Big Think Interview With David Remnick

Question: When did Barack Obama first come on your radar?

David\r\n Remnick: Like most people who don’t live in the South Side of \r\nChicago or in Illinois, the first time that I ever heard of him was when\r\n he was running for Senate. And we were looking at The New Yorker for \r\ninteresting Senate, Congressional and state house races to write about \r\nin addition to the presidential race and somebody mentioned this guy, \r\nBarack Obama, that he was interesting and he was quite possibly going to\r\n win and it was a state where all kinds of bizarre things were happening\r\n in that Senate race. Remember the first real great event was his big \r\ndemocratic opponent, Blair Hall, disappeared from the race because of \r\nhis divorce records were opened up and that wasn’t a fine spectacle at \r\nall. And then, of course, there was this big speech. But Obama comes on \r\nthe scene in 2004, and unless you’re a real Illinois political nut, and \r\nhe gave that speech and I went to the Boston convention in the summer of\r\n 2004, and was pretty damned good, he was even better on television. He \r\nhad really learned that fine art of giving a speech to a big crowd and \r\nyet, not over projecting so that it would come off as shouting on \r\ntelevision. So he was really developing his talents in 2004. But I got \r\nto tell you, there’s no way in the world I thought he would be a \r\nPresidential candidate in 2008, much less a successful one.

Question:\r\n Where did the “Joshua Generation” article come from?

David\r\n Remnick: Well, we wanted to put out an issue of The New Yorker just\r\n after the election. It was pretty clear that Obama was going to win and\r\n there were going to be four or five big pieces. David Grann, Ryan \r\nLizza, were among the writers in that issue. I wanted to write about \r\nrace. And I had written a fair amount about race in my time as a \r\njournalist and Ryan was interested in other things and Grann was going \r\nto write about McCain. And I had written a biography of Muhammad Ali and\r\n knew my way a little bit around the South side of Chicago because that \r\nwas part of the Ali geography, and politics. And I sort of took that on\r\n and I was intrigued by the speech that Obama gave in March, 2007, just \r\nafter he announced for the Presidency. In Selma, Alabama, at the \r\ncommemoration of the great, you know, Bloody Sunday events and the march\r\n from Selma to Montgomery, and he declared—first of all he gave his \r\ngreat thanks to what he called the Moses generation; the Moses \r\ngeneration being the Civil Rights Generation. The generation that gave \r\nso much opportunity to people that were coming down the line that \r\nsucceeded on the Civil Rights Act, on voting rights, on breaking open \r\naccess to institutions like institutions of higher learning that Obama \r\nbenefited from. After all, he went to nothing but elite institutions: \r\nOccidental, Columbia, Harvard Law School. This would not have been \r\npossible without the Moses Generation and even that which went before \r\nit.

Then he declares himself the head of the Joshua Generation, \r\nhis generation, people in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, who benefited from \r\nthese elders. And he does this incredibly ballsy thing. He says, “I’m \r\nthe leader of the Joshua Generation,” and he goes right after the \r\nAfrican-American vote because if you remember, Hillary Clinton, the \r\nClintons, thought they had a pretty good purchase on the \r\nAfrican-American vote because of their long associations. And Obama was \r\nchallenging them.

Question: Was it inevitable that \r\nObama would win the African-American vote?

David Remnick:\r\n Well, first of all, in order to get the Democratic nomination for the \r\npresidency, the African-American vote is a very big deal. You have to \r\npursue that vote and pursue it hard. Not in Iowa, of course, where there\r\n aren’t very many, but elsewhere down the line. Obama could not assume \r\nthat vote was his. Remember, who knew who Barack Obama was at that \r\npoint? Very few people, really insiders, people who had watched one \r\nspeech from him some time ago. He had to really pursue it. The Clintons \r\ndidn’t assume that they would win it, but they had a real historical \r\npurchase on it. They had associations certainly with lots and lots of \r\nblack leaders from around the country, after all, he had been President \r\nfor eight years, they had done a lot of time in black churches and black\r\n groups. There was a real relationship there. There were a lot of \r\nloyalties. And a lot of members of the Civil Rights generation and \r\npeople of that generation, media, show business, and in business, people\r\n who were going to be donating money, had long associations with the \r\nClintons. Somebody like Vernon Jordan and people who ran BET. So Obama \r\ncouldn’t just jump in and by dative of his being African-American assume\r\n he was going to get that vote. He had to go out and win it.

He \r\ngoes to Iowa, which is a white state and he won the Iowa caucuses \r\nrunning on the kind of appeal that you would have seen in previous \r\nyears, like Gary Hart. Remember, he was appealing to kind of \r\nwell-educated, liberal-leaning party whites, party regulars. And they \r\ncame out in droves for him because of the level of organization in the \r\nstate. He wins the Iowa primary, and that starts to give people around \r\nthe country ideas. Suddenly, he’s on a much more equal footing with \r\nHillary Clinton and so black folks in places like South Carolina, which \r\nis a crucial primary state, said, “Uh, I see.” There's a chain reaction \r\nthat occurs. Now, that’s not to say that black people voted for Barack \r\nObama in South Carolina because they had some kind of permission from \r\nwhite people. But black folks didn’t want to be voting for a symbolic \r\ncandidate. That had happened before. There had been many symbolic \r\ncandidates, and there had even been Jesse Jackson in ’84, and ’88.

There\r\n is not Barack Obama, by the way, without Jesse Jackson. Jesse Jackson, \r\nfor all his faults, did an enormous historical good by breaking down the\r\n barriers toward the political imagination of having a successful \r\nAfrican-American presidential candidate.

Question: \r\nWould Obama have been able to chart the course he did if he had come \r\nfrom a more traditionally African-American establishment?

David\r\n Remnick: Well, it’s worthwhile to kind of fact check the \r\nstrangeness of Barack Obama’s beginnings in racial ethnic and identity \r\nterms. He grows up, with the exception of a sojourn in Indonesia, in \r\nHawaii. And if you’ve ever been to Hawaii, first of all, there’s this \r\nfeeling of great, almost isolation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. \r\nAnd it’s a place that prides itself on variation, on multi-culturalism. \r\nPeople using that word long before it was fashionable on the mainland. \r\nAnd yet it’s a multi-culturalism lacking one very striking think in \r\nAmerican terms, black folks. And most of the black population in Hawaii,\r\n the little that there is, is on military bases. And Obama goes to one \r\nof the fanciest schools in the country, this private school called \r\nPuntaho, in Honolulu which looks like Exit or Andover, if you imagined \r\nright near the beach, lockers outside. People walking around in their \r\nshorts – I mean it’s just fantastically; it looks like a high school \r\ncreated by Annette Funicello, or something, you know. A beach fantasy of\r\n what high school could be.

And he goes there and it’s diverse \r\nin some sense. There’s lots of Asian kids of all kinds, all the various \r\nstrips that you see in Hawaii, but just a couple of black kids. And when\r\n he goes home at night, it’s to white grandparents. So, how does he \r\nlearn how to be what he sees in the mirror? He pursues it by watching \r\nthings on television, listening to certain records, reading certain \r\nbooks. He goes out and assertively goes after it. And he does it then \r\ngeographically by going to Los Angeles, but he’s kind of in Pasadena, \r\nand that’s not good enough for him. He goes to Columbia, which is of \r\ncourse, close to Harlem and finally he winds up on the south side of \r\nChicago, and there he’s finally able to find community, a sense of \r\npurpose, a sense of idealism, a church, a black church specifically, and\r\n he really begins to solve these identity questions there.

By \r\nthe time he gets to Harvard Law School, these things are resolved for \r\nhim, but when you go into public life, it’s a question of how people see\r\n you. So he’s got to struggle with these questions all over again when \r\nhe does things like run for Congress, or State Senate.

Question:\r\n Did you find anything in your reporting that contradicted Obama's \r\nautobiography?

David Remnick: Remember, Obama \r\npublished his autobiography at a time during a memoir craze in this \r\ncountry. The ‘90’s was wall-to-wall memoirs. There were so many best \r\nselling memoirs and some very fine memoirs, his was just one of them. \r\nAnd it was the theme of his was racial identity and that pursuit. And it\r\n was a young man’s book, and a very accomplished book for a young man, \r\nsometimes a little purple, sometimes a little overwrought, but I think \r\nultimately honest. In other words he tells you: "Here’s where I’m going \r\nto shape things a little bit beyond reality, here’s where I’m going to \r\nplay with dialogue." He doesn’t lie. And we know in recent years from a \r\nlot of controversies about memoir that writers can sometimes go too far \r\nand they are essentially writing fiction. He did not do that. But it is \r\nalso a book that is bereft of politics. There is no political formation \r\nin that book except in the most elemental sense in terms of idealism.

And\r\n also, the greatest presence in that book is the pursuit of an absence, \r\nthe pursuit of this father, who is really in Obama’s life in infancy, \r\nwhich he can’t remember, and for a 10-day trip when he was a kid. That’s\r\n it. Obama knows his father through stories people tell, through his \r\nmother telling him idealized versions of his father, and then finally \r\nmeeting African relatives who tell him a much tougher version of \r\nreality. In fact, his father was enormously and deeply intelligent, \r\nthought he was going to be in the leadership of post-colonial Kenya, and\r\n in fact he fell out, he failed. He became a big drinker. He was a \r\nmiserable husband and father. Probably beat one of those wives, \r\naccording to one of the kids, who now lives in China, and this was \r\ndevastating to Obama to come up against this reality, and Obama’s father\r\n becomes not an example for him, but a counter-example; something not to\r\n do, a path to not take, an emotionalism not to follow, a level of \r\nerratic behavior to avoid. So, not to get too psychoanalytic about this \r\nbecause Obama talks about it himself, he becomes a much more controlled \r\nfigure; somebody who keeps his cool, somebody who tried to conciliate \r\nrather than to upset groups of people. That becomes very much his \r\npersonality.

And the figure in his own book who was the most \r\npowerfully influential, who’s kind of an absence and I think sketched in\r\n rather lightly, is his mother. His mother is a fascinating figure. An \r\nintellectual, somebody who pursues an anthropological career in, for the\r\n most part, Indonesia, who leaves him in Honolulu all throughout high \r\nschool while she is pursuing her career in Indonesia. He adores her, \r\nhe’s confused by her, he’s bemused by her because she tries to in a very\r\n white, liberal, old-fashioned way help him with his search for a black \r\nidentity by giving him Mahalia Jackson records and tapes of Martin \r\nLuther King’s speeches, and he’s kind of eye-rolling about this. So, \r\nObama’s kind of got a rough time, an unusual time. He can’t just learn \r\nto be himself ethnically speaking, by sitting down at the kitchen table.\r\n He’s got to go out and find his way.

Question: Was \r\nObama’s family narrative part of a broader strategy?

David\r\n Remnick: A book is a book, and a life is a life, and in the writing\r\n of a memoir inevitably there is going to be some shaping, some \r\nsimplification, some rounding of the edges, some providing of structure \r\nto life. Life is a mess. Books can’t afford to be a mess. And they can \r\nbe messy in spots, they can be complicated and they ought to be \r\ncomplicated, but Obama’s memoir is a highly shaped thing. It’s three big\r\n parts. At the end of each one, Obama is in tears. He’s in tears in the \r\nchurch where he comes to accept Jesus Christ and his place in Jeremiah \r\nWright’s church. He’s in tears at his father’s grave as he comes to \r\nfinally reconcile himself to that search, etc., etc. It is life is not \r\npurely like that obviously. Life is one damned thing after another. \r\nBooks can’t be that.

Question: Whose perspectives on \r\nObama were more salient to you?

David Remnick: I \r\nthink Obama is somebody who has always benefited by his ability to \r\nattract mentors, and mentors were among the best sources for this book. \r\nFor example, in Chicago, his great mentor, and he didn’t always get \r\nalong with him at all moments, is a man named Jerry Kellman. Born Jewish\r\n from New Rochelle, New York, he gets to Chicago, he becomes very \r\ninvolved in Alinski-like community organizing and he converts to \r\nCatholicism, he’s working with a lot of Catholic Churches, black \r\nchurches, he brings Obama to Chicago and this is a guy, older than \r\nObama, who spent countless hours with him eating burgers at McDonalds \r\nand just talking about life. You know sitting in church basements and \r\nwaiting for meetings to begin and talking about race, about politics, \r\nabout Chicago, about people, about stuff. And somebody like that is \r\nenormously valuable because he talks to a Barack Obama and about a \r\nBarack Obama that we will never know again. Somebody that’s completely \r\nunguarded.

Or somebody at law school, like Lawrence Tribe, who \r\nwas his mentor. A great Constitutional lawyer, new Obama in a very \r\nprofound and for me, very striking and interesting way. There are all \r\nkinds of people like that. Obama attracted mentors. That’s a certain \r\nkind of young man or young woman’s talent.

Question: \r\nHow has the story of Barack Obama evolved since the beginning of this \r\nyear?

David Remnick: It’s always useful, \r\njournalistically, to remember the kind of sine curve of defeat and \r\nvictory. I remember just a couple of months ago, we ran a cover that had\r\n four panels and Obama in three of them is walking across water in \r\nradiant light like you know, the great biblical figure. And in the \r\nfourth panel, he falls in the water. This is the nadir of the healthcare\r\n debate. It looked like he was quite possibly was going to lose, there \r\nwas already talk about how horrible November elections were going to be \r\nfor the Democratic party, and then he turns it around. And he won. He \r\ndidn’t win a bipartisan victory, by any means. In fact, the main \r\npoliticking had to be within the Democratic party to put it over. But \r\nall that said, he won an enormous victory and the momentum of the \r\npresidency changed. How long that will last, will it have any bearing on\r\n what happens in November? Well, as those reports always say, we’ll wait\r\n and see.

Question: Has he given up on trying to be \r\nbipartisan?

David Remnick: Even though Obama’s \r\npolitical reflex, his political personality aims toward conciliation, \r\nit’s certainly what made him a political animal as early as law school. \r\nIt’s how he got to be the President of the Law Review, by drawing in \r\nconservatives as well as liberals, it’s how he succeeded. He’s not a \r\nfool. He sees reality. He sees the partisan divisiveness in the \r\nCongress. He wants to win. This is not some kind of pie-eyed idealist. \r\nLook at the health care bill, that bill contracted and was shaped over \r\ntime in ways he may not have wanted, but he wanted to win. He did not \r\nwant to walk out of there a gallant loser. Conciliation is also not a \r\nstrategy that will necessarily work with pretty stubborn international \r\nforces. Conciliation, or charm, is not something that’s going to work \r\nwith Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or any other political force of that like.

There’s\r\n also a toughness to him. It’s not toughness that obstreperous and \r\nswaggering, but he’s capable of it.

Question: How far \r\nleft is Obama?

David Remnick: I think the notion that\r\n Barack Obama is a radical is preposterous. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who \r\nis quoted in my book as saying that the only radical thing, the only \r\ntrue radical thing about Barack Obama is that he’s African-American. And\r\n I think that’s true. That his politics are center/center-left, they come out \r\nof the tradition of the Democratic Party. In many ways they are \r\ncontinuations of lines taken by the Clinton Administration. You know, \r\nlook at the healthcare bill itself. This is a more modest healthcare \r\nbill than many proposed by others. He got what he could get and he \r\nsucceeded. Look at the so-called radical nuclear arms treaty just signed\r\n with the Russians. There’s a lot of criticism on the right saying, \r\nBarack Obama is giving away our security. He is stripping us of our \r\ncapacity to project strength in the world and to protect ourselves, and \r\nin fact, the great left-winger Ronald Reagan was far more radical when \r\nit came to nuclear arms policy.

Remember, Rekjavik in the period,\r\n I think Gorbachev-Reagan period were those two men who were intent on \r\nreducing nuclear stockpiles to nothing. And here we’ve reduced it by a \r\nthird. I mean, the notion that Barack Obama somehow came out of a \r\nradical cauldron in Chicago and somewhere in his desk drawer, in the \r\nResolute Desk in the Oval Office is a copy of Marx and Gramsci and Lenin\r\n is just obscene. It’s ridiculous. And there are just too many elements \r\nin the media and in politics trying to stoke these fires for those \r\nabsurd notions to disappear.

Question: Will the \r\nRepublicans win in the midterm elections?

David Remnick:\r\n It’s very difficult to see. Look, I think there is a legitimate \r\nconservative opposition, as you would expect. Of course that’s going to \r\nhappen. There’s going to be a legitimate Republican opposition, there’s \r\ngoing to be battles. What concerns me is not that so much. What concerns\r\n me deeply is the outer edges of it and the nature of the outer edges of\r\n it, and the way the outer edges are provoked by certain politicians and \r\ncertain parts of the internet and television, cable television and all \r\nthe rest. And the end result of some of that kind of ugliness can be \r\nbeyond our reckoning; really beyond our reckoning. And I don’t want to \r\nbe too alarmist of it, but I remember, for example, in Israeli politics \r\nduring Yitzhak Rabin’s time, when the far right there stirred things up \r\nto such a degree that the political atmosphere in certain quarter became\r\n quite literally murderous.

So, I think we need to be very \r\ncareful about lumping everybody together in, even the Tea Party Movement. I might not agree with any of it, but the extremes of it are \r\nreally alarming.

Question: How is the global \r\ntransition of power affecting Obama’s foreign policies?

David\r\n Remnick: Well, Obama is president at a time where there’s no \r\nquestion that certain other powers in the country are asserting \r\nthemselves. They are asserting themselves economically, first and \r\nforemost, and politically in the world system, such as it is. And the \r\nnotion of unquestioned American singularity is ending. And that’s very \r\npainful for people to take on board.

And that two of the big powers, two of the\r\n big rising powers are questioning the orthodoxy that we believe in even\r\n on the right and the left, which is that somehow a liberal economic \r\nsystem—and you can obviously argue about the parameters about that—go \r\nhand in hand with the democratic political system. China and Russia are \r\nchallenging at their very basis. China is implicitly and explicitly \r\narguing to the world that they don’t need political liberty in our \r\nsense, or democracy, in order to develop at the rate that they’re \r\ndeveloping.

The Russians, the same thing. I mean, this is a kind\r\n of soft authoritarian. Sometimes it’s not so soft under Putin and \r\nMedvedev. The degree of democracy there is decorative. There’s not an \r\nindependent judiciary, the legislature is in the pocket of the \r\nexecutive. And there’s a kind of social compact in Russia. The social \r\ncompact with the people is: "We will let you develop economically and let\r\n you travel and let you build businesses so long as you stay the hell \r\nout of politics." And in China, there is roughly much the same thing \r\ngoing on. This is a deep, deep challenge to the American understanding, \r\nto the Western European understanding, even to the Indian understanding \r\nof the course of historical development of successful societies.

I\r\n think, obviously, Obama’s committed to the American model and the Western model and any democratic model that also is essentially \r\ncapitalistic, but I think Obama is more willing to talk about this multi-polar\r\n world in terms that certainly some of his predecessors would have been \r\nscared to, or reluctant to for political reasons.

You know, I \r\nthink Fareed Zakaria has got the frame of it right in his book. And \r\nZakaria says that it’s not about the decline of American power so \r\nmuch as the rise of the power of others; India, China, Russia, now \r\nBrazil. So this dream that a lot of American had after the collapse\r\n of the Soviet Union, post-1991, of American singularity in every sense \r\nwas very, very short-lived.

Question: What needs to be done to address the Mideast Conflict?


To my mind, there’s no question of \r\nwhat the end of the Israeli-Palestine situation has to be, must be. And \r\nthis has been evident to most of the main players for many years. There \r\nhas to be a viable, contiguous Palestinian state, a connected Gaza and \r\nWest Bank—connected somehow by bridge, highway, what have you, with it’s\r\n capital in East Jerusalem. It is impossible to conceive that the \r\nrefugee problem can be solved by actual repatriation of refugees into \r\nIsrael proper. That there’ll be obviously some degree of aid, or money \r\ngoing to the new Palestinian state. And also Israel also has to receive \r\ncertain kinds of security guarantees, and those areas where big \r\nsettlement blocks are, there has to be land swaps to make up for that. \r\nThat’s the end game. And even pretty conservative political actors in \r\nIsrael know it, and all but the most radical Palestinian leaders know \r\nit. The real difficulty has been getting there, and it’s going to get \r\nmore and more and more difficult. It’s going to get more difficult \r\nbecause of the polarization in Palestinian political society between \r\nHamas and the West Bank government. It’s going to get more difficult in \r\nIsrael itself because of the growth in population of religious and \r\nconservative elements, and the slow diminution of secular, more \r\nliberal-leaning populations. You also have a great big Russian \r\npopulation that tends to be conservative.

So, time is not on the\r\n side of a decent resolution there. It’s very, very complex. But the \r\nmore somebody like Netanyahu is unwilling to make a leap of history and \r\nis going to be more obsessed with parochial political interests and \r\ncoalition politics and all the rest, the more difficult it’s going to \r\nget on Israeli side. And there’s no question, by the way, that the \r\nIsraelis have real concerns about what would happen the day after a \r\nPalestinian state is established.

So, this is a highly complex \r\nquestion, it always was, but the endgame is going to be what the endgame is going to be. Otherwise it’s going to be a disaster.

I \r\nthink there’s an illusion among some right-wing Israelis and right-wing\r\n Israeli politicians. And the illusion is this: that by establishing a \r\nsecurity fence or wall, it’s cut down on terrorism immensely, and it’s \r\ngiven the illusion of a kind of rough stability that they can live with \r\nit and they can have their cake and eat it too. If they can keep all \r\nthese settlements in the West Bank and they can have a rough security, \r\nand they can live with a few missiles going over the wall in Gaza. This \r\nis just an illusion—especially when it comes to relations with other \r\ncountries, not least the United States. It’s an illusion for everybody.

Question:\r\n Will Obama find himself in a position to change this?

David\r\n Remnick: You know, there have been reports, and I first read them \r\nin David Ignatius’ column in The Washington Post the other day, that the\r\n American administration, the Obama Administration realizes that this \r\nhas been a mess in the last several weeks. You know, the back and forth \r\nabout these apartments in East Jerusalem and all the—I hesitate to call\r\n it minutia because they’re important,but that the Obama \r\nAdministration, with the encouragement with some outside forces, other \r\ncountries, wants to have a much more comprehensive plan. It’s difficult \r\nto see how that plan could work, but the alternative is even worse. This\r\n illusion of a continued status quo is to me, extremely dangerous.

Question:\r\n Why isn't Netanyahu more worried about the status quo?

David\r\n Remnick: Well, it’s important to know where this illusion comes \r\nfrom. The illusion comes from the notion, whether you agree with it or \r\ndisagree with it, is that settlements were removed from Gaza, Gaza \r\nbecame under completely under Israeli control and in the Israeli point \r\nof view, its only reward was that missiles came, coming over the wall. \r\nAnd missiles that will inevitably become more and more sophisticated and reach \r\nplaces far more distanced and will hit major population centers, and \r\nmissiles that are inevitably going to come from places like Iran.

So,\r\n also a lot of Israelis—and not just very right-wing Israelis—wonder \r\nwhy the Palestinians have had a habit of looking away from potential \r\nresolutions to this question as they did in the late Clinton \r\nAdministration. And believe me, I know all the arguments back and forth \r\nabout what that deal was and was not and how it improved and how it \r\nchanged, right up until the end of the Clinton Presidency. I do get all \r\nthat. But somehow one has to agree that not all the specifics of the \r\nClinton view that Yasser Arafat did not allow finally came up short of \r\nbeing a revolutionary leader rather than just a rebel leader... That\r\n finally Yasser Arafat did not want to go that extra yard and felt he \r\ncould not sell this deal, or could not sell himself on this deal that \r\nwent from Camp David to Taba and then Taba two. So, a lot of Israelis \r\nwonder, what it is that the Palestinians actually want, and that’s where\r\n the anxiety comes from. It’s not me agreeing with that, I’m just trying\r\n to analyze why this politics occur.

Question: What \r\nwill the New Yorker be like in 20 years?

David Remnick:\r\n To my mind, The New Yorker, whatever experiments occur, the most \r\ninteresting experiments to occur, the ending of radical departure are in\r\n the writing. To me, that’s where the excitement is. Will we be on an \r\niPad? Absolutely. I hope we look great there and if people want to read \r\nus there fantastic. We’re working very hard to do that just as we’ve \r\nworked hard to have a Web site that’s worthy of the name.

My idea\r\n of The New Yorker, as long as I’m there, is that we are not going to \r\nchange who we are, no matter what the delivery systems are, no matter \r\nwhat the means of reading us. We are about reading. We’re about long \r\nform journalism, analysis, humor, fiction, poetry, a sense of delight, a\r\n sense of seriousness when it’s appropriate. If we start giving away \r\nthese core things because in the short term we somehow think, "Wow, you \r\nknow, actually three paragraph long pieces, the hell with George Packer \r\ndoing 15,000 words on American politics, or Sy Hersh writing an \r\nextremely knotty piece about some aspect of intelligence or sending \r\nsomebody to Afghanistan three times to get the story, or unleashing \r\nDavid Grand for six months to get a death penalty piece, or what have \r\nyou." In other words what I think of as the core of The New Yorker. I’m \r\nnot here to get rid of fiction because I think that not 100 percent of \r\nthe people read it. I don’t care about that. I think this is a formula \r\nthat took a long, long time to develop and people want what we do. They \r\nmay want to read it on a different device soon enough and it’s not \r\ncoming, it’s here.

Most of our readers at this point still think\r\n the best technology for reading it is on print. Those proportions will \r\ninevitably change. How much they will change, I don’t know. I’m not a \r\nmedia fortuneteller, I’m not a, God forbid, a media consultant. I’m here\r\n to edit the magazine and be as nimble as we can be in terms of this \r\nperiod of technological challenge and interest and it potentially will \r\nbring us more and more readers. But, I promise you that no matter what \r\nform you read it on, the intent is to be true to who we are.

Question:\r\n The Daily Beast’s traffic is sometimes double that of NewYorker.com. \r\nDoes that worry you?

David Remnick: Not at all, and \r\nyou know, I have a lot of respect for Tina and I reject any notion that \r\nsomehow Tina was completely out of the mainstream of what The New Yorker \r\nwanted to do. I think she brought a lot to it and a lot of the \r\nvisual aspect of The New Yorker is due to her innovation. She hired a \r\nlot of people that are still there, that are very important to The New \r\nYorker. But any website that’s built around news and what’s going on now\r\n and five minutes later and aggregating and churning what’s going on in \r\nthe moment, is inevitably going to get higher traffic. Certainly, NYTimes.com is going to get a hell of a lot more traffic because \r\nit’s a daily newspaper that’s now not just daily, but is trying to keep \r\nup with the news in the moment. This is not what we’re equipped to do. \r\nThat’s not what we are built for.

I’ve been at a newspaper. I \r\nspent 10 years of my life at The Washington Post. I know what that’s \r\nabout. I’m not going to, at The Washington Post, have a fake AP,\r\n and we’re not going to spend all of our energies in aggregating from \r\nall over the Internet. We’re there to create the core long form \r\njournalism that may get aggregated by somebody else. It may get chopped \r\ninto little bits and talked about on other websites. I can live with \r\nthat easily. People want what we do and the more time goes by, and the \r\nmore time this technological revolution happens, there’s not more of \r\nthis. There’s not more depth, there’s not more deep analysis, in fact, \r\nthere’s arguably less of it because it’s expensive to do. It’s hard to \r\ndo.

So, my hat’s off to a lot of websites. I read them, but this\r\n is what I want to be doing at The New Yorker and that’s what my \r\ncolleagues want to be doing.

Question: Who has \r\nsensibility to bring the New Yorker into the next era?

David\r\n Remnick: What’s interesting to me that as unnerving as any \r\ntransformative period is, and there’s clearly, you can’t give young \r\nwriters, or journalists the advice that you used to 20 years ago. You \r\nknow, "Go to The Concord Monitor and work at a small newspaper and then \r\nfind your way to a larger one." That model, it’s almost irresponsible to \r\nthink that’s the singular piece of advice that a kind of middle-aged guy\r\n like me should give to somebody that’s 23. It’s obscenely wrong. In \r\nfact, the paths into journalism are now more various, they’re also more \r\nunnerving because where you get paid for it and paid decently for it are\r\n tougher to find. There’s no doubt that in some ways, it’s easier to get\r\n in and easier to get noticed because the Internet is so democratic that\r\n way, but to earn a living is getting more complicated. And I’m \r\ndetermined to pay people and pay people well, talented people well. \r\nJust so long as we can sustain a model or even a shifting model so that \r\nwe can do that. That’s the idea, that’s the trick.

Do I see \r\nyoung people every bit as energetic and as intelligent, with the urge to \r\nexpress themselves? You bet I do. And even at some length, not everybody\r\n is interested I making a life as a blogger, not everybody thinks the \r\nbest means of self-expression, or even information, or writing is to \r\nhave 40 disparate thoughts in the course of the day. Some of that is \r\ninteresting; some I think is really not. There are lots of people that I\r\n talk to in their 20’s that are really interested in doing the very same\r\n thing in terms of long form journalism that people twice their age and \r\nthree times their age have been doing for a long time.

It is \r\nthrilling when we have the chance to hire new writers who are young and \r\nwho are developing. I mean and getting better all the time and are \r\ntotally obsessed with what they are doing. Somebody like Lauren Collins,\r\n or Ariel Levy, or Kelefa Sanneh at The New Yorker, who are relatively \r\nrecent hires. It’s just fantastic and it’s also really fantastic to see \r\none piece be better than the last one, and the next piece be even better.\r\n I mean because they’re just in the zone of growing all the time. It’s \r\nfantastic. It’s really thrilling as an editor.

Recorded\r\n on April 9, 2010   \r\n\r\n\r\n

A conversation with the editor of The New Yorker.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.