How did you come to May of 2020 as your unifying theme?
Well, the first season of “Things Fell Apart” was my lockdown project. First time I’ve ever done any journalism where I didn’t travel—I just did all the interviews remotely from my laundry room upstate. It was fantastic. It was also a bit of an experiment. Like, I’m not as young as I was. Can I still do journalism without taking a hundred flights?
One of my favorite little moments from your audiobook about Alex Jones and the pro-Trump right [“The Elephant in the Room”] is when you’re at the R.N.C., it’s summertime, it’s hot, and you follow him into his air-conditioned Winnebago, and you both let out these middle-aged sighs as you sit down. That’s a very human moment.
[Laughs.] They wanted Season 2 of “Things Fell Apart,” and I wanted parameters. My first thought was that lockdown might be interesting. And then what I discovered through research was that pretty much every culture-war story in recent memory blew up within twenty days of each other. Which makes sense, of course. But I’m not sure if anybody had really noticed that.
You’re both an expert in cancellation and a person with a long-standing interest in third rails. Do you have a generalized theory for why you’ve spent your life touching third rails and not getting cancelled?
I’m delighted that that’s the case. Sometimes I’m a little mystified.
There’s an Australian journalist, John Safran. He’s very good. He’s in the same sort of mold as me and Louis Theroux and so on. And he brought this up to me. I was having lunch with him in Central Park, and he said, “Have you noticed that we never get in trouble?” His theory was that we’ve been grandfathered in.
But I think the main reason, hopefully, is that I’m not an ideological person. And often, if my stories are critical of anyone, they’re critical of, you know, both sides.
This gets us back to that question of: When do you actually have to be a little more judgmental than you might be inclined to be? In theory, it sounds great not to render judgment, and yet—
I don’t think I let people off too easy. I just don’t do it in a way that is performative or hierarchical or, you know, gotcha-y.
I remember when Trump said, “There’s very fine people on both sides.” I just put my head in my hands, because I’m, like, You’ve just ruined it for all of us both-siders.
A few years ago, when people used to say “The Internet is mad about this” or “Here’s what people are talking about today,” what they tended to mean was Twitter. Even though it was, by definition, never close to a majority of people.
And yet Twitter did have outsized influence.
And now, with this more desiccated version of—I find it hard to call it X . . .
It’s a bit like ordering a venti latte at Starbucks.
Or referring to Snoop Dogg as Snoop Lion, or whatever. Anyway, I try to stay off of it, for all the familiar reasons, but the other week, when the Chabad guys were in the tunnel, I did go to Twitter, because I thought, O.K., social media, this is your time to shine. And there was some funny stuff on there, but for one thing it felt instantly oversaturated—like, the same dozen memes, making the rounds again and again. And then the other problem, of course, was that, as a Jew on Elon Musk’s Twitter, I couldn’t tell whether I was being laughed with or laughed at.
Yeah. The last time I went on Twitter was with Jeffrey Epstein papers, and the first thing I saw was a forgery about Jimmy Kimmel. So I just threw up my hands and scuttled back to the legacy media. My friend Adam Curtis, in the very early days of Twitter, said, “You know, the time is gonna come when Twitter is going to become one of those John Carpenter movies, like ‘Escape from New York.’ ”
That analogy gets at some of the pros and the cons. In a bombed-out, apocalyptic New York, within all the wreckage and the off-putting graffiti, you’ll find some really great art. And one of the people wandering around on the subway and muttering might tell you something about Jeffrey Epstein—
Something that turns out to be true. Absolutely. That’s why it’s such a shame. I loved that Twitter in the early days felt like a Robert Altman movie. Now I use social media only to promote my work or other people’s work. No more opinions.
Instagram is where you look at videos of unlikely friendships between different species of animals. And Twitter, especially these days, is like when you’re out for a country walk, and you come across a fence, and you can’t decide whether or not to touch it to see if it’s electrified.
“Things Fell Apart” comes from the Yeats poem—“the center cannot hold.” Do you have a desire to return to some center? Some middle, or some resting place, where we’re no longer spinning out of control? You’ve said that you don’t want your subjects to worry that you’re going to impose a left-wing bias on them, and yet there is something inherently conservative—small-“C” conservative—about wanting the center to hold. I mean, Yeats was a conservative. Didion was, too, arguably. I don’t know about Chinua Achebe.
There are parts of that poem that I don’t love. I don’t love that line “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” That’s pretty pejorative.
A number of centrists are moving to the right in a way that I personally find disappointing. It really startled me that while Trump was doing all the stuff that he was doing, there was this obsession about quote-unquote “wokeness.” I felt like, Come on—is this our highest priority right now? So I definitely have problems with centrists. They can be a little despotic.
There’s a term, “radical centrism.”
I absolutely don’t see myself as part of that. For me, “things fall apart, the center cannot hold”—it’s a sort of human center of being curious and trying to understand people’s perspective and look for the nuances. It’s not the center that, to be honest, the centrists talk about. ♦