The conversations that challenged me the most and got me thinking about a difficult problem or provocative idea.
My job at Vox is to talk to interesting people. And in 2021, I got to talk to a lot of really interesting people.
Nine conversations in particular stick out to me. They were the ones that challenged me the most, got me thinking in a new way about a difficult problem, or just explained what the hell was happening in yet another disorienting year.
There’s no unifying thread tying all these conversations together, but each of them, in its own way, left a strong impression on me. One of my favorites was with Elizabeth Bruenig, who talked about why it’s so damn hard to forgive and why so many us struggle to do it even though we know we should.
My interview with Andreas Malm about the existential stakes of the climate fight and the limits of peaceful resistance forced a collision with some very difficult questions that, even today, I can’t really answer. I also enjoyed my interview with Spencer Ackerman about how the war on terror eroded the institutional armor of American democracy and left the country defenseless against its own pathologies.
Conversations like the one with Heather McGhee offered a productive way to think about the politics of race and class and how we might overcome the barriers to a truly multi-ethnic liberal democracy.
Whether you’re interested in the environment or politics or the incredibly weird history of moral panics in the US, there’s something in these exchanges for you. So without further ado, here are the nine most interesting conversations I had this year.
“I do think that the past experiences of social struggles suggests that if you’re fighting a very powerful enemy, you need to engage in tactics that can impose costs on that enemy. This usually includes forms of property destruction and confrontation with the ruling order that goes beyond absolutely peaceful civil disobedience. I don’t know of any relevant analogy or a parallel struggle in the past that has succeeded without an element of more militant methods.” —Andreas Malm
“We were founded partly by people who thought that Satan and demons were part of everyday life and were constantly trying to tempt them. And that character has just been with us since the Puritans came. So it seems as if Satan is maybe part of our national DNA in a way that, as we entered into the latter half of the 20th century, the time of science, the time of the Space Race, this was also the time when evangelicals came into the White House, when Reagan let them in through the back door. And this was the time when we started to see real power, real money, and evangelical voting blocs. And that coming as a response to this era of science and progress and technological innovation seems relevant.” —Sarah Marshall
“The Afghanistan war didn’t rebuild Afghanistan. The Afghanistan war rebuilt Northern Virginia. The Afghanistan war, like the war on terror beyond it, enriched a very small and exceedingly politically powerful private interest, which is the defense industry. The defense industry functions as what I think you could say is the American variant of state capitalism. This is an enterprise that operates as a tremendous force, not just for inertia in the American empire, but its growth. Obviously, we paid for the war on credit. … What would you rather have spent that on?” —Spencer Ackerman
“We’re also in this resurgence of organizing and we have to double down. Ordinary people have experienced a rebirth of civic life. Whether they’re doing it for their own survival, or because they’re making minimum wage, or because their moral sense of self has been violated by America’s inequalities, people have decided that a part of being an American and a human being right now is to organize. And that is the space that has always changed lives and changed history. And we are in that space right now. And that’s what’s exciting and hopeful to me. It’s why I say in the book that there are solidarity dividends to be had, but only through cross-racial organizing.” —Heather McGhee
“Democracy forces us to allow anyone to seek power. So it allows into the space of politics people who seek only personal power. And then freedom of speech allows them to do whatever they want. Plato warns us that democracy will lead immediately to tyranny. Someone who should never be in politics in the first place will come in with an appetite for power, spread fear of foreigners or internal enemies, represent himself as the only protector, and then seize power and never give it up. I think of fascism as the modern version of the demagogue Plato warned us about so long ago.” —Jason Stanley
“We won the White House against a world-historical buffoon. And we came within 42,000 votes of losing. We lost congressional seats. We didn’t pick up state legislatures. So let’s not have an argument about whether or not we’re off-key in our messaging. We are. And we’re off because there’s too much jargon and there’s too much esoterica and it turns people off.” —James Carville
“I guess what I’m saying is that certain folks never had the luxury of being comfortable. So now we’re at a place where we’re trying to figure out how to be more intentional in acknowledging our history and its consequences, and that means that discomfort is going to have to be shared in a way it hasn’t been up to this point. And if we’re going to talk about how to unify the country, the onus can’t just be on the people who are the descendants of enslaved Black people and displaced Native communities, whose forced labor and stolen land were the primary factors of production in building this country. This is something we all have to encounter, and it’s going to be discomforting for everyone.” —Jarvis R. Givens
“Most people go into policing out of public spirit and idealistic reasons. A lot of them get that beaten out of them. But the people within policing who care about changing it do tend to have a much clearer sense of what will work, what will not work, why things are the way they are, and if you want to change something you have to understand it. … The more we just vilify cops, we are driving away some of the very people who could and should be some of the most effective advocates for change. The project of transforming policing should involve building bridges to the many, many people within policing who also feel like the system is broken and needs change. We need more of these conversations and we need them as soon as possible.” —Rosa Brooks
“I think there are things a person can do to another person that make the likelihood that they will ever be forgiven zero percent. But in my view, a person cannot actually eliminate the value of their own life, no matter what they do. It’ll always be the right thing to do to allow that person to live. I understand, though, the feeling of not being able to forgive. There are some things that just exceed the moral capacities of even the most morally heroic person. But I think we should always keep in mind that those are very, very rare instances.” —Elizabeth Bruenig