Phone A Friend.
Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs.
Summary: Nathan J. Robinson is the author of 10 non-fiction books and four illustrated books. He defied modernity by launching a magazine (yes an actual physical magazine), called Current Affairs which blends eye-popping and fun illustrations with scathing prose and real, authentic journalism. Nathan and Max have a wide-ranging conversation from education to socialism in our Phone A Friend.
Max: Hey everyone, it’s Max. I’m excited for our conversation today and to bring our Phone A Friend segment from the podcast over to YouTube, And our guest today does not disappoint. Born in the UK, reared in Florida, and currently residing in The Big Easy, our Phone A Friend guest today is...let’s just say a little difficult to put in a box. Now for my money—and I’m not sure how he’ll feel about this characterization—he’s this generation’s answer to Gore Vidal.
A prolific writer, comfortable raconteur, keen polemicist, and seemingly capable of speaking on any topic under the sun; he’s a throwback to another time. Nathan J. Robinson is the author of 10 non-fiction books and four illustrated books. He defied modernity by launching a magazine (yes an actual physical magazine), called Current Affairs which blends eye-popping and fun illustrations with scathing prose and real, authentic journalism. Nathan and I have a wide-ranging conversation from education to socialism in our inaugural video and audio Phone A Friend, and I can’t wait to bring you in. So, enjoy.
Max: Nathan welcome into the show it’s so great to have you here, thank you for appearing on UNFTR.
Nathan: Hey nice to be with you Max.
Max: So I imagine you’ve heard this before but I was personally introduced to your work by way of Jordan Peterson of all places. In fact it was because I was searching for an answer to what exactly people saw in Jordan Peterson, when I came across a clip of none other than Noam Chomsky responding to that very question. And his response was essentially, ’My thoughts are perfectly encapsulated by Nathan J. Robinson’s article on Peterson.’ So at the risk of embarrassing you by quoting your own article, I just kind of wanted to start off with this little nugget. Here’s a snapshot for the UFNTR audience of that article.
”Jordan Peterson appears very profound and has convinced many people to take him seriously, yet he has almost nothing of value to say. This should be obvious to anyone who has spent even a few moments critically examining his writings and speeches, which are comically befuddled, pompous and ignorant; they’re half-nonsense half banality. In a reasonable world, Peterson would be seen as the kind of tedious crackpot that one hopes not to get seated next to on a train.”
So I love this for so many reasons, not the least of which is I no longer felt alone in the world, that somebody had actually put into words what was actually unfolding before my eyes. But let me ask you, what was the impact of that article on your career and sort of how do you interpret, in this modern day, the evolution of all the false prophets that seem to proliferate in our space.
Nathan: Yeah [laughing] I hadn’t heard that in a while, because I wrote that back in 2018. I feel like we’ve all been next to that guy on that train.
Uh, you know that piece, I was pleased with the success of that piece, basically it because it antagonized Jordan Peterson who has commented on it several times, but never tried to rebut anything I say. And I go through his writings in great great detail, and he agreed to do a debate with me. He said he wanted to explain his ideas to me, but when I tried to actually set it up; he has been ducking me for a couple of years, despite people poking him. But you know I—at the time that piece was written, he was getting a lot of pretty favorable coverage in the mainstream press.
He’d had this controversy because he refused to use people’s preferred pronouns and said that Canada was trying to make it so that if he didn’t use the pronouns he’d be hauled off to jail or whatever. But in addition to the kind of controversy over wokeness that he had been part of, he had built up a huge following among young men especially—I think almost all men—as this kind of father figure, and I’m sure he still has some of that. But he just published this book 12 Rules for Life that’s kind of a self-help book pitched at these ”lost boys.” And one of the—
Max: Vague generalizations that could basically be espoused by nearly everybody that were somewhat interconnected, some not interconnected, but really resonated with the public.
Nathan: Yes, well, some of them were vague and meaningless, some of them unfortunately were somewhat precise. So when he was vague it was all fine, but when he would get very specific about the things that he believed, they were often a little terrifying. You know he would say to young men, ’You have to be a monster,’ like, ’You’ve got to contain it, but you need to be capable of extreme violence.’ And like to understand—I mean he would say things that I feel like are just not very good life advice for someone who wants to live well among people.
Max: Also the disconnect I think in hearing somebody with his affects say, ’You have to be a monster,’ you know, in his very quiet Canadian way it was, I don’t know, a little off putting.
Nathan: Yes I mean people have pointed out he has, I believe a vaguely muppet-like intonation to his voice which makes the threats of violence—he’s always been to me a very comical figure, right? I mean he dresses ridiculously. I mean I, know obviously glass houses throwing stones, but he dresses you know he wears these ridiculous—
Max: And I wore a jacket for you today!
Nathan: I know, and I didn’t even wear a jacket. But he developed this reputation among his audience, and when you read the comments on his YouTube videos—and I do read YouTube comments even though it’s a cesspool, because you can learn a lot about how people are kind of thinking—and they would just view him as a genius. I mean they would say like ’Doctor Peterson was sent to Earth with these profound insights to guide us out of the darkness and chaos into the light,’ over and over and over, thousands and thousands of people. And, you know that was really what concerned me is—you know I’ve critiqued culture war conservatives before, but Peterson was something kind of different because he was a guru. I mean he was really building a reputation as this man of transcendent genius.
So I wanted to look more into his work and I got his big magnum opus, Maps of Meaning, and he’s actually very good at creating the image of being a genius, through saying things that are incredibly complicated so that you think they must be just too sophisticated for you to possibly understand. And one of the things that I want to do with Current Affairs, is to teach people not just leftist values, but critical thinking. You know, how to see through BS, because I know that it’s very easy to fool people with a few tricks, and so I want to use what I kind of know about arguments and critical thinking to expose those types of people. So that was what I was trying to do with that. Not just teach people about Peterson, but teach people to see how to see through people like that.
Max: Right. Well, so let’s let’s dig into critical thinking through the lens of higher education, because you’re actually a product of a virtually unparalleled experience in the higher education system. So we count Brandeis, Harvard, Yale in your history, and you know as someone who understands the value of higher education but probably bore witness to maybe the bureaucracy of academia, and maybe some of the double standards in academia—particularly through your PhD process—I’m wondering how you’re interpreting the Supreme Court decision recently, the ruling on affirmative action; having been so close to the elite schools in this country, how do you see this playing out and how did you interpret that, and how did Current Affairs stand on affirmative action?
Nathan: You know I haven’t actually written about the affirmative action decision in some ways, because I have mixed feelings—and not mixed feelings about affirmative action, because I think it’s, you know, I’m fully in support of it—but also because I know, having passed through these institutions, that they exist essentially to create the ruling class.
And so in some ways the debate about affirmative action is a debate about how are we going to pick the members of the ruling class, and to me that is a bit of a frustrating conversation. Because obviously there are more and less fair ways that you could pick the members of the ruling class, if we have a debate that says, ’Well okay should elite colleges account for the fact that for hundreds and hundreds of years in this country there has been a great deal of racism that has caused people disproportionately not to have the same level?’ It’s often the—it’s really I think that root social capital, that people don’t have the same level of ability to form the kinds of connections that get you to the people who can tell you how to get into these universities, so we’re going to try and make up for that somehow, that massive difference in the social capital that tends to be present across different demographic groups by adjusting the admissions numbers.
Okay I think that’s fair, that’s reasonable. I can give you examples of people that I know who are brilliant but who benefited from affirmative action and it’s a good thing that they did, because it allowed them to flourish in ways that they wouldn’t necessarily have (were they supposedly a neutral, merit-based system), but again at root we’re discussing, how does Harvard admit people, and if you’re someone who, like me, has come away from that thinking that Harvard as an institution shouldn’t really exist, that it should be just the University of Massachusetts Cambridge, a public university in Cambridge Massachusetts that has an open admissions policy.
I mean I wrote an article in response to a debate about whether the SAT or admissions essays were the fairer way to admit people, and some people say the SAT is fairer some people say the SAT is very unfair. And my article was called ”Admit Everybody,” because the value that I hold is that everyone should be able to go to and have the best possible education that we can provide. It’s not that difficult. I’ve seen the education that is provided at Harvard University, it is not that much better than is provided at public universities. So this whole letting in 4% of the applicants because we have these special schools where you get a brand, and then when you’re branded that way you get all the doors open to you forever—I just reject that system so totally that to write about affirmative action is a little difficult for me.
Max: Fair enough. Yeah, and it’s interesting when—in the pieces that we’ve done on UNFTR are looking back through history, I was sort of amazed by how universally accepted and proposed the public education system was from early childhood all the way through public universities, in nearly all of the literature that you can find from the founding fathers through most of US history.
This recent attack on education, on higher education, on the the rules of admittance into different forms of education and specialization, seems to be a more recent phenomenon to me; sort of the last gasps of the neoliberal era where they were trying to really attack and undermine the underpinnings of the value proposition of the United States. But when we talk about the conservative wing of the party, for so much of our history the the conservative wing of the party was actually the one that was most in favor of widespread education, because you know, an educated population made for a controllable population. And so I don’t know what it portends about where we are in the political system today that so many of these institutions that were generated with call it bipartisan support, but just generally universal democratic principles are now under attack so specifically from one particular end of the party.
Nathan: Well in some ways I would say that there has been a great deal of success in reforming higher education in some ways, so that an educated population is not necessarily a controllable population. In fact, and I think this is one of the good legacies of the 1960s, is that conservatives aren’t necessarily wrong that when young people go to college they learn things that can be subversive and that could cause them to come out challenging some of the presuppositions that they went in with. Because I do think this was certainly the case for me at Brandeis.
I went in and I took a class called Marxism Versus Anarchism and it was all about the—this was like the most formative class of my undergraduate years because I had no idea first that there was really a radical organized radical left, and I didn’t know about the kind of debates between the libertarian socialists and the authoritarian socialists or state socialists, and I didn’t know about all of the strands of left intellectual history; so eye-opening for me. And it caused me to want to read more, and then I became an African-American Studies major and that opened my eyes too, because I mean I knew that there was racial inequality but I didn’t know about the entire history of Black intellectual thought, right? So I didn’t know about the debates between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington or Marcus Garvey.
And I found out all of the stuff that I didn’t know and hadn’t been taught, and it was like the layers were being peeled back and I was seeing parts of the country that I hadn’t seen. And I started to look at it in a new way and so in some ways that attack on education makes a bit of sense. I don’t think that the right is totally irrational. I mean they see young people coming out of colleges with the dangerous new ideas that they picked up in a class that they took.
Max: So you touched on something that’s going to resonate with the UNFTR audience in this particular moment because we’re in the process of going through the history of 19th Century socialism and the transition point from the European socialist experiment, and how that was interpreted in the United States through the bifurcated socialist and labor movement in the United States, and then how everything splintered and fractured from that point forward. So it’s a really interesting time to speak to somebody who is actually so schooled in that. I love the fact that your door kind of opened for you, or I guess the window into this exploration was in studying sort of the chasm between the anarchists and the state socialists that had emerged in the 19th century.
As we look at today, and we can kind of look in hindsight and deconstruct all these amorphous definitions of anarchism that then produced, whether it was syndicalism or libertarian socialism—all the different tributaries that stem from that original thought—we’re in a very peculiar time where socialism has been allowed to be resurrected in conversation in the United States. It still remains vilified in the obvious places including the Democratic party as an example, but it’s now palatable to bring it up in conversation, we can explore some of these themes. But I think the mystery surrounding socialism is still as confounding to people as it was when you had Bakunin fighting with Marx in the 19th Century.
So as you interpret it today, now that we understand that we live in a broad-based market system that is the foundation of the international and global economy, period, end of story, hard stop; there will be no revolution of small individual feudal-style communes that all of a sudden come to some grand collective that overthrow the world economy—
Nathan: Never say never, Max.
Max: I’m gonna say never in this case because it’s a thousand degrees in New Orleans and we’re both running out of time here.
Nathan: Okay, yeah I’ll probably perish first.
Max: So in that spirit, as you evaluate with your knowledge of this—and I mean you wrote a book on socialism, I think it came out in in 2019 right?
Nathan: Yeah, Why You Should Be a Socialist.
Max: So when you have this conversation with people how do you open the door to introducing this conversation in an objective way that resonates with people, that allows you to explore this line of thinking? And what do you find resonates about messaging that we can build upon today.
Max: Yeah, well, I mean I learned a lot from watching how Bernie Sanders communicates, which is to not lead with theory, to lead with issues ,and mostly to lead with the issues that affect people’s lives the most. And so if you’re talking about, ’How do you have conversations with people,’ you have conversations with people by pointing out various problems that you think they will also recognize, and you will talk about—I mean you could talk about corporate profiteering and you can talk about the effect it has, especially in, obviously the most obvious example in the United States is Healthcare.
Everyone’s got a terrible Healthcare experience and you can very easily then show, I mean you can show the core of the socialist critique very easily, which is that the private ownership of—i want to say the means of production—but pretty much the private ownership of anything for profit creates these bad anti-social incentives, because it creates incentives to enrich the owners at the expense of everyone else. And sometimes the interests of the owners coincide with the interests of the consumers. And so in the way that the famous phrase of Adam Smith about the butcher and the baker don’t give me my meat and my bread because they like me, but because it’s in their interest to do so, and I get my meat and they get their money—and so sometimes the self-interest kind of harmonizes in the way that those who believe that the invisible hand of the free market guarantees justice for all think it does, but sometimes it really doesn’t and often it really doesn’t, and often there is a clash of classes; as we see right now in Hollywood, or as we see at UPS, where the people who are doing the work don’t have the same interests as the people who own the company.
At UPS for example, the companies didn’t want to put air conditioning in the trucks. Now, the workers really wanted air conditioning for the trucks because it’s incredibly hot outside, and they’re going to fall down and die if they don’t get it. But from the company’s perspective they’re replaceable and air conditioning is expensive, so you can see the class struggle in miniature right there. So as I say, you start with an issue, a case study, an event, and you show how the workings of class, the workings of how the structure of who owns what is determining what happens, and then you make the socialist critique which is, ’Well if the drivers own the company they would have air conditioning today and whose side are you on? Are you on the side of the people who want to make money off of the drivers delivering the packages, or on the side of the people who deliver the packages and would like to do so under moderately humane conditions.’
Max: Okay so, you mentioned something in the beginning of your response there about the way that Bernie Sanders was able to introduce concepts that resonated to the American public. I think part and parcel of that though—which is something that we need to deal with on the left and has has actually caused great cleavage in the discussion on the left—is how we introduce these topics and themes, and through through the auspices of which party we introduce them.
So if we’re to think about Cornel West coming into the fold on the Green Party line much in the way that Jill Stein did, you have of course the left—I say the left—the moderate middle left, the liberal wing of the party criticizing him in the spoiler role, much as they did with Ross Perot or you could do with any third-party candidate that has some level of intrigue coming into it. And then of course you have a very libertarian and conservative-minded RFK Jr. coming in on the Democratic Party line, perhaps playing even more of a a psychological spoiler in the mix—and doing the bidding of we’re not really sure whom at this point—but as we think about the success of Bernie, one of the things that we’ve contended on the show is that because we are facing the existential threat and crisis of climate change—as you and I at this very moment in time are living through what historians have determined to be the hottest month in the history of recorded history
Nathan: Yeah, ever.
Max: So facing this existential crisis, I feel a sense of urgency. Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s the fact that I don’t have many productive decades left in my life to affect change, maybe it’s me seeing it through the lens of my children and what they’re going to inherit. But with with a limited capacity for change, my feeling is that it is more productive and important to infect the body politic and take over the apparatus of something that is already mature, that already exists on the ground level and already has a ground game, and a get out the vote strategy in every precinct, in every county, in every state of this nation.
Whereas true leftists—of which I consider myself one—are certainly more in favor and for the aligning with a ’I will not align myself with this duopoly, the corporate duopoly of Democratic and Republican party. I would prefer to throw my weight and my vote and my efforts behind the third party candidate.’ So it’s the spoiler argument, it’s all of these things wrapped into one, but my main thesis here is that I’m sorry, we’re out of time to build an infrastructure. A true third-party infrastructure takes so much time, organization and money and countervailing measures against the already established systems that exist down at the precinct level. Which, by the way, somebody like Steve Bannon understands.
Nathan: It’s true.
Max: And it’s the secret to their power base in that side of the spectrum. What are—to borrow a phrase—what is to be done in the leftist movement to really try to corral the right support with understanding this sense of urgency? Where do you land on that? Because you’ve been a Bernie supporter.
Max: But you also have been very public with the fact that you then fell in line, as we’ll say as I did, and wound up holding your nose to vote for the establishment democratic candidate.
Nathan: Oh I didn’t have to vote for Joe Biden because I live in Louisiana [laughs].
Max: Oh, right [laughs].
Nathan: And I’m going to vote for Cornel West in this election. So I take a very pragmatic approach, right, where I try to think ’Okay well look, we live in the world and what we’re trying to do is actually alter the things around us, we’re not trying to just express the desires of our heart, we’re trying to think about the consequences of our actions. How do we get from where we are to where we need to be under immensely challenging conditions?’ And also knowing that really we don’t see a path to victory, because whether Cornel West runs in the Democratic primary or Cornel West runs in the general election, between you and me, I don’t think the next president is going to be Cornel West, right?
So we’re gonna have to debate over which is the correct strategy, but the answer is we’re probably going to lose either way on that. So what can you do? How can we actually actually build power? I mean I think the spoiler effect is real, which is why I would probably vote for Joe Biden in a swing state—I mean I would almost definitely vote for him. Because I think that with the climate emergency, the fact that the Republican Party—essentially their policy among every Republican is plunge us headlong into the abyss, just burn as many fossil fuels as possible, doesn’t matter, do whatever you like, maximize corporate profits, gut all environmental regulations. And at this moment that’s just collective suicide, so the Republican presidency is a vote for collective suicide. I don’t believe in collective suicide, so I want to do whatever I can to, because I care about a lot of people in the world and I want to have a long life, and I don’t want to die in the heat.
So as inadequate and frustrating as it is to have a Biden presidency where he doesn’t treat it as an emergency, he is happy to approve more oil drilling for some reason, it’s better than a collective suicide. So in terms of thinking about third parties, and whatever, again you took a pragmatic approach There are elections where we can get third-party candidates in. Those elections generally are not presidential elections so, Bernie Sanders first got into Congress as a third party candidate.
Nathan: He beat the Democrat and the Republican.
Nathan: Kshama Sawant in Seattle shunned the Democratic party, got onto the city council as an independent and was very, very effective actually as an independent of the party. So you find the races where that’s possible and where it’s possible to be independent of the party, you build your alternate infrastructure.
Cornel West’s an interesting case. He can run in the Democratic primary which is rigged against him, because they’ve already said there aren’t going to be any debates or whatever, or he could run a third party. There’s a way to run third party that I think is a good idea, which is he runs third party and he says ’I have three or four demands, these are my demands to Joe Biden and I will drop out and endorse Joe Biden, if Joe Biden does X Y and Z, and if you don’t do these things I’m staying in the race, and if I spoil the race that’s your fault because you didn’t adhere to my demands.’
Max: Fair, yeah.
Nathan: ’You’re the spoiler, you spoiled it.’ Because you could have you could have issued these three executive orders that are Cornel West’s demands. So if that’s what he does, I feel like that is thinking in terms of power pragmatically. If he’s just running, there’s no way I’m dropping out, I’m right, I’m running to give people a real choice, I think then you know that’s not thinking about consequences.
Max: So let me turn that to you actually because we had colleagues of ours recently interviewed Dr. West, and we were able to squeeze a question in there, and it was essentially just that. If knowing that this—I don’t want to call it a fool’s errand, but it is the Impossible stretch to think that he’s going to become president on a third party line—what is the most important measure of reform that you would like to surface that you that you could see as a tangible result of your third party status, whether it’s raising it in the public consciousness or in actualizing that through some sort of future public policy? And he really did not answer that question. So let me turn that to you,—which tells me he’s already a great politician by the way—but let me turn that to you and ask you those three or four measures that you would love to see enacted in a trade-off. What would that look like in your world?
Nathan: As we’ve said I think number one emergency right now is the climate catastrophe all around us so number one two three and four could be ’I will stop all fossil fuel drilling projects. I will announce a national climate emergency. I will endorse and push Green New Deal legislation in Congress to get us to hit the targets and we will make these concessions to the developing world so that we can get an enforceable global climate agreement, because the United States has historically never been willing to agree to enforceable targets, because we don’t want anyone enforcing anything against us, we don’t want international law.
Max: We are the world.
Nathan: So if the United States is willing to make more concessions and really understand the position of China and India that is quite unfair, that we were willing to wreck the planet now, we demand that they don’t; so I think that would be great, right? If he could say, ’Look I’m running third party unless you deal with the climate emergency.’ That’d be, I think a fantastic thing to do because they’re scared of Cornel West, and he can use that.
Max: Okay so let me shift gears because you broadened our horizon, started talking about the rest of the world for a minute. There’s one thing that you have been very unafraid of tackling and that is Israel. And so we know that criticizing Israel is the third rail in liberal and conservative circles, but it now it’s almost become a requirement on the far left—if you want to call it the far left—a requirement among leftists to be critical of the state of Israel and to basically call it out as an apartheid state. And you’ve been open about your criticism of Israel, and you’ve even found yourself in hot water; I know that from—
Nathan: Got fired.
Max: Your experience at The Guardian for even provoking the mildest of sentiments—that was very tongue-in-cheek by the way and we could unpack that another time—but from a journalistic perspective, and this is what I find really fascinating about your endeavor in Current Affairs, and we can talk more about journalism. How do you navigate the entrenched views on either side in order to formulate objective pieces on the state of Israel and our relationship to it?
Because I’m not sure if people really understand this, but you are the primary contributor, you are truly one of the most prolific people that I’ve ever encountered, and I’m so happy that I actually have you in my life now, I could just I could look at this in awe—but also you’re the editor-in-chief. And so when you’re talking to your contributors, you’re fielding maybe some critiques from readers—how do you maintain that sense of objective balance when you are approaching anything to do with the state of Israel?
Nathan: Well objectivity is a strange word that doesn’t really enter into my thinking very much. I think about facts and I think about values, so I begin with a commitment to never say things that are untrue and to always check that everything you’re saying is true and you know, it’s very hard fact checking. It’s very, very hard at a small magazine, because it’s tough to get your facts straight. A commitment to being willing to say things even when they go against what someone with what is often called your priors would want to, or expect it to be true, right? So to acknowledge inconvenient facts but combine that with a sense of your value.
So I’m pretty open about the fact that I am a humanist, I’m a democratic socialist, I am someone who believes in taking the side of those who are oppressed against those who are oppressing them and who believes that everyone should have their basic needs met. And so there is no objectivity to the order of my priorities other than that it can be separated from the values that I have. So we write about things in the world that violate my sense of of justice and things in this country that violate my sense of justice, but that’s my sense of justice, right? So it’s not objective, our choices of what to cover.
However when there are things that violate my sense of justice, and I see them, and I write about them, I try do so in a way that does not—I don’t think it is ever justified to distort what someone else is saying to make them seem different or worse than they actually are—so if I’m writing about Israel, for instance, I will quote the arguments of those who defend Israel, and I will quote those arguments fairly. And I’ve done analyzes of pro-Israel op-eds where I don’t tell you what they said, I show you what they said by quoting them at great, great length so that my reader can trust that I am not distorting and caricaturing what they are saying.
Nathan: And so I think if you begin with that kind of a commitment to being willing to represent the people who disagree with you fairly, you don’t really need objectivity because you have your values, your fairness and your commitment to factual integrity, and a willingness to correct things you get wrong.
Max: This recent ruling and in the Knesset to basically supersede any judicial authority has obviously, I want to say woken up all sides of—it seems to be the youth movement in Israel that is kind of breaking against that. I think for leftists it’s a little bitter because they seem to have awakened to the theory of justice while still turning a blind eye to what’s happening just several miles from the heart of of Israel with the plight of the Palestinian people, particularly in Gaza in the West Bank.
So in some sense it’s like we’re watching this unfold and saying is that the tipping point, where some sort of at least turn to rationality will come back into Israeli politics? Has the Likud Party and then their alignment with the really radical conservative far right in Israel gone too far with these recent moves, and did Netanyahu out think himself here? Do you see this as a potential inflection point, or is the irony just too thick and they can’t see themselves clearly internally, because they can’t look in the mirror?
Nathan: I don’t know enough about internal Israeli politics to have an informed opinion on this because this issue, as you suggest, to me it seems more minor than it does to a lot of people in the streets in Israel, because I think they talk about the erosion of Israeli democracy, and I feel like, the erosion of what? Do you notice the occupation?
I’m not sure Israel is going to be cured of its anti-democratic tendencies until the people of Israel recognize how anti-democratic the occupation is at its core, and that they have a choice: which is either give the Palestinians a state, which is becoming pretty much impossible because of the level of the settlements to the point where it’s harder to draw a Palestinian State than, you know, a congressional district in Alabama or whatever. It’s like impossible. So the alternative is equal rights for everyone in both Israel and the occupied territories, which of course they don’t want to do, because that destroys the possibility of having an ethnic nationalist state.
Max: And not only that but too many Palestinians, now.
Nathan: It’s too many Palestinians.
Max: I mean that’s always been Jordan’s view, because Jordan had the ability to absorb most of what we refer to as the Palestinian state, but they were too concerned about losing their sort of ethnic control over governance as well. So sort of still find ourselves in the middle.
Nathan: So Israel has had a choice, which is that you can either give full equal rights or you can give the Palestinians a state and they’ve said ’Well we would like option three which is permanent occupation and apartheid,’ and I just don’t think that’s sustainable in the long term. Because you’re not a democratic state, and so it’s going to be very difficult to ever be a democratic state as long as you’re insisting on maintaining a condition where a large number of people are excluded from participation in governance.
Max: And so what do you think that the United States relationship should be with Israel at this point knowing, that you know we don’t exactly have the cleanest record in supporting authoritative and apartheid regimes across the world, at any point in history?
Nathan: My position on this has always been very simple, and it’s the United States should have the same position towards Israel that we should have towards Saudi Arabia, which is we don’t give you weapons unless you respect the basic human rights of your people—we still give a colossal amount, billions of dollars in military aid to Israel every year—don’t do it. Don’t give them a penny until there is a satisfactory resolution to the conflict that reflects the basic national aspirations and rights of the Palestinian people.
The U.S. policy, this is often portrayed as a very complicated issue. There’s not much of a complicated issue at all, it’s pretty easy to see. It would be more difficult if the United States didn’t give Israel so much aid, because then the question will be, ’What levers do we do we pull?’ But we actually have a giant lever which is that we hand them a stack of—we have a giant suitcase of money every year. Don’t give them the suitcase of money.
Max: You know what’s interesting about that is I feel like it’s at this point more symbolic than anything else, because the aid I think equates to something in the order of about $4 billion a year, which to be perfectly frank is a rounding error when we’re talking about geopolitical aid to anybody at this point.
Max: But at the same time, I mean maybe that would have a demonstrable effect in Haiti if we actually had a humanistic approach to managing affairs, or assisting them in managing affairs. But I do see it as largely symbolic at this point, but I think you touched on something else which is, it’s not just that but it’s basically the U.S clearing the deck to allow our military industrial complex to profit with conflicts abroad, and basically arming the entire globe to the teeth. And so we’re seeing that play out right now in Ukraine. And we didn’t talk about this prior, but I find the Ukraine discussion fascinating in the United States just to talk about, and again not taking a moral position on something that is definitively not our issue, but how it’s being interpreted domestically I find really fascinating.
Because you find the far left in some cases aligning with the far right—in some cases, that’s sort of a reflection of I think of what we felt with the anti-vax movement coming out of COVID—this very strange marriage, very strange bedfellows of certain key issues on the very far right and what we would consider the far left in this country coming together, almost to me like in in the human form of RFK Jr. at this point. What do you think that portends for the future of the established parties, and do you see maybe another movement coming out of this era that is just totally afactual, totally ahistorical, almost radicalized through fiction and prevailing fiction that we find in this new media landscape, that really starts to challenge some of the authority of the established parties
Nathan: Yeah it actually scares me a little bit when I see RFK, he’s not doing well in the in the polls because he’s kind of running in the wrong primary, he’s saying a lot of things that people who are the Democratic base don’t like, not many things that they do like, but again you learn a lot about the world if you look at the comments on YouTube videos.
So you watch RFK videos which I do, millions of views on some of these things, thousands and thousands of people saying similar stuff to what I said with Peterson; ’This man is a truth teller, everyone is trying to shut him down and censor him because he’s the one man who’s willing to tell it like it is and stick it to both party establishments.’ And for me he seems like a real kook, but those are real people, they’re not—I do not actually think those are bots, I do not think those are AI generated—
Max: Oh yeah, I agree.
Nathan: —by RFK’s campaign, I think a lot of people watch him and he feeds that kind of hunger for an anti-establishment candidate. Which is why to me, it’s actually quite a shame that we don’t have someone like Bernie in this primary, because Bernie fed that same hunger and what was nice was having a candidate who could appeal to that kind of vague, unformed anti-establishment feeling where you sense that you’re being screwed but you’re not quite sure how, and so you know you’re willing to believe a lot of stuff. If someone tells you that the establishment did something whether it’s you know, buried the bodies of aliens at Area 51 or whether it’s you know, lie about vaccines, you’re willing to believe it because you wouldn’t put anything past them.
So what Bernie did that was nice, was to take those people and say ’Look, let’s focus on the real world problems that you face.’ And he kind of took that feeling and gave it this refreshing sanity, and if you don’t have someone who’s really on message and really willing to say, ’Okay yes I agree with you about the establishment, that’s why we need to protect Social Security and Medicare, and that’s why we need Medicare for all, and we need to deal with the climate crisis,’ there’s like—
Max: So Nathan let me ask you though, so Marianne Williamson is reflecting a lot of those same values, and in the very beginning it looked like maybe, maybe she might find some traction. I don’t think that she’s going to have the money or the wherewithal, she’s certainly going to be shut down by the establishment media, not get a foothold.
I have my own feelings on on her candidacy and and why I believe her to be a charlatan, and I think people are kind of seeing that and she doesn’t have the the sex appeal of the last name of an RFK Jr., or these very personal issues that people are attaching to like vaccinations and Ukraine, and some of the more conspiratorial elements. So I can kind of intellectualize RFK Jr. more so than a Marianne Williamson, but she is reflecting a lot of the narrative that Bernie Sanders ran on and popularized. Why do you think she’s not finding as much traction on the left?
Nathan: I don’t know, probably for the reasons that you hinted at there, which is I think a lot of people have similar views of her. She doesn’t exactly have a track record. Bernie Sanders had spent his entire career fighting for working people saying the same things, working in Congress behind the scenes to move legislation as much as he could. He’d fought Barack Obama on protecting Social Security, and one of the things people liked about him was that they understood that he wasn’t a phony. He had that real sense of deep authenticity where you knew what you were getting, and you know Marianne Williamson has the same platform, the same agenda. I’ve read her book A Politics of Love, and it’s very uplifting and she’s very—
Max: You did?
Nathan: I did.
Max: You’re a good person.
Nathan: It’s not bad, no, it’s really good because she’s a skilled writer. That’s how she sells millions of books. But, she is from the world of inspirational literature that is rife with people we might describe as phonies or charlatans, and I don’t think she does convincingly get across the message that it’s not opportunistic and a response to the shifting political wins. Bernie Sanders does not shift in response to political wins, right? The Bernie Sanders in 1980 was the same as Bernie Sanders in 2016.
Marianne Williamson, you know, if you go back to her in the ’80s and ’90s she’s not really that political, just the sort of spiritual. I interviewed her and I asked her about this news story about her treatment of her staff which you know, they alleged a lot of anger and abuse behind the scenes, I don’t know if it’s true, but I do know that you have to be able to convince people that you are the real deal, that you mean what you say and that you’re not just responding to the fact that you see a lane for progressivism.
Max: Yeah and I felt like a lot of the criticism about her, you know how she might have behaved behind the scenes had a tinge of misogyny to it because that’s not the line of questioning that’s usually explored when you talk about any male candidate. Like I don’t know if we know what Cornel West is like in his personal life or RFK Jr., I don’t think we’ve ever kind of explored those issues. Like I always laugh when I see mothers, new mothers interviewed that are famous and the questions usually tend to be like, ’Well how do you manage becoming a new mother with your career,’ and all those kind of things, but those questions are never asked of new fathers, you know?
So I feel like we know maybe too much about Marianne Williamson behind the scenes and that’s sort of sullied the characterization of how she might be as a candidate. But at the same time I find her extremely problematic in her belief systems, because it does lend itself more to this sort of like faux self-help/The Secret type of philosophy; if you ask the universe it shall deliver to you, kind of thing and that’s just not gonna work in practical politics. But she does stand—and so this is something, I if I can get personal with you for a second about your place in the world, because I do find you to be somewhat of a curiosity.
Marianne Williamson is a guru, is a spiritual guide, and to some people seen as a public intellectual. Cornel West has absolutely been a public intellectual his entire life and now leaning into the political realm. I feel as though you occupy a space in American culture that hasn’t been occupied for quite some time, maybe since Christopher Hitchens before he sort of became—you know I don’t want to say went off the rails, you know—but became a little more agitated and became—
Nathan: A warmonger. Became a warmonger.
Max: A little bit of a warmonger. Buthe became more about the media appeal than he became about his stances of public intellectual. Whereas I see you and I characterize you again, as in the introduction, as our generation’s answer to Gore Vidal, because you have this unique ability to engage in polemics without offending anybody—
Nathan: I don’t know, you should see my email inbox.
Max: You do it with kindness. You can be scathing but you’re not mean-spirited. So like, you’ve had a few dialogues now that I’ve watched with great interest with Glenn Greenwald as an example, and the two of you keep it pretty high brow. I mean you’ve engaged with Katie Halper, with Matt Taibbi. You’ve engaged with so many of what, again, some would consider public intellectuals. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but you’re kind of rising and emerging out of this as a different character.
How do you—what is it that you’re striving to? If you could reflect back on how you wish to be viewed in by the public and how you want to impact the the discourse, how do you see yourself? I know it’s a difficult question but how do you feel about that characterization?
Nathan: I don’t, well, I’m, grateful for the characterization, it’s very complimentary. I don’t really want to be viewed by the public to be honest, I’ve fallen into this position, but my aim is always the ideas. Really it’s unfortunate because like, I am kind of a personality, I’m like a very conspicuous person. It’s like I don’t know, I just have like, I don’t know like an unsubtle character. Like I fill a room or whatever, but I don’t really like being the thing that is discussed.
I’m trying to use Current Affairs to advance a set of ideas and to get people thinking about the things that I think need to be thought about, so I approach the work with a sense of, ’Okay how do we use whatever platform I have, and whatever platform Current Affairs has to try and not mold and manipulate, but to try and nudge human thought and discussion in the directions we want it to go. So how do we get people to think more critically about people like Jordan Peterson for instance.
How do we have an intelligent discussion about the things that we’ve been talking about, like U.S foreign policy or the role of third parties. How do we get away from the cycle of hot takes and just start thinking?’ So that’s my goal, to the extent that I’m a public intellectual, is to try and make, you know from a left perspective, to try and move public conversation about important issues in a direction that I think is more thoughtful and sane.
Max: Okay, so if you could take—maybe it’s an issue of Current Affairs. it could be a single article, maybe it’s one of the books that you’ve written—if you could take one thing and make sure that everybody in the world has read, it has consumed, it has ingested it, really understands it, is there a piece that you’re most proud of that really represents? Like, I really want you to, if you could grab hold of the public zeitgeist and say ’Please, please I stand by this information and I’m really proud of it.’ Is there a piece of work you’ve done that you would put out there?
Nathan: There’s a lot of different, obviously, like my kind of encapsulation of my political views is in Why You Should Be a Socialist, that’s the most comprehensive single work that—there’s an overview, so you get a lot of the sides of me in that, I was thinking about—and then I just did a book that’s a speculation on the utopian future and that kind of encapsulates my view of the human future. I’d like everyone to read that too, but I want to mention one piece here because I’m so proud of it and nobody ever reads it, it’s got nothing, no one read it, it’s called ”The Great American World War II Story,” and it is about World War II, but it is specifically about a place here in New Orleans: The National World War II Museum, which happens to be about three blocks from where I work. And I went there, and it’s $400 million they spent building this museum, it’s one of the best museums I’ve ever seen. It’s also a work of just pure propaganda.
And the reason why I’m so proud of this piece is because I don’t go out of the office much to write my pieces. I don’t do much actual reporting in the field, and this one I only went three blocks away, but I was so fascinated by this museum because the whole thing is about how does America tell its story, how do we see ourselves, and how do we convince ourselves that we are always the good guys, and how do we eliminate all of the complexity from the world. And the World War II Museum is actually a fascinating place to study as you think about national myth-making and so my piece is actually not just about World War II, but it’s about war generally and the threat of potential global catastrophic war in our own century, which is probably the issue that I am more concerned about than anything else.
And the core argument of the piece, is until we understand the way in which we are capable of telling stories in which we can do no wrong, we are going to be at great risk of telling ourselves another one of those stories that is going to contribute to a catastrophic global conflict. And you know, obviously, I think of the way that we approach China and Russia in ways that in a nuclear-era could lead to a civilization and end in catastrophe. I’m very proud of that piece because I think that piece is my strongest statement on one of the issues that I care most about, which is the need to figure out how we can have a lasting peace in a heavily armed world.
Max: That’s interesting. I’ve been following a lot of the work of Jeffrey Sachs for many, many years and he’s come out so strongly of late against the saber rattling and the behind the scenes maneuvers and machinations to pit ourselves in this, to kind of gin up a new cold war with China, but also the backdrop of that again being climate change in the fact that new areas of exploration but also weakness are emerging in the Arctic where they had previously never been. And so there’s all of these dynamics at play with global warming in the background, sort of a changing of the guard.
We’d actually done a piece a little while ago about the effect of climate change and how the military-industrial complex has been viewing it since the early ’90s, because there was reporting out of the Pentagon, that the Pentagon has been modeling climate change since the ’90s in a continuous study, and one of the suppositions of their research is that there’s not much we’re going to do, and they’ve been deadly accurate, because they have access to the best scientists in the world in terms of what would transpire and when.
And so far they’ve been absolutely accurate, and one of their theories is that the United States—because of our geography, because of our topography, the diversity and the abundance that we have here—will fare better through the ravages of climate change than most the rest of the world, certainly the Southern Hemisphere, but also China. So a lot of China is actually in low lands that are very open to the rising of the seas, to temperatures, and to the changing that’s going to impact their ability to to be productive in terms of agriculture. And so China has a vested—China has access to this information too—they have a vested interest in now expanding their footprint around the world, and I see that this cold war is less about militarization, it’s less about economic productivity, because we are absolutely attached at the hip when it comes to China. Our economy does not work without them, and no one’s economy works without us, so the pretense for war is not going to be driven by the economy, I think it’s going to be driven by land. It’s going to be driven by access to productive land, and what remains through this cyclical changes.
So, uh, anyway, a long way of saying that I’m absolutely going to read that piece. I would like everybody else to read your piece as well because mythologizing is how we get ourselves into—it’s how every empire has gotten itself into conflagrations throughout history. So that’s not unique to us, but we do have our own particular brand that appears to be undetectable in the American public. We seem to be very kind of eyes wide open and gullible, and willing to consume whatever is fed to us through the state apparatus. So I’m curious to see that piece. Nathan as you think about the next couple of years and you look out over rapid, rapid changes across the globe—and again we’ve covered a lot of ground today, talking about different issues—what’s the one thing that’s on your radar in the immediate that is occupying your brain space that you haven’t quite wrapped your mind around, but you can’t wait to unravel? What are you working on?
Nathan: Oh what am I, hmm, let’s see. Working on a big book on foreign policy at the moment, so this World War II thing is the main issue right now to me, trying to think about the future of war and peace. I’m also though very interested in, I was actually just thinking today that I might eventually have to do a book on AI, because writing a book is the way that you learn about something. So you start the project and then you do all the research to try and put your thoughts together, and organize your thoughts, and I have become very convinced that it is going to cause—I accept that it is going to cause a cataclysm of some unknown kind.
I’m very skeptical of the AI doomers who think the super intelligence is gonna come and kill us all, I think they’re wrong, but I don’t know what the problems it’s going to cause are, so for example there was just an op-ed in The New York Times by the head of Palantir—Peter Thiel’s Palantir—saying we have to accelerate AI weapons because if we don’t China will, and you know that scares the hell out of me. When I hear we have to accelerate an arms race and AI weapons, that just sounds like a disaster, but I want to understand better. What AI weapons could be like, what they could do, what decisions could be made that could lead to catastrophe and how.
So I really want to get a better grasp on how—I don’t even know if the term artificial intelligence is accurate or useful, but the generative technologies that have been accelerating in the last couple of years; I have played with them and experimented with them, have just blown my mind and defied all my expectations of what a computer could do. And I know that we have not yet hit the point at which they are going to make their massive social impact, so I want to better understand as someone who writes about the future of society and wants to nudge society in the right direction, how that factors into the calculus. Because it wasn’t something that I was thinking about you know two years, or even a year ago.
Max: That’s great, that’s going to save me a lot of time. I’m just going to let you come up with the answer instead of looking into it because it’s very, very hard to wrap one’s head around. Our audience is very familiar with Peter Thiel, by the way, we’ve done a couple of episodes on him. If ever there was a cartoonish bad guy that was concocted in a lab, he’s kind of it. But Nathan, I am such a fan of your work and my colleagues always try to warn me against any sort of hero worship, but I have to say that your writing absolutely breaks me in half, I think you are just a tremendous, tremendous writer, I think we’re lucky to have you in the public discourse and I’m certainly rooting for you to continue to grow. I’m okay losing you to the general public when they find you and fall in love with you and you become a household name, I’m willing to give up on you there.
I’m very thankful to Jordan Peterson that he opened the door for me to be able to find you, and I know that the UNFTR audience—you know because we actually quoted you we’ve quoted you a number of times and in particular using Superpredator to build our series on the Clinton years, which I believe is your first book. Is that right?
Nathan: Yeah, other than some of the children’s books that was my first first real book.
Max: Yeah it was great and it was really eye-opening.
Nathan: My best writing.
Max: Isn’t that always the case?
Nathan: He’s disappeared I haven’t heard from Bill Clinton since then.
Max: For our audiences edification, we’ve got Current Affairs—just in terms of interacting with you—we’ve got Current Affairs Magazine, which I encourage people to subscribe to the physical edition, by the way. It’s really a work of art, every single one of them’s a work of art. The love with which it’s put together is apparent on every page, so I would encourage people to do that, but for those that are are not in the market for a little piece of yesterday with a physical magazine being delivered to them and hanging on the coffee table, what are the best ways to interact with your content?
Nathan: Yeah they can read the Current Affairs online articles CurrentAffairs.org we post. We don’t have a paywall, we post all of the articles online eventually, so there’s some fun stuff in the magazine you won’t get if you don’t get the print edition, but you can also get it digitally as a PDF, so currentaffairs.org has all the articles. You can listen to, we the have Current Affairs Podcast, which is at Patreon.com/CurrentAffairs, and we have our Current Affairs News Briefing which is a twice weekly—this is a paid newsletter updating people on the things that are going on that actually matter and that is it currentaffairs.substack.com and we are at @CurAffairs on Twitter and I think I’m at @NathanJRobinson. Sometimes I have opinions on Twitter as well.
Max: Boy I hate to correct the writer here but it’s not Twitter anymore, R.I.P.
Nathan: Oh sorry, I mean on X.
Max: Oh man what a disaster. That’s for another day, I hope we can do this again.
Nathan: I hope so.
Max: I hope this is the beginning of a long conversation.
Nathan: Yes, well we at Currant Affairs love the podcast too. It’s so well done. I was so delighted—It was me who reached out to you.
Max: That’s right.
Nathan: Because we like what you do, so it’s great to connect.
Max: I appreciate that Nathan. Thank you for your time today, and hopefully we’ll catch you soon. When something rages in the world and we can’t figure it out we’ll just come to you.
Nathan: It’s a matter of time.
Max: All right take care everybody, thank you so much Nathan.