Today marks the first edition of the Lean Out reading roundup, available to paid subscribers. This will be a free-form affair, in which I touch on heterodox books and link to standout essays that challenge narratives, smash orthodoxies, or provide fresh perspectives on the big issues of our age. I’ll also muse a little. And reprint excerpts of past interviews, many of which are behind paywalls, when the mood strikes.
Since this is the first roundup, and since we’ve been talking a lot about the press these past few weeks, I’m going to focus on writers who’ve shaped my thinking on media.
Let’s start with Matt Taibbi. Everyone should read his book Hate, Inc., which, to my mind, is one of the best pieces of media criticism out. It details how a shift in business strategy has led to us selling division. It also includes bang-on insights into how groupthink operates in newsrooms. Here’s a talk on the book that Taibbi gave in 2020.
On the topic of Taibbi, one of the main turning points for me came when I read his excellent June 2020 essay, “The American Press is Destroying Itself,” and this line in particular: “It feels liberating to say after years of tiptoeing around the fact, but the American left has lost its mind. It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.” I can’t tell you the relief I felt seeing somebody come right out and say it. And so well.
I realize now, re-reading that essay, that I missed an important line: “In a business where the first job requirement was once the willingness to ask tough questions, we’ve become afraid to ask obvious ones.” It’s a wonder that I didn’t catch that back in 2020, since I would go on to spend the next 18 months arguing a version of that same point, over and over again.
Now, I felt a similar sense of relief reading another widely shared piece of media criticism, this time by Freddie deBoer. It was published in March 2021, and the week it came out, numerous friends and fellow journalists texted me the below paragraph:
In the span of a decade or so, essentially all professional media not explicitly branded as conservative has been taken over by a school of politics that emerged from humanities departments at elite universities and began colonizing the college educated through social media. Those politics are obscure, they are confusing, they are socially and culturally extreme, they are expressed in a bizarre vocabulary, they are deeply alienating to many, and they are very unpopular by any definition. The vast majority of the country is not woke, including the vast majority of women and people of color. How could it possibly be healthy for the entire media industry to be captured by any single niche political movement, let alone one that nobody likes? Why does no one in media seem willing to have an honest, uncomfortable conversation about the near-total takeover of their industry by a fringe ideology?
Freddie deBoer can write. He nailed it — as one friend put it, with “surgical precision.”
The essay ends with deBoer asking the kind of question that grabs you by the lapels and shakes you, hard: “Now steel yourselves, media people, take a shot of something strong, look yourself in the eye in the mirror, summon your most honest self, and tell me: am I wrong?”
He was not wrong.
There was no going back.
I had already undertaken, by then, a project of extensive research and interviewing, trying to make sense of this strange, surreal moment that we find ourselves in.
Which brings me to Michael Lind. His book The New Class War is a brilliant primer on the managerial elite (to which we journalists belong) and technocratic neoliberalism. Until I read it, I’d been mystified by the dominant ethos in the media, which presents as very far left but is often uninterested in actual leftist policies. Here’s a question from my 2021 interview with Lind that helped clear that up for me.
This elite is made up of people from the left and the right, and its ethos is “technocratic neoliberalism.” How do you define that? If you look at elites versus mass public opinion, working-class people in the U.S. and in other similar Western democracies tend to be somewhat to the left on economics. They favour more welfare spending, higher minimum wage, more social security, more health care spending. And they are a bit more conservative — not radically, mind you, but somewhat conservative — on social and sexual issues. If you look at elites in both parties in the United States, they tend to be very liberal on social and cultural issues, and for the most part favour free markets and deregulation in terms of the economy. So arguably the big divide is not between left and right. It’s between the top of the population, which is moderately libertarian, or neoliberal, as we call it, and the working-class majority of all races.
One last thing for today: John McWhorter, and his cutting critique of the woke ideology driving much of our media. You all really must read Woke Racism, because it’s a razor-sharp analysis, but also because it’s just so damn readable. If you want to listen to a fantastic interview with McWhorter, check out Meghan Daum’s podcast. And here’s two key questions from my own interview with McWhorter last year:
I wanted to ask you about a term you use, “the elect.” What does that mean? The elect, of course, was the other book I have coming out this year and was written in a very different mood. The elect are people who believe, as an inheritance from critical race theory, that battling power differentials should be central to all intellectual, moral and artistic endeavours. They believe that anyone who disagrees with them deserves a public shaming and a general deprivation of their titles, possibly their job, any honours that they’ve had. The elect is not the left; the elect is not the hard left. The elect is the hard left who are mean.
If there were no such thing as Twitter, there could be no elect. It’s “if you disagree with us, we’re going to call you a racist on Twitter.” A lot of people, frankly, are scared to their socks to be called something like that. There have always been one or two people like the elect in any room, in journalism and in academia. But now they have a disproportionate power. And it’s not right. The vision of the world that they have starts with something sensible, but then takes it way too far.
As a culture, we are obsessed with language, which must be interesting for you as a linguist. But I’ve heard you talk about the dangers of making language the main focus of social change. This constant policing of language — where you walk around worried that about 50 things that might spontaneously pop out of your mouth are wrong and get you chased out of the room — that’s new. That idea that policing language is an integral part of trying to forge change in the world. I’m a linguist. I like words. And I know that words can help change the way you think of things to an extent.
But beyond a certain point, the language policing is simply more fun. And easier, because all you have to say is, “Say differently abled, don’t say disabled.” As opposed to going out into the world and forging political change the way people used to do. Real politics can be kind of dull. And it involves getting out of your chair.
More to come at Lean Out next week, including a Q&A on vaccine mandates with Canadian social scientist Dionne Pohler, and a podcast interview with bestselling British author Johann Hari.