One summer afternoon when I was 23 — this was in 1987 — I was twiddling the dial on the radio in the apartment I was subletting on 114th St. when I stumbled on a station that was unlike anything that I had ever heard before. They were in the middle of a story about the Appalachian Trail, profiling some of the people who were hiking its two thousand miles that year. The reporting was calm, patient, intelligent, allowing the subject to find its own shape, unfolding slowly, minute after minute, like the trail itself.
What is this, I thought? What portal had I fallen through? I’d been raised on 1010 WINS, “all news all the time,” blaring the same rotation of headlines, weather, traffic, and trivia, in 40-second increments, for hours at a stretch. The piece that I had happened on that day went on, improbably, for over 20 minutes.
The program I was listening to was called All Things Considered, on a network with the unfamiliar name of NPR, short for National Public Radio. I was immediately hooked. In no time flat, I’d put it on whenever I was home. Morning Edition as soon as I opened my eyes, All Things Considered when I got back in the afternoon, Fresh Air during dinner. I fell in love with Robert Siegel’s wit, Renée Montagne’s voice, Scott Simon’s charm. These people got me. They shared my interests, my outlook, my sensibilities. For the first time, I felt myself reflected in the public sphere. “NPR,” I put it to a friend a few years later, “is my home in America.”
And that’s the way it was for over 30 years, through the advent of Talk of the Nation and This American Life, of On the Media and Here & Now. NPR became the soundtrack of my life — when I drove, cooked, ate, exercised, did laundry — three or four hours a day, every day.
That is, until around the beginning of last year. My discontent had been building since the previous summer, the summer of the George Floyd protests. It was clear from the beginning that the network would be covering the movement not like journalists but advocates. A particular line was being pushed. There was an epidemic of police violence against unarmed African-Americans; black people were in danger of being murdered by the state whenever they walked down the street. The protests were peaceful, and when they weren’t, the violence was minor, or it was justified, or it was exclusively initiated by the cops. Although we had been told for months to stay indoors, the gatherings did not endanger public health — indeed, they promoted it. I supported the protests; I just did not appreciate the fact that I was being lied to.
But it wasn’t just that story. Overnight, the network’s entire orientation had changed. Every segment was about race, and when it wasn’t about race, it was about gender. The stories were no longer reports but morality plays, with predictable bad guys and good guys. Scepticism was banished. Divergent opinions were banished. The pronouncements of activists, the arguments of ideologically motivated academics, were accepted without question. The tone became smug, certain, self-righteous. To turn on the network was to be subjected to a program of ideological force-feeding. I was used to the idiocies of the academic Left — I had been dealing with them ever since I started graduate school — but now they were leaking out of my radio.
Nor was it only NPR. One by one, the outlets that I counted on for reliable reporting and intelligent opinion — that I, in some measure, identified with — fell in line. The New York Times, which was already in an advanced state of decay, surrendered completely. Ditto The New Yorker. The Atlantic was drifting in the same direction. Inroads appeared in The New York Review of Books. Satirists whom I admired for their alert sense of irony, their ability to recognise the absurdity at all points of the political spectrum — Stephen Colbert, John Oliver — got the new religion, and started preaching sermons.
“Moral clarity” became the new journalistic standard, as if the phrase meant anything other than tailoring the evidence to fit one’s preexisting beliefs. I was lamenting the loss, not of “journalistic objectivity,” a foolish term and impossible goal, but of simple journalistic good faith: a willingness to gather and present the facts that bear upon an issue, honestly and clearly, regardless of their implications.
For months, I felt trapped, alone with my incredulity. Was I the only person seeing this? Every time I turned on NPR, my exasperation grew — basically, I was hate-listening after a certain point — but what was the alternative? I literally couldn’t think of any. Then, by sheer dumb luck, I was invited on a podcast to discuss a book I had recently published. It was The Unspeakable, with Meghan Daum, and while I had never thought of myself as a podcast person, I so enjoyed myself, was so impressed with her intelligence and humour, that I became a listener.
I quickly discovered that there was another person seeing what I had been seeing, and not only seeing it, but talking about it: frankly, fearlessly, incisively, in public. And not only one person. For I also discovered, from references she dropped, that there were other podcasts like hers, ones where things you weren’t supposed to talk about were talked about, where things you weren’t supposed to say were said. But how was I going to find the time to listen to them, on top of all that NPR? And then it came to me: I could just stop listening to NPR.
So that is pretty much what I did. Now, in addition to The Unspeakable, I listen to Blocked and Reported (Katie Herzog and Jesse Singal), The Dishcast (Andrew Sullivan), The Glenn Show (Glenn Loury, with John McWhorter as a regular guest), Honestly (Bari Weiss), and LibertiesTalk (Celeste Marcus). I don’t agree with everything these people say, still less with everything their guests do. Weiss is on the centre-Left, Sullivan and Loury on the centre-Right, but more to the point, all of these figures are heterodox, which means that their positions aren’t predictable.
But I didn’t start listening to them because I felt I had a civic duty to expose myself to opinions I disagree with. I started listening to them because I couldn’t stand the bullshit anymore. Because I needed to let in some air. They make me think. They introduce me to perspectives that I hadn’t entertained. They teach me things, and they are usually things the Times or NPR won’t tell you.
I have learned about the lab-leak hypothesis before it became an acceptable topic of discourse. About the lunacy of transgender orthodoxy (“affirmative therapy” for small children, the “cotton ceiling”). About the real statistics on police killings of unarmed black people (according to a Washington Post database, the number shot to death came to 18 in 2020, 6 in 2021). About the truth about Matthew Shepard (who was murdered, by a sometime lover and another acquaintance, over drugs), Jacob Blake (who was shot while stealing his girlfriend’s car, kidnapping her children, resisting arrest, and trying to stab a cop), and Kyle Rittenhouse (who worked in Kenosha, had a father who lived there, and was out that night, however misguidedly, to protect property and provide medical assistance).
More broadly, I have learned of the emergence of an alternative ecosystem of independent-minded journalists, experts, and thinkers, many of them exiles, voluntary or otherwise, from the established media. They are free of institutional allegiances. They are unintimidated by the Twitter mob. They are committed to free inquiry and free speech. They are unafraid of debate. For the first time in a good long while, I feel myself reflected in the public sphere. I have a home, once again, in America.
We talk incessantly these days about political polarisation. Americans are hunkered down in our camps, we say, in our tribes. We are blue versus red, urban versus rural, secular versus religious. But wherever there are tribes, there are individuals who leave their tribe: renegades, heretics, converts; expatriates, emigrants, exiles. The late, great anthropologist David Graeber remarked that despite what we tend to believe about pre-modern social formations — that they were self-enclosed and inescapable — some five percent of their inhabitants, on average, left their group.
So it clearly is today, whatever the exact percentage. We rarely talk about this, but we should. It would help us perceive that our tribes, mentally and socially, are not so inescapable, so self-enclosed. That we have options. That there aren’t just two camps. That you do not have to join a camp at all. Because most of the people who leave one, I would venture to say, do not join the other. They become, as we say, politically homeless: anti-Trump conservatives who do not recognise what’s happened to their movement or their party; progressives, like me, who are disgusted at the spectacle of what progressivism has become.
But maybe the most important reason to talk about the existence of today’s political renegades and ideological heretics is to enable each of them, each of us, to feel less lonely. To live within a tribe is to enjoy the reassurance that you’re one of many. To leave one — to break one’s attachments, to call down the condemnation of one’s peers and friends — is necessarily to feel that you’re alone. But you are not alone.
So why do people leave? How do they change their minds? Different ways, I think. There is the lightning conversion, the stunning realisation that everything you’d previously thought is wrong, and everything you’d thought is wrong is right. Today that sometimes seems to happen to individuals who are raised in restrictive religious environments and who find themselves exposed, accidentally or otherwise, to the scepticism and relativism of the secular world — though obviously the road to Damascus can lead in the other direction, the direction of faith. There is the opposite experience: the feeling not that you have changed but that your tribe has — something that many are feeling with respect to one or other of the major political formations. There is the slow accretion of countervailing information that eventually leads (gradually, then suddenly, like Hemingway’s bankrupt) to a change in one’s view of reality, the way a scientist changes their mind.
But for me the most important way, and not just because it is the one I find most salient for me, is this. You change your mind when you consent to stop ignoring things you know full well but do not want to think about — things that you push to the edges of consciousness, or all the way out. Few of us are scientists. We do not gather facts through careful, ordered processes; we aren’t compelled to make our arguments in formal terms in front of expert referees. Our thinking is less about finding the truth than about making ourselves feel good. And so when we encounter a countervailing piece of information, an uncomfortable truth, we dismiss it as an anomaly, or as not undermining the general point, forgetting the previous “anomalies” and not regarding how they might together utterly destroy the point.
To overcome such a block, to look in the face an unwelcome reality, is first consternation, then liberation. Anyone who’s been in therapy will understand this. The truth always feels good, on a certain level, just because it is the truth. It relieves us of the psychic stress it costs us to resist it.
A few examples from my own thought. Some concern the recognition that we on our side are not any better, in many respects, than those scoundrels on the other. Yes, conservatives are making common cause with authoritarian regimes, but only lately did I let myself acknowledge that the Left has done the same for many years: with Cuba still today, Nicaragua in the 80s, North Vietnam in the 60s, the Soviet Union in the 30s. Yes, Republican leaders are cowards who refuse to denounce the Trumpian extremists in their ranks, but only recently did I allow myself to see that many leaders on the Left are equally spineless, equally faithless, equally complicit in the face of the extremists on their own side. For a lifelong Leftist pushing sixty, admitting this is, as Joe Biden might say, a big fucking deal.
But those are just examples, and they and others like them add up to far more than the sum of their parts. For knowing now how wrong I think I’ve been about so many things, knowing too that outlets and authorities I trusted have been, at the least, not telling the entire truth, and sometimes outright lying; knowing furthermore that others, ones to which I’m not “supposed” to pay attention, might supply the fact or argument that challenges another unexamined assumption — all this has been, to use one of Daum’s favourite words, destabilising. She started her podcast, she’s said, because she doesn’t know what to think anymore, and when I first heard her say that, I smugly dissented. No more. There are plenty of issues on which I still possess a firm opinion, but there are none, I now believe, on which my opinion cannot be overturned.
History is changing, fast. Stabilities are fracturing; intellectual borders are shifting. New movements have emerged, impelled by hidden emotional currents, impelled in turn by forces economic, technological, environmental. But history, I’ve learned, isn’t just something that happens out there. The upheavals it causes are psychic, as well. I had read about this with respect to people in the past, but now I find that I am living it. But that is the thing about history: we always think of it as happening to others, until it comes for us.
NOTE: I originally wrote this essay for a different publication. It was one with which I’ve had a long and fruitful relationship, and the editor-in-chief, who is retiring, invited me to contribute to his valedictory issue. His initial reaction was positive, to say the least. “Like all your best pieces,” he wrote, “and like many of the other best pieces I’ve run, this one makes me a little scared, but also makes me excited by the prospect of waking people up. It wakes me up. I’ve felt some of this without ever quite admitting it to myself.”
This, I should say, was according to plan. While politically neutral in theory, the journal had been drifting in the same direction as the rest of the mainstream media. Waking up his readers, whom I doubt had ever heard this kind of argument before, was exactly my intention.
Alas, it was not to be. Two weeks later, the editor wrote me again. “[T]he more I’ve thought about it, the less comfortable I’ve become with associating [the journal] with many of the assertions you make…. [T]here is too much in your piece that I could not defend.”
I had written a piece about the truths we aren’t allowed to utter on the Left, but that truth too, apparently, must not be uttered. The editor, it seemed, did not appreciate the irony. – W.D.