Y’all may remember that years ago — like, pre-COVID — I happily shared with y’all the fact that I had finally figured out something painfully obvious: that the best time to listen to podcasts, which I had been meaning to do, was during my long walks each day.
Anyway, at the time, I mentioned that one of my favorites up to that point was “The Argument,” a New York Times podcast. In fact, I linked to a specific episode from those days. That program was very good when it featured David Leonhardt, Ross Douthat and Michelle Goldberg. Then those people started falling away from it, and the topics started to be things that didn’t interest me, and I got out of the habit.
I’m only recently discovered an adequate substitute for it. It’s called “Matter of Opinion,” with Michelle Cottle, Ross Douthat, Carlos Lozada and Lydia Polgreen. It has only one former Argument participant — Douthat — but it very much has the same kind of thoughtfulness and intellectual heft that The Argument once had. And it has one other essential ingredient: civility. Here are people who are about as wide apart as you can get on issue after issue, and yet they not only discuss these differences in a civil manner, but they enjoy each other’s company. It’s rather like another NYT feature in that regard: “The Conversation,” featuring Gail Collins and Bret Stephens.
In other words, it offers the kind of vibe I am determined to have on this blog.
Anyway, the most recent one was headlined, “The Woke Burnout Is Real — and Politics Is Catching Up.” I frankly did not fully understand the phrase “woke burnout” at first, partly because it didn’t start with any sort of formal statement of the topic. Who was burned out? The right? The left? And why? (I very much hoped it would be for good reasons.) But I think what is meant is what is said in the subhed, “It’s time to start asking if the culture wars actually matter to voters.”
Then, when I looked at it on my PC — seeking the transcript — I found this intro:
Classrooms have been a key battleground in the so-called woke wars for years now. But could the debate over how schools teach history, race, gender and sexuality be coming to an end?
That explained it.
And part of it was wonderful. Especially when Carlos Lozada said that:
… for the last couple of days I’ve had this deep dread and despair weighing on me, knowing we were going to talk about this. The discussions over woke, and anti-woke, and culture wars are soul sucking to me. I think it’s good to have specific debates over affirmative action in college admissions, the problems with boys, the way we teach history. I mean, that’s terrific. And we’ve had that on this podcast, and we should continue to have it. But when we talk about the culture war, that’s not about debating issues. The culture war is about joining a side. It is about picking a team. And the problem with picking a team in the culture wars is that you inevitably end up with lunatics on your team. And the craziest ones are often the captains of the team. And they may want to go much further than you might want to go.
But you’re on the team, and you don’t want the other side to win. So you end up supporting what the team is defending. So you end up fighting vociferously over things you may not know a lot about. You end up policing language and dogma with the zeal of the convert.
And you end up speaking not just for yourself, but for this amorphous community that never necessarily granted you the rights to speak for it. There’s so many great writers and thinkers who get baited into this, and then they have difficulty writing about anything else because they’re no longer making an argument or exploring an issue. They are defending turf.
The irony of the culture war is that the purpose of the war is not to win it. It is to continue to wage it. You are never going to hear a culture war activist saying, you know what? The cause is won. The fight is over. Let’s close up shop. I don’t need any more funding. It’s like a business lobbyist saying, our profits are pretty healthy. I don’t need more loopholes in the tax code. That’s not a thing that happens in a culture war. The fight is never over. The stakes are always rising. There’s a new front, a new trench you have to dig, a new hill you have to die on.
And it becomes a reason for being. It becomes your emotional, and your financial, and your intellectual sustenance. And that’s why I limit the amount of time I write about this or think about this because it is incredibly frustrating to me…
I heard all that as I was arriving back at my house from a walk, so I didn’t hear the rest of the podcast. I need to go back and do so, but there are so many things in the world I keep saying that I need to go back and do that I may not.
But before this fades from my memory, I wanted to share with you what Lozada said. Almost every line of it is a view I deeply hold, and it goes to the heart of why I say so many things I say on this blog. In fact, these ideas are pretty central to why the blog exists. So I wanted to make sure I shared them with you, before I move on to the next subject…