people that we have a better opportunity, a better way, a better path. And I think that, that's all that matters and it can start in a very small way. And then hopefully a very big way in due time.

Reihan Salam:

Chris, thank you so much for us today. And speaking with our audience. We have many more questions, but I also hope that we're going to have more bites of the apple, more opportunities to speak with you. Your reporting for City Journal has been absolutely indispensable. Thanks to everyone who joined us for your time and your excellent questions.

Reihan Salam:

For those in the audience who are not YLC members, and are interested in joining, please take a look at the link on your screen. Thank you everyone. See you all soon.

Christopher Rufo:

Thank you.

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