“Country So Unreal” Edition

Listen to this episode

S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.

S2: I’m Stephen Metcalf and this is the Slate Culture Gabfest country, so unreal, Ed. It’s Wednesday, January 13th, 2000, and twenty one on today’s show City So Real is a docu series about the city of Chicago. It’s by Steve James, he of Hoop Dreams and America. To me, it’s now streaming on Hulu and it’s a stunning achievement. And then only some of us were shocked to see the US Capitol besieged and the democratic process of certifying Joe Biden’s win ceremonially halted by violence. Charlie Warzel of The Times will join us to discuss how right wing media has so primed the inhabitants of its echo chambers as to make what happened on January 6th inevitable. And finally, The New Yorker has published a mammoth story uncovered by the veteran journalist Lawrence Wright. It’s a tour de force covering virtually every aspect of the pandemic with the depressing through line that with a few important exceptions, we as a society have utterly failed in the face of this challenge. Joining me today is Julia Turner, the deputy managing editor of the L.A. Times. Hey, Julia. Hello. Hello. And of course, Dana Stevens, film critic for Slate. Hey, Dana. Stephen. Dana, shall we shall we go ready?

Advertisement

S3: Yeah.

S2: OK, well, typically in a typical year, right around this time, the panel figures out sort of informally what was excellent in the previous year that we haven’t yet covered. We do a little culling and we do segments that are sort of untimely, but we think in a way kind of urgent. We don’t want people to miss film or TV show. Why it’s been a little bit different this year thanks to the pandemic. But in the following segment, we’re going to talk about Cities So Real, which is now on Hulu, has been out for a while, but we were committed to covering it. It premiered on the National Geographic Channel. It’s now on Hulu. And I think I will pound the table on this one. I believe you really must seek it out. It’s a docu series by Steve James, who I think is still best known for Hoop Dreams. We also covered America to me a few years ago with this series. I got to say, James is elevated to national treasure status. I really do think this is remarkable. It’s about the city of Chicago. But that’s sort of like saying Moby Dick is a book about a fish. More or less begins with the trial of the white police officer who shot and killed Laquan McDonald, a black teenager, and takes us through the recent mayoral election up to covered in the protests surrounding George Floyd. The style is very panoramic immersive. There are no voiceovers were plunged. In other words, head to toe into the city of Chicago, one of the truly great American cities. And we confront over and over and over again the astonishing fact of a city. Any city really is made up of completely unique individuals, but also immediately recognizable social types. So we hear voices in a black barbershop. We hear the voices of cops eating doughnuts. They have starkly contrasting worldviews. I don’t want to minimize that. But they’re also all distinctively Chicago. In addition to a shared religious feeling for the Bears, the football team, the NFL team, they all exhibit a kind of I found this really striking, a kind of civic pride in Chicago’s culture of political corruption. There’s a Chicago way of doing politics. They all seem to love that. It’s cutthroat in the extreme and bureaucratically arbitrary. So at the heart of the show is this race for mayor at Pits. It’s a field of well over a dozen it newcomer against establishmentarian, white against black, old against young. But also I picked up a little bit of nostalgia for an older, more quote unquote, genteel politics of machine corruption against a new possibility for for real real change and racial progress. Anyway, the trial of the police officer who killed Laquan McDonald gets a variety of responses that are hard to integrate into a single communitarian whole.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: But nonetheless, that sets up the documentary that follows. Let’s listen.

S4: The city needs to train these police officers to not shoot to kill, because I feel like that the police can go after somebody. They should had a day in court. They shouldn’t be judge, jury and executioner. What if Van Dyke is found innocent?

S5: Anger, a lot of sense, this protesting and back to the norm, which is more killing. In Chicago, the Laquan McDonald truck, is that something that you’ve been hearing about, reading about? I’ve heard about it a little bit, but I don’t know enough to comment on it. Haven’t really kept up on that. I haven’t really followed it. Yeah, I also I also don’t know much about it. Why is that you think I don’t follow the news that much unless I have a lot of time to really dig deeper into a subject, because often I find that the media is either so far left or so far right that in order to really understand the real story, you have to spend a lot of time digging into the middle. And I just haven’t had time to follow this one.

Advertisement

S1: Dana, I wonder if you, if you like me, are just profoundly, profoundly grateful to have put this on the calendar and followed through on the determination to see it. I was I was completely floored. What do you make of this?

S3: Yeah, I feel like you see James, his name is attached to something, especially if it’s about the city of Chicago, which essentially everything he’s made, I think, in some way revolves around that locale. You got to put it on your calendar. This is definitely unmissable. There’s such a feeling of this having been made on the ground and on the fly and that you’re watching it happen on the fly without without a predetermined structure or plan as to how the show is going to be made. And yet it’s not particularly sprawling. It’s only five episodes and each under an hour or so, it gets its story told by the standards of current TV in a pretty compact way. But we really don’t know going in how the mayoral race is going to be framed. We, of course, go in now from the perspective of the present, knowing that it’s Lori Lightfoot who won this race, but she doesn’t really become a character in the show until a good three episodes in. And and so we really have a sense of that broad field that you talked about being, you know, something that’s completely in play, especially because one of the big twists at the beginning of the show is that Rahm Emanuel declares and we see his public declaration that he’s not going to run for another term as mayor. So suddenly the field is wide open, in flux in a whole new way. And we kind of witness all of that happening in real time. So it’s this strange combination of, you know, a story that, you know, the outcome of and yet that feels really exciting and unpredictable as it’s happening.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S6: First of all, I have to admit that I watched this and like a perfect state of political amnesia in which I could not I didn’t remember who won. I wasn’t I didn’t feel like in meeting the characters, I was like, oh, yeah. And that’s the one who wins when I later, you know, when we find out the winner, I then quickly remembered, like, oh, right. That person was a figure in the news. And I but I but I like it. I just had a perfect viewing experience where I actually had the suspense of the who’s going to win driving the show.

S7: And I will say, even if you do remember at the outset who the winner is, like, one thing that’s sort of delightful is that the ultimate winner emerges as like an incredibly smart and charismatic person who has their shit together more than the other candidates early on, but seems like a true long shot. And I spent the first couple episodes being like, wow, it’s really a bummer that this incredibly competent seeming person isn’t going to isn’t going to make it. And anyway, I just couldn’t have had a better experience watching it, and I. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Advertisement

S2: Yeah. And then I come in right behind both of you. I think people really ought to watch this and they’ll be thrilled by it. It’s not homework. It’s not spinach. It’s not broccoli. It’s just immersive and wonderful. And, you know, I don’t I you know, New York City. Faces the world right in its own way, faces outward and faces the world, you know, L.A. is the movie business that has a global aspect to it and obviously very national aspect to it as well. It supplies all of us with entertainment. Chicago is just it’s such a monumental it’s such a gigantic, monumental self, consciously big American city that yet looks inward. There’s something about Chicago’s gigantism combined with its introspection. Right. Its social and cultural introspection, its sense that it’s itself that it’s in the middle of the country. It is the great Midwestern city. All of this is on display and therefore its politics is real. Politics like civic urban favor trading, high politician bullshit, corruption driven urban machine, heavily democratic, exclusively democratic, really politics.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: And one of the graphic choices that they made in terms of stuff like graphic design is that is that it’s a city of neighborhoods.

S2: Right. It’s just like every neighborhood is its own internal internally regulating ecosystem with its own mores and worldview. And you so every time you go into a new scene, it shows you graphically what neighborhood it is as part of this map of the whole of Chicago. So you always know you’re not getting everything here. You’re getting you’re getting this neighborhood’s expression of its own identity, at least in some in some degree. And to me then it just kept raising the issue of the relationship of the parts of the hall, which is in some way the American question. Like we’re hyper individualists. We’re told that our own individual pursuit of happiness is our, you know, kind of most our highest calling, in a way, is to pursue our own individual notion of success in some sense. And so we’re faced constantly with the question of what is that hyper individualism add up to in the aggregate socially? Do we make a society together? And then is that relationship a reciprocal one? Does this notion of America play back into what that pursuit is or should be?

S8: And at a moment when the country appears to be just splintering apart, fragmenting apart, I was equally hopeful and despairing watching this. There are moments when you think, oh my God, we are also fucking rooted in our own narcissistic worldview. We will never come together and form a integrated and functional whole. And there were other moments was like, they’re all fucking Chicagoans, like they already have, that they already are, that they already in playing these roles for one another. They are part of a single drama and conceive of themselves that way. I don’t know.

S1: I mean, I was on that fence and was deliriously happy to be on it because I think it gets at something true. But anyway, I’m curious what you make of that, right?

Advertisement

S3: I mean, I think maybe, Steve, for whatever reason, maybe you just got more sleep. I think you watched this in a more hopeful frame of mind than I did. I mean, you’re absolutely right that Steve James loves Chicago pictorially as well. He’s just so, so great at documenting the city and the elevated train in the skyline and all the things those sort of recognizable Chicago landmarks. But what kept standing out to me, I guess, especially in the midst of, you know, the place that electoral politics has brought us to on the federal level is just how in a way hopelessly screwed the whole the whole system of electoral politics and political parties and primaries and voting and signatures. And all of this is I mean, you just you see so much chicanery just going on openly between these candidates. And, you know, I won’t spoil what what all of it is. But, you know, there’s just plenty of scenes where either two candidates or two representatives for two or more different candidates are essentially admitting to each other. You know, what we are doing right now is purely symbolic warfare that benefits absolutely no one except ourselves. And, you know, they continue to do it. And all of the candidates, including the most progressive and idealistic ones, are shown in some way or another exploiting the system or the media for their own benefit. There’s not really any sense in this in this documentary that there’s a place of purity or, you know, righteousness in American politics, even though some of these individual candidates are really admirable people. So you find yourself really, I think, toggling between that kind of idealism. You were talking about the idea of a community that comes together out of extreme diversity and difference and, you know, just the impossibility of even a single barbershop full of people getting anything successfully understood or done.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Sure. And I should say that what hope I took from this documentary mitigated, as qualified as it is, was more a sort of social cultural one that we’re like. And I don’t mean to ostracize the plight of Chicagoans, especially, you know, black Chicagoans at all. But we’re so fucking inexorably ourselves, right, that we form a civic role in spite of ourselves.

S1: There’s just something about this magnificent landscape and conflict as part of what knits it together weirdly. But I do not in any way mean to indicate that the kinds of change that a community like Chicago needs are mammoth. And they you are not hopeful that they will be achieved at the end of this documentary?

Advertisement

S9: Yeah, two quick things I would also add, just as are in our push to get people to sit down and watch this one. Willa Paskin is one of this documentaries, huge, huge advocates. And so is Robert Lloyd, the TV critic at the L.A. Times. And Willa’s line on it in the TV club was it’s like the wire or the good fight, but real like any there’s so many of these characters who could just show up in one of those shows. And James talks about his admiration for for season four of The Wire and Simon’s portrayal of of that complexity of the structural and the bureaucratic and the particular and personal in the in the true execution of city politics. I think that influence is real and possibly both ways.

S7: But, you know, it’s it has some of the hallmarks of some of the best political dramas of the last 20 years in it. And then secondarily, it’s just such an impressive piece of documentary film making. The crew was about three people, James, his son and a time collaborator. There are moments where they seem to be all over the city, the graphics that show up and highlight what neighborhood they’re in. At the beginning, I think Chicago has 58 wards. I wouldn’t it seemed to me like the conceit is that they report from all of the wards. I didn’t actually go back and count and I couldn’t confirm this any of the reporting. But I think they really try to show the whole city in a fascinating way. The scene you mentioned, Steve, where they’re in multiple bars for the same Vital Bears game. It’s just so moving. And you think about how many documentaries we’ve watched that are just like 10 heads in a row in front of their bookcases. And you just feel like those people should go, like bury themselves in the sand in shame. Like it’s so it’s so ambitious. I mean, for three people to do this, they feel like they’re everywhere, like they’re all over the city in this way. That is just an impressive feat of reporting and visual reporting in the way they find to compose beautiful shots of like a thousand dingy bureaucratic rooms with babies chairs. It’s just it’s just glorious.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Yeah. I mean, I love it when the three of us pound the table in unison. And this is this is definitely one of those one of those items I wish I could like. If you don’t have Hulu Plus, like, email me for my login, you know, I mean, I just really want people to watch City so real.

S1: As I say, it’s a it was it started on National Geographic Channel, but it is now on Hulu. So please check it out and talk to us about it on email or Twitter or wherever. OK, moving on. All right, now is the moment in our podcast we discuss business. Dana, what what do we have?

S10: Steve, our only real item of business this week is to tell listeners about today’s Slate plus segment. This is kind of an old question and answer criticism, right? What’s the difference between that which is popular and enjoyable and that which we might call good? And does making that distinction make you a snob? So we’ll be talking about that in our Slate plus bonus segment today. And members can look forward to that if you are not a slate plus member. As always, you can sign up and get a free two week trial at Slate Dotcom Culture Plus. And of course, if there’s anything you would like us to discuss in the future, Slate plus segment, you can send us an email at Culture Fest at Slate Dotcom.

S11: And back to the show.

S2: Charlie Warzel is writer at large for The New York Times opinion pages. He’s been writing for quite a while now about, as he says, the hatred, trolling, violent harassment and conspiracy theorizing that has now moved from the Internet’s underbelly to the White House. Charlie, welcome to the podcast.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S12: Thanks for having me.

S2: What I’m struck reading your work, your recent work and especially the work since January 6th. Was that how the sixth was? Shocking, but almost the most shocking thing of all was how inevitable it had become?

S12: I think that’s exactly right. You know, unfortunately, myself and, you know, a lot of my peers in the journalism industry, most of whom, strangely enough, are tech reporters of some kind, have been have been following this, you know, throughout the throughout the Trump era. And I’ve sort of watched the escalations right. From sort of, you know, like a pro Trump media complex that sort of came up with a lot of sort of independent trolls and influencers online who kind of became a pro Trump press corps. And and then, you know, alongside that, there are these other splinter communities, message board communities, you know, places where sort of the Magga ethos grows and foments. And then starting in 2017, the obviously the Kuhnen conspiracy movement. And, you know, all of those things sort of congeal and then separate at different times. And, you know, we’ve just been watching it build and build. And I think we’ve seen very scary moments like, you know, in October, the plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer there these things. And it never really came to came to a head. We never sort of really saw, you know, it break into mass, you know, violence. And unfortunately, this was sort of the moment that we were all like wincing and hoping wouldn’t come true.

S6: So, Charlie, I’ve been a follower and admirer of your work for so long. It’s really fun to finally get to talk to you. Fun might not be the right word for this topic at this moment in American history, but we’ll allow it. You know, one word that struck me in a column that you wrote last week or one phrase is the reality crisis in America. And, you know, as an editor and journalist like I, my career is devoted to covering reality and telling people about reality. Um, and I think, you know, one thing that January six does is raise awareness of the extent and the potential damage that this alternate FactSet and dual reality structure of our information ecosystem, um, can impose. But it also leaves us with the question of like, what the hell do we do about it? I mean, I spent a bunch of time in the last 48 hours, um, watching not just Fox News, but also listening to a stream of OCN and watching Newsmax this evening show. Sean Spicer has a show on Newsmax called Spizer in which I was not aware of. CO appears to be a blonde anchor who doesn’t merit a name in the title anyway. I mean, I don’t encounter this alternate reality in my perambulations around the Internet and the news ecosystem unless I forced myself to. And when I do, it’s shocking what’s there. And I’m curious for your thoughts on whether there’s a remedy and if so, what it is.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S12: Well, I think I think some of it is is honestly just realizing I mean, I’ve been reporting on these communities and places in the Internet and this reality crisis for a really long time. And I think one thing that people just generally like Americans writ large, just don’t really always grasp is that, you know, a lot of the things that are being set online are not it’s not posturing. It’s people’s actual opinions like especially, you know, these toxic Facebook groups and comments and things like that. I mean, Facebook makes you append your own name to these groups. I mean, this is what they believe, a thing I’ve been thinking a lot about in the past couple of weeks or basically since the election and talking to people about is the idea that we’ve spent the last, whatever, four and a half, five years talking about the supply side of this. Right, which is the platforms, the algorithms, the grifters, the trolls, the you know, the Republican Party, you know, being the merchants of supply here, we don’t talk enough about the demand, which is that there’s a number of people who are courting this alternate reality that is much stickier problem. That is a that is a problem that needs to be solved by policy. That is a problem that needs to be solved by good governance. I mean, like this is basically a rot that we see at the heart of American democracy. And I think that we need this is not a the tech solutions will only go so far to address. But I think what you have is you have a mental health crisis in America, you have a lot of suffering. You have, you know, economic inequality, you have a lot going on. And it doesn’t excuse any of this behavior at all. But I think that it’s it’s an issue that, you know, for the next four years, I plan to sort of look into the demand side of this and how we sort of address that.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S6: Can I ask you a personal question about your own brain as someone who is less of a militant in encountering these theories? I mean, one thing that struck me, um, listening to a congressman on Newsmax last night explain why he went through and, you know, voted to contest the electoral votes of certain states. You know, he he reminded me of a friend I used to have who was like an MIT educated doctor who became an anti Voxer kook. And, you know, he not only did he believe what he was saying, he believed in the rightness of what he was saying. He he pointed out that he objected to certain states, but not others, because, of course, he was applying a strict constitutional standard. And the reason he objected to Arizona, but not some other state, was because in Arizona, there had been some rule, you know, like there is a there is a it’s not just blunt assertion, like there is a set of facts. And I always felt, you know, in the days before, you know, truly not speaking to this ActiveX friend anymore. There would be moments where we would like argue and it was hard to win the argument because she knew so many things about these alleyways. You know, like I hadn’t done the work to learn all the counterpoints to all the craziest things she was saying. And it’s just very easy in the standard media ecosystem to, like, not be particularly aware of what the chapter and verse argument is about, why it is that so many, you know, representatives and senators were objecting to Arizona. And like, do you ever find yourself pulled by the alternate facts set or like, how do you encounter it and keep your own grip on reality?

Advertisement
Advertisement

S12: Personally, I struggle more with sort of the existential, you know, staring into the abyss of, you know, a sizable percentage of the country just not living in the same reality as myself. And that’s what I struggle with as someone who deals with this in terms of struggling with the actual facts themselves. I really don’t. But I think I think what you bring up is really important, which is that it is an incredibly difficult task to do, radicalize somebody who has fallen, you know, down some of these rabbit holes. It is really, really difficult. I’ve written about it a little. You know, what it basically takes is, is like you can’t scale this process. There’s no sort of like, you know, video you can put on for a bunch of people or like, you know, it’s very easy for like a viral video to sort of, you know, start the process of radicalization. The de radicalization is incredibly personal. You know, you need somebody who’s willing to spend lots of time, be extraordinarily empathetic and understanding and patient and diligent in countering these things. And I think that’s what’s really scary, is it’s so easy. You know, there’s a million ways in and there’s like one or two ways out.

S13: Oh, happy New Year, Dana.

S3: We haven’t heard from you yet, Julia, when you talk about your Antibalas friend having this seemingly not reasonable maybe, but meaningful set of statistics or facts to counter your argument with, I was thinking of my own plunge into the depths of right wing media. We all agreed that we would spend some time there on Fox or Onin or Newsmax or one of these alt right kind of sources. And and the way I did that was to listen to an hour or so of of Ohayon in radio, which I think was the only non-pay walled way I could find, you know, way, way to hear somebody and without having to give any money to the operation. And what struck me about it the most at first was how seemingly reasonable, how much it sounded like regular news radio for for large portions of that hour, even as it was asserting facts that were contrary to things we had all seen unroll before our very eyes last week. And the example that comes to mind, and I wonder if Charlie has anything to say about this kind of shift in perspective, is the way they presented the story of Brian Cesnik, the Capitol Police officer who was killed, the whatever we’re calling it, at the, you know, attempted coup. You know, you would you would think that this would present an uncomfortable fact for right wing media, right, that a cop generally a job that is, you know, held in high esteem by the right, is beaten to death at, you know, what they’re framing as this righteous insurrection. But there was a strange way that Brian Psionics death was just folded into, you know, the traditional sort of way of presenting the death of a police officer as something heroic. And and so there was a whole piece on him and his family and their morning and their desire for privacy, et cetera, exactly the way that you would. You know, this kind of death be be shown had this this officer died in some more traditionally heroic way than being, you know, simply sacrificed by this angry mob that was, in fact, on the side of the media company presenting it. And so it was very easy to see how that radicalization could happen by by slow steps. Right. I mean, you were hearing this apparently objective story of the sad death of this man who was just doing his job. And there was just this complete omission of the agency of how that death came about.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S12: I wrote in twenty seventeen in January, the day of the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump, about the rise of this pro Trump media ecosystem and the fact that basically, you know, they were like I compared it to a stranger things is the upside down, right? It’s like a mimicking reality in every way, except sort of like a reverse image and a little bit darker. And that’s really what it is. It’s modeled after the mainstream media. And it takes, you know, at the same time that it calls, you know, the mainstream media the enemy of the people. It faces a lot of its content off of mainstream media reporting, because I think of it as one of those on ramps right away to get someone to sort of, you know, take the heuristics they understand and put them on to, you know, essentially what is either propaganda or or conspiracy theories. So that to me is is a really formidable issue. And it’s part of, I think, what we’re all struggling with right now in this, you know, this social era of the Internet where we kind of, you know, flipped a couple of switches, democratized publishing, and then basically funneled extreme amounts of attention at it. And and that attention means money. That attention means power. And, you know, we’re dealing with the fallout right now. And I think we need to we need to really, whether it’s government, whether it’s these social media companies like this, should be a come to Jesus moment. This this has to be something, right.

S2: That’s what I was going to go next, Charlie, which is, you know, to what degree, you know, what is that? We’re all trying to figure out those of us who have not been part of these echo chambers, trying to figure out how deep, how pervasive the commitment to unreality is in the country. And, you know, one way of thinking about the pandemic was it was just reality heaving into the worlds and world views of some of, you know, the Fox viewership on whatever into this alternate media saying no like expertise you have to take as a matter of not just death, but mass death. Right. Not just death, but intimate death. People that you know are going to be lost to this. You know, that the reality principle would finally reassert itself in some way. Well, that has been widely refuted by the response to the pandemic by a broad plurality of the country. I wonder, is there any way in which January 6th operates as this come to Jesus moment? Is there some reality principle being the sort of people? Is there enough of the hardcore far right wing of the Republican Party? Is it is there enough of a mainstream mentality there to believe that that was an act of public desecration and that a rethink might be possible?

Advertisement
Advertisement

S12: The way I’ve been thinking about it and some of my reporting is I don’t even know if it’s bearing this out. But and the way that I’m thinking about it is that this is sort of a it’s an organizational moment. Right? Like, I don’t think that there is one trajectory here. I don’t think that there’s a group, you know, the broad mass of people looks at this and says, OK, well, you know, that was a fun four years. I’m done. You know, this is like I think the line has been drawn. But I do think for a number of people, the line has been drawn. I talked to a few people who went to that rally, the part of the rally, and then sort of watched the migration to the Capitol and the stage. And again, you know, they could be lying to me. This is always a possibility that I take seriously. But there are a number of people who express, you know, who traveled long distances and spent a lot of money and were disgusted and said, you know, I don’t think that this movement is for me anymore. And I think that there is like an organizational principle to that. I also think that, you know, that there are those for whom this was a you know, this was a propaganda win and this was a this was a radicalizing moment. I mean, I’ve been following some people on the Internet who have clearly been further radicalized by this and will only go kind of deeper into this world and sort of see it. And it’s that’s incredibly troubling. So I think it’s a sporting moment. And I think what’s what’s what’s a positive takeaway is that I think there are people who are going to say, you know, this isn’t worth it, especially this guy, you know, that’s the leader of this party, you know, is not worth this fight. But I think the scary part is that there are some people who, as I’ve seen, are clearly willing to, you know, actually go down with the ship.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S9: All right. Well, Charlie, at the you know, you’ve done extraordinary work actually reporting and covering this reality crisis. So it feels unfair to also ask you to fix it by. I’m curious, on your advice for our listeners, many of whom I would imagine have similar media profiles to the three of us and don’t regularly expose themselves to Newsmax nightly broadcasts or the kind of darker, more raffish and weird small websites that post even even stranger things and look less like the mainstream media. Um, is your recommendation to people with that media consumption profile? Like, do we need to know more about this world? Do we need to encounter it directly to be aware of it and combat it? Should we continue in the reality of reality and continue ignoring it? Like, what’s the best course of it? You know, should should we not read it, but in fact, call all of our representatives? Like, what’s the what’s the right course of action for someone with a newly heightened awareness of the reality crisis?

S12: I think that people should definitely continue to live in the reality section of the news, like definitely don’t like don’t get so wrapped up in trying to understand the enemy that you start to sort of lose focus. Because I will say this is you know, I I and a lot of my peers have been staring into the abyss for a half decade now. And there are times when you do sort of like get a little turned around right. With on a specific issue or specific point or so. It is kind of like a tightrope to walk if you want to just immerse yourself in this. I mean, I think there is a lot of great reporting out there. You know, Ben Collins, Brandy’s Drosnin at NBC News do a great job, Julia. Carrie Wong at The Guardian. Joan Donovan is at the Shorenstein Center for Media at Harvard. She’s a disinformation researcher. You know, my colleagues at the Times, David Alba, Shira Frankel, all these people do phenomenal jobs that the like the the coverage and reporting on this ecosystem is out there. Seek it out and try to understand a little bit more about these movements and and be attentive to those in your life who you see, you know, potentially moving towards those areas and and have you know, if you do see that have reach out to them, be, you know, open minded and kind towards them and empathetic especially, you know, if they’re just sort of starting to flirt with this stuff, it is much easier to sort of pull them back by saying, like, hey, like, you know, let’s try to let’s try to understand why you think this, you know, creating finding little spaces to create cognitive dissonance. Right. If there’s some huge, vast conspiracy that’s been, you know, trumpeted for four years and we haven’t seen one shred of proof, you know, ask them why haven’t we, like, try to go down that that path a little with them? Be be careful with it. If someone seems like they’re fully radicalized, it’s probably not worth your time. And and, you know, it could potentially even end up being a little bit dangerous for you. So, you know, be careful with that. But, um, I really like there is a there’s a lot of scary stuff right now regarding this, but one huge positive is that a lot of people are waking up to this. And I think that that even means some of these companies, some of these tech companies, some of the lawmakers like I think we’re going to see movement in this space. I think it’s going to be contentious. And I think it’s going to be I think it’s going to be a pretty scary dark period. But I’m hoping that it’s sort of a little bit like our current period of the coronavirus where it’s, you know, it’s a little bit darkest before before things start to get better. So that’s that’s like the hopeful part of me thinks that. All right. Well, thank you for ending on a hopeful note. Charlie Warzel is a writer at large for The New York Times opinion page. Charlie, thank you so much for coming on and talking to us about this. I really hope we have you back. Yeah, anytime.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Lawrence Wright is a veteran Texas journalist. In my estimation, a great journalist, he’s also something of a Renaissance man. He’s a musician, a playwright, a novelist. Anyway, his nonfiction book, The Looming Tower, is regarded as the definitive history of the rise of al-Qaeda. He’s now written what I think presents itself as ambitiously attempting to be the definitive account thus far of the pandemic. At the heart of which I would say is a simple thesis is in its way, is as immersive and panoramic as cities so real. But at the heart of it is just the idea that we collectively have failed and failed spectacularly in the face of this challenge. Towards the end of the article, he quotes various national surveys 95 percent of Danish respondents said that their country had handled the crisis capably. He says in Australia, the figure was 94 percent. The United States and the United Kingdom, the only two countries where a majority believed otherwise. In Denmark, 72 percent said the country had become more unified. Since the contagion emerged, 18 percent of Americans felt this way. Julia, I want to just start with you as an editor. This is a behemoth. I think it’s a 3000 word article, if I’m not mistaken. It’s essentially a small book. And for point of comparison, that’s that’s, you know, three quarters as long as like The Great Gatsby, it really is this book, like in its scope as an editor, what did you make of it as a piece of journalism and help us maybe focus the conversation?

S6: Yeah, I mean, I am so excited to talk about this with you. And it’s funny because this piece landed right around the New Year and set out to be, I think, the definitive to offer definitive analysis of how America fuck this up so badly. It’s not an account of the full global pandemic, although it does zoom out globally.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S9: And, yes, sort of thinking about the origins of the pandemic and the American response to it. Um, you know, I think the greatest service this piece does is really an offering that analysis and in highlighting what it sees as the key three structural breaches that that caused America to have such a failed response. You know, the first is failing to quickly understand that asymptomatic transmission was, you know, not just possible, but a key driver of transmission for this particular virus. The second was the failure of the CDC to make a test that works and then also its efforts to control testing rather than kind of disperse testing. We were much slower to have accurate tests than many other countries. And then the third is the failure to recognize that masks, um, could help prevent transmission and consistently message around that.

S7: So just offering, like a zoomed out answer is so valuable. A place where I think the piece does less well is in the tapestry aspect. I think there are a lot of voices in this piece and a lot of voices missing. And it almost makes me wish we could read the version. That’s two and a half times longer. Perhaps we will in the book someday soon because I almost don’t want to pin it on write the voices that are not in here. But I think there’s an interesting pattern to what’s missing. But we can get to that. Curious what what you guys made of it.

S3: I think maybe the most impressive thing about this as a piece of reporting and storytelling is the way that it takes a lot of data points that we sort of knew that you can’t really have gotten through 20/20 paying any attention without knowing the rough outline of all of this. And by putting them in a particular timeline and juxtaposing them in a particular way and weaving in these individual stories in between makes you see the entire disaster kind of emerging in what feels like real time, as you’re reading. I mean, in a sense, I feel like this this article, this what is it? Thirty thousand word article packs in almost the same amount of information is that entire book we read early in the pandemic, John buries the great influenza that it feels like reading this at the end of the covid year after having read that one together at the beginning, is creates this kind of bookend. Right. What is it like to actually tell the story not a hundred years later, but as it’s happening? And just to give an example, I mean, some of the things that were known about this virus, really serious things were known so much earlier than anyone in the U.S. was was talking about them. I mean, certainly at our level. Right, just as citizens experiencing this this pandemic in our lives, but also at the level of government he kicks off, Lawrence Wright kicks off with this conversation that happened between Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC, and a highly placed Chinese scientist who’s briefing him on what’s going on in Wuhan and other parts of China. And that’s happening in January. I think it’s happening at the same time roughly as the as the impeachment hearings. So it’s late January that this Chinese scientist is on the phone with Robert Redfield, weeping about how intractable this huge growing epidemiology disaster in his country is. And the idea that and then and then there’s a briefing, a congressional briefing that Mitch McConnell announces on the impeachment hearing floor. You know, everybody’s coming tomorrow to this briefing about this new virus coming from China and something like. When senators go to the briefing, right, so you just you just see it’s like a monster movie where you see this thing kind of emerging from the depths while everybody is looking in the opposite direction.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I mean, there’s so many you can grab at any part of this this beast and and pick out something horrifying and really look deeply dismaying about political leadership in this country.

S8: But one that jumped out to me was Larry Kudlow, this complete ninny out of Bonfire of the Vanities. I’m in an 80s relic who never should have seen the halls of power again. He’s he says it can’t possibly be serious because the stock market is high. The stock market, he has this massive ideological prior, which is that the markets are perfect discounting mechanisms. They see the future collectively better than any individual medical expert does. Is all the money dumb? He wandered, everyone’s asleep at the switch.

S1: So, of course, you know, he denies having made these statements, I, I would bet everything. I own that he did. But Manoogian, similarly, like a total reluctance to shut down the economy. This this totally committed belief that shutting down the economy, you know, netnet is going to cause more damage than the virus. So committed to that belief, you’re willing to tolerate a mass casualty event. And then ultimately and I’m sure these two things are related, the downgrading of Deborah Berk’s and Foushee in favor of Atlus and Novarro, people who essentially want this to be a herd immunity approach because of this ideological commitment. Right. And it just I don’t you can you know, but, Julia, you know, another place to focus on. The political class is relative indifference to the mayhem and death that have proceeded from the from the non economic or non directly economic mayhem and death that have proceeded from the pandemic has to do with how inequitably distributed the pain of it is. So it overwhelmingly affects the old, the poor, the black and the brown. And that’s not a small part of this article. That’s definitely something Wright is interested in focusing on. What do you what do you think?

Advertisement
Advertisement

S9: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s the place where I’d like to see the longer cut, even as long as this story was, because there were there were a few things that were striking to me about how the peace approached, talking about the impact on less powerful people in the country. Um, first of all, there are almost no Latino voices in the story.

S7: Um, and the there is a black doctor who we meet and whose childhood in the western Carolinas we hear about and who sort of becomes the voice of the disparate medical impact. But she’s she’s a professional, you know, sort of everyone we almost everyone we hear from is a professional in a way that I don’t know seem to impose a filter on whose voices are useful to hear that slightly at odds with the impact of the pandemic on nonprofessionals. And obviously, some of the frontline workers are medical professionals and they’ve been really hit by the carelessness and incompetence of the government response. But, you know, just I was learning a little bit for the stories of the insta cart delivery person or the checkout cashier or, you know, the person who’s kind of child care and schooling situation relative to their hourly shift work.

S9: And it’s increasing unpredictability like that to me is some of the most kind of urgent and under seen pain of the pandemic.

S7: I just felt like those voices were missing, you know, and those voices don’t have enough power in government as we’ve as we’ve seen in cities are real and as is evident. Um, and. I just felt like the structure of this published version replicated that a little bit by sort of finding professional voices to explain the disparate impact on a non-professional classes.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S9: And that’s my one note, which, like I would bet you everything I own that there’s a lot of those voices on the cutting room floor and that, you know, perhaps the like. I don’t chalk that up as a criticism of right at all or even necessarily the editing, because I think we wouldn’t it would be harder to see the clear, OK, these were the three failures if the piece were seventy thousand words long instead of 30. But I, I think the full account of what happened and how America failed has to center some of those voices in different ways than the story did.

S3: Yeah, Julia, I think maybe the exception that proves the rule of what you just said, I think you’re you’re absolutely right that those are some of the voices that are missing. But to me, one of the most affecting and memorable parts of this article has to do with someone who loses a parent to covid-19 and just what it’s like to be that person in that situation that we’ve been hearing about all year, but have not necessarily heard reported from the inside in this way. You know, being the person who’s who’s brought in in full PPE to say goodbye to someone you love in this horrible sci fi like atmosphere. And he’s such a great storyteller. Lawrence Wright isn’t so good at evoking material details of daily life that it would have been great if there were some fewer scenes in the halls of power and more in places like that.

S2: One thing that I agree, Dana, and very much agree, Julia. One thing I would add is that Lawrence Wright is himself 73 years old. He’s septuagenarian. And I felt that in reading the piece that that there’s. There is an ageism at work in in both public policy and I think to a degree public attitude towards the disease, there is a not acute enough sense of what it is like to deprive people of even after a year. I mean, just how precious time comes at the end of a person’s life. The people I know who’ve been personally know who have died of covid are over the age of 70. And I know young children who are being deprived of at least a decade, if not two, if not 25 years or more of a grandparent. I you know, I felt in this piece there was an acute sensitivity to the human cost of the last portion of people’s lives being abbreviated by a disease like this. And that might have been absent in an article written by a 35 or 45 year old, quite understandably. But I was grateful for its presence in this piece of the piece, I should say, is called The Plague Year. It’s by the extraordinary journalist Lawrence Wright.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: It’s in the December 28th, twenty twenty edition of The New Yorker. All right, moving on. All right, now is the moment in our podcast and we endorse Dana, what do you have?

S3: Stephen, this week I think I will fulfill my civic duty as Slate’s film critic and recommend a movie, a movie that was on the runners up for my 10 best list this year. But that has been really under scene in part because of the pandemic and in part just because it’s a tiny, small budget movie with a tiny distributor. But but I think it’s really worth seeking out in a way. I’m also endorsing the place where you can go and find this movie, which is Grasshopper Film, a great thing about the closure of theaters during the pandemic. One bit of silver lining to it is that a lot of small distributors, movie distributors that otherwise, you know, would be putting up movies maybe in a couple big urban centers are now releasing these tiny indies where everybody can watch them online for a reasonable price. And the one that I’m going to endorse on Grasshopper film is called 14. It’s a movie by Dan Sarlat, who I’ve talked about before on this podcast as a critic, really, and as a writer. He has a blog, just a very old school, kind of, you know, old fashioned, almost imagery type only blog about about movies, whichever movies he goes out to see. And is just a great writer about classic film. I think I once endorsed a blog post he wrote on Howard Hawks. Anyway, he’s also a filmmaker and usually his films get seen by about 10 people per year. But this movie, 14, which came which was made in 2019 and then held for release until this year, is actually getting seen by more people and noticed on more year endless. I’m seeing it showing up in different places. 14 is a story of the friendship between two women. It’s called 14 because they meet in middle school, but they’re in their 20s during most of the movie and without giving too much away, it’s essentially about an increasingly unstable friend and how you deal with that, you know, with the sort of demise of that friendship and substance abuse is involved, mental illness is involved. It’s a tough movie in some ways, but it’s also full of humor and really, really wonderful performances is only 94 minutes long. And it really hit the spot for me this year when I saw it. If so, if you want to look at 14, it is on grasshopper film along with tons of other great indies. Please explore that site and get back to me. Tell me what you found. Julia, what do you have?

Advertisement
Advertisement

S6: I have two recommendations related to the Japanese artist Hokusai, who everybody probably knows from his views of Mount Fuji Series much reproduced. Um, there was a wonderful essay in August in The New York Times that I missed a part of that close read series, which is an interesting interactive look at Hokusai art and how it was perceived at the time, how it, uh, was perceived in the West at the moment and sort of reproduction and art. Has he made prints that were reproduced and so they didn’t have the scarcity. That sometimes brings a sense of perception of value to art for being rare. Um, but it’s just a really smart, interesting contextual look at his work, which I never really read about, apart from having seen it everywhere and admired it. And then somehow the very same week that this came to me on Internet currents, uh, I also found via a coqui link that someone has made a gigantic Lego recreation of, uh, perhaps one of hooka city’s most famous images, the great wave of Kanagawa. Um, and it’s it’s the one you remember, where you can barely tell that Mount Fuji is a mountain because it looks like a small peak and a gigantic, tumultuous sea. But as someone who currently spends a fair amount of time working on enormous Lego sets with some young men, um, it’s pretty cool to see Lego art taken in this direction. So my recommendation are two different ways of appreciating the art of Hokusai.

S2: Oh, my God, what a great endorsement. All right. We have two very quick endorsements this week. The first is there’s a if I if I haven’t totally misread it, there’s this interesting semih cover rivalry between two Yale historian Samuel Moina Emilion and Timothy Snyder.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S14: Snyder, of course, has become famous with his little book on tyranny and various, to my mind, extremely perceptive diagnoses of the contemporary situation through the lens of European fascism. And the bone of contention between them appears to be whether or not we’re living in a fascist moment. To what extent the analogy to Europe, you know, in the 20s and 30s is the apt one with Snyder on the firmly on the pro side. And Snyder wrote a piece for the Times magazine that he must have at the very last minute have updated to include the events of January six. It’s called The American Abyss. As a historian of fascism and political atrocity on Trump the Mob and what comes next is just so perceptive. And I have to say to my mind, it’s game, set, match in this argument, which I find ridiculous to begin with. I mean, clearly, Trump is a fascist, an aspiration not to be important enough like we it’s possible that this is the beer hall putsch. Right. It’s possible that we’re ten years away from the state apparatus being completely commandeered by the fascist element.

S13: Arnold Schwarzenegger called it Kristallnacht. Yeah, no, exactly. I my chief political analyst, I turn to Scott, but. Right.

S14: It’s like I mean I mean, how how can you withhold that judgment at this point? Like up on what? I mean, I have a set of speculations about what motivates Samuel Moine, who in many ways very brilliant, you know, fairly young historian. But but he’s just wrong. He’s just plain wrong and he’s morally wrong. And he’s more than just sort of wrong in any sort of factual sense. He he his own moral imagination is failing grossly where Snider’s is being incredibly perceptive and premonitory in ways that we better heed, because it could be Kristallnacht, it could be more like the bureau. Hopwood’s we don’t know. I mean, but but the point is, like, you know, you don’t you know.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: You’ve got to you’ve got to fight it early, right, and with everything you have and we are no longer early is the important thing. And anyway, I think it is both a a a really precise, perceptive, nuanced.

S8: Essay as well as clearly a call to arms that, you know, really alerting us to what we’re up against, and he makes this very, very enlightening distinction that we all know. But he makes it so clearly between the breakers and the gamers, the people who actually sincerely out of whatever nihilistic impulse, just want to break the current system totally right. Like, utterly destroy it, you know. So Crutzen, Ali, maybe and the gamers like McConnell who actually McConnells and Institutionalists, but he wants to use this force of the breakers in order to achieve his institutionalists games. And he talks about January 6th is the moment where the gaming and the breaking finally came head to head with one another as as Mike Pence, you know, and McConnell, these gamers were clearly in danger of being lynched, right. By by the Braker faction, right by the by the shock troops of the Braker faction. I mean, these words you can scarcely utter them without feeling as though you were in a movie, but you’re not. So anyway, I highly recommend this essay. And then on a slightly lighter note, you know, I have this like cherished little canon of music I can’t listen to because I love it too much. I don’t want it to become overly familiar. My delicate sensibilities won’t allow that to happen. But I, I luckily I found a Nina Simone song I’d never heard before. That is as beautiful as anything she’s ever done. It was brand new to me. It was like finding a new Beatles song or Shakespeare sonnet or whatever. I wonder if people know it. It’s off of the folk album that she did, which is probably why I didn’t know it. I actually don’t think that’s a great record of hers. It’s good, but it’s not great. But she did this song called Twelfth of Never, and I’d love it if we could go. I don’t know. I mean, I just to me, it’s superlatively beautiful, like unsurpassable great Nina Simone. And maybe that will give us all a little bit of solace anyway. Thank you, Dana. It was a pleasure.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Thanks, Julia. Thank you. You’ll find links to some of the things we talked about today on our show page, that Slate dotcom culture. First, please email us. We do actually really, really enjoy it. We try to get back to you at Culture Fest, at Slate Dotcom. You can interact with us on Twitter. Our feed is at Slate, Colthurst, our producers and Drus. Our production assistant is Rachel Allen. Our theme music is by the wonderful Nick Brittelle. For Dana Stevens and Julia Turner, I’m Steve Inskeep. Thank you so much for joining us. We will see you soon.

S15: Until. My 12 Padmavati. And.

S9: Hello and welcome to the Slate plus segment of the Slate Culture Gabfest. Today, we have a bit of an addendum we took on our live show, a question about whether we are snobs. And we all blithely, I think, declared some version of us not being snobs, but just having good taste. And we got a long email from a listener, Chris Gallagher in Boston. Subject line snobbery, comma, respectfully, that was quite respectful, but basically was like, can you really not see the ways in which you are snobs? I asked this lovingly or at least likely. And Cameron, our producer, distilled this down into a good question for us to tackle in plus, which is what do we mean when we draw a distinction between good and enjoyable? I think, you know, part of the argument is if you think there is a difference between enjoyable and good, you are perhaps by definition a snob. I don’t know if we need to encounter that definitional question, but what’s the difference between something good and something merely enjoyable, but not quite good? Dana, you are the critic.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: You start I mean, is I think I said up top in introducing a business that this was going to be our Slate plus segment. This really is sort of the key question of criticism. I mean, if you did start getting into the definitional aspect of it, you would be talking about, you know, the very value of criticism as a practice. Right, as a as a medium. And so I guess we’re going to answer it in a more personal way, because, like you, I don’t feel like debating, you know, getting out a critique of judgment and like debating the history of this notion.

S13: Don’t worry, Dana. I’ve got that covered. Yes, you’ve got that correct. Open to the right page.

S3: I mean, ultimately, I think it does have to come down to defending one’s own personal taste in something like why do you have to justify your pleasure? Write a big, big movement in art reception in general, not just in criticism, but I think you see it in social media all the time, too. Is the is the the Pro- pleasure movement. Right, that there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure, that that category in itself is is insulting to the breadth of different kinds of works of art and popular culture that there are out there. And that to to try to make that distinction at all is is snobbery in itself. Um, so, for example, let me try to think of something that we’ve talked about recently on this show that that’s sort of trash and yet enjoyable at the same time. I mean, maybe I would say that Bridgton that we talked about last week. Right, the the 18th century kind of sex first TV series that is getting a lot of playing a lot of viewers right now would I would, I guess, categorize it is not my favorite kind of thing, but somewhat fun trash. So what does it mean for it to be fun trash and why am I not recognizing it on the same level that I would recognize? I don’t know the Jane Austen novels that it in some ways parodies or plays around with themes from. And every time I hit that point, I don’t really have an answer except for, you know, the Supreme Court cliche about knowing it when you see it like that, that show is is simply not witty enough or cleverly written enough to to qualify as as great art, in my view. But I understand how the colors and the performances and the cakes and all of those things make it fun and pleasurable to watch.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S13: Okay, Julia, save me.

S9: Say, OK, well, I think I have an answer that I look forward to you guys challenging with references to. But to me, the difference between enjoyable and good is to me a work of art is good. If its parts seem to move in concert to put forth a like striking and fresh way of thinking about the world that has value to me and enjoyable are things that are like fun, entertainments or developments, but that I don’t feel like the parts add up to a whole, you know, will. I actually wrote something to this effect in talking about I may destroy you and why she liked it so much in the TV club. It’s in the same entry where she talks about city so real, which is why I happen to just read it and be thinking of it. But, um, she says this is what I most want from TV, something literary, which I wish we had a good TV cognate for. So I don’t sound like such a tool using it here, but TV that’s chewy and challenging and considered and personal where every detail pushes and signifies and bears up to thinking about. So to me, both Bridgton and Queen’s Gambit succeed as entertainment, but don’t succeed as art because everything that Queen’s Gambit has to say about like gender and the world is like stupid and wrong and contradictory and undermines itself. And Bridgton, I think, is more harmless. I think Bridgton is playing with some of the same ideas as Jane Austen about the constraints put upon women in that period of time and how women had to negotiate socially to find power where they could. Um, but when Jane Austen was making those points in sharper prose, they were newer points that were more relevant to the specifics of the culture she was operating in. And whereas, you know, the, um, the production adaptation doesn’t seem like it’s taking those things particularly to anywhere new or fresh that’s pushing like human thought or the collective understandings of human experience forward. So that is like the hidden distinction that I’m operating on. And it accounts to why I think, um, like I think a Game of Thrones is fundamentally fails is art. It’s an incredible spectacle. And it’s a it’s a pretty enjoyable entertainment, I think, for most people. For many people. But like, I don’t actually think Game of Thrones has anything interesting to say about power, whereas The Wire does. And I think Mad Men did like had something interesting to say at Breaking Bad, I think has an interesting to say about human morality. Like so my definition is, does the piece does the entertainment signify and add up to something interesting that it is putting forth about the human condition? Tell me where I’m wrong.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Metcalf Oh, man. What does McCarthy I mean, what I what I love about this is one of those questions which you can’t possibly answer. If you think you have an answer, the answer is inevitably wrong, but you also can’t stop asking it.

S1: You know, there’s just something about the need to construe value is somehow intrinsic in the work itself. Right. And not merely a product of a set of subjective impressions and opinions. It’s just it’s a really powerful one. And I guess one way to frame it is to say you’ve got these two theoretical extremes, one of which we keep saying is CONSE, which I think is right like that. In fact, it’s in a state of disinterest that one can begin to see what beauty or truth in here is and the object itself or whatever, at least an ideal of a kind of object objectivity when it comes to apprehending what’s important about a work of art or whatever. And then there’s Bordier, this French theorist, you know, of the 20th century, who really believed that these were essentially SNOP distinctions that had to do with the underlying landscape of social power. And, you know, a great example of a modern board, Dorrian were Devean would be Carl Slaten, Carl Wilson, whose book about Celine Dion is absolutely about. In fact, he has said to me, I can’t remember what was on the show or just personally that, you know, that essentially it is a real world journalistic, essayistic application of the Bordo principle to the social landscape of French Canada, Anglo Canada, and the kind of community out of which Celine Dion came. And whatever is is brilliant. And you know what? I say, other than that, we’re human, therefore we exist between these seemingly irreconcilable poles of subjective and objective, and we have to move forward understanding ourselves as both. And I think also about English classes, like having been in countless English classes and now taught them, you know, a number of times that kind of every level. What are you trying to get a student to do? What are you trying to teach? You’re not teaching them a set of memorizing facts. You’re not teaching them a hierarchy of judgment. That’s preposterous. I think what you’re teaching them is what it’s like to go from having an uninsulated set of intuitions about a work of art and then make of those in Kuwait impressive impressions, something public and reasoned and defensible. And one doesn’t say to a student, oh, that’s completely wrong. Or how could you possibly believe what you do say? How do you believe that? Why do you believe that you’re really looking for a person to come into possession of their own judgments in a way that’s authoritative without being arbitrary in dialogue with other human beings? And all the critic is the person who gets paid to do it. And if you start saying that, you know, terrible movies that are widely regarded as terrible or magnificent and magnificent, you know, movies are terrible, whatever your judgment is just so completely out of whack with everybody in the world, you’re going to be out of a job like in some place. The proving ground there is the marketplace of readers. And I, I, I don’t know. I mean, the other thing I would say is that you’re trying to teach people. Two different things, but to bring them into balance, which is a degree of reasoned authority behind their opinions, in their accountability to others. Right. And an appreciation of how wrong they can be given how historically wrong, supposedly authoritative voices of the past have been. I mean, there’s a way in which, like Shakespeare’s plays were barely given over to posterity because they were theater. Of course, that was the best art form. It’s not a literary art form. Well, that turned out to be the wrongest judgment in the history of literature. Right. There’s a sense that Dickens is too popular or, you know, so we don’t like there’s got to be a you somehow have to find a way to combine your. Self-confidence, critical self-confidence with humility. And it’s the only thing I’ve ever been able to come up with when thinking about these things.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S9: You’re making me feel less humility like I’m confident the Queen’s Gambit is not Dickins. That is just stupid hubris.

S8: No, I mean, it’s not, though. But it may it may just you don’t know how time works on everything individual us individually and culture, us collectively in ways that we can’t know of. Now we can’t discount for handicapped now in the present. And it’s just the humility about how wrong the past has been about like objective truth. Right. Like things that pass the muster of science.

S1: Rigorous science turned out to be baldly superstitious. Why should taste judgements be any different? I mean, taste changes, you know, it’s like the idiot. You’re not we’re human. We are never going to be ratified in our own experience by eternity. Right. The view from nowhere is never going to pop into human experience and say that you are transcendentally correct about X or Y at the same time, you want to share your judgments with other people.

S2: On something more than a purely subjective basis.

S13: Well, well, Steve, I wish you were my English teacher. That was incredibly well said. And you’re at exactly the place where my language ended.

S3: And I’m supposed to be the one who is doing this for a living. You kind of jumped in and explained it to me. And I think that you’re right, that it’s it’s the paradox of those two things straining against each other. Right. That makes that makes what we’re doing or what anyone who’s talking about art and culture is doing worth doing. Right. I mean, the desire to find some kind of common ground, some agreement about what beauty and truth are or what, you know, what a good TV show is or what popcorn entertainment is, and also the sense that that that conversation is never going to reach some absolute resolution.

S9: All right. Well, having conclusively proven that we’re not snobs, we conclude this very heady episode of Sleepless. Thank you so much, listeners, for listening and for supporting Slate and all of its work in addition to the show. Thank you. Respectful and liking listener for sending such a provocative email along. We’ll talk to you all next week.