The broken brain brigade


I went to a wedding in Houston in March. The groom was a college friend of mine, and, later, in a different city, both my roommate and landlord. (Easily the best landlord I’ve had, although the bar is low.) Before the pandemic we made a habit of traveling annually to places we’d never visited but always wanted to, destinations like Warsaw and Bangkok and Hong Kong. Since the pandemic we’ve hardly chatted — neither of us are terribly good at long-distance relationships — but I was pleased to see his wedding invitation in the mail one day. He was getting married to a woman I’d never met, and whose name I hardly recalled.

(It still astounds me, no matter how many times I witness it, how quickly lives can change in just a few years, or even months, and I also feel that, during the pandemic, those sudden transitions have become even more common. Or perhaps I’m simply reaching that age where people are more confident about what they want in life and less willing to dither.)

I met some of our mutual friends from college at the wedding. These were people I hadn’t seen or talked to, in some cases, in more than 7 or 8 years. I feel strange even calling them friends — doesn’t friendship require something more substantive than the distant memory of getting drunk at a tailgate? — but it was the type of relationship that’s easy to slide in and out of, and, in this case, I was sliding back in again. We caught up over drinks during the reception, danced till late, went out for more drinks that night, and lazily ate brunch the next day while nursing a mild hangover. We made tentative travel plans and wished each other best of luck, but, to be perfectly honest, the odds that I see them again this year and that I never see them again seem almost the same.

Our closest mutual friend is the opposite of me in many ways. For starters, he is tall, handsome, and extroverted. He has habit of “forgetting” about personal space, and frequently our conversations end with my leaning away awkwardly while he leans over me — reminiscent, actually, of one of the photos I used in a previous blog post. (His wife had to remind him at the wedding to give me my space.) He is pushy, well past the point of discomfort, but, in college, I think I needed that. He was the person with whom I had my first beer, my first blunt hit, my first beer pong game (of many), and my first experience getting blackout drunk. Without him, I might have spent my entire college experience shuttling between my dorm room, the library, and my classes, and I’m glad he encouraged me, in his own way, to explore a different side of life.

He is terrifically clever and hard-working and much more willing than I am to put in long hours to advance his career. His first job out of college was in investment banking, where, for two years straight, he would wake up at 5 am and arrive back home after midnight. He is now a director at a private equity/venture capital firm, working only 60 hour weeks as opposed to 80 hour ones. He has spent his entire life in the “energy” sector (a tidy euphemism for oil and gas) and has made millions of dollars investing in the people directly responsible for climate change. On the day after the wedding, I got to see his 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom, detached house with a yard in one of the toniest neighborhoods in Houston. (I later looked it up on Zillow, and briefly regretted my life choices.)

Unsurprisingly, his politics are very different from mine. During college, he was a dual major in political science and economics, and he once assembled a small panel of experts to discuss Obamacare. One expert — undoubtedly the one with whom he sympathized — was from the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank; the other was from Physicians for a National Health Program, supporters of single-payer healthcare. The experts agreed on very little, besides the fact that Obamacare was a terrible piece of legislation; they spent the hourlong discussion subjecting it to a two-front attack. I’m sure my friend enjoyed both the spirited debate and the opportunity to undermine a president whom he opposed. (That being said, he claims to be a libertarian and not a Trumper.) Over the years, he and I have frequently gotten into arguments about politics and current events, never personal but also never entirely pleasant. He tries to convince me to vote for Gary Johnson and stop reading Chomsky, and I try to convince him that the government can give people nice things and free money without a repeat of 70s level inflation.

I wasn’t sure what to expect our conversation to be at the wedding, but I was sure he’d come prepared with talking points. He broached the topic of “cancel culture”; we sparred a bit on “critical race theory” (me: “what’s wrong with teaching kids about racism?”); and then he turned to Lia Thomas. For those who don’t know, Lia Thomas is a transgender woman who competes for the University of Pennsylvania swimming team. She transitioned recently (in the last few years), and, before that, she was an accomplished but not elite male swimmer in high school and college. As a woman, she has won some college competitions — in one case, besting the field by thirty-eight seconds in the sixteen-hundred-and-fifty-yard freestyle — and lost others. Thomas has been accused of competing unfairly, and her case took on national attention when various right-wing outlets made her a villain in the latest front of the culture war.

A group of parents of Penn swimmers anonymously sent a letter to the N.C.A.A. arguing that Thomas should not be allowed to compete in women’s competitions. “At stake here is the integrity of women’s sports,” the parents’ letter, which was also sent to Penn and the Ivy League, declared. “The precedent being set—one in which women do not have a protected and equitable space to compete—is a direct threat to female athletes in every sport. What are the boundaries?”

The letter was leaked to the Daily Mail, and conservative outlets gleefully reported on rifts between Thomas and her teammates. Some published photos of Thomas from before her transition and referred to her using the name she had gone by then. Video of Thomas’s performance at the Zippy Invitational went viral. The father of one of Thomas’s teammates suggested to Fox News that trans athletes stood between his daughter and her Olympic dreams. “Lia is going to go to the N.C.A.A.’s, and she’s going to take down Katie Ledecky’s record, she’s going to take down Missy Franklin’s record, and it’s not because she is an exceptional woman,” he said.

In fact, Thomas’s top time in the five-hundred-yard freestyle is a full ten seconds slower than Ledecky’s, and Franklin’s record is also well ahead of Thomas’s best.

I listened to my friend rant about how Thomas was undermining women’s sports, a topic I don’t seem to remember him caring about in college. I told him that her story seemed inconsequential compared to what the state of Texas was doing to trans people, denying them the opportunity and resources to transition if they wanted to, and threatening to jail their parents. He replied, sniffily, that I was guilty of “whataboutism” by changing the subject instead of answering him directly. The conversation ended abruptly after we realized the wedding speeches were about to start.

I’d like to make two points here.

First, it is a testament to the strength of the right-wing propaganda apparatus that someone who used to be fairly socially liberal (and once told me that the Republican party would be rejected by voters for its refusal to embrace gay rights) is now parroting Chris Rufo and Fox News’s bullshit.

Second is about this claim of “whataboutism”. Politics and its appurtenances, like dinner table debates and news media cycles, do not have to be “about” anything in particular. My friend picked three arbitrary (and, to my mind, trivial) topics to discuss and seemed peeved that I wanted to talk about something else. Lia Thomas is, at worst, taking away a gold medal from a privileged brat with awful parents and leaving that same brat with “only” a silver medal and the same awful parents. Who the hell cares? Why has this story dominated an entire political news cycle? And why is it considered a logical fallacy for me to ask why we’re even talking about this at all?

My friend has lived in Texas for the past 7 years. In that time, Texas has had at least 5 major mass shootings: Sutherland Springs (27 dead); Santa Fe High School (10 dead); El Paso Walmart (23 dead); Midland-Odessa (7 dead); and the recent horror at Uvalde (20 dead). Over the same period, Governor Greg Abbott praised the NRA’s move to Texas following its Chapter 11 bankruptcy, tweeting “Welcome to Texas — a state that safeguards the 2nd Amendment” and also once tweeted, “I’m EMBARRASSED: Texas #2 in nation for new gun purchases, behind CALIFORNIA. Let’s pick up the pace Texans. @NRA”. He signed legislation just a year ago allowing Texans to carry firearms without needing a license.

Over the last 7 years, Texas has passed a law criminalizing abortions after 6 weeks. The law works by encouraging ordinary citizens to snitch on and sue their neighbors. (I’m old enough to remember when Republicans supported tort reform and hated lawyers.) It has banned gender affirming care for trans people, as I mentioned above. It has passed a bill banning discussion of “critical race theory” in the classroom (odd how that didn’t come up in our “cancel culture” discussion). It has allowed “faith-based” groups to discriminate against LGBTQ children in the child welfare system. It has run roughshod over local governance (remember federalism?), threatening cities that try to defund the police and undoing mask and vaccine mandates imposed by Austin and other liberal enclaves. It has used taxpayer money to continue construction on the border wall, giving lie to the libertarian claim that anyone cares about property rights or eminent domain. It has rigged the rules of democracy to enshrine Republican power, ensuring that, even as the people of Texas become bluer, the state as a whole remains dark red.

In 2021, Texas suffered a power outage that resulted in 4 million homes without power for days, 200 people dead, massive utility bills for homeowners, and, worst of all, no real reform that would prevent the same thing from happening again. Recently, Abbott decided, on a lark, to cost his own state’s economy a few billion dollars by engineering a backup at the Mexican border, perhaps in order to worsen inflation and cause voters to blame Biden.

It is a sign of a broken brain that Lia Thomas — Lia Thomas! — would rank more highly as a topic of discussion than death, destruction, discrimination, immiseration, loss of liberty, and ineffectual and counterproductive governance. But my friend isn’t the only member of the broken brain brigade. Conor Friedersdorf, Jonathan Haidt, Jonathan Chait have made careers on criticizing college students for being unduly censorious. Jesse Singal has made his name boosting transphobia. Matt Yglesias, Nate Silver, Josh Barro, and other prominent commentators have some of the most tedious takes imaginable. Among elite media figures, there often seems to be no sense of proportion or impact. The latest subject of outrage, bubbled up from the right-wing swamps, takes on outsized importance, while Supreme Court and red state revanchism are left unremarked. (Perhaps the only funny part of this is that parody media accounts are almost indistinguishable from reality.) The fact that all of the aforementioned people are well-to-do white males, like my friend, is also not coincidental. Lia Thomas only seems like an important story if nothing in politics truly affects you.

I think, contra my friend, that it is time for more whataboutism in politics, not less. The onus should not be on me to justify why I’m talking about the Republican death cult slowly destroying this country. The onus should be on you to justify why you are not.


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