This week on Unsupervised Learning Razib catches up with Leighton Woodhouse, a documentarian and journalist (with a Substack!), to discuss the rise of political polarization and the disintegration of traditional parties and coalitions on both the left and the right. Leighton, whose activism began in 1999 at the WTO protests in Seattle, reflects on the financial, geopolitical and social shocks of the last twenty years, how they’ve transformed the movements he came up in, and the new elitist vs. populist dichotomy he sees developing around him.
Originally a labor organizer and Marxist, he argues that the decline in rigorous debate in favor of moralistic platitudes and ideological conformity is both a symptom and cause of America’s current listless cultural malaise. As someone with an academic background, Leighton also bemoans universities now sacrificing difficult intellectual discourse on the altar of easy performativity.
The conversation confronts the reality that in 2021 heterodox thinkers who refuse to perform are often pilloried. They observe how Glenn Greenwald, once lionized by the left for his courageous exposés and uncompromising defenses of civil liberties, is now demonized as a right-wing shill. Liberals even accuse Greenwald of undermining the security state, as if that’s a bad thing. Equally detrimental from Leighton’s viewpoint is the reduction of issues that should be nonpolitical, like humane treatment of animals, into political football games where there’s only one winner.
Despite starting from very different political positions Razib and Leighton find common ground in critiquing a cultural moment in which appearance and outrage have taken center stage, and those claiming the mantle of leadership make only token changes while making sure to keep a grip on their power and privilege.