Prepping for a conversation with Tressie McMillan Cottom is intimidating. McMillan Cottom is a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, a 2020 MacArthur fellow, co-host of the podcast “Hear to Slay,” and the author of the essay collection “Thick,” which was a National Book Award finalist. And she’s one of those people who can seemingly write on anything: The way for-profit colleges generate inequality, the cultural meaning of Dolly Parton, the way the U.S. medical profession treats Black women, how beauty operates in contemporary America, the role of hustle in the economy — the list just keeps going.
And so did this conversation, in the end. I barely made it through a third of my planned questions because so many interesting topics came up in each answer. We discuss the dangers of nostalgia, the social construction of smartness, the moral panics gripping America, why journalists are racing to platforms like Substack, how different mediums of communication shape our conversations, the central role status plays in American life, her research on the root causes of the uptick in “deaths of despair,” how beauty is constructed and wielded and much, much more. This is one of those conversations that could’ve gone on for four more hours.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
EZRA KLEIN: I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
So when I do these introductions, I try to have a particular thread I’m following, something to set up the main argument or the main question of the show, but that’s not possible today. It wouldn’t do this justice. There’s too much in this show for me to wrap it into one idea. It is, as my guest might say, really thick, and it is great. Tressie McMillan Cottom is a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
She’s the author of the book “Lower Ed” and then the wonderful essay collection “Thick,” which was a National Book Award finalist in 2019. She won a MacArthur “genius” grant. She’s a co-host of the podcast “Hear to Slay,” and she’s just one of those people who you can ask her any question, any question at all, and you just get a sparklingly interesting answer.
Prepping for this was intimidating because her work is just vast, from academic research on how for-profit colleges generate inequality, to sprawling essays on Dolly Parton, to these analysis of how beauty functions in contemporary America, to ideas about the roles hustle plays in the American economy, everything, everything, everything in between.
But in part, I just wanted to understand how does she take on so many different topics constructively. Like, what is her process for being able to say something useful as she moves into these different areas. It’s a lot to find something intelligent to say about, but as you’ll hear, there’s also one idea that thrums the core of a lot of this, and that is the way status structures reinforces the hierarchies of American life of who gets listened to and who gets seen and why, but this is honestly one of those conversations that could have gone for four more hours. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. As always, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Here’s Tressie McMillan Cottom.
So something I always admire about your work is the range of topics you’re able to write in and the range of topics you write about and this crazy group of registers you do from Twitter, to Substack, to academic work. So I wanted to start here. How did you train yourself to write in so many different ways?
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Oh, man. I wish I could say that I did train myself to write in so many ways. I think what happens instead is that — first of all, I’m a very curious person. I’m in these spaces anyway. I am an internet person for better or for worse, right? I came of age as a public person and like live journal, right? Like, I have followed the development of these spaces just like any other person, I think, of my generation, though. That’s just kind of where. That’s where we were hanging out.
And when I’m in a space, this predates being a sociologist or an academic. When I’m in a space, I’m very much a one step, in one step removed kind of person. I’m watching the thing I’m participating in, can’t turn that off. It’s just what I am and who I am. And so it makes sense for me that if I’m on Twitter, I’m also thinking about Twitter, right? I’m thinking about, why are all these people here? What’s the audience looking? What’s that about? And so that comes out in the things that I’m interested in. So that’s one thing.
I think training myself to write to that audience — understanding it is one thing, to be fair. Understanding everything as a genre is another thing, and there was a moment when I realized this is just like learning how to write the five paragraph essay, right, as opposed to a long form piece of creative nonfiction. Every medium has a genre, and some of that, cracking some of it really is just fun for me.
It’s like, OK. Let me see if I can do this. I can’t do them all, to be fair. There are definitely some genres, especially ones that lean more visual, because I’m a textual kind of girl. And I just don’t get like visual and editing, but some of it is just fun for me to see if I can remix the genre. First of all, can I capture it? And then can I remix it a little? Can I make an essay you have like the freewheeling feeling of Twitter? Can I surprise an audience that thought they were showing up for like a first person essay with a little bit of empirical thinking? Can I just sort of surprise people? That’s part of the fun for me.
EZRA KLEIN: How do the genres change the way you think? When you sit down and you begin writing in the academic register versus the personal essay register, does it change the kinds of thoughts you have?
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes. What will often happen is I sit down, and there’s something I want to write about or I’m obligated to write about. That happens sometimes, too. Like, I just got to write about it. And one of the first questions I kind of ask myself is, what is the right speed for this argument? So I actually think that one of the things that happens in writing in different registers is that you become much more reflexive about, should this have just been a tweet, which is totally fair, right?
And I think it’s a fair thing to say. Sometimes I’ll start on an argument, and I’ll go, this is not substantive enough for like this genre. And I’ll even push back sometimes now, like editors or people I’m collaborating with and go, y’all, I think we just mean to write a quick write up and move on. One of the things the academics are taken a task for is bloviating and overcomplicating simple things, and I really do think we could be set free a little bit if we would just admit that sometimes the thing we turned into like an academic piece probably just should have been either a first person essay or a tweet or somewhere in between, but status drives us sometimes more than the question we’re asking.
But I sit down and I go, OK, what is the right speed for this? What’s the right genre? When will I know that this argument is done? I like a complete argument. I like to walk away from something and say I left it all on the court, and sometimes that’s 240 characters. Sometimes it’s 20,000 words, and just being like attuned to that, that those are options. Those are choices. I ask myself that a lot when I sit down and I start with an argument. What’s the right size?
EZRA KLEIN: I feel like I used to be able to ask that question of myself. I came up as a blogger, and I’m an internet person.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah.
EZRA KLEIN: And I would write little posts and long ones. And I swear to you, I cannot, no matter how hard I try now, write something that is in between 280 characters and 1,800 words.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: It’s one or the other?
EZRA KLEIN: I completely lost the register, like all the way in between. It’s like a book. It’s like a long essay, or it’s a tweet.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yup.
EZRA KLEIN: And God forbid you have 400 words worth of something to say. I just can’t seem to stop then.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Because then you just feel like you talk — it feels like a stub, right?
EZRA KLEIN: Yeah.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: I call those stubs. I’ve got so many of those. It’s something like 350 words or something, and I’m not sure where that would go. I think what you’re asking is for us to bring back Blogger. I think that’s what you’re suggesting we do.
EZRA KLEIN: Well, I’m always asking for us to bring back blogging.
There is a nostalgia, oftentimes, among people who came up in it, for the internet of the aughts.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. The old internet.
EZRA KLEIN: Do you think that’s nostalgia, or do you think something was lost?
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Hmm. OK. So I now work with a lot of internet people. I’m in an information school at a university. And so a lot of my very good friends are those people, so I want to tiptoe carefully. I do think that there was a clubbiness and a camaraderie, even among people who politically disagreed. There was a class of thinkers, a class of writers who came up in that web 2.0 that does feel like, yeah, we lost something there.
There was a humanity there for good or for bad. Humanity is messy, but there was a sense that those ideas were attached to people, and there were things driving those people, there’s a reason they had chosen to be in that space before it all became about chasing an audience in a platform and turning that into influencer and translating that into that — before all that happened, the professionalization of it all. And that’s what I think we’re missing when we become nostalgic for that web 2.0. I think it’s the people in the machine.
Having said that, I am very resistant to nostalgia as a thing because usually what we are nostalgic for is a time that just was not that great for a lot of people. And so what we were usually a really nostalgic for is a time when we didn’t have to think so much about who was missing in the room, who wasn’t at the table. So when I talk to friends, and especially younger people coming up behind us either in the internet or in writing spaces, we’re like, that time was horrible for young queer people.
They talk about looking for little safe pockets of space in web 2.0 world where it was still very OK to be homophobic, for example, in those spaces and our casual language and how we structured that kind of thing. And they love being able to leave that part behind in this new world of whatever the web is now, both a consolidated and a disaggregated new web.
That’s why I’m like resistant to nostalgia. At the same time, I’m like, yeah. I also laugh and go, I really miss having a blog. In some ways, coming back to the newsletter, and Substack was kind part of that. It’s me being nostalgic for having a place where I could put thoughts that didn’t fit into any other discourse or genre, and I wanted a space where I could talk to people who were actually interacting like real people. They weren’t acting like bots, or trolls, or whatever your internet persona is.
So, I mean, I say I’m resistant to nostalgia. I just try not to reproduce, but even I get a little — I’ll always have a soft spot for Blogger, which is coincidentally my first “where I state” space on Blogger.
EZRA KLEIN: Yup. Me too.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: [LAUGHS] I’ll always be a little romantic about it.
EZRA KLEIN: But I think you’re right about that criticism of it, too. Something that, for all that I can tip into nostalgia, something that I think is often missed in today’s conversation is the conversation has never been wider.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes.
EZRA KLEIN: People talk all about things they can’t say, but it has never been wider.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yup.
EZRA KLEIN: There’s never been a larger allowable space of things you could say.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: That’s right.
EZRA KLEIN: And people have also never been more pissed about how it feels to participate in it. I don’t want to say never, but broadly, there is an intensity to that conversation that is distinct, and I don’t think those things are unrelated, right? I think it is the wideness of the conversation and the fact that there are so many people you might hear from that make you feel cautious and insecure and unsafe, and the good of it is the bad of it.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Exactly. One of the things I like to say to people is that we think that broadening access in any realm — we do this with everything, by the way. It’s such an American way to approach the world. We think that broadening access will broaden access on the terms of the people who have benefited from it being narrowed, which is just so counterintuitive.
Broadening access doesn’t mean that everybody has the experience that I, privileged person, had in the discourse. Broadening it means that we are all equally uncomfortable, right? That’s actually what pluralism and plurality is. It isn’t that everybody is going to come in and have the same comforts that privilege and exclusion had extended to a small group of people. It’s that now everybody sits at the table, and nobody knows the exact right thing to say about the other people.
Well, that’s fair. That means we all now have to be thoughtful. We all have to consider, oh, wait a minute. Is that what we say in this room? We all have to reconsider what the norms are, and that was the promise of like expanding the discourse, and that’s exactly what we’ve gotten. And if that means that I’m not sure about letting it rip on a joke, that’s probably a pretty good thing.
EZRA KLEIN: Yeah. Jennifer Richardson, the psychologist at Yale, once called this a democratization of discomfort to me.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes.
EZRA KLEIN: And I think it’s such a good line. And something it always makes me think about is that there are a lot of us who came up in an earlier iteration, not just of the internet, but of journalism or cultural criticism or whatever it might be, and there were certain things it selected for. You know what I mean? There was like the 80s “New Republic” people who were really selected for slashing counterintuitive, provocative, and somewhat offensive essay-writing, and just — this era requires different virtues, and that’s the conversation I almost never hear people have.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah.
EZRA KLEIN: That maybe just the new internet or this moment, to be in one of these highly public and very privileged positions, you’re going to need to develop a different set of virtues and competencies and how to conduct a conversation and how to speak to people that are just hard. It’s just going to be really hard.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. Yeah. And human nature is resistant to learning. I mean, nobody knows that more than people who teach for a living. But for all we valorize learning and education, human nature really trends towards inertia, and every layer of privilege you layer on top of somebody makes that more true. And so what we’re fundamentally, I think, saying to people is — who achieved something where part of the promise of the achievement was that I’ll never have to learn anything new again, right?
This was the promise, right? I’m now the editor. I’m the gatekeeper or whatever, and the whole promise of that was I’ll never have to worry about learning anything new again. And then we come to them and we go, no. You got to relitigate. You got to reconsider what your role is, and now there actually are people who can hold you accountable for that in a way that wasn’t always true.
And I found it to be true in every space I’ve ever been in, every organization. It is true of myself. Nobody likes being reminded that they are not done yet, that there’s still more work for them to do. And that’s, I think, what we’re fundamentally saying to people, and they resist that because that’s human nature. It’s just that some people get to resist it in a way more aggressive fashion than other people.
EZRA KLEIN: Yeah. Yuval Levin, who’s this conservative thinker, I once heard him say that almost all change is generational. Almost all real change that happens is when a new generation comes, and they are able to change. And I hadn’t thought about it quite that way before. But now when I look at, say, Congress, and I see the way, particularly, the Democratic Party is changing, or I look at what’s happening in online discourse, some of it just feels to me — I’m of a different generation, even than some of the young writers now — and you feel a little left behind. There is more change generation to generation than there is within generations, and maybe it’s for exactly that reason.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. Nothing is funny to me than when I realize, we wrote all of this stuff. We did all this stuff. We threw out all these theories of change, and then people believed us. That’s literally what happened. You’ve got young people who said, wait a minute. Gender is a spectrum? OK. I’m a live it like a spectrum. And we’re like, no, but we didn’t mean that.
Really, what fundamentally happened is we hypothesized and imagined all of this stuff, wrote it into the ether, and then we’re surprised that people actually took it up and lived it. That does happen faster, as you point out. We do owe that to the internet. The generations are now like four and a half years long, but it happens faster, and so we feel older faster, and we feel outdated faster.
But I get so inspired by the people who, within a generation, have resisted becoming that old person. And I’m just like, OK. I’m just going to double down, right? I think we’ve got a choice. You can become like the Angela Davis of the world, or you’re like, OK, I hear you. Each new generation comes along, and I hear you. I got to get with it, and I’ve seen Angela do that in real time.
Like a young person will stand up in the audience and go, and we say “sibs” now. And she’s like, I’m with you. Gotcha. Like, you just take it, and you’re supposed to go. And I think we’ve got a choice. You can become that person within your generation who lives in that uncomfortable space, or you can become the person — I won’t name a name — but you can become the person who doesn’t and resists it. I just don’t want them writing about me like that later. So I’m really shooting for the Angela Davis model.
EZRA KLEIN: Let me ask you about your own generational change. You have this line I love where you say that all of your essays begin with a question of why me and not my grandmother. Tell me about your grandmother.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Oh, thank you. I’d love to tell you about my grandmother. I’ve been thinking about her so much lately, in part because I’ve moved back home to North Carolina, and that’s where my family is, and so getting nostalgic, and because we’ve been trapped in the house. What else is there to do? But my grandmother was a part of this sweeping — talk about a generational change — sweeping generational change in the United States of America, really, I think in the Western world when we think about how central the United States is to that definition.
She’s the tail-end of the Great Migration generation, Black people who left point South for points North and West with millions of other people, spans about a generation and a half of people if we use the big definition of generations, but I think something really just coheres that generation of African-Americans in particular. They’re the ones who made really foundational decisions about whether to stay or to leave.
And my grandmother was one of the people who left, and she was probably the least likely of her family members to have been predicted to leave. I mean, this was not a brave woman. I love her dearly. She’s sweet as she could be, but this was the woman who had 19 locks on the door. She wasn’t exactly a pioneer and that pioneering spirit. What she was pragmatic, however.
And if jobs were in the North and that’s where you went — but I think about how much she probably had to fight her nature to do what she needed to do. She was creative. I get so much of, I think, my creative energies from her, a big reader, which all of us are in the family. But even in a family of readers, my grandmother was the reader, really wide reading. She read anything, and I think I got that from her, too.
Very agnostic on genre, and I don’t care. I’ll read anything. I got that from her. And so when I’m thinking about why me and not her, of all of those instincts that I inherited from her and all those things she socialized me into, she’s just, for me, the concrete example of how you can be everything that a culture values and not be in the right body for the culture to value it, and that is going to shape the limit of your life. It is my understanding of this is what inequality and stratification looks like in a very real way. My grandmother should have had my life, basically.
EZRA KLEIN: And what life did she have?
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: She had a hard life. She moved from rural Eastern North Carolina where hard life meant partially sharecropping, leasing yourself out in the summers to pick tobacco that was left over after the machines that come through. She went into labor with my mother in the middle of a field and almost did not survive childbirth. So she leaves that to go to Harlem, which would have been an exciting time by all accounts, but another hard transition, small, crowded living conditions, very different from what she’d come from.
For many, many years, she went back and forth between working for Jewish families as a domestic worker to, again, working in the garment district and just always trying to eke out something that was just a little bit better than the position before, and then eventually came back home to North Carolina, as many Black folks did in the reverse migration, and by that time was done with raising people and taking care of people and being a caretaker, and she really spent the last few years of her life reading, and I think it was the most peaceful she’d been her whole life Living right there at the edge of social change, as much as we like to write about it and romanticize it, living it is tough. So she had a tough life.
EZRA KLEIN: And so tell me about the question why you and not her. What is that question?
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: I think that question is about the limits of how we internalize the American dream. I think a lot about nobody believes in mobility more than Black people. Nobody believes in the promise of this country more than Black people, and nobody has less reason to believe it than we do, and I think holding those two ideas at the same time is probably why our health outcomes are as poor as they are.
I think living in that liminal space between it’s supposed to be better but it isn’t and trying to just constantly trying to butt up against that, just trying to find a crack, trying to get in there. And I think what I’m asking about when I think why me and not her, one, I hope I’m keeping myself grounded in how contingent this all is. I never want to wed my sense of self and my identity to something I don’t control.
And part of being Black and being a woman in this country is that, even when you’re very successful, you just don’t control the terms of your success. My success is always limited by how well other people can imagine the possibility of me. When people could not imagine my grandmother, she just wasn’t possible, you know? Here is this big reader who did well in school, and she’s a domestic worker.
They just couldn’t imagine anything else for her, and so I’m always really aware of and never want to forget that, that no matter how hard I work — and yeah, you’re supposed to maybe work hard or whatever, and then you invest in yourself, and you develop your skills. I always want to be really clear that I can do all of that. I can do all of the right things, and it still won’t work out, and I think that’s just the basis of my work of trying to explain that to other people.
Many people who, for the first time in their lives, are reckoning with the fact that I did everything right, and it didn’t work out. Maybe this is just not supposed to happen. And what’s basically just becoming more true for more people is that more people feel like my grandmother than they ever imagined would be possible for them.
EZRA KLEIN: Sometimes I hear a line when I’m doing the show that I just know I’m not going to get away from for a long time, and how well I did is how well people can imagine me is one of those. That’s a remarkable way of putting that. You say something in Thick where you write and, quoting, smart is only a construct of correspondence between one’s abilities, one’s environment, and one’s moment in history.
I’m smart in the right way in the right time on the right end of globalization. Tell me about that because I think we frame smart culturally as something that cuts through time, space, society. Tell me about seeing smart as contingent.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. I think we love that idea because I think it’s an idea about ourselves, that there some one true thing about human nature that will be as fixed as a mathematical relationship. It’s a very post-enlightenment sort of way to think about it, but yeah. There’s supposed to be one smart, that you would recognize genius no matter where you were on the timeline, right?
I’m not into this show, but I have a young person in my life who’s very into the “Doctor Who” show. One of the things I do find interesting about “Doctor Who” is it’s that premise. It’s that conceit that no matter where you drop in the time-space continuum, you’re going to recognize that person as the doctor, the scientist, the one who knows, right? And it’s just so not true.
What a culture needs from its smart people at any given point in time changes. We can have a very different value system about what constitutes smart. What I want to keep in mind, and one of the things I hope that people take away when I say something about the correspondence of how smart you are is just really about your place in the world is because I want people to feel obligated to think about what world they’re creating for somebody else, but first we got to recognize how vulnerable our own identity is.
If you build your whole identity on how smart you are, I think it can make you very small and selfish in thinking about the world for everybody else. And so that’s why I try to pinpoint, like, if you think that I’m good enough, if you think, wow. Tressie’s really sharp, right? Tressie’s really brilliant. What I want you to imagine is how easy it would be for you to not think that and for me to just not exist, right?
I’d still be me. I’d still have my talents and abilities, and that we do that to people every day. We build a world that’s just not allowable or acceptable, and then I also really want to push the idea that we have so embodied the idea of smart as being something that a person is that it makes us really easy to disinvest from the things that make smart actually possible because smart is like a social problem.
We make smart. We make smart with schools. We make smart with our political decisions and choices, right? And if you think nature is just going to take care of it and it’s just going to give you a once in a lifetime genius every go round, then you don’t invest in the things that produce smartness. And a fixed idea of intelligence invites us to disinvest from the social contract of making more smart people. Just make more by expanding your understanding of it.
EZRA KLEIN: One of the things I was thinking about with that is I’ve been thinking about the idea of disability studies, that disability is about a relationship between you and the built world.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yup, yup.
EZRA KLEIN: And we were talking before we began recording about our eyesight, that you got LASIK, and I had negative eight vision since I was five, basically. And in another context, I’m just completely useless. The things that make you smart, like I’m a good reader and I can write a lot, I can’t do that without my glasses, not that long ago in human history that it wouldn’t have been possible for me.
And even that, you can have everything exactly the same but just one lapse in the accommodation society or technology is able to make for you, and you’re gone. And meanwhile, I have no sense of direction whatsoever.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Same!
EZRA KLEIN: My mechanical and physical intelligence is really weak.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yup.
EZRA KLEIN: I think all the time about how low the esteem I would be held in at other points in history.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Mm-hm. You take away things like libraries and the written word and the printing press, and I my social value declines significantly. I’ve learned so much from the disability studies people, by the way. And it’s actually something that was in back of my mind the whole time I was answering your question. One of the things that just sort of flipped a switch in my brain, I was in graduate school at Emory University, so we had a really strong contingent of scholars who were doing disability studies, and I learned a lot from them.
But we were having coffee one day with some of those folks, and friend Adam turns to me. And he’s like, the thing is, it’s not about who is disabled. It’s about when are you going to become disabled. We will all be disabled at some point in our life course, and so much middle class consumption, by the way, and our obsession with health and wellness is about that.
We are fundamentally — because we know how horrible we are to other disabled people, so we are terrified of becoming in any way disabled or differently-able, right? So take your bee pollen, and get your magnesium, and — well, you’re going to age. If nothing else, your eyesight is going to go. You’re going to lose some of your mobility, speaking about smart as a fixed idea. Just the way your brain works is going to change. We’re just so vulnerable to nature and time and biology, and we’re so terrified of it, I think, because we know that a lot of what we have built our ideas of who we are on are really far more vulnerable than we think they are
EZRA KLEIN: I think about this all the time when I cover health care policy because people will, during these fights, they’ll talk about, well, I don’t know. As a healthy person, do I need to be subsidizing the sick so much? Or they’ll start talking about the old and the young, and I’m always screaming during these debates. These are not fixed categories. We go in and out, you know? You’re young now, but you’re going to be old someday, hopefully.
And you’re healthy now, but you’re going to be sick someday, and it’s funny. It’s a place where I think our enthusiasm for categorizing people — it’s one of many that really leads us astray. As soon as you begin talking in categories, it tricks the mind into fixing the boundaries, but a lot of categories are very porous.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes. Categories are really useful for like analytical thinking. Like, yeah, it helps me get my arms around something that’s really messy, and it helps me figure out like — because you can’t just consider every eventuality. That’s just a limit of human nature, of how the human mind works. So categories, they become useful as long as you keep in mind that that’s all they were, right?
You got to constantly, I think, relitigate. Wait a minute, what was the category I had at play here? We were talking about the old internet and the world people miss. I think one of the things that people are so uncomfortable with right now, why there’s just so many — there seems to be moral panic after moral panic after moral — we’ve got a lot of moral panics happening right now, hard to even like separate them out, and I think that it’s because it’s all one big moral panic about I don’t think we feel equipped for doing that. It is a moment, I think, in time when we are being asked and really pushed to rethink almost every meaningful category that we’ve kind of taken for granted.
EZRA KLEIN: I love that description of the moral panic. You talk in your book about thick descriptions and thin descriptions, and one of the things that feels to me like part of the moral conflict or the reason it feels so panic-inducing is we are having the thickest conversation possible in the thinnest mediums possible.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Bingo. I totally agree. So thick description is ultimately about asking as many questions of yourself as you’re asking of other people. So a thin way of engaging with the world is to assume that everybody has already made the decisions that you’ve made prior to the discussion, and all of your questions are going to be reserved for the object that you’re talking about, right, the people you’re talking about, the idea you’re talking about. I think that’s one way to think about it.
We also think about thick description as being really evocative, and that’s true, too. Using language to really try to capture people’s experience of things, that’s also true. Whereas thin description usually tries to flatten differences between experiences because it wants to tell you about sort of a universal experience, right, that I can make you understand your connection to something by pointing out what’s universal in it.
We think that we’re going to lose people when we start talking about the differences, by the way. And I’m not sure that’s true, and I try to show in my work that that’s not true, that you can absolutely seduce people into having a thick, nuanced conversation. It’s just going to take work on your part, right? I think you have to be dead on with craft. I think you have to be brutal about your empirics being accurate. I think you have to consecrate your own belief in yourself as being the universal storyteller.
But I think if you do all of that, people will follow you into a thick, uncomfortable conversation that they did not know they needed to have, but the mediums you talk about, who’s going to do that, right? The economics of that are horrible, and I know that. I get it, but I think what we’re seeing is an unspoken desire for exactly that kind of work, but a media ecosystem and an attention economy that just cannot allow that to happen.
That takes a lot of human beings, a lot of human power, takes a lot of willingness to embrace risk because you’re going to mess it up. You’re going to fail, and you’re going to piss somebody — right? This is just going to happen. There’s a lot of risk involved. And initially, it’s not profitable, but that is one of our struggles, I think, in the public discourse where we are trying to have that kind of conversation that I think people absolutely are attracted to even if that attraction feels like they’re angry about it, but that’s still desire for the conversation. I think they’re attracted to it, but we’ve only figured out the economics for very thin genre.
EZRA KLEIN: I don’t want to pick on Twitter and cable news here, which are two mediums that I operate in sometimes, but I will see conversations happening there, and I’ll just think, that is such an important conversation, and there is no way I’m engaging it in this medium.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: That’s right.
EZRA KLEIN: I’m not going to come within 1,000 feet of it in this space.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Same, never going to happen.
EZRA KLEIN: Whereas, in a podcast, there are things you talk about in a podcast that are a lot trickier because it has this quality of hesitancy. I got a reader email yesterday, actually. I guess it was a listener email, but they were emailing me to say that they listen to a show, and they just thought there shouldn’t be podcasts anymore. They thought podcasts were part of a ruining America because it was such a loose and messy form. People just talk.
I mean, they prefer columns, which is fair, and I write columns. But as I was reading it, I was thinking it’s the exact thing I like about the medium, that messiness allows things to be thick. To take on these topics, you have to let things breathe a little bit. And so many mediums over time, particularly when they get professionalized, they trend towards this type optimization. You ask as little of the audience as you possibly can before letting go of them. And that works for scale, but I think it’s bad for understanding and very bad for your relationship with the audience.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. I don’t think we have the luxury right now of scale and efficiency. We don’t have a culture right now for scale and efficiency that can be productive. That’s for a culture that mostly agrees on who and what it is is mostly functioning the way most people need it to function for a good life. We don’t have that culture. And so I tell people, maximizing efficiency is for very different political body and public discourse than the one we have.
The one we have is trying to grapple with potentially massive social change and social transformation. That is a culture that needs messier, more nuanced places for public discourse. Trying to skip over that to get to the scale and efficiency part is how you become antagonistic to the audience. Even as y’all are sort of in a dance together, I think that thin stuff that is narrowed, asking the least from the audience, is actually fundamentally antagonistic to the idea of having an audience.
EZRA KLEIN: What are those spaces for you?
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: I mean, I think I’m in part trying to build that with increasingly thinking about micro media, of which podcasting is one of those. I tend to think of audio storytelling, which is a little bit broader to me. Thinking just about podcasting because I’m thinking about the different cultural traditions for telling oral stories, and that there has to be more than one way for us to capture those and share them and reproduce them.
So audio storytelling just broadly excites me a lot as a potential avenue, and I think it’s all right if that never scales. I think that’s actually probably preferable. I think what we are in a moment for is a lot of micro media attempts to capture the parts of the discourse where people are willing to be called in to complicated conversations that, again, scale just might not be the goal. It might not even be preferable to desire scale in that arena.
I’m still working out whether or not I think something like — I’ve been on Substack. I’ve been on Medium. I’ve done my own sorting, and that’s just way too hard. I don’t like running all the back-end, but basically trying to recreate the comment section of web 2.0, becoming a destination conversation place for people around an idea, and I think that’s what some people are doing with the newsletter model, and et cetera. So I’m interested in that. I’m not sure yet what I think that space does, but I like the experiment.
EZRA KLEIN: I think a lot now about the way we’re all taught to want scale and the way that that’s often a false or counterproductive desire. I am somebody who is taught to want scale, and I got it, and I can’t tell you I’m happier for having it. It definitely affords me opportunities and all kinds of things, but I can’t tell you I’m happier for having it, and I know a lot of people who got it, and I can’t tell you they’re happier for having it.
And it’s a funny thing, the desire people are given for a certain kind of success as measured by scale where scale takes away a lot of what makes these conversations and work joyous. And yet, it’s the way we are taught to measure, whether we are succeeding in these conversations and work. And so then you see now, I think, Substack and podcasts, you see a lot of people who’ve achieved scale actually fleeing to things that are smaller scale.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: They’re to actually pare it down. I was about to say. So what you have is you got somebody with like a million followers on Twitter who has realized it’s actually horrible, and now they want to talk to 20,000 people more regularly in depth, and we don’t have a way to either capture the value of that — that’s actually, I think, part of what a lot of the more contentious debates are about.
We don’t know how to value that. I mean, we don’t know whether we can say that’s worth a half a million or not, but I don’t think that’s about our inability to — we have the tools to capture how many eyes you have on it, how long people spend. So it’s not that. I think it’s what you’re saying. I think we are just resistant to the idea of valuating anything other than scale, right?
I think it’s perfectly reasonable to imagine like a midterm future where having 20,000 regular people who meet and talk about an idea is valued roughly equal to a periodical that has a mailing readership of 350,000 people. We don’t like thinking about it that way, but I think it’s entirely possible.
EZRA KLEIN: I got to read a lot of your work all at the same time to prepare for this, which is great, but something that leapt out at me was that a lot of your work revolves around this idea of status, how it’s developed and what it’s composed of. So how do you define what status is and how we construct it?
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: It’s a great question, and I think I would agree. A challenge for me, professionally, is that I write so broadly, and certainly the way other people experience it is broad. But in my mind, I’m always writing about one thing, and I’m always stunned that other people don’t see it. It’s just status. It’s just status. The thing is, status looks the same everywhere you go, but it wears a different outfit.
So it’s always at play. It’s always happening. And so when I show up and I see status, it’s not that I’m the person who does race and gender or whatever. It’s just that I entered a room, and I looked around, and I went, oh, here’s what’s happening here. Here’s the status that’s at play. And sometimes that’s a little bit more gender than it is race. Sometimes it’s a little bit more class than it is race, right? But it’s always there.
And the way I explain it to students and my audiences is status is the thing that is external to you that defines you as much as your identity does. So we love to talk about identity, right? We’ve got a whole language about identity, about self and our political identities and our racial identities and sexual identities. We don’t have as rich a conversation to talk about status, which, coincidentally, is some of the most powerful work that status does.
It becomes so taken for granted that we never even label it, right? We’ll walk into a room, and everybody agrees who’s supposed to sit at the chair at the front of the room. That’s status, right? And that it operates a little differently everywhere you are standing. But if you learn how to identify it wherever you are standing, in many ways, you become one of the most powerful people in the room because you see what’s driving and shaping the decisions.
But as a cultural critic, as a social investigator, you also become super important to the people who will never be invited to that room, right? So when I leave a room, I want to be able to tell people not just what happened, but I want to be able to give an informed opinion about why it happened, why it happened, and that’s what understanding status does. It means that when I leave the room, I can bring some of the people who will never be invited to that room with me by being able to translate the dynamics that happen in that room, and it’s a hard thing to do with American audiences.
I travel, before times, I was doing quite a bit more international travel, and it’s so interesting. I can go to the UK where everybody gets this. Their language about social class is so refined that they get it. They may not have our same understanding of race and gender, but their language about class has really given them a public language of talking about status. In America, we only talk about status as race, and so our language is very, very atrophied, you know?
EZRA KLEIN: Yeah we want to ignore the idea that class is status.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: That’s right. Class is natural. Class is biology. Class is destiny. Class is family. We talk about it embedded in those things, family politics. We talk about it about values, ideals, having the right behaviors, but we don’t have any language to talk about it in this country. And since it is one of our biggest status differentials in this country, it means we miss a lot of what’s happening.
EZRA KLEIN: I think a lot about places where we have language that hides what we’re doing, hides, particularly, the way we actually treat people. We have language that venerates them as a way of not making good on what that language would say. So middle class, working class, essential workers, the military and veterans are huge in this. There are certain groups where we have an agreed upon political language.
And if you were an alien who came to this planet and this country and listened to us talk, you’d be like, ah, those people they’re talking about, they have the most status, and they’re going to be treated the best. And then you look at how policy plays out, and it’s the exact opposite. And the language, we are pretending we have a different social hierarchy than we actually do.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Which is super important to our ruling ideology, which is merit. How else do you get people to buy into the idea of merit when their own lived experiences say to them every day that merit is not real, or certainly not as concrete as everybody says it is? Well, you get them to buy into it by saying you just need to get into the right category.
And if you get into the right category — military veterans is one. It’s a big one in my world, like in education policy. We make horrible education policy for veterans. They have some of the highest rates of student loan defaults. The money that they’re given to go to college really translates into them going into high quality institutions, but you try to talk to somebody about making the G.I. Bill more robust, and they will have a public meeting in the middle of Capitol Hill.
Everybody shows up. There’s the equivalent of bible thumping, and then they will all close the doors — and both sides of the aisle, by the way, will close the door and will agree to not do anything to protect veteran students, but the veterans believe that they’re protected, you see? That’s what matters. They believe. How else do you get somebody to sign up for something like military service when they’re poor and working class and from places with poor economic outcomes?
You do it by saying, yeah, you won’t be rich, but everybody will value you, will give you status instead of money. This is one of the allures of becoming a police officer where status can far outstrip the economic rewards of being a police officer to take on the risk of doing the job. So really tightly closed status that does not have the economic power to go with it can actually become violent, frankly, but we don’t have a language yet to talk about any of that.
All we know how to do is say this group of people deserves our deference and our respect, but we don’t have a commensurate policy conversation to talk about how we attach actual meaningful resources to it.
EZRA KLEIN: Yeah. There’s almost nothing more destabilizing in politics than a group that the way they are talked about and the way they talk about themselves in terms of merit and status is not recognized by society because it creates a deep sense of unfairness, of shame, of resentment for individuals for whom it happens to. I think it collapses a person’s psyche, oftentimes.
But for groups, particularly when it’s a group that is told or actually has power, but then society isn’t treating it like it does or stops treating it like it does, that becomes, as you’re saying, it becomes very violent. This whole discussion has always been to me like the molten core of Trumpism. It’s this class of voters and Donald Trump himself who, on some level, have so much status and have had so much power.
But then what begins to happen is not just a losing of power, but a losing of status, a feeling that the culture is turning on them, that they’re being disrespected. What motivates Trump is disrespect, the feeling that he’s not a winner, right? And the same for what motivates many of his supporters, and I do think this is why the fights over speech and cancel culture and all of this are so intense because they are, at some fundamental level, about who has the status to decide how they are spoken about, and then who has the status to not fear what it is they’re saying? And you can’t solve that with policy. It’s actually a question of social hierarchy.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: A lot of people woke up to find that the merit culture that they have been operating in has been, for a very long time, an honor culture. See, we were supposed to be too sophisticated for our honor culture of ritual and honor, exchanges of prestige and status and privilege, right? We were supposed to be too sophisticated for that.
And so you work hard and that the status will follow, economic achievement. And when that economic promise starts to collapse but the ritual of status remains, you really just have an honor-based culture where people will defend honor, will determine their honor in relation to other people. They’ll build hierarchies of honor within their own little corner of the world that might be at odds with another corner.
That’s when we talk about the siloing effect of culture. It’s not that people don’t know that people disagree with them. It’s that they’ve built their own little honor culture over here. And if there are no economic incentives to leave it, why would you? If you can be the king— what’s the guy with the thing on his head, the horns on January 6th?
EZRA KLEIN: Oh, the QAnon Shaman.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Thank you. But if you’re going to walk around with horns on your head, I get to mock. So that’s an honor culture he brought of a subculture that had a set of rules where that actually wasn’t absurd, but if you divorce then some of the economic incentives for people to participate in that, all you’re left with is the guy with the horns on his head.
EZRA KLEIN: You did this research project about white deaths of despair that feels relevant to this conversation.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Very much so.
EZRA KLEIN: Do you want to talk about it a bit?
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes. So our argument — my colleagues Arjumand Siddiqi, Sandy Darity, and I did — so we were responding to the documented demographic data points about change in white Americans’ mortality. One of the arguments had been that was due to several things, the opioid crisis, growing economic insecurity, job polarization, and access to health care.
Well, one of the things that we actually find and argue in the data is that you see those deaths even in places where those indicators do not exist, where they have not experienced job losses, where they do enjoy access to health care and a certain amount of economic security. And our argument is that white people’s deaths of despair, as it has been called, is not as much about real losses in their status. It’s about perceived loss in their status, right?
The perception of loss was enough to undermine positive health outcomes and health-seeking behaviors. That point you were making that people feel like they have lost status, whether they’ve lost it or not. Well, that’s not about actual loss. That is about perceived loss, and that we so underappreciate how much perception matters to how much we’ll even accept facts, right?
Most people will just accept the facts that match what they already believe, you know? Confirmation bias and et cetera. We’ve seen this in vaccine roll-outs, right, where people’s political identity shapes what information they will accept about scientific evidence. Well, that happens in every facet of life. And so perception is just as important as any universal belief system and what’s true and what’s untrue, and that that perceived loss is enough for people to not seek out health care or to engage in dangerous health behaviors.
How else do you explain people arrested on Jan. 6 who perceived loss of status? And they engaged in — if you think about self-selecting into a conflict with armed police as a dangerous health behavior, that’s one way to think about it. You can quite literally get hurt, right? They elected to go into this risky behavior that could end in loss of life, and for several people did.
That’s a risky health behavior, and that’s about perceived status, and that we haven’t thought concretely enough about how dangerous privileged people will become if they just perceive that they have less privilege, not actual loss of privilege, but they perceive they have less privilege.
EZRA KLEIN: I wonder if one way of thinking, too, about this actual versus perceived is to think about base rates versus rates of change.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah.
EZRA KLEIN: You get this in economics all the time where people, particularly their politics, are much more driven by how their economic situation is changing than what it actually is. The fact that you’re richer than you were 10 years ago doesn’t matter in terms of a recession. If things are getting worse right now, you get really upset, and I think there’s something in this for white voters, for more conservative Christian voters, for more traditionalist Christian voters, where, still on top, no doubt about it, but in terms of groups raising and lowering their power in society, in terms of rates of change in status, the rate of change is bad.
White people feel that they are not as protected as they were, not as powerful. Christian folks feel they don’t have the hammerlock on politics they did, particularly white Christians, once upon a time, and that people are very sensitive not just to rates of economic change, which we in the literature forever, but they’re very sensitive, much more so than we give them credit for, to rates of status change.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes, actually. I think that’s a great way to think about it, and it’s actually like — when we talk about socioeconomic status, the addition of the socio to the economic status is something that was being said in I think my old sociological literature, the ’60s and ’70s, where we had something called like — we’d do these massive class structure and stratification tables. They said that people’s understanding of their economic position was conditioned on their social position, basically.
We got away from that understanding when we thought that there was more equal opportunity access to economic positioning. Well, yeah. That makes sense when you got a lock on something like male privilege in the workplace, but once women entered the workplace, we expected those things to level off. So it isn’t that those things stop being true. We did, however, stop studying them that way.
There became a real preference for saying that your economic position was so wedded to your social position because we were more egalitarian. And macro economists, especially more critical ones, will now say that what you’re really seeing is, with the polarization and the pulling apart of the economic structure, a re-emergence of the importance of how social position conditions your understanding of your economic position.
But if you look at women, however, women workers, for example, nonwhite workers, that’s always been true. It’s always been the case that we understand the fine-grained differences in our relative economic status based on who we are and our lack of social status. It is just more true now, however, for white workers, especially white males.
EZRA KLEIN: I always think that the political conversation here is driven basically mad by something that’s all over your work, which is that status is not stable.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah.
EZRA KLEIN: And there’s no agreement as to who is where, and that’s partially because who is where changes, but there’s a real different status hierarchy in elected politics and how power records there to where it is in culture to where it is and religion to where it is in a bunch of other parts of our society. One of the things I noticed in your work is that you are incredibly sensitive to using the way status changes for you moving in and out of different rooms as an example to showing it for others.
You really do use yourself as like, look what happened to me here, and look where I was here, and look where I was here. Could you talk a bit about that? Because we keep using status as a singular, but it’s not. It’s a shifting plural.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes, it is. It’s highly contextual, which is why we don’t like trying to measure it, frankly. And it is experienced subjectively but has objective consequences and measurable effects. That’s why it’s a really messy thing to try to understand. But as we start our conversation with the mess is where the good, important stuff is happening, and then we also are living in a time where — this is the technology piece.
Almost all of the dominant technological changes that have reshaped our world over the last 30 years have only made status more contextual. So it’s added a layer of how important context is to status. Audiences can be collapsed and expanded so quickly, and they can shift so rapidly, and there new forms of status emerging all the time driven by digital platforms and digital technologies and just digital ideas, the idea of technology.
And so at the very time that status has become more destabilized and contextual and transient, there are also ever new and emerging forms of status, right? One of the examples I like to give is you can be a celebrity, what we call a micro celebrity in some digital space, and that translates to absolutely no form of capital anywhere else.
I love these stories. They do them every few years where they go, oh, what happened to somebody who was in that massive meme, you know? And they’ll go find them, and they’re working in fast food, or they were doing what they were doing before, usually worse off because the celebrity impacted their ability to work and get a regular job. And so status has become decoupled in so many micro ways from economic relations.
And I use myself as an example because people are so resistant to thinking about themselves as being vulnerable. If I invite the reader to think about how much status they lose when they go from one room to another, very few people are ambitious enough and courageous enough to do that. It’s a level of vulnerability to ask from the reader to go, you know how you feel like such a girl boss when you go do x, right? But you know what happens when you leave that room and you go to this other room, right?
And it doesn’t feel good to people, but if they can project it onto me and experience it through the way I’ve learned to see myself as sort of like a meta-narrative as I move through the world, I think it shows them a model for, when they’re ready, a model for how to think about it in their own lives. I think of some of my work, especially in Thick and some of the essay work as just trying to model for people that you can understand that this thing is happening to you and it not change who you are, right?
I’m still who I am. I still have what I have, but I know there are rooms that enter where my status evaporates the second I walk in. You can almost feel it sometimes. You can become so attuned to it. I can feel when a room changes, and we know that feeling. If you’ve ever been someplace, when a celebrity walks in the room and the air gets that crickle-crackle feeling in it, right, we know it. We just don’t think of it as being something that happens with us and to us.
And so I use myself as an example to try to give people a way to develop a model of thinking about the world, that you don’t have to be afraid of acknowledging that because status exists and it makes you vulnerable, acknowledging it doesn’t change your vulnerability. You’re vulnerable whether you develop a language to think about it or not.
And that thing you talked about earlier, that psychological fissure that can happen when the world doesn’t recognize your status the way you think they should, developing a language is the most powerful thing we can do to protect ourselves from that kind of psychological trauma, that I may not be able to control how the world will see a really smart Black girl as she walks around in the world, but I can have a language for describing it, and I can know, at the end of the day, that if I can label it, if I can talk about it, it hasn’t completely broken me, and that more of us need that language. More is needed.
EZRA KLEIN: We’ve talked about some of the tributaries of status here, money, education, race, gender, politics. One of the really challenging essays from Thick, one that I still think about having read it now, I guess, a couple of years ago, is In the Name of Beauty, and attractiveness is a huge generator of life outcomes, of status. And you write in that that beauty isn’t actually what you look like. Beauty is the preferences that reproduce the existing social order. People talk about lookism. Is attractiveness a generator of status, or is it the reflection of it?
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Both. I just did a really fun project — fun for me project — about Dolly Parton, and I read a book, “She Come By It Natural” by Sarah Smarsh. And what Sarah is doing is she’s talking about her. She comes from a white working class rural family, woman-dominated family, a very matriarchal family, and I could relate. I come from a very patriarchal family, and she talks about the women in her life, in her family’s lives about how important it was for them to be attractive as working class white women.
And she said it wasn’t attractive the way attractive matters to my now upper middle class white peers. Her life has changed. Being attractive meant a level of security and very marginal economic mobility for white working class women. She was like, for us, staying thin or staying attractive or staying pretty was about just being able to get some favor at a really brutal job.
If I’m a waitress, then it means I get a slightly better shift because the manager thinks I’m cute, basically. Or it opens up an avenue to marry and get the hell out of the Blue Ridge Mountains, right? That marginal amounts of very conditioned and complicated status, that beauty and attractiveness was generating then in that space status. But it also — the idea of what is beautiful, about what is attractive is a reflection of our collective political values and is about reproducing the underlying economic relations embedded in them.
And the way you know that it’s true is because if beauty were some objective idea, the same thing would have been beautiful in 1880 that was beautiful in 1980 that will be beautiful in 2080. And in fact, what you see when you study ideas, popular ideas about what constitutes attractiveness and desire and beauty, is that they have changed to match whatever is the economically valued group of people in the world.
And so yeah, there’s some underlying — sometimes evolutionary psychologists like to point to work about how there’s a universal equation for beauty, like there’s a ratio. The beauty, I think, ratio is what they call it, that we all value eyes that are set to something, some weird math. And I go, or there was a global system of capital by the 1500s countries that developed an idea the world over that was predicated on an equation of beauty that was exported.
And when I do that, they always get very eh with me, but I also complicate the evolutionary psychology people because I think they are wild. That’s just a wild group of people, but looking for stable ideas across thousands of years is wild to me. But yet, we don’t think about — we’d like to think that beauty is just like the merit myth, so that we’d like to think of beauty as being objective at the same time that we want it to be achievable, right?
So this is the tension. And in every idea about merit that is both supposed to be inherited and achievable, and things cannot be both. If you inherit beauty but you can also achieve beauty, then inherited beauty won’t matter as much, right? And that’s the tension that we have and the ideas about what we’ll say is beautiful becomes a tool for consolidating status and opportunity and privilege for people who have inherited a social position.
One of my favorite ways to get people really upset is to talk about how much we valorize blondness in our culture, right? So here you have a biological blip, a set of recessive traits that has been elevated to almost a political ideology that we never, ever, ever critique as political or economic-based, but turn on the evening news tonight. Turn on Fox News, right? And you tell me what the visual comportment of power looks like.
EZRA KLEIN: I think all the time, just all the time, about how Hitler ran this genocidal campaign in service of an aesthetic ideal that he didn’t represent.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Didn’t embody, yeah.
EZRA KLEIN: It is — the mind crumbles. [LAUGHS]
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Mm-hm.
EZRA KLEIN: And not that it’s funny, obviously.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: I know what you mean.
EZRA KLEIN: But it’s just one of these things. Sometimes I sit there with that, and it is the strangest thing. I understand on some level going nuts in service of something that obviously accrues to your own power, but the whole thing he was fighting for, he would have been on the outs — it just — It drives people mad.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: It really, really does. It does.
EZRA KLEIN: I don’t know if you across this. I come across it a lot. There’s a what-aboutism around beauty and attractiveness that will come from people who say, oh, well, you care about discrimination or inequality or inequity that comes from race or gender or education or something else, but look at the research on unattractiveness, and you don’t seem to care about that. And it’s always from people don’t care about any of them who are saying this.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Anything else. Uh-huh. Yeah.
EZRA KLEIN: But it actually is, but I do think that it’s a critique worth taking seriously in the sense that there is something real to it, that we really do treat people differently in society based on height, based on looks, and we don’t have a very good critical discourse around that, in part because I think it implicates us too much, right? It’s very hard to talk about something that you’re part of that you can’t change or don’t want to change what you’re attracted to, or don’t want to think too hard about where it came from. It feels like a pretty expansive vista for complication. Not that, obviously, a lot of scholars haven’t been doing this for a long time, just that, in the public conversation, it’s a little thinner.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. And it’s the one that goes at the heart of — listen, you don’t own a lot in a leasing society, right? So here’s a society where we running out of stuff. We don’t get much, OK? Many of us are going to be renters forever. So the idea of the things that are naturally occurring that emerge from our true selves, I think we have always put value in that, but I think we especially put value in that now.
So this is the part where people will feel implicated, I think, in critiquing beauty privilege or whatever, attractiveness privilege, is what they think we’re saying is who you are attracted to is a social construction and a political problem. And well, here’s the truth. That is exactly what I’m saying. I am saying that that is not nearly as natural as you think it is, and that one of the most basic ways that we are all implicated in the status hierarchy is in naturalizing those differences and saying that they are naturally occurring.
And then that gets really, really, really fuzzy when I think it pushes people on thinking about something like gender and desire. I think that there is a lot of resistance coming from that side, but I also just think there’s just sort of a routine uncritical resistance to the idea that you’re going to try to police what I find attractive, and you’re going to tell me that even that is a political problem. And yeah, it kind of is.
EZRA KLEIN: I think it’s hard in a lot of these conversations to hold the idea that what we believe, think, do, intuitive reactions we have do reflect political problems, but they are not sins.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Oh, yeah. The morality. Yeah. Yeah.
EZRA KLEIN: Yeah. People have a lot of difficulty. Even I have a lot of difficulty with the idea that there can be things about me that don’t fit my politics. That can be an interesting fact and worth interrogating without it being something that I have to like loathe myself for.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. One thing I didn’t get from my family was — we are what I call culturally Baptists. We show up on Easter and Christmas, and we do some of the things, but we were not like devout churchgoers, which actually made us quite different in the places that we were from where the church is the center of the social and economic life of Black communities, right?
We kind of participated, but we didn’t bring a lot of that home. And I think because of that, I never had some of the moral baggage. I mean, I have some that just comes from, I think, living in a secularly religious society, but I never internalized that because I am a part of a thing that’s bad, I am bad. And I actually will forget sometimes that other people aren’t like me in that regard.
And yeah, they’ll start spinning out. And I’ll go, what’s wrong with you? And somebody will say, Tressie, you basically just went at the core of their entire belief system. But I was like, well, all I said was you like blondes, and that’s a little eugenicist. I mean, I don’t know why you’re now crying. And apparently, because I don’t have that impulse, I forget to be empathetic with others. So thank you for reminding me. Yes, it does, I think, make people feel really bad.
EZRA KLEIN: But also, just, I don’t know. I don’t want to get prescriptive here coming to the end of this, but when we were talking earlier about mediums for thicker conversations and how do you have them, and how do you have this, like, what you described as a unified moral panic about our categorization systems without it feeling like a panic and without it feeling like a war of all against all.
I feel like there’s something here that’s really important in the way you approach it that makes a lot of sense for why you’re good at talking about these things because, somehow, it has to be OK that we are going to fall on the wrong side of even our categories. And I don’t know that we can do that in these spaces that are so tuned for shame that are tuning us for shame. You somehow have to — it has to be safer than it is to have some conversation because, if it isn’t safe, you can’t you can’t admit any of it.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: I actually have a really counterintuitive position on shame which is that it can serve a social function when it is divorced from some of the other social functions. So one of the problems right now is that social shame, which I think in and of itself is enough, usually, to discipline most people, is now tied to economic and political and cultural capital in sort of a way, and people feel that in a really gut level, and I think they’re right to feel it.
Shame is important to kind of like get people to adhere, especially to new norms, and we got to have. And so I’m always like, you don’t want to take shame off the table. What we probably do need to have happen is we need to divorce it from our micro celebrity driven culture.
EZRA KLEIN: That is such a good point.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Where your systems are the people, right? People become avatars for a whole system of thought, and I’m just like, well, that’s almost never going to work, the celebritization of some of these things that are always supposed to be really contentious sort of trade-offs, right? Well celebrity is not set up for trade-offs. Most of what we do for work is not set up for trade-offs, but our status is set up for that.
And so that’s probably where we confine those conversations to. I think is perfectly fine to say, when somebody is on the wrong side of one of our political values, to say I don’t mess with them when they’re talking about minimum wage, right? They’ve been wrong on it. When they get started on minimum wage, I tune out. And for that to be the take away, tune out on so on so when they do minimum wage because they don’t know what they’re talking about, and they’re on the wrong side of history on this one, but to say but that person tends to be in the pocket on X, and we’ll listen to him on X. That would be to me contextual and status-based.
Like, OK, let’s not give them status on this idea, but give them some status on it that idea. But micro celebrity and the microeconomics of writing into public life right now really privilege everybody being a generalist and a universalist who performs being an ideologue, and you just can’t do all of that. You can’t do it all.
EZRA KLEIN: Ooh, let me try to make this comparison. So this feels technological, at least in part. We were talking earlier about your work on how status doesn’t follow you room to room, how you change room to room, but one of the problems online to what you were just saying about how many things shame attaches to is our, at least our group identity, our name online is cohesive.
And the things that attach to it, which are not everything. It’s a very flattened identity. Only a certain number of things attach to it, but the things that are attached to it follow it into every room, follow it into every Google search, follow it into what anybody would know about that online identity, and it’s very then hard to change it. You can’t get out of the room, and we don’t really know what to do with that well.
And it’s funny because were talking earlier. I think it almost maybe sounded negative that the things in our lives are contextual. But in many ways, I think the problem with our online identities, which now, as you’re saying, are our economic identities, our cultural identities, et cetera, is they are noncontextual. They are decontextualized.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. That efficiency and maximization piece again, the thing is, technologies can only maximize and increase efficiencies in a system of unequal distribution. It’s just going to make unequal distribution more efficient, and it’s just going to maximize it. And in the case of our very identities, that’s what it does most effectively. It flattens differences and distinctions and elevates the place where you have cobbled together the most consensus, even if that consensus is itself negative and decontextualized, but it will drive efficiencies of driving up consensus, even if the consensus is negative, and that there might be some value in there being contextual spaces where, in this space, I am an expert. In this space, I’m just a member of the audience, right? And in this space, I’m a membership of a group who has a group position, and we’re trying to move forward a group agenda, and that we cannot do that when we attach our work to our identity.
So what we may have here is just a fundamental critique of, should we be our work? And I always tell people, if you judge me by Twitter, that’s on you because I write all the time. And I have made as much of it free as I possibly can. So I’m like, you can judge me on what I write, but I’ve never told you to pay attention to me in these other contexts, and that is one of my ways of trying to navigate that.
If I write and I articulate a reasoned, more thoughtful position on something and I make it freely available, then I always feel like I’ve got plausible deniability on the fallibility of being a digital person, an internet person, right? That’s me trying to build a buffer. It’s harder to do when you don’t control where you write, and you can’t control the circulation of your ideas, but yeah. That’s what I think I’m trying to get around.
The technology is never going to give us that affordance. We’re going to have to come up with social norms about it. The technology just can’t differentiate. The economics aren’t there. The political structure regulation isn’t there to make it differentiate. So what we really would be asking for is something like where we own all of our data and we could change access to different parts of the data we produce in different ways. We just don’t have that environment. So that means social norms are going to have to do it.
My challenge is this. I want those social norms to bubble up from the actual vulnerable people and not to be imposed top down from the people who only perceive that they are vulnerable.
EZRA KLEIN: I think that’s the good challenge right there. You want to do some book recommendations?
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Oh, yes. Yes.
EZRA KLEIN: All right. What’s a work of cultural criticism you’d recommend?
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Oh, yeah. And this is not only one of the more recent things I’ve read, but it is one of the better things I’ve read, and so I got lucky in that regard, and that is Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong. I think everybody who says that they are an essayist and a popular culture critic right now needs to be chasing this book.
EZRA KLEIN: What’s the best book by a contemporary sociologist who isn’t you?
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: I’m actually going to recommend something that, in my dream scenario, these things would come together in a pack when you went to the store. Like, if you bought one, you get the other, and that is Sabrina Strings, who’s a sociologist, and she has a book called “Fearing the Black Body,” “Fearing the Black Body,” that actually gets it some of what we were talking about, the construction of beauty, how we have defined beauty to be antithetical to whatever our racialized assumptions were of difference at any point in time in history, and that if that’s the line you take, then beauty has been stable. The construction of beauty has been whatever was not the racialized moral panic of the time. And so it’s a really great book.
EZRA KLEIN: We managed to have so many interesting conversations, so I didn’t expect that I never got to all of my education questions for you, but because you’ve done so much education work, what’s the book you recommend on thinking about education?
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Well, when I think about education, I am most often thinking about higher ed. So this is going to be the higher ed book. I think it’s just the GOAT. I think you got to do the GOAT book, and this was one of those when we talked about the difference between census reading and reading around. This is a census book. So that’s why I say these things still matter to do. It’s just I want people to do both, but you got to read Jerome Karabel’s “The Chosen,” which is the history of selective admissions in elite higher education.
I, as a person, do not care about Ivy League institutions. I tell people this all the time, and I think they think I’m doing that to angle for a job at one, and I promise you I’m not, but we are always, always in a long historical conversation in higher ed circles in this country with the foundations of how selective admissions were designed. And until we fully understand that, you can’t grapple with something like student loan debt or why people keep showing up for paying $100,000 for a master’s degree that has a symbol on it, right? We got to get that, again, status.
EZRA KLEIN: Then finally, always our last one, what’s your favorite children’s book?
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Well, I should have said a Judy Blume book, considering we’ve lost her recently. And certainly, there are many of hers on that list, but my sentimental favorite will always be “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred Taylor. I often call this book — it was baby’s first novel. It was a longer book, right? I wasn’t a children’s reader, so I felt very grown up when I read this book. Didn’t have any pictures in it. I was so impressed with myself, and it is the kind of story — I mean, I saw myself in that story in a way that was really new for me at that age and at that time, and the book holds up. I reread it again within the last year and a half or so, and it really holds up.
EZRA KLEIN: Did it really? I remember reading that as a kid. And actually, it was almost too adult for me.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Well, that’s why I liked it, to be fair, and probably why I now think it holds up because now I’m the adult, right? I thought it nailed the emotions of a certain point in history without being too heavy-handed, but it was adult in a way that all kids don’t get to be kids. That’s kind of the moral of that story. So when we’re talking about a moment when the adultification of young men of color and young women of color, making them more vulnerable to police violence and et cetera, one of the my adult takeaways from the book is that not all kids get to be kids in the same way, and that’s probably why I liked it as a kid.
EZRA KLEIN: Tressie McMillan Cottom, thank you so much. What a pleasure.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: It really was a really good time. For a thing that did not involve cocktails or dinner, this was a lot of fun. Thanks, Ezra.
EZRA KLEIN: Well, next time we can do it with cocktails.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: I’m holding you to it.
EZRA KLEIN: That is the show. We’ll see if I keep doing this, but I thought it might be fun to offer occasional recommendations of my own here at the end, and here’s mine for today. I just watched “My Octopus Teacher” on Netflix, which is in their nominated for Oscars documentaries category, but it’s all about a guy’s friendship with an octopus, and it is wonderful.
I think I need to do a show about octopi at some point. I’ve been reading some books on them. And then after watching this, it’s really strange how much we just have a wonderful alien-style intelligence on this planet and how little attention we actually pay to that fact. But if you want to just — I don’t exactly want to say trip out here, but if you really want to enter a different world for a while, “My Octopus Teacher,” it’s terrific.
If you want help the show, you can leave us a review wherever you are listening, or you can email this episode or text it or however you kids share your episodes to a friend, if you think they’d enjoy it, or family member. It’s a great way for the show to grow, and we always really appreciate it when you do it. “The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld, fact-checked by Michelle Harris, original music by Isaac Jones, and mixing by Jeff Geld.
17:26okay so I think I think that myself I17:29might be a little bit of an outlier as a17:31as a club girl because I was much older17:34by about ten years even though I was17:36still referred to ubiquitously as a girl17:37but yeah I mean I had a professional job17:41in a career and I was I was in here17:42doing for one thing but looking at the17:44other women that are in the scene I mean17:47it’s really quite a range of of outcomes17:50I think they it might increase the most17:55their social capital in the sense that17:58they get more ties to people in18:00different kinds of realms than they18:03would if they weren’t a part of this18:05world so you know if they stayed in18:07Nebraska and didn’t try try out modeling18:10or if they tried out modeling but stayed18:12in the models apartment and didn’t go18:14you know to the Hamptons and to San18:15Tropez with the promoter I think that18:18you know on the margins they do gain18:20they gain those kinds of cosmopolitan18:22experiences which might be convertible18:25for something valuable in the future I18:27think that they gain friendship ties to18:30people that they otherwise wouldn’t be18:31exposed to you especially other women I18:33think it is a really important scene18:35where women can connect to each other I18:37don’t think it’s that valuable of a18:39scene where women can connect to rich18:41men so this is a question that people18:43always want to know like well you know18:45don’t these young women these club girls18:48don’t they like fetch a rich man for a18:51husband and this is a you know kind of18:53great dating and mating market and I18:55think the answer to that is no why don’t18:58why not because the well-to-do men are19:00there the attractive women are there19:03right in a lot of other settings you see19:05frequent pairings what stops it from19:08happening in the club yeah so even19:11though women who look like fashion19:13models are so valuable in this scene for19:15lending status they’re devalued for the19:18assumption that they’re just beautiful19:20and specifically the kind of women that19:23are like club girls going out night19:24after night they’re seen as being19:26unserious like this is this is not the19:28pool of future wives this is not the19:30pool of future business partners this is19:32a pool of hookups and people have a very19:35specific term that they use to describe19:37girls that are very valuable to the club19:40and19:40to the promoters but completely devalued19:43outside of the club and that’s the party19:45girl so people would just dismiss party19:48girls as being like I’m serious19:50you know like women women that you want19:52to have it the party but you don’t want19:53to see them the next day yeah so that19:57it’s kind of a I don’t know like being19:59tainted by going into the club and20:02taking advantage of all of the things20:04that the club can offer to a beautiful20:06young woman by making that trade of her20:09beauty for access she’s assumed to be20:12just a party girl as you probably know20:16there’s some modest degree of evidence20:18that attractive people are smarter on20:20average at least so why isn’t it the20:23case that these suppose and party girls20:25a lot of them are quite bright they20:27figure out ways of signaling that20:29they’re smart which is not hard to do in20:31conversation mm-hm20:33but have some well-to-do men who maybe20:35find it hard to meet the beautiful women20:37they want to marry and they go to the20:39club and they look for the signals from20:41the really smart party girls why doesn’t20:43the market work that way why keep apart20:47so it definitely can it worked that way20:50and I think there’s lots of success20:52stories where it does work that wayMelania Trump for example met DonaldTrump at one of these party not not oneof these parties in these nightclubs butshe was introduced at a party that wasrun by her then fashion modeling agentwho was actually regular and one in thiswhole VIP circuit so she was kind ofconnected to this world and that’s whereshe met the you know very rich andsuccessful businessman it by the way shealso had to work pretty hard when shewas introduced to the national stage toclear the reputation that she’s not aparty girl there was like all of thiseffort to say like Melania Trump was agood girl she didn’t go out too muchright she happened to be at this oneparty but she was not a party girl so soI can work and I think there’s probablylots of stories where that does work but21:38for the majority of the cases of the21:39young women who are brought to these21:42clubs with the promoters they it doesn’t21:47work for them because they’re staying21:48with the promoter the promoters job is21:50to keep them at the table their primary21:53being there is signaling their beauty it21:57becomes difficult to try to forge any22:00kind of meaningful connection when the22:02lights are low and the music is loud you22:04know there’s people are you know talking22:07but really like shouting into each22:08other’s ears and so the the setup of22:11that kind of a situation works against22:14any woman who’s trying to show that she22:17is like a real intellectual or she is22:19you know it has some kind of22:20occupational or educational prestige I22:22have so many naive uninformed questions22:25but why is the music so loud in these22:27clubs I found the music loud in22:32McDonald’s right right and so clubs are22:38kind of there also in this business of22:39trying to manufacture and experience22:41like the that annual Durkheim would call22:44this collective effervescence like22:46losing yourself in a moment and that’s22:48really possible when you’re able to kind22:50of tune out the other things like I22:53don’t know if somebody is feeling22:57insecure about the way they dance or if22:59somebody’s not sure of what to say23:01having really loud music that has a beat23:03where everybody just is the same thing23:05which is like nod to the beat that helps23:07to kind of tune people into one another23:10and it helps build up a vibe and a kind23:12of energy and so that’s the the the23:14point is to sort of lose yourself in the23:16music in these spaces putting aside your23:19research interests how much fun was it23:22for you to be in these gloves all right23:25so I always say like I really wish that23:27I had met these promoters when I was 1823:29because I was in New York I was studying23:31at Hunter College for a year and if I23:34had met the promoters then it would have23:36been fantastic it would have gotten to23:38you know travel and eat and drink for23:40free and stay out all night and enjoy23:44but when I was going back in into this23:47world of New York when I was 30 31 and23:5132 yeah it was pretty difficult23:54it was pretty grueling so just to put it23:56in perspective the dinner with the23:57promoters would start at around 1023:59o’clock at night we head to a club at24:01around midnight and we stay there until24:033:00 a.m. and the high heels are very24:05high like the expectation is that when24:07where these really high high so it’s24:09like physically hard to to keep up and24:11be in these phases I think that for some24:14of the younger women that’s their thing24:16like they’ll of house music or they love24:18hip hop music they love to stay out late24:20get dressed up be looked at you know get24:22drunk have drugs it’s it’s fantastic for24:25for a young person it’s hard to convey24:27that kind of fun and it was hard hard24:30for me you know being like a sober24:32thirty year olds to also feel it now why24:37don’t they just pay the women to go to24:38the clubs as you know in economics it’s24:40typically assumed a cash payment it’s24:43more efficient than free tuna rolls what24:46stops that from happening24:47right always asking this of the women I24:51would and I would say like you know why24:53don’t we just like band together and24:55agree to show up at the club together24:56and then we’ll each get paid a hundred24:58dollars as opposed to going through all25:00of these efforts of the promoter you25:02know cajoling us and mobilizing us and25:04then he gets paid a thousand dollars and25:06the answer was always no I don’t want it25:08to be work I want it to be fun this is25:11leisure not labor and there’s all of25:12these efforts that are expended to make25:14it look like it’s not work although it25:16is I mean the women are performing a25:18really valuable labor to the club and25:20lots of profits are being made off of25:22them but they don’t want to think about25:25it in terms of work and occasionally25:27some promoters if they’re running low on25:29girls or they’re in a desperate25:31situation for the night they’ll call a25:33girl and and offer her say $40 or $80 to25:37come out as paid and this is looked down25:40on by other women is as being like an25:43act of desperation it’s going to ruin25:45the fun of the night because you have to25:46be there as opposed to wanting to be25:48there but that seems like a funny norm25:51so occasionally I may say to give talks25:53I can assure you that does not take away25:55from the fun that’s what I do25:58couldn’t the young women all just drop26:00this norm and they would get paid and be26:02better off aren’t they laboring under26:04some kind of false consciousness here it26:06is it – it’s a degrading experience in26:09some ways right the loud music so you26:12why not on the money side get the better26:15outcome right so it’s a degrading26:17experience if it’s not fun26:19if it’s not made meaningful and the26:20promoters that are really good at their26:22job they do it really well to make it26:24meaningful with the young women so26:26they’re not just recruiting models off26:30the street you know giving them some26:31free tuna rolls and then you know have26:34it saying like wear heels and dance it’s26:37actually the the promoters spend a lot26:39of time developing intimacy and26:42connections with the young women they26:44talk about each other as friends they26:45use this language of friendship they see26:47themselves as supporting one another and26:50the girls are loyal to the promoter and26:53so under these kinds of terms when the26:56women go out with the promoter it’s26:59usually a combination of things maybe27:01she’s needing free dinner maybe she27:04doesn’t have any friends because she’s27:06new to New York City maybe she is27:07sleeping with the promoter and she27:09thinks that she’s his girlfriend or27:10maybe she really likes the promoter27:12because they go to the movies every27:13Wednesday afternoon and promoters do27:16that they’ll invite they’ll invite girls27:18for bowling or for picnics or to you27:21know whatever Disneyland and so these27:24are relationships that the promoters are27:25cultivating which there then profiting27:27from so it feels meaningful it doesn’t27:30feel degrading and for the women from27:32whom it does feel degrading they27:34typically don’t last very long or they27:35leave over the course of the night and27:37they say this isn’t for me let’s say you27:39sat down with one of these 20 year old27:41young women and you taught them27:43everything you know from your studies27:45what you know about bodily capital and27:47sociological theories of exploitation27:49you could throw at them whatever you27:51wanted they would read the book they27:52would listen to your video talk with you27:55would that change their behavior any I27:57don’t think so no I don’t think so I28:01think that they might not be too28:05surprised even to learn the that this is28:09a job for promoters and the promoters28:11make money doing this most of them know28:12that they didn’t know how much money28:14promoters are making they don’t know how28:16much money the clubs are making but they28:18know that they’re contributing to those28:20profits and they know that there’s this28:22inequality built into it you know for28:25some of the women that had a belief that28:28they had the exclusive affections and28:31attention28:31the promoter that might come as a28:34surprise and those are the those are the28:36satyr moments that I discovered in this28:38economy when promoters are misleading28:42the young women into thinking that they28:45genuinely have you know exclusive28:48romantic or intimate intentions when28:50often a promoter might be sleeping with28:53two or three or several models in order28:56to get them to come out with him at28:58night so for those women they might that29:02might be the drawing line because it’s29:04such an egregious abuse but in this29:07world there’s a widespread assumption29:09that everybody uses everybody else I29:11mean the women are using the club for29:13the pleasures that they can get from it29:15they’re using the promoter for the29:16pleasures they can get from him the29:18access the promoters are using the young29:20women the clients using the promoters29:22the drawing line is when there’s a29:24perception of abuse that people have a29:27clear sense that you know lying about29:30being exclusively romantic would be a29:32clear violation so that would be abusive29:34but use is okay mutual exploitation is29:37okay the margin do you think this world29:40should be taxed or subsidized by local29:43policy and I mean the words tax and29:45subsidize in a broad way like noise29:47ordinances opening hours their implicit29:49policy decisions that help her harm29:52these ventures what should the policy29:53stance be29:55okay well this is kind of out there I29:59think that as as a labor issue30:03this shows the really unequal and unfair30:07terms of the modeling industry in30:10particular and the modeling industry is30:12generating so much profit for the club30:16industry I mean the these unpaid women30:18in the modeling industry they’re also30:21generating huge like untold profits all30:23of these other industries that benefit30:25from their presence in the clubs like30:27finance or real estate where all of30:30these networks of powerful businessmen30:32get consolidated in part you know30:34softened through the presence of unpaid30:36women from the modeling industry so I30:38think that there could be some case to30:40be made that fashion unpaid fashion30:44models or low paid fashion models are30:46doing enormous unpaid labor for all of30:48these other hugely profitable industries30:50where disproportionately the profits are30:52going to men so I could see30:54redistribution working in that direction30:56but if you can’t talk them out of what30:59they’re doing given everything you know31:01and you would be the person to try to do31:03it right right is it that you’re you31:07know paternalistic or maternal istic31:09towards them or you don’t want to31:11respect their preferences or I mean how31:15do you see this at the meta level I31:16think that people participate in their31:18own exploitation all the time I mean you31:20see this in all kinds of different forms31:22of work as academics like yeah you get31:24paid for your talks but you’re doing a31:26lot of work that’s unpaid and31:28uncompensated and often unrecognized as31:30well like all of the service work all of31:33the other things that academia runs on31:34it also a lot of this is free labor that31:38we give up because we believe in it and31:39we find it validating and someone should31:41tell us not to do it but we’d probably31:43still do it anyway because it’s31:44validating so I think that exploitation31:46works best when it’s pleasurable and31:49when it’s made meaningful but that31:50doesn’t mean that the inequities can’t31:52be challenged at a structural level if I31:56had a subjective level people consent to31:57them whose evidence say that academics32:01are left-leaning dentists tend to lean32:03more toward the right what are the32:04politics of fashion models on average32:07but they’re they’re young this is a32:10population of people who are young and32:12often you know politically unexperienced32:15and often not educated especially for32:17women the age for a fashion model is32:19typically they’re late teenage years32:21into their 20s this is the company this32:23is the age for you know going to college32:26so so yeah um I would have to say that32:31they are amorphous and you know perhaps32:34they’re leaning left if for no other32:36reason because it’s a creative industry32:38and they’re exposed to more creatives32:41and Bohemians who tend to lean to the32:43left or tend to be more progressive why32:46is the scouting model so common for32:48finding women who might be fashioning32:50fashion models there’s a scout he goes32:52up to a woman he says you have that look32:54come with me why are things done that32:57way I think that’s happening less and33:00less in a digital and globally connected33:02world so it used to be that Scouts would33:04travel all across the like nine time33:06zones of Russia and go to these beauty33:09pageants across all these different33:10little cities and you know pluck someone33:13from obscurity and send her to Paris but33:15now there’s so many small modeling33:17agencies or even even just women with33:20Wi-Fi connections and instagrams all33:22around the world that they can email33:24their pictures directly to a scout who’s33:26based in New York so I think that that33:27model is starting to cut down where the33:31professional paid Scout whose job is to33:33go on the hunt will become less and less33:36or is becoming less and less but that33:38person will just look through pictures33:41on their computer they’re still scouting33:43but in a different form but isn’t there33:45some physical presence or charisma that33:47doesn’t come through in a photograph and33:49you need a good scout for that because33:51modeling may be mainly isn’t even about33:54looks right so the thing that models33:58sell in the market is called a look but34:00you’re definitely right that it’s part34:02physicality but part personality and34:04that comes through in a picture it comes34:05through in a walk and also a34:06conversation I think a lot can be34:08captured in video and zoom and Instagram34:12so you know I think there are ways to34:15capture that but a scowl maybe who gets34:20a34:20picture and gets the videos that they34:22like from somebody would eventually need34:25to go and meet them in their part of the34:27world it also probably you know34:29depending if it’s a woman in her age to34:31meet her parents as well and to develop34:34a rapport so that someone would feel34:37good about sending their teenage34:38daughter to a new market how good a34:41scout would you be a fashion models well34:47I’m a little bit shy I think when I to34:49go and talk to people so I think that a34:52good Scout they have to have a good eye34:54that’s the primary thing to to see that34:57what they would call like a diamond in34:58the rough I could do that I think that35:00any model that’s gone through the system35:02and is exposed to this kind of look over35:05and over can make these assessments and35:07to kind of see things together how35:08different features come together but I35:11think that Scouts also I’ve spent some35:13time with them they have a kind of ease35:15and talking to young people and they35:16have an ease and talking with their35:18parents and I I just don’t have that I35:20think I would feel awkward or like35:23creepy or in some way like offering35:25false dreams that I think probably I35:27would have serious hesitations about35:29trying to pull somebody into the35:32modeling industry if a good quality35:34Scout goes up to a 17 year old young35:36woman and approaches are about being a35:39model I mean what’s the median or modal35:41reaction to that okay so I know this35:46from interviewing the the models for my35:48first book it surprised its surprised35:51because I say I said so a scout has to35:53be able to identify a look and to be35:55able to see how somebody who is not in35:59the context of the fashion modeling36:00industry could be you know really great36:02under certain kinds of conditions and so36:04these are usually young women’s their36:06scouting stories are like you know I was36:08just coming out of soccer practice or I36:10was just getting off of like an36:11overnight airplane and I had braces and36:14you know I was the ugly duckling and36:15yeah nobody nobody looked twice at me in36:18middle school and then here’s this36:20person you know saying I should be a36:21model in London or something so yeah36:24surprise36:24but do ninety percent just tell the guy36:26to buzz off or what do they do I think36:30if it makes I mean that surprise can36:31come with like fear that this is some36:34it might be shady it could also come36:36yeah with the sense of like disinterest36:40I think that a lot of people in the36:43modeling industry they have a couple of36:44experiences with getting scouted so the36:46first time might be complete surprise36:48and like yeah this might be creepy or36:50like buzz off not interested right now36:52but if it happens again or a third time36:53then it the idea starts to start to36:56develop that maybe there’s something to36:58it and I was yeah did you respond so37:04sorry having a couple of times in at the37:07mall that a scout would would come37:09approached me which state is this yeah37:12so I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta37:14sent a lot of diamonds I fashioned malls37:16in Atlanta and my peers and so yeah37:19Scout would come up and say like all you37:20I’d love for you to come into the office37:22and you know we could probably work if37:25you’re interested – have you ever37:26thought about becoming a model but by37:27that point by that time that that had37:30happened I was already told by people37:33and like my friends in high school that37:35you know I was skinny enough that I37:37looked like one of these girls in these37:41magazines and I should consider it so it37:42was already kind of on my mind that it37:44was something that I wanted to do and37:45then of course my mom she sent me a37:47Vogue magazine 1993 Cindy Crawford was37:52on the cover I still have it and I and I37:55just got really into whatever fashion37:57modeling was I didn’t fully understand37:58but I was like I want to be this do you38:02regret having been a model no not at all38:06I regret that I didn’t use it in a38:11smarter way38:12because I was I think that you know I38:14started traveling to Milan in Japan when38:17I was 19 and 20 and so that’s still38:21quite a young age I think like mentally38:25and emotionally to kind of pick up and38:27go somewhere but if I sometimes feel38:31like if I had had38:32I don’t know better if I knew what I38:35know now you know back then I could have38:38built stronger connections with38:41interesting people like I could have38:43tried harder to understand the38:46creative side of producing fashion yeah38:50I could have tried tarted to get38:52involved in photography which I found38:54interesting but it was always kind of on38:55the margins of so it it opens up all38:57these doors that you know frankly at 1838:59I wasn’t really capable of seeing it’s a39:03significant subset of models who at39:05least to me appear to be distant39:07unapproachable and they look pissed off39:09why is that39:11there’s a wonderful dissertation at the39:14University of Amsterdam called my39:16fashion models don’t smile don’t they so39:20it depends which segment of the fashion39:22modeling market we’re talking about so39:23if you look in your catalogs that you39:26know used to come in the mail that now39:28are mostly online models are pretty39:30relatable that they they have the kind39:32of look that would be described as39:33girl-next-door or like a classic apple39:35pie and you see a lot of smiles when39:37people are selling things directly in39:39the catalog or commercial realm on39:40television commercials as well really39:42relatable people aspirational in the way39:45they look they look good but they’re39:46connecting they’re smiling and they’re39:48not meant to be intimidating unlike the39:51editorial side of fashion which is like39:53the catwalk or the magazines especially39:56the vogue magazines these are the kinds39:59of looks of models that are projecting40:02what people in the fashion world think40:05of as being in fashion and those kinds40:08of models almost never smile there’s40:10almost never a smile on the catwalk it’s40:12remarkable it’s supposed to be all about40:13showing the clothes and projecting this40:16aspirational distant kind of beauty that40:20is not meant to be relatable40:22if I could add you know just a lesson40:24from the art world is that the more the40:28more people and the more kind of40:30socially different types of people that40:32a work of art is meant to relate to the40:35lesser its value so in the editorial end40:38of the market the fact that your average40:40consumer doesn’t get that kind of look40:43doesn’t doesn’t get that cold distant on40:45smiling body your face that’s kind of40:48deliberate it’s not meant to make sense40:50to you it’s meant to make sense to like40:51the Anna Wintour’s of the world now when40:54your work on modeling in Japan you once40:56wrote that Western female models in40:59Japan41:00or often portrayed as quote silly41:02harmless and incompetent why is that41:04equilibrium in Japan so yeah I’m out in41:09Japan and these are just some41:10observations I mean I don’t know if it’s41:13I didn’t do a comparison with the local41:18models like Japanese models but indeed41:21there were lots of observations I took41:24of the Western models coming into Japan41:27and doing all kinds of just bizarre41:30silly things infantilizing things I41:32think that there’s some interpretivist41:35cultural studies that I reference in41:38that paper that suggested this is a way41:40of I don’t know diffusing or yeah41:43diffusing the Western hegemony or maybe41:47maybe bridging the divide between you41:50know Western beauty and Eastern Beauty41:52but I’m really not sure but that also41:55might account for what you call the41:57models passivity in the Japanese market41:59well yeah but it’s really the terms of42:01the work in the Japanese market it42:03produces passive passivity unlike42:06anything I’ve ever experienced because42:08the the language barrier and the the42:13ways that models would usually have a42:15little bit of control in the casting42:17situation is to talk to show their42:20personality is you know to connect to42:22relate and it’s really difficult in the42:24Japanese market because Western models42:27not only do they not speak Japanese in42:28most Japanese people do not speak42:30English the fashion world and lots of42:32other worlds42:33so the solution there is that every42:36agency has like a manager whose job is42:39also to drive the models to their42:41castings and then introduce the models42:43to the clients and then clients talk in42:45Japanese and the model stands there and42:48then the manager introduces the next one42:50so it’s like a just a very weird kind of42:53passive experience it also meant that a42:56lot of my time in Tokyo was spent in the42:58back of a van being driven around with43:00like Ukranian teenagers looking out the43:03window in the middle of these tracks we43:07usually have a segment overrated versus43:09underrated I’ll toss out a few notions43:12you tell me what you think are you43:15the importance of what sociologists call43:18loose ties overrated or underrated is43:24there an option to say it’s like43:25appropriate of course yeah I think this43:30is appropriate I mean I think that I43:33would be either some somewhat doing a43:39disservice to my discipline if I were to43:41say that it’s been overrated because it43:43is one of the major findings within43:45economic sociology that’s kind of43:47continually shown that there all these43:49advantages for having loose ties43:51arms-length ties the French sociologist43:54Pierre Bourdieu overrated or underrated43:57Oh again I have to be careful here44:03because you know one of my fields is44:04cultural sociology again write a paper44:06without citing the guy and I really44:09would say it’s a very 1970s 1980s French44:13notion of hierarchy that is itself44:15hierarchical very limited he covers44:18gender only much later yeah it probably44:21doesn’t even apply to the rest of France44:23yet truer true or false it’s true yeah44:27it’s true and there have been important44:28correctives44:29to that but I think that it was a huge44:31contribution to insert culture into44:34class hierarchy so everybody pays homage44:37for that reason the movie Zoolander44:40overrated or underrated underrated and44:42we should all still watch Zoolander this44:46is a fantastic treatise on like gender44:48and the impossibilities of male Beauty44:51it’s one of my favorites Miami Beach is44:54it actually fun overrated what do you44:56think overrated yeah over it overrated44:59although there’s you know pockets of it45:02that I think are probably more45:03interesting but they the kind of glossy45:05glitzy glamorous part of Miami Beach45:07totally overrated I mean it’s your thing45:10of like all glamour bad food Osaka Japan45:15what do you think um it’s been like 1545:19years by yeah yeah I like those little45:25octopus fried balls under right45:27okay you didn’t remember it would have45:30to be overrated right REM the musical45:35group you went to school in Athens45:37Georgia yeah underrated there yeah45:39although you’re at right now I think45:41that well because of that hit song it’s45:43the end of the world as we know it45:44they’re they’re having a moment coming45:46back45:47perhaps unfortunate champagne I don’t45:50like it am I wrong am I missing45:52something45:52data signaling so much of your work is45:56about signaling do you have to conclude45:57champagne is overrated I have to46:00conclude is overrated but there is46:02something really delightful about it as46:04a party good because you can shake it46:06and spray it without like destroying46:08clothes unlike say red wine and it’s46:10bubbly and you know this is kind of mad46:14it has a sort of fun magical quality so46:16yeah on the whole overrated but well46:19overrated because you can get all those46:21things with Prosecco here’s a question46:24from a reader and I quote quote how has46:26her own beauty and glamour influenced46:28her career academic career does she find46:31beauty based biases in academia either46:34positive or negative end quote yeah well46:38I think it looks matter everywhere in46:39academia is no exception46:41in my own experience there’s this46:45double-edged sword for women’s beauty so46:49some studies show that you know it’s46:51important for women especially to46:53conform to these traditional notions of46:56beautiful but they can’t overdo it in46:58the professional workplace so some47:00makeup is appropriate but like too much47:03eyeliner is considered you know to47:05sexual and inappropriate so yeah I tried47:09to balance that for instance even before47:11I got my job at Boston University I was47:14coached by my adviser to dress you know47:17in a fairly drab way to really try to47:20assert my authority47:22and and to distance myself from the47:25femininity and the beauty which was kind47:27of always going to be plaguing me47:28because of my work and because the fact47:30that I was a model so I tried to47:32distance it as I could you know dye that47:35question though for sure I think at an47:37interactional level having having beauty47:41definitely eases the way for for people47:45to respond more favorably to me because47:49of that halo effect of beauty so you47:52know maybe people are more more likely47:56to answer an email or to agree to a48:00meeting or the meeting will go smoothly48:01and people will listen more to what I48:04say48:05because I look the way they do I’ll find48:07that out I mean that questions to be48:10continued because as we know as women48:12age they so-called lose their bodily48:15capital aging is comes with a decline of48:18beauty for women and so yeah I’ll have48:21to answer that and say you know 10 or 1548:23years what kinds of emotional labor do48:27women professors have to perform that48:29maybe the male professors do not yeah48:32this is like a perennial conversation48:33that I have with my women colleagues48:35about the number of students that ask48:40for exceptions in their grades48:43especially of younger faculty young48:46women faculty the number of students48:48that open up with their problems and you48:51know we are more likely I think to keep48:53tissues in our offices for crying48:55students then like our male colleagues48:58so there’s there’s that yeah just kind49:02of being being a crutch to students and49:05being seen as somebody that’s more49:07relatable by virtue of age and by gender49:10means that we have more of these kinds49:13of drains on our I don’t know emotional49:16work than male colleagues I don’t know49:18if you if you would agree or if you find49:20that do you also keep tissues in your49:22office I don’t but you know my office is49:27so crowded I think actually everything’s49:28in there and probably that includes some49:30tissues I think if you broadly as being49:37anthropological even though you’re49:38sociologists and if you if you view49:41academia with your anthropological hat49:44on what about it seems most comical or49:47most stupid to you or just strange and49:49bizarre49:50the stranger bazaar well it’s a really49:52interesting question there’s so many49:53things about it I guess the way that it49:58portends to be so meritocratic I mean50:01thinking here about academia and the50:04world of professors the way yeah the way50:08that it’s very meritocratic and50:09ostensibly within sociology were so50:12attuned to inequalities by gender and by50:15class and by race like that’s the bread50:17and butter of our discipline and yet we50:19reproduce inequities all the time I mean50:22not in the least with this notion of the50:26disproportionate amount of emotional50:27work of women faculty disproportionate50:30ways that women faculty and people of50:32color do more service work certain kinds50:37of hierarchies get reproduced in the50:39hiring all the time you know so even50:42though we’re supposedly all about equity50:45it’s just the fact that you know50:47somebody who’s tied to a prominent50:50person or an Ivy University will catch50:52our eye and so we’re starting and we50:54have now discussions about how to50:56safeguard against those biases but yeah50:59there’s kind of a bizarre thing the way51:01we reproduce inequalities all the time51:03if we’re concerned about inequality51:05including for women who have a51:06childbearing cycle shouldn’t we just51:08abolish tenure right and or maybe not51:16abolish it but maybe change the terms of51:18it so that the clock doesn’t completely51:21overlap with the so-called biological51:23clock for women who want to have51:26families so perhaps there could be a way51:28to lengthen it or pause it or start it51:32you know in a way that makes it fit51:35better with with having kids there’s51:40also a couple of you know yeah so I had51:43my kids right when I got tenure I had my51:46first child she arrived right after I51:49received my positive tenure decision I51:51didn’t plan it that way but it worked51:54out really luckily but I remember in51:57graduate school a couple of people had51:59kids in grad school and I was thinking52:00like no this is a ridiculous it’s not52:03the right plan like I could never52:05imagine having kids in grad school but52:06actually it does make sense to in grad52:10school you have a lot more control over52:11your time you’re a lot more flexible52:13fewer demands and you can kind of52:16stretch your grad school clock in a way52:18so in some ways I sometimes looking back52:20I think like that’s also an option to52:22maybe loosen up the expectation that52:27that women have kids after their careers52:31are all stitched up because that’s what52:32I followed and it it worked out for me52:34but it can’t work out for everyone and52:36it also was quite a big stress for those52:38six years if you think about the52:41question like what is your unified52:43theory of you you have this early career52:46as a fashion model and your current52:49career as an academic and also as an52:52author they’re all winner-take-all52:55sectors do you think of yourself52:58as in some sense you keep on doing the53:00same thing in different areas or do you53:02think of your current career as a53:04rebellion against what you did before so53:09I should say I was a really good student53:12all throughout high school in college53:13and I got into the modeling kind of as a53:17as a side job and then I I found a way53:20through sociology to turn my experiences53:23and modeling into an academic project53:26and I could kind of even see when I was53:28in college reading these ethnographies53:30at the workplace because I took this53:31great class on the sociology of work I53:34could see like wow someone should really53:35do this of fashion modeling and like I53:38could be the Barbara Ehrenreich you know53:39in sociology of like fashion in high53:42status and so in some ways I I’ve always53:47been a scholar I’ve always been I mean53:49I’ve always been a student first and53:51foremost my my alignment was an academia53:54and I was always looking searching for53:56the status and the the winner-take-all53:57hierarchy of academia and modeling kind54:01of got me there and you enjoy the thrill54:05of winner-take-all markets yes I know I54:09mean I can’t say that I’m like a winner54:13in the academic field I mean yes having54:16good a good54:17your job is because I know that they’re54:19increasingly in short supply but in some54:21ways it’s such a it’s less volatile of a54:25world than these cultural production54:27fields me it’s the complete opposite job54:29model once you get a tenure track job54:31and once you get tenure especially you54:33kind of can’t be fired54:35I mean barring you know some real54:36problems but I mean it’s lifetime54:39security in an age in the workforce in54:42which this is just shrinking it’s so54:44rare to have this kind of privilege of54:46lifetime job security and really like54:48knock on wood because as the54:49universities are facing these challenges54:51it just entered my mind in the last54:54month of like wow what would happen if I54:56didn’t have this lifetime job security54:58that I’ve counted on but it’s a complete55:00opposite fashion modeling is a 180 where55:02you can be dismissed you know from one55:04day to the next and your fortunes can55:06change for the better or for the worse55:07so yeah it’s a winner-take-all maybe55:12like in terms of prestige but once55:14you’re in the tenured world it’s pretty55:17study there’s a common perception that55:20Korean culture is relatively oppressive55:23for young women there’s a certain way55:25they’re expected to look or maybe to55:27have plastic surgery yeah you agree with55:29that and if so why is it yeah and I saw55:34this on the question like I thought that55:36maybe you’re asking me at first because55:37my you know my dad is half Korean so my55:41grandmother it’s Korean she was born and55:44raised in Hawaii but but in any case so55:46yeah I never been to Korea and so my55:48Korean connections actually really I55:51know from the literature but so to your55:53question it’s a common perception that55:57it’s a plastic surgery is oppressive but56:01I think make from my understanding you56:05know there’s an opposite reading which56:06is that it’s really validating and and56:09really quite pleasurable to modify the56:11appearance so in your write in South56:15Korea it’s it leads the world in double56:18eyelid surgery to make that eyelid fold56:20that is typical of Western shape I but56:24less so of an Asian shaped eye and so56:26this is often read as like oh this is56:28like internalized white Western hegemony56:30on to Asian people but I actually think56:33it’s a bit more complicated than that56:35there’s a certain kind of beauty they is56:39really popular around because throughout56:42Asia because of the rise of k-pop stars56:45and this kind of Asian beauty has a very56:48specific kind of face that’s like very56:50pale skin with a certain kind of makeup56:53regime around it and yes that the eyes56:57but I think it would be hard to say that57:00anybody is looking in Asia to the west57:03as the beauty standard I think within57:05Asia people are looking to kpop is a57:07beauty standard now and you know in the57:10u.s. like there’s all kinds of things57:12that could be read as oppressive to the57:14that people do like hair extensions and57:17these um eyelash extensions you know to57:20make really long and dark eyelashes and57:22all kinds of all kinds of practices that57:25when you actually talk to people they’re57:27very validating or they feel pleasurable57:29where do those pleasures come from sure57:32Marxist could say that it’s all false57:34consciousness but I think that there’s57:36probably lots more interesting answers57:39in America today for women what do you57:42think distinguishes most clearly notions57:45of upper class beauty and lower class57:47beauty yeah alright so I think that57:54upper class beauty upper class bodies57:58are pretty uniformly thin and that’s you58:02know the the economy of plenty whoever58:05has money can afford quality food and58:07getting to the gym as opposed to an58:09economy of scarcity having a kind of58:11plump you know a rotund belly would be a58:14sign of having extra money or of wealth58:18so yeah I definitely thinness and if you58:21look at the rates of obesity and58:23overweight you there’s a very clear58:25divide like upward people who are upper58:28class tend to be thinner my people who58:30are lower class tend to be larger so58:31that’s one kind of clear distinction58:36otherwise you know all of the things58:38that are signals of beauty tend to be58:41things that people who have money can58:43afford to invest in so straight teeth58:46clear skin you know blonde highlights or58:52just kind of shiny hair kept up nails58:55clothing signifies a lot I mean these58:57are all things that can be people with58:59money can work on themselves to achieve59:02for a very last segment return to what I59:05call the Ashley Mears production59:07function me who first spotted your59:10talent as an academic okay so there59:15there were two of them at the University59:18of Georgia in the sociology department59:20it was William Finlay he’s a sociologist59:22of work and and also James Coverdell59:25they wrote a book on headhunters and so59:27they were attuned to questions of59:29non-standard work for Carius work and59:32when I I took the sociology of work59:34class with James Coverdale and he was59:37like yeah you should do this like a59:38sociology of work about fashion models59:41definitely then he put me in touch with59:42that with William and I was yeah I was59:45just emailing with them last week like59:47they they stayed my mentors for a long59:49time and if you’re looking for promising59:52young sociology or anthropologists for59:55that matter what’s the non obvious59:57signal you look for yes hard work they59:59should be smart and so on but beneath60:01the surface what strikes you if somebody60:05is read a lot and if they’ve read60:07eclectic things and they have that kind60:09of breadth that strikes me because that60:11means that they’re curious and60:12interested in a lot of different things60:14and that they can bring that to whatever60:17is our topic they end up landing on60:19what’s the weirdest set of things you60:22like to read or have read other than60:24about fashion modeling in the party and60:27like you know guidebooks for restaurants60:30and Economist’s right so I read a lot of60:35ethnographies within sociology that’s60:38probably not a surprise that’s kind of60:39within my field but I’m also reading now60:42because I have two kids I like to read60:44advice books for parents you know60:46ranging from kind of kitschy ones on up60:50to like from economists on like what the60:53data say are the best child60:55practices so that’s where I’m kind of in60:58now I mean yeah having having kids maybe61:00not a surprise kind of put me in this61:02like parenting literature and what’s the61:04best advice you either have read or61:06would offer to other people on parenting61:08to people on parenting sure you’ve read61:12all these books you have an opinion tell61:14the parents out there I said maybe I61:19still need some advice but what do you61:21say so usually that kind of question61:26would invite into an individualistic61:28answer and that’s the problem with the61:30literature that it’s all like you as an61:32individual parent what you should or61:33shouldn’t do and you know maybe because61:37I’m a sociologist but but yeah my advice61:41for parents in this country is to61:43mobilize because it’s a complete crisis61:45that we don’t have paid parental leave61:47that there’s no state supports for61:49daycare I think that that’s one of the61:52tragic but really important things about61:54the pandemic right now is that it’s it’s61:56revealing just how difficult it is to61:59combine a career with family and the62:03United States is just exceptional in how62:06unfriendly it is for family policy yeah62:09mobilize what is your most unusual62:13writing or work habit ok these are62:19interesting questions so I used to have62:22something I used to have it like a62:23pretty consistent flow before I had kids62:25that got that got disrupted and that’s62:27what a lot of people say is like they62:28write in like these certain chunks of62:30time day after day and that’s how62:32they’re able to accomplish it but so62:35here’s a weird habit that I picked up in62:38college I mean it stayed with me if I62:40eat something sweet in college I would62:42munch on like a box of Dunkin Donuts to62:44get through a term paper and now I find62:47like whatever cookie is my kids have no62:49like I always have you know some sweet62:52junk food this is probably not really62:54great advice there for anybody but it’s62:56just my habit now just to the audience I63:00would like again to recommend Ashley’s63:02book it is called again very important63:05people status and beauty in the global63:07party circuit63:09it is quality research fantastic fun to63:12read I learned a great deal from it I63:14think it will be a big hit63:15definitely one of my favorite books of63:17this year or indeed would be of years63:20past and Ashley thank you very much for63:23joining us and best of luck with63:25publication thank you thank you so much63:27again
Why do disadvantaged people spend money on status symbols? For the same reason we all do.
Discussion of American cultural conflicts has to take place alongside pivotal conversations about race, not instead of them.
With each passing year, I grow more convinced that Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy represent two of the best vehicles for understanding our times. Though they’re not specifically political, they help us understand the profound differences between different white American communities — differences that are often exacerbated in our polarized age.
.. Consider, for example, the extraordinary faith gap between white Republicans and white Democrats. According to recent Pew data, fully 72 percent of white Republicans believe in the God of the Bible. Only 32 percent of white Democrats share that same faith. To take another important cultural issue, gun-ownership rates vary wildly between white Americans, with whites in blue America far less likely to have a firearm at home.
Now, what does this have to do with race and condemnations of “whiteness”? Earlier this week, my colleague Reihan Salam wrote a fascinating piece in The Atlanticmaking the point that white-bashing is actually a way in which the progressive white elite distinguishes itself from “lower” white rivals, a form of “intra-white status jockeying.” Here’s Reihan:
It is almost as though we’re living through a strange sort of ethnogenesis, in which those who see themselves as (for lack of a better term) upper-whites are doing everything they can to disaffiliate themselves from those they’ve deemed lower-whites. Note that to be “upper” or “lower” isn’t just about class status, though of course that’s always hovering in the background. Rather, it is about the supposed nobility that flows from racial self-flagellation.
Given the awesome power these “upper-whites” exercise in elite American institutions, there are incentives for other people to bash whites as well:
In some instances, white-bashing can actually serve as a means of ascent, especially for Asian Americans. Embracing the culture of upper-white self-flagellation can spur avowedly enlightened whites to eagerly cheer on their Asian American comrades who show (abstract, faceless, numberless) lower-white people what for. And, simultaneously, it allows Asian Americans who use the discourse to position themselves as ethnic outsiders, including those who are comfortably enmeshed in elite circles.
.. the GOP’s revulsion at the message that white people’s day is done isn’t grounded exclusively (or even mostly) in racial resentment and fear. Because we know full-well that the white people who so gleefully make that claim fully expect to emerge victorious, their status and power intact, in a post-white-majority America.
.. consider California and Texas. Both states are firmly majority-minority. Yet the leaders of both states are still disproportionately white and male; they’re just culturally very different kinds of white males. Conservative white Americans eagerly move to majority-minority Texas. Those same people would be far more reluctant to live in majority-minority California, because of its profoundly different treatment of religious freedoms, gun rights, and of course tax rates... Discussion of American cultural conflicts has to take place alongside, not instead of, pivotal conversations and debates about race. Indeed, the legacy of American racism (including the sad prevalence of outright racists in the GOP) is one reason why white conservatives struggle to form alliances with black voters who are actually more culturally and religiously similar to their rural and exurban white neighbors than to their white progressive allies... it’s important to understand that when conservatives confront a political coalition that seems to be cheering the decline of “whiteness,” they often experience it as an attack on “white people the Left doesn’t like.”
As for the rest? They roll on, enjoying the same power and the same privilege. They’ve sacrificed little and stand to gain a lot: nothing short of victory in the great white culture war.
1. The Narcissistic Winner
– These narcissists derive their sense of self by feeling superior to others. As a consequence, everything becomes a competition. This behavior is not confined to naturally competitive areas such as sports, career achievements, and academics. This type of narcissist must also “win” at seemingly collaborative activities, such as parenting, driving, friendship, and even spirituality. A narcissistic winner is rarely happy for a friend’s good fortune.
In their eyes, another person’s success is their own failure. When they “lose” – in reality or in their own perception – their self-esteem takes a huge hit. They may become antagonistic, or try to overcompensate by belittling the achievements of others.
2. The Victim Narcissist
– The victim narcissist is the sneakiest of the bunch. These people are master manipulators who use affection and emotion to keep you close to them. They are very skilled at playing the underdog, and will often create or seek out situations in which they can do so effectively. A victim narcissist will have perfected their sob story. They will easily convince you that the world is out to get them, and that none of their misfortune is their own doing.
3. The Know-It-All Narcissist
– This person is convinced that they are more intelligent and well informed than those around them. They treat their opinions as fact and become deeply offended when faced with disagreement. To the know-it-all narcissist, you are either right or wrong – with them or against them. There is no in between. They often preach, but rarely listen. They are known to offer unsolicited advice to friends, family members, and even strangers.
However, they will become offended if someone does the same to them. The know-it-all narcissist feels that they have nothing to learn from others. Unfortunately, this causes them to miss out on quite a lot in life.
4. The Narcissist Puppet Master
– These narcissists can absolutely not cope when things do not go as they’d like. To compensate for this, they find ways to manipulate everyone around them. The puppet master narcissist has learned to control others through several different tactics, and is skilled at finding an individual’s weak spot. They have no concept of integrity or empathy. A narcissist puppet master will lie, cheat, seduce, and withhold affection from loved ones to get what they want.
They are not above playing friends against one another or using innocent people as pawns. This type of narcissist will seek out your insecurities and vulnerabilities, and exploit them without even a trace of remorse.
5. The Narcissist Antagonist
– This type of narcissist always seems to have an enemy. They scream at other drivers, berate wait staff at restaurants, and leave nasty notes for neighbors who play their music too loud. This expression of their righteous indignation helps them to feel superior and in control. Unfortunately, it also keeps them from maintaining healthy relationships. They likely have few – if any – friends at work, and may even have lost jobs due to office disputes.
Their personal lives are in constant turmoil. If they are in a relationship, their partner is likely a very submissive personality with low self-esteem. The narcissist antagonist may be estranged from one or more family members, often with no hope of reconciliation.
6. The Status Narcissist
– To this type of narcissist, self-worth is only real if it can be proven in a concrete way and validated by others. They have little to no internal sense of self. Instead, they put all of their energy into accumulating money, power, and social status. They use these things to give themselves a value, and they assign value to others by the same measure. This type of narcissist knows how much you paid for your house and whether or not you hired the “right” interior decorator.
They are president of the PTA and their local homeowner’s association. A status narcissist is often very smart and accomplished. Unfortunately, this is where the depth of their personality comes to an end.
7. The Royal Narcissist
– This type of narcissist feels that they are always entitled to the best. They don’t believe in earning special treatment – they feel that they deserve it simply by birthright, much like royalty does. A royal narcissist will break rules, and will refuse to abide by societal conventions like taking turns or waiting in line. When faced with consequences, they will react as though they are being persecuted or treated unfairly. The royal narcissist, after all, is above things like speeding tickets.
They will also treat others – equals or even superiors – as inherently lesser than themselves. The world is their kingdom, and everyone within it is their servant.
“I am in love with you’, I responded.
He laughed the most beguiling and gentle laugh.
‘Of course you are,’ he replied. ‘I understand perfectly because I’m in love with myself. The fact that I’m not transfixed in front of the nearest mirror takes a great deal of self-control.’
It was my turn to laugh.”
Donald Trump almost never laughs. The leader of the free world frequently displays a tight-lipped smile, but mirth-wise, that is as far as he will go.
.. For the first time in recent memory, we have a commander in chief without a sense of humor — and America is paying the price.
.. For most presidents, humor is a tool for building bridges, especially with voters who may not be persuaded by their policy goals.
.. With no talent for gracious one-liners, he finds himself ill at ease in front of all but the most adoring audiences.
.. Surrounded by followers at rallies, he uses his well-honed sense of timing as a cudgel. He jeers. He mocks. His goal is to insult, rather than to entertain.
.. It should come as no surprise, then, that Mr. Trump governs the way he delivers a punch line: consolidating support among the hard core while alienating everybody else.
.. politicians use humor to identify, and ultimately to uphold, unwritten norms.
.. Peter McGraw, founder of the Humor Research Lab, has called “benign violation theory.” We laugh when something breaks one of life’s many rules.
.. By stepping up to the line without crossing it, a commander in chief tacitly acknowledges that a line exists.
.. President Trump does not possess the sense of nuance a well-told joke requires.
.. This refusal to recognize the unwritten rules that govern us, so evident during Mr. Trump’s failed attempts at humor, is a central feature of his presidential tenure thus far. If a leader does not understand the idea of benign violations, blatant violations inevitably occur.
.. Thanks to the power of the internet, there is proof that our president has indeed laughed at least once. This was during a campaign rally in January, when Mr. Trump’s speech was interrupted by a barking dog.
“It’s Hillary!” an audience member shouted. And the candidate tilted his head back, opened his mouth wide and laughed without reservation, quite possibly for the first time in his political life.
.. they reveal a president who is constantly, endlessly preoccupied with status.
But Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them.
.. riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two.
.. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyonearound him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.
Granovetter was most taken by the situations in which people did things for social reasons that went against everything they believed as individuals. “Most did not think it ‘right’ to commit illegal acts or even particularly want to do so,” he wrote, about the findings of a study of delinquent boys. “But group interaction was such that none could admit this without loss of status; in our terms, their threshold for stealing cars is low because daring masculine acts bring status, and reluctance to join, once others have, carries the high cost of being labeled a sissy.” You can’t just look at an individual’s norms and motives. You need to look at the group.
.. the way to explain the school-shooting epidemic
.. think of it as a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before?
.. Then came Columbine. The sociologist Ralph Larkin argues that Harris and Klebold laid down the “cultural script” for the next generation of shooters.
.. Harris said he wanted to “kick-start a revolution.”
.. Larkin looked at the twelve major school shootings in the United States in the eight years after Columbine, and he found that in eight of those subsequent cases the shooters made explicit reference to Harris and Klebold.
.. Larkin says six were plainly versions of Columbine; of the eleven cases of thwarted shootings in the same period, Larkin says all were Columbine-inspired.
.. The kid who wants to be a chef and hears “non-specific, non-violent” voices requires a finely elaborated script in order to carry out his attack. That’s what Paton and Larkin mean: the effect of Harris and Klebold’s example was to make it possible for people with far higher thresholds—boys who would ordinarily never think of firing a weapon at their classmates—to join in the riot.
- Aguilar dressed up like Eric Harris.
- He used the same weapons as Harris.
- He wore a backpack like Harris’s.
- He hid in the changing room of the store until 11:14 a.m.—the precise time when the Columbine incident began—and then came out shooting.
.. Between Columbine and Aaron Ybarra, the riot changed: it became more and more self-referential, more ritualized, more and more about identification with the school-shooting tradition.
- Eric Harris wanted to start a revolution.
- Aguilar and Ybarra wanted to join one.
- Harris saw himself as a hero. Aguilar and Ybarra were hero-worshippers.
.. “My number one idol is Eric Harris. . . . I think I just see myself in him. Like he would be the kind of guy I’d want to be with. Like, if I knew him, I just thought he was cool.”
..“He appears to lack typical relational capacity for family members. . . .He indicates that he would have completed the actions, but he doesn’t demonstrate any concern or empathy for the impact that that could have had on others.” The conclusion of all three of the psychologists who spoke at the hearing was that LaDue had a mild-to-moderate case of autism: he had an autism-spectrum disorder (A.S.D.), or what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome.
.. When should he attack? April made the best sense, “because that’s the month that all the really bad tragedies happened like . . . Titanic, Columbine, Oklahoma City bombing, Boston bombing.”
.. He was even more scathing about the Boston bombers’ use of pressure-cooker bombs. He thought they made a “crappy design of it.”
.. In the world before Columbine, people like LaDue played with chemistry sets in their basements and dreamed of being astronauts.
.. The idea that people with autism-spectrum disorders can stumble into patterns of serious criminality has a name: counterfeit deviance. It has long been an issue in cases involving A.S.D. teen-agers and child pornography. “They are intellectually intact people, with good computer skills but extraordinary brain-based naïveté, acting in social isolation, compulsively pursuing interests which often unknowingly take them into forbidden territory,”
.. But the riot has now engulfed the boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement. The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.