Sympathy for Assholes? Anne Applebaum is a well-known writer with a Pulitzer Prize to her credit who made her name primarily through her writing on Russia and Central Europe. Currently, she’s plying her trade for The Atlantic and recently wrote an article on the culture wars (mostly) at America’s elite universities and the difficulties experienced by liberal professors who find themselves on the wrong side in the battles over race, gender, and changing norms of professional conduct.
What jumps out at me though is this quote from her tweet announcing the article:
If we drive all of the difficult people, the demanding people, and the eccentric people away from the creative professions where they used to thrive, we will become a flatter, duller, less interesting society.
This made me laugh. The “difficult” people in Applebaum’s testimonial are better known as “assholes” whose digs, insults, cutting comments, bullying, and selfishness supposedly contribute to the “diversity” of academic and journalistic life. During my career at Morehead State University in KY, I encountered my share of difficult/asshole colleagues, chairs, deans, presidents, and heads of various and sundry things, and the sum total of their contribution was to make everyone else miserable. I hated and still hate this kind of crap and almost everyone else hated it as well. But I’m a pretty aggressive guy who still has a linebacker mentality from high school football (Waverly, NY Wolverines, 1970-71, Great Fight Song). So I spent a chunk of my time fighting it.
And as a result, I had a reputation as a “difficult” person in many quarters myself.
Grieving the Divide. Applebaum is one of a number of writers who are antsy about the contempt directed at conservatives, libertarians, Republicans and Trump voters since 2016. There was plenty of conversation about “urban liberal elites,” their “bubbles,” and the need to “understand” rural white conservatives. Journalists fanned out to small town diners all over Middle America and were very interested in the Frosty Freeze in Sandy Hook, KY. But the more the NY Times, Washington Post, and Politico wrote about rural whites, the more left-leaning voters fortified their bubbles and tuned out conservatives. The same is the case among rural lefties. I hardly ever talk to Republicans despite being in Trump+60 Eastern Kentucky and my lefty friends from my home town are extra glad they left now that Waverly is such a Trumpy place. Liberal/ conservative debates over small government, abortion, climate, and foreign policy mostly disappeared because liberal/lefties refused to continue debating and began to view the white conservative side as “so foul” (in the words of Andrew Sullivan) that they refused to work, have lunch, or perhaps even speak with them. Sullivan’s always been a conservative, but more liberal or at least previous figures like Bill Maher, Glenn Greenwald, and Matthew Yglesias are various degrees of hostile, dissenting, or grieving over the liberal/left hostility to conservatism. Grief would be a good term for Elizabeth Breunig’s pained plea for more attention to convincing the unvaccinated. All these figures still have large audiences for their articles, blog posts, and podcasts and it’s not like they’ll never have lunch in DC again. But non-conservative dissenters also seem to be working in a splendid isolation in which their primary audiences are no longer in the center-left mainstream but mostly “difficult people,” assholes, or even worse, conservatives.