This conversation was conducted over Zoom on Sunday July 26, 2020. The transcript has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
PHT: The About page on the Current Affairs website states the publication’s “two missions: to produce the world’s first readable political publication and to make life joyful again.” Your magazine is notable for its beautiful full color print editions and a generous dose of zaniness, with fake ads and funny amusements like “Build Your Own All-Purpose Bidenism,” and fake interviews with a marine biologist who happens to share your name. I’d love to hear a bit about the thinking behind this very intentional (and wonderful) editorial choice: what pushed you to conceive of a magazine in such a way, and how does that broader attitude influence the work you publish and the approach you take with the publication?
NJR: So I got the idea for the magazine in September 2015, and the context of my life at that point is that I was in grad school and very disillusioned, because in grad school you’re producing work—academic work—that almost nobody is going to read. So I was doing three things at one time. I was doing academic work, where I was like, this is just gonna go into journals and nobody’s gonna read it. I was doing freelance political commentary, getting things in places like Salon and The New Republic and Washington Post and stuff, and I was doing these weird political children’s books, because I have a kind of zany side that was not being fulfilled. I was drawing them myself and designing them all myself, and they’re very colorful and very odd and very niche, they’re not necessarily bestsellers.
So with those three sides of myself, I kind of wanted some way to incorporate all of them, because the political writing felt like I was doing stuff that was very short and not very substantive—like hot takes. The children’s books were too weird, and the scholarly writing was too academic. So I don’t remember when exactly the idea of a magazine came to me, I do remember thinking “well, Jacobin [a leftist political publication started by Bhaskar Sunkara in 2011] is very, very good, and how did they manage to start from scratch?” What’s really impressive about them is they started five years before we did, but they really started with nothing and built up a successful print edition, and people said you couldn’t do print, because it’s a post-print era or whatever, and they had proved that that’s not true. They did and it worked!
I do remember there was one day where I was really inspired, and I had a blog, and I wondered whether I could do a print version. I went down to the newsstand at Harvard Square and got a big stack of magazines and sat looking through them to try and figure out how you would make a magazine, as I had no background in magazines. I had been teaching myself a little bit of graphic design doing the children’s books, and I thought to myself, these aren’t actually very complicated. I was looking through TIME Magazine, and they have like fifty staff, and I figured “I could actually make this pretty easily.” I thought, I have enough ideas for things that could go in a magazine and have a feeling that there’s a hole—Jacobin I liked but they’re quite serious—it was kind of intangible at that point, but I felt like I had a blurry vision of a possible magazine.
So I took a whole month and sat down at my computer and basically didn’t do anything all month but make a prototype magazine. It was eighty pages long, I had it printed, and it looked pretty good! It looked good enough to where I thought, actually, we could do this, and people liked it enough where it seemed like it could be successful. So we did a Kickstarter campaign, we got $16,000, and we had enough subscribers to keep going, and then it just kept growing and growing.
You mentioned the two visions: the “first readable publication,” obviously that’s rather mean, but I did feel like there was something I wanted to do that was not being done, which was to have the combination of sophisticated ideas with accessibility. At the New Republic at the time, it had just been taken over by this Silicon Valley guy, Chris Hughes, and the editor was chopping down the pieces I was writing to five hundred words, because he was like, people won’t read anything over five hundred words, because people are dumb and all they want are the takes. And I didn’t like that, but I also felt like more substantive stuff was always more written in a way where you clearly had to have been to college to get all the references. So I thought, well, I’d like to do something that’s deep but that’s also very, very readable, that’s funny and that I can show to my mom and she won’t go, “well I don’t know what the hell you’re doing,” which a lot of lefty—no disrespect to different lefty publications, we all do different things—but a lot of lefty publications speak to [only] leftists, and I didn’t want to do that.
So that’s a big thing that I’ve done, you can see it, like when I write ten thousand words about Jordan Peterson, right, that’s a ten thousand word article just taking apart the arguments of some guy, but it gets really popular and a lot of people read it because it’s fun, because we take something that could be very tedious and make it enjoyable to read. So our longest articles are actually our most popular articles.
PHT: As someone who has written his own article about Jordan Peterson, I had to do a lot of research and reading about him, and I want to apologize.
NJR: Yeah, painful, painful stuff. Did you read Maps of Meaning?
PHT: No, I didn’t go so far as to delve into any of his books, just his lectures. I wasn’t really interested in reading his “pseudo-philosophy” or anything, I was just trying to engage with his social arguments.
NJR: Oh, that’s the real crazy one, [Maps of Meaning]. It’s one of the nuttiest books I’ve ever read in my life.
So the other thing with “making life joyful again,” I wanted a Mad Magazine feel, because the fact is, left politics is painful to read about. That’s not avoidable, because left politics deals with really painful, horrible issues that people don’t want to think about, right? Like the conditions in immigration detainment centers, and what’s gonna happen to millions of people as climate change gets worse. You’re asking people whose lives are really hard to spend time thinking about things that will depress them and about things they often can’t do anything about. I think if you’re going to do that, you need to provide some relief, and that’s an important way of drawing people in. So our magazine alternates between those things, the games, the fake ads, the quizzes, because I think that part of our task as the Left is to make people’s lives better, and not depress them further than they need [to be depressed]. So I want a magazine that will make people happy, that they’re excited to get in the mail, I think that’s really important. Our magazine is very committed to being fun to read.
PHT: One of my favorite things like that I’ve seen [in print in Current Affairs] is that March Gladness bracket, meant to look like a March Madness.
NJR: Oh yeah! That was a fun one, with all the lovely things competing against each other. Yeah, we like to take a lot of different formats and parody them, like a fake bracket, a fake dictionary, right now I’m doing a fake textbook in this upcoming one [issue of Current Affairs]. A fun thing about being the designer, because I do all the graphic design—or almost all because we do contract a few things out—is that you have to figure out how corporate advertising works and then you have to replicate it.
PHT: I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on the space of a publication within the political landscape and its role in pushing for a kind of anarcho-socialist political agenda, as well as your thoughts about Current Affairs as a form of organizing or as more of a supplement to it.
NJR: Yeah, well it’s clearly not organizing—organizing builds organizations, gets people together who are not together, gets people together to do a particular thing, that’s very much not what we do. We’re very much a megaphone broadcasting into the void. We serve a valuable function, I think, because what we do is we’re taking the arguments for a particular political position and we are trying to convince people and we are trying to make people think. We have a few different functions, not everything we do is about trying to persuade people to believe in left politics, because some of it is just about making people laugh. But the political function of our magazine is mainly to take people who mainly already share left politics and help them better understand why they believe what they believe and help them successfully engage with people who don’t share their politics so they don’t run into someone with a different opinion and hear an argument they’ve never heard before and have no idea how to respond. And then for people who don’t share our politics who read the magazine—of which there are some—to present why you should think a different way about a thing. That’s often how people are drawn in, and yeah, we try and change minds as well. My hope is that we’ll make more people in the country and in the world share the set of political beliefs and have the information necessary to go out and do things that improve the world. But we are not that [ourselves]. We are prior to organizing, and we are separate from it. We can write articles about what people have done successfully and what has failed, but it is kind of separate from our function. I’m going to be eating this burrito now by the way (holding up burrito).
PHT: Oh, please do. Something you and Current Affairs often talk about is representation of different marginalized people and viewpoints. Your colleague Briahna Joy Gray has an article in Current Affairs called “How Identity Became a Weapon Against the Left,” where she talks about different notions of identity politics that she views as helpful and unhelpful to the Left. She’s also a black woman who’s recently been criticized for her own criticisms of Joe Biden and other moderate Democrats—
NJR: Yeah, she’s been told she’ll never get another job in politics again.
PHT: —and she supports a candidate who’s supposed to be like “the young white guys’ candidate” [Gray served as the Press Secretary for the Bernie Sanders 2020 Presidential Campaign]. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the different kinds of voices that are amplified or underrepresented on the Left, as it seems that Leftists of color are often obscured by people and politicians of color with more moderate viewpoints. One ready example that comes to mind is that of President Barack Obama, whom [public intellectual and Princeton Emeritus Professor] Cornel West has frequently criticized for his moderate stances, capitulation to Wall Street, and the ensuing consequences for black communities. It strikes me as perhaps not ideal that often a lot of the most prominent voices on the Left are often white men.
NJR: Yeah, I think that’s right. I believe that Briahna’s article basically starts by saying that identity politics is a good thing because identity is important, because race and gender matter. She drew an important distinction in saying that the problem here is not people denouncing racism and sexism, which is very necessary, the problem is also not people calling for diversity and representation, because those things are also very important actually. So if Congress is all white men, that’s a problem—that’s a stratified society in which one race and one gender holds the power. So representation and diversity matter, but she says they are also what we’ll call
“necessary but not sufficient.” You can diversify without having your politics be significantly better, and in fact they could almost be worse if the institution is using that diversity cynically to justify itself. For example, there’s an article we had a couple years ago by Yasmin Nair and Eli Massey that’s called “Inclusion in the Atrocious,” which is about how the U.S. military, especially during the Obama era, which was bragging about how just and fair it was to LGBT people and people of color. It’s used to suggest—and the IDF [Israeli Defense Force] does this in Israel, too—that this is a just institution, when the problem is actually not internal representation (though it is now that Trump has excluded trans people from the military), but [the problem is] how that institution interacts with external groups and the harm that it perpetrates.
It’s difficult because, for example, having a black president was a triumph, the election of Obama was a really important breaking down of barriers. But at the same time, what Cornel West pointed out, was because Obama was a black man, in some ways it seemed like if Obama was doing something, it was approving it on behalf of the black community, and I think that’s what Cornel West objected to.
I try to be nuanced here. For example, [recently deceased leftist podcaster] Michael Brooks, he was different from the Intellectual Dark Web people, the people who are always complaining about identity politics and social justice or whatever—he actually wrote a whole book about them. And Michael’s perspective was, he was very critical of those same tendencies that Briahna pointed out, which was seeing representation as insufficient when divorced from the question of what those actual substantive policies were. But he also understood that this is a racist country, and he understood American imperialism very well. He was a very effective spokesman on behalf of the Global South. A lot of Michael’s coverage is about Bolivia and India and Africa, places that the U.S. media does not consider important enough to treat as being comprised of human beings.
PHT: And when they do talk about Bolivia, when they do deign to cover it, it’s not even good coverage!
NJR: Yeah, well, it’s just “democracy was restored.”
PHT: Yeah. By the police.
NJR: Yeah, well, whatever we do, that’s democracy, that’s the principle [dictated by the parameters of the United States’ corporate media]. I did a book called The Current Affairs Rules for Life which is critiquing those who whine constantly about identity politics—people like [Jordan] Peterson, people like [Sam] Harris, Steven Pinker, Ben Shapiro, all of whom I’ve dived into, and I think a lot of the time they actually do not understand the need for antiracist politics. There’s a lot of like, well why are we talking about race and gender? And it matters to me that, if you look at the Democratic Socialists of America, it’s overwhelmingly—well, I don’t know if it’s “overwhelmingly,” I don’t want to speak with too much authority on the national demographics—but here in New Orleans, the DSA in New Orleans is majority, or at least a plurality, white men. And New Orleans is not majority white men, New Orleans is a majority black city. The demographics of the DSA chapter and the demographics of the city are totally out of whack. So if you’re going to have an organization that speaks to the needs of the working class, it has to reflect the demographics of the working class. So it’s a serious question.
Now, to give everyone in the DSA credit, they don’t deny this, they understand this, it’s actually a big part of what they’re doing and working on. I’m not saying at all that they’re blind to this or that they ignore this, they treat it very seriously, because it is serious! If the Left is going to present itself as existing on behalf of the marginalized, we can’t be speaking for people, we have to be creating places where these people can speak for themselves. I do think it’s a problem in media; it’s no coincidence that I am a white man from Harvard running Current Affairs, because that gives me the illusion of credibility (laughs) where people are willing to give money because I seem like the sort of person who knows what I’m talking about, because of prejudice. So we have to be very deliberate in trying to create more diversity within the magazine.
One of the main things that I’ve noticed [as an editor] is racial and gender dynamics and how they emerge. For example, with our pitches, overwhelmingly, our pitches are from white guys. I mean, you can’t tell someone’s race from their name, or their gender really, but, I mean, it’s white guys. It’s white guys! So that means that if I took the ten percent of the best pitches that we get, the magazine would just be mostly white guys, not because the best ten percent are always white but because the top ten percent of an overwhelmingly white group are still overwhelmingly white. And everyone’s pitches are the same quality, regardless of their race and gender; it’s just the fact that white guys pitch more, it’s the fact that they just deluge us. And I’ve noticed that women and especially women of color—and again, this is a generalization and generalizations are not true for all—but I have often encountered situations where women and women of color are less confident in their writing. You get given more confidence as a white guy generally—I have boundless confidence! I’ve been told all my life that I’m an intelligent person.
I’ll tell you, I was talking with this woman, she was a PhD mathematician, and she was telling me interesting things about the politics in the field of mathematics and I was like, “you should write about that.” And she was going, “Writing? What? I’m not a writer,” whereas if you said that kind of stuff to a guy—again this is just a percentage chance—they’d say, “Oh I’d love to write for Current Affairs, I’ll send it in, here I’ve already written it, it’s nine thousand words.” But women’s submissions often come with a note of apology, saying “I’m sorry for wasting your time with this.” These things are important, and they matter, and I get so annoyed and frustrated with people who don’t think so, but at the same time, Briahna is right, you can’t just change who you’re putting on the board of directors, you can’t just elevate a few people.
There’s this wonderful interview we just published on the website yesterday with [Assistant Professor & Charles H. Mcilwain University Preceptor Department of African American Studies at Princeton] Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who’s awesome, and I don’t know if you’ve read her review of Michelle Obama’s book [Becoming]. Her review is really good in that it points out how Michelle Obama believes more in getting to the top rather than why is there a top and a bottom.
PHT: How’s the burrito?
NJR: You know, it’s okay. With the food I make… I don’t usually really care about food.
PHT: That’s an interesting segue, because you mentioned in one of your pieces your advice for writing “Leave personal hygiene, romantic relations, making tasty food, “hobbies” and other unnecessary indulgences aside and just type type type.” Or your beautiful piece “The Collecting of Books,” you write “I place a stack of [books] next to a big comfy chair and I dive into them and do not surface except to take meals, which I try to keep as brief and utilitarian as possible.” You are both an extraordinarily talented writer as well as an extraordinarily prolific one. Have you always been keen on writing, or is that something you came to later?
NJR: That’s funny, because I’m never as prolific as I want to be, I have tons of stuff I haven’t written, and I never get enough writing done every day. The funny thing is that I never really wanted to be a writer, it was never really something I contemplated as a career, but looking back on it, I have always written—little stories in elementary and middle school, in high school I was on the school newspaper, in college too, and I always blogged. It turns out I wrote a lot, but I always wanted to be a lawyer, so it never really crossed my mind to be a writer, I feel like I kind of fell into it, because it turned out I didn’t want to be a lawyer, and when I went to grad school it turned out I didn’t really want to be an academic, so I just sort of fell into it.
PHT: Would you say you enjoy being a writer now?
NJR: I do not enjoy writing.
NJR: I find writing very painful; I just want it to be done. Dorothy Parker said, “I hate writing, I love having written” and I feel that way. I very much enjoy the feeling of looking at a page and realizing that I’m done with writing for the day. The actual process of writing is very painful, you’re going through and saying, “Is this the correct word?” and everything sounds better in your head, when it comes out you say, “I’m so inarticulate, I’m so stupid, this is awful.”
PHT: I can relate to all these feelings.
NJR: Yeah, and the better a writer you are, the more critical you are of your own writing. The best writers I’ve met have been people who are very humble about their writing and never feel that it’s very good. They’re always working to try and make it better and that’s why they’re good at what they do. And I actually do think I’m a good writer, but in order to be a good writer, it’s just such a torment. I do think a lot of writing, a lot of being good at writing, is just being willing to spend enough time just going over it over and over and over until it’s satisfactory. It’s just, are you willing to suffer enough?
PHT: So take me a little bit through your process from idea to a finished piece that’s in Current Affairs.
NJR: Sure, so I have a very kind of haphazard process. I have a document where I have hundreds of ideas for articles, because I have so many more ideas for articles than I’m ever going to write. I also have lots of ideas for lots of books to do, so I can go into that, any time I need to do a piece of writing, I look for something on the list that feels like it could come together into a piece of writing. Usually what happens is, on a given topic, at a certain point I’ll have four or five ideas or points on that topic that will come to me, or I will read a newspaper article that gives additional insights into that topic, where I’ll think “Oh, that’s enough to actually make an article.” So now it’s gone from a topic I would like to write about to something that I have enough to say about where I feel like I can flesh it out into an article.
What I do when I’m writing an article is that I have a very messy process where I just throw into a document every thought I have about a thing. Some of them will be completed sentences or paragraphs, some of them will just be random links or quotes. Some of it will just be a word that I’ll just forget why I put that there. Anyone who’s co-written with me—and I love co-writing with people, it’s one of my favorite things—anyone who’s co-written with me can attest that I just make the biggest mess into a Google Doc that you could possibly make. Then I sort of organize the mess, though I don’t do subject headings or “part one and part two” generally, but I just keep moving things around until all the scraps I have are in the order that I want the ultimate article to go in, then I go through and add the meat to the skeleton and turn it into an actual piece of writing by weaving the scraps together.
PHT: Then do you send it to people, do you get second thoughts or whatever, or do you go through lots of revisions?
NJR: I really don’t care what other people think. It’s funny, because I just published my first book with a real publisher last year [Why You Should Be a Socialist with Macmillan Publishing], and I noticed after I published it that in the Acknowledgments section of other books people would always be like, “Thank you to these twenty people for giving me comments on the draft,” and I didn’t get anybody’s comments on the draft! They might disagree with me on what should go in the book, but they can write their own book (laughs). When it’s done, and I go through it over and over to make every word perfect and move stuff around, but once it’s done through my process, I feel like I don’t want to do anything else to it, I don’t want to touch it.
We’ve started in the past few months with having my pieces go to one of our other editors who give it a second look, because otherwise there are some typos and there are some sentences that I have forgotten to end or there are some points that don’t make sense. I get now a limited amount of feedback, where someone just goes through and does a light edit, and sometimes they’ll say, you should add an example here or a link here, but I beg them never to request real rewrites. And the other thing is, I [actually] don’t mind being edited if I don’t have to do anything. If someone wants to go through one of my articles and rewrite it themselves and chop bits out and move stuff around, I don’t care. I don’t have any loyalty to my writing. The reason I don’t like being edited is because once I’m done with a piece, I want it over, I want it out the door, because I want to be on to the next thing, because I have two hundred articles to write. I don’t want to be bogged down with some piece in five rounds of back and forth with someone. When it’s done, it’s done and it should be printed, and I try not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I would rather have an article on the website than have a better article that’s not going to be on the website for weeks.
PHT: Can you give the readers of the Nassau Weekly a sneak peek of the writing you’re doing right now?
NJR: Let me open my computer. For the next print edition [of Current Affairs], I’m co-writing an article with the philosopher Ben Burgis where we’re reviewing Glenn Beck’s new book on socialism. His book is structured like a textbook, so this review is structured like a textbook, which is going to be fun. Also for the next print edition I have to write an article about Karl Marx, which is really not making progress right now, because I have to read a ton of Karl Marx, which is going very slowly.
PHT: Do you have a favorite piece of writing you’ve done, or a writing accomplishment you’re very proud of or happy with?
NJR: No, actually, (laughs), and I’ll tell you why, too, because I feel a lot like I’m not yet doing the writing I’m going to be proud of. What I mean by that is—someone once asked [famed linguist and renowned political dissident Noam] Chomsky whether he enjoys his political writing, and he said something like, “Of course not. I would like to be doing linguistics. You have to do political writing because it’s important.” I don’t want to be a political writer ultimately. The more political my writing is, the less [enjoyable it is], and George Orwell had a thing about [Homage to] Catalonia, he said that the book was compromised because he had to make political points instead of just making a beautiful memoir. And I have felt a lot like I try and argue things that I think are important, but as pieces of writing, they are not that satisfying to me.
Everyone’s favorite piece from last year, our most popular piece, was the Pete Buttigieg piece. Well, I don’t want my writing legacy to have been “being to mean to Pete Buttigieg’s terrible book for nine thousand words.” I think it was a good piece of writing, but it’s not something I necessarily take personal pride in. It’s something I felt was necessary, and I felt the memoir really exposed some of the shallowness of his worldview. The election commentary I don’t really like doing because it doesn’t last, it’s stuff that really doesn’t have much staying power, it really dates badly.
This is why I do my fun books, like one I’m working on called What to Do in Every Conceivable Situation. This is my fourth “stupid book”—and that’s separate from the children’s books. The first one was called Blueprints for a Sparkling Tomorrow—
PHT: Yeah, I was looking at that one online the other day, it looked interesting, very fun to read.
NJR: It’s weird, right? It’s very fun though, it’s basically a parody of academic theory. At the time we were fascinated by Buckminster Fuller and Slavoj Zizek, and it was kind of a parody of them. My second one was a diary of dreams, which was just me writing down my dreams, which were all very strange and I kind of worked them into little short stories. That’s a fun one, but it’s very, very odd. And there’s one called My Affairs, and that one was great, it’s written by my eighty-seven-year-old self, it’s looking back at my fifty years in the magazine industry. I don’t know if I should be proud of it, but that’s the writing I have the most fun doing, that’s the writing I actually like doing. If there weren’t so many pressing issues in the world, that’s probably what I would be doing.
PHT: You have a Bachelor’s and Master’s from Brandeis, a J.D. from Yale, and you’re working on, or were working on, your PhD at Harvard?
NJR: Yeah, I’m in the PhD program, but I haven’t done my dissertation. For some reason my dissertation is the one thing I can’t write. I can write you a fake memoir, I can write you news stories, I can write you anything you want, but I cannot write my dissertation. I would like to, the question is just whether I’m ever going to be able to do this dissertation.
PHT: Talk to me about being at these kinds of elite institutions, how being at these schools has influenced your politics, your career, your writing, your life, all that stuff. Maybe we could commiserate a little about the Ivy Leagues.
NJR: So they’re very alien worlds to me. Neither of my parents has a college degree, so I was the first in my family to go to college. I didn’t really know anything about the U.S. college system, so my only criterion for where I wanted to go was somewhere that wasn’t in Florida, I was in Florida and I wanted to get out. Brandeis offered me some money, and they weren’t in Florida, so Brandeis it was. When I went to law school, you just apply to all the law schools, and you go to the best ranked one that lets you in. I got rejected from several places, but Yale decided that I was worth taking a chance on.
I didn’t like it. I had a nice time in law school, but I did not like the institution at all. I found it kind of horrifying, because Yale is the middle of New Haven, in this kind of working class city there’s just this fortress of privilege in the middle. I found that a lot of the assumptions in legal education were bizarre and discomforting. There was one argument in law school on whether polluters should pay people for their pollution or whether people should pay the polluters to stop polluting, and how maybe the people should actually be the ones paying the polluters. And I just thought, what moral universe are we in where this is the conversation we’re having?
So law school was kind of disturbing in some ways and furthered radicalized me. One summer I worked at the public defender’s office in New Orleans, I worked at the ACLU’s National Prison Project the next summer, but I also didn’t want to be a lawyer. I wanted to stay in school a bit longer until I figured out what I could do. I applied to some Sociology programs, and Harvard offered some money, so that was a good way to stay insulated from the economy for a few more years and buy myself some time before I figured out what I wanted to do with my life.
Yeah, these places make me uncomfortable, and I ultimately think they should be destroyed. I think they should be turned into public universities; I don’t see why you wouldn’t. There is an argument to be made that you should have nothing to do with them. I don’t know about that. I tended to feel that, well, if they’re offering me money, and they’re going to give me credentials, because these places give you this kind of card that you can use, this kind of credibility card that you can get into places with. I thought, if I use the credibility card well, and ultimately I use it against this hierarchy of privilege that I don’t really believe in, and I don’t use it to enrich myself, then maybe it’s justified? I don’t know. There’s a selfish component where you can’t help but internalize the prestige, because I know when I was applying to law school, I was like, “Ooh, if I go to Yale then I’ll be a Yale lawyer.” Then I met people in law school and realized that many people do not know anything. They knew how to take the LSAT, yeah, but about the world, it’s striking how narrow your education can be to succeed in life.
Grad school, the Sociology department was quite different. I think I liked it more because people there seemed generally curious about things, and sociology is a discipline that seems deeply concerned with social injustice. I have some very complicated thoughts, and I haven’t exactly worked them out. I know I don’t want to go back to these places, but I don’t know if I deeply regret going there. You meet some great people there too. Sparky Abraham, our Financial Editor, was my roommate in law school and he’s one of the best people I know. You find the people who are a bit cynical about it, who are the outcasts in those institutions, and those people are usually good.
PHT: Talk to me a little bit about your own process of coming to your politics. You write a little bit about this in the book Why You Should Be a Socialist, but how much of your process of radicalization was intellectual in terms of your reading Marx or Bakunin or Malcolm X or whomever, and then how much of it was just experiential, what you were seeing and what you were living?
NJR: I don’t have a very good memory of my own life, so when I talk about this I always wonder whether I’m representing it accurately, because it’s hard for me to actually remember how this happened, but a few things stand out to me. I remember in high school being very disturbed by the segregation of my town, in Florida. I remember finding it very, very odd and discomforting that there were hardly any black students in my high school but the population of the county was quite diverse. I went to a gifted high school that was supposed to take the best students in the county, and it was almost all white, and I just remember finding this really upsetting. I worked in the juvenile justice system, and I volunteered with the teen court, and the racial dynamics of the city were on display there, where young black kids were being arrested for things that they would have never been arrested for in other schools. I had a dear friend who introduced me to political radicalism, who gave me some Chomsky. He was the head of the Progressive Club in high school, and I sort of went on and became a part of that, I was in the debate club, and I was writing op-eds for the school newspaper. All of this made me relatively political, but I was still kind of just a progressive Democrat, volunteering at the ACLU.
College was where I was first introduced to sort of left-political writing through a couple of courses at Brandeis. The class I remember most was one called “Marxism vs. Anarchism,” and I didn’t know anything about either Marxism or anarchism, so it was fascinating to me because there was this intellectual conflict between two groups that I didn’t know existed and I was just fascinated by the kind of things they were arguing about, like whether power should be centralized or decentralized, organization vs. spontaneity, the role of the state and authority and coercion. I remember getting very interested in these kinds of Marxist and anarchist writers. But I still had very quirky politics. My senior thesis was about architecture, and it was called “Architectural Democracy” and it was about disagreements over the role of the architect vs the role of the people who actually use the buildings and over political debates over centralization vs. decentralization are mirrored in the architectural profession. Very odd.
So, yeah, pretty slow radicalization process, I’m not sure at what point I might have started calling myself a leftist. Also, not sure at what point I would have started calling myself a socialist. I look back at my writing in 2007, and I think I probably followed the trajectory that a lot of people in my generation did. In 2006 and 2007, our politics were defined by hating Bush and Fox News, then we were excited by Obama, then we were disillusioned by Obama, then Occupy Wall Street happened, and we got into that for a while. Then Bernie Sanders came along, and we all got excited and started calling ourselves democratic socialists. Then Trump got elected and the whole world went to hell. So yeah, it’s been a generational process.
PHT: It’s been interesting to me how generational it’s been. One of the things I actually get the most hope about is that I feel like most people, at least that are around me and my age, are generally on the same page politically, even if they wouldn’t necessarily say “I’m a socialist” or “I’m a leftist.”
NJR: Yeah, that is a nice thing, because we just have to wait for all the Boomers to die and then politics will become a little more sane.
PHT: A couple months ago you got weirdly “canceled” on Twitter for apparently hating Marx, though it’s pretty clear from my reading of your book that you don’t hate Marx at all. Do you find Marxism incompatible with reading someone like Bakunin or Chomsky [two thinkers of the libertarian socialist tradition]?
NJR: Well, I just don’t think you should be an -ist about anything. I don’t understand why anyone would define their entire politics by the name of any one fallible human being with some very important insights and some blind spots. Why you would define yourself by one person’s thought, that just seems so limited to me. Obviously, my analysis of how the world works overlaps in many ways with Karl Marx’s analysis of how the world works.
The clip that got me all the shit from all the Marxists was a comedy episode, a pet peeves episode [of the Current Affairs Podcast], where we all talked about our pet peeves. Oren [Nimni, Legal Editor of Current Affairs] talked about how this one brand of gummy bears is the worst thing on Earth, and how much he despises it. Now, he doesn’t despise the gummy bears quite as much as he said, and I don’t feel quite as negative about Karl Marx as I had said, but the clip started circulating—”ah, Nathan Robinson, reactionary idiot.”
I don’t mind pissing off the Marxists, though. If people got upset for me saying something racist or transphobic or something like that, then that would be serious. But if it’s the Peterson lobsters or Marxists or the Slavoj Zizek fans, I think it’s funny when they’re angry, because they are just like the fans of a loud guy philosopher. You can make fun of a nineteenth century intellectual like Marx, and it’s okay. It’s not like a cause worth fighting for, the right to not have a nineteenth century philosopher get made fun of.
PHT: Gotcha. And I hope I didn’t come off as sounding aggressive right there, trying to challenge your Marxism or lack thereof.
NJR: No, it didn’t come off that way. I know aggressive, you should see my email inbox.
PHT: What gives you hope about the leftist cause right now compared to, say, five years ago?
NJR: Well compared to five years ago, we’re much more organized. You look at Occupy Wall Street [a movement in New York City organized in 2011 against the perceived greed of American banking institutions], people were just camping out in the park. Now we have a political agenda, there are left policies that people want, there are things to be done. There are organizations, there are elected officials at every level: in state houses, on city councils, in Congress. We’re just in such a better place objectively. People know about the Left—I mean, I would have never gotten a book contract with a major publisher for a book with the word “socialism” in the title five years ago, that would have been so fringe. But the public opinion polls suggest that people from our generation are very open to socialist politics, and not only are they very open to it but they’re working on it, they’re doing things.
From the perspective of building a powerful left, Bernie Sanders lost twice, and of course the spin on this is, “Ah, well that proves that socialism is not winning.” Well, hang on a minute, when was the last time a socialist candidate nearly won the Democratic nomination? Never, absolutely never! The fact that twice in a row now, the socialist candidate has been the runner up is a huge change from where we were. There were just more socialist victories in New York too [referring to a slate of candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America for local New York office]. We don’t win all the time, we lose constantly, but in terms of the overall trajectory, it’s looking great. The trajectory is fantastic.
I am hugely concerned that if Donald Trump gets re-elected it’ll be the end of democracy because he will escalate the presence of federal troops marching in the streets. We’re not in a good position, we’re never in a good position, but it’s hopeful.
PHT: Aside from your writing, you are perhaps most celebrated for your fashion sense, your proclivity for multilayered suits and zany costumes. Where does such a marvelous instinct come from? Do you own any t-shirts?
NJR: I own some t-shirts, I was wearing one today, I have to wear t-shirts when I go to the gym. So I’m forced occasionally to wear a t-shirt, but I would never wear a t-shirt when I don’t have to wear a t-shirt.
PHT: Is it a conscious effort to be fancy, or do you just like to wear suits and the like?
NJR: I don’t know. The psychology of my fashion choice is a mystery even to me. I like loud jackets and ties and wearing waistcoats and all kinds of things, but could I tell you why? Some of it is clearly because I like the credibility you get when you put on a tie.
When I am dressed most like the way I want to be dressed, the feeling that inspires it or the kind of theme to it is kind of a parody of gentlemanliness. I am not a traditional dandy because those people—people who actually like clothes—hate the way I dress. I wear things that clash, I’ll button my bottom button, I’ll violate all the rules they have. You’re not supposed to match your tie and pocket square, I’ll match my tie and pocket square, I don’t care. It’s a little bit the way that Charlie Chaplin used to parody a gentleman by wearing clothes that didn’t quite fit, by wearing the bowler hat perched atop the head. I like that because it feels a little bit subversive. I remember in law school that I wore the loudest clothes I possibly could because it felt like it undermined the seriousness of the institution and it was kind of reflecting Yale back to itself in a funhouse mirror, which is what I wanted to do some of the time.
PHT: To wrap up I had several mini questions that I’d love to throw at you. First off, favorite book as a child?
NJR: When I was little little, my favorite books were Roald Dahl and a book called The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton, which is about a magic tree that has different worlds that appear at the top of the tree.
PHT: Favorite musical artist or song or genre?
NJR: I like Motown a lot, I like old soul music, mostly. I also like late sixties rock, and I like doo-wop. I mostly listen to the “oldies.” But probably the artist that I most respect and love is New Orleans’ own Mr. Louis Armstrong.
PHT: Favorite novel?
NJR: Realistically, my favorites novels are by P.G. Wodehouse, because that’s the stuff I read over and over, but that’s not elevated literature, it’s just silliness. But if I’m being honest, all my favorite novels are by him.
PHT: Favorite visual artist or painting?
NJR: I like Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, two surrealists whose style has inspired Current Affairs covers a lot. My favorite art you often see on the cover of the magazine.
PHT: Leftist or left-leaning thinker you find you have the most disagreements with?
NJR: Hard to say. I could say that the line of disagreement I tend to have is with leftists who are accepting of nationalism and not sufficiently interested in the internationalist project. I’ve clashed with people a lot over borders, because Current Affairs has done a lot of pro-open border stuff, and we did a pretty vicious article against an article called “The Left Case Against Open Borders.” The last big clash I had was with Matt Taibbi and Krystal Ball. Matt Taibbi did [an essay] about cancel culture [that I responded to], and Krystal Ball and I got in a big thing about right-wing populism. And that’s a shame because I really like Krystal Ball a lot, especially, but I wouldn’t call her the leftist I disagree with the most because I actually really like her work. But yeah there’s some disagreements.
PHT: Any guilty pleasures? Or maybe you’re sufficiently self-esteemed where you’re not guilty about any of your pleasures.
NJR: My guilty pleasures are the things you know about, the fact that I like clothes and books. I feel bad about how much money I spend on them—I don’t spend much money on clothes, actually, but I do spend a lot of money on books. My biggest guilty pleasure is probably pastries because I enjoy big sticky pastries, even though they’re indefensible.
PHT: Favorite part about living in New Orleans?
NJR: There’re so many nice things about living in New Orleans. Hearing music in the streets wherever you go really enriches your life. I’ll wake up, and there’ll be a trumpeter on the corner, and it’s not too loud, just background music. It just makes a huge difference to the atmosphere.
PHT: Holiday that isn’t a holiday but should be?
NJR: I think that everywhere needs to do something like Mardi Gras, a day that’s not Halloween, not grotesque, but a day where everyone just gets to wear crazy costumes is just such an incredible day to have.
PHT: And to wrap up, you write movingly in Why You Should Be A Socialist about fighting despair and hopelessness, suggesting that any time we’re feeling down, we should go visit our nearest aquarium. Considering we’re all generally in lock down right now, or at least we’re supposed to be, what kinds of things have you been doing to give yourself joy in this difficult situation?
NJR: Even when the aquariums are closed, the YouTube videos of octopi are up. Animal videos are a really excellent way just to make yourself feel extremely happy. I have been watching an unusually heavy quantity of cats having fun.