If Books Could Kill

The Identity Trap

December 14, 2023
If Books Could Kill
The Identity Trap
Show Notes Transcript

"There are two kinds of political scientists: The types who deal with noisy data and post on Twitter with a bunch of caveats. And then there are the types who write books about identity politics."
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 Thanks to Mindseye for our theme song!

Peter: Can't do any jokes about identity politics. They're all fucking-- They're all wash--

Michael: They're all Babylon Bee shit. 

Peter: You can't do a satirical crack about it, because it won't register to 90% of our listeners who already believe that I'm a conservative.


Michael: But a sexy conservative, Peter, due to the voice. Due to the EQ.

Peter: They know that I have woke elements, but also listen to or watch football highlights. And that's reactionary coded, I admit.

Michael: From a team with a problematic name. 

Peter: I've made the promise. I've told people that if we don't win the Super bowl this year, we're getting more racist. [Michael laughs] It's the only way to fight the power. 

Michael: I like that this podcast has become a venue for us to repeat our best Twitter jokes. [Peter laughs] That was a fucking banger. You're getting it again. [Peter laughs] Peter? 

Peter: Michael.

Michael: What do you know about The Identity Trap?

Peter: Is the trap that when you're a white guy who turns 40, you have to start complaining about identity politics?

[If Books Could Kill theme]

Michael: So today's episode is about The Identity Trap by Yascha Mounk. It's a little bit different from the other books that we've done in that it's not like the best sellingest book imaginable, but it does make a series of arguments that are increasingly prevalent about the problems with identity politics, etc. And so I think it's a good encapsulation of this argument and something that we should confront.

Peter: It's emblematic, right?

Michael: Exactly. It's also very deliberately attempting to be like the non-psycho version of this argument. So the author, Yascha Mounk, he's acutely aware that he's making an argument pretty similar to people like Chris Rufo and Richard Hanania, basically people who explicitly want to get Trump elected. 

Peter: Uh-huh?

Michael: So what he is doing is saying, “Okay, we know that this has been hijacked by some of these further right people. What I'm trying to do is make the good faith, smart version of the argument that identity politics has taken over the left and is becoming an electoral liability.”

Peter: I'm intrigued to see where Yascha goes here. 

Michael: We're both going in with an open mind.

Peter: Absolutely. 

Michael: This is a No Dunks, [Peter chuckles] listen and learn podcast.

Peter: I know that he's a political scientist, and it feels to me, as someone who has a degree in political science. There are two types of “political scientists.” There are the types that just deal with really noisy data, and will post on Twitter with their conclusions, and then a bunch of caveats. And then there are the types that write books about identity politics, [Michael laughs] if that makes sense.

Michael: To start with, our protagonist, Yascha Mounk, is born in 1982, same as me. He grows up in a small town and then moves to Munich when he's 12 years. He gets his BA from Cambridge. He then goes to Harvard for his PhD. He writes a memoir about growing up Jewish in Cold War Germany. 

And starting in 2016, he makes his name as a failure of democracy scholar. He starts publishing this research about how people in liberal democracies are less enthusiastic about liberal democracy than they used to be, and the rise of these authoritarian attitudes. He then starts racking up these CV bullets of just like establishment institutions. So this is from his website. Yascha is a Contributing Editor at The Atlantic, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and serves as a Publisher at Die Zeit.

Peter: Oh, hell yeah. 

Michael: Aspen and Bio. [Peter laughs] He is also a Senior Fellow at The New America Foundation, and he was the Executive Director of the Renewing the Center Team at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Peter: How's that mission going, folks?

Michael: Yeah, that sounds like a 30 Rock joke [Peter laughs] [crosstalk] and so this book is basically an argument about how identity politics is leading the left astray. And the way that he defends writing this book is that he's written two previous books about right wing radicalization. And so that gives him a license to finally turn to the problem on the left.

Peter: Got it. 

Michael: Okay. We're now ready for the episode to get good because we're going to talk about the book that he's written. This is a pop political science book, Peter. So what do we have to start with? 

Peter: Are we talking one book? 

Michael: We're going to need an opening anecdote. 

Peter: Oh, God.

Michael: A little story that encapsulates some of the little themes.

Peter: Okay. Let me-- Can I guess? 

Michael: Right. Do it, do it, do it.

Peter: This is going to be something that's emblematic of the worst excesses of lefty identity politics. So I'm going to guess that this is something involving children, maybe like a middle school teacher trying to teach something about race and losing the plot-

Michael: Wow.

Peter: -for Yascha. Is that right? 

Michael: It's actually shocking how wrong you were. This is actually about an elementary school [Peter laughs] where someone loses the plot about race. 

Peter: Edit this out. Edit this out, so I don't look foolish. 

Michael: Really embarrassed for you right now. [Peter laughs] I am going to send you the opening paragraphs of this book.

Peter: In the late summer of 2020, Jennifer Kingsley asked the principal of Mary Lin Elementary School in the wealthy suburbs of Atlanta, whether she could request a specific teacher for her seven-year-old daughter. “No worries,” the principal responded at first, “Just send me the teacher's name.” But when Kingsley emailed her request, the principal kept suggesting that a different teacher would be a better fit. Eventually, Kingsley, who was black, demanded to know why her daughter couldn't have her first choice. Well, the principal admitted, “That's not the black class.” 

The story sounds depressingly familiar. It evokes the long and brutal history of segregation, conjuring up visions of white parents who are horrified at the prospect of their children having classmates who are black. But there is a perverse twist. The principal is herself black.

Michael: Perverse twist.

Peter: As Kingsley told the Atlanta Black Star, she was left in disbelief that I was having this conversation in 2020 with a person that looks just like me. “It's segregating classrooms. You cannot segregate classrooms. You can't do it.”

Michael: So it's like a weird version of horseshoe theory where it's like people have moved so far to the left now that it's like they've ended up in this right-wing place. They're like, “Yes, let's separate the races, separate the children from each other due to my wokeness.” 

Peter: Oh, no. Okay. All right. I'm ready for whatever this actually is or isn't. 

Michael: [laughs] I love that you're already rushing into like, “Yeah, I don't know about this, Mike.” 


Michael: This just seems a little short, this retelling of what might be a more complicated anecdote. 

Peter: Oh, God.

Michael: He tells this story in basically every interview that he's done. He's been interviewed on all of the main liberal and centrist podcasts, and he always starts with this anecdote. He talks about the principle. He says “She had bought into an identitarian ideology that is attempting to reshape the norms of the West. According to this worldview, we shouldn't be teaching school kids that they have things in common. We shouldn't be telling them to stand in solidarity with each other. We shouldn't show them how to recognize injustice. Instead, students should define themselves as strongly as possible by the particular racial group to which they belong.” 

Peter: So immediately off the rails with [Michael laughs] the description of the ideology. It's not just like, “Oh, they're sorting kids based on race and here's what that might lead to.” It's like they're telling them that they have nothing in common. 

Michael: Exactly.

Peter: They're telling them that they shouldn't speak out against injustice that they should be anti-solidarity. It's like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, I don't think you've established this.” 

Michael: It's also cast as this betrayal of like, what makes us liberals. So when he's defining this, what he basically says is like, “The left used to fight for universal values, equality, liberty, freedom. But now they've abandoned that effort, and they're now fighting in favor of the things that divide us, things like race and gender and all of these identity markers that are what makes us different from each other.” So he says, “This trend is especially striking in education. Over the last decade, many schools have introduced race segregated affinity groups, some as early as kindergarten. 

In extreme cases, principals who claim to be fighting for social justice have, as Jennifer Kingsley experienced in Atlanta, even put all the black children in the same class. A similar set of trends is now changing the nature of higher education. World renowned universities are building dorms reserved for their black or Latino students, hosting separate graduation ceremonies for students of color and even excluding some students from physical education classes on the basis of their race. In the place of liberal universalism, parts of the American mainstream are quickly embracing what we might call progressive separatism.”

Peter: [laughs] Progressive separatism. 

Michael: You can hear inception horns. 

Peter: Oh, God. Whatever. Look, I want to flag one thing about this, because I don't think it's crazy to think that there are teachers out there who are misapplying social justice principles and saying dumb things about race. 

Michael: 100% 

Peter: That is very believable and in fact, pretty much inevitable. 

Michael: Yes.

Peter: But in the quote you sent me, he said, “In a growing number of schools all across America, educators who believe themselves to be fighting for racial justice are separating children from each other on the basis of their skin color.” That is a quantifiable claim that should be backed with clear data, and yet, all of these conversations happen in a barrage of anecdotes.

Michael: One thing I started to notice very early in this book is the way he relies on your mind filling in the blanks. So in this little litany of anecdotes, he says, “They're hosting separate graduation ceremonies for people of different identity groups.” One thing in favor of this book is that he gives very meticulous footnotes. So every single claim in the book, he has a link to where he got it like, “So I appreciate that.” But then when you go to the description of these separate graduation ceremonies, they're actually in addition to the main graduation ceremony.

Peter: Right. 

Michael: He also has this thing of affinity groups in schools now, like, they're doing racial affinity groups. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: But again, we had those in my high school in the 1990s. We had the Filipino club, the black students club. He says that this harkens back to 1950s segregation. But these are students opting into voluntary groups. There's actually a huge difference between that, and you must attend a black only or white only school.

Peter: Something about this that always gets missed is like, you're not going to see a lot of black affinity groups at vast majority black schools, right?

Michael: Right.

Peter: These are groups that form among kids who feel like they are looking for some sort of cultural connection.

Michael: Yeah. He mentions university housing that they now have housing for specific identity groups. One of the examples that he gives in the footnote is Berkeley. It's true that Berkeley has something called Africa House for black students, but it's like, it houses something like 200 students, and Berkeley has 43,000 students altogether. You can find actual articles about the creation of these institutions that Berkeley is only 3% black, despite California being 8% black, and they've always struggled to recruit black students. And one of the reasons is that there aren't that many black people at Berkeley. And so black students feel really isolated. And so in this context, they're like, “Well, why don't we set up a place for black students to find each other and offer each other support?” Is that bad? 

Peter: Maybe if they stopped viewing themselves as black and started viewing themselves as human beings, Michael. [Michael laughs] We wouldn't have this problem. 

Michael: So are you ready to talk about our opening anecdote in the Atlanta suburbs? 

Peter: Yeah. Yeah, let's do it. 

Michael: So again, when he says this thing about, “There's the black class,” your brain fills in that, “Oh, it's an all-black class.” That is not what happened. What actually happened is, this is a school in wealthy, overwhelmingly white suburbs of Atlanta. And in the second-grade class, there are 98 kids altogether. There are only 12 black kids. The second graders are split up into six different classes. There are around 16 kids per class. If you distributed all of the black kids equally, you'd have two black kids per class. So this black principal, she grew up attending almost exclusively white institutions, and she felt really isolated as a kid, and she felt like she had no community. So she decides she's going to group together the black kids. So she decides to put six black kids in one class, six black kids in another class, and then the other classes have zero black kids in them.

Peter: Okay.

Michael: So at the most basic, factual level, there's no all-black classes anywhere in this anecdote. There is this accusation that the mom tried to move her kid, and the school was like, “No, no, no you can't, because that's not the black class.” I'm actually changing the name of the mom because I loathe the way these anecdotes get litigated in national media.

Peter: I'm going to find the real name, and I'm going to tweet it out. 


Michael: Yeah. Thanks. Brave, Peter. But so it appears that what happened was this mom who's really involved in the PTA and runs an after-school program, her daughter tested below grade level on a test. She tried to move her daughter to another class, and the school basically was like, “No, you can't do that in the middle of the year." 

One of the few articles that actually interviewed people at this fucking school talked to an administrator who said, “This is basically a mom asking for special treatment.” She wanted to move her daughter to a different class with a different teacher. And the school was like, “No.” And then she complains, and then they cut her after school class, and she says, “That's retaliation,” and then she starts recording her conversations with the principal, and then eventually she goes to the media with this all-black class story. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: I hate how much I know about this. I hate how much fucking time I spent looking into this. The whole thing honestly smells like an interpersonal dispute to me. This has been going on for years.

Peter: Okay.

Michael: We can't say exactly what happened at this one fucking school, but I feel like what we can say is that the worst possible version of this story is not reminiscent of 1950s segregation. 

Peter: What was distinct about early 20th century segregation in America was that students of different races were receiving different educations. Not that teachers were trying to pair them up in ways that they thought would help with their shared cultural understanding or whatever.

Michael: Exactly. And putting aside the stuff with the mom and whatever the interpersonal dynamics were, the basic facts of this story are a principal at an overwhelmingly white school without the power to make the school more diverse doing her best in a structurally unsound situation.

Peter: My instinct just hearing about it as a lawyer is like, “This is not good. This is not good.”

Michael: Yeah. The thing is, I think there's actually-- This is something that comes up throughout the book is that there's a lot of these cases that are actually quite legally dubious, but it's not clear if they're morally or ethically dubious.

Peter: Right. That also means that there is an apparatus for shutting this down. You know what I mean? 

Michael: Oh, yeah.

Peter: To the extent that someone is sorting children by race exclusively, you can point out that that is most certainly illegal and shouldn't be done, and that is how you handle it. What Mounk wants to argue is that this is the manifestation of a mindset that has gone too far. But I'm not sure that it's a particularly strong example. Again, this is just someone who felt isolated when she was a child and tried to piece together a system that would avoid that for the black students in her class. Now, is that like thinking race first too much or something? Maybe, but it doesn't seem like a moral disaster, right?

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: It doesn't seem like we are a small step away from racial segregation as it was in the south.

Michael: He describes this as symbolic of a much larger cancer on the American left that like, “Oh, progressive separatism.” But it's also noteworthy that there have now been three different investigations of this after this mother went to the media with her complaint about the principal. So the Atlanta school district investigated. There's now a federal investigation. And the NAACP sent somebody there to investigate what was going on. So it's the fact that something happened at a school that you think is bad, it doesn't really say anything. 

There's tens of thousands of schools in the United States to claim that this is a much broader problem. You have to show that left wing institutions are accepting of this or cheering it on of like, “Ooh, put even more black kids in the one class. Yeah, I love it.” No, there was a huge outcry about this. And the school, it appears, immediately changed this. By the time the NAACP even gets there, there's two black kids per class.

Peter: This is the problem with all of our discourse being filtered through anecdotes that are one sentence long.

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: If I just walked you through the dumbest shit that my elementary school teachers told me, 

Michael: Dude.

Peter: -it would be jarring.

Michael: Dude, I had a Spanish teacher in high school who made us watch Shall We Dance? a movie that is in Japanese, because she was really into ballroom dancing. And then we learned ballroom dancing for a whole week. 

Peter: God, being a bad teacher must rock. You know what I mean? 


Michael: She was so excited to teach us to dance. She just didn't want to teach us Spanish at all. [laughs] 

Peter: But the fact that you can pull up a couple of anecdotes like this really says nothing to me, especially when if I were to start compiling anecdotes about the imbalanced treatment of black versus white defendants in Louisiana criminal courts, right?

Michael: Right.

Peter: The anecdotes I could pull out would be endless. It would drown the bullshit in this book. 

Michael: I think that's also emblematic of where this anecdote sits, because school segregation in the United States is still a huge problem.

Peter: That's the thing is that it seems like the story that Mounk and a lot of the folks on the right want to tell about this is like, “We reached a place of perfect balance and equality, and then the left kept going.

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: But what actually happened after Brown v. Board was that southern schools put as many roadblocks between them and desegregation as possible. Eventually, they were successful.

Michael: I spent quite a bit of time reading about the dynamics of current school segregation in the United States. Roughly half of minority kids attend schools that are 75% minority. 10% of American students attend schools that are 90% one race, like all white or all black. It's also darkly funny that the stakes of Yascha's Atlanta anecdote are like, “Oh, my God, there's all white classes of the school,” but one in five white kids attend 90% white schools. So there's a lot of all white classes in the United States of America. 

And yes, there was this period. After Brown v. Board, there was this period where everyone fucking ignored it. And then starting in the 1970s and 1980s, we had all these city programs to do force busing or to directly address segregation. There was actually a period where segregation in schools fell. But as the supreme Court basically neutered all of those programs, and white parents lost their fucking minds, cities, one by one, totally abandoned these plans. And so since the 1990s, there's actually debate among academics whether segregation has gotten worse or whether it's just stagnated, but we essentially have not made any progress on this for 30 years. And in all the literature that I've read on this, I didn't see one mention of wokeness. 

The primary driver of school segregation is the way that we fund public schools. People pay for it with their property taxes, and most kids attend the nearest school. So when you have all white neighborhoods and all black neighborhoods, you have all white and all black schools. That is the original sin of school segregation. We also have rich white people protecting their privileges. There's actually these super bleak studies that as the percentage of black students in a school rises, the white kids start increasingly flowing out to private schools. And that effect only shows up for highly educated white parents. Highly educated black parents don't do this.  So there actually is a case to be made that like, white liberals are the problem here. But Yascha isn't interested in making that case because that would require looking at the actual dynamics of segregation.

Peter: It's incredibly frustrating to have someone pontificating like, “Ooh, liberals in schools are recreating segregation.” And it's like, “Segregation still exists--” [crosstalk] 

Michael: We just have the segregation. We don't need to recreate anything. 

Peter: It's just now de facto instead of de jour, and some fucking principal shuffling around the six black kids or whatever is not going to make a difference.

Michael: Dude, he thought this anecdote was so strong, he opened his fucking book with it. This is like the first three minutes of every season of The Wire. So that is the overture chapter. He spends the rest of the book laying out the characteristics and flaws of what he calls the identity synthesis.

Peter: They have to do so much defining in these books, because at no point-

Michael: I know.

Peter: -did their ideas naturally cohere. 

Michael: This is you should watch the interviews with him where they're like, “Define the core concept of your book?” and then he talks for like four minutes. Okay, well.

Peter: Define the core concept of The Identity Trap? And he's like, “It's Atlanta in the year 2020.” [Michael laughs] “1950?” “No.” [laughs]

Michael: So he's very open about the fact that, you know there's all this stuff about wokeness and identity politics in the 1990s. People on the left have been clowning on conservatives for being totally unable to define this term that they spend all their time whining about. And he's like, “I'm trying to set myself apart from that. But also, this is basically the same thing.” He's quite explicit about it. He's like, “Look, we just need a name for this. Whatever you want to call it, I don't really give a shit. But we all know this is happening.” This is as close to a real definition as we get in the book. So I'm going to send this to you. Good luck with that first sentence, by the way. Good luck. Godspeed.

Peter: [laughs] “The identity synthesis claims to lay the conceptual groundwork for remaking the world by overcoming the reverence for long standing principles that supposedly constrains our ability to achieve true equality.”

Michael: Crystal clear. 

Peter: Sorry, I'm just rereading it. 

Michael: You're not laying conceptual groundwork? 

Peter: “It claims to lay-

Michael: Claims to lay the conceptual groundwork.

Peter: -for remaking the world by overcoming the reverence for long standing principles that supposedly constrains our ability to achieve--"

Michael and Peter: True equality. 

Peter: Genuinely doesn't mean anything, I don't think.

Michael: Many words. 

Peter: It seeks to do so by moving beyond or outright discarding the traditional rules and norms of democracies like Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. How dare they list Canada first? [Michael laughs] Many advocates of the identity- How many times am I going to have to say identity synthesis throughout this episode?

Michael: Luckily, not anymore, because he means identity politics, and it's just going to be easier for everybody if we just say identity politics from now on.

Peter: “Many advocates of the identity synthesis feel righteous anger at genuine injustices, but their central precepts amount to a radical attack on the long-standing principles that animate democracies around the world.”

Michael: Basically, what he's saying here, I mean, tell me if you disagree with this, but the identity synthesis is people taking the desire to rectify injustice too far to the point where they end up giving up democratic norms. And before you know it, you're segregating kids and you're shutting down free speech, etc. 

Peter: Well, yeah, I think that's right. This is the common refrain that social justice movements are illiberal. These centrists are, in fact, the true inheritors of Western liberalism.

Michael: Right. 

Peter: I do find it interesting that when he talks about the norms and traditions of democracies, we all know that he's talking about very abstract things like speech and not voting rights, for example. [laughs]

Michael: So the rest of the book, he spends laying out the main themes and content. This is what he does when people ask him, “Can you define the identity synthesis?” He's like, “Well, it consists of seven precepts.”

Peter: Okay. 

Michael: The book is structured really weird. He has the main themes, and then he's like, “The flaws of the identity synthesis.” But then they're the same as themes, but a little bit different, and then he's like, “How to fix the identity synthesis?” And then he lays out the same thing again. So I've pulled this apart and put it back together of what I think are the main things that he keeps returning to.

Peter: I hate it when they're like, “Well, it's not really an identifiable thing. It's like 10 concepts in any arrangement.” 

Michael: I know. [laughs] 

Peter: It's like fibromyalgia. 

Michael: So he's now going to walk us through the main themes of the identity synthesis. The first is skepticism about objective truth. 

Peter: Oh, God damn it. 

Michael: You know what he's going to say. 

Peter: Michael, don't tell me that we're doing Foucault. 

Michael: [laughs] This was my reaction.

Peter: God damn it. 

Michael: I was like, “Oh, don't make me do fucking Foucault.”

Peter: I have a new motto for our podcast, Foucault, fuck no. [Michael laughs] Not engaging. [laughs] 

Michael: So the first-third of the book is like this philosophical, historical account of these thinkers, post World War II, who are basically starting to question these “grand narratives of history.” These things, like, everything will always get better like, we're protecting the rights of man or whatever. There was a school of thought personified by Foucault that questioned the extent to which we can really say that we can gather “objective truth,” because these concepts of progress and advancement and scientific accuracy are oftentimes used by the powerful against the powerless.

Peter: Yeah.

Michael: So for this, I talked to Sam Huneke, who's a historian at George, either Mason or Washington University, the weird libertarian one.

Peter: Irrelevant. 

Michael: He's also a friend of mine, because we're both homosexual males who lived in Berlin. [Peter laughs] The reason I exploded laughing at that Peter was like, I literally texted him. I know that he's wrong about Foucault, but don't make me read Foucault for this. [Peter laughs] I don't want to read Foucault to debunk this. I was like, “Sam, what's the deal?” Basically, Sam is who knows way more about this shit than I do, was like, “He's not wrong about any of the Foucault shit.” He's essentially just summarizing Foucault, and then eventually he moves into Derek Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw and this critical theory stuff. He's roughly correct about it. But it's like, that's not really the thing that he has to prove. It's like, yes, these ideas were being published in obscure law and philosophy journals.

Peter: What they're trying to do is imagine that by going back 40 years and saying, “Here's what leftists were writing in the 1970s,” for example, that you can infer this is what leftists actually believe, right?

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: I know it's an atheist trying to do a gotcha on a Christian by reading the Bible and being like, “Aha, it says this.” And the Christian is just like, “I don't actually believe that.” [laughs] 

Michael: This whole section is where we get into one of his tendencies throughout the book, which is just this use of gotcha in place of actual argumentation. So throughout the book, he comes back numerous times to this thing where he's like, “These critical race theory scholars said that race is a social construct, and yet black people are the most qualified to talk about their experiences.” [Peter laughs] That's just a misunderstanding of what a social construct is. He also has this bizarre section at the end about gender stuff where he points out that GLAAD once tweeted like, “Congratulations to Rachel Levine for being the first openly trans Federal official.” And he's like, “Ah, so they do believe it's worth distinguishing between trans and cis women.” 

Peter: What?

Michael: That's not what people mean when they say trans women are women that there's no distinctions. When people say Toyota’s are cars, they don't mean that there's no differences between fucking Toyota’s and Honda’s. [Peter laughs] He also does a thing where he takes suspiciously short quotes from his source material. So here's this. 

Peter: “Advocates of the identity synthesis are especially prone to reject the idea of meritocracy. Objective truth, like merit, does not exist.” Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic write in their influential Critical Race Theory, an introduction.

Michael: So it's like a little phrase, you're like, “That's suspiciously short.” So I got this Critical Race Theory book, and here's the actual original citation. 

Peter: “Finally, CRT's adversaries are perhaps most concerned with what they perceive to be critical race theorists nonchalance about objective truth. For the critical race theorist, objective truth like merit does not exist, at least in social science and politics.”

Michael: CRT's adversaries are concerned with what they perceive to be theorists nonchalance about objective truth. These people are summarizing an argument against themselves. They're not making this argument. It's like me saying, “According to the Westboro Baptist Church, gays are degenerates.” And then someone else being like, “Michael Hobbes admits gays are degenerates.” [Peter laughs] First of all, it's just an incorrect citation. Second of all, it's like no one was saying that the Hubble Space Telescope can't measure how far a fucking galaxy is. That's not what people are actually arguing.

Peter: The point is that, a lot of things that appear very simple and objective on their face, when you go one level deeper, it's actually a little grayer than that. And a lot of these theorists are just pointing that out. That's different than saying, there's no such thing as objective truth and immediately descending into nihilism, which is what the right thinks that Foucault represents.

Michael: Another sub section-- We're doing subcategories now of his complaint that the left doesn't believe in objective truth is this thing about standpoint theory.

Peter: Okay.

Michael: This is the concept of like, “If you're going to write an article about trans people, you should interview some trans people.”

Peter: Okay. Yeah.

Michael: He says, “The core claim is that a member of a privileged group will never be able to understand a member of an oppressed group, however hard they may try to do so.” As Janetta Johnson, a prominent black activist in San Francisco, put it in a debate about how white allies can help to fight for racial justice, “Don't come to me, because you'll never understand my perspective.” 

Peter: Yeah. This is a common complaint from the right that, when people on the left call for input from marginalized groups that what we're actually doing is saying that objective truth doesn't matter. 

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: No, dude, getting people who are close to issues to weigh in is a way to get closer to the truth. 

Michael: He basically makes like three arguments against this. The first is that, empathy is possible. I'm not really going to cover that one because it's really just obvious. It's like, “Yes, we can talk to each other and learn things.” The second is that, by constantly deferring to marginalized groups. The experiences of the majority are being left out. White people can also help us understand racism. He says, “If you want to understand police brutality, you should probably also speak to cops.”

Peter: Yeah. What they should have is, both nationwide, state and local police unions that can make public statements that are constantly amplified by the media. No one ever talks about how cops deserve that.

Michael: I mostly included that because I wanted you to make a little quip. And then his third argument is that, all of this deferring to minority groups basically makes organizing much more difficult. Because you can't come up with a broad-based political program, if you're constantly just being like, “Oh, I'm going to step back now. I'm going to defer. I'm going to let you guys take the lead.”

Peter: You need a strong white man to take charge. 


Michael: I'm just going to keep going and let you quip on all of them. [Peter laughs] We should paragraph by paragraph now. 

Peter: But I guess there's the tiniest shred of truth in there and there like, “Lefty organizations can eat themselves.”

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: And plenty of people who actually care about the success of the left have talked and written about this. 

Michael: Well, he actually makes a very similar argument to Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, who wrote a book called Elite Capture, which I also read for this. His argument is basically that the problem with, what he calls deference politics, is that it's very difficult to figure out who is a representative member of a group. If you're a middle manager at Amazon and you're like, “Okay, I'm white. I'm going to step back. I'm going to let the black people in the company take the lead.” Like, a black person who is a middle manager at Amazon is not going to necessarily be all that representative of the needs of black people generally. We have all of these institutions that tend to choose for minorities with particular characteristics, especially minorities who are well versed at moving through majority institutions. 

And so what you might be doing is plucking out these minorities that basically will just say the same shit as people in power. You're not actually getting the purpose of doing that. You're just getting this thin veneer of it. Also, I actually have a broader critique of this. Like, Yascha, a lot of my views are based on my personality flaws and political grievances. [Peter laughs] I, for the last two years, have felt like I'm absolutely shouting into the fucking void on trans rights. When I've talked to cis-gender, more establishment journalists with much larger platforms than me, part of their reluctance to weigh in uncharitably. You could say it’s like there's probably some anti-trans bias going on. I think people are just generally a little bit uncomfortable with the gender nonbinary like the way that gender binary is shifting. 

The charitable interpretation, and I've heard this directly from people is that like, “I don't want to speak on this issue because I'm not trans. I want trans people to lead that conversation.” I really do think that that comes from a good place, but the problem is that trans people are only like 1% of the population. And by definition, they have been locked out of all establishment institutions. There aren't that many trans people with a platform. We're basically talking about like five people. You know them, I know them, we're thinking of their names right now. [Peter laughs] It's not fair to put the entire onus of responsibility on those five people to fix this and roll back the tide.

Peter: Not to mention that there's value to cis people seeing cis people make these arguments, right? 

Michael: Right. I think that Yascha's argument that like, “Well, what about the majorities?” I think what he's saying there is like, “Well, what about straight pride?” But I think that he is onto something. There is this research about how white people are more likely to recognize racism when they are told about it from a white person. 

Peter: Yeah.

Michael: Thin people are more likely to care about fat phobia when they hear about it from another thin person. There is something about having members of the majority visibly care about this shit. And also, I've noticed from talking about trans rights that like, straight dudes are good at packaging messages about this issue for other straight dudes. I can't really talk about sports and trans people in sports because I don't give a fuck about sports. 

Peter: You're not like the Fox News viewers who are sincerely passionate about women's sports.

Michael: Yeah. [laughs] That's all they've been talking about for years. And then the trans issue comes up, and all of a sudden, “Wow, this really fits into our preexisting beliefs.”

Peter: After 25 years of attending local female high school track meets. [Michael laughs] Although, I think what he's implying is not just that it would be useful for members of majority groups to talk about this stuff, which is, I think unquestionably true in a general sense, but that there are people on the left who are trying to prevent that from happening.

Michael: Thank you for giving me an excuse to circle back to this quote that he used, Peter. He ends his section by saying that this woman on a panel said like, “Don't come to me because you'll never understand my perspective.” He's like “These activists are saying, don't even engage with me.” This makes organizing much harder. But he is quoting someone who was speaking on a panel called how white people can support the movement for black lives. The full context of this woman's quote was that, there are white people who have been engaging in antiracist work for decades. And if you're a white person, the best thing to do is go to those people because they know the kinds of resources you have and they know the kind of messages that are going to resonate with you. 

She literally says, “You need to go to your white folks and ask them, because you're not going to hear it from me the way that it needs to be served to you.” No one is saying that white people should not care about racism or that cis people should not care about trans rights. Members of marginalized groups are begging for engagement from the majority. What they're asking for is a little bit of humility, so that people do the work necessary to understand the issues and also the most effective solutions. They're literally making an argument about the most effective forms of political organization, and Yascha is like, “These people don't even want political organization.” 

Peter: I've heard horror stories of like, small-scale organizing falling apart because the group becomes too focused on centering the right people and stuff like that in a way that ends up being counterproductive because you end up way too focused on that and less focused on accomplishing your ultimate objectives.

Michael: Right.

Peter: That stuff is happening on a very small scale. On a large scale, majority groups are obviously the dominant voices in nearly every conversation. 

Michael: [laughs] Yeah.

Peter: So what the fuck are we talking about? 

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: When you turn on MSNBC, it's not like there's a black trans person talking to you, and Yascha Mounk’s watching that, being like, “Oh, leftists have done this.”

Michael: Later in the book, he talks about the stakes, the ultimate destination of all of this identity synthesizing. He lists three institutions as how you can tell it's gone too far. He talks about NGOs, colleges and corporate America. 

Peter: Oh, my God.

Michael:  All three of those institutions, everyone in power, is overwhelmingly white and cis and male. There's more CEOs named John and James than there are female CEO. Like, whether or not diversity initiatives or diversity trainings have gone too far, does not mean that actual diversity has gone too far. [laughs]

Peter: If I were a casual American racist, I would look at all these corporate initiatives and be like, “Well, at least they're not really doing it.”

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: You know what I mean? [Michael laughs] We don't have to have this conversation. Can we talk about something else? Fucking Amazon is not like a beacon of racial justice. [laughs]

Michael: So the first problem with the identity synthesis is that no one believes in objective truth. The second problem with the identity synthesis is doubling down on identity. So we started out with Foucault, critical race theory, and obscure law journals. We then smash cut to this. 

Peter: God damn it. [laughs] “The culture of Tumblr-

Michael: Tumblr.

Peter: -encouraged users to start identifying as members of some identity group, whether that identity was chosen or ascriptive, and whether it reflected a preexisting social reality or expressed an aspiration. As Catherine D, a culture writer who has interviewed more than 100 early users of Tumblr about the role it played in their lives notes, “Tumblr became a place for people to fantasize and build upon ideas about real identities. Most of the people involved had little lived experience as these identities.’”

Michael: This is my Groundhog Day, Peter. Every fucking episode we have to talk about Tumblr. 

Peter: Conservatives will be like, “There are kids online who claim that their true identity is like a wolf.” 

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: Yeah. Tey're like 12. 

Michael: And also, the part of the argument that I want him to establish is how we went from law journals in the 1970s to fucking 13-year-olds on social media 30 years later.

Peter: Well, you're 11 years when your teacher puts you in a race segregated class and makes you read Foucault, [Michael laughs] and you start talking about identity groups. 

Michael: He's also basing this on. He says like, “Catherine D, a culture writer who's interviewed 100 Tumblr users.” This is based on an article in the American conservative by just a random lady with a Substack. There's also a weird thing in this book where a lot of the citations are just to articles he read online. He cites Chris Rufo directly. 

Peter: I just went to Catherine D's Twitter and her pinned tweet is about otherkin. 

Michael: I know. I was there yesterday. 


Michael: He then he tells us how he became interested in this. I know.

Peter: “Then I came across everydayfeminism.com, a website that expressed a simplistic version of these new ideas and idioms in a highly accessible form. The concepts I had first encountered in stuffy academic settings were now being packaged into easily understandable and readily shareable slogans. This, I quickly realized, was something genuinely new, a way of interpreting the world through a narrow focus on identity and lived experience that might appeal to a mass audience.”

Michael: Here we go. 

Peter: “The articles that adorned the homepage of everydayfeminism.com in March 2015 give a sense of the worldview that was starting to congeal. Its headlines read four thoughts for your yoga teacher who thinks appropriation is fun. People of color can't cure your racism, but here are five things you can do instead. You call it professionalism, I call it oppression in a three-piece suit.” 

Michael: He loves listing examples. 

Peter: “Once I discovered the website, I couldn't stop looking at it. I'll bet.” 

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: “Over the next six months, I read articles with titles like six ways to respond to sexist microaggressions in everyday conversations. White privilege explained in one simple comic. And so you're a breasts man, here are three reasons that could be sexist.” 


Michael: So in fairness, I did go to this website and read this piece about being a breast man and why you're problematic. It is by far one of the dumbest fucking things I've ever read in my entire life. [laughs] 

Peter: But this is actually a perfect encapsulation of how these reactionary thinkers become obsessed, right? 

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: He's literally like, “I came across a website where every other article was dumb and condescending at the same time. I became obsessed with it until it took up a massively disproportionate segment of my mind space. And then a few years later, I basically wrote a book about it,” right?

Michael: Yes. What he's talking about is self-radicalization. 

Peter: Yeah. Right. 

Michael: This guy is a scholar of how various countries are radicalizing across the world and the rise of right-wing populism, etc. It's happening to him, but he just describes it not as like, “I had an unhealthy obsession with this extremely obscure website,” but as like, “Look at what's happening. Look at what they're trying to do to you.”

Peter: This is like pop feminist bullshit. It's clickbait nonsense with feminist overtones written by people with no academic credentials. It's not absorbed as anything other than that by the community.

Michael: Yeah, that's the thing. There's a much bigger culture on the left of making fun of this shit than there's an actual culture of this.

Peter: Right.

Michael: I went to this website. I spent like a day looking into this, because I thought it was one of those fake websites that set up by right wingers exclusively to provide material to these reactionaries like, “Look what the leftists are saying now.” Because the articles are fully, really fucking out there. This euro breast man, its sexist article is like, “If you don't like being cat called, why is it okay for your boyfriend to comment on your body?” [Peter laughs] which like, “Yeah, it’s not going to [unintelligible [00:45:27].” But also, I looked for this article on Twitter to see like, “Okay, who was sharing this?” I found one or two right wingers posting this to make fun of it. But I could not find a single person posting this earnestly being like, “Wow, interesting article. Good perspective” 

Peter: Right.

Michael: If you're going to say that this ideology has taken over the brains of millions of people, you have to establish that people read it and liked it. You can't just be like, “This exists on the internet.”

Peter: If you're looking at 2012 to 2015, you have two things happening at once. One is the increasing awareness of social justice, and two is the general higher use of social media. These things come together, and you have a lot of people being exposed to these ideas for the first time, processing it for the first time, and spitting out their thoughts for the first time. And a lot of those thoughts were very dumb. 

Michael: Yes.

Peter: The Meta conversation, even in popular feminism, has moved past this bullshit. 

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: The only people who ever say stuff like this now are kids again encountering it for the first time, processing it for the first time. 

Michael: This actually leads to the next section of this historical piece I think that he's totally right about. So after he talks about Tumblr and everydayfeminism.com, he talks about vox.com. When Vox was founded by Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias, and Melissa Bell, they wanted to do these card stacks that were like explainers.

Peter: Yeah, the whole point of Vox was like, “The news media ecosystem is getting too noisy. We're going to put out quick and easy explainers of current events.”

Michael: Exactly. But the problem is they launched it at the tail end of the blog era, and this was at the rise of social media sites. So everything became about how shareable, how viral something was going to be. These explainers of existing issues, people just don't share them in the same way. So he talks about the transformation of the site into publishing more social justice-oriented things, really trying to capture the news cycle like, what are people interested in today and how can we grab a piece of that? 

So he talks about the institution of Vox first person, which is exactly what it sounds like, people send in these stories of themselves. He says that, based on Facebook and Twitter distribution, what they started to notice was that the identity stuff just became more popular. That's what people wanted. There is a kernel of truth here. [chuckles] There's also a kernel of falsehood. First of all, this is exclusively based on a Matt Yglesias blog post. 

Peter: No. 

Michael: And then, if you go to every single first person feature that Vox published in 2015, which I did, you do find some SJW stuff. These are a couple of headlines. “I'm a black activist. Here's what people get wrong about Black Lives Matter, what it's like to be black at Princeton. I never noticed how racist children's books are until I started reading to my kids.” So you know what? SJW stuff.

Peter: Yeah.

Michael: But those were actually the minority. So these are some of the other ones. “Married with roommates. Why my wife and I choose to live in a group house. What breaking up with my best friend taught me about male friendship. I complained about helicopter parents for years, then I realized I was one. How working for a suicide prevention hotline made me rethink pain and empathy. I was a rural, homeschooled Christian kid. Then I converted to Islam. I'm a marriage counselor. Here's how I can tell a couple is heading for divorce.” And this is maybe my favorite one. “Shark week is upon us. As a shark scientist, I both love it and hate it.” I read that one.

Peter: God, every single one pains me in-

Michael: I know.

Peter: -a unique way, and I'm sure that some of them are totally reasonable. But something about the way those headlines are written, it’s like, there's PTSD in my brain. 

Michael: I also think that the way that Yascha is describing this is like, the internet got flooded with these pieces that are like, “I'm black, and here's why racism is bad.”

Peter: Yeah.

Michael: You don't really find that in these. What you mostly find is this obsession with counter intuitiveness. One of them is like, “I'm a left-wing person who likes guns, and here's why.” 

Peter: By being run over by a bulldozer was the best thing that ever happened to me. 

Michael: The way that he summarizes this is, he says, “A large percentage of the most successful articles spoke directly to the interests and experiences of particular identity groups.” And on some level, yes. But it's another problem with this book is that he never actually defines identity groups. 

Peter: Uh-huh.

Michael: I'm a homeschooled Christian kid. Well, homeschooled is an identity?

Peter: Right. 

Michael: I'm trying to think of an article like this that wouldn't appeal to some identity group.

Peter: When you look at the trend of reporters going to diners in the Midwest to interview white working people, no one would ever characterize that as pandering to an identity group. 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: But I think by the definitions that Yascha is using, that's what you would call it. 

Michael: He basically says that like, we go from Tumblr to Vox, which is 1ft straddling online and 1ft straddling traditional media, and then eventually this outlook goes to traditional media. So he talks about how the word racist, and terms like structural racism start appearing in the New York Times and the Washington Post like tenfold more than they did pre-2013.

Peter: Okay. 

Michael: He says it like a groupthink kicks in. There's now this peer pressure. No one's allowed to dissent because we get yelled at if we dissent on Tumblr and people yell at us. So because everybody's so afraid to push back, you then have this ideological conformity kicking in. 

Peter: It seems to leave out Ferguson, but all right.

Michael: This is what happens when you base your entire argument on a single blog post from Matt Yglesias, [Peter laughs] as opposed to the vast literature on like, why beliefs about identity groups have changed in the last 10 years? 

Peter: Who needs a vast literature when you have the incredible brain of Matt Yglesias, [Michael laughs] a man who's read dozens of abstracts? 

Michael: I think the first thing to note-- We've mentioned this on the show before, but this is true. Progressives have become more progressive on race. There's a lot of long and short-term shifts. The longest-term one is that basically since the Civil Rights Act, whites have been slowly drifting out of the democratic party and minorities have been slowly drifting in. So as recently as 1992, Asian Americans, only 31% of them were Democrats. It sounds like 75%. It's really easy to forget that the coalitions of the parties used to be much more evenly split. 

And then this process, of course, massively ramps up after Obama gets elected. And even during the campaign, Hillary Clinton would propose like, “Let's make community college free.” People would be like, “Okay. Whatever.” And then Obama would say, “Let's make community college free.” And people would be like, “What is this black separatist bullshit?”

Peter: “Is this a black thing or what's going on here?” 

Michael: Yeah. So there's some percentage of the population that basically starts to see everything through the lens of race, because they're confronted by a black dude doing it. The biggest shift, I mean, if you look at the racial attitude surveys, there are huge spikes between 2012 and 2014, because we basically have the first round of Black Lives Matter protests. We have Trayvon Martin, we have Michael Brown, we have Eric Garner. There's also a social media story in that a lot of these things are captured on video. We now have the ability to see and hear these events that basically black people have been screaming about for decades, and white people are like, “Are you sure?”

Peter: Right. 

Michael: The theory on attitude change among social scientists for a really long time was that, when Democrats and Republicans appear to shift their views on stuff, it's not individual people changing their minds, its mostly the coalitions changing. You can track these things over time. But during the 2016 election, you then get people updating their views and actually changing their minds based on what the candidates say.

Peter: Right.

Michael: So on the Republican side, Trump only won 44% of Republican voters in the primary. But then once he wins the primary and becomes a general candidate, what you find is a lot of centers right “respectable Republicans” finding excuses to support him. So there's this really interesting survey where they give people a bunch of statements, one of which is, “You're with a friend,” and he describes somebody else's wife as a great piece of ass. And it's like, how common is it to hear stuff like this? And people report like, “Oh, yeah, that's like a pretty normal thing to say.” This is how people started to justify it. They didn't say like, “Oh, I like it when people say that.” But they're like, “Eh, I don't love it, but it's fairly typical to say that,” even though a couple years previously they had said it wasn't.

Peter: When me and the homies get together, we talk about banning Muslims from the country. [Michael laughs] That's what it's like. 

Michael: But then the same thing happened among Democrats too, where Clinton's campaign was all framed around opposition to Trump. Basically, “Whatever Trump is, I'm the exact opposite of it.” And so you then find among liberals more liberal views on immigration that this is also at the same time as me too, and eventually the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. So people do actually start changing their minds.

Peter: In 2015, if you asked a liberal, how do you feel about giant suits? [Michael laughs] They just drape over you, preposterously. They would have said, it's fine.

Michael: The last big shift, obviously, is fucking 2020 George Floyd. If you look at, again, surveys of racial attitudes, there's a huge jump based on essentially just like news events. People were seeing demonstrations of the fact that these inequalities persist in America.

Peter: You're forced to engage with it, right? 

Michael: Yeah, exactly. To circle back to his overall narrative, I don't want to say that Tumblr and other forms of social media played no role in progressives becoming more progressive. The political science literature, I think, gives too much credit to political candidates. But all of the messages from those candidates are being filtered through media and they're being filtered again through social media.

Peter: Yeah. It definitely seems to be true that social media, for example, can create echo chambers and all that stuff that everyone writes about all the fucking time. But the other side of that is that all of media consumption used to be an echo chamber.

Michael: Yeah, exactly. 

Peter: Because we were all reading the New York Times and listening to fucking Dan Rather. 

Michael: I'm fascinated by the way that these books mix true things and false things. The fact that liberals became more liberal over the last 15 years, he's framing it as some threat like, “Well, now we're giving up on democratic norms.” You could easily see this as good news. There's a good argument to make that policing in America is very discriminatory and people are more aware of that now, and gay people do deserve all of the rights. He seems to just take it as a given, they are like, “Oh, this should worry us.” But why? The antidemocratic forces in America are extremely concentrated on the right.

Peter: Yeah. I think that what he's trying to do here is play a bit of blame game. What the conservatives are trying to claim is like, “Yeah, this is your fault for moving left. And therefore, the conservative reaction is justified. It is the natural outcome.” I've seen this from others on the right, the idea that it's not the right radicalizing. It is in fact, the left, which again, is based on a very thin, noncomprehensive bunch of political polls that don't capture the fact that QAnon exists.

Michael: One of Yascha's earliest Atlantic articles is about how sea leftists, nobody likes political correctness. It's the result of a survey where they asked people like, “Do you like political correctness?” And 80% of Americans were like, “No.” It's right, because that's a negative term for something that no one can agree on, “What the fuck it is?” [laughs] Of course, do you object to government overreach? Yes.

Peter: Right. 

Michael: By definition, it's something people don't like. 

Peter: A better question to ask would be like, “Do you like it when someone calls you sugar tits in the workplace?”

Michael: Exactly. [laughs] So okay. Speaking of words, the next aspect of the identity synthesis that Yascha is going to guide us through is discourse analysis for political ends. I'll read this whole fucking thing. He says, “Many scholars who are immersed in the identity synthesis are deeply interested in the way that dominant narratives and discourses structure our society. Inspired by Edward Said's work in orientalism, they hope to put the tools of discourse analysis to explicitly political use. Their ambition is nothing less than to change the world by redescribing it. This has had a major influence on the way in which activists engage in politics. In virtually, every developed democracy, activists now expend enormous efforts on changing the way in which ordinary people speak.

In the United States, for example, activists have successfully championed new identity labels, such as people of color and BIPOC. Prominent institutions such as Stanford have even published long lists with terms ranging from guru to sanity check.” 

Peter: Oh, God damn it. 

Michael: Yeah. Check our bonus episode feed. “The affiliates of the university should avoid using because they could inadvertently perpetuate discrimination or commit cultural appropriation, a newly popular term that describes a broad class of circumstances in which members of one culture co-opt elements of the culture of another group in supposedly objectionable ways.”

Peter: Man, there are many things that frustrate me about these conversations. But one is like, I actually think that it's largely true, that too many people argue about the best terms to use.

Michael: Dude, same. Oh, my God, same. 

Peter:  But the way that I understand that is mostly as like an expression of political powerlessness by many of those people who are trying to grab on to something that they feel like they can control. I just can't bring myself to get riled up about it.

Michael: I can't believe we're finally for the first time on this show in a position where I'm about to be more of a dick than you. [Peter laughs] I think that you're right. I think that's some aspect of it. I also just think that some people are really annoying, and it's really easy online to police people's speech.

Peter: It serves two purposes at once. One is you get to express your knowledge about this issue, right?

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: And the other is you get to express almost like a moral superiority. You're actually going about your allyship wrong. 

Michael: Exactly. 

Peter: And as much as the right focuses too much on those people, they absolutely exist. 

Michael: Yes.

Peter: I do tend to think that they are unpopular.

Michael: And also, I mean, as we've discussed before, it's not like language has no importance. 

Peter: Right.

Michael: My approach to these things is like some of the language stuff I think is silly, and some of it I don't think is silly. And the silly stuff, I just don't do it. I don't spell women with an X. If you want to spell women with an X, whatever-- It doesn't harm me. It's not antidemocratic. I find it a little silly. But also, I'm not going to spend a lot of my time being like, “Did you hear they were spelling women with an X now?” I just quietly don't do it, which I think is what most people do with this stuff. 

Peter: Of course.

Michael: You hear some of these language things and you're like, “Ah, that resonates.” Like, “Yeah, that's a fair point.” And some of them, you're like, “I don't know, if that's necessary.” And like, “Whatever.” Over time, some of these things take. We were spelling women with a Y for a while. That also never really took. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: Maybe women with an X will go the way of women with a Y. Maybe it won't. I'll be spelling it with an X in 10 years. Who fucking cares? Is that a future with less democracy in it that I spell a word differently? I don't know. I just really don't fucking care that much. But then he gives a very telling example. So he spends basically the rest of this chapter talking about cultural appropriation.

Peter: Oh, hell yeah. 

Michael: Do you have a definition of this, Peter? How do you describe this? 

Peter: Cultural appropriation is when you take something from another culture and you do it, but not in a nice way.

Michael: All you had to do was say Justin Timberlake wearing cornrows at the 2008 MTV Video Awards. I would have known what you mean, everybody. 

Peter: [laughs] That's not cultural appropriation, because that is humiliating for him personally. [Michael laughs] We all were just like, “Oh, Justin, no.” [laughs] 

Michael: This is how he starts this chapter where he's going to delineate this concept and tell us why it's bad.

Peter: Some cases of so-called cultural appropriation do undoubtedly amount to real injustices. It was, for example, immoral for white musicians in the United States to steal the songs of black artists who were barred from big careers because of racial discrimination or for collectors in the United Kingdom to loot art from the country's former colonies. Is that cultural appropriation? Okay.

Michael: It is like stealing.

Peter: But as it is now applied, it misdescribes what made those situations wrong and inhibits valuable forms of cultural exchange.

Michael: You know how like when you're watching an action movie and you know there's a montage coming? [Peter laughs] Peter, you know, there's like a litany of anecdotes coming. You know. You know we're about to fucking list. 

Peter: Justin Trudeau at a party. 


Michael: All right. Here's where he goes with this. 

Peter: “By now, debates about cultural appropriation have gone mainstream and cover a very wide range of supposed offenses. As part of its archive repair project, Bon Appétit, the American culinary magazine, apologized for allowing a gentile writer to publish a recipe for hamantaschen, a traditional Jewish dessert. In Germany, DER SPIEGEL worried that gentiles who donned a kippah in a show of solidarity after a man had been assaulted for wearing the traditional Jewish head covering were guilty of cultural appropriation. 

And in the UK, the Guardian has weighed in on whether Jamie Oliver, a star chef, can cook jollof rice, whether Gordon Ramsey, another star chef, should be allowed to open a Chinese restaurant, and whether it was offensive for Adele to wear a traditional Jamaican hairstyle to the Notting Hill Carnival. 

Michael: So the argument here is that cultural appropriation has use in these very narrow circumstances. But it's now being so broadly applied that it's creating a chilling effect. So people are afraid to publish recipes. They're afraid to open restaurants, because no matter what you do-- Even if you're doing these harmless activities, people are going to come out of nowhere and accuse you of cultural appropriation.

Peter: Right. 

Michael: So we're going to walk again through the examples that he uses. So the first one is, “As part of its archive repair project, Bon Appetit apologized for allowing a gentile writer to publish a recipe for hamantaschen, a traditional Jewish dessert.” This is not true. What actually happened was the original recipe was basically written pretty insensitively. The original headline was, how to make actually good hamantaschen? It was basically by this person who wasn't Jewish, and they're like, “I attended a bunch of bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs when I was 13. So I'm allowed to weigh in on this.” It's like this tongue and cheek thing. And then she said, “I asked around the office, and all anyone could remember is really chalky and terrible hamantaschen. So I'm going to get it right this time.”

Peter: There's an implication that the people who generally make hamantaschen aren't good at it and like, “Let me show you how.” 

Michael: They left the recipe up, so there's still a recipe by a gentile on the website. It's not like this has been wiped from the internet. It's really not an appropriation thing. It's really just an insensitivity thing. And also, why the fuck are we talking about a website updating its fucking recipe? But whatever. We're going to go to the UK. He says, “In the UK, the Guardian has weighed in on whether Jamie Oliver can cook jollof rice, whether Gordon Ramsay should be allowed to open a Chinese restaurant. Whether it was offensive for Adele to wear a traditional Jamaican hairstyle. So the Jamie Oliver ONE, at no point did anybody accuse him of cultural appropriation. He basically put a recipe on his website that had coriander, parsley and lemon in it, which aren't part of the traditional recipe, and people were basically clowning on him for being like, “Aah, this isn't traditional.” Like, “This is your own thing.” He's like, “You're right. This is my own weird spin on it.” 

Peter: Yeah.

Michael: That happens every time anybody cooks Italian food of any kind, someone will be like, “This isn't what my grandma does,” and you're like, “Okay.” [laughs] And everybody moves on. The Gordon Ramsay one is not about whether he has the right to open an Asian restaurant. It was about the opening, like, there was an opening party for one of his restaurants in London where an Asian writer went, and she's like, “It feels weird to be at the opening of an Asian restaurant, and there's 40 people here, and I'm the only Asian person.”

Peter: This is also part of a trend where a lot of-- I remember that there was a piece written about the Luke Combs cover of Tracy Chapman's Fast Car, which has been a sensation. And a black person writing a piece about basically processing their feelings about a black artist's work being taken by a white man and a white guy profiting off of it. The piece just read to me literally a black person thinking out loud about this stuff, and people lost their fucking minds. You know what I mean? You have to allow some space for an Asian woman to go to an event like this and be like, “This feels a little weird,” right?

Michael: Yeah. So many of these things are like, “Did you hear that a minority had thoughts?” [Peter laughs] Again, at no point in this review, does she say that like, “His restaurant should be shut down.” Then the Adele one is by far the closest to an actual cultural appropriation blow up where she posted this. She wasn't at the Notting Hill Carnival, but it was on the day of the Notting Hill Carnival. I believe she happened to be in Jamaica, and she posted a photo of her in a Jamaican flag-.

Peter: Oh, that's right. 

Michael: -swim suit with Bantu knots in her hair. There was an internet outcry. People were like, “Aah, this is not cool.”

Peter: Now, I remember this one. There was a little Internet outcry. But again, it was just a bunch of people being like, “I don't know about this,” right?

Michael: Exactly. And then Adele doesn't give very many interviews. Five months later, her new album was coming out, and she was given an interview, and they were like, “Hey, what was the deal with that Instagram blow up a couple months ago?” And she's like, “You know what? It was cringe. I shouldn't have posted it. I just wasn't really thinking of how it would look. My team or whatever was saying that I should delete it, but I want to leave it up just to remind people that I'm a human being and I make mistakes. Thanks a lot for letting me know that, that felt weird.”

Peter: Whatever. It's just like a little discussion about whether or not this shit is insensitive. It seems weird to act as if this is reflective of a global ideological shift that we should all be concerned about.

Michael: Okay. But then the last, or this is his middle example but we're going to talk about it last. This example is, I think, the most interesting. He says, “In Germany, DER SPIEGEL warned that gentiles who donned a kippah in a show of solidarity after a man had been assaulted for wearing the traditional Jewish head covering were guilty of cultural appropriation.” So this is actually like a real and really fucked up incident. This guy, as a YouTube experiment was like, “I'm going to walk around Berlin wearing a yarmulke and see what happens.” And then someone beat the shit out of him, and it was like, on video, and it's super fucked up. This was a huge deal in Germany. The video went super-duper viral. Yascha, again, great footnotes, he links to the peace in DER SPIEGEL.

Peter: Uh-huh.

Michael: It's by a Jewish guy who's basically saying like, “There's a huge show of solidarity.” People are protesting. People want to do something to show that they protect and support the Jewish community in Berlin. People are showing up to these rallies wearing kippahs, and he's like, “This is like a traditional Jewish head covering. It's really important in my religion.” He has this little thing at the end of his piece where he's is like, “This is termed that they use in America, cultural appropriation.” I think that it's a useful term that we could talk about in Germany a little bit. I don't think it's appropriate to use my religious symbolism to show solidarity with me. Please find other ways of showing solidarity with me.

Peter: Yeah. Okay. 

Michael: That actually feels like just a very straightforward, reasonable application of the term, cultural appropriation.

Peter: Right. You're using it to be symbolic of something, but it actually is meaningfully a religious symbol for me, right? 

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: This would be like if a Catholic got attacked and then a bunch of non-Catholics were like, “As a show of solidarity, we're going to take communion.”

Michael: What I find so interesting about the way that Yascha Mounk is framing this is like, he starts with this like, “Cultural appropriation describes something real.” But now the concept has gone too far. None of his examples are really the concept going too far. Some of them are just straightforward reasonable examples of it. Most of them are not even cultural appropriation being invoked in any way with the recipe. So it's like, “Sorry, what's the actual problem?” It seems like we have this term that you just don't think people should use.

Peter: Right. Because he's basically being like, “Okay. So you have colonialism and also Adele.” 

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: It’s like, well, then what are we talking about? What is your complaint? What criticisms should be allowed and what shouldn't be allowed? Is your problem just that there's terminology for this, or is your concern that Adele is being criticized? It doesn't entirely make sense.

Michael: And remember. His original definition, an ideology that seeks to remake the world and erodes democratic norms.

Peter: The democratic norm of going to Jamaica and getting your hair braided and saying Ya Mon, a lot. [Michael laughs] Why did we fight the revolutionary war if we can't do that? 

Michael: Well, my both sides take on this is that I do think that it's true that people on the left can maybe spend too much time fighting about language stuff, but also, no one is more obsessed with language than fucking conservatives who complain about it all the time. 

Peter: 100%.

Michael: If your actual complaint here is that like, people shouldn't use the term cultural appropriation, “It's too broad. We don't really know what it means. It's misapplied or overapplied,”- 

Peter: Totally fine.

Michael: -fine.

Peter: Sure. 

Michael: You could also say that about all of the terms that he invokes. Free speech, he talks about a lot in this book. Well, people mis-invoke fucking free speech all the time. 

Peter: Constantly. 

Michael: Welcome to terms, Yascha. Most terms that become popular get overapplied. 

Peter: I also feel like circling back and reminding everyone who's listening that these are the worst anecdotes he could find, for sure. 

Michael: Yeah. [laughs] 

Peter: The fact that what we're really talking about is a couple of editorials and Instagram comments. It just goes to show that there's no way for the left to squash this stuff. We can't get together and be like, “All right, we're going to stop using this term.” Because the point about complaining about the use of cultural appropriation as a vector for political infights is that you're complaining about the left. That's what Mounk is doing even if he doesn't actually think he is. 

Michael: He also has a large section in the book where he basically makes the same argument about microaggressions. There are like, “Microaggressions are an interesting concept, but people are taking it too far.” But what's very frustrating to me is that it becomes clear that his beef is exclusively vocabulary, because Yascha Mounk wrote an entire book about microaggressions. So his first book is about growing up Jewish in Germany. And at the time in West Germany, it was 40 million people population and there were 3,000 Jews in the entire country. And of course, Germans are famous for learning all of the ugly parts of their history. And so when people would meet Yascha and find out that he was Jewish, they would like treat him like a celebrity. 

Peter: Yeah.

Michael: He talks about going to a party and coming onto a conversation where people are talking and he's like, “What are you guys talking about?”

Peter: And they were like, “Ooh, lockers.”

Michael: [laughs] No, they're talking about movies and they're like, “Oh, John was just saying how he like hates Woody Allen movies.” 

Peter: [gasps] And then John is like, “Oh, I actually really like Woody Allen. I think his earlier work is really great.” 

Peter: “What he did was fine. I think it's okay.” 

Michael: Yeah. [laughs] But it's like, it makes Yascha really aware. The whole book, parts of which are quite good, is about how he just felt this weird sense of friction. 

Peter: What's interesting is that this is something you can extrapolate from as a criticism of certain iterations of identity politics, where everyone else being hyperconscious of his identity ultimately made him feel uncomfortable.

Michael: It also reveals how identity politics is exclusively something other people do. I do not think that Yascha Mounk thinks that writing a memoir about his experience as a Jewish person and coming to grips with his identity. He wouldn't consider that engaging in identity politics. One of his main critiques of the left is like, “They make your identity markers.” The most important thing about you is that what he was doing by writing a book about his Jewish identity is that the only identity or the most important identity that he has? I wouldn't accuse him of that. 

Peter: This is the thing with a lot of these conservative commentators who have been very upset about identity politics the last several years. As soon as the identity in question is their own, all of a sudden, they are willing to fold in all of the nuance that they deny to other groups.

Michael: Also, Peter, it would be mean to do this, but--

Peter: Well, if it would be mean, just don't do it. [Michael laughs] That's not the podcast we're trying to put out there. 

Michael: I was going to read you the final paragraph of his book, because he talks about moving to New York, and how the fact that there were so many Jewish People in New York and that became a much less salient part of his identity was really meaningful to him. And then his final paragraph, he's like, “I realized I wasn't a Jew and I wasn't a German. I was a New Yorker.” 

Peter: Oh, God.

Michael: And that's how the book ends. 


Michael: May be 2014 was a different time, but it's so fucking annoying. [Peter laughs] People talk about how much they love New York. [laughs] 

Peter: That was right when Taylor Swift was arriving in New York. He should have had a little vignette about getting in a cab and welcome to New York is playing. [Michael laughs] Every New Yorker who was here during 2014 remembers that phase where you'd get into a cab and it was just Taylor Swift singing that fucking song.

Michael: The book is actually singing. It's like one of those greeting cards. You open it, and that song just starts playing. [Peter laughs] It's incredible. He got the rights. So again, to be totally clear, I think it is absolutely valid for Yascha to write a book about his Jewish identity. I think that's great. But what is fascinating to me is that he spends so much of this book complaining about people invoking microaggressions, right?

Peter: Right. 

Michael: So he clearly does not object to the concept of microaggressions. He only objects to the term. I actually think it's totally fine to write a whole book about microaggressions and not use the word. You can talk about cultural appropriation without saying cultural appropriation, if it's an important issue to you. 

He ends that section saying like, “A lot of what we're really talking about here is just like racial insensitivity.” You know what, Yascha? If you want to write a book about racial insensitivity and draw people's attention and you don't want to use the term cultural appropriation, I don't really think anyone would notice, honestly. I don't think anyone would care. If that's not a framework that you like, fine. But why spend all of your time complaining about people who have a term you don't like for a concept you agree with?

Peter: It's just so lacking in empathy to an embarrassing degree.

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: I don’t know, it's like seeing someone stub their toe and say ouch and being like, “People say ouch too much when they get hurt,” [Michael laughs] not realizing that you've done it your whole life. It's something so simple that the idea that he can think about this enough to write a book about it, and then not realize that when other people are talking about similar experiences but they're not Jewish, they're black or whatever, that they're talking about the same thing. 

Michael: Human empathy. It's been waiting for you. [Peter laughs] I'm sorry. I don't know where to go after that. 

Peter: [laughs] 

Michael: So the fourth category under the definition of identity synthesis. The problem with the identity synthesis is that it seeks to pass identity sensitive public policy. 

Peter: Oh, no.

Michael: This is things that anything that basically takes people's race or gender whatever into account, he complains about a basic income project in San Francisco that was only eligible to trans people. In the book, he has basically two big Marquee anecdotes. One is the segregation in the Atlanta schools. The second is about the rollout of the COVID vaccines. 

Peter: Oh, no.

Michael: We're doodling ourselves back to December of 2020.

Peter: Okay. 

Michael: Obviously, in the first couple of months of the vaccines, there weren't very many doses available. So countries had to basically do triage to decide, :Okay, who's going to get vaccines first.” 

Peter: Yeah. 

Michael: He says, “Countries from Canada to Italy came up with remarkably similar plans. To begin with, they would make the vaccine available to medical staff. In the next phase, the elderly would become eligible. Only one country radically deviated from this plan, the United States. In its preliminary recommendations, the key committee advising the CDC proposed putting 87 million essential workers, a broad category that would include bankers and film crews, ahead of the elderly.” 

Peter: Okay.

Michael: So this is about the CDC basically saying, “Essential workers are going to get the vaccine before over 65s.” They were doing so for explicitly racial justice reasons. So he's talking about this presentation that was given to this vaccine prioritization committee within the CDC. The key problem, the presentation highlighted in red font, is that racial and ethnic minority groups are underrepresented among groups over 65. Because the elderly are a less diverse group than the younger group of essential workers, it would be immoral to put them first. So this is basically like, most old people are white. And even though they're way more likely to die of COVID, we should actually prioritize younger people because they are more diverse.

Peter: Okay. Is that something that they really said? 

Michael: The thing is, this is as close as he gets in this book to a real anecdote, like, something that actually happened and I find troubling.

Peter: That does sound stupid. 

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: That seems to put prioritize diversity over efficacy of the vaccine rollout,-

Michael: Exactly. Yeah. 

Peter: -which is, in fact, a problematic manifestation of identity politics.

Michael: Exactly. 

Peter: That was what was wrong with the presidency of Donald Trump. [Michael laughs] The constant prioritizing of diversity.

Michael: So to understand what's actually going on here, you need to go back to where we were in late 2020. 

Peter: Uh-huh.

Michael: When you're talking about a highly infectious disease, there are two ways to protect people at risk. One way is directly, so you just vaccinate all the old people. Another way is indirectly, by preventing infection and transmission of the virus. Basically, if you can prevent a surge, you may end up saving more old people's lives, even if the old people themselves are not vaccinated. The conversations going on at the time were mostly about whether or not the vaccines would prevent infection and transmission.

Peter: Right. 

Michael: The early vaccine trials hadn't measured that. And some virologists thought that the vaccines could prevent another surge, and others thought that it couldn't prevent another surge. So Yascha describes this as like the CDC doing the button meme where it's like, “Should we kill a bunch of old people, or should we not kill a bunch of old people?” and sweating over the decision. 

Peter: Right. [laughs] 

Michael: But because he didn't reach out to anyone on the committee and he's relying exclusively on a bunch of gotchas from these slide presentations, he doesn't seem to realize that this was a debate about how to save the most people's lives.

Peter: Isn't all of this a good example of when identity politics is useful? Because no one talks about targeting the elderly for vaccines as identity politics, right?

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: If someone's like, “Hey, black women have particularly dangerous pregnancies, we should target them for funding.” Those get challenged as racist and discriminatory and as the manifestation of identity politics. 

Michael: Well, this is also something that's so interesting is he takes it as a given that it was insane to be taking things like race and social justice into account in this process. Like, one of their categories, the three categories that the CDC was using to make this determination was science, like, how much is it going to affect deaths versus infections? Two, implementation, how easy is it going to be to get it to people? And three, ethics. He seems to think that this entire category of thinking about ethics is totally invalid, but what the CDC meant by that was people who are at higher risk of dying from COVID, they don't just mean social justice reasons. We must remediate America's racial past. It's like, black people were dying at three times the rate of white people.

Peter: It seems that he's saying like, “Well, but they shouldn't be.” 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: The reason that elderly people are more likely to die is probably due to these biological factors. The reason that black people are more likely to die is almost certainly not biological. It's due to these other factors. 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: You have to consider it. 

Michael: Yeah, exactly. And also, he's also lying when he says, “Every other country just did age 75 plus, 70 plus, 65 plus.” He presents this as like this really obvious decision that all the other countries made. That's not true. Like, Germany vaccinated essential workers before they did over 65s. France also took workplace into account. The Canada did it, province by province. But in some provinces, they said, “You're eligible when you're over 65, or if you're indigenous when you're over 50,” because indigenous people had way higher death rates. Another province did hotspots or like, there were certain zip codes.

Peter: Right. I like the hotspots concept, because it's a way of avoiding having dipshits like Yascha Mounk write think pieces about how what you're doing is racist.

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: You know what I mean? 

Michael: Exactly.

Peter: It is like, “Oh, no, it's geographical.”

Michael: The problem with the CDC's framework and where I think he's right to criticize them and they super-duper fucked up is that, the definition that they were working with of essential worker covered 70% of American workers.

Peter: You're all essential, folks. [Michael laughs] If you're listening here at home, you are essential. 

Michael: I think I was an essential worker technically, because I was working in the media, [Peter laughs] and the nation needs information to be democratic or whatever. But I was making a podcast about the maligned women of the 1990s. [laughs] I absolutely should not have been prioritized for the vaccine.

Peter: When you got your $4 million PPP loan to do the Lindsay Lohan chronicles Part 5 for you're wrong about. 


Michael: It would have been insane for the CDC to prioritize essential workers over people over 65. Like, he's just right about that. It would have been fucking bananas partly, because the implementation would have been nuts. It's not meaningful prioritization to say that now 70% of the workforce is eligible. That doesn't help the triage. There weren't enough vaccines available for that group. So you had to have a more granular categorization.

Peter: So what about black bankers [Michael laughs] start up with our most important groups? [laughs] 

Michael: But then this is what's so weird. Again, this is as close as he gets to a real problem caused by identity politics. But it's tucked in, and I don't think you noticed it. What actually happened with the CDC is, in their interim recommendations at the beginning of December 2020, they said, “Okay, we're going to do essential workers, and then we're going to do over 65s.” Over the course of December, they then changed that. And the eventual recommendation was everybody over 75 and frontline workers.

Peter: Right.

Michael: So people who are seeing people in person, nobody who works from home, and that's a much smaller group. He chalks this up to-- he says, “Intrepid journalists notice the slide presentation.” He's talking about Nate Silver tweeting about it and Matt Yglesias writing a blog post about it.

Peter: Just kill me. Okay.

Michael: Their original decision for the interim recommendations was on December 3rd. Their eventual decision where they made it final and made the right decision is on December 20th. The Nate Silver tweets were on December 19th. I don't think that 24 hours before this was about to happen, people in this committee would have looked at like, “Oh, shit, Nate Silver's mad at us.”

Peter: Time to change course. 

Michael: Yeah. We don't know what happened behind the scenes. I actually reached out to two different people who were on the committee, neither of whom got back to me because I'm sure that they're so sick of talking about this. 

Peter: Yeah. But I reached out to Nate Silver over, and he says, it was him.

Michael: [laughs] So like, is it possible that that's true? 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: Sure. But he says it was like the backlash to this that made them change their recommendations. There's literally no evidence of this other than the fact that there was a backlash.

Peter: Also, even if that was true, wouldn't that just mean that there were a couple dipshits at the CDC who were about to do the wrong thing, and then, because our society disagrees with it so strongly, they had to change course?

Michael: This is, again, the best that he can do is some temporary interim recommendations that, “However you think the process went, weren't implemented.”

Peter: When you're like, “Let me tell you how pervasive and dangerous identity politics actually is.” Briefly, the interim recommendations of the CDC-

Michael: Almost

Peter: -incorporated too much identity politics before they change course.

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: If that's where you are, then you need to move on. You need to write about something else.

Michael: Every other anecdote in this book is like one sentence. He does these little montages like we had with the Adele culture appropriation stuff. It's like, bang, bang, bang, bang. I looked up almost all of these. This is why I spent three fucking weeks researching this episode. I have almost 200 pages of notes. Basically, none of them hold up. I'm really doing him a service here by saying like, “This is as close and as good as it gets.” It's not that good.

Peter: You just said that he was bothered by the fact that San Francisco had a basic income program targeting trans folks. That's identity politics, Now, I imagine if you asked the folks implementing it, they would say, “Well, this is a population lacking in wealth, lacking in income.” Perfect targets for a basic income program.

Michael: Like I said, I looked up all these fucking anecdotes. He doesn't mention that the program was only open to trans people earning less than $600 a month. 

Peter: Oh, that seems interesting. 

Michael:  It wasn't going to Caitlyn Jenner.

Peter: I'm just curious about like, what, in his mind, is the substantive difference between that, and rolling out vaccines and prioritizing elderly people in that rollout, right? 

Michael: Right.

Peter: In both cases, they're imprecise in a way, those are the wages of government programs. That's just how it works. One of them is objectionable identity politics to him, and the other is just common sense.

Michael: Well, this is the exact thing that he lays out in the next section of the book, and the final section of our episode. 

Peter: Oh.

Michael: He's delineated all of the categories, all of the characteristics of the identity synthesis. And then we finally get to the end of the book where he's like, “All right, how do we fix it? How do we solve the identity synthesis?” To discuss this section, we have to talk about reactionary centrism. Peter, this is something we've mentioned on the show before, but I don't think we've ever really laid out. So this is an excerpt from his previous book, The People Vs. Democracy.

Peter: “When it comes to race, the noble principles and promises of the US constitution have been violated over and over again. For the first century of the republic's existence, African-Americans were enslaved or treated as, at best, second class citizens. For the second century, they were excluded from much of public life and suffered open discrimination. Nowadays, these realities are mostly empirical rather than legal. If African Americans face discrimination on the job market, if they are given higher prison sentences for the same crimes, the reason is not a difference in official legal status. Rather it is that the neutral principles of the law are in practice administered in a discriminatory manner. This is why the standard conservative response to the problem of racial injustice is so unsatisfactory.

People from John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to Tomi Lahren, the conservative commentator like to point out how noble and neutral the country's principles are, only to use this fact to deny that there are serious racial injustices to be remedied. This is disingenuous. If private actors, from real estate agents to HR managers, continue to discriminate on the basis of race, then a state that pretends that race doesn't exist can't effectively remedy the resulting injustices.”

Michael: So it's pretty good so far, right? 

Peter: Tell them, Yascha. 

Michael: Yeah. It's like, “All right, we got people at the head of the Supreme Court. We have this dumb understanding of race,” and they're like, “Oh, the laws are neutral,” but they're not being applied neutrally. It's like really fucking head in the sand bullshit. 

Peter: I'm not sure I agree that the US Constitution's principles are noble, but whatever. 

Michael: [laughs] Right. So here is where he goes with this. 

Peter: “The insistence that the noble principles of color blindness will fix everything is either naive or insincere. Recognizing this, parts of the left have started to claim that there is only one way to face up to racial injustice, to reject outright some of the most basic principles on which the American Republic is founded.” How did he take such an aggressive turn?

Michael: Incredible. 

Peter: “If much of popular culture ignores or demeans ethnic and religious minorities, they claim, then insensitive portrayals of people of color or instances of what has come to be called cultural appropriation should be aggressively shamed. If free speech is invoked as a reason to defend a public discourse, that is full of overt forms of racism and microaggressions, then this hallowed principle needs to be sacrificed to the cause of racial justice.”

Michael: Sacrificing principles. 

Peter: “There is something genuinely righteous in the anger that motivates these ideas, and yet they ultimately throw the baby out with the bathwater. Far from merely going too far or being strategically unwise, they embrace principles that would ultimately destroy the very possibility of a truly open and multiethnic democracy.”

Michael: This is something you find in his writing all the time, where it's like, he lays out the problem very clearly. He's like, “Oh, yeah, the Chief Justice of the fucking Supreme Court has this totally disingenuous understanding of racism. And that's why people shouting about microaggressions on Twitter are a threat to democracy.” 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: Like, “What?” 

Peter: I don't want to get too on my Peter shit, [Michael laughs] but there's an express statement here that, America was founded on these righteous principles, and that those principles are under attack from the left. When I think what's actually happening in many cases is that the left is identifying that, one, many of the principles that the republic was founded on are, in fact, not good and noble, but are bad, racist, dumb, etc. Two, many of the principles that the republic was founded on that are, in fact, good are misapplied consistently to the detriment of racial minorities, sexual minorities, etc., etc., etc. 

So when he has this aside about free speech and what he's invoking is students protesting speakers on campus. He's not engaging with whether or not the project of free speech broadly is impacted by this, how much it's impacted by this. We're one year away from coup attempt number two. And these fucking losers are still talking about college kids, like, they're the true threat to democracy. It is absurd.

Michael: Dude, Yascha's book came out a month ago. 

Peter: No.

Michael: A month ago, bro. It’s not even 30 fucking days old. 

Peter: Oh, no. Oh, my God.

Michael: And then the passage we just read, I'm pulling that from his previous book, because his whole excuse for writing a book about fucking identity politics in 2023.

Peter: Is that he already did it about the right? [laughs] 

Michael: Exactly. I already exposed the right. And then you look back, like, the most cursory fucking glance at his previous work, and it's not about the right. It's weird both sides bullshit. I went back to his other older book, The Great Experiment, and he has two entire sections about how people should stop complaining about cultural appropriation. He talks more about the excesses of cultural appropriation complaints than he does about voter suppression. 

Peter: [laughs] 

Michael: To me, this is the perfect example. His whole career is the perfect example of the way that reactionary centrism has taken over American punditry. So this term was coined by Aaron Huertas who defines it as, “Someone who says they're politically neutral, but who usually punches left while sympathizing with the right.” Throughout this book and all of Yascha's work, he has this weird fucking Howdy-Doodyism about right wing threats. 

So, in The Identity Trap in his current book, he has this whole section about like, “To be sure, Republicans have passed a bunch of bills in Florida, the don't say gay bill, and all these”. There's a dozen states that have passed these blatantly authoritarian shutdown all discussion of America's racial past bills. He summarizes them. And then he says, “Because the language in all these bills is very vague, there's a real danger of them chilling legitimate forms of expression. Thankfully, key constitutional protections put limits on the extent to which coercive authoritarians can punish private citizens for what they say. Even at the height of Donald Trump's power, most Americans did not need to fear that their government would punish them for speaking their minds.” 

Wait, sorry. So there's all these protections against the laws that Republicans have already passed, and yet you dedicate a fucking entire chapter of your book to everydayfeminism.com. [Peter laughs] So obscure websites and people overusing terms on social media are enough of a threat to democracy to dedicate a whole fucking book to it. But actual laws being passed six Supreme Court justices. He's like, “Ooh, luckily, there's all these safeguards in place.” The constitution also protects Gordon Ramsay's right to open a fucking Asian restaurant. 

Peter: It's just so frustrating. Like, we can fully concede like, “Yeah, you're right.” There are some fools and miscreants on the left when it comes to this stuff. But if your concern is like, the survival of liberal democracy in America, you need to pivot 180 fucking degrees.

Michael: The thing that I really want to stress about the reactionary centrist and this entire worldview, which is fucking everywhere, is that it cannot propose solutions. The most fascinating thing about this book is that when you get into the alleged solutions section, all he does is just restate first principles.

Peter: We must return to our core understanding of liberalism or whatever.

Michael: Exactly. He says, “It is impossible to understand many fundamental aspects of human life without paying due attention to categories of group identity, such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. But it's impossible to understand other fundamental aspects of human life without paying attention to economic categories, such as social class, ideological categories, such as patriotism, and theological categories, such as religion.” So it's like, “Okay, it's okay to focus on some identity stuff, but we should think about other things too.” “Oh, so we should look at how they intersect.” 

Peter: Right. [laughs] 

Michael: If only there was a word for that, Yascha, wow. 

Peter: These books, their solution is often just like, “What if everyone essentially adopted my worldview?” 

Michael: Yeah. [laughs]

Peter: And that's the solution, and then fade out. 

Michael: This is what I mean. It can't propose solutions, because the entire ideology is based around punching left. Don't do anything that's going to piss off conservatives. But everything the left does is going to piss off conservatives. Conservatives don't want social change. That's the entire ideology. 

Peter: 100%.

Michael: I have a bunch of other examples of him, just like, restating first principles. But I also want to get to the few places in the book where he proposes specific things, like, specific fixes for the problems. 

Peter: Yeah, Okay.

Michael: So he has a whole section about college campuses, which I skipped because we did a whole fucking episode on it. But in that chapter, he's talking about how to heal the divisions between us and how to not do identity politics or whatever. He says, “The American colleges, for example, have historically assigned students from very different backgrounds to shared rooms in their first year. Now, most of them allow incoming students to request roommates of like mind and usually like background that they've met on social media or at local meetups. It's time for colleges to abandon these counterproductive changes, returning their focus to practices that are likely to integrate rather than to separate.” 

Peter: Yeah. That'll save American democracy. 

Michael: Yeah. Just have different roommate policies.

Peter: Good idea, dude. 

Michael: This isn't even true. Some colleges do actually like random assignment. Others let you request it. I requested a live gay guy to be my roommate in college, but I got a sports bro drug dealer.

Peter: Was that supposed to be a swipe at me directly?

Michael: [laughs] But I'm always struck by in these books. It's like, the minute you try to actually operationalize, these broad philosophical things, you basically end up violating rights even more than what you're responding to. So another recommendation that he has in this book is that, schools should ban affinity groups. because like, “Ooh, that's, what divides us, and we should focus on what unites us.”

Peter: Nice.

Michael: You're just going to say, it's illegal for the black kids to make an after school black club? [laughs] 

Peter: We must aggressively wield the hammer of unity.

Michael: He also proposes a bunch of rightwing shit. In his section on free speech, he's talking about Facebook and Twitter, and he's like, “If they keep discriminating against conservatives, they should be treated as publishers. They shouldn't have this protection of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that allows companies not to be sued liable or otherwise illegal statements.” 

Peter: It's fascinating to me that this guy talking about all these high-minded liberal principles all of a sudden is like, “My solution. Nationalize Facebook and Twitter.”

Michael: Yeah, I know. So this is like this bizarre thing that right wingers like Ted Cruz and shit have seized on as like, “Ooh, if we repeal it, that will be good for conservatives.” This is false. This is just straightforwardly false. 

Peter: If you repeal it, what will happen is the platforms will aggressively crack down on material, because now they can be held liable for it.

Michael: There's numerous-- I even read a fucking analysis of this on the American Enterprise Institute website. Even actual rightwing institutions are like, “This would not help. This gives more power to Facebook and Twitter, because they would have to put in place processes to legally vet every single post.”

Peter: Right.

Michael: He is wrong about this. This solution, and this is something that I've been saving, but throughout this book, so much of this book is just dumb. Yascha Mounk work is not very smart. It's not very rigorous. He makes basic factual errors. He misinterprets anecdotes all the fucking time in the most basic fucking ways. We could have done that for like three hours. This is a guy who has the institutional imprimatur of Harvard, and the Atlantic, and the council on Foreign Relations like, “This is as establishment of a person as you get.” To me, the existence of this book, and Yascha Mounk's entire career is such an example of the actual threat on the left, [chuckles] which is basically that we have all these mediocrities [Peter chuckles] that are allowed to flourish, because they're telling people in power what they want to hear.

Peter: One of the frustrating things about these is that the continuous ascendance of these mediocrities just proves that their assessment of the institutional power of the left is incorrect. 

Michael: Yes.

Peter: The institutional power lies with people who believe shit like this. That's why Yascha can extricate himself from the mundane work of being an actual academic and gets to be a “public intellectual,” where you are free of the burden of having to actually do the hard work, and yet you get all the attention you ever wanted. 

Michael: I think one of the reasons why this ostensibly the most serious book on identity politics isn't particularly serious is that like, I don't know that a serious critique is possible.

Peter: Right.

Michael: The core problem is that, on some level, all politics are identity politics. 

Peter: Yeah.

Michael: I feel like there's this perpetual debate on the left about whether we should focus on social class, stuff or identity stuff. And honestly, it always feels very similar to the nature versus nurture debate to me, where it's just obviously both and like, no one serious says that one is where 100% of our effort should go or the other. There's a very good article, like, one of the rare ones defending identity politics by Jacob T. Levy, who basically says that, “Even empirically, it's not the case that identity politics is bad electoral strategy.” 

If you look at Donald Trump's polling numbers, most of the big jumps downward were things that dealt with identity stuff. It was like him saying the Mexican judge can't decide against me, or like the gold star Muslim family that he went after, or like the access Hollywood tape. And then we've seen all year. We've seen democrats running on protecting abortion rights and winning. We've seen Republicans running on destroying trans rights and losing. That doesn't mean that every single identity thing is going to win every election. But it's just not the case that every time you do this, rather than “bread and butter” traditional economic issues, you're going to lose. It just depends. 

Peter: Right. If Joe Biden ran on cultural appropriation, I think he would lose, right?

Michael: Yes [laughs] 

Peter: But there are salient and compelling issues that map onto identity, and there are very dull, and abstract, and weird and non-compelling issues that map on to identity. You can't just lump them all together and be like, “Identity politics, it's no good.” 

Michael: Levy ends his article by saying, “Identity politics isn't a matter of being on some group's side. It's about fighting for political justice by drawing upon the commitment that arises out of targeted injustice. It lets us spot the majority group's identity politics rather than treating it as the normal background state of affairs, and to recognize the oppression and injustice that it generates.”

Peter: Right. Simple. Look, the bottom line for me has always been like, are there iterations of identity politics and manifestations of identity politics that are objectionable in various different ways? Sure. But politics happens to people on the basis of their identity. How do you respond to that without talking about their identity?

Michael: Especially, if their identity is as a New Yorker.

Peter: [laughs]

Michael: [onomatopoeia]

[If Books Could Kill You theme music]

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