I consider myself a liberal. I still consider myself a feminist, says writer Meghan Daum. But the past few years have left her shaken. I did not feel that the new left was necessarily representing my values all the time. There was a sort of purity-policing that interestingly we used to associate with the right.
Between #MeToo, smugness on social media, the Covington high schooler incident, and an interest in the so-called intellectual dark web, Daum is carving out her own political path. Read a lightly edited transcript of our interview, posted below, or listen to the podcast:
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Kate Trinko: Joining me today is Meghan Daum, the author of The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars. Meghan, thanks for joining me.
Meghan Daum:Thanks for having me.
Trinko: OK, so, I actually started reading your columns when you were at the [Los Angeles] Times. I was in college at the time, and I know you always had an interesting perspective. You seem to not be quite right, not quite left. But I recently rediscovered you when you were writing about the intellectual dark web and your flirtation with it.
So, that really interested me because, of course, youre on the liberal side, and I was surprised to see some of the ideas and people you were listening to, and you also chronicled this in your book. This is such a weird way of putting it, [but] what attracted you, I guess, to the intellectual dark web?
Daum:How did this all come to be?
Daum:I can best answer that with a personal story. So, I got divorced about four years ago, and my husband, for all of our problems, had really been my intellectual ally. We talked about things all the time. We always were on the same page. We saw the same world. Even if our friends seem to be having a different set of ideas, we always felt sort of aligned and we both considered ourselves liberals, but we were very skeptical.
We were both journalists. So we took the issues on a case-by-case basis, and were able to just constantly be talking about stuff. And the book is called The Problem with Everything because, like I say, we were always talking about the problem with everything.
Like when you have a great, sort of intimate conversational rapport with somebody, youre always sort of chewing on this: What is the problem with the world? Whats the problem with everything?
So when we split up and I lost that, it happened to coincide with the time around 2015 when a lot of people on the left started to just engage in a rhetoric that was really extreme and very outrage-based.
And people who had once seemed very reasonable and questioning and like critical thinkers didnt seem to be thinking as critically anymore. They were being enabled by social media. And this was well before [President Donald] Trump. Mind you, this was not a Trump effect yet.
So I had lost my intellectual ally in my husband, and a lot of my friends seem to be not occupying the same universe anymore. And I found myself watching people on YouTube talking to each other. Scholars and scientists and academics and politicians and all these sort of things.
So I sort of drifted into this world that would later become known as the intellectual dark web.
Trinko: So among those figuresand some of the ones that are associated with the movement are Joe Rogan, Sam Harris, you mentioned Christina Hoff Sommers, Ben Shapiro to a certain extentare there particular voices you listen to especially, and why do you think you were open to that?
Daum:Well, what got me started was Glenn Loury and John McWhorter on Bloggingheads.tv.
Trinko: Oh, I forgot about that.
Daum:Oh, this is the best show in town, Im telling you. So, Glenn Loury is an economist at Brown University. John McWhorter is a linguist and a cultural critic. Theyre both African American. Their show is called The Black Guys on Bloggingheads.tv. And they would talk about all kinds of things, but especially issues of race in this incredibly nuanced, just really intellectually honest, thorough, thoughtful way that I had never heard anybody talk about race like that before.
And I was totally mesmerized. And I think Glenn is a little bit on the right, at least very centrist. John is a liberal, although I think he was affiliated with the Manhattan Institute at one point.
Anyway, theyre not hardcore left or right. I would say theyre certainly not Trump supporters. I doubt they vote Republican. Im sure Glenn did at one point. Anyway, all this is to say it was not a partisan show. That was not the tenor of the conversation.
So I started watching them, and they would have these about hourlong conversations every couple of weeks, maybe every month. So I started watching them on YouTube, and then the YouTube algorithm started taking me down the rabbit hole of all sorts of other people. And I would watch Camille Paglia talking to Christina Hoff Sommers. Thats where I started. I saw a little bit of Joe Rogan at that time.
And some of these figures I liked more than others, but this world of people talking to each other for long periods of time became a sort of sustenance for me and it just became a huge part of my life, in my sort of brain life.
Trinko: I think you used the phrase echo chamber and how this moved away from it. And why do you think that liberalism is moving in this direction where there isnt as much room for disagreement right now? Whats going on there?
Daum:Well, I would say I think it started on the right. Rush Limbaugh was the original outrage machine, and now the left has just sort of co-opted it. The left has become in some corners, not all, but in many, like a bunch of little, teeny-tiny Rush Limbaughs, right?
So thats what we see on Twitter. I think that social media has just flattened discourse in such a way that its much, much easier to just say something very simple, very reductive. Something that you know the people who follow you are going to approve of and therefore give you likes, and its like a dopamine hit.
Were not really participating in conversation as much as saying things in order to have other things echoed back to us, so it all feels good. To me, it really comes from a place of loneliness and I think thats true for everybody.
This is a universal human problem right now were all so much on our screens and so much of our social interactions are happening in this mediated way that were sort of desperate for any kind of connection. And connection online can only be found if you say something immediately translatable and very easily hashtagable or memeable or whatever it is.
Trinko: Yeah, and I would agree thats a problem on the right, too, Ive noticed. Ive been on Twitter since 09, it seemed to me in the early years it wasnt as much like this.
Daum:Yeah. Thats about when I joined, too, I think.
Trinko: Did it seem to you that around 13 or 14, I felt like there began to be a shift, and you would say, What is the most partisan thing you can throw out there? And then that would get all the retweets, and it changed it completely.
Honestly, I stopped tweeting a lot because it felt like, whats the point of preaching to the choir?
Daum:Well, exactly. To me, especially if youre a journalist, if youre a writer or somebody whose job it is to think in the world, preaching to the choir is a dereliction of duty, in my opinion.
It is our job to look at the world and see where the hypocrisies are, and see where the cognitive dissonance is and think about, OK, well, this is whats going on in the world. And these are the assumptions, and the approved messages, and do I think those are true? What do I think people are getting wrong about that?
And its our job to take all of that and metabolize it into something thats interesting and provocative and thats going to make people think. And that very process is disincentivized now because of the value system of social media discourse.
Trinko: Yeah. And I think about your Rush Limbaugh example, I was like, I dont think thats true.
The reason I would push back a little on that one, and this might be my own bias showing through, is I think that conservatives, and I was homeschooled, I know the conservative bubble. But theres no media that reflects it. You get the opposing view in your face all the time.
Daum:Oh, the mainstream media is left.
Trinko: Yeah. I think, and just in terms of story selection, The Daily Signals a conservative outlet, that affects what we choose to cover. So, I dont know. In some ways I would say that Rush was an alternative, but the ability to stay in that bubble was pretty hard.
Daum: What actually really interests me about conservative talk radio is that it coincided with people moving to the exurbs. So, the longer people had commutes in their cars, the longer distances they were driving, the more they were listening to Rush Limbaugh and the AM radio guys.
I find this fascinating because Im a huge radio fan, I always have been, and so that kind of dynamic is I think compelling and worth thinking about. But now people are listening to podcasts while theyre driving.
Trinko: And no commercials, which is nice. But I remember growing up, my mom switch[ed] the dial between Rush Limbaugh and then at commercials we would go to the liberal station. And it was great. We would get both perspectives.
Daum:Thats good parenting.
Trinko: So on the social media, you also get into one chapter, The Infamous United Airlines Leggings Incident, and thats
Daum:It is the controversy of our time.
Trinko: Right. For readers who arent familiar, a girl was told she couldnt go on a United Airlines flight because she was wearing leggings. It turned out she was on a discounted ticket because she was with a United Airlines employee.
They all have a dress code that all got lost and it became a huge thing about, why is United policing what girls wear? And you said this particularly rankled you. Why?
Daum:Well, it particularly rankled me because I am a fuddy-duddy when it comes to how people should dress on planes. I lived in Los Angeles for a long time and I always said, I think it is actually against the law to fly in or out of LAX without wearing sweatpants with Juicy written across the butt. I think that is required. I think it is [a Federal Aviation Administration] regulation that you cannot land or take off from LAX unless you are wearing this.
It rankled me because it was just such an example of, first of all, somebody butting their nose into a situation that they really did not know was going on. So specifically, yeah, it was a family traveling on an employee buddy pass and there were maybe three kids, there were some girls.
And so there were little girls, and they were wearing leggings and were allowed to keep the leggings on. But because there was a girl over 12 or something like that, according to the regulations, she had to just put on a skirt over the leggings.
The family, by the way, was completely fine with this. It was not an issue. They were not politicizing this moment. They were just trying to get on the plane. They were like, OK, OK.
And what was happening was there was a woman in another line, not even for the same flight, kind of a few gates away.
Trinko: I dont think I knew this. This is perfect. Some busybody whos just watching.
Daum:Yeah, and the woman who was watching, she was observing this from afar and seeing this going on and she starts tweeting, Oh, a little girl is being body-shamed and not allowed to get on this flight because of sexist gate agents at United. Or something like that.
This woman happened to have a lot of followers. She was herself a very well-known activist and gun control activist. So she had a lot of followers, she starts tweeting this, and then a bunch of celebrities picked it up.
I dont know if it was the usual suspects. Alyssa Milano, I know William Shatner tweeted photoseveryone started tweeting photos of themselves in leggings, including William Shatner, who had a very hilarious shirtless photo of himself in leggings and everyone was jumping in on this. Male celebrities, female celebrities, trying to show solidarity with this girl that was being body-shamed, and the whole thing was absurd. And nobody connected that this was just a normal dress code because they were traveling on an employee buddy pass, which is actually a pretty serious perk.
And until recently, men flying on this pass had to wear suits, coats, and ties. This is a serious thing. Yes.
Trinko: Thats insane, in my view.
Daum:Its not insane. I think everybody should wear coats and ties to fly.
Trinko: I hope you never run an airline.
Daum:Really? I think many people would fly my airline. Its called Fuddy-Duddy Air.
So that was an example, and it just exploded. Every celebrity was using it as a vehicle for their own self-promotion and to virtue-signal and to really gain social capital off of this situation that was effectively a fictional one, because this is not what had happened.
So I use that as an example of something that can just catch fire and has no meaning whatsoever. And in fact, what happened with the Covington High School kids a year or so later is exactly the same dynamic, and it caught fire in a much bigger way and with much greater repercussions for people. Just the absolute lack of will to understand that situation. I dont know if we need to remind our listeners what that was.
Trinko: Well, I think theyre familiar with the boy who was at the March for Life and smirked in front of a Native American activist.
Daum:And when in fact what he was doing was holding his ground because what was the group, there was another group, the Black Israelites or the whatever
Trinko: Yeah, they [say] really crazy things. I cant remember their name.
Daum:So this kid was shamed for supposedly smirking at a Native American activist, when in fact he was trying to keep calm because there was another group yelling absolutely appalling, and Im sure to a high school kid from Kentucky, totally baffling and shocking things.
So actually the kid shouldve been commended for his composure, and it totally went the other way. And it became a calling card for a lot of people on the left. Just, once again, reaffirm where they stand, and signal to their tribe that theyre on the right side. And that to me is just the height of not only dishonesty, but laziness.
I see that more and more with the way the media handles any number of stories. Theres no will to actually scratch beneath the surface and see whats going on because complexity is not only not rewarded, its penalized in the current landscape.
Trinko: Its also interesting because and this is going to sound very old-fashioned of me, but we seem to ignore that there are vices of, I think you used the word schadenfreude in your book?
Trinko: OK, thats how you say it. Sometimes it just seems that so much of the internet is making fun of other people, and sometimes its people who deserve to be made fun of.
But I sometimes wonder when I catch myself spending time doing this, Im like, Is this really the best use of my life? And its a little uncomfortable. It strikes me as interesting that theres not more attention in our culture where we wonder, Ought we to do this? But, anyway.
Daum:Yeah, I was thinking we should ask ourselves, if were about to tweet something or put something up, say, Am I doing this? Do I feel a moral obligation to say this, or am I actually just self-soothing? Because I think thats a lot of whats going on.
You say it because you have a moment of insecurity or loneliness or anxiety or whatever. And Im going to say this thing and I know its going to get a response, and its going to give me a little jolt and make me feel better. For one second. And then youll have to do it again 10 seconds later.
Trinko: Yeah. Those jolts are real. I realized how bad my own addiction was a few months ago. My sister is like, OK, Im not going to check my Instagram likes after I post this picture for three hours. And I was like, Whoa, what? Self-control. And then I was like, What is wrong with me?
Daum:Right. Im going to go to a meeting during these three hours to my 12-step, so I cannot look at Instagram. Its Instagram Anonymous.
Trinko: Do you think theres any hope for social media? Is there anything that could make it better?
Daum:I think were already starting to see the tipping point. People are really, really sick of this, and I can tell you a few things about this book. A lot of people told me not to write it, so I consider myself a liberal. I still consider myself a feminist. I always have, but it really came out of a certain increasing disconnect with the contemporary iteration of both of those things.
I did not feel that the new left was necessarily representing my values all the time. There was a sort of purity-policing that interestingly we used to associate with the right, right? We would associate it with Jesse Helms and Tipper Gore, even though she was a Democrat. But remember when she was putting labels on records and so there was this sort of moral authoritarianism that the left really never had anything to do with?
And suddenly it was coming from there, and I thought, My gosh, everything that I stood for, the rights of the individual and just letting people do what they want and not being such a prudeother than in flying, of course, I remain my prudish selfsuddenly the left is espousing all of these things.
So I felt very alienated from it, and I wanted to write a book that really captured that very confusion. And it wasnt just that I wanted to hammer away at things like trigger warnings and radical campus activists, because a lot of people have done that and I think there are very obvious things to say about that.
I wanted to really examine my own confusion and I wanted to do a self-interrogation. What is it about growing up when I did in the 70s and the 80s that made me identify as a feminist in certain ways, and why is the contemporary version of feminism so alienating to me?
So I wanted to do that kind of book. And this is to your question, people were saying, Dont do it. Dont do it. We cant, for so many reasons. First of all, Everyone will annihilate you on Twitter and your career will be ruined. Youre a person in the media, you need your tribe.
Another thing that the left continues to say, and I hear this, [is] that the Trump emergency is so dire that we need all hands on deck and we need to be totally on message, and anything that might tease out any issue in a way that requires talking about it for more than 30 seconds, or thinking about it deeply and considering other points of view, might give leverage to the other side.
And it might be an opportunity for the other side to take your point and twist it up and use it for nefarious purposes. And you see it happen all the time. You try to have an intelligent conversation about something like the gender wage gap, for instance, and the other side will go and just say, Oh, yes, youre right. It is womens fault that theres a gender wage gap.
And Im actually saying, Well, its the result of a lot of things, including choices women make and on down the line. But the other side will take it and run with it. And then the left will say, See, you shouldnt have brought it up. You should not have brought it up because this is what happens.
That makes me so crazy. And really the crux of the book is a call for nuance, and a call for people to just calm down and have conversations and entertain complexity.
I think that social media makes that difficult. But I also am seeing more and more people listening to podcasts. Theyre listening to three-hourlong podcasts, theyre listening to people talk to each other for hours and hours. And I can tell you, going around and talking about this book, doing events, there is such hunger to have more nuanced conversations.
People come up to me and say, Oh, my God, just thank you for saying all this. And so that really makes it worthwhile, even though a lot of my colleagues in the media still think Im crazy.
Trinko: Yeah, its awful. You get really scared to think out loud at all because its like, Oh, well, what if I misphrased something? Or if
Daum:But thats our job. I always say, If the smart, thoughtful people dont step up and speak the truth and try to make complicated, honest points, the stupid, thoughtless people are happy to do the job for us.
Trinko: So, you mentioned feminism, you talked about #MeToo in the book and that you felt you were an older feminist in that movement. What did you think of #MeToo? And what did you think of the feminist response to #MeToo?
Daum:Its such a hard question because #MeToo is so big and its so evolving all the time. Its a spectrum. Obviously, cases like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, thats not negotiable. I dont think any sentient person would argue that was handled improperly.
But then you have cases like Aziz Ansari, where something that, to somebody my age, Im 49, Im going to interpret that as a bad date, a yucky experience. And women 20 years younger will say, We need to put this in the category of real harm done and some kind of violation that requires adjudication or some sort of corrective.
And that was the moment where I think the generational divide became totally pronounced. We were sort of onboard for a while and then that happened. There was a real split. And so what I wanted to do to answer your question is to, again, not just say, Well, you guys are wrong and the older ones are right and you guys should just toughen up, and all that, but I wanted to go back and think about what it is that made me that way. And I dont know how old you are, I think youre a lot younger than I am.
Daum:OK. But I can tell you that growing up in the 70s as a kid, as a girl, it was a great gift. Maybe its the first youre hearing about this, [but] it was a time when there werent super girly girls or super macho boys. Everyone was just sort of a kid. There was a sort of weirdly
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