Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S5. EPISODE 3
The Great Awokening’s Great Mistakes
Featuring Yascha Mounk
Are identity politics getting in the way of real progress? How did these marginal academic ideas go mainstream? And is it possible to make progress without diminishing the progress we have already made? Yascha Mounk, contributing editor at The Atlantic, host of The Good Fight podcast, and author of The Identity Trap, offers his ideas on the pitfalls of the “identity synthesis” and how we can create a more inclusive society without it.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and joined as always by my co-host, Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And this is our weekly podcast, What Could Go Right? where we tend to examine what is happening in the world that is not colossally wrong. And if you’re a new listener to this show, this intro’s a bit different and a bit longer. We are gonna have an interview, but we, in light of events going on right now, thought it prudent and imperative to address that.
Now, these weeks in particular are a period of time where it is evident that much is going colossally wrong, especially in the Middle East. When I was growing up, it used to be that the Middle East was a chronic, continual, and almost constant source of what was going wrong in the world. People would joke about, oh, I’ll get to that when there’s peace in the Middle East as a way of saying never.
So here we are yet again in the midst of a tumultuous moment, one that tends to fill our airwaves and fill our collective minds, particularly in the United States, particularly in New York City where I am, and certainly in the Middle East and Western Europe. Whether it tends the same level of heated attention elsewhere in the world is an open question, and one that probably bears remembering in that we, as in the Western world, in particular, Americans, particularly in a place like New York with a large Jewish population or in Western Europe with its own incredibly tortured legacy about Jewish and Christian, and if you’re in Spain, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian relations.
So this becomes a conflict of intense focus for us, but it is not a conflict of the same intense focus if you are Congolese or if you’re a South Asian insofar as it is more like what Americans view conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s over there, it’s tragic, it’s destructive, it’s shouldn’t go on, but it’s not something that creates quite the same level of emotion that this does and has for, as I said, most of my lifetime.
What’s been anomalous in the past years, hard to know exactly how many years, is that the temperature of this particular set of conflicts has gone down and not up, and is now again flaring with intensity. Whether that continues to flare with intensity because of the moment, which is heated, remains to be seen and will depend a lot on what people do right now.
So what does one do in the face of that? What does one do when we are, as we are at The Progress network, dedicated to viewing the world more from a cup half full perspective and to look assiduously at what’s going right and not what’s going wrong? We have said all along, and Emma, in our weekly newsletter, What Could Go Right?, did a brilliant job indicating that this has never been an endeavor that attempts to ignore or downplay all that is absolutely going wrong in the world. And it’s moments like these where one needs to balance the awareness that an attempt to view the future constructively in no way precludes recognizing all that is horrifically wrong in our present.
Emma, you wrote really compellingly and passionately about all this. How do you think people should balance or attempt to balance that, yes, the future may be our collective birthright to create in a more constructive way, and yet we’re faced in the present often by things that seem irreconcilable with a constructive positive view of the world, either of the present or of the future?
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So I share a few different pieces of advice in the newsletter on the Israel-Palestine conflict, ranging from how to approach this as a human being with empathy to more actionable things on what you can do to get through the misinformation that’s out there. I think number one, we all have a natural response to this, which is one of compassion, right? We don’t need to force ourselves into a pro-Israel or pro-Palestine binary. Other people might be asking us to “take a side”, but I think from a universal human perspective, we can all look at this and look at the suffering of the Israelis that were killed by Hamas, now look at the suffering of the Palestinians that are getting their buildings demolished by airstrikes from Israel and feel for that, right? That all of those lives are worthwhile and those lives ending are a product of a devilishly complex and long history that most of us, myself included, are not experts in. So we can take a pause, and before we react to the political realities or our opinions of what this state should do or that state should do, just respond with empathy and try to carry that empathy through our interactions and participation particularly online.
So that was number one. And there are some other people that have had excellent responses to that along those lines. Esther Perel put out a beautiful post along those lines. Isaac Saul of Tangle News and who’s a Progress Network member. I just mentioned a couple of people just to highlight, you know, ’cause there’s been a lot of “I can’t believe how people are reacting to this” reaction right now, and people tend to focus on the worst of what people are putting out there into the social media and media space. But there are lots of reactions coming from this place that I just described. So that’s number one.
And number two was a few ways that we can kind of behave like journalists in the way that we approach the information that we are encountering both in the mainstream media and on social media. Really right now, it can be quite difficult to ascertain what’s true and what’s false. This is a part of how modern warfare is waged, that governments and groups like Hamas might be putting out videos and information that are not correct. There are plenty of also state-controlled outlets that then push that information to us in the algorithm. So number one, anything that you see, if it’s not coming from a source that’s recognizable to you, that’s trustworthy to you, check it. And if you don’t have time to check it, just pause and don’t share it. Don’t react to it. Don’t take it as for what you see on face value. A lot of these outlets that are state-controlled, that are backed with money from Qatar or Russia, it comes up immediately in a Google search. We can all thank our lucky stars for Wikipedia because that comes right up. So do that, number one.
And number two, just as a general piece of advice, just wait. If there are really shocking revelations that are coming out that seem to defy sort of our bounds of normality, we’ve had a few of those, right? With the babies being beheaded or phosphorus bombs by Israel, those things are going to be confirmed or denied in a matter of time. And often there’s a, it’s true, it’s not true, it’s true, it’s not true. Just wait, wait for the final answer on those before you react, before you share, before you repeat that to your friends and family,
ZK: And even in these kind of conversations trying to say, look, there are ways of looking at this with balance. I’m sure there are listeners, and there clearly are a lot of people, that even that statement feels incendiary. The right and wrong feels of such an absolute level that even saying that can feel a negation of that absolutism. All I can say is that both of us and what we’re all trying to do here does not come from that place, that there is always, in moments of intense injustice and horror human created, there are ways to respond to that, that are more likely to be constructive. And there are ways that are to respond to that, that are more likely to be destructive. That has always been true. That is true at any moment in the past, and it is equally true in the present, and it’s way harder to apply that when you’re living through it than it is to apply that retroactively when you’re looking at and dissecting what happened in the past.
So I get that it is almost impossible to talk about this without pushing someone’s buttons to the extreme. That’s not our intent. And I think the idea that one can look at all of this with compassion is simply true. Maybe it wasn’t true about the Holocaust, maybe having compassion for just mass slaughter— and we’re not saying have compassion for those killing people in cold blood per se, although there is entirely a religious tradition that would urge that as well, that we’re all human beings, but that’s a whole other discussion, but we are saying that rage, fear, and huge pain is really the source of action that leads to the future we want to create, full stop.
So we’re gonna turn now, and I don’t think it’s much of a pivot, I wish it were more of a pivot, to the intense divisions in the United States that certainly have not reached lethal levels that we’re seeing in the Middle East, haven’t reached murderous levels and hopefully they never will. But you can see the stirrings of the same kind of intensely divisive passions in a partisan way on both the left and the right in the United States. We’ve certainly reached murderous passions in our own history, certainly during the Civil War, and we’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years wondering about the 1850s and wondering about the 1960s and wondering whether we’re in one of those moments. I think it’s actually wise in these moments to be aware of how destructive those tendencies can actually get, whether it’s in our history or whether it’s in a pocket of the Middle East currently.
And so, turning to that in the United States, I wish it were more of a leap, but it’s not, and I think looking at, hey, let’s get ourselves in check before it is too late. And I certainly think that we are at a moment like that, meaning it is certainly not too late. And we’re gonna talk today to Yascha Mounk, who’s been, I think, looking at the political divisions from both a philosophical and a pragmatic perspective. So, Emma, tell us a bit about Yascha.
EV: So today we’re gonna be talking to Yascha Mounk. He’s an expert on the crisis of liberal democracy and the rise of populism. Like many of our guests, he has many credentials to his name. He’s a professor at Johns Hopkins University, a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He’s also the founder of an outlet called Persuasion, and he’s the host of The Good Fight podcast. Today we’re gonna be talking to him about his fifth book, The Identity Trap, which argues that if we prioritize identity over universalism, we’re gonna make the world a worse place for both the dominant and the marginalized groups alike. So we’re gonna be touching on some hot button issues in the cultural divides in the United States right now.
We recorded this episode before the conflict in Israel and Palestine erupted, and we will be addressing that with a full episode next week with geopolitical analyst Ian Bremmer. Our conversation with Yascha is not going to cover that discussion, but we’ll have more on that next week, as I mentioned. And our new section at the end of the interview of Yascha is up to date with some other current events that don’t have to do with the Israel-Palestine Conflict.
ZK: Yascha Mounk, it is a pleasure to be having this conversation with you, and congratulations on your new book. You have been thinking deeply about the state of democracy for a whole bunch of years, and this latest book, The Identity Trap, is if not the culmination of a trilogy, then at least, is the continuation of a fault line that you have been pursuing about what ails democracies, both in the United States and throughout the world. So for those who have not been following your trajectory and throughline, tell us a little bit about where this book lies in that and what it is you’re trying to achieve. Really easy, simple questions for you.
Yascha Mounk (YM): Yeah. So I like to say that I’m a democracy crisis hipster. So I was worried about the crisis of democracy before it was cool. And if you’re thinking of this as part of a trilogy, then the first book in that trilogy would be The People vs. Democracy, which was one of the first books to try and understand the nature of populism and to explain why it causes such a danger to democracies, to trace the reasons for the roots of populism and what to do about that.
I then started to really think more deeply about one of the roots of the rise of populism, which is the way in which our societies have become much more diverse, and in which societies like the United States that have always been somewhat diverse, for the first time were truly trying to treat all of their citizens as equals. And so that was the second book in the trilogy, The Great Experiment, which was really trying to think through how to make this unprecedented experiment in building deeply diverse, ethnically and religiously diverse democracies that hopefully live together in peace and tolerance and treating each other fairly, why that’s so hard, and how we can make that work.
Now, the way that the third book fits in might be a little bit more surprising because rather than looking primarily or predominantly at the threats from right-wing populism, I am turning my attention to an ideology that has come to be very influential and dominant on the left of the political spectrum, what often is called wokeness or identity politics, what I prefer to refer to by the term of the identity synthesis.
But these ideas are related in two ways. First, while I don’t consider them as dangerous as politicians like Donald Trump, they do, in a very serious and self-conscious way, constitute an attack on the values of philosophical liberalism that I’ve been championing in all of my work. The main figures in this historical tradition very explicitly reject the Civil Rights Movement, reject figures like Frederick Douglass or Barack Obama, reject liberalism, say that the origin of this idea was not to argue with conservatives, it was to argue with philosophical liberals more than anything else. And the second connection is that after 10 years of writing op-eds about how terrible Donald Trump is, I thought that if he still retained so much support in the polls and we have not been able to convince people that he is a danger, then perhaps at some point it’s time to look in the mirror a little bit about why it is that mainstream institutions at this moment find it so hard to sustain trust and support from ordinary people. And so in purely political terms, I think that these two main phenomena I’ve been thinking and talking about for the last years may ideologically seem to be very far apart in political and electoral terms. One is to the yin to the other’s yang. To defeat either of them, we have to defeat both.
EV: What do you mean by wokeness? Because, as you mentioned, it’s a term that gets used in a lot of different ways by a lot of different people. So just sketch us out what you’re talking about here.
YM: So it’s true that there’s some sort of right-wing and polemicists who basically call anything they don’t like woke, including very straightforwardly sensible things like teaching students about history of racism in the United States, or recognizing that there is forms of discrimination still exist in our society today. Now, conversely, this has led a lot of people on the left, but also in the mainstream, many of my own friends and colleagues, to say, well, wokeness or so-called critical race theory, that’s just treating people nicely. That’s just common sense attitudes towards the existence of these problems in society. It’s just wanting to think critically about the role that race plays in the United States today. But when you go through the history of the thinkers that actually invented this tradition, it becomes very clear that they are self-consciously rejecting a lot of these mainstream beliefs.
So in the book, I tried to define what the set of ideas are in two different ways. One, and perhaps we’ll come back to it, is historically through the traditions that make up these ideas from postmodernism to post-colonialism to critical race theory, and I emphasize five or six different themes that come from that. And a skepticism about objective truth, an embrace of a politicized form of discourse, critique discourse analysis is a way of doing politics, the embrace of what Gayatri Spivak calls a form of strategic essentialism, which says that even though we should in theory be skeptical of identity categories, for practical purposes, we should act as though they were true. A rejection of universal values and neutral solutions to problems, an embrace of forms of equity that always make how you’re treated explicitly dependent on the group of which you’re from. And finally, an understanding of intersectionality, an interpretation of that idea and that term that really [inaudible] whether, Emma, you and I can understand each other if we stand at different intersections of identities.
So that’s one way of thinking through those, and I’m happy to double-click on any of those concepts. So just to go back to the name of the podcast and the organization that the two of you run, The Progress Network, I think this idea of whether or not there’s been progress is at the heart of this disagreement, right? If you genuinely believe that America in 2000 is as racist, as sexist, as homophobic as it was in 1950 or in 1850, ripping up those institutions and starting afresh comes to look plausible. For those of us, and I very much agree with the concerns of The Progress Network in that respect, who think that unjust and imperfect though our societies are in various respects, we have been able to make progress and we actually therefore need to build on what’s best in our traditions and what’s best in our institutions to allow us to make further progress. If that’s what you think, then you should really be fundamentally opposed to these ideas.
EV: Yascha, just to bring this out of the abstract, you know, people might be able to be filling in real life examples as you’re speaking, but some people may not. Can you give us one or two just so people understand in concrete terms what we’re talking about here? Where you see this ideology playing out in the US right now?
YM: Yeah, of course. So a lot of the time when people debate these ideas, we think about things like cancellations of people or the fears that people have to speak their minds. And I certainly think that that is one concomitant of these ideas, one outcome of the spread and the hold that these ideas now have over many mainstream institutions. But my book is not a book about cancel culture, and I really don’t have many of those examples in the book. I try to focus on examples that show how the popularized version of what I’m calling the identity synthesis has come to exert tremendous influence over social norms, institutional practices, and even public policies.
I spoke to a woman called Kila Posey in researching this book. Kila is an African American educator in the suburbs of Atlanta. She has two little kids, and she asked the principal of her youngest daughter whether she would be allowed to suggest or to pick a teacher for her daughter, which class she would go to. And the principal said, sure, no problem, send me along the name. But when Kila Posey did that, she kept not getting responses or getting deflecting responses, and eventually, she grew frustrated. What’s going on here? You said I could pick a classroom for my daughter, what’s going on? And the principal says, well, that’s not the Black class.
Now you might think that this is a straightforward story of racist discrimination until you learn that the principal herself was a progressive Black woman who had imbibed pedagogical ideas that what it is to educate children the right way is to encourage them to see themselves as racial beings, that first and foremost, they should lean into their identities, and that therefore, even when a child from a non-white group has many friends, is well-integrated in the school, unless they have a lot of peers of the same racial group, you are failing as an educator. And so therefore, this girl in this very diverse school had to go to a class with lots of other Black children. Otherwise, she would not grow up to think of herself in the right racial terms.
And one of my concerns here is about what happens to the white kids, not that it might be uncomfortable, I think it’s fine to be uncomfortable as part of your education sometimes, but everything I’ve learned from history and social psychology tells me that how you define yourself is flexible. But when somebody tells you the most important thing about you is that you’re part of this group, you’re likely to prioritize the interest of this group over the interest of outsiders. So even though these teachers are hoping to make these students, as Bank Street School for Kids on the upper west side of Manhattan says, to own the European heritage, to own the whiteness, And to disclaim the white privilege, I think it’s much more likely to create racists than anti-racists.
EV: We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
ZK: So you certainly run the risk in this book of people not being aware of your prior critiques, that they would then think you’re just writing a conservative critique of left-wing excessive identity politics. And I just wonder what your game plans are as you face that potential critique. And there’s always that risk once you’ve released a framework and a set of ideas into the world, right? You don’t have control over who’s gonna use it and how. And then there’s certainly a risk in presenting this critique that it will be seized upon by the right as a “you see?”.
YM: Well, let me say a few things about that. One is that at some level, I’m deeply aware of those risks. One of the interesting little ironies of intellectual history that I trace in the book is that many of the key thinkers who came up with these ideas— My book has four parts. The first part tells the intellectual history of where these ideas come from. The second part says, okay, how do we go from these ideas that are really influential in universities and academic settings by about 2010, but really marginal in society as a whole, to these ideas having all of this mainstream purchase. In the third part of the book, I look at the applications of this popularized version of the identity synthesis to areas like cultural appropriation and free speech and progressive separatism and education and race-sensitive public policies, and say, where do these ideas go wrong? And how we can we do better on each of these counts? And then finally, in the fourth part, I say, what is the good liberal response to these ideas? More broadly, what is the right framework for why liberalism is valuable and how liberals should argue against these ideas?
So in the first part of the book, there is this strange irony where many of the thinkers whose ideas coalesce into a much less sophisticated, much more extreme version, partially in their lifetimes and partially after they pass away, I think I would’ve been very critical of what becomes of these ideas. And so of course, I’m also aware that my own ideas might be appropriated by other people, might evolve in ways that I don’t like. And that is, I think, always a risk when you make a hopefully influential intellectual argument.
Nevertheless, I don’t think that that should stop us from saying things that are important and truthful, first of all, because I think that’s just the price you have to pay for being a public writer. I have a pretty great job, but I think my one obligation is that when I have an observation that I believe to be true and that I believe to be important, I should bloody say it. And I think these attempts to be clever by half in averting our eyes from things that we believe to be true, because somehow it might end up being abused by the wrong people often end up being counterproductive. If reasonable people who are motivated by noble values don’t point out the flaws in many of the ways that our institutions now work, then unreasonable people with agendas that are a lot less noble are going to do that instead, and they’re gonna be the ones who will gain all the attention and gain all of the support.
So, for me, I’ve thought very hard about what the audience of this book is, and it’s two audiences. One is people who see themselves as being torn, who want to be on the right side of history, who recognize that there’s a lot of injustice in our society, who oppose discrimination and racism and homophobia and all of those things, but who also realize that some of these ideas that have come to dominate in progressive spaces are misguided. But there’s been all these meltdowns in progressive institutions that have made it harder for them to serve the important missions because of the internal strife induced by some of these ideas. But perhaps we are driving voters into the hands of people like Donald Trump, and I want to speak to them and explain to them why they can reject these ideas without becoming reactionary, without going all the way in the other direction.
And the other thing that I want to do is to make the best and most thoughtful version of the critique of these ideas, to make sure that people who are already convinced that these ideas are bad, already convinced that these ideas are wrongheaded, hear the best version of that critique, one that shines a clear path to how to fight for a better and more just society while rejecting those values, rather than putting, as I think a lot of people feel right now, them into the stark choice. Well, either you go along with this stuff or you start embracing the other end of the political spectrum.
EV: Yascha, let’s talk a little bit about how these ideas, which, you point out, came out of academia, how they did find such mainstream purchase, like what was in the cultural waters to make that happen? Because the joke is like most academics would die for that kind of influence, right? What was going on that that jump happened to such a large degree?
YM: Well, I think that there’s sort of a few sets of explanations here. One is what I’m calling the short march for the institutions. So by about 2010, these ideas have a lot of purchase in academia, especially in the humanities and the social science. And so people who take those courses, either as majors or as part of distribution requirements, [inaudible] universities are very exposed to them. You also have a rise of administrators who come to play a much more important role on campus and who we know from surveys, not just much more left wing, but more specifically illiberal than faculty members, much more likely, for example, to think that it’s legitimate to disrupt a speech by a controversial visitor in a violent way. And so when you look at the kind of trainings and have a larger campus culture that is maintained, there’s a really rapid shift.
And so as a result, the first institutions that are affected are ones that predominantly hire from elite universities that have a lot of young staff and that think of part of their mission as doing good in the world, which makes it harder to say no to people. And so nonprofits transform very rapidly, organizations like the ACLU that has really given up on much of its core mission of defending free speech, but also corporations like Google that claim that they do no evil, right?
The other very important transformation is the rise of social media. And the main mover here I show is not actually Twitter or Facebook. It is in the first instance platforms like Tumblr, which allow people to self-assemble according to new forms of identity and identity labels, and which really become a kind of playground of experimentation for how to recommit yourself to have an existing identity label or a new identity label. This is where ideas like demisexual, a new form of sexual orientation, or libragender, a new form of gender self-identification, emerge. And then when you have this platform where really people assemble according to this kind of identitarian labels, you need a broader culture to hold it together, and that becomes a kind of bowdlerized, popularized version of much more sophisticated ideas of the main figures in the identity synthesis.
And then that starts to take on the written form on platforms like Thought Catalog and everydayfeminism.com, social media starts to be how articles spread. So whereas when Vox is founded in 2013, most of its visitors come from the landing page of its website so each article has to appeal to a broad range of people, now, from about 2015, most of its articles are read in social media. And so they spread through these identity-linked networks on Twitter and Facebook, and that encourages a very different writing style, much more first person, much more leaning into those kind of identity-based discourses. And then you have a big economic crisis in mainstream media, and they’re seeing some of these articles do incredibly well, and they hire those writers. And so over the course of 10 years, ideas that would’ve been very marginal in 2010 become a daily feature of the op-ed pages of major American newspapers.
The third and the final step that’s really important here, I think, and, again, shows the connection between these ideas and the populist threat from people like Donald Trump, is 2016, because the moment that Trump gets elected, it becomes much harder for people in progressive institutions or nominally neutral, but in practice left leaning institutions to criticize bad ideas on the left. Whereas it used to be that you’re seen as a [inaudible] critic that has legitimate concerns, you now come to be seen as a kind of traitor, somebody who’s secretly running interference to Trump, somebody who has to face questions. And Zach, you meant that question nicely, but questions often put [inaudible] way of, if you are talking about this, aren’t you helping Trump? So you must be a terrible person. And that really helps to spread those ideas very, very strongly in the second half of that decade.
ZK: Look, I mean, I asked that question also because I was on the receiving end of a lot of that when I was in the Trumplandia period, writing pieces saying, maybe we should be paying more attention to underlying policy issues and not to whether or not Trump has just tweeted something outrageous. I mean, even saying that was incendiary because it sort of said you’re insufficiently attentive to the gravity of the moment and the impending onset of liberal authoritarianism. And I think we’re gonna be obviously entering a similar period in 2024 as the prospect. However, whatever probability you affixed to the prospect of Donald Trump winning election for a second term, it’s certainly not zero, and it will be considerable if he’s the nominee, as it looks like he will be, of the Republican party. So we’re gonna face this similar dynamic again, where the imperatives are fall in line, pick your side, and be absolutist around that.
And the Republicans right now, I mean, as we’re recording this, there’s a huge divide within the Republican caucus and the House of Representatives in Congress. I don’t know how that’s gonna play out. And when people listen to this, we’ll have a better— they have their own version of that, right? Fall in line, pick your side. The existential threat is the other. It’s them not us. So pick your us and identify your them. And all these other questions become either academic, meaning dismissible because they’re marginal, or they become traitorous, right? They’re either insignificantly picayune or they are tectonically civilizational.
And, as you say, you believe, and I think you’re right, that it’s incumbent upon you if you’re gonna be in this role, a role that we used to call public intellectual, I’m not sure whether that has traction anymore as a term, to be honest about the idea critique, but it is something to be mindful of, and it’s mindful in the sense of this is how these things will play out. I want you to talk a little bit about— ’cause you’re not just writing a digest and a critique, you also have a sense of a way forward that you do chart out. And by the way, I don’t think it’s incumbent on someone, in an ideal world, to necessarily chart out a way forward. And often, particularly in article land, this idea that you can summarize a problem and then in like two paragraphs, [laughs] give me the solution. But nonetheless, you do have some thoughts about a way forward here. So what are those?
YM: Yeah, I mean, I had a kind of promise to myself never to write a book again where I need policy solutions for I do have some suggestions about how to help maintain a real culture of free speech in part through public policy, for example. I think this is a book that doesn’t call for policy solutions, thankfully, but it does call for two kinds of solutions. It’s either reinvent and change everything, and you’re like, yeah, I know it’s not gonna happen, or it’s like, do these three little reforms and well, perhaps we’ll get one and a half of them done, but they’re not gonna fix the problem, right? And so this is the problem that every big sort of analytical, nonfiction, political book of a certain kind has. I think in this particular topic, thankfully I don’t face that problem.
But there are sort of two, I suppose, solutions that we need. One is, well, what is the best version of the arguments against these ideas? How do we argue against this stuff? I think we’re going to have 20, 25 years of real contestation between liberalism and the identity synthesis. The way we did in the second half of the 20th century in many academic departments much of intellectual life between liberalism and Marxism, right? And so we need the best arguments to oppose these things, which have to be based on a real understanding of these ideas and then a sophisticated response. And then the second thing we need is a set of guidelines for how to argue against them, not in terms of content, but in terms of form as well. And so that’s what I try to provide in the book.
Much of this comes in discussing the particular kind of applications of the identity synthesis to different areas. So for example, when it comes to the broad prohibitions we now have and what’s come to be called as cultural appropriation, we have come to be, as the right used to be, very concerned about forms of cultural purity and how it might be bad or problematic, my least favorite word, when one group influences another in cultural terms. And what I point out in the book is that of course there are instances of real injustices that we sometimes refer to by using the term of cultural appropriation. The most common example is white musicians stealing the music of the songs of Black musicians in 1950s and 1960s. But what I show is that those injustices can more easily be described by using more straightforward terms.
What was wrong about that was not cultural appropriation. It was the very extreme forms of discrimination and exclusion that those Black musicians suffered. It was the fact that they couldn’t have big careers because they couldn’t travel across the south and perform a lot of concert venues or be signed by a lot of the major record labels. That’s what was unjust about it. The term of cultural appropriation doesn’t actually help us to express what was at stake. And so we should avoid the term.
When there’s something really bad going on, we can express it in much more straightforward ways. And when we can’t actually express in straightforward ways what the supposed ill of cultural appropriation is, well then we should remember that the way we influence each other in the society, the way that America is an amalgam of many different cultures, the way that the very technology and script and other basic forms of our culture that we use every day is a product of many different cultures, of many different origins. All of that should remind us that mutual cultural influence is something to be celebrated rather than worried about in our society. So that’s just one example of how, on areas like free speech and progressive [inaudible] and recent public policies, I sort of show where the kernel of insight is in these ideas, why people are attracted to them, but then show us a way through to argue against them in a principled and consistent way.
But the highest level at which to do that is to really take those three main claims of the tradition on in a systematic way. I said earlier, the claims are race, gender, and sexual orientation are the key prisms for understanding society. Universal values and neutral rules are really designed to put the wool over people’s eyes to make sure that these forms of discrimination can continue to exist. And therefore, the only way to make real progress is to rip them up, is to get rid of them.
But I think that there are principled and convincing answers to each of those parts. And the first of them is that no, race, gender, and sexual orientation are not the only of a primary prism for understanding society. Of course, there are parts of our reality for which you have to think about those terms. Of course, you can’t completely blind yourself to them. Of course, various forms of identity-based discrimination persist, and we have to be deeply aware of them, but there’s other prisms [inaudible] for understanding our society as well, prisms like social class or religion or the individual actions and motivations and behaviors of people. Instead of imposing one lens on reality, we have to look at each situation and let that situation teach us how to make sense of it.
Secondly, I think it’s just a fundamental misunderstanding to believe either that we haven’t made progress in American history, or that universal values were an obstacle rather than a handmaiden to that progress. An enemy who thinks that we haven’t made progress is offensive, I think, not offensive to the great Americans living today, but offensive to the people who experienced much worse forms of exclusion and discrimination in the past.
And so finally, the third point is that we have to live up to those principles, that to be serious about liberal values is not to just defend the status quo, it is to always be fighting to bring reality into closer alignment with our values. It’s to create a society in which how we treat each other and the kind of opportunities you have come to be less dependent on the group into which you’re born, not because we ignore injustices that exist today, but because we commit ourselves to remedying them.
EV: We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
So, Yascha, I mean, obviously I work at The Progress Network. I totally agree with you that progress has been made. It would be weird for me to have this job if I didn’t, but I think that one reason why, you mentioned this before, like finding the kernel of why people are attracted to wokeness and identity politics, I think it’s because it’s very emotionally satisfying. I would put it as like it solves the “it feels like nobody gives a shit” problem. On the one hand, I completely agree that attitudes around sexual harassment have come a long way from the 1970s, but pre Me Too era and pre some of this identity politics stuff coming into the mainstream, there was a different emotional feeling in terms of if you’re gonna talk about sexual harassment and other women’s issues, pre and post.
And in the book, your response to that is essentially like, we need to become better listeners, more empathetic listeners and communicators. My pushback against that is a lot of people are not very good listeners and communicators, and it seemed like we kind of needed this wokeness stuff forced upon us to get people to prick up their ears a little bit. Would you agree with that?
YM: No, I don’t think that wokeness is what has allowed us to make that progress. Think of what people like Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan say about how the gay rights movement was able to accomplish marriage for all, right? I mean, Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan are the two people who are probably most responsible for that in the world. They were the ones who wrote big magazine features developing, defending this idea at a time when it seemed absurd and when it wasn’t just rejected by a lot of mainstream, a lot of conservatives, but by a lot of progressives and a lot of people in the gay rights movement because they were saying, look, we don’t want to join bourgeois institutions. We want to destroy them. We think that marriage is a heteronormative institution that is precisely everything that’s wrong with the world, right? We want to use our queerness as a way to radically change and abolish the way that society works.
And so the first fight that people like Rauch and Sullivan had to win was actually internal to that movement saying, no, if we wanna be treated with dignity, and if we want to have the same rights as our fellow citizens who happen to be straight, we need to make the case on those universalist grounds saying by what right do you exclude us from the protections and the recognition that comes with an institution like gay marriage? And that is the argument that ended up winning, people who say, hey, we’re not so different from you. We fall in love. We want to have stable families. We want to have a legal basis for a stable partnership that is so important, whether a loved one is in hospital or whether you want to have the same kind of tax advantages and everything else. By what right, if you really claim to believe in the values of the constitutions, can you exclude us from that?
So I actually think that that appeal to mutual understanding on the basis of humanist universalist values is historically where we’ve made that progress. Now, it’s never going to be a fix all, right? No set of ideas, no set of attitudes is going to turn everybody into a lovely tolerant person who’s willing to give up self-interest to make the world a better place. That’s just asking too much of any set of ideas. But let’s look into a little bit more detail at this debate, right?
So what you’re referring to as Navajo chapter on this, is this idea of standpoint theory, the idea that a lot of people now say, look, how you perceive the world is so deeply shaped by the kind of group into which you’re born, that there’s just limits to how much mutual understanding you can achieve. And therefore, if you’re at a more privileged intersection of identities, if you’re a man rather than a woman, if you’re white rather than Black, what you should do is to defer to those groups, say, I’m never gonna understand you. I’m never gonna really get what your political experience is like, so I’m gonna defer to you. You make that decision and I’ll stand in solidarity, whatever it is that you ask, right? I think this is wrong both philosophically and strategically.
Philosophically, it’s wrong because it’s unclear that all members of a particular group share the same experiences. Not all women have or are interested in the experience of child rearing. And there’s also some men who are single dads, right? The understanding of social reality actually takes input from people of different kinds of experiences. You might never be able to fully get what it feels like to have an experience, but I think you can have an understanding of a politically important takeaways from that. So I might never quite know what it is like to think, should I take the subway or not? It’s late. I’m worried about being harassed in the subway. I may never be able to feel exactly what it is like to walk down the street and think, is this cop going to harass me or be violent towards me because of the color of my skin? But I can listen to those stories and I can understand enough about them politically to come to the conclusion that this is unjust, that my female friends shouldn’t be more worried about taking the subway than I, that my Black friends shouldn’t be more worried about how a cop is going to treat them than I.
And importantly, this then leads to, I think, a much more realistic notion of political solidarity, right? You are so skeptical on one end of this, but what about the other end? How many people are going to say, I don’t understand what you’re saying, but I’m so abstractly committed to social justice that I’m gonna defer to you anyway. And out of those people who do that, which I don’t think is gonna be a lot of people, how many people are gonna choose the representative of that group that in some true way speaks for the group, whatever exactly that means. And it’s a really complicated question that civil rights activists like Bayard Rustin have written about at great length. They’re gonna pick a lot of the time the person who already agrees with them, right? Saying, well, I’m delegating my judgment to X group and look, here’s this spokesperson for that group, which just happens to be the one that I agree with, rather than some other member of a group who may have a different point of view.
So I think that as a vision of how political solidarity works, my approach is both more practical and more inspiring, which is to say that we have an obligation to listen to our fellow citizens, and then we should take political action on the basis of our own understanding of what is unjust, where I stand in solidarity with you not because I can’t understand what you’re saying because we’re nearly two different species, and so I’ll do whatever you tell me, but because I say, hey, perhaps I haven’t quite felt what you feel like, I haven’t quite walked in your shoes, but you know what, I understand enough about it that it motivates me to go and fix that injustice to try and make the world a better place. Is everybody going to do that? No. But Is that actually going to be more people than are gonna get convinced to just defer to other groups without any real understanding of what they’ saying? I think there’s gonna be a lot more people who take that action.
ZK: Well, I certainly hope that that is indeed the case. We will know in due course, although it’ll be hard to tell given the noise of the world that we are living in. But I’m glad that you are continuing to try to follow the path of intellectual integrity and the idea that ideas matter. And if you believe that ideas matter, then you need to be true to them. I think it was Dorothy Parker who said, might’ve been Lillian Hellman, I always get these periods confused, who said that “I’m not gonna cut my cloth to fit today’s fashion.” And you’re very much in that spirit of you’re gonna try to articulate what you think is important and let those cliched chips fall where they may. And I think that’s brave, but I also think it’s important. And I wish you luck with this book. And we will keep having these conversations, and this was a good one.
YM: Thank you very much. I really enjoyed this.
EV: Thank you so much, Yascha.
ZK: So two things occurred to me in that conversation. One, really picayunely, I’d never heard the expression double-click used verbally as a way of describing going more deeply into an issue that you’re discussing, but I thought it was great. I might simply be missing that whole patois, but as a phrase, I thought that was striking. And the other was this idea of a public intellectual. So I grew up in a period of time where the phrase public intellectual kind of meant something, and I think that’s probably what I thought I was gonna be when I grew up. And it seemed like a social category of meaning. And it still might be a category that has meaning de facto, but it’s certainly not a phrase we use that much. I don’t think it’s a phrase you’d use that much, would it? Do you talk about public intellectuals?
EV: I would, but I am an anomaly with that. Most people I think around me would not really know what I was talking about.
ZK: So there are clearly people out there who are idea people, and obviously, The Progress Network is an agglomeration of a lot of idea people, but this idea that there is a role of an intellectual in society, someone who steps back and articulates the legacy of ideas, the history of ideas, the way ideas are shaping intimately the world we’re living in, whether that’s a political philosopher or an historian or an economist or a political scientist, often in the university, although not necessarily such, and Yascha is totally in that heritage, whatever the moniker you affix to who he is and what he’s doing, and he’s more so than many, right? He really does see himself as part of a lineage of ideas and believes that ideas matter and that they ultimately shape the climate of action, and I believe that too. But it’s striking in that I think more than many people we speak with these days, he’s much more in that persona, right?
EV: So, yes, I agree, and I wonder, as you are, if he’s a dying breed. My thesis about this is that I think online content creators are kind of replacing public intellectuals in the realm of ideas, which kind of correlates with Yascha’s whole social media thesis about how some of these bad ideas, if we read that they’re bad, gain purchase in mainstream society. I think that goes along with a certain shallowness to the treatment of ideas that I think online content creators are guilty of many times. That’s not particularly progressy, but I do think that if I surveyed 15 of my friends and was like, do you know what a public intellectual is? A lot of them would say no. And absolutely everyone would know what a content creator is and think highly of someone that they know who’s a content creator.
ZK: Right? So then the question is, is there a a version of a content creator that’s like Michel Foucault or can you build a corpus of work and ideas via your content creation, full stop?
EV: I think that you can. I feel like I can think of content creators who are really well respected in that way. It’s just that they deal with very particular topics. I don’t know if there’s someone like Yascha who isn’t a content creator and would deal with philosophical liberalism. That I’m not sure. There are definitely politics content creators, but again, they come from a different background. I would call Matt Yglesias a politics content creator at this point, because he’s an independent writer, but he comes from a very particular background. I’m not sure what’s gonna happen 25 years from now with that.
ZK: Yeah. This is, by the way, a very meta conversation about intellectual life.
EV: [laughs] Yeah.
ZK: This is probably the right time to use the word meta, but it is a fascinating and important question of how will the chain of ideas be maintained, nurtured, and developed going forward? And is this way in which we just had this conversation, is this kind of an anachronistic conversation to look at the chain of ideas in the 20th century that led to identity politics on the one hand, or that led to the rise of the right and kind of illiberal democracy as Fareed Zakaria talked about? Is that a sort of archaic way of thinking of how the world works and that the next way to think of how the world works will be the content creators and the social media and a whole different wave, or is that just the noise du jour?
Regardless, having these conversations about how do we get here seem imperative, whether you do them as a content creator or through a YouTube channel, or whether you do it through the conversations we’re having on a podcast, or whether you do it through a book. And I don’t know that we are all aware that we’re all the product of a history behind us, we’re all the product of a set of movements that led to the present. Donald Trump didn’t emerge whole cloth out of nowhere. Identity politics and intersectionality and critical race theory didn’t emerge suddenly out of nowhere. These have roots, they have origins. Trying to understand them and also then critique them and also then think about what do we do now regardless of your medium is vital. And I’m certainly glad we had the conversation with Yascha. I was particularly struck by this aspect of it, talking to him. I don’t know why. Maybe not as much with others, but certainly with him.
EV: Yeah. I mean, maybe if I just give one last tie-in to the main thrust of the conversation that we didn’t get to talk about, well, Yascha referenced it a little bit in the beginning, which is I think this is why the Democratic party, or it’s part of the reason why the Democratic party is becoming the party of the elite, you know, why there’s such a spread between Republican and Democratic voters based on whether you’re college educated. I think that Yascha is probably correct. That irritation about this kind of forceful wokeness, shall we say, the identity synthesis as he calls it, has a lot to do with that.
ZK: Yeah. And then the irony being most people who would have the conversations that we just had would just de facto tend to be college educated. And maybe that’s a very negative thing, right? It’s way too complicated. It’s way too nuanced. It’s not reductive. It doesn’t make for a good campaign slogan. And that, again, is the challenge of ideas when they are translated or how to translate them into the world of action. You most inevitably have to be reductive. You have to be more simplistic. You have to be a broader gauge, right? You’re not gonna be sitting there saying, before we have the next Democratic party debate, everybody has to read Foucault. That’s not gonna happen.
EV: I mean, maybe it’s not gonna happen in such a nuanced way, but I kind of disagree with you that the people that are gonna be talking about this are de facto college educated. I feel like a lot of non-college educated people are talking about it. They’re just talking about it in a different way where they’re just kinda like, I don’t like it [laughs].
ZK: Right. That’s what I mean. But that’s the way difference, right?
ZK: The way of talking about it in terms of this Gayatri Spivak and Foucault and John Rawls and all these things which I eat up and love may not be the right framework, the right language.
EV: Yeah, it’s a different language. Absolutely.
ZK: All right, let’s talk about the news of the week, shall we?
EV: All right. So today, let’s talk about Poland. We’re taking a risk here because this is very fresh news, so by the time people listen to this, things may have changed, so big caveat on that. But we’re gonna talk about what just came out from yesterday’s elections in Poland. If you’re not familiar with what’s been going on there, they have been led by the Law and Justice Party, and they have been doing some very controversial things as far as packing the constitutional court, limiting the powers of the president and prime minister so their party leader could have extra constitutional powers. They put forth, I think, the most restrictive law in the EU for abortion so abortions are now only allowed in the case of danger to the mother and cases of rape and incest. Abortion providers are criminalized under the law. They are very anti-gay, will not allow pride marches to occur, for instance, and they were about to face some serious, let’s say [laughs] overview from from the EU. The party is hardcore rights.
And so Poles went to the elections, went to the polls. The Poles went to the polls. That’s why I was getting confused by that sentence. The Poles went to the polls, two different kinds of polls, on Sunday. The turnout was massive. It’s the biggest turnout since the fall of communism. I have Polish friends here in Athens. They report going to vote and there being massive lines, long waits, which in this case was a great thing because it means that close, I believe, to 80% of the population turned out to vote. And while the Law and Justice Party did receive the most votes because it’s a proportional parliament system, they probably are not going to be able to form a coalition government, which means that pro-EU much more [laughs] centrist party is probably going to be able to form a coalition government and take over from the Law and Justice Party, which has been raising so many eyebrows, like Yascha Mounk’s actually, across the last few years. Of course, this is just based on exit polls. We don’t know for sure if this is going to happen. They need to firm up the results, but right now, it’s a good sign of pro-democratic forces coming out in Poland.
ZK: Yeah, I mean, again, this could change, although everything as of this moment, which is the day after, indicates what Emma just said, that the ruling coalition is going to lose power. It’s a fascinating election. It’s also the changes to the constitution and the balance between the judiciary and the legislature and the executive was the same thing that was dividing Israeli society before the current war with Hamas. And it’s also been a big issue in the United States to the degree that a significant number of people, although maybe not a majority, rejected this view in Poland, we’re gonna take as a good thing. Obviously, there’s a lot of divisions that are in no way healed by one election in Poland or anywhere else for that matter. So I’m sure this is not the end of this particular story, but it does bear remembering that things change. Sometimes it looks like they’re changing for the worse and sometimes suddenly they change for the better. At least from our vantage point of a open free society where people have the ability to live their lives and in the way that they choose, then the turn of the Polish election is a positive one.
EV: Yeah. And I should say that people might remember the massive protests a few years ago in Poland because of the changes to the abortion law. So some changes that were proposed by the Law and Justice Party were actually retracted during that time. But there were previous signs that the changes that this government was enacting were not broadly popular [laughs]. Also, one correction, I said close to 80% turnout, it’s actually close to 73% turnout, which is, if anyone’s interested, a little bit above our last presidential election turnout in the United States, which was also historically high. So that number, around 73%, is very, very high, unless you’re Australia, where voting is mandatory.
ZK: But we digress [laughs].
EV: But we digress [laughs].
Audio Clip: A record number turned out for this election, which has been called the most important since the fall of communism, determining Poland’s future ties with the EU and Ukraine, as well as its democratic trajectory.
EV: So let’s actually move to pharmaceuticals. This is actually something that happened in early October and that we missed here on The Progress Network until now. Johnson & Johnson has announced that the company will not enforce patents for one of their tuberculosis treatments for 134 low and middle income countries globally. This drug, bedaquiline, we’ll see if that’s pronounced correctly, was approved in 2012, and it’s an essential part of treating multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. 200,000 people die annually of that.
And the issue is that despite the fact that it’s on the market, we probably all know how this old story goes, it was so expensive that many people in these countries where multi-drug resistant tuberculosis is most prevalent, weren’t able to access it. And companies in these countries were not able to create cheap generic versions because the patent was being enforced. So after a long campaign, I think that was started by Doctors Without Borders, Johnson & Johnson has decided that they will not enforce the patent.
ZK: Yeah, patent law around pharmaceuticals, we saw this during COVID and the development of the vaccines. One thing that ended up ameliorating the problem of the financial incentives of commercialized pharmaceutical companies was subsidizing both costs and also guaranteeing a market, which is what happened when the COVID vaccines were very quickly produced and then made available. A lot of that was because government closed the gap that otherwise would’ve proved problematic. It’s also one of the reasons why vaccines tend not to be developed commensurate with our ability to develop them ’cause they are not as profitable. And the patent issue, like so many things, had an origin of if you can allow creators of breakthrough technologies to profit from them, you will create strong incentives for many, many, many people and companies to work for breakthrough technologies. And in many ways, that’s proven to be the case.
But the downside, which we’ve now seen, is the desire and the incentive to hold onto that profit for as long as possible and prevent the easy commercialization of it, i.e., the commodification of these things such that the price goes down and everybody can afford them. So that balance has gotten skewed, even though I think it’s probably a mistake to say that the entire framework is flawed, which many people then leap to. So companies may be finding that they can both do good and do well, or do well and do good, that framework, and this may be an example of it, which we should applaud and work for.
EV: Yeah. I mean, I think the argument about innovation is particularly tough when it comes to middle and low income countries because if they’re too expensive that they’re not being bought there anyway, it doesn’t make sense. They’re not making the money anyway ’cause it’s not being purchased. So at that point, the argument about we’re gonna limit innovation if we limit people’s ability to profit from their work, I think kind of falls apart.
ZK: Totally. And that’s where this is particularly drugs, which are human not national, but patents are national and not human. So you run into that mismatch as well.
EV: Right. And I’m sure people know that there are lots of laws in the United States about patent expirations with pharmaceutical drugs and lots of shenanigans that pharmaceutical companies do to extend those patents. So I don’t know if we have found the correct middle ground on all of that, but this does seem to be at least one good step.
ZK: All right. Well, thank you for listening. As always, please send comments, reactions, particularly in these heated times. Vent if you need to, complain, criticize, but please try to do so in a way that is at least modestly respectful, and we will do the same. So until next week. Thank you, Emma.
EV: Thank you, Zachary, and thanks, everyone, for listening.
What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
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