Transcript of Eureka Podcast
Feminization of Society, originally published August 7, 2021
I’ll be transcribing select podcasts from now on. The one I recently did with Misha Saul had a lot of great insights, so I thought it was a good place to start.
It’s been lightly edited to make it more clear and legible, and sometimes for grammar, while maintaining the general ideas.
Misha: Hi. I’m Misha Saul, and welcome to Eureka, a place where I speak to brilliant people to uncover hidden insights. Today I’m speaking to Richard Hanania. There are many ways to describe Richard Hanania, but honestly, maybe the best way is – he’s just my kind of guy. There’s no bullshit. He has a habit of seeing elephants in the room others miss. We could disagree on something and I reckon we’d just laugh it off.
Richard has hit the spotlight in a big way over the last year – he’s been on Tucker Carlson and is increasingly known for his iconoclastic style. His podcast is excellent, and his essay drawing out the mechanism for how Wokeism grew out of the Civil Rights Act in the US has made waves.
This conversation picks up on a strand that I’ve been thinking a lot about. Diana Fleischman in my conversation with her said: Institutions are increasingly reflecting the values of middle-aged women. Tyler Cowen often writes about the feminization of society at Marginal Revolution. No one, as far as I’m aware, has really buttoned down what that means and what it looks like.
I don’t think that’s quite what we do here.
It’s a pretty free-flowing exploratory conversation about what we might call the feminization of society. What do we mean when we talk about it? Where can we see it? What are its benefits and derangements? We have a crack at the subject, anyway. Think of this as an experiment in chatting through some observations, live.
I think I’ll be doing more of these with Richard. He reads a bunch and has interesting opinions. He’s also a baby maximalist like me, but that’s for another day. He lives in DC, so in lieu of just having a laugh and a chinwag over backgammon and coffee, it’ll have to be podcasts. This is how dads make friends in the 21st century. Anyway I hope you enjoy this podcast as much as I did. Let’s go.
(beginning of conversation)
Misha: Richard, I'm absolutely delighted to have you on. I know we’ve been chit-chatting for the last year or two about lots of things. It’s been a really exciting year for you; I’ve loved watching your rise in prominence and reading more and more of your stuff. I’m pumped to speak to you today.
Richard: Yeah, thanks Misha, I'm glad to be here and can’t believe it’s been a year or two, has it been that long? Time just flies by.
Misha: I think it’s been six months? COVID has kind of warped everything so who knows.
Richard: Feels like a year… two years sounds long.
Misha: Two years sounds long, yeah OK. Just a year, no more. But today I think… you had a post a little while ago which I kinda laughed at and you basically mentioned DiAngelo, this whole woke thing, and you basically said, and I’ll quote the tweet ‘cause it kind of sets up the entire conversation, “funniest thing is when they insist DiAngelo isn’t representative, that there’s actually something very serious behind the curtain, like it all isn’t just estrogen and mental illness.” And obviously it’s tongue and cheek and you’re being provocative and we had a good chuckle over it. But actually today I want to kind of treat estrogen and mental illness kind of seriously and dig into that quite a bit.
As a kind of starting point, you recently released a very well-read and really interesting insight into the mechanisms by which wokeness arose, and you trace it back to the Civil Rights Act. Maybe if you want to give a quick synopsis of that, that provides a really nice framework for how these things actually arise in practice rather than just talking about it in the abstract.
Richard: Sure. This is going to be a very American-centric analysis because it goes back to American history and American law but a lot of Americans don’t actually know this story. A lot of liberals have this idea of the Civil Rights Act… there used to be racism, they still think there is racism, but there used to be official state-sanctioned racism, Jim Crow, private businesses would discriminate against blacks and women to a lesser extent, or the same extent in some people’s minds. Then you pass the law of the Civil Rights Act and things got better. And a lot of Republican politicians, those doing the most superficial kind of analysis, don’t have much of a different story than that. They just think that “whatever, now the wokeness has come and now maybe it’s something a different and that’s a problem.” And they’ll throw in “oh and by the way, those who opposed the civil rights were Democrats." They try and claim the mantle for the civil rights movement for the Republicans, which is nonsense because a lot of those people left and became Republicans specifically over that issue, and a lot of their voters left the party. So it’s really a nonsense narrative they try and throw back at them.
It says you can’t discriminate in government and you can’t discriminate in private business. And most people at the time thought that basically meant you couldn’t put up a sign that says no black people. Even the gender thing they say was added as a joke actually. Somebody was trying to kill the bill, they didn’t want the racial equality parts. They said, “it would be so absurd to have a society where you didn’t discriminate based on sex” so they put sex in there hoping to kill the bill. And it ended up passing. I’m not 100% sure, I was told this by a law professor at the University of Chicago, so it’s not like I read it on Twitter somewhere. It’s credible though I haven’t looked into it.
Misha: American politics is basically a rerun of the producers, like hilarious accidents that keep escalating forever.
Richard: Right. So what does not discriminating mean? It wasn’t long after that that the phrase affirmative action comes along. It comes along in a series of executive orders. Government contractors first under Kennedy and then LBJ in the 1960s. Under Nixon for the entire federal government. Basically it said that the government would have to keep racial and gender statistics and make sure there weren’t any disparities between groups. You also had development of these other legal doctrines developed from the Civil Rights Act which includes a hostile work environment, sexual harassment law, stuff like that.
And lots of people have raised questions about free speech: If I think men and women are different and I’m in a private business and I want to say that, that’s of questionable legality… mainstream conservative views on things. They went after a lot of companies for this. There were some major corporations, I think Mitsubishi was one, they ended up paying a lot of money to the government, that made examples out of certain places.
Another doctrine, which was invented by a combination of the courts and executive agencies, is disparate impact. So if you give standardized tests, Grigg vs. Duke Power Company, this was a case early after the Civil Rights Act. It said if you give an IQ test and it has a disparate impact between groups… you can still use it but it’s a little complicated, it has to be related to the work, but it becomes harder. Everything you do that has a racial disparate impact, and by the way everything in the world has a racial disparate impact, if you find something that doesn’t I’ll be surprised, they can come after you for it either through the government directly coming after you or through people suing you.
So what happened? What happened starting in the 1960s is you see the growth of this human resources industry. You can just look at the chart of the number of human resource workers in the US going through the roof. Now if you had just said quotas, hire this many blacks, this many women, that would have been simple. You wouldn’t need a full-time bureaucracy to do that. The fact that it was vague and there were potentially substantial penalties sort of put business on edge. You needed a full-time bureaucratic class to interpret the laws and what was going on.
So the DEI industry is derived off of the rise of human resources. So you know, the way people see woke institutions today, “well they’re just deciding to be woke, there’s just a class of people deciding to take the leftwing issue on anything related to race and gender,” and some of that is obviously right. But you’re ignoring that basically legally you’re only allowed to be on one side of the culture wars. You’re not really allowed to say… if you’re a government contractor you can’t say “I don’t want to count my employees by race or gender. I don’t want to collect that data. I don’t want to take affirmative action to help black people or women out, I believe in a colorblind policy.” Mainstream conservative views, conservatives believe this stuff, it’s not legal. Conservatism is illegal for a lot of institutions. Not everything is covered but huge portions: the federal government, government contractors, subcontractors, it covers a huge portion of the private and public sectors.
And then it filters down, you have these big corporations and other people sort of follow them. And then you have these norms that apply to everyone. Courts will look at best practices, saying “Oh, discrimination is wrong, what are the best practices in the industry? What are people doing to fight discrimination?” And if that’s Robin DiAngelo at one point in time, you start to worry if you don’t have Robin DiAngelo coming to give speeches you might get in trouble. Not specifically Robin DiAngelo, but you get the idea. You have these intellectual fads that come and go and everyone’s jumping on the same train because it’s necessary.
There’s a book that argues this called Inventing Equal Opportunity. And there’s other work by the guy Frank Dobbin at Harvard. It’s not just the civil rights law but a lot of laws in the US are like this, where they’re sort of vague. Safety standards, environmental standards, you write a law that’s sort of vague, the government doesn’t really enforce it or does enforce it though executive branch agencies which make up rules as they go along, or through the courts, or through civil society bringing lawsuits. And the bureaucracy grows. So America is a state where the government doesn’t directly do stuff like a lot of places, it doesn’t dictate to corporations, but it just builds a legal-bureaucratic environment where things have to go in a certain direction. And that’s basically what wokeness is. It’s not just a cultural thing, that’s what’s important to understand.
Misha: We could spend the entire conversation on this and I know you’ve discussed it elsewhere and I encourage people to read your Substack where you posted this. By the way, I was reading The Conquering of Mexico recently. The kind of tribes that were conquered, something like 25% of their time was dedicated to religious ritual which had kind of gone defunct in its original purpose and it built up the scleroticism in the society. And I’ve been reflecting on your view that there’s this massive bureaucratization of these kind of semi-religious incantations towards discrimination and the kind of requirements driven by law, and it kind of reminded me of how much of society and of the economy is now dedicated to monitoring and enforcing these semi-legal, semi-cultural norms which I found an interesting parallel.
But anyway, let’s get back to the feminization issue. I think this is a discussion that can easily devolve into two cranks kind of sounding conspiratorial and bitter. The one place outside this conversation that’s been steadily beating the drum of this thing has been Tyler Cowen on his blog Marginal Revolution. I think we can generally be quite normatively neutral around this trend, it’s not necessarily a good or bad thing, but if you go to Marginal Revolution and search “feminization,” you notice that it does pop up quite periodically.
For example, one thing that Tyler Cowen recently said, and I’ll quote: “one thing the contemporary world definitely has not come to terms with is how much a highly feminized culture will be rather strongly enforcing new forms of discrimination, albeit cloaked under different and rhetorically emancipatory principles.” I think last year or the year before Tyler Cowen said “the feminization of our culture is for me, trend #1,” noting that basically all the top ten selling books had female protagonists and seven were authored by women. And I think you can go through different professions, education and other institutions, over the past 50 years, and I guess it’s not surprising since the kind of increased participation of women in the workforce and democratic process, you’d kind of expect our cultural and institutions to change. But I guess this is what I wanted to spend today talking about, when you kind of took the piss out of DiAngelo and just said “this is just estrogen and mental illness.” Let’s talk about what has happened in our culture, what does feminization mean?
Richard: Well, I think it means a lot. It’s a broad topic. I think what Cowen is referring to is, you have men and women, and men and women deal with conflict and challenges in different ways. We as a society are leaning more towards doing things in the feminized way rather than a more masculine way. Robin DiAngelo is just a great example of this. I mentioned the human resources industry. I also have a chart in my Substack that shows the changing demographics over time, shows something like 60-70% female. So this idea that you have problems with people and then you talk to them about it and you talk to them not for say, an instrumental purpose, “we’re going to work something out,” but talking is a reward in and of itself. You need something, you need to re-establish the relationship, you need to feel heard, feel validated. This is a very feminine thing.
So you have these protestors at universities, and it’s funny because you look at identity politics in the past, anti-colonization or something. It’s just “we want to get the occupiers out of our country, we want to fight them, we want to have our own society” it’s a kind of masculine idea. And you now have these sort of identity politics where it’s like “hire more diversity counselors and have them talk to the people who are mean to us forever.” It’s a very strange thing compared to what identity politics was 30, 40, 50 years ago. It’s a sort of nationalism, a tribalism, an us vs. them that’s there in every society. But it’s morphed into something different.
So DiAngelo, the rise of human resources, even things like how we understand cost-benefit analysis. I think Safetysim is a more female way of looking at things. Bryan Caplan in his book The Myth of the Rational Voters has a few predictors of thinking more like an economist, and one of them is being male rather than female.
Something I’ve noticed since I was a kid, you know the film Space Jam, right? There’s a female rabbit, and when the movie was out in the 1990s she was curvaceous and attractive. When they made the movie again this year, 2021, they had to make her flat-chested and just make her look like an actual basketball player. Why is that necessary? There are curvaceous women out there, just as much women as anyone else, so why do they deserve less representation while skinny women who have the bodies of basketball players deserve more representation? There’s the rise of this idea that male sexuality is somehow wrong. Because it appeals to men it’s somehow a bad thing or wrong, and what men have to see. It has to be more representative of all women or what women think. This idea that attraction and romance should not be based on physical attractiveness… that’s just male sexuality! That’s all it is. And the idea that this is wrong or dirty, something we can’t talk about or “sexist”, it’s hard to see the connection there.
So I think there’s the way of dealing with conflicts, the way of thinking about policy, the normative ways we think about sexual attractiveness and how it should work, I think we’re going in a female direction on all those fronts.
Misha: We’ve been going in that direction for a long time. But I think it’s easy to be conspiratorial and actually there’s quite a clear mechanism. A nice example is there is this whole Victoria’s Secret thing where historically it’s been very much driven by male attractiveness, what’s attractive to men and in the same way off-putting or threatening to women. And that’s obviously changed to whatever they’re doing now. But you can tell quite a non-cultural, prosaic story around this. The times have changed in terms of what the consumer wants and what consumers are after, and they’ve had to keep up with the change. Women have more spending power, that’s the story around consumer demographic changes, they just wanted something different. That’s pretty innocuous… is that part of what we’re talking about? How do you think about that?
Richard: I think the consumer preferences and the changes are what we’re trying to explain. What’s happening with Sports Illustrated, they just lost out to internet porn. They just have to do something else now. That was their function 20-30 years ago, they can’t compete anymore, so now they’re latching onto whatever social causes they have. I think the preferences are what we’re trying to explain because it’s not like women don’t naturally like to identify with pretty women. The Disney Princesses weren’t traditionally appealing to men, they were appealing to little girls who wanted to be a princess, wanted to be pretty, wanted to have a prince charming. It wasn’t like if 20 years ago the little girls had had more spending power though their parents they would have wanted trans princesses or fat princesses, that’s not what little girls wanted. They wanted Barbie.
Even the consumer preferences, we’re so siloed into different classes and preferences. There’s so many things out there. Me and you, we’re in the world where the things that get our attention aren’t the totality of society. There was this huge phenomena in the shopping malls where you would adopt a baby doll. It was started by some Hispanic woman in America. And this became huge. It’s not something that gets noticed on Twitter, but it was the maternal experience. You get the paperwork for the adoption, I went inside the stores of one of these once, and the store is like a nursery. You pick a baby off the shelf and so you still have these preferences for what traditionally playing with dolls meant. And parents all over the country are going around and buying their daughters this stuff.
We’re noticing because it becomes a culture war flashpoint, a trans model in Sports Illustrated. Is that what the consumer wants? Some people like that, there are people whose politics are their lives, they think that’s cool. I don’t know if that’s going to help Sports Illustrated. It’s at least a way to get their name in the news, which I think is the most they can hope for these days.
Misha: I think that’s really interesting. That doesn’t fit as neatly into the whole consumer trend thing, but then again you don’t have the kind of political, cultural, commissars using the Civil Rights Act, putting trans people on the covers of these magazines. So how do you explain that?
Richard: Well, if you go to the places where it’s most purely about consumer preferences, just walk though the girls section in the toy store… now they announce there’s no girls section or boys section, but they’ll have one isle that’s all cars and one isle that's all dolls. I was at Target not long ago just looking at the dolls and the Barbies, now they’re in different colors, black, brown, and they have careers, doctor Barbie, astronaut Barbie. I didn’t see a fat Barbie, I didn’t see a trans Barbie, I didn’t see a bald-headed Barbie, I didn’t see a tattooed Barbie…
Misha: Not now, but every joke becomes a reality.
Richard: Somebody will do it. Somebody will make a trans doll and it will get on Twitter. It’s not going to sell because it’s not the consumer preference. Somebody will put that out there and people on Twitter will think that’s 100% of dolls now. We’re in this bubble and human nature is still there. So that stuff, trans in Sports Illustrated, I think that’s somewhat marginal and I think it’s things that are not being popular, all they want is to get themselves in the headlines.
There is continuity in a lot of things. The more elite you go on the cultural level, you and me live in the world of political discourse…
Misha: I don’t live there as much as you.
Richard: Good for you. Better off. And so there you see it, you see it a lot more. I wouldn’t say it’s completely feminized, but I’d say it’s moved more in that direction. If you’re just like a parent raising a kid, just shopping at the toy store, you’ll see it but you won’t see it as much. I go to the book section and there’s a lot ‘anti-racist baby’ that’s taking up a lot of shelf space. It’s maybe like 10-20% that’s identifiably woke. The rest of the stuff is still dinosaurs, toy cars, Barbies, stuff kids would have liked 30-40 years ago.
Misha: One way to kind of splice this is that the everyday person, everyday mom, everyday family, is not that different to whatever they were doing 40, 50, 60 years ago. A lot of this is essentially like intra-elite discourse and kind of battling. But that kind of seeps down and affects politics and affects culture so I wonder if it’s a bit of a copout to say the everyday experience is kind of fine, because every normal human whose daughter asks for a doll gives them a doll as they’ve done for thousands of years or whatever it is.
I wanted to kind of isolate the elite aspects of it. What’s changed in terms of institutional change. And also, as a separate kind of thing, you kind of tagged mental illness onto the estrogen point talking about DiAngelo. Are they linked and how should we think about them?
Richard: I think things like anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, these things are higher in women. Neuroticism, I think these things are clearly… everyone sort of understands that. Especially the way we talk about things like mental health. Simone Biles… the idea that she quit right before a match, a meeting? A game? Whatever they call it?
Misha: An Olympics thing? A sports thing? We’re the wrong guys here. And she says she doesn’t want to do it anymore?
Richard: Anyway, there’s some kind of competition which she quit. And it’s not about her specifically, it’s about the media reaction which is that this is more heroic than if she would have won.
Misha: The quote in The New Yorker, I think it is, “her radical courage.” It’s deranged! To your point, even the best have blowups and absolutely no judgment, whatever. It’s the cultural reaction to it that is totally hilarious and idiotic.
Richard: Even stuff like therapy, the rise of mental health discourse. If you watch some normal TV shows, it’s amazing how everyone has a therapist. It’s seen as everyone has these problems they gotta work through, and the idea of it is that everyone is walking around damaged. I’m not going to say that’s normal for males or females. But we are tilting towards… it’s closer to the female norm than the male norm. There’s a minority of women who are very anxious and go through life feeling a lot of pain, and even for all our so-called gender equality, there’s still an idea that it’s much more socially acceptable for women to complain about things; for women to cry about things is much more socially acceptable than men.
So women tend to have these negative emotions at higher rates and it’s more acceptable for them to express negative emotions, so what happens is female concerns are overrepresented in the things we talk about. Not even all female concerns, I mean it’s very specific. Elizabeth Bruenig, this is a Washington Post writer for those who don’t pay attention, I think she just wrote some article that said “I became a mom at a young age and this made me happy,” that was the whole article. And every person on Twitter lost their mind and said it’s white supremacy or something. So it’s not the women like Elizabeth Bruenig, though she is a columnist and has a voice, she’s not representative of her class. It tends to be single, urbanized, less connected to family or marriage or a committed relationship. Those people talk the most and they tend to go into journalism and academia. They tend to have a disproportionate influence. This isn’t just women who have influence, but is true of human beings in general and who ends up mattering and having influence. The prominence we give to mental health and the way we talk about it are both signs of feminization.
Misha: I’ll tell my kids that The Sopranos kicked off the feminization trend with the therapist.
Richard: I don’t think they kicked it off, what kicked it off? It’s interesting to go back because 1990s, Seinfeld, you don’t see it.
Misha: I reckon most of it is the kind of good story of female economic and political empowerment over many decades. So society is increasingly reflecting that preference. I think that’s a bunch of it. To your interesting point, there seem to be some sharp take-offs in random directions in female-elite discourse and what’s causing that, that’s an interesting question. I wonder how much of that is American versus global. I really don’t get the sense, and maybe this is because how dominant culturally America is and how much it exports this culture, I don’t know if we see this in Europe or as much elsewhere.
Diana Fleischman who I had on the podcast recently had a great line. She said “institutions are increasingly reflecting the values of middle-aged women” which I thought was kind of insightful and one of the reasons that provoked this conversation. I do wonder if there’s an intersection of other demographic trends. Obviously men and women are having kids later, much later. When you have women in their 30s having difficulty having kids, feeling anxiety around that, given the growing demographic of that part of the population whether that anxiety bleeds into other cultural, law or institutional frameworks…
Bit of an innocuous example, but in a tweet about COVID, a lady understandably said “I’m 35, I’m single, I want to get on with my life. I can’t just give away a year and half.” And that’s entirely legitimate, but how much of that is the rise of female muscle in the community and then the kind of delaying of kids and the changing of families intersecting to kind of create these public anxieties?
Richard: To go back to what you said about whether it’s an American thing, I don't have much experience traveling overseas. I did a semester abroad in Russia when I was an undergrad, that was about 10 years ago, around 2008-2009.
Misha: That’s awesome, where did you go in Russia?
Richard: St. Petersburg.
Misha: Cool! How’s your Russian?
Richard: Not very good. I have a minor in it but it’s been 12 years so I barely know anything.
So I was there, and I saw Tyler Cowen say this: the gender dimorphism is very high there. I didn’t see any women with short hair. I didn't see any women with sweatpants or anything like that. I traveled a bit in Europe and I think it’s the same way. ‘Letting yourself go’ as a woman is more of an American thing. I don’t know if it’s an Anglo thing, you can tell me about Australia, but it’s sort of like… some women have gotten in their heads the idea that to appeal to a man is somehow sexist or wrong. But it’s human nature, men want to appeal to women and women want to appeal to men.
Misha: Yeah, but you can have an argument that’s regressive and that’s reflective of traditionalist values, that’s basically behind rather than an alternative. I know they look at the anglosphere and see everyone as totally deranged. I can’t even say it on here but the things they say about this whole dynamic is pretty funny. How do you think about that? Maybe it’s just a function of liberation, that you don’t need to be on parade all the time.
Richard: Why is that liberation? You could say someone being obese is liberation, why do they feel like they have to watch their weight? Not caring about how you look, this is a form of liberation.
Misha: You joke, but the US is way heavier than it was 50 years ago. You are seeing all these big is beautiful schtick kind of everywhere, you know what I mean? I kind of get the everyday person rolls their eye at this, but it seems to be a meaningful…
Richard: Do an experiment. Find a woke woman, tell her “you’ve put on a few pounds recently.” Say it in the nicest way possible, and see if she takes it as an insult. The things we say, “big is beautiful,” but try it sometime. Tell someone “I’m a liberal, I don’t have any judgement on these things.” It doesn’t work. There’s what we’re supposed to say and the reality.
My weight has fluctuated a lot over my adult life. Sometimes I felt more liberated and I’ve eaten a lot more food and that had a benefit in some way. But when I haven’t done that I’ve generally felt better about myself. I’ve felt healthier and more confident. I think most people are the same, I don’t think most people are different on that account.
Misha: By the way, you are looking fitter. Have you been…?
Richard: Yeah, I started going on TV and I thought I looked too fat so I started going on one of my cycles. I’m on a downward slope now and I’ll get skinnier until I get really hungry and blow up again.
Misha: Awesome, well good for you. I think that a flip side of this is if you look at what men have been up to… there’s been a lot less violence over the last 50 years, and I reckon every criminologist has a million reasons that’s the case. I don’t know the answer but I assume a piece of that is changing cultural norms, you can’t get into a bar fight which was kind of de jour 50 years ago. I wonder if that’s a symptom of increased feminization. I feel like we’re going to be accused of being these miserable old cranks, but I think you can take a value-neutral approach to these things. You can be positive about there being a massive reduction in crime and violence generally, and if that’s a function of increased feminization…
The other piece of it is there’s been a lot of talk about the decline of male spaces. Not just things like union membership but generally, it strikes me that men would not just go to the bar, which is an alcohol thing, but go play cards. It would be totally normal for the men to get together periodically, and a lot of that seems to have broken down. Again, it’s always hard to generalize. I don’t know how much it’s me and my immediate community versus broader trends, I don’t know who has measured these stats, but male spaces seem to have meaningfully declined. Even public pronouncements of male preferences, Sports Illustrated, anything kind of gaudy, the Victoria’s Secret thing which is almost like a public version of a male space, has kind of been trashed and pathologized. What do we see there, and do you agree that’s part of the function of broader cultural change?
Richard: Yeah, that’s some of it, and to go back to civil rights law, some of these things have been forcibly integrated. Some big golf course, something related to the PGA… they had men’s only golf and some big lawsuit. I think that’s right… Harvard within the last few years got rid of single gender fraternities and sororities, I don’t know if they went after the sororities too but they at least went after the fraternities. You think about why you’d need a male only space, or an all female space, and the justification would be “men and women are different, I can speak and talk in a way with other men that I can’t in a room with all women,” and that idea of fundamental differences is verboten, it’s something you’re not allowed to say or think.
You do get some all female spaces. It’s sort of like you could have an all black club but not all white club; because that’s the preference of the protected group, people will justify it somehow. They’ll say “blacks or women face unique challenges” not because they’re biologically different but because they’re facing unique challenges due to sexism or whatever. Sometimes they won’t deny the biological, but basically you don’t have to think too much about it, because they’re the “good people,” women and minorities.
And if you’re a man, now you’re talking about differences. And you’re implying those differences in some way favor the men. It’s funny, Daily Caller is a conservative website and they went to some member of the Congressional Black Caucus, a Democrat, and asked him “why do you think that men are arrested for crimes more than women?” Now the joke is that the Congressional Black Caucus says that it’s racism if blacks are arrested more for crimes than white people. And the Congressional Black Caucus, one of the guys was like “oh of course, because men are more violent.” It was nothing. So they sort of got him. There’s not a consistency. Sometimes you can believe in differences, sometimes you can’t. It’s not about if you believe in differences or not, it’s about if you’re flattering the group that needs to be flattered or insulting the group that needs to be insulted.
So I think that’s the decline of male-only spaces, because it implies difference and it implies male… what’s the real situation? That men are superior in some ways and inferior in others and women are superior in some ways and inferior in others. But we can’t have that nuance, it has to be that there is no difference, or if there is then women are better.
Misha: I’ve generally come to the conclusion with these arguments that even stark contradictions and hypocrisy survive. Where I’ve landed is that is because we don’t live in a mistake theory world, we live in a conflict theory world. We’re not actually trying to discover the truth, we’re not trying to figure it out. It’s really every group flexing their muscle in their interest. They’ll lie and steal to your face consistently, so there’s no point trying to untangle the hypocrisy, you just need to flex your muscle, which is a pretty dangerous place to go.
Richard: Yeah, but I don’t think every group is flexing their muscle. Men could act as a group and flex their muscle but they do not. It’s more that there’s a grand narrative you buy into for your tribe. That might flatter your group, it might not flatter your group, your ethno-demographic, your gender, you might just be one of the ‘good ones.’ You just have a narrative and you build around that. It’s all tribalism all the way down. It’s fun to poke holes in it, but sometimes people do follow the logic. Sometimes.
Misha: It seems to be working somewhere. There’s a nice example recently. All-male clubs in Australia are still this dwindling species, all these powerful and rich business folk get together and have lunch. It looks, by the way, utterly dreary. But beyond it being this boring old stuffy thing, there’s massive outcry that, within the last few months or so, the Melbourne or Sydney club, the members voted to keep it male. The newspapers were outraged, “how dare they?”
Richard: Just a bunch of guys getting together, just guys..
Misha: Just leave the crusty old dudes alone! There’s like 50 female gyms down the road from that same club and no one cares. But this is literally front-page news. No one can get enough of these crusty old dudes getting together for lunch.
Richard: The thing is men don’t want to do identity politics against women. You do have these guys online, men’s rights activists…
Misha: They’re losers! Who wants to be those guys?
Richard: Right. So there’s got to be a way to pushback, while not falling into the “we’re just like women, we’re going to have a fight on equal terms.” I mean if you do do that, you end up with the Taliban. Men will win, if you fight on equal terms with women… Trust me, it’s not going to be much of a fight. You don’t want to go in that direction.
Misha: That all makes sense. OK, we’ve covered a lot. Should we be wrapping that up? Do we have a coherent thesis or are we just kind of having a bit of a kvetch? A bit of a whinge between friends?
Richard: This is what podcasts are for, experimentation. We can go in any direction we want.
Misha: Why don’t we leave that one there and we can flesh that out and think about it a little bit more another time.
I listened to a few of your recent podcasts, which is kind of switching gears. You’re of Palestinian background and you speak Arabic. You recently said you don’t like speaking it that much because you don’t feel as articulate in it. I deeply empathize with this point, do you want to riff on that a little bit?
Richard: Yeah, I can understand Arabic pretty well, I can read. I’m used to speaking English obviously and I’m used to being somewhat well spoken, when I have an idea I can formulate it pretty well, better than most people. When you’re talking in a language where you’re not that good, maybe I’m at the level of a seven or eight year-old, and I’m a person who is used to speaking at a little bit of a high level, it’s not a pleasant experience. If I was not good in English either it’d be no big deal, I’d switch between them. So I tend to avoid it, I think that’s normal for people who have a huge gap between their native language and their second-best language. I don’t think it’s necessarily that unusual.
Misha: Yeah, it really spoke to me because I speak Russian and grew up speaking Russian, but 50% of my Russian is stuff people shouted at me growing up. It’s a very domestic Russian, and so I’m pretty sure most of my Russian friends growing up thought I was pretty retarded because my Russian is inherently quite capped at a certain…
Richard: You grew up in Grozny?
Misha: I’m not from Chechnya, I was born in Georgia. To be fair that’s kind of North Caucasus…
Richard: And when did you leave?
Misha: I was almost four. I spoke Russian in the house.
Richard: So who were these Russian friends who thought you weren’t very smart, were they Australian?
Misha: Yeah, I grew up in Adelaide. We had a pretty extended… ethnic communities hang out together so my extended family and Russian, Georgian friends. I met other kinds of Russian and Russian-speaking folks, you hang out in your teens, I don’t know if you had that kind of common experience. I’m pretty sure when we’re speaking Russian they all thought I was retarded.
Richard: But they knew you could speak English, right?
Misha: They presumed, but you’re not really having those kinds of conversations.
Richard: I think it’s cool to know a language that’s completely different. Like Russian, which I know a bit because I have a minor, there’s the case system, which is beautiful. You can switch words around and add a suffix to word and that’s how you get meaning, rather than word order. To know that and to be able to do that to a certain extent, that’s really cool. I’ve never learned a tonal language like Chinese, but I think that would be cool and unusual too.
While we’re on the topic, if you haven’t read Pinker’s The Language Instinct, it’s actually beautiful. He has all these examples of strange languages you can’t even believe exist. You can make a 100 syllable word that means a paragraph but it’s all one word in this African language, it’s completely crazy. And it goes into what’s universal and what is not. It’s a really cool book.
Misha: Yeah, I find it endlessly fascinating. I’ll check out that book I haven’t read it. I did a podcast on the Georgian language and that somehow went semi-viral within the community. Got great feedback. Georgian has no genders, Chechnyan has six genders. How does that affect the way you think? In high school I thought a lot about how the language you speak confines what you think. There are linguistic theories and debates around this. But I think it’s totally fascinating, there are so many ways to look at the world, and language is such a meaningful one. It’s almost like the water we swim in, we don’t really notice it, its constraints or strengths or nuances. It’s got to be some kind of insight into the way we look at the world. I’m always fascinated by the question.
Richard: I think most linguists don’t subscribe to a hard version of that theory. In Russian they’ll have colors, a light blue and a dark blue, but there’s a universal thing where if a language only has two colours, it’s black and white. If you have three, the third color always has to be red, or something like that. And then it goes in order actually. Black and white are the most natural, then red, green and blue, and then orange and purple; you need more color words to get to orange and purple. So there’s a human nature under there that structures the language but then the grammar, the cases, the word order, there’s so much flexibility.
How much does it affect… I don’t know. Some things are just practical. In some languages you have to say the gender of a person. If you saw a doctor you can’t say “I met a doctor,” you have to say female doctor or male doctor. That’s kind practical consequences I guess. The plasticity of the human mind is fascinating. Everyone gets their own language perfectly, no matter how complicated it is.
Misha: I loved Albion’s Seed, have you read Albion’s Seed?
Richard: I’ve read half of it.
Misha: The whole cultural folkways thing and the persistence of cultural folkways I find powerful. Ever since I read it I see it everywhere, not just the US but in Australia and elsewhere. What are you a product of in terms of where you sit in the cultural milieu?
Richard: I think I’m a lower-class American in terms of my tastes and background. I grew up in an area that was middle class. My friends, the better friends I had growing up, most of them didn’t go to college. They got drunk and they got stoned and got into fights.
Misha: Where is this?
Richard: Suburbs of Chicago. So in Chicago the north suburbs are richer, the city is racially divided almost equally divided black/white/Hispanic. The south suburbs, when I was there, it was more like lower class white areas. That’s where I grew up and I watched American sports, pro-wrestling. Talk about persistence of folkways, I found that American culture is a great dissolvent. I grew up with Arabs, Mexicans, Italians, and ended up a lot more similar than they were different. And then I go to Europe and I see everyone’s watching American TV shows, and say to myself “it’s no wonder the Americans are all alike, because even in foreign countries they’re paying attention to American pop culture and politics.”
I think I’m a member of this emerging global culture. That’s where we are. I have the immigrant thing, I don’t know if it made me the person I am because when I think about my relatives, I’m very different from them. I’m different from a lot of people, I’m a unique person, but I’m more different from my family than other people. You’d think since you’re genetically like your family you’d be more like them. The power of American culture is quite amazing. I push back on a lot of it and where it’s going, but that’s my background and where I come from.
Misha: You described your background as part immigrant, part lower-class cultural milieu. Do you think that gives you an edge or a resilience in speaking the way you do? If I reflect on the way you’ve interacted in public it’s quite fearless. You’re just kind of saying stuff that’s true but that’s often unsaid. A lot of it is just genuine insight of course, but you don’t pander, you just say it like it is. “Hey, I grew up on the south side of Chicago, fuck you! What are you ‘gonna say? I’m an immigrant? You’re going to attack me, I’m an immigrant!”
I feel that way sometimes. If someone’s going to accuse me of being some poncy white dude I’ll tell them to fuck off. My family came here with nothing. I do feel I can say stuff and do stuff that some others can’t.
Richard: One way of asking the question is how much of yourself do you attribute to nature and how much do you attribute to background and environment. From the scientific literature I’m a big believer in nature. Just sort of the way I am, I have a hard time believing if I was born in different circumstances I’d be different. The way I am feels very strong. The fact that I can’t go along with a crowd, that I say something is stupid if I think is stupid, I could say “well that’s my background” if I was a blank slatist. I know most people of a similar background don’t become like me.
Misha: I meant more, does being an immigrant allow you to speak truth to power? People can’t accuse you of being some rich, boat-shoe wearing fancy-boy who is speaking from a place of power in the US. Do you know what I mean?
Richard: Maybe. Let’s say there was a blond-haired blue eye guy who was just like me.
Misha: And you’re light haired and light eyed by the way!
Richard: I’m light eyed and dark haired. But yeah, I think it would be more difficult. I do think that’s certainly the case. There’s a guy named Madison Cawthorn, a young Republican, he looks like an SS officer. But he’s in a wheelchair, he had an accident, so it’s sort of strange that way. But he’s a typical dumb Republican who says dumb things. The media freaks out at him, it’s the way he looks. The wheelchair thing makes it a little strange. From what I can tell he’s not different from any Republican in Congress, just different in the way he looks.
Misha: So this is one of my favorite things about you. And whoever’s outraged at this point would have switched off or stopped listening already, but you’ll kind of point to the demographics or insane institutions in the US and you have this whole wokeness piece, you’re a pretty loud critic of that. But then you look at the Republicans and go “these idiots are totally worse. These idiots couldn’t organize a root in a brothel.” What’s going on there? To go in a different direction, what is with the state of conservatism in the US?
Richard: This is something I actually want to write about. There’s a narrow problem which is that they have never done the things I recommend they do, which is look at civil rights law and honestly face what’s happening. But then there’s a broader question as to why they think about this stuff and why they never intend to do anything about it. So that’s sort of a broader question.
The liberals are ideologically motivated. You look at which sources of news and information liberals trust more, and it’s usually the written word. The New York Times, Washington Post, it’s these other publications. The base driving the Democratic party and the left in the US is journalism and academia. For the right it’s talk radio and TV. Talk radio and TV is not ideological, it has a short attention span. It likes to fight, it likes the reality TV side of things. Sometimes it can win, it can win over the majority of the public because it’s good at showmanship and fighting.
And you have these groups that are issue focused, the gun people and anti-abortion people. These people do well, they’re organized and get the bills passed that they want. But in general, I think conservatism is more of a reaction to an ideological movement and liberalism is the ideological movement.
It’s moving in a strange direction. 10 years ago liberals were talking about gay rights and expanding healthcare, women and minorities. And they’re still talking about those things, just moving more in the same direction. 10-12 years ago, Republicans were talking about democratizing Iraq. 10 years ago they were talking about Obamacare which they’ve forgotten about and don’t want to do anything about it anymore. Five years ago they were talking about immigration and today they’re talking about trans women in sports.
There is some consistency, there’s a reaction to the left, but you don’t see that straight line. So I don’t know where Republicans will be in five to ten years. Like that vaccine denial, that didn’t come from anything within conservatism. It’s not consistent with small government, it’s not consistent with anything, it’s just a reaction. Becoming the party of people who don’t read and just watch TV I think is how you get that.
Sociologically, when you’re looking at the American left and right, and I don’t know to what extent it’s true in other countries… Actually, there’s more balance in other countries. Like in the UK, you have more balance between the top four newspapers in conservatives and liberals, and I think their liberal papers aren’t even quite as crazy. I was talking to Eric Kaufmann about this, about whether the institutions in the United Kingdom are just as woke, he says they’re not the same.
Misha: I’ve heard they’re much worse! I have no idea…
Richard: I think it depends. I’ve talked to Kaufmann about it and from what I know it depends on what you’re talking about. The police in the US, for example, are much more right-wing than the police in the UK. The police in the UK are very woke. American police are lower-middle to middle class, they tend to have very right-wing views. You’ll see the police in the UK do things that would be very strange in the United States.
But I asked Kaufmann… in the US, if you’re in a university or corporation, they’ll send you BLM or women’s issues, things like these left-wing social issues. I asked Kaufmann if this happens in the UK, if your department regularly sends you political propaganda, and he said no, that generally doesn’t happen.
And the UK has hate speech laws while the US government doesn’t, so the government will never come after you for saying the wrong thing about race or sexual orientation or whatever. So it’s a little bit different. But I do think in the US the class polarization is more total. It was going in that direction but I think Trump was an accelerant for that. White college graduates still voted Romney as recently as 2012, and that just flipped in 2016 and 2020. So you’re moving in the other direction.
I think Trump is still going to be here for a while. As long as he’s around these trends are going to stay. The question is whether these trends are permanent, or moving in that direction. The guy appealed to working class whites in particular but turned off college educated people. He’s a singular figure so I think without him it wouldn’t be as extreme, but it’s the direction where we’re going.
Misha: Final question. Charlie Songhurst, he’s an investor and strategic thinker, he’s got this thing where he asks interview candidates if they’re motivated by money, power, or fame? Which one is it for you?
Richard: It has to be one of those? Not money. Fame? I mean I tweet a lot, I’m self aware enough to know I want fame. But power would be nice, I’d take power.
Misha: You’d actually change things?
Richard: Yeah. But I haven’t lived my life that way. Like I could have lived my life that way where I had a career in politics. I’ve sort of blocked that out for myself, and I think more fame… maybe I want intellectual power, I want to influence, that kind of power. But yeah, probably not money.
Misha: I think fame is consistent with being a media personality. I don’t think you want fame as a founder, which is the kind of context he was talking about. How have you closed politics off for yourself?
Richard: Well, the fact that I criticize both parties. If I ever got appointed to a Democrat or Republican thing there are a million things I’ve said that would get me cancelled. There are times in my life where I’ve thought about trying not to piss off one side, but I didn’t go in that direction. I like being intellectually honest, I like getting my ideas out there. With that you can be a little freer. That’s why I don’t work for a Fortune 500 country, that’s why I’m not going into ‘politics’ politics, that’s what gives me freedom. I think I’m in a place that’s the right balance. If you piss off everyone too much nobody will listen to you. So I try and be a little bit politic and a little bit diplomatic in how I talk about things. But I don’t think I could have been a party man or a company man, that’s just not me.
Misha: Awesome. Well I’ve really enjoyed this conversation, it’s touched on a lot of things as usual. It’s been a lot of fun. I do think on that last point, it really resonates with me. I feel like if we lived nearby we’d be having beers and chatting about this stuff all the time. I think next we should be talking about books more rather than political stuff. I’m going to read The Verge for a podcast with Razib.
Richard: You know what I’m reading now? The Iron Kingdom, about Prussia from about 1600 to the abolition in 1947. It’s fascinating, I love the book. Have you heard of it?
Misha: No, only from your tweets I think. It’s on the list…
Richard: I’m finishing it now, it’s about 600 pages so you’ll have to, it’ll be a while before you catch up. I enjoyed your thing with Razib on the Mongols, that was a lot of fun.
Misha: I’m going through this big phase, I just read this book on Mexico. It’s a great story, called Fire and Blood. It goes from the beginning of time to the 1990s for Mexico. I’d love one of those for every country. I’ve been going on this big history spurt and it’s been enormously rewarding. I think we should get you on and do something on the next book we read together.
Richard: It would be my pleasure.
Misha: Awesome Richard, it’s been wonderful speaking to you.
Richard: Alright, thanks.