In the ninth episode of High Noon, Inez Stepman speaks with Emily Jashinsky. Emily wears many hats, from culture editor at The Federalist to educating young journalists at the Young America’s Foundation’s internship program. More recently, she’s taken the helm of The Hill’sRising, a popular independent news program that pairs populist right and populist left perspectives.
Which came first: culture or economics? And is the concentration of economic power leading to a cultural monopoly? What is the future of independent media? Stepman and Jashinsky touch on these topics and more.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. Inviting interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future.
Welcome to High Noon, where we discuss controversial subjects with interesting people. Emily Jashinsky is one of the most astute political observers on the scene today. She’s the culture editor over at The Federalist, including hosting Radio Hour very often, their podcast over there. She also works with Young Americans For Freedom at their National Journalism Center, so she works prepping young journalists for their inevitable horror show of a media future.
And for the last couple weeks, she has been guest hosting Hill TV’s Rising, which is an incredibly popular independent show that gives voice to, I would say a kind of populism from both the left and right that rarely gets much airtime on corporate media channels, whether those channels are aimed towards the right side of the spectrum or the left side of the spectrum. So we’re very glad to have her here on High Noon. Welcome, Emily.
Thank you so much. You have a great radio cadence. You sound like you’re on NPR right now. I really love it. It’s calming.
I don’t know. I’m one of those people who hates the sound of my own voice recorded, so I can barely stand to listen to my own voice. It sounds so different than it does in my head. So I’m glad that I sound like NPR to you. I wanted to start this off with a conversation that you have been weighing in on for years, which is a conversation about the media, about the future of media.
You’ve written a couple pieces with Ben Domenech about the new contras, is the phrase that you’ve used, which is essentially the phrase you guys have used to describe an independent network of media figures that are based I think primarily on trust built over time in an individual person and do not have the kind of institutional money or backing that, say, Fox News on the right or NPR on the left, or for that matter, MSNBC or CNN. First, who are the new contras? What do they represent, and what is the future of a democratized media that has such a splintered audience that’s built primarily on a rapport with an individual person or a couple people?
Yeah, and the answer is, honestly, we just don’t know yet. But the new contras are sort of pioneers in the space, and they’re running the experiment in real time. A friend of ours, Saagar Enjeti, who hosted Rising for a really long time before he launched Breaking Points with Krystal Ball, which is already wildly successful, he talks a lot about how we fetishize the mass media, the sense of objectivity that came along with the news media in the era of mass media.
And that is a very, very salient point in this context because it hasn’t always been this way, right? We weren’t always [inaudible 00:03:02] Walter Cronkite and the alleged Walter Cronkite model news delivery. That’s not always how it was. And so what we’re seeing now is with the new contras, people like Saagar and Krystal, people like Katie Herzog, people like Glenn Greenwald. Andrew Sullivan is a really good example. Barry Weiss is a really good example.
People who are heterodox, and heterodox relative to the cultural left, and the economic neoliberalism that dominate the political establishment. And you could even go more broad than that and say the ruling class in this country, which is a symptom of the educated elite sorting that Charles Murray wrote about I think very presciently and very helpfully, just about a decade ago, less than a decade ago. So when you have that happening and you have the outcasts like Andrew Sullivan or Barry Weiss, both of whom are probably best described as left of center at this point, being sort of thrust out of these legacy newsrooms.
They have found landing pads on independent publishing platforms like Patreon and like Substack. And they’re actually making a lot of money on those platforms, which shows the demand. So on the one hand, the new contras are the folks who are creating that infrastructure where there is a landing pad, creating and benefiting from the infrastructure that serves as a landing pad from the constrictions of legacy media for dissenters, people who you probably never would have thought of as enemies of establishment, but your now somehow labeled heterodox dissenters.
So creating and pioneering the infrastructure and that landing pad, that’s what they’re doing. And then this gets into another question of, what does the future look like? Is that sustainable or is that a durable trend? And that’s really the big question. The example I always use is Stephen Colbert is both the most polarizing and the most successful man in late night television right now. He’s polarizing, and I would also add, he’s really not that funny anymore. He used to be great on Colbert Report, and now it’s resistance boomer humor on bad boomer memes.
He just rips it straight from bad boomer memes. But he is both the most successful and the most polarizing, and that’s because to win the ratings game in late night television, you no longer have to appeal to the audience that mass media forced you to appeal to, which forced our entertainers to find common ground. He does have to put up [inaudible 00:05:36] numbers, which were way bigger, because there’s so much more choice. And people who don’t like his politics or don’t like whatever else, they’ll go elsewhere.
And so we’re seeing the same sorts of trends in news media. Why did The New York Times retract an op-ed that was totally anodyne from Senator Tom Cotton? Because it’s actually better for them financially to turn off a huge swath of the country if they’re really, really pleasing a smaller slice of the country that will give them their ad dollar, their subscriptions, and that will not take away their subscriptions. So everyone’s appealing to niches, and this has benefits, and this is in entertainment and it’s in news.
It has benefits. I don’t know how durable it is. I don’t know… Maybe at some point we’ll see Substack, God forbid, start cracking down on people. Maybe we’ll start to see Patreon doing that again as well. We don’t know. And there are upsides. There are downsides. And right now we’re just sort of in this adjustment period where we’re the guinea pigs who are sorting all of it out.
Yeah, you’ve said multiple times in that answer, you were talking about mass media and the fact that we really don’t have a mass media anymore. What we have are these little silos, these niches, and that you can be very successful appealing to a particular niche. But even the people that you’ve listed out as part of this new contras group, a lot of them have wildly different views from one another, and they’re not necessarily overlapping audiences. I don’t know what the overlapping audience is for, say, Rising and, for example, Andrew Sullivan.
Andrew Sullivan is very much in the center, Barry Weiss as well. What’s interesting about this moment is you’re seeing huge demand for both the populist left and populist right, which might be termed by people in the middle as quote unquote extreme, and you’re seeing a huge resurgence of an audience for the center that has migrated out of these legacy institutions once we’ve seen kind of a takeover there that had made it impossible for views in the center to actually be expressed through those outlets.
But I mean, do you worry? You said there are some upsides and downsides. Do you worry about the fact that we won’t have a common body of reference anymore? These different outlets, they’re covering completely different stories. They’re often giving not just different opinions, but different facts. And I’m not at all nostalgic for the three channel days, and in fact, I think that those three channel days were an aberration in America from a wildly partisan media throughout most of the 19th century.
But I mean, do you worry that because we are already so polarized, this movement in media will exacerbate that? In some way, it’ll make it worse. It’ll make it so that we can barely have conversations with each other if you don’t watch the same bundle of news shows as I do or listen to the same podcasts as I do. We literally have totally different perceptions of what the news of the day is and no way to talk about it with each other.
Yeah. I’m worried about polarization in the context of secularization. And that is to say that in this era of postmodernism, it’s not only that you have partisan outlets, as historically we have, sort of spinning different facts. That’s one thing. But we actually don’t agree on what constitutes a fact anymore. And I think that’s getting into a really dangerous place when we cannot agree on fundamentals.
And these are things the left mocks the right for talking about, or at least talking about at length, and doesn’t really want to talk about. And I’m talking about the populist left. They really don’t want to talk about these things, although there are some people who are willing to have the conversation when they feel it’s warranted. But I think the right is reasonably much more concerned about our inability to literally define biological sex and to have a common understanding of biological sex than the left is.
That is a source of major strife. The definition of what constitutes racism. Ibram X. Kendi is a bestselling author in this country, and he defines racism as basically anything that dissents for a moment from full critical race dogma, from full progressive dogma. That’s extremely, extremely dangerous, because we’re not even sharing the same definitions of really basic, basic words and basic facts. The left libs talk about capital-S science, but when it comes to biology, that’s sort of all out the window, and they’re sort of grasping at straws to define biology to different things.
And so yeah, I’m deeply, deeply concerned about our lack of common ground. That’s one thing that mass media absolutely fostered. And it’s not to say it was always good, but it is sort of amazing to go watch what now feel like relics of the mass media era. I wrote about this in the context of the Friends reunion, actually, which really resisted the pressures to silo-ize and niche-ify, and just was positive. It didn’t feel like it belonged in 2021. It felt like something from days past, mostly just because it was positive and it had mass appeal.
And there’s a reason that millennials are stuck in the Friends loop and stuck in The Office loop, despite the fact that Steve Carell himself has said it would be impossible to make The Office anymore in this sort of climate. And so I’m very concerned about that for the reason that, yes, we’re all going to be getting different information, a different spin on that information. And maybe there isn’t a big crossover audience between Rising and Barry Weiss, but maybe on the other hand, if we’re just doing the Substack forwarding and getting news from our friends and through text messages… However, people aren’t wedded to these papers that they subscribe to because they paid for it, and they don’t pay for this other magazine, or they don’t pay for this other paper.
You’re getting more information. But I’m very, very concerned that when we’re all isolating in those spaces, we become hardened to dissent. And that’s what’s already happened on the left, and I think dangerously so. It kind of happened to the right on economics, and I think dangerously so. But when you harden yourself against criticism, that’s going to make it even more difficult for us to bridge some of these differences.
Yeah. That’s really what concerns me as well. I was not one of those people who was always worried about polarization in Washington and the fact that nothing gets done because Republicans and Democrats don’t agree. I mean, I always saw this as a reflection of the fact that we don’t agree as a country, and our system essentially working, as it should, to reflect that polarization. But I finally find myself worrying about it, and I think you just put your finger on the most concerning aspect of it, is that it’s not just even the way that I phrased it with the fact that we have different news sources.
It’s, we are losing any kind of neutral cultural ground that, if not universal, is perhaps an 80% proposition. And that goes along with the fact that we’ve lost any… Even 10,000 foot level sentences. I recently challenged a friend of mine who’s on the left to define, to give me even a very 10,000 foot sentence that would be agreed to by 80% of the American people. And it’s really difficult with descending into complete meaninglessness. It’s really difficult to come up with something like that.
I mean, you pointed to one aspect of this recently when you talked about perhaps there being a real barrier between the different types of antiestablishment movements, whether they’re coming from the left or the right, when you said that one side has a disdain for the country’s history and for sort of an American identity, and the other has a reverence for that identity. And it was in the context of talking about a New York Times editorial board member’s comments about how she saw trucks with American flags on them, and who was very, very disturbed by this vision of pickup trucks with American flags on it.
But is this going to short circuit any kind of genuine crossover rebellion against what we might call the managerial class or this conglomeration of media establishment gatekeepers, political establishment gatekeepers in both Republican and Democratic Parties, and gatekeepers, for example, in universities, in Hollywood, in corporations and corporate boards?
There seems to be broad critique that our elites have failed us, but to your point, do we differ so much among the people who understand that, that there’s very little… Is it a sort of divide and conquer move? Is it possible that the technocratic class will stay in power even though the vast majority of people think they’re failures at their jobs because we fundamentally cannot agree on what that critique actually looks like, and more importantly, what happens after that critique is implemented?
Yeah. This is something that I was thinking about recently because of a conversation that I got into on air with Ryan Grim, who’s the D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept. And in the aftermath of our exchange, which the left, by the way, loved, because they saw it as a confirmation of the Howard Zinn vision of history, of American history. And I actually just taped a podcast with your wonderful husband, Jarrett, on this very issue, on the Zinnification of the American mind, which has programmed people to have this very sort of dorm room notion, and this dorm room notion of like, “Well, they didn’t teach me about Columbus’s atrocities in history class, so anybody who celebrates Columbus Day is an idiot.”
And that mentality I guess I learned, and Ryan is not of this mentality, I’m not saying that, but there are a whole lot of people… It’s more widespread on the Bernie left than people might realize. It’s more widespread than I realized, actually. What that sort of sparked in me was I guess this conflict over, there’s a lot to be made for the so-called political realignment. And I think it’s very meaningful when we’re talking about average voters, people who… There’s a district in my home state of Wisconsin that my mom grew up in and that we spent a lot of time in, a rural district that was represented by Democrat David Obey for years and years and years, decades, like four decades, and flipped at the Tea Party, before Trump. This district flipped in 2010 when Sean Duffy was elected, and has been so deeply pro-Trump for years now. It’s one of those sort of classic cases of a Trump district, where there aren’t just yard signs, there are yard walls. And so-
And not a small number of American flags.
Yes, no small number of American flags. And so yeah, I mean, it’s one of those things where I don’t want to just sit and spin our wheels in these abstract terms, because there’s clearly meat to the concept of the realignment. But when the rubber meets the road here in Washington, and when policy is actually getting made, and when the momentum for policy is building in the media, we’re in a really, I think, tough situation when there’s this very deep-seated… At the end of the day, what do I think Ilhan Omar wants to preserve or protect in the United States of America?
How does that sort of work together with somebody like Josh Hawley, who is an American exceptionalist? How do you, at the end of the day, move forward? I mean, maybe in the short term, there’s agreement that can be found on antitrust legislation, and monopolies, and big tech, but how can this sort of realignment occur? I mean, a lot of people would ask, “How can the realignment occur in this sort of political climate where you’re not allowed to talk to anybody who disagrees?” I think the new contras are actually sort of proving that wrong, that there’s such demand for it, that you can create those landing pads, and you can be rewarded, actually, by the market for doing something like that.
So in the short term, I get it. In the long term, I don’t know where it goes when you have an increasing number of people that actually are really deeply skeptical of the country in a sort of 1619 Zinnian way, trying to come together with people who believe that America is exceptional and that the founding documents are the greatest roadmap to Republican governance and the best system for economics and government that has ever graced this Earth. Imperfect as it is, by the way, imperfect as it is and historically has been, in the scope and the sweep of human history, I just have a hard time figuring out what would be better. And so bridging that gap is enormously difficult, I think.
Yeah. Another critique that you’ve sort of leveled, I think, at people within this new contra space, has been the assumption of primacy of economics over everything. Right? And I want to read something that I believe is part of one of your radars recently when you were filling in on Rising. And that is, “What the building left-right populist consensus lacks is adequate recognition that rising wages, UBI, and targeted cash transfers won’t boost the working class without changes that money alone cannot induce, be it the marriage rate or the fertility rate.”
I think Anna Khachiyan of Red Scare has made some of the best arguments in favor of the primacy of economics. For example, her analysis of girl boss feminism is that it’s essentially a psychological response. It’s a cope. It’s a cope for a generation that graduated into the 2009 economic crisis that never really built any foundational wealth. And there’s a lot of evidence to back that up, that our generation is going to be, unfortunately is behind where our parents were at the same time. I.e., in terms of wealth-building, we’re actually going backwards.
And so the folks who make that critique say, essentially, some of these cultural trends that you’re arguing against are one of two things. One, they’re a cope, just like girl boss feminism is a psychological cope for not having the economic stability to enter into marriage and have children. And then the second category of these things are, these are just red meat issues to distract us from, quote unquote, the real issue. And the real issues are always economic.
It’s kind of a What’s the Matter with Kansas? sort of critique, that, why don’t people see that the most important issues are healthcare and the minimum wage versus, for example, men and women’s sports, or the redefinition of sex that you mentioned earlier, or critical race theory in schools, or any number of these cultural flash points? What is your response to, I guess maybe first that What’s the Matter with Kansas? critique, because I actually think it’s kind of easier to deal with on the face of it, and then the deeper critique that I think Anna Khachiyan levels, which is that actually, economic instability is driving some of these what might be called progressive cultural advancements that are shifting us very quickly to the left culturally, that in fact, behind a lot of the psychological drive, that is in fact economics?
Yeah, it’s a really tough equation to solve. And I think probably these variables are inextricably intertwined, and we can’t actually unwind them and find a single root. I mean, one of the examples that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is birth control. And that may sound ridiculous, but if we take a step back and examine birth control’s effect on the culture and on economics, birth control actually had and is continuing to have a massive, a massive impact on the economic stations of women in this country and in our system.
And again, it’s difficult to trace exactly to what degree we can attribute that specifically to birth control, but that effect obviously exists, and the post sexual revolution effect obviously exists. So if we’re looking at that, there’s a demand that made birth control successful. And that demand is both economic and cultural because there are people who make decisions that are not in their economic interest for cultural reasons.
And they’re doing that for… At the end of the day, that’s culture. And you also have to say, “Well, somebody created this product.” There was a lot of science that went into the creation of a product like birth control, and that has to happen in a cultural climate. What enabled these sorts of scientists and the funders of their work to create a product like this with cultural and economic implications?
There was the funding, of course. There are the financial incentives that in the market system drive that, but it’s also only happening because they probably felt a certain degree of cultural comfort, or maybe not. And at the end of the day, why is birth control something that a human being would demand? Because sex without consequences is in demand. And that, at the end of the day, is again, that’s both a cultural and economic source of demand, because a huge part of the reason people want to have sex without the consequence, to put it pejoratively, maybe inaccurately, of childbirth and pregnancy, a lot of people can’t afford it, and a lot of people don’t want to have to afford it.
A lot of people don’t want to have to drop out of the workforce. And then on the other hand, there’s the hedonistic aspect of why people would want to have sex without the consequence of pregnancy. And so just zeroing in on that one example, you can see how I think there’s a really inextricable intertwinement of these variables that, at the end of the day… I keep saying at the end of the day probably because it is the end of the day, and I sort of feel like I’m perpetually at the end of the day over the course of these last three weeks, as I’ve been forced to get out of bed at like 6:00 in the morning.
But it’s hard to separate them, so even if you take Anna Khachiyan’s examples, if you keep drilling down every single time, you uncover a cultural motive that enabled the economic one, and vice versa. And I think the best way to think about that is that we exist in a world where we have both of those motivations sort of teasing us constantly. And why that is, is because ultimately, they both sort of prey on human impulse and human temptation, and we go in different directions.
So it’s very important to, I think, focus on economics a lot of times when we over-focus on culture. I think there was too little focus on the economics that was driving, say, support for Donald Trump in 2016, but then I think there was too little focus on the culture that was driving support for Donald Trump in 2020. And so I think sometimes we just focus in the wrong place. But at the end of the day, I think they’re very closely connected.
One reason I’ve always found that argument unconvincing is because under Donald Trump, we did have what he called a blue collar boom, not without backing in terms of the data. We had an economic boom that, unlike the past 30 years, really did distribute its benefits more evenly among the various socioeconomic classes of America, where you actually did see working families have a real increase in wages, where you did see a job market where the employee finally had the negotiating power in the relationship with capital, because there was a shortage, and there was such a boom in the economy that there were many jobs available.
One of the most remarkable statistics from that period to me was, there was this big uptick in people quitting their jobs. And I think some folks on Fox Business or whatever got asked about it, and they were like, “Oh, what do you think? Is this worrying? What does this mean about the economy?” And I said, “It’s really simple. They’re getting rid of jobs that they don’t want to be in, because they can get a better one.” That’s the best indication that your economy is in a good place, when people are actually able to quit the jobs that perhaps they have wanted to for a very long time because they have social leverage in the market.
But with all of that success, nobody looks back at 2018 and thinks, oh, well, we were all getting along so much better then. We were all such one big, happy family, and all of these red meat cultural issues just faded into the background. No, they came to even more prominence in a very fundamental way, which to me, would at least indicate that when the economic indicators are going in the right direction, the fact that these cultural issues just keep resurfacing means that they can’t be subsumed into economics. I agree with you that there are economic drivers here, but I think it’s kind of wrong to tell people that it’s more important, and it’s always the economy, stupid, that it’s always more important to think about economic issues than cultural ones.
But you’ve really been making this point for a long time in front of a lot of different audiences, this point about the fact that there’s not just an increasing economic, let’s call it provocatively, an oligopoly, that there’s increasing consolidation in market power, but to point to this increasing consolidation in cultural power, whether that’s in the production of pop culture or movies, or whether that’s within the media sphere itself, or whether it’s corporations heavily weighing in on cultural debates like voting laws or men and women’s sports, or a dozen other issues that both of us could list off. Why is it important to talk about cultural monopoly? But also, on the flip side, since we’re both so heavily into the culture side, let’s throw the economic team a bone here. How does the economic power of these corporations have intertwine itself with their cultural power?
Yeah, that is absolutely key. The only reason Facebook gets away with what it does is because it has the monopoly. And so culture monopoly in that case I think is very much downstream of their economic monopoly. On the other hand, however, the cultural monopoly of places like, let’s say Comcast, which it gets broadcast everywhere from MSNBC, to the Today show, to literally Bravo, the cultural monopoly that exists there, it just exists across all of our corporations.
The cultural left has a cultural monopoly in C-suites, and in academia, and everywhere, basically. And part of that is because of the anti-competitive behavior, the anti-competitive, I guess, social and intellectual behavior, that is… What are you supposed to do? There’s an example unfolding literally right now as we’re talking, where Reason, the libertarian magazine, the excellent libertarian magazine, I should say, had one of its videos on the development of basically DIY COVID vaccines banned from YouTube.
And people are sort of dunking on Reason and saying, “Build your own YouTube, build your own YouTube, build your own YouTube,” but there’s kind of a good point to that. When Parler tried to be a competitor to Twitter, it was shut down not by Twitter. It was shut down by all of these other tech companies in which the cultural left enforced a monopoly. And they’ve basically bulldozed our culture, where you have this wide swath of the American public.
I mean, I think of the prominence of the term Latinx, or the proliferation of the term Latinx, which sort of crashed and burned over the course of the democratic primary. I think Elizabeth Warren used it the first minute of the first debate, and then the candidates pretty much dropped it because they had to go out into the field and talk to more people. It’s one of those things where they realized that it polled at like 10% with actual Hispanic voters.
But what we’re seeing across the board is the bulldozing of our culture because the left has this intellectual monopoly across all of our institutions, and so they can do it, because what are you going to do? Go build another Silicon Valley? Are you going to go build another media conglomerate? With what people? With what? Because our educated elites have sorted to the point where even at Fox Corporations, I’m sure their human resources department hands out the same, or at least some of the same nonsense that other major media corporations hand out.
And I’m sure that’s happening, because it’s like, from what pool are you going to hire? Because everyone has gone through the economic system, where again there’s an intellectual monopoly because there was never any real economic competition in academia over the past few years, which is why tuition is insanely high. And in that environment, it’s like, okay, well, where are you going to send your kid? You can send your kid to Hillsdale, but that’s pretty much it. Are you going to send your kid to… I’m from Wisconsin. Are you going to send them to University of Wisconsin as opposed to sending them to Harvard?
Okay, sure, but they’re still going to get the same stuff whether it’s at the University of Wisconsin, wherever it is. Obviously there are some great Christian private schools. Even those have a lot of leftward leaning, radical leftism. That’s hyperbole. And at the end of the day, it’s just like, well, what are you supposed to do when all of our institutions, because of the patterns of elite sorting, there’s the out-sized power in the hands of educated cultural leftists?
And at that point, they’re able to exert that out-sized power to really try to bulldoze and to shape the norms. And they have intimidated a wide swath of the public out of retaining what feels like to them their dignity. When they go to a PTA meeting and someone’s trying to read their five-year-old child I Am Jazz in a kindergarten class, and they don’t feel comfortable standing up for their child because they don’t want something worse to happen to their child, to be ostracized socially, to deal with the embarrassment of their parents being dragged out or called out in media, being filmed to Instagram and Facebook and TikTok and going viral for being a bigot. Nobody wants to deal with that, so what are you supposed to do?
What’s the role of the retreat of religion? Because you’ve now mentioned it a couple times in all of this, because it’s certainly observationally true to me, even as an atheist, that for example, in my home town of Palo Alto, part of the reason that it was so critical to sort your kids and make sure that your kids get sorted into the highest bracket possible in terms of what you’re referring to as elite sorting, which is really what the function of modern universities are. They are indoctrination centers for the activist left, and they are elite sorting mechanisms. And those two functions must be separated.
And hedge funds. They’re also hedge funds, as J. D. Vance says.
That’s true. They really are, actually. Harvard and Yale both have about $40 billion each in endowment funds, which is a pretty sizeable hedge fund. But in any case, part of the reason I think that is viewed as such a critical thing to make sure that your kid gets sorted into the elite, is at least observationally, seems to me to be that there’s not a lot of other identity or deeper things to be proud of about ourselves. And I think that’s also why we’re, and perhaps you agree with this, why we’re also emphasizing things like race to a degree that 20 years ago or 30 years ago would have been completely crazy as an identity.
And that does make me wonder about that, how our society is becoming post-Christian, and therefore this is having all kinds of effects from this kind of rat race, making the rat race and the material be the exclusive prize to be sought, and then on the flip side, not really moderating a lot of those materialist impulses, those impulses that capitalism so well coordinates into prosperity, but that are sort of morally neutral in themselves at best. What has been the role of largely a retreat from religion, the rise of the nones, as they call it, N-O-N-E? What’s the post-Christian America going to look like?
Yeah, and to me, it’s not even just post-Christian, it’s sort of post… Excuse me. I need more kombucha. It’s post speaking like a-
… true coastal… Yeah. No, it’s not just post-Christian, it’s postmodern. At the end of the day, I think it’s best described as postmodern, or it’s secular, because it’s untethered from the sense that objectivity is attainable. And that’s a huge, huge, I think downstream effect. As somebody who works with students all the time, by the way, and speaks to a lot of students, it’s sort of amazing to me how untethered they are from… And they want something more. They want to have some sort of moral order that feels, let’s say true.
It feels right and true and grounded in something. They want that, but they really don’t have that. And it’s in large part because the wheels have just sort of come off, and it snowballed. And then at a certain point, the wheels just sort of came off. That’s kind of a mixed metaphor there, but the point is that the left got so much momentum that we came to this point where we’re now saying that obesity is healthy.
That sounds like a crazy example. It might sound like a stupid red meat cultural example, but do you understand how confusing that is for a child brought up in a culture that teaches that obesity is healthy? We don’t have standards of objective beauty anymore, and that’s sort of telegraphed through very subtle signals that I think are having a very powerful effect. Because as you are in your formative years, that’s enormously confusing, because there are some things you know innately as a human and you seek innately as a human that society tells you cannot be answered with any sort of sense of moral clarity.
And again, that’s incredibly confusing. And the more that we are untethered from that, the more I just worry that we’ll ever be able to come back. A lot of people like to make the argument that this sort of wokeism is a religion. And I think, of course, obviously there are some parallels to it. I don’t think it’s true to say that it’s a substitute for religion. It might be an attempted substitute, but it doesn’t account for the afterlife.
And I’m not trying to just exist in this abstract space, but that’s something that real people think about all the time. It’s a practical question of life that occurs to people all of the time. What am I doing here? What is this? What am I going to do when it’s all over? What if it all ended today? And that has real consequences on people’s lives. I’m holding a pen right now. When you struggle to come up with an answer to what that is, that is satisfying to you as a human being, boy, we get into some really dangerous territory.
And I think a lot of that’s in a cultural space. I think you see a lot of it also in our totally morally bankrupt billionaire class, which I think doesn’t compare well to other billionaire classes, for all of the terrible flaws that they had. This was actually pointed out in a recent Jacobin that I continue to cite. There was kind of a moral order to the wasps of yore, which had a million different terrible flaws. But I think our morally bankrupt billionaire class right now is just… What higher purpose do they have?
And I think we see that in their conduct, in the way they conduct their businesses and the way they accrue and hoard their wealth, and in the way that if you look at someone like Jeff Bezos, he’s a very easy villain, and he’s a very obvious villain. His net worth will spike, and then we hear over the course of the pandemic, and then the benefits that the people in the bottom rung of the Amazon ladder actually reaped from this massive spike in profits are minimal compared to what happened to his net worth.
And it is just all to say that I think out elites are acting in a highly secularized environment, and downstream of that, real people are struggling with what… There are actual arguments made in college campuses that objectivity, free expression, and free speech are racist concepts rooted in white supremacy. And when you tear down that foundation and you attack that foundation, which I think everybody should question, right? We should all be questioning the foundation. We should go through that phase of our lives, and we could constantly be willing and open-minded enough to check ourselves and ask these questions. But when you tear down that foundation altogether and even stigmatize it entirely, we’re going off the rails.
What you’re really talking about is psychology, right? When we talk about purpose, when we talk about answering some of these questions of life about the afterlife, about death, about purpose within life, a lot of the questions that religion gives answers to and different religions give different answers, but ultimately, I think you’re right that wokeism as a religion fails to give those kinds of answers, or at least it grounds those answers entirely in the material, which is ultimately unsatisfying.
And materialism is a key aspect of it, and I didn’t use that phrase, but it’s completely true that we… And you see that in the girl boss mentality, the #girlboss mentality, which is ultimately a materialist philosophy that governs a lot of our pop culture, and I think is making a lot of women think about what their priorities are, and is steering them in one very materialist direction. I just wanted to jump in and say I think that is the right phrase for what we see.
Yeah, but I think it’s the right phrase because what we are ultimately talking about here is a psychological outlook, right? And I wanted to get your take on how that psychological outlook, and how we have… I mean, I think all the time about the Soviet new man and what a failure, in many ways, that was, they try to train self-interest out of the human person, unsuccessfully, right? It just pops up in different ways. And in fact, if you distort that kind of self-interest, you get outcomes that are way worse than in a capitalist system where you embrace that economic self-interest.
But it seems to me that this kind of pure materialism, and then finding your purpose through two routes. It’s, you accumulate the best material situation that you can if you’re Jeff Bezos, and then you solve your conscience, and to the extent that you interact at all with the nonmaterial, it goes into this crusade around race, gender, whatever else, this crusade towards an equitable society, let’s say. But it’s produced… I wonder what you would say about the psychological traits we seem to be creating in our own new men, our new woke men and women.
Because it seems to me that they are very disturbingly devoid of actual empathy for other people. And at the same time, there’s this very performative, sort of traumatic victimhood chasing. We talk now in the therapeutic language that I think people would have been embarrassed to speak about in that way even to their therapist just a couple decades ago, and now it is literally the language of power in the political stage.
Are we shaping a new man here who has some very disturbing psychological traits? I mean, how would you connect the two topics here, the drive to… Obviously there is some drive that was once oriented towards religion and perhaps is now oriented in these different directions, but I mean, if we know it by its fruits, it seems like it’s producing some very undesirable psychological traits in people.
Yeah. You just used the phrase new man, and a key part of that phrase is the word man. And you talked also about how people performatively expect to be rewarded for things they probably would have been embarrassed to say in the privacy of a therapy room not long ago. Just look at the trait of stoicism that is kind of a male instinct, that there’s been a very deliberate effort to help men unlearn that instinct. And again, how confusing is that if you’re a man? You want to do one thing and you’re told to do another thing, but it doesn’t…
I’m not a psychologist, obviously, but I think this is really fertile ground for psychological inquiry to the extent that [inaudible 00:48:10] very recently, Katie Herzog has been reporting on how doctors do not feel comfortable engaging in really free inquiry in their own fields of research. But materialism is… What I think people have been grappling with, especially some Catholic thinkers on the New Right, is how difficult it is to extricate our culture of materialism from our culture of capitalism.
And I’m a pretty unabashed capitalist. I hate cronyism just as much as any progressive, and I think that’s important, but I also think that markets have lifted more people out of poverty than anything ever. And I think it’s been just a remarkable sign of human progress. But still, it’s almost as though the balance has now shifted. The pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, and you have this question of, maybe this materialism is a function of us sort of out-teching ourselves, of inventing ourselves out of human nature.
And you can return to the example of birth control, and that’s a little hot. It’s a little controversial, I know. But we probably don’t spend enough time thinking about how dramatically it affected the relationships between men and women, women and work, and women and children. And it’s one of those things that technology allowed us and enabled us to do. And guess what technology also enabled us to do? It enabled us to live really far away from our families. And that’s something that Inez and I both know, and many people in our situations both know we don’t just move into another house in the same town, as has probably been customary for the course of human history, literally.
I mean, we are supposed to have family ties. We are supposed to have more children. We are supposed to have… You could go down the line. And this is a conversation that Inez and I have had on personal levels after a couple of Aperol spritzes with Inez has… You don’t get it with Aperol. You get it with…
I put Campari. I make Campari spritzes.
She puts Campari in.
I highly recommend this to all listeners. Try a Aperol spritz, but with Campari. But-
She makes me look like a rube any time we order these. But the point is, the broader point is that I do think that the Western system of free markets has enabled a growth in technological advancement that is allowing us to escape human nature. I have [inaudible 00:50:56] Facebook device, a Facebook VR device, and it’s frightening to think of how that technology can develop, because I can already sit and play ping pong on it for like a few hours if I want to, and I’m not even a video game person, so I don’t even know how people who are video game people resist the temptation to dip into a fantasy land and stay comfortable there.
But yeah, free markets are at the whims of human beings at the end of the day, and human beings are flawed, and human beings are fallen. And I guess if we can’t even have that fundamental agreement, obviously that’s the Christian worldview that human beings are flawed, and there are other faiths that share that too, but gosh, it just irks me to even hear people on the right sometimes say, “Oh, humans, they’re ultimately good. It’s so good to see, at the end of the day, the moral arc of history bends toward…” No, it really doesn’t.
Because the moral arc of history is governed by human beings who have free will, and they tend to be pretty flawed and pretty fallen, and we know that. When you create prosperity and wealth at the rate that has lifted so many people out of poverty, I think it’s also taking us in a very human but very frightening direction. And I think the materialism is a symptom of that.
Yeah. I mean, capitalism is a great engine at producing what human beings want, but what human beings want is never exactly what we need. We know this if we are at all skeptical about the nature of man. But I want to close out by asking you a question that’s been bothering me, or I’ve been wrestling with throughout this show, or kind of going back and forth on. Because on the one hand, when we talk about the absolute failure of our elite and our institutions, there’s a part of me that just cheers any destruction of this managerial class that I believe has not only so deeply failed America, but is so thoroughly mediocre.
I’m a conservative. I don’t have a problem with hierarchy or institution, but it seems to me that a lot of the people who are considered elite in our society, and what Spencer Klavan would say, “We give our honors to as a society,” are so deeply and thoroughly mediocre that I cheer their collapse and exposure. But on the other hand, I think about how hard it is, the project of building new institutions. When I think about the founding of this country and how our revolution has been one of… Within the class of arguable that have brought something better than what came before. And even, of course, the Catholic integralists that you referred to, they would dispute that as well. But…
As would Ryan Grim.
Yeah. There’s at most one revolution in human history that I can think of that built better institutions than it tore down. And when I think about all the things we’ve been talking about during this hour, and the psychological fragility of people in our age and their inability to set aside their narcissism for anything approaching a common good, not with capital letters, just any kind of common good, I’m terrified of what happens when we knock down that fence, to use the Berkian expression, when we start to destroy these institutions. Are you pessimistic or optimistic about what is built after that?
I’m enormously pessimistic, and not to bring everybody down…
I told Heather McDonald this as well. This is a safe space for pessimism.
It necessarily is a safe space for pessimism, because I don’t think you can… I speak to some people who are optimistic from time to time because I do Federalist Radio Hour with a really interesting array of guests, and people’s optimism really confuses me. I don’t know how you can walk away from all of this when we can’t even… You just said “common good,” but without the capital C or the capital G. We can’t even agree on what is a good anymore. We had sections of the media defending rioting last year at a higher level than we would have seen in years past, because I think the concept of fundamentally what constitutes good and what constitutes bad is becoming debatable.
It’s kind of outrageous to think about. And so that is what would have to change for all of this to change. When you talk about the thorough mediocrity of the elites, I mean, that stems from the group think. Because if you don’t let dissent into your ranks, iron will not be allowed to sharpen iron. You will never be sharp, or you will always remain dull because you are not open to challenges. And in that, you will just sort of calcify into this demented version of what your ideology of your worldview should be.
And I don’t see that our market right now, or that our system, or that our will to regulate, which I don’t have much will to regulate, and I never really have, although I always want to regulate the cronyists. But I don’t see that we have the antibodies. I think this is the greatest system of government that has ever existed. I’m not seeing a whole lot of signs that it can withstand this revolution that’s not only a cultural leftist revolution, but it’s a technology revolution.
Speaking of the ways that we interact with each other on a very fundamentally different human level, we are now constantly interacting and confronting opinions from people we don’t know, from all over the world, with different backgrounds and different communities and different ideas. And a lot of them are anonymous, and this is now a huge part of just our everyday existence. It is ambient. [inaudible 00:57:39] at any given moment of the day. And that was pitched initially as a good thing by Silicon Valley.
And I think what it has exposed is the fall of man, very clearly, and for all to see on a second by second basis. And so I don’t think you can put the tech genie back in the bottle. There are some kick starters that have tried to get off the ground with anti-smartphone type devices, and even those. So I’m sort of just looking at the market and looking at the culture to see… There are some signs, and the new contras are a great example, to bring this conversation full circle. They’re a great example of the market’s slow response, so it’s possible that we’re just in an adjustment period, that this will sort out when people decide again what is right and what is good.
And we’ll still have challenges, but maybe we can at least sort of root out the mainstreaming of insanity from our culture. But that’s a Herculean task because of the bulldozing of all of our institutions, and the intellectual monopoly, it’s going to be nearly impossible, in my view, to break up just because of our dependence on technology and the way that technology conditions us on a second by second basis in our everyday life to rely on it. I just don’t know how you break that, so I’m incredibly pessimistic. But we’ll see where it goes, Inez. At the end of the day, there will always be Campari.
Well, at least until that runs dry. No, one of the most disturbing things about growing up in Silicon Valley is seeing that the people who genuinely thought if they connected the world, there would be world peace-
… become in charge or rise to positions of power, ultimate power, in our society. But Emily, thank you so much for coming on High Noon. You can watch Emily on Rising, and you can also read her work at The Federalist. You can listen to her on The Federalist Radio Hour. And if you are a young journalist, you can even learn from Emily through YAF’s NJC program. Thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum.
As always, you can send your comments and questions to [email protected] Please help us out by hitting that subscribe button, leaving us a comment or a review on Apple Podcasts, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or IWF.org, which is the only one out of those things that is not controlled by a tech company. Be brave. We’ll see you next time on High Noon.