Transcript: Batya Ungar-Sargon
My interview with the American opinion editor and author
One year ago, the Lean Out podcast launched with an interview with the American journalist Batya Ungar-Sargon.
Now, 12 months later, Lean Out has listeners in 135 countries and 2900 cities. To mark this milestone — our first anniversary — I invited Batya back on the show to talk through some of the big stories of 2022.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the deputy opinion editor at Newsweek, and the author of Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Batya, welcome back to Lean Out.
BUS: Thank you so much for having me. You have had a banner year. Such a great podcast. It’s just so great to see somebody like you making it, and making an impact, and having these amazing conversations. And bringing so much necessary conversation to the public sphere. So, thank you for all that you do. I’m thrilled. I think we were the first interview, right? It really took off and it’s so thrilling to see.
TH: Thank you so much. It’s great to have you back on. We kicked off this podcast with an interview about your book, Bad News, and that episode remains the most popular episode — out of 63 episodes so far. So, it’s great to have you back on. You have also had a very big year. I have to say, I’m amazed by your productivity. Not only are you deputy opinion editor at Newsweek, but you also publish a lot of your own opinion pieces throughout the media. You do a lot of TV appearances. I want to spend some time talking about the big stories of this past year. But first, what did you see as the biggest story of 2022?
BUS: I think probably the war in Ukraine, in terms of the political impact it had here, in a domestic way — the economic impact it had on the working class. Obviously it was not as big as NAFTA, but it exposed a lot of the same fault lines. You know, elites virtue signalling at the expense of their neighbours, who don’t have as much money as them, and who will be paying the price for it. In terms of gas prices. In terms of food prices. Ukraine is the bread basket of the world, and so forth. I have to say, when I talk to working class people, God, they are so upset about that one hundred billion dollars, and how much we need that here. So, I think in terms of solidifying what “America First” really means, reintroducing why Trump was so effective and so popular — bringing all that to the fore. And then, of course, the geopolitical impact has been huge. I’m less focused on that because I’m really focused on America. But I think, if I had to pick one thing, I would say that was the biggest story of the year. What do you think?
TH: From where I’m sitting, I think it’s the trucker convoy — for this country.
BUS: Oh yeah, absolutely.
TH: But I did think it was really interesting with Ukraine. I’m kind of amazed at how little debate there was on the issue, at least from here in Canada. It did seem like the anti-war left was fairly silent on it. But you wrote a piece for Compact this summer, “Fueling Zelensky’s War Hurts America.” And you just tweeted about this recently too, about how you can look at the Ukrainian people’s bravery, resilience, fortitude, but recognize that Zelensky’s interests are not America’s interests. Talk to me about that.
BUS: Yeah, I think there’s this false dichotomy, where people act like if you want Ukraine to win — which I do, I think Russia was wrong to invade — that therefore you have to accede to every single one of Zelensky’s demands, and that Ukraine must win on Ukraine’s terms. And if you don’t think that, then you are a Putin stooge, or you hate Zelensky. There’s a lot of anger at Zelensky on the far, far right. Some of it justified, some of it not. And I just think that’s a false binary. I super admire him. I super admire the Ukrainian people for putting up this fight, in a way that I think nobody could have predicted that they would have been able to. Their fortitude in the face of what I called a malevolent and Godless foe — I really admire that. I really want them to win.
But our interests are not the same as their interests. We’re not at war with Russia. And it’s very important that we’re not at war with Russia. Because Russia does not present a strategic threat to the United States, in any real way. And so, to go to war with them is to create a threat that we don’t have — and we don’t need.
Moreover, our interests are in having a strong working class and having a strong democracy here at home. Fuelling and funding this war, it harms that. It does. So I think what’s in America’s best interest is to push for a negotiated peace. Which I’ve been saying from the beginning. Of course, that gets harder and harder, because more and more people die on both sides. They’re saying now 100,000 dead Russian soldiers, which is horrific. Even more horrific is the thousands and thousands of dead Ukrainians.
So, I understand why, with every person who’s killed, Zelensky becomes less willing to negotiate a peaceful settlement. But I just think that’s a big mistake. I don’t see why it’s in America’s strategic interest that Crimea belong to Ukraine rather than to Russia. And the Donbas, when this whole conflict started, was an independent region. And Ukraine was not part of NATO when this started. For very good reason — because it is a deeply corrupt country. You could say that, while still seeing them as the victim in this conflict and still wanting them to win. There were very good reasons that Ukraine was not part of NATO, and not part of the EU. Furthermore, there were good reasons for Russia to want them to not be a member in those organizations.
So, I totally agree with you that there’s been very little debate here. And it’s been fascinating to see the left, the anti-war left, just completely go down without a fight — and join the pro-war establishment. And the people who are standing up to funding Ukraine are people like Marjorie Taylor Greene. It’s the MAGA wing.
To me, that really drove home part of Trump’s appeal. He made two main promises: no more wars and securing the border. It was like, “No war. Build the wall.” Any politician who says those things, promises the American working class those two things — because those are very important things to the working class, and very much in their economic interests — is going to do super well. Unfortunately, it just seems like you have to be a crazy person like Trump in order to understand that. Because the political situation in America is such that there is very little debate about war. You turn on CNN and MSNBC and Fox News, and, on the topic of Ukraine, there’s no difference in how they cover it. That’s a big tell.
TH: Interesting. I do want to touch on the trucker convoy. You published an opinion piece from a trucker, Gord Magill. That was the first one that I read directly from that group. You recently interviewed one of the convoy organizers for The Hill, Benjamin Dichter. Our Canadian media got this story very wrong. This became really clear during the Public Order Emergency Commission. You covered this from afar. What sense did you make of this story?