Nov 10 • 54M

The Active Voice: Glenn Loury doesn’t want to be told what to think

The economist talks to Hamish McKenzie about life as a contrarian, dealing with a dark history, and the importance of talking to people who disagree with you

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Appears in this episode

Glenn Loury
Hamish McKenzie
The internet is conditioning our minds and influencing the global consciousness in ways that we are only beginning to understand – and writers are on the front lines. In The Active Voice, Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie talks to great writers about how they are reckoning with the challenges of the social media moment, how they find the space for themselves to create great literature and journalism despite the noise, and how to make a living amid the economic volatility of the 2020s.
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Among many notable things, Glenn Loury has been the first African American economics professor to get tenure at Harvard, an author and essayist, a firebrand on race issues from both the left and the right, and, in one dark chapter of his life, a cocaine addict who led a secret life on the streets.

Now in his 70s and a professor at Brown University, Loury leads a semi-retired life, publishing video conversations with fellow academics and intellectuals for an audience of tens of thousands on his Substack, an endeavor that includes a long-running dialogue with the Columbia University linguistics professor and New York Times columnist John McWhorter

In covering some fraught territory—such as “The Unified Field Theory of Non-Whiteness,” “Living by the Race Card,” and “Turning the Tide on Affirmative Action”—Loury sometimes attracts intense criticism. When University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax came on his show and made controversial remarks about Asian immigrants, he copped an earful. When he challenged recent anti-Trump comments made by Sam Harris, he upset a bunch of Harris stans (“I didn’t quite get right what he had said,” Loury says in our conversation. “My apologies, Sam, if you hear this, because I do like you”).

But Loury has a long history of being an outsider and is unafraid to take principled positions that get him in trouble with his peers. He has an almost constitutional resistance to conformity. One thing he prides himself on, though, is having tough discussions on big topics, even with those who disagree with him. “I’m proud to be able to say that I can have cordial and productive conversations with them,” he says, “and I intend to do more of that.”

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Quotes from the conversation

On productive disagreement

I’ve tried to have people on the [Glenn Loury show] who challenge me... Had Cornel West on the show and we had a wonderful conversation. I’ve had Briahna Joy Gray on the show. I’ve had Richard Wolff, the Marxist economist, on the show. These are people that come at the issues that I’m concerned about rather differently than I do, but I’m proud to be able to say that I can have cordial and productive conversations with them and I intend to do more of that.

On being hard to pin down

During the 2020 election season, I had a formula, which was I’m going to vote for Biden, but you shouldn't believe me because, if I were going to vote for Trump, I would never tell you. So if you ask me who I’m going to vote for, there’s no information in my response. 

On discussing Trump

One of my points that I’ve been making over and over again in conversation with John McWhorter, who very forthrightly as a good New Yorker denounces Trump at every opportunity – he’s a moron, he’s an idiot, whatever – is that, hey, man, 45% of the population thinks the guy should be President. I mean, maybe we ought to think about why they think that. 

On watching what he says

I’m managing my brand, I must confess, by carefully selecting how it is that I react to the Trump phenomenon so as to be able to maintain plausible deniability.

On independent thinking

I could report to you that I hate to be bullied. Don’t tell me what to think and don’t tell me what to say. You want to call me a name? Call me a name. But if you want to change my mind, you had better make an argument and it had better be a good one.

On Sam Harris

Sam Harris made a comment about suppressing the Hunter Biden laptop story and then I made a comment about Sam Harris. John McWhorter and I kicked that around. I took exception to what I understood Sam to say, but I didn’t quite get right what he had said. My apologies, Sam, if you hear this because I do like you.

On how the internet is affecting culture

Maybe I’m going to say pessimistic because we are so polarized. I mean, to the point where large numbers of people question the outcome of elections. And that goes in both directions, by the way. Trump lost the most recent election for President and he’s an election denier – and his followers to the extent that they don’t acknowledge the legitimacy of Biden’s election – but believe me, that’s not over. There will be other elections. There will be different outcomes... On the other hand, it is possible to have a conversation with just about anybody instantly and to send it out to millions of people. And that’s really pretty cool. I don’t blame the medium for the fact that it can abet partisan polarization and division because it can also facilitate a different kind of discourse.

On making the best case for the other side

I try to do that a little bit with the so-called steel-manning function in my own podcasts. When I hear an argument, I try to imagine and then articulate what I think the best case for the other side is. Ideally, if I do that well, the listener, if they tune in in the middle of the podcast, won’t know what side I actually hold. To the extent that I can succeed at that, I’m hopefully modeling a kind of intellectual openness and a kind of, if you will, epistemic modesty. This may be what I think, but I'm not sure it’s right. What’s the best case for the other side? That kind of thing.

On his partnership John McWhorter

I have great respect and admiration for John. I mean, we have this rapport. It’s kind of a shtick now. It’s kind of an act that we perform every other week, and I look forward to it.

On the state of race relations in the US

I think the idea that the United States of America is a white supremacist, racist nation founded on slavery and genocide... That idea in the 21st century is wrong.

On holding unpopular positions

I’m worried about the victims of crimes, not only about the way we treat people who commit it... Have I lost friends? Yes, I’ve lost friends. And I’ve gained new friends.

On changing his mind

I’ve, over the course of my life, taken this position and taken that position and so on. And it’s not a pendulum swinging back and forth. That’s the wrong metaphor. I’m deepening and making more subtle and more nuanced the sensibilities that I bring to these questions... I don’t know how this all ends. And it does end. I’m painfully aware of the fact that we are all mortal. But I like to think that I’m on a higher plane today than I was 10 years ago or 20 years ago.

On his double life while at Harvard

I was a cocaine addict. Did stuff like that. I had a mistress stashed away that had blew up in my face when we got into fight that became public and she accused me of battery, which was not what happened... I was this bad boy with a nightlife and a kind of reckless disregard for the normal constraints. I thought I was Superman. I thought I was the baddest cat on the block.

On finding religion and recovering

I went through the valley of the shadow of death and came out on the other side.

On writing a memoir

For me, it’s very obvious that you must disclose discrediting information about yourself in order to win the confidence of the reader such that, when you get to the part where you want to glorify yourself, you have the reader’s credibility. So even if my goal is to toot my own horn, at the end of the day when they turn the last page of the book and I want them to think Glenn is really a wonderful guy, what a human being, what a life, to get there, we have to go through the valley of the shadow of death.

On being a contrarian 

I call myself a contrarian. I say I don’t like bandwagons. Am I being a contrarian for contrarian’s sake? Am I refusing to acknowledge things that are true simply because most people think them to be true and I have to therefore be on the other side? Do I get a certain amount of self-aggrandizement and satisfaction from sneering at the popular opinion and taking the slings and arrows that come from that? Probably.

Show notes

The Active Voice is a new podcast hosted by Hamish McKenzie, featuring weekly conversations with writers about how the internet is affecting the way they live and write. It is produced by Hanne Winarsky, with audio engineering by Seven Morris, content production by Hannah Ray, and production support from Bailey Richardson. All artwork is by Joro Chen, and music is by Phelps & Munro.


Postscript 

A man sets fire to a bandwagon, in the style of Basquiat (via DALL-E)