“I never want to be part of any group of people,” Liel Leibovitz says, “where a political disagreement could empty your heart of love.”
In this episode of “American Thought Leaders,” host Jan Jekielek discusses topics such as “political homelessness” and rebuilding society from the bottom up with Liel Leibovitz, a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the “Unorthodox” podcast. He’s the author of the popular Tablet essay “The Turn: When I saw the left give up everything I believe in, I changed politically. You can, too.”
Jan Jekielek: Liel, you wrote one of my favorite essays of 2021, “The Turn.” What is the turn?
Liel Leibovitz: The turn is the moment when you call into question everything you assumed was the fabric of reality. I grew up with this idea that if you were a decent human being, you were on the left, because the left cared about human rights, women’s rights, gay rights.
On the right were people who only cared about money and held benighted and scary ideas.
I never doubted that premise. But then, I noticed things on the left you weren’t allowed to say.
It was fine to criticize some people for saying objectionable things, but others were somehow beyond reproach. You start asking yourself, what can I say and not say?
You figure out that the self-proclaimed party of the working class supports an oligopoly of corporations. You realize the party of science uses media to quash inquiry into scientific issues. And once you discover that, you take the turn.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s a lot of people experiencing the turn, but don’t want to put their careers on the line or lose family members by objecting to things.
Mr. Leibovitz: I’m heartbroken by that. Let me tell you one story of how it happened to me. The turn doesn’t occur overnight. There’s no explosion.
It’s a series of small vibrations, of small moments.
I’ve had a bunch of those moments. One day, I had lunch with my dear friend and mentor in the university where I studied.
He told me that comments I was making about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict were no longer acceptable to a large number of our colleagues on the faculty. [What] struck me about that statement was how perfectly Soviet it was: “Watch out, comrade. There’s talk in the party you are expressing wrong ideas. This is not good.”
It was strange coming from a person who represents an institution that, to me, is the bedrock of the free and unfettered exchange of ideas. But what hurt even more was how empty of love his voice was. It wasn’t, “Hey, I just want what’s best for you. Let’s work this out together.” Instead, this cold authoritative voice said, “Straighten up or else.”
I never want to be part of any group of people where a political disagreement could empty your heart of love.
Mr. Jekielek: There must be a lot of Democrats who feel like you do.
Mr. Leibovitz: I get notes and emails from people all the time that say they started feeling something weird in the Democratic Party or, for that matter, in the Republican Party. They felt politically homeless.
To me, that’s a wonderful sentiment. I want to be politically homeless.
Because being politically homeless is the moment in which you stop thinking about these structures in old and unhelpful terms.
What’s important is who’s in your camp and what we believe and what we could do together to rebuild our country. And while I think the chaos that we’re experiencing is weird and scary, I couldn’t be more optimistic for the future of this country in the long term.
Let’s rebuild, because our universities have been corrupted. Let’s build another news media outlet, because our newspapers have been corrupted. Let’s build another way of doing business, because our big businesses have been corrupted. That fills me with so much hope and so much joy.
That’s what successful people are doing.
Americans are doing what Americans have always done, which is be resolute, creative, resilient, and community-minded.
Mr. Jekielek: Recently, Dr. Robert Malone was on with Joe Rogan, where he mentioned mass formation psychosis. Any thoughts on that?
Mr. Leibovitz: Yes. I think it’s grimmer and simpler than we would think.
If your commitment isn’t just to yourself, but to your children and to their children and to your community and to your fellow believers and, above all, to the almighty, then your perspective on life is very different. If you start every morning saying “thank you” for all of this, that’s one thing.
Now, imagine you woke up in the morning and literally believed in nothing.
Imagine you have massive student debt and also no job, because the whole premise that you would go to college and then get a good job and career, that doesn’t happen anymore.
Imagine that you saw all around you tremendous misery. Imagine that the people entrusted with keeping you safe, well-fed, free from disease or want were failing their jobs miserably and blaming all kinds of other ephemeral structures. That’s a recipe for disaster. That’s a recipe in which you seek the devil. “Who can I blame?” “Blame Trump. Blame the Republicans. Blame Russia.” Blame this. Blame that.
Mr. Jekielek: I keep thinking about this ideology: “wokeism.” John McWhorter calls it “The Elect.” It’s profoundly reductionistic in the way you’ve been describing.
Mr. Leibovitz: Correct. And it’s a religious faith, 100 percent. The iconography, the murals, the taking of the knee, all the trappings of a religious order are there, except for the stuff that actual religions have worked out like absolution, forgiveness, compassion, or kindness. And this new religious order is a bad religion, because there’s no forgiveness, no way for you to redeem yourself. It’s, as you said, reductionist. It’s cruel and unforgiving, which is why I think, ultimately, it will fade. It doesn’t make anyone happy. It doesn’t bring justice. It sows discord, disruption, mistrust, and violence.
Mr. Jekielek: Some people watching this may be thinking, I can’t talk about these things. I risk alienating the love of my life. I risk destroying my family. To those people, it’s a difficult moment. What should people like this do?
Mr. Leibovitz: Simple advice comes to us from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Live not by lies. It’s also the title of a book by my friend, Rod Dreher, that reminds us that if you’re forced to lie to be accepted, there’s no growth, no hope. And you should leave. The price of leaving may be high. It’s quite possible you’ll no longer be able to continue working at your place of employment.
That’s a difficult conundrum for most people. It’s also possible you might alienate a loved one or a family member.
But the freedom to speak the truth is great. And here’s the reward for that sacrifice. The connections you make are real. I was no longer able to continue teaching at New York University once I was unwilling to express views and ideas that I knew to be completely nonsensical and offensive.
I lost quite a bit, but I gained the friendship and love of a group of human beings that I had never known existed.
I came to them with humility and with an understanding that I, too, can make mistakes and built some of the most beautiful friendships of my life.
When you live not by lies, you get relationships with amazing people you never would’ve thought would become your friends.
Mr. Jekielek: There are a lot of people in this day and age that have lost that.
Mr. Leibovitz: It’s important to me to offer three pieces of advice. The first is cribbed from my friend Walter Kirn. He told me to wean myself off my addiction to prestige, to stop thinking I need to write for The New York Times because that’s the prestigious publication or that I need to go to Harvard because that’s the prestigious school.
The second is, understand that many people around you want to connect with you.
And that leads me to my third and most important prescription, which is to be focused on building.
Your job isn’t to fix America. Your job isn’t to fix health care, politics, or national security.
Your job is to fix the thing that’s in your backyard. Maybe it’s some kind of food bank because you really care about this issue. Maybe it’s helping a couple of homeschooling friends, because you’re thinking about doing this too, and you want to start a group.
Those kinds of small grassroots positives are what I’m seeing.
If you feel you’re creating something sustainable and nurturing in your community, then you’re on the right path.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.