Transcript: William Deresiewicz
My interview with the author, essayist and cultural critic
In 2008 at the age of 44, my guest on today’s program left Yale University, where he taught English, and became a full-time writer. In the years since leaving academia, he’s amassed an impressive body of work, much of it challenging the status quo.
I knew I had to talk to him when I read his recent essay in UnHerd, “Escaping American tribalism,” about his defection from the progressive left.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and cultural critic and the author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. His latest book is out this month. It’s called The End of Solitude: Selected Essays on Culture and Society, and it is a collection of standout pieces from the past few decades. In it, Deresiewicz writes: “To be an individual, the years have taught me, takes a constant effort. These essays are an offering to those who wish to be one too.”
This edited transcript is for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Bill, welcome to Lean Out.
WD: Thanks very much. I’m happy to be here.
TH: I’m excited to talk about The End of Solitude, which is a collection of essays that I felt nourishes the soul. But first, I want to talk about a recent essay that you wrote for UnHerd, “Escaping American tribalism.” It certainly helped me feel less alone — as you talk about in the essay. It’s about the decline of NPR, which you once thought of as your home in America. And your discovery of heterodox podcasts, like Meghan Daum’s, who we both know. Tell me about discovering this new ecosystem of independent media, and changing your mind on the progressive left.
WD: Like you, I think it sounds, and like a lot of people — including Meghan, she’s talked about this for herself — I had become increasingly disenchanted with where the progressive left had gone. I should say that I still consider myself on the progressive left, just not as it’s become. You know, more like what it was in 2016 with the Bernie Sanders campaign. But not this cultural turn, which seemed to me not only to place the wrong emphasis on what progressive politics should be, but also to be based on, in many cases, suppression and distortion of reality. I was hearing this coming out of NPR and other outlets that I had thought of as not only my home in America but basically reliable sources of news about reality. And, you know, I lucked into this heterodox space just serendipitously.
Meghan asked me to be on her podcast for my last book, which was about the arts economy. It came out a couple of years ago. I so enjoyed the conversation with her that I started listening to her. She’ll mention in passing various other podcasts. At first I thought, “Oh my God, I can’t listen to all these podcasts.” I’m not a podcast person; I wasn’t listening to podcasts. And then also, where am I going to find the time — on top of the three hours of NPR I listened to every day? And had been since I was 23. Then I realized, “I could just stop listening to NPR.” It was this amazing stepping through this door that I didn’t think was there. I wrote the essay to talk about that. But also to try to think, at least in a preliminary way, about this act of leaving the group. Or leaving the tribe. Because we talk incessantly and, you know, appropriately about the tribes or camps that politics is divided into in the United States. And I take it in other countries as well. But we don’t think very much, or talk very much, about people who step out of that binary. I think it’s important to do that. And I think one reason it’s important to do that is that there are more of them — or of us — than we think. That’s part of the problem.
TH: Yeah. It’s interesting. On the issue of being politically homeless, I remember reading an essay from Colin Wright about cancel culture. In the essay, he said if you’re looking for common characteristics of those of us who are heretics, it’s that we just can’t go along mumbling slogans. We can’t say things that we know aren’t true. Do you relate to that statement too?
WD: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. I think personally, I care more about truth than any other value, including justice. Which may be just who I am. But also, I think what’s so important about this is that there is no justice without truth. Unless you have an accurate picture, or as accurate a picture as possible, of reality, you’re not going to know how reality should change, where it should go. How it can be changed. And I think we see this on the left, with the growingly obvious failure of the progressive political project over the last few years. The lost elections, the unpassed bills, and so forth.
TH: And the inability to talk about it. While we’re talking about this essay, it was originally commissioned, as you note, but the editor declined to publish it.
WD: Right. So it was for a journal I had written for for many years, had a very positive relationship with. I might as well say — it’s The American Scholar. Some people think I was talking about The Atlantic. The American Scholar is an old and venerable literary quarterly that’s put out by the Phi Beta Kappa Society. It was always middle of the road, you know, maybe liberal by default. But basically it was hospitable to many points of view, and I certainly never had a problem writing whatever I wanted. I had written many, many pieces for them. I had a weekly column for two years, and the editor was retiring. He said, “I would love to have you in the pages one more time. You can write whatever you want.” I had wanted to say this for a while. And I also knew that I would be challenging the readership — presumably an NPR-listening, New York Times-reading readership. But in a way that I thought would really be worth it.
[The editor’s] initial reaction to the essay was like, “You know, on the one hand I find this really challenging, but I’m really glad that it’s challenging. And you’re saying things that I’ve kind of suspected but didn’t want to admit to myself.” I thought, “Great.” Then two weeks later, he came back to me and said, “I’ve decided that I can’t, in good conscience, publish this.” I asked him for his reasons. He gave me reasons that just really didn’t hold water. The best interpretation is that he felt that by criticizing the left, I was giving aid and comfort to the right. Kind of whataboutism.
First of all, I’m not even sure I believe that that was his motive. I suspect that it was the usual scenario, where there were young staff who told him that they were going to quit en masse if this horrible piece was published, even though he was retiring. I don’t have evidence of that; that’s just my suspicion. Even if what he told me was his genuine reason, I think that’s one of the things that has really crippled open and honest discussion on the left — this feeling that if we criticize ourselves, we are helping Donald Trump and his minions. To me, it’s precisely by not criticizing ourselves that we’re helping the other side, because we’re keeping ourselves stupid. And politically stupid.
TH: You see the evidence of that right now.
TH: One of the things that I came away from this book with is a feeling of surprise. Which is something that I don’t get a lot right now. There were so many essays, and so many thoughts, in this book that were surprising to me. I should say, for listeners, it touches on so many topics — technology, higher education, dance, art, literature, friendship, foodism, Jewish culture. I found the breadth of your interests really invigorating. But I want to pull, as I say, a few of the surprising essays. You included an address that you delivered at West Point, “Solitude and Leadership.” And you talk about the U.S. army as a bureaucracy. Walk me through those realizations about how bureaucracies work — and what it means to be a real leader within them.
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