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Transcript: The Road to Year Zero #1 - Cold Open
An Easter Egg for the Paid Subscribers Who Make All the Content Possible
Somehow we never got around to posting transcripts from the podcast launched in April. But we will go back and do that now, sending off transcripts in the days to come, as an ongoing Easter Egg for paid subscribers, some of whom don’t especially care for mellifluous voices reciting well-tempered prose, but some of whom will enjoy reading what they will not listen to, despite the inevitable loss of dimension that comes with reading what was designed to be heard. We will continue this for all subsequent podcasts.
The podcast is sub-dividable into four separate series, although one still remains to be launched. They are as follows:
1.) The Road to Year Zero: an audio documentary series revisiting the events and pseudo-events along the path to ideological succession. We are still just getting this one launched, but in time it will become the vehicle for a much needed reckoning with our recent history.
2.) Remedial Reading: a miscellaneous survey of great and merely deeply felt books made in dialogue with notable and well-informed readers who have felt deeply for them. I have high hopes for the launch of this sub-series.
3.) Current Events in Year Zero: conversations with those able to provide the long view on the events of the day.
4.) Syllabus: a pedagogical series in which I work through the relevant literature with an important scholar. I am deeply into a syllabus created by the Boston College Professor of Political Science Shep Melnick.
What follows below is a transcript of our very first episode of the Road to Year Zero.
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Wesley Yang: Back in 2007, when I was still a freelance writer taking on any kind of paid work that I could find, I was a regular contributor to the Barnard College alumni magazine. I was assigned, at the time, a profile of a professor named Janet Jakobsen, who was a professor of Women's and Religious Studies at Barnard, and who had taken on the leadership of an initiative at the university called the “Difficult Dialogues” series. Now, the purpose of the “Difficult Dialogues” series was to address what the university, already then in the year 2007, regarded as a serious and growing problem with respect to the ability of young people to engage in the process of civil and reasoned exchange of debates across partisan and other divides; that is, in fact constitutive of democracy in the best sense of the word as a process of deliberation in pursuit of not just compromise, but of truth. So these are a set of values that are constitutive of the university as such, that Barnard College at the time had already come to recognize as sufficiently imperiled and sufficiently a matter of concern that it was necessary for them to intervene in the form of formal programming and to draw attention to this problem and to begin to address it with its young people and to explicitly inculcate them into the values that were necessary to have exchanges.
So I looked back at a draft that I wrote of this article in my Gmail not so long ago, and I'm going to actually go ahead and read from my own writings from 2007 from an alumni magazine because I think it will set up the discussion that we're going to want to have for the rest of this podcast, and that we'll be continuing to have in the future. And this will give you a sense of what exactly is meant by the intervention that I'm attempting. So this is just a passage on the first page, which begins with a description of Janet Jakobsen's personal trajectory through graduate school, and it proceeds to talk about a certain kind of discourse that was emerging.
We all know the way a certain kind of controversy proceeds, the one in which people call each other racist, sexist or anti-Semites, which is not to deny that there are people who deserve those labels. Insist that they're being silenced or disrespected while trying to silence others; attempt to dress up pseudoscience as genuine science; deny that certain statements that one disagrees with possess the status of legitimate inquiry; and otherwise use means other than rational persuasion to intimidate, browbeat, or silence one's opponents.
In these debates, the rhetorical moves can all be predicted in advance. And here I'm quoting Jakobsen, "people repeat the same things over and over again, and they tend to reach the same angry impasse." That's because, Jakobsen argued, such debates so swiftly turned into “contests over rights” instead of opportunities for engagement. The moment they do so, she noted, “everybody has already lost.” This litigious approach to conflict resolution assumes that one group's rights will be preserved at the expense of another's. Eventually, the participants turn to the courts as the ultimate arbiter of conflicting claims to rights, giving up on the premise that reasoned dialogue can produce fair compromise and mutual enlightenment. All of this spells trouble for a politics of deliberative democracy, notes Jakobsen, and especially for the institution that is supposed to be the bulwark of free inquiry. The university is ideally the place where students learn to engage with contrary viewpoints in an edifying way. Very often it is. Increasingly, though, it has come to reflect the confusions and abdications of the larger society in which it is embedded.
Anyone who follows the news knows that Columbia University is itself no stranger to exhausting public controversies over who has a right to speak. These contests tend to occur over the same handful of conflicts roiling the larger culture. These are the "difficult dialogues"--in quotes–that the Ford Foundation had in mind when it put out a call asking universities across the country to begin thinking about how to protect academic freedoms from the tendencies that threaten it. The foundation sought new approaches to deal with some of the most hotly contested issues of the day, including, as the “Difficult Dialogues” website spells out – “fundamentalism and secularism, racial and ethnic tension, the Middle East conflict, religion and the university, sexual orientation, and academic freedom.” “The foundation wanted to get teachers talking with each other, with students, and with the public at large about ways to reassert the importance of academic freedom,” said Robert O'Neil, Director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Constitutional Law at the University of Virginia which jointly administers the program with the foundation. “The Ford Foundation saw that something in American public culture had eroded the understanding of education,” Jakobsen noted, “We need to assert a more robust view of it that understands academic freedom to be a project which is for the public good, and is about knowledge production.” The piece goes on to talk very skeptically about the academic bill of rights being promulgated by the former 60s radical-turned-right-wing journalist David Horowitz, characterizing it as a kind of affirmative action program for conservatives in academia, referring to that as a clever spurious ploy that uses minority identity politics and the liberal concern for balance and diversity and fairness against itself. Here I'm quoting the Barnard philosophy professor Taylor Carman, “it is transparently a perversion of the idea of affirmative action.” “It states that hiring decisions should be made because of the political content of your belief which is an abhorrence to the very idea of the university,” Carman goes on, “It also inverts the meaning of academic freedom.” Noted Jakobsen, Academic freedom becomes freedom from having to be offended instead of freedom to inquire freely and express multiple points of view.
It's very interesting to look back across the divide separating us–only 15 years–from the discourse of 2007 and the one of 2022, not just for my own personal reasons, but also the way the underlying assumptions of the culture have changed so rapidly. There was an understanding at the time that academic freedom was imperiled. There was also an understanding that conservatives were engaged in a dangerous project of subversion from within of the project of both affirmative action and academic freedom in order to serve their own purposes.
I want to fast forward a few years to 2013, to a night when I found myself riding the subway in the wee hours of the morning, having imbibed a great deal of alcohol and in the presence of a woman, younger than myself, a recent graduate from an Ivy League university, a person making her way in New York, engaged in very ambitious plans to have an impact on the cultural scene and on the intellectual world in New York City.
We fell to discussing particular subjects, as one does on train rides. And at a certain point, we came around to the subject of the Chinese in Africa, who were in the process of extending their economic ties with various African nations and taking a role in the building of infrastructure and the development of factories and construction throughout it as a provider of no strings attached capital that came without the kind of buttonholing moralizing that the United States was in the process of applying to the aid and investment provided to African nations. And she presented this development as entirely a matter of a kind of new colonial pillage of the continent, at which point I did aver–not so much in the spirit of being a gadfly, or a devil's advocate, but not so much not in it either–that, well, you know, what the Chinese are doing in Africa is providing employment. A true fact that, of course, is subject to further qualification.
But her reply was different. Her reply was to scream, at the top of the lungs, her voice edging into hysteria: “You're a fucking fascist!” And to walk off and leave me alone.
Now, this is just one anecdote. And it is not a statement about a generation. But I think it bears observing that this was the kind of exchange that was not only not really possible to have with a person like her–a person who was a graduate of an Ivy League university and who intended to make an impact on the intellectual life of New York City–it was not really possible to have that kind of exchange with them. Nor was it even conceivable prior to that moment, at least to me, and I think to a lot of other people as well. And for me, that was the kind of signal, right around 2013, that something was in the process of changing; that the process of inculcating the ability to disagree with people in a civil and ultimately edifying way, that the Ford Foundation and Barnard College had identified as being imperiled in 2007, and for which a nationwide initiative whose purpose was to inculcate young people in the capacity to do so, had not really worked out the way they had planned. There had, in fact, in the ensuing years been, if anything, a degradation of the capacity of young people to engage in such events, such that this one isolated anecdote that, of course, has to do with the individual character and propensities of the particular person–of the individual with whom I was having a conversation–and yet signaling at the same time a wider range of variants, encompassing within the range of the possible that which would not have been possible, I think, really prior to 2012 or 2013, when a particular cohort of graduates started flowing into the workforce. It was at that moment that one began to notice the emergence of a new sensibility, and a politics in a new key: a different sense of the rules governing discourse and the basic governing assumptions about how one engaged in a conversation and for what purpose conversation existed.
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We're going to be doing a few different things on this podcast. One of them is maintaining a book club, with what I think of as a pretty snappy conceit, in which we'll be talking to various interesting people about a book of particular significance to them. Another is a pedagogical dimension in which I will prevail upon various professors to assign me a syllabus, I will work through them, and then I will meet with them where they will lecture on the book or article–because there will be short readings and long readings–and I will have an exchange of ideas with them, serving as a surrogate for the rest of the audience, many of whom I hope will have done the reading themselves. The third dimension of the podcast will be a continuation of this series, where we will be revisiting the great and petty, the tragic and the humorous, episodes within the ideological succession.
Now the truth is, there's the events that, beginning in 2015, into the present, that specifically have to do with the latest iteration of cancel culture. But there is also a pre-history of ideological succession that encompasses the various movements on behalf of social reform that have punctuated American history. So: the movement for women's suffrage; the movement for abolition, of course; the movement for temperance; the progressive movement; and the various efforts in pursuit of a more perfect union that are a part of the history of the United States. Virtually no episode within the history of the United States does not shed light upon the unusual social history in which we've lived over the last five years and come to be mutually illuminated by this moment, which ended up being latent in many of the previous moments that make up our recent history.
I'm working at turning myself into a person who is able to sit myself in front of a microphone and speak extemporaneously for hours at a time. It's an unusual skill, and it's an unnatural one. And yet, I feel that it is latent in me. And that if I spend an hour a day in front of a microphone, I will develop that skill. All of you will be witnesses and participants. Some of you will be supporters. Some of you who are hearing this on the iTunes or Spotify platforms, should know that this podcast is part of my Substack. Substack is a platform that allows supporters to subscribe individually to the output of specific writers. My Substack began as a newsletter and a blogging platform where I generate and write essays and it will continue to be that; it will also, though, be the home of my podcast, and it will be a place where those of you who wish to support me can support me.
Now the truth of the matter is that podcasts tend to be free. Information wants to be free; podcasts definitely want to be free. But there is a pay as you want model that allows podcasters to accept the money of those who choose of their own free will to access this content and to pay what they choose. In exchange for this, you will have access not just to all of my writings and to various paid posts that I will be producing, but also to regular–not just intermittent–audio and video features that are made for the paying audience alone. You will also have access to commenting on both articles and podcasts, and you will have access to the periodic conversations that I'll be hosting here, probably on Zoom.
I also want to say that as I begin to embark on this journey that this is a collaborative effort along with my producer, Allison Marocco, into whose hands I have put myself, who has a particular vision of how a podcast series can be done and who has a role in the execution of it that is of equal, if not greater responsibility for the output to myself. So if any content of any value ends up being produced, arguably the bulk of the credit should accrue to her. So for now, I'm going to be signing off from this first episode and looking forward to encountering you again in the near future. There is a journey that I intend to take, and I hope that you will be there with me.