The motto of Dialogues with Richard Reeves is "thinking together in relationship". Illuminating conversations on big topics with deep thinkers.
Robert Tracy McKenzie on democracy for sinners
"The main reason we find it difficult to think critically about democracy is that it requires us to think critically about ourselves." That's the view of my guest today, Robert Tracy McKenzie, a historian at Wheaton College. In his recent book We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy , he argues that Americans - and American Christians in particular have forgotten what the framers always knew: that human beings are flawed, broken, inclined towards sin - in other words, fallen. He contrasts this view of fallen humanity with what he calls the "democratic gospel", based on the "comforting fiction that we are naturally good". In this conversation we discuss the development of the idea that "America is great because America is good" (which Tocqueville never actually said); argue about the extent to which democracy is intrinsically good, or mostly good as means to other ends; discuss the balance between two different Christian anthropologies, one positive one negative; the use and misuse of history by political partisans; and the need for religious people, in particular, to take history more seriously. He's an interesting thinker, a terrific writer and this was a fun conversation.
(Robert) Tracy McKenzie
McKenzie is a Professor of History at Wheaton College, where he holds the Arthur F. Holmes Chair of Faith and Learning. He blogs about Christian faith and American History at faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com
Yascha Mounk on race, democracy and liberal patriotism
Diverse democracies are new, wonderful, but potentially fragile: that's the claim, the promise and the warning from my guest today, Yascha Mounk. Yascha wears many hats. He is a Professor at Johns Hopkins, the Founder of Persuasion, a publication and community devoted to the maintenance of a liberal society, and host an excellent podcast, The Good Fight. Also a political scientist and historian with four books to his name, most recently The Great Experiment - Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure, which is the main topic of our conversation today.
We talk about the dangers of tribalism and majority domination in diverse democracies; the difference between a liberal society and a democratic society (and which is more important), the intrinsic "groupiness" of human beings and how that means liberals need to be in the business of drawing lines between groups (whether they like it or not), what the communitarian critics of liberalism get wrong, the wonderful messiness of liberal societies, Federalist 10, and the risks of an overemphasis on racial or ethnic identity, or "racecraft", which is an increasingly dominant trend on both the political right and the political left.
Yascha tweets from @Yascha_Mounk
Check out his work at his website here.
Buy his latest book, The Great Experiment here.
Born in Germany to Polish parents, Yascha received his BA in History from Trinity College Cambridge and his PhD in Government from Harvard University. He is an Associate Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, where he holds appointments in both the School of Advanced International Studies and the SNF Agora Institute. Yascha is also a Contributing Editor at The Atlantic, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Founder of Persuasion.
Frank Fukuyama on how to rescue liberalism
It's not news that liberalism is under pressure. And one of the most prominent liberals of our era is Francis Fukuyama. As he writes in his latest book, Liberalism and its Discontents, the virtues of liberalism need to be clearly articulated and celebrated once again." In this wide-ranging dialogue, Frank and I discuss how his thinking has evolved since his famous 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, including the central tension between the universalism of liberal morality and the fact of nation states, and between the pluralism of liberal politics and the central importance of thymos - respect, dignity, recognition. Along the way we talk about the perils of the university tenure system, the significance of the war in Ukraine, why Papua New Guinea is such a good place to study political order, the relationship between liberalism and laissez-faire capitalism (Spoiler: hugely overstated), and the content of a good life, or what it means, in Mill's word "to pursue our own good in our as seen through the eyes of a liberal.
Tweets from @FukuyamaFrancis
Liberalism and Its Discontents (2022)
The End of History and the Last Man (1992)
The Origins of Political Order (2011)
Political Order and Political Decay (2015)
See also my review of his latest book in the Literary Review here.
Francis Fukuyama is Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), and a faculty member of FSI's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL). He is also Director of Stanford's Ford Dorsey Master's in International Policy, and a professor (by courtesy) of Political Science.
Christianism by Leon Wiesetlier
Check out my dialogue with Joseph Henrich whose work we discussed, on Spotify here or Apple here.
Christine Emba on ethical sex
Something's wrong with our sex lives. That's according to Christine Emba. In her new book, Rethinking Sex: A Provocation she argues that too many people are having sex that is consenting, but not good. Sex that makes us feel used, or sad, or alienated in some way or another. She argues for an ethic of sex that is based on the Aristotelian definition of love as "willing the good of the other".
Christine and I talk quite a bit about the differences between men and women when it comes to sex, and the dangers of women being held up (or perhaps down), to masculine ideas of sex. We talk about how the restriction of the debate about sex to one of consent misses the mark in terms of what people are seeking; the so-called "sex recession" as fewer younger adult report having sex (and whether that is a good or a bad thing); we agree that good sex, defined ethically, is not constrained by a particular institutional arrangement - and so can take place on a one night stand; the "orgasm gap" between women having sex in a committed relationship as opposed to a casual one; whether sex workers are having good sex; and much more.
Christine is a terrific writer and thinker on contemporary culture, and has focused here on a particularly timely issue, I think.
Buy her book, Rethinking Sex: A Provocation.
Read her Washington Post columns.
Follow her on twitter @ChristineEmba
Clare Chambers on leaving our bodies alone
"Every body is wrong; no body feels right". So says philosopher Clare Chambers, who defends the idea of the unmodified body, both as a political and an ethical concept. It's not that bodies don't change of course - they do all the time, and should, by what we do and eat and so on. But we dig into the three reasons we modify our body: appearance, health and hygiene, or identity (using my decision to brush my teeth as an example). Clare explains why the idea of being "trapped in the wrong body", a popular description among many trans people, has some problems as well as potential, in part because to some extent we are all not in the right body, or our "own" true body. That's why new mothers are urged to "get their body back".
We talk about how far gender differences are the result of nature or culture; why there is no clear distinction between cosmetic surgery and cultural surgery; how shaming doesn't really work as a public health approach; the changed nature of bodybuilding (and not for the better). We discuss the striking differences in rates of male circumcision between the U.S. (80% of boys) and the UK (6%), where it is described as a procedure of last resort, what this tells about the role of culture and especially how what counts as a "medical procedure". In her new book Intact, Clare has produced an excellent and thoughtful treatment of some very important and sensitive subjects right now, and it was a real pleasure to have this dialogue with her.
Read Intact: A Defence of the Unmodified Body (Penguin, 2022)
Professor of Political Philosophy and a Fellow of Jesus College, University of Cambridge. She is the author of Against Marriage: An Egalitarian Defence of the Marriage-Free State (Oxford University Press, 2017); Sex, Culture, and Justice: The Limits of Choice (Penn State University Press, 2008); Teach Yourself Political Philosophy: A Complete Introduction (with Phil Parvin, Hodder, 2012); and numerous articles and chapters on feminist and liberal political philosophy. She is also a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics,
The Dialogues Team
Creator: Richard Reeves
Artwork: George Vaughan Thomas
Tech Support: Cameron Hauver-Reeves
Music: "Remember" by Bencoolen (thanks for the permission, guys!)
Jonathan Gottschall on the stories we tell ourselves
"Human beings can no more give up narrative than we can breathing or sleeping." So says my guest Jonathan Gottschall. But why are stories so important? He argues in his new book The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears them Down that the primary function of storytelling is to sway the listener in some way, to change how they think or fell about something, or someone. "Stories", he says "are influence machines". Part of the political divide today, for example, is over the story of America: Are we a city on the hill, a beacon of liberty and hope and progress, or an oppressive, supremacist and bloody empire? In a deep sense, the culture war is a story war, and in light of recent political developments, Gottschall says our task is now "to save the world from stories", in part by trying to tell stories without villains. Along the way we talk about the difference between suspension of disbelief and narrative transportation, politics, the role of religion, luck, and the lack of political pluralism in academia. I came away even more convinced about the power of stories, and our decisions about which stories to immerse ourselves in, as well as how stories layer on top of stories, in a kind of narrative collage.
Distinguished Fellow at Washington & Jefferson College, author of The Storytelling Animal, The Professor in the Cage, and The Story Paradox.