I am Nathan J. Robinson, founder and editor of the independent leftist magazine Current Affairs, columnist for the Guardian, and author of books like "Why You Should Be A Socialist," "Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity," and "Don't Let The Pigeon Que...
Hello all. I am the editor of Current Affairs, a print magazine based in New Orleans, Louisiana. (We also have a highly listenable podcast.) Here is a profile of our work by the Daily Beast. Politico has called us "niche but influential" and Matthew Yglesias of Vox says we are the reason for Joe Biden's unity problem. The Ringer classifies us alongside Chapo Trap House and Jacobin as part of the new wave of leftist media, but we make way less money than they do. (Subscribe!)
We put out a gorgeous print edition that I am very proud of (check out my video review). It looks really good on coffee tables. I do most of the layout design work myself. It features lots of comics, puzzles, and games. I wanted to replicate the feeling of Mad or Nickelodeon magazines but with left politics. We've collected a bunch of these in the Current Affairs Big Book of Amusements. When we started the magazine, Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair told me I would fail. Four years later, we are thriving even as a print magazine in a digital era. Take that, Graydon Carter!
Last year I published a book called Why You Should Be A Socialist, which is intended to convince people skeptical of socialism that we're not a bunch of authoritarian economic illiterates. I also wrote five fictitious reviews of it including one supposedly written by a manatee. (I once hosted the short-lived Manatee Facts Podcast.) Here's a talk I did about the book with Timothy Faust. Here's a debate I had with a libertarian about socialism.
My next project is starting a left enemy to MSNBC, but I am not yet sure we can raise the amount of money necessary. If we could, it would be excellent.
Other facts about me: I am technically a lawyer but my law license has been suspended. I do not have a fake accent, though there has been a lot of misinformation about this. Noam Chomsky has told me that he emails people my article about Jordan Peterson if they ask him to talk about Jordan Peterson, because Chomsky doesn't want to have to bother thinking about him. I do not wear bowties, even though I totally seem like the kind of person who would wear bowties. In 2016 I said that if Bernie Sanders wasn't nominated, Donald Trump would be president. People thought I was an idiot, but I wasn't.
Things I might be able to to talk about: how to build a media organization that survives in difficult times. How to fake your way though an Ivy League law school. How to convince people you are credible even when you are not. How to write about politics without boring the pants off of your audience. How to overthrow capitalism (still working on this). How to write children's books. How to dress garishly. How to free yourself of libertarian brain poison. How to purchase an annual subscription to our magazine for a very reasonable rate.
I am here to answer all questions! (Proof that I am who I say I am here!)
UPDATE: Thank you for all the questions! I will try to answer as many more as I can before I wrap up soon. If you've enjoyed this, please consider subscribing to the print edition: https://www.currentaffairs.org/subscribe.
UPDATE: Signing off now. Thank you for all the wonderful questions. I tried to answer as many as I could, and I hope that anyone who enjoyed this Q&A will follow us on Twitter (@curaffairs and @NathanJRobinson) and consider subscribing!
Oh no. Oh no. I was hoping I would never meet you. I did... a very bad thing once that involved you.
The Bad Thing was that I once printed an interview in our magazine in which I pretended to be the Nathan J. Robinson who had found that squid even though you were the one who found the squid. https://images.currentaffairs.org/2020/04/Screen-Shot-2020-04-17-at-2.32.31-PM.jpg
I AM SORRY. I knew eventually I would have to face you.
Haha. This is incredible! Although now I guess I need to do an interview where I also pretend to the author of Trump: Anatomy of a Monster.
At least you didn't pretend to be this Nathan Robinson: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-dorset-30232875
Oh, I know! The Nathan Robinson who chopped up his dad and then kept him in tupperware containers he used as a TV stand is really disgracing our brand. Being a Nathan Robinson is supposed to be about cephalopods and leftism, not doing grisly murders!
Sorry I didn't answer your very serious question about coronavirus.
Bernie Sanders lost Midwestern states like Michigan and Illinois by a bigger margin against Biden than against Clinton. What made Biden stronger? Conversely, what made Sanders weaker?
It's all very complicated. The simplistic explanation has been "Bernie 2016 success was really just disliking Clinton personally" but I don't think that one statistic proves that conclusion. Bernie also beat Biden by large margins in the early states of Iowa and Nevada, and I think if Michigan had voted a few days after Nevada that result would have been very different. I also think the vote in subsequent states would have been different if Bernie had won Iowa decisively rather than by so little that it was easy to fudge the result. I think people's minds are made up quite quickly and that small events can have big cascading effects. If Elizabeth Warren had not run, or had dropped out before voting began and it was clear she wouldn't catch Bernie, Bernie would have crushed it in Iowa and NH. That would have given a huge boost in momentum. He would have won Super Tuesday states like MA and TX. Then by the time Michigan and Illinois voted Biden would not have been able to make the kind of forceful "electability" case for himself that he ended up being able to make, because he would have been losing everywhere except southern red states. So I think a few small changes could have made the primary go very differently, which is depressing, but also means that it's not obvious that this proves Bernie just did well in 2016 because of Clinton.
One year ago, you wrote this article, but you tweeted this yesterday.
Why the change of heart?
I tried to give Elizabeth Warren a chance. I never saw myself as a "Bernie Bro" even though I am a strong supporter. I have written positively about the CFPB and as I wrote in that article, there were some good policies and she began her campaign using rhetoric that appealed to me (she launched it at the site of a famous labor struggle). Two things happened: (1) I looked more into Warren's actual record and found a lot that made me think she would not be a reliable ally of progressive causes (esp. on foreign policy, but even sometimes on her signature issues) See here and here for more (2) She said and did things that felt like serious betrayals of things I fundamentally believe or that made me not trust her. She said she was fine with the existence of billionaires, whereas I see wealth disparities of this magnitude as inherently feudalistic. She didn't really seem to care about single payer healthcare and made a weird promise that she wouldn't raise taxes to pay for it (echoing Republican anti-tax rhetoric, where the most important point is actually that the tax rises should just be lower than the amount saved in eliminating premiums and copays). Then, even though Bernie Sanders declined to ever say a negative word about her, she accused him of sexism and started saying he had gotten nothing done and branding his supporters toxic. That would maybe have been excusable if not for the fact that she didn't attack Joe Biden nearly as harshly even though Biden is far worse than Bernie. Then, even after losing badly in the first few states, she did not drop out and endorse Bernie. Then, even when she withdrew entirely, she STILL didn't endorse him. To me, that's totally inexcusable. It shows she didn't care about getting a progressive nominee. She knew that staying out would help Biden and did it anyway, which to me vindicates my ultimate conclusion that she was never closer to Bernie than Biden. I can never trust her again and I regret ever saying a positive word about her.
gonna guess that her actions over the intervening year may have informed his thoughts here
Yes. I liked Warren somewhat. Then she did things that made me like her a lot less. I am not sure why people find this confusing!
Do you have any suggestions for those of us who volunteered and poured ourselves into the Bernie campaign and who are now, frankly, depressed as shit about his loss? Should we reject electoral politics? Should we try to form a third party? Should we sit in a corner and cry? Would love to hear your personal take, thank you. I <3 Current Affairs!
Go read the new book "Bigger than Bernie" which I just finished reading and found very inspiring and uplifting. It thinks through a lot of the questions about the degree to which we should focus our energies on electoral politics versus other stuff. I came away unable to keep thinking of giving up as an option.
Since Bernie Sanders is likely not going to run a third campaign, who do you think should run as the progressive candidate in the 2024 democratic primary, and what should they do differently?
Too early to tell. We need to be cultivating new left leadership and my hope is that people will emerge in the next few years who you haven't necessarily heard of right now!
There's plenty of stuff THEY could do differently to Bernie but one caution I have is making sure we don't just focus on the campaign's own mistakes. A huge problem in this election was that progressive groups did not line up behind Bernie. Many either supported Warren or stayed on the fence until it was too late. Unions didn't support Bernie. They, too, mostly stayed on the fence. Next time we need to do a better job making it clear to people: we cannot split our votes and our energies between two candidacies. We will lose if we do no unite. I said early on that if Sanders and Warren did not have a deal that the one who started losing would drop out early, they would undermine each other and Biden would be the nominee. In the event, that's exactly what happened. So next time, that needs to not happen. https://www.currentaffairs.org/2019/09/sanders-and-warren-need-a-pact
Have lots more to say on this but, ah, so many questions!
Should the progressive wing start doing its own primaries before the primaries? could that work?
It certainly would have been helpful in the case of Sanders/Warren, that was kind of what I was hoping would happen.
Have you ever seen a ghost?
How does one know?
Follow up question: have you seen ghostbusters? There’s a few examples of ghosts in it.
Now that Sanders is out of the running and we find ourselves (once again) forced to choose between the lesser of two evils, how do we stay engaged in politics when it feels like any influence average Americans have is just an illusion? I need motivation to continue because I’m worn out with it all and ready to throw in the towel.
Well, it's not an illusion, though it's very limited. To give just one example of why we shouldn't give up: the number of states with $15 minimum wages is going up all the time. https://news.bloomberglaw.com/daily-labor-report/states-with-15-minimum-wage-laws-doubled-this-year The House passed a $15 minimum wage bill though obv it wont be law for the foreseeable future https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/house-passes-15-minimum-wage-bill-n1031271 But there are plenty of cities were an (almost) living wage is now a reality. Why? Because people engaged themselves in politics and demanded the seemingly impossible.
The idea that we can accomplish nothing is a lie. It is what our opponents want us to believe. They are framing Bernie Sanders' defeat as somehow being proof his movement failed, when actually the fact that a democratic socialist has now twice nearly won a major party presidential nomination is unprecedented in American history and a testament to our power.
Read Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht's inspiring new book "Bigger than Bernie" for tons of examples of how engaged ordinary people have gotten real gains for working people over the last few years. There is more reason to be engaged now than ever because new opportunities are opening that never previously existed.
Hey there, big fan of the magazine. I know that CA is deeply critical of US higher education, specifically the concentration of wealth and power (and general affinity for evil) at schools like Harvard and Yale. Given that most of your team went to one (or both) of those two schools, how do you justify attending those schools? Why wouldn't you opt to attend public schools?
Hopefully that doesn't come off as snarky. I'm just curious if you see that as an issue to mounting a substantial critique and sparking broad changes in the American university system. Keep up the great work!
It's hard to justify, and a perfectly reasonable question. I did not enjoy my time in those institutions. Just to give you my full history: I grew up in FL, went to a public high school, then Brandeis University for undergrad and an MA, then Yale Law School, then PhD program in sociology at Harvard (not done with it.) I'm the first in my family to go to college and I think partly I internalized the idea that credentials signified accomplishment and intelligence. But then part of me always hated these places but I almost felt like I had to prove that I could "make it" in a system in order to prove to myself that rejecting it wasn't just sour grapes. Like I remember clearly feeling a burning resentment of people who got listened to because they had prestigious credentials and I felt like I was no less capable. It's also the case that these places provide a lot of resources and that many of the professors are among the best-respected in their fields. So you get access to some very helpful things. And if you want to study sociology or law, as I did, then they give you a very good financial deal to do it, and a lot of freedom to construct your own education, which is what I wanted. The question, I guess, is: is it justifiable to use something that you know is not accessible equally to all and that you are getting access to because of your privilege? It is a hard ethical question because you can come up with rationalizations "Oh well I will use this degree for good" or "If I didn't, someone else would have" but do they hold up? Are you really just a status-seeker? I don't know. The one thing that I do know is that the people in these places are no smarter or more interesting than anyone else and attending Harvard and Yale reinforced my conviction that the distribution of advantages in this country is incredibly unjust. Am I a hypocrite for accepting and using those advantages? Possibly.
Bernie Sanders did worse this election than he did in 2016. Why have you guys had so much trouble expanding your support, especially among the working class? Do you think there are elements of your platform or approach that are just offputting to most of the electorate?
I think the premise of the question is wrong. In both 2016 and 2020, we saw millions of people support an elderly democratic socialist with almost no endorsements or support from powerful Democratic figures, and active opposition from top Democrats like Barack Obama (who made phone calls to try to get candidates to drop out so that Sanders could be stopped) and Hillary Clinton. When has this ever happened before? Socialists control NOTHING in this country. Bernie got no major newspapers endorsing him. No TV channels. Hardly any unions. And yet, despite having to compete with Warren for progressive votes and money, he raised the most money and was a strong second place contender who beat dozens of other democrats.
To me it is very strange to ask "Why didn't Bernie win?" when the real question, looking over a century-long history of socialists being completely marginal, is "How on earth did Bernie do so well?"
I really appreciate your work, but I have a question about if you have changed your opinion about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Yesterday, when talking about Elizabeth Warren, you stated that Warren would “provide progressive cover for awful personnel” if she was VP, and the example you cited was the supposedly horrific personal at the CFPB.
However, you also wrote a long (and fantastic) essay about how wonderful the CFPB was when it was staffed by Warren’s people a year and a half ago, which to your credit you also brought up.
So I guess my question is, do you stand behind the idea that an agency that you loved and did wonderful things was staffed by awful personnel? Because honestly to me it just seems like you’ve decided to go scorched earth on everything Warren has ever done just because she didn’t endorse Bernie.
I have been asked this a lot and I still don't understand why people think the statement "Elizabeth Warren made bad hires at the CFPB" means "The CFPB does not do good work." If she had had Richard Cordray's job that might make more sense, but she didn't. And even then, you can make bad hires and bad choices and still the agency does important work because lower level staff are excellent.
Hello Nathan! Subscriber here.
I was wondering if the magazine has any plans to cover animal agriculture and it’s relationship to capital/climate change?
Animal agriculture is inextricably linked, and probably actually the inception of capital. The word capital, of course, comes from describing wealth in terms of “heads” (capita) of cattle.
Today, it is likely the number one driver of human caused climate change by industry. Slaughterhouse and other industry workers are incredibly exploited. And, of course, it is absolute hell on earth for the over 70 billion land animals that are bred to be slaughtered each year.
The industry is also one of the most heavily federally subsidized. Perhaps, though, the tides seem to be turning with the rise of plant-based foods over the last few years.
Would love to hear your thoughts, and the thoughts of other Current Affairs writers.
Thank you for all your work!
This is the sort of thing where I'd want someone who was a serious expert to write it for us. Do you have recommendations?
You've previously said that the CFPB under Warren did a great job. All of a sudden, you're now saying that Warren installed people who weren't progressive enough. How do you justify such a radical change in opinion beyond disliking Warren for her opposition to Bernie during the primary?
There is no contradiction between thinking that the CFPB has done good work and thinking Elizabeth Warren made highly questionable staffing decisions at the outset that reduce my trust in her.
Can you explain as to why you do not follow an explicitly Marxist analysis of our modern world? And if I’m allowed two questions, how would your idea of a left wing media fight the American media’s propaganda model while still maintaining nuance?
I can if you explain to me what precisely you mean by "following an explicitly Marxist analysis of our modern world."
Out of all the people you've written critical articles of which would you like to have a public conversation with?
Someone was trying to arrange a debate with me and Charles Murray but then he said he wouldn't debate anyone who called him a racist, which I fully intended to do. I still want to talk to Ben Shapiro. Dinesh D'Souza and I were supposed to do a public debate and then the crisis happened. We probably still will. I think it will be illuminating. To be clear though I wouldn't actually "like" to have a conversation with any of these people. But I feel doing so would be clarifying and useful.
With Bernie out what are the most intriguing down ballot primary challenges you're keeping an eye on?
Two favorites are Rebecca Parson https://rebeccaforwa.com/
and Shahid Buttar https://shahidforchange.us/
What are your top 5 fiction and top 5 non-fiction books?
Nonfiction probably Chomsky's "Understanding Power," Orwell "Homage to Catalonia," Christopher Alexander's "A Pattern Language," Peter Kropotkin's memoirs, and #5 probably rotates from moment to moment. Fiction I read a lot of PG Wodehouse (https://www.currentaffairs.org/2020/03/the-world-of-wodehouse) and I love old utopias like "News From Nowhere." Currently trying to read Tolstoy in isolation but keep getting distracted by internet. I am not a big fiction reader generally because the world gets in the way. It is one reason I want all political problems to be solved soon, so I never have to read nonfiction again and can dive into fantasy.
Hi, Nathan. Any productivity tips for writing/researching? You seem like you get a lot done.
Also been reading WYSBAS and enjoying it, so thanks!
Oh thank you! My productivity tip is care about nothing but writing. Leave personal hygiene, romantic relations, making tasty food, "hobbies" and other unnecessary indulgences aside and just type type type. Oh and tell yourself that if you don't keep writing constantly you will die.
Caution: following advice may have adverse consequences
Nathan how hot and gross is it wearing suits in Louisiana all the time?
Very hot and very gross but the good thing is that in Louisiana everyone is hot and gross so nobody notices or cares.
In 2016, Manchin almost endorsed Trump in opposition to Clinton's plan to end coal and up-skill coal workers. Now, he's going to endorse Biden.
If you had to guess, what made Biden's climate policy more acceptable to Manchin's coal constituency than Clinton's was?
Probably he doesn't believe Biden will actually do any of it. Probably he's right.
Hi Nathan, thanks for this.
I wanted to know why you swear off Marx and the Marxist intellectual tradition. There are certainly aspects of Marxist thought that are authoritarian, as you have suggested in the past, but the different parts of Marxism are so variegated as to make an all-out repudiation appear confusing. For instance, Althusser's work (such as in "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" or his non-essentialist overdetermination) seems extremely relevant to you in its consideration that class struggle occurs not merely on the material "economic" level, but rather takes place at every level and in every part of society. To not engage with the tradition in general seems like rejecting the entirety of phenomenology because Heidegger was a Nazi. But perhaps I'm missing something.
If this is still a problem you're considering, I'd suggest reading Humanism and Terror by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (https://bookshop.org/books/humanism-and-terror-an-essay-on-the-communist-problem/9780807002773), which does a really good job of articulating the difficulty of "means vs ends." If you have read the book, what was your reaction to it?
Thanks, and keep up the great work with Current Affairs!
I don't swear off Marx though. I say in Why You Should Be A Socialist that he had "a better understanding than almost anyone else of the way that economics determines the fabric of the social world," and praise texts of his as "brilliant" and "profound," full of "great insight." I am not sure how that can be squared with thinking I have scant regard for him.
Thank you for your kind words about Current Affairs.
Hello Nathan! Of all the forms of media out there (magazines, TV shows, YouTube channels, movies/documentaries, books, etc), why did you choose to start a magazine? How do you believe all these forms of media compare to each other as far as their effectiveness in communicating a political message?
Follow up question, if you were to consider memes a form of "media;" how big of a role do political memes and meme culture in general have in shaping the political beliefs of our society, as we are increasingly spending more time online? What do you see the future of this trend looking like?
Largely because Jacobin had shown that magazines had a viable model. If Jacobin hadn't existed I wouldn't have thought of this. But being subscription-funded and offering a physical product actually is a good way to build a small media organization. I would have had a harder time figuring out how to make those other things work financially though we are trying to expand in those directions now. Unfortunately I think cable news networks like Fox and MSNBC are probably the most effective political communication medium and small print magazines much less so.
I have absolutely no useful expertise to offer on memes, though there are many good memes. Sorry!
Concretely, how do you write so much? What’s your workflow? For example, do you tend to have multiple articles in progress at a time, or do you knuckle down and focus entirely on one article? You put out more words per week than anyone I know in any field.
Hah, my secret is having no personal life. Actually my secret used to be that unlike other writers I stayed off Twitter for the most part, but lately I have allowed it to suck me in and I'm ashamed of it (my output volume has diminished accordingly; getting a smartphone was curse. For years I had a flip phone and it was so helpful for productivity as there was nothing to distract me). I don't really have a workflow, I'm a complete mess and there is no rhythm to it. Sometimes I wake up early, sometimes late. Sometimes I write in the morning, sometimes the evening. I have a ton of article ideas in a document and I try to pick one and write one at a time. One I've really started going on something though I don't put it down, I want to get it finished and out the door so there are not many "unfinished" articles hanging around generally. The exception right now is that for months I've had a half-written review of Rand Paul's "The Case Against Socialism" in my files but I was going to do it as a little mini-takedown of each of the 40 chapters of the book and that turns out to be tedious and painful so I keep trying to avoid coming back to it, hah.
I have a ton of article ideas in a document
What's one that you think you'll most likely never get around to writing?
The one I most want to write but will take forever is something that responds to climate science denial books. I need to have a vastly better scientific understanding to write it as well as I want to write it.
What’s your favorite era of fashion?
As described in my memoir of the future, "My Affairs," my favorite era is the one that will begin later this century, in which zany costumes will become standard everyday wear.
To what extent do you think Biden versus his advisors actually runs his campaign? Relatedly, if Biden were to win the presidency, to what extant do you think Biden, versus his staff, would actually govern? Biden strikes me as a someone who leaves everything to his advisors and staff. But after his surprising wins, I'm inclined to think that I underestimate him.
Hard to know this. Can only speculate. We never really know what goes on behind the curtain do we? I haven't got any inside info so my guess is as good as yours.
Do you view yourself as holding the same kind of job as (say) Matt Yglesias or Jonah Goldberg, just on a different end of the political spectrum? Or do you think there's a more fundamental difference?
Related: do you think of yourself more as an intellectual or as an activist?
Well, yes, I think technically I am a "pundit" and "commentator" like them and we each are trying to be public advocates for our political views. But I am also a magazine editor which is quite a different job.
Nocturnal Emissions is one of the most delightful things I've ever read. I am sorry you get harmed so much in your dreams. You're a lovely person and I've loved watching your publication grow over the last few years.
Who is your least-favorite scumbag in Tiger King? I'll take my answer off the air.
Haha! You're like one of five people who has read that. I could not begin to speculate on why I get harmed so much in my dreams. I am so glad you enjoyed it though.
Hi Nathan! Can you tell Brianna Joy Gray that I love her?
Also: thoughts on leftism and guns?
I will send Brie your love.
I am very conflicted about guns. On the one hand, I really instinctively don't like them. I want a world without guns. If I could make every gun disappear overnight, I would. I do not really understand people who actually love guns, although there are many loves I do not understand. On the other hand, completely see why you might want a gun in a society where so many have them. I have never feared for my life, so I have never felt like I would need a gun. I also think we should be very careful about gun control laws because new punitive laws almost always throw poorer people and people of color in prison in greater numbers and I tend to see criminal penalties as a very blunt instrument that avoids actually addressing the root causes of social problems. (I have a take that liberals like gun control because they like passing laws criminalizing problems rather than solving them, but that's a bit unfair.) Here are some more thoughts on guns: https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/02/what-kills-people
What do you think is the strongest argument against socialism (or at least your particular brand of it) and what is your counter-argument to it?
Keep up the great work! Current Affairs and Kyle Kulinski have been like a pipeline to me for class consciousness and further left beliefs.
I am kept awake thinking about the argument that the things socialists advocate are simply not possible, that people are too X, Y, or Z for us ever to reach a state I would consider justice. But it's not really an argument, it's more like a prophecy, because there's simply no way to know the limits of what different kinds of human social organization that can be, even though many conservatives believe they know and that the 20th century has offered some kind of natural experiment. I have not found arguments I thought were persuasive, or I would have changed my beliefs, but I have certainly encountered some that give me fear and self-doubt. The "libertarian" review here is an articulation of the little voice in my head that says "you're wrong and crazy" sometimes. https://www.currentaffairs.org/2019/12/five-self-written-reviews-of-why-you-should-be-a-socialist
In Why You Should Be A Socialist, I go through 7 or 8 of the main anti-socialist arguments and give some responses so you should check that out for more.
Why did you back out of the TMBS debate with Aimee Terese?
I don't remember this at all. Did I? Anyway, Aimee was right to criticize me for being too nice to Liz Warren.
The popularity of Medicare For All and the calls for increased worker protections we are seeing make it obvious that the county is asking for leftist economic reforms. However leftists have consistently failed to win much political power. What effect do you think attaching controversial social justice issues to a popular economic message has on the cause?
Social justice is non-negotiable. It's hard, but you don't ditch it because it's not popular.
What does left activism and left media look like under a Biden presidency versus another term of a Trump presidency. Where do you see your role in that?
Can professional managerial class make worthwhile left wing allies or are we doomed to poison left movements with our bouergeois liberalism?
I would much rather be a left activist in a Biden presidency than a Trump one. It consists of trying to build the progressive wing of the Democratic party and extract concessions, and plan to throw out the centrists in 2024. Under a second Trump term, it consists in part of trying desperately to preserve the country from lapsing into complete authoritarian rule.
I'm a member of that class so I'd have to say that at least partly it can be reached. I don't think people within a class operate monolithically.
Hey, Nathan! What advice or tips do you have for a young adult (in undergrad) that’s aspiring to write for the left-wing cause?
- Write for the person who disagrees with you the most. If you can persuade that person, you can persuade anyone.
- Try not be boring. You are trying to get people to read about stuff they want to tun away from. A lot of it involves human and animal suffering. So you can't just offer them a parade of miseries. You have to guide them gently, with wit and kindness.
- Figure out what makes the writing you love good, and then do what they do. I developed my political writing in 2015-16 by reading everything I could find by Freddie deBoer, Amber Frost, the Bruenigs, and Noam Chomsky. I had always written but it became much better when I found writing I loved and tried to figure out what made it good.
- Good writers are doing a ton of work behind the scenes you will never see. They are going through 20 revisions. They are spending days researching a question. They are swapping out 10 variations of a word to find the one that works just right.
- But don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Get stuff out the door. It will never be fully satisfying. Don't let a project eat you forever. Get it to the point where it's FINE and then move on.
Nathan, I’ve really enjoyed reading your takedowns, as well as your commentary on Tara Reade’s allegations. How do we get you (and Eli, who did a great interview of Cenk Uygur) in the room with powerful people to take them to task and make them actually respond?
Eli is the best at this actually (@elijmassey on Twitter, follow him). My dream is to get Eli sit-down interviews with major public figures, he's such a pitbull, hah. I'm not as good at this myself because I want to like everyone. Still, I think I could do a better job than much of the media! I don't know how to make it happen.
Nathan, how do you weigh the merits of "lesser evil voting" against strategic voting on a multi-year horizon? More specifically, Chomsky advocates voting for Biden given his belief in the imminence of climate disaster and international conflict. But this ignores the possibility that a Biden victory could lead to the victory of a more evil candidate e.g. Tom Cotton.
Yeah, this is of course tough, because I agree that an ineffectual Democratic president will lead to a more emboldened and competent Republican opposition. On the other hand, if Trump is reelected I'm not sure there will BE a 2024 election. He will basically own the courts. So my best case scenario would be Biden is useless but we use the time we've bought to build a powerful left that can get rid of him in 2024 and fight whatever toxic fascist the right has spewed up.
Hi Nathan! I’m a big fan of both you and the magazine.
What’s your opinion on Howie Hawkins and the Green Party?
I like Howie personally and have admired a lot of his work. Green Party itself however does not seem to have done much lately. They went through a very impressive phase some years back but it seems to me like they are no longer our best hope for a 3rd party.
Hey Nathan! Fellow proud python here. To what extent would you say growing up in Sarasota shaped your politics and ideology?
ooh, I like this question, though I can't really psychoanalyze myself. I do think being a British child in Florida always made me feel like an outsider and thus identify with people on the fringes of their cultures. Plus the inequality in Sarasota is very visible and I was extremely disturbed by it. But honestly hard to say, anything I could tell you I'd just be making up on the spot. Who knows what truly shapes us?
How do you do so much and write so much quality content on a timely scale? From someone who struggles with minor ADHD and major procrastination
The good thing is that if I don't write I can't eat, because when I write we get subscribers and when I don't we don't. Fear of losing livelihood a strong motivator. Not helpful I know. For what it's worth I am also a big procrastinator which i why I need external motivators like this in order to get stuff done
What do you think about primarying Elizabeth Warren?
Would it be possible to unite progressives based on 2016 and 2020 and in between - or do you think she still sells as progressive?
Briahna would be great!!!
- I hope someone does.
- Not sure. She didn't do very well in the election ultimately so my hope is that people can be persuaded to move on from her.
Hey Nathan, you can probably guess from the username who I am on Facebook. Anyway...
You do a lot of doomsaying, such as claiming that if Sanders doesn't win the nomination, we're getting more Trump. First question is, don't you think Current Affairs has some really depressing articles when all the news in all the world is really depressing? Have you thought of trying to write some more optimistic articles (while still being honest of course)? I've got to say, some of your reports make me want to just sit back and quit because they make progress seem near-impossible.
Second, I have some questions about your honest predictions for America and the world. Not a "how can we achieve/not achieve these," but "what do you, Nathan Robinson, think will occur?" The answers can be short:
Will Trump get a second term now that Biden is the inevitable nominee? Will humanity actually manage to slow or stop climate change or is it hopeless? What is the future of America's rapidly polarizing politics (go full left and the right dies out, country literally splits in half, the right wins and the left keeps trundling along, etc.)? Is this right-wing surge around the world going to keep holding on, or is it the last gasp against progress and will fade?
Is there a story behind this suspended law license?
I actually think we're rather more positive than many other places! I write a lot about the importance of avoiding hopelessness and resignation. Perhaps I haven't done enough of it recently. But I am an upbeat person.
Actually our print edition is much more cheerful than our online edition and includes many messages of encouragement. (Subscribe!) Also the end of "Why You Should Be A Socialist" is hopeful. I don't want to make anybody feel more depressed because that helps no one.
We've published articles before that have had a very negative outlook on Biden's prospects.
I think he is a very weak candidate. But also: coronavirus changes things. If the economy hasn't recovered and Donald Trump is presiding over a depression in which many people are continuing to lose loved ones to a horrendous disease that he is blamed for failing to mitigate, voters might be willing to vote for a potted plant over Donald Trump. Biden is as close to a potted plant as a living human can be, so he could conceivably win. If not for the virus, though, if Trump had still been presiding over a strong economy, I think Biden would have been doomed. Now everything is chaos and I'm going to try not to predict the future.
As a leftist, why did you choose journalism over academia and what can you say about each path (or even the path of activist organizational work)?
Well, far more people read my articles this way. I do have a lot of respect for the work of academics but my skill has always been as a "popularizer."
And I am terrible at organizing things and extremely antisocial. I wouldn't quite say I'm in "journalism" though; I don't consider myself a journalist.
How useful/important do you think it is for leftists to withhold their support of Biden in the months between now and the election? What leverage is there and what concessions can be realistically expected?
To be honest I don't really know. Bernie got some important concessions on the platform in 2016, but how much do platforms matter really? I think it is certainly helpful for us to not leap immediately into helping Biden, to at the very least make him do some work for it. I was disappointed Bernie endorsed so quickly when Biden's concessions were so pitifully small. But maybe he just knew it wouldn't make a difference it might as well be gotten over with. One reason we don't have much leverage is that the thinking of many centrists is not "we need to court the left" but "we need to court swing voters and tell the left to shut up and get in line." Al Gore knew Ralph Nader could cost him the election, but it didn't cause him to try to woo Ralph's voters. Jill Stein voters were just attacked and shamed, nobody is thinking "how do we reach out to them and give them something?" Politically that's bad strategy but I do think there's this kind of deep contempt for the left that means they're unlikely to give us much beyond some rhetoric about how we all want the same things deep down.
What is your favorite cologne? You look like a Creed Green Irish Tweed guy.
One thing this election, I believe, has laid bare is the level of a hurdle the mainstream media is for a leftist candidate reaching the nomination of a major party.
What strategies do you see leftists needing to take overcome this hurdle (and in the larger context, not just with regard to electoral/presidential politics)? How can leftists create a media apparatus that rivals the broad neoliberal capitalist consensus and cable news media giants like CNN and MSNBC, especially when we begin from a such a disadvantage and aren't as profitable because we inherently refuse to exploit the workers of our organizations like they do? Will we ever see a presidential debate on a leftist media network?
How does leftist media grow?
I can't really offer you a good answer, because my life's mission is kind of to find out the answer to this. Leftist media has grown a lot already, which is what has allowed our magazine to thrive. But you're right, we're still nowhere near corporate media's level of influence. Can we get there? My hope is that we can. How? Well, first by using the limited resources we have to make things that are as good and informative as possible, and making them accessible so that they reach as many people as possible. We have some advantage in that corporate media is terrible. Left media is very vibrant right now but I think we can and will do much more in the coming years. We'll see where it ends up. People should def support independent media projects though, they're SO critical.
Thanks for taking the time to do this. How do you remain positive while covering news/working in media? What made you want to go to law school in the first place? What are some of your happiest career choices thus far? Biggest regrets?
Thanks again for all of your hard work with Current Affairs.
- I have a WONDERFUL team of people at Current Affairs who are very mutually supportive and funny. It makes a huge difference to have good people.
- I wanted to be a public defender, a desire I abandoned once I actually spent a summer working in the New Orleans public defender's office.
- Happiest choice was taking the chance on Current Affairs. I was in grad school and knew it would hurt my schoolwork but I had a hunch it could work and just decided to try it. It was a crazy scheme that really paid off.
- I don't have any regrets career wise. Objectively speaking my law degree was probably a waste of money but I can't imagine not having gone and I met one of my best friends in the world there, so who could regret that?
I'm a conservative reader of yours, and have been a fan of your very well written articles even if I rarely agree with them. That being said given the failure of Sanders to stop the Democratic Party from blocking his nomination is democratic socialism ultimately impossible to realize in the the current party structure?
Hey thanks! I truly appreciate readers like you who listen despite disagreement. It shows open-mindedness and I really respect it.
I mean I don't know the answer to that. But since we came close to the nomination twice with an old man, and a lot of factors working against us, I'm not ready to give up yet.
I've been a subscriber for a while now (and a podcast listener/patron since the beginning) - love the work that you folks do.
I was reading this article in Jacobin yesterday. I'm not sure I agree with the "libertarian socialist" part of the article, but the resistance to Marx that the author points out is something I've noticed in CA (I feel similarly about Jacobin having an "anarchist gap"). What are your thoughts on the author's points?
I have not yet had a chance to read this article! I'd do so right now except that there are so many questions in here to answer. If you can give me the key points I can reply here otherwise i might have to wait.
I want to go to law school and/or journalism school, but I think about all the people who enter these institutions with good intentions and just end up becoming soulless corporate pawns! How do you go through school and come out the other end as a good person???
TL;DR: grad school: yay or nay?
We've actually got a podcast episode coming up on whether you should go to law school in which all the lawyers on staff give their views. So watch out for that as it might be really helpful.
My best answer to that is: if you're going to go, find good people with good values and stick close to them. People you trust to tell you when you're changing and to keep you on the right path. My colleague Oren lived in an anarchist collective house while he was in law school. Nobody else in the house was in law school, and it was really helpful for him not to be around lawyery types when he went home. I happened to find a friend I lived with for 3 years at law school who has a lot of moral integrity, and together we really kept each other from believing some of the BS being thrown our way. I would not have wanted to get through that without having at least one other person who shared my worldview.
What is your process for choosing a subject to write about?
No real process. I have a document with a long list of things I've been meaning to. When something strikes me as a possible article I try to take note of it. When I have enough thoughts on a subject to where it seems like they might make an article, I sit down and do it.
What do you think of French mathematician cum centrist politician Cédric Villani's dress sense?
Not to my own taste. The thing about wearing a big floppy piece of neckwear like this: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Cedric_Villani_at_his_office_2015_n3.jpg
is that all people can think about is the big floppy piece of neckwear. If you're going to wear crazy clothes it should be more than just one highly obtrusive and attention-drawing item, it should be an outfit.
Hi Nathan, big fan.
Can you speak to what spurred your transition form Private College -Ivy League bound wunderkid to a dedicated socialist?
When's the biscuit poster gonna be back in stock?
You can actually be radicalized at the ivy league if you take the time to look around you. These places are such insane bastions of inequality. It's gross. It disturbed me a lot, though I was leftist before I arrived.
Biscuit Children will be back.
What do you think about cigarettes? Smoking is the largest preventable cause of death, killing over 7 million annually - including almost 500,000 in the US - and yet is rarely treated as a political issue. Should the left care about this?
Haven't thought about it much to be honest. There have been so many other things occupying me. But yes that's a lot of deaths. We should probably have a clearer position.
While I must confess to roasting your fits on twitter, I do love reading your work because it challenges my own positions in interesting and unexpected ways. You're one of the best writers working today and every time I see a new piece on Current Affairs, I eagerly read it!
I wanted to ask about your experience at Yale Law. Do you think an Ivy League education is worth it, even if you don't end up practicing? Did you go into debt? What sorts of law are worth practicing? How did you get through the admissions gauntlet? Do you have regrets? If I come from a non-elite undergraduate education, is it even worth applying to these schools? How did you study for the LSAT?
Feel free to answer all (or none) of those questions, and keep up the good fight.
I have 140k in debt.
Ivy League degrees are rarely a bad investment because unfortunately in this country they give you the permanent ability to convince people you must know something, which, though false, is invaluable.
I went to Brandeis University, which though it is reasonably highly ranked is not a top 10 undergrad, so I think it's worth trying. I didn't originally apply to Yale because I thought I wouldn't get in but then I thought "What the hell, why not try" and it paid off. (Though I didn't get into other places, like UVA, so these things work in mysterious ways.)
I have no regrets. We have an upcoming podcast on law school that you should watch out for.
Hi Nathan, I'm a big fan. Can you please address your fear of death and how it relates to your unreasonable view that people are things and not processes?
There is no connection between my fear of death and my correct identification of people as things rather than "processes"
Hi Nathan! I was wondering if you have any retrospective thoughts on your "Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture" article from 2017. I personally agree with most of it, but given that it ignited (well, maybe fueled) a still-ongoing intra-left feud about whether Brutalism Is Good, have the intervening few years changed your opinions on architecture and aesthetics in any way?
So my conclusion is that we can resolve this: the brutalists get their own brutalist city that is 100% made of concrete. Maybe we can build it on the moon. But in return they have to stop trying to put their buildings in other cities. You'll notice that one of my main objections to contemporary architecture is that it disrupts the historic fabric of a place and the stylistic coherence. If they agree to stay out of New Orleans I won't say a peep about what I think of their buildings anymore.
Velvet or seersucker?
Depends on season and whether or not you are in Louisiana
Are you married? Also, who do you predict will be Biden's vp?
I am married to Current Affairs, the magazine to whom I have pledged my life and soul.
Kamala Harris is the smart choice but Biden is not always known for smart choices, so who knows?
Hello Nathan, I love your work and to be honest I'm amazed with your productivity and size of your articles. I recently enjoyed your piece of Pete Buttigieg.
How long does it take you to write a 20.000 word piece? Do you take a deep plunge on the matter or do you simply collect your thoughts from being exposed to current affairs to the level that you do?
All in all well done. Keep at it!
love from Greece
Well I don't think I've written a 20,000 word piece. The Pete Buttigieg was 10k and that's on the long side for me. That took 2.5 days but had a lot of block quotes from him. My writing is shorter than it seems because it includes a lot of quotes. I try to take deep plunges. Thank you!
Would you consider doing a podcast episode with Erik Loomis? He seems to really hate you and "Current Affairs" and "Jacobin" (reason enough it would be interesting, to say the least), but it seems like he's coming from an interesting left-liberal perspective instead of a bullshit centrist one like Matt Yglesias et al. Talking across intra-left divides going forward feels like it's going to be important, even if we don't end up agreeing on much. It would at least make for an intriguing listen...
He hates me??! I wrote a nice thing about his book on strikes. https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/10/the-limits-of-liberal-history
I liked it a lot. I haven't seen his other stuff. I'd like to talk to him.
Nathan, how come Max Blumenthal has it in for you? I would think the two of you would be friends and allies. Does he object to your foreign policy coverage in Current Affairs, or to your flamboyance, or is there some other issue? Thanks.
No idea. Never met him. Not sure why he dislikes me.
Electorally, where does the left go from here? Is AOC the only hope on a national level?
Read the Day/Uetricht book "Bigger than Bernie" for some good insight on this. No, there will be more AOCs, but it is going to take some years to cultivate our bench, which is why we need to get to work.
Hi Nathan- What sorts of traditionally social democratic policies could you see Trump and the republicans getting behind in the wake of this pandemic and subsequent depression?
I’ve been thinking it would be really funny if they get behind some sort of universal healthcare or jobs program, even if temporarily, just to spite Biden, Pelosi, and The Libs. It would also ensure a GOP sweep up and down the ballot
Love your work
Very few. The right is so captured by free market capitalist dogma that they're not going to do anything at any real scale, it's all going to be fake. The Republican party isn't going to stop being the party of "cutting food stamps and drug testing medicaid recipients" any time soon, because their fundamental philosophy is Social Darwinism and they don't care whether vulnerable people live or die. If they say they're behind universal healthcare it will probably be a lie.
In light of the recent 'psychedelic renaissance', many in the psychedelic communist often connect psychedelics to seeing though social engineering and creating a more compassionate society, do you think this is nonsense or do you think psychedelics can be important to the left in this way?
I've never tried psychedelics and don't know much about them, but we published an article on the topic by someone who knows more than me. https://www.currentaffairs.org/2019/04/make-america-trip-again
Not necessarily a political question but I do have to ask; the fashion sense, where did it come from?
I don't actually know. My motivations are a mystery even to myself.
Thank you for your time and for communicating so openly. I listened to an extended podcast interview conducted with you over your article regarding Jordan Peterson, I disagree with your conclusions and the process you plotted to get to them. I must admit, I listened for only 20 minutes or so, I cut it short, and it has been some time since then.
In regards to your fundrasing for a leftist enemy to MSNBC, have you not contacted the people who were too left for MSNBC?
Here is a wikipedia page on MSNBC controversies. Granted, their egos are HUGE, but they have little to no audience now.
I enjoy listening to some guests on Joe Rogan Experience, Jimmy Dore ranting about mainstream articles showcasing public abuse right under our noses, Bret & Eric Weinstein lampooning DISC, Democracy Now headlines, but I seem to have lost track of Keith Olberman...
Are you shooting for Air America II, but with balls? Or more like Glenn Greenwald's livestreams?
That's a good idea actually, thanks.
No, hopefully nothing like Air America, lol. Much more Glennish.
When Ezra Klein came on your podcast, he criticizes the left's "Overton window" assumption that if a movement/politician starts with proposing everything it want, they're more likely to get at least some of it. That ignores the danger, he argued, that if you propose too much at the outset you'll end up with nothing at all. Do you take this argument seriously, and how do you respond to it?
No, I don't take it seriously, because the House passed a $15 minimum wage bill, which shows that our theory of asking for way more than you expect is actually good and if anything we should aim even higher.
I like your magazine a lot, but why all the hats? Not to be a hater, but it distracts from the content sometimes.
You do not have to look at the hats to read the magazine!
Of course, we shouldn't look to leaders to save us and should take matters into our own hands, but who do you think could 'replace' Bernie or 'be the next Bernie', to the extent that that's possible? (Robinson 2024)
I am constitutionally ineligible to run for president.
We do not yet know who the next Bernie is. This is why we need a new generation of left leaders to step up!
I’m an enormous fan of CA and Nick Slater’s piece on basketball brought a good amount of tranquility and forgiveness to my life. The other articles you publish have expanded what I guess I would call my political consciousness, so I thank you for that, too.
I’m inspired to write some articles that maybe one day I could submit to CA and others. Do you have any advice on how to go about writing/publishing them? Are there any valuable resources you recommend for teaching me how to write publishable articles (idea—>outline—>text process)?
I remember on twitter you putting an ad/online form for any writers who’d like to submit something but I can’t seem to find it on your site anymore.
Your publication inspires me to think and write and be better at both - as far as I can tell that’s the best compliment I can come up with for any artist or thinker.
All the best, DirektorFred
Hey thanks for your kind words!
So, in terms of getting your writing published, the best thing to do is compile the email addresses of editors at the places you want to publish and then send them pitches with writing samples. This is a good resource for email addresses: http://everyonewhosanyone.com/other.html
In terms of the actual writing, I have some general writing advice elsewhere in the AMA, but in terms of getting it PUBLISHED I'd say look at the other stuff the place publishes and write something you could imagine fitting in with that place's other materials. Have a venue in mind when you write. Current Affairs, for example, has a very specific type of thing we publish, and I can tell very quickly whether someone is familiar with out magazine and is deliberately writing something that is a good fit for us, and when they just have a piece of writing they are looking to get published somewhere. You're much more likely to get something published if you know the publication well. The first time I wrote for Jacobin, I thought "I have an idea that feels like a Jacobin article." The one time I wrote for the New York Times, I thought "Oh, I can see this as an NYT op ed, it feels NYT op-eddy." As an editor, I like it when I get stuff where the person gets our publication, and I am frustrated when I get stuff where people clearly don't know who we are but just know that we're a magazine.
One other piece of writing advice: make sure to care some, but not too much, about what other people think. It's important not to just write masturbatory stuff; you want to always keep in mind the question 'would anyone else want to read this?' but it's also important to say what YOU feel needs to be said. Some writers show everything they write to a dozen people and get comments to do rewrites. I don't do that personally; I leave criticism for after it's published. That might make my stuff lean more toward the 'masturbatory' side from time to time but it also means that my writing voice is very much my own. It's a delicate balance.
We're not really taking pitches right now because we're overwhelmed but we will be again in future.
Sending love to the entire Current Affairs team!
My question: What are your thoughts on how progressives can move beyond the handcrafted confines of social media and toward embracing/building/supporting unapologetically progressive platforms? Is there a life beyond the feeds or are we too addicted to seek alternatives?
Thank you! Gosh, I don't know. It does seem like it should be possible but I am not the person who knows how to do it. I really hope that someday we will have an alternative to Facebook and Twitter that is transparent and operates for the good of all, like Wikipedia. https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/12/toward-the-wiki-society
I've noticed a divide between newer left wing publications like Current Affairs and Jacobin and older counterparts like The Nation, with the newer publications being more willing to challenge the status quo. Do you think that's because they appeal to different audiences, or because they have different ideological commitments?
A bit of both. I think that observation is correct though. Still like some of the Nation's writers though. Liza Featherstone is awesome.
Can you explain the fake story about your accent being fake and where this came from?
My accident SOUNDS fake and also there is a quote from my mom in a profile of my (see above) that leads people to think I am a faker. But I am actually British ( I have a passport and all) I just came here very young.
There are numerous right-wing commentators on, some of whom are discussed by more mainstream publications, but there seems to be comparatively fewer in the left. Do you feel like the left is effectively using YouTube as a platform? If not, what do think we should be focusing on to expand our presence?
There are good lefties on Youtube (natalie wynn, philosophy tube, hbomberguy, shaun, kyle kulinski) but yeah the right just dominates it. We need to do better. We need compelling content that non-leftists want to watch. I am not sure what that looks like yet.
I saw you riding on the greenway not long ago!
Do you have any thoughts on 9/11 conspiracy theories, particularly Building 7 and the towers collapsing in general? I am super unsure myself and hear conflicting opinions from lefty media figures.
I am with Chomsky on this. Not sure what the alternate theory of what happened is supposed to be. Especially because the mainstream theory (Bush as incompetent) is so much more plausible to me than the theory that Bush would deliberately engineer the mass murder of a bunch of people in the financial sector and perpetrate the greatest crime in American history. It doesn't fit with what I understand about the motivations of people like Bush.
I am also called Nathan J. Robinson ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathan_J._Robinson_(biologist)) ) and I was planning on doing my own IAMA next week. When I read the first sentence of your post, I honestly thought I had jumped one week into the future...
Time-travel aside, I did want to ask you about how you think the coronavirus crisis will effect wealth inequality worldwide?
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