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    PloughCast 74: Friends Don’t Let Politics End Friendships

    By Sohrab Ahmari, Matthew Sitman and Susannah Black Roberts

    January 10, 2024

    About This Episode

    Matthew Sitman and Sohrab Ahmari discuss friendship across political divides.

    Both men have made their careers in political media and have made significant changes in their politics over the course of their lives – in Sohrab’s case, very publicly. These changes have affected some friendships and have left others intact.

    Sohrab and Matt and Susannah discuss the phenomenon of friendship that transcends politics, how difficult that can be, how painful when it doesn’t work, but how good when it does.

    They also discuss the social peculiarities of left and right, and challenge Jonathan Haidt’s “moral foundations theory.” They reflect on what Christianity must say to enmity and friendship, and end with an excursus on Dimes Square.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast! I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. As part of our Enemy series, we’ve got with us today Matt Sitman and Sohrab Ahmari, to talk about friendship and enmity across political divides. Matt is a former young conservative, a former editor at Commonweal and is presently on the editorial board of Dissent magazine, and is one half, along with Sam Adler-Bell, of the legendary Know Your Enemy Podcast. Sohrab Ahmari is former libertarian, former neoconservative, and former editor at the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Commentary, and is presently the founding editor along with Matt Schmitz of the magazine Compact. He is the author of several books, most recently Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty.

    Welcome Matt and Sohrab.

    Matt Sitman: Happy to be here.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Thanks for having me. Oh, we just said that at the same time.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, you did. That’s OK.

    Matt Sitman: Happy to be here.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So I guess the meta question behind all of the questions that I’ve kind of been thinking about this, is, is it possible to be friends with someone with whom one has strong political disagreements? And if so, how?

    You’ve both had various political migrations over the course of your life, and you do both have a talent for friendship even across political differences. Do you guys think that ... what has your experience been about finding the difference between actual friendship, and friendship as political co-belligerency, and how has that played out in the course of each of your changes in politics over the past ten years or so?

    Sohrab Ahmari: I think most people who are in my and Matt’s line of work ... I actually don’t know if I can speak for Matt this way, but I certainly can. I surmise that he’s probably in a similar situation in the sense that I have friends from my life outside of writing and punditry and editing and the sort of realm of intellectual pugilism and the sometimes forceful exchange of ideas that have stayed constant in my life wherein so far as I’ve had political migrations or whatever, those people have not gotten mad at me for it or whatever, that our friendship is ...

    I feel like this violates something in classical philosophy or Aristotelian thought. But nevertheless, I venture to say that my friendships are pre-political somehow, and so their bond is somehow different, on a different basis.

    So there’s that. And then I think there are relationships I’ve had, professional relationships, that also kind of implicate personal friendship, and as I’ve taken a strong stance or something or come to realize that I actually disagree with that person and that we’re both very kind of outspoken people and they’re of my world of intellectual combat.

    They have become ex-friends in the way of ... I think Norman Podhoretz titled one of his memoirs, Ex-Friends. And so there are those. I can’t say I’m proud of those like I’m like, “Ha ha, I made an ex-friend out of so-and-so,” but I’m also not ... I don’t mourn it. I’m not torn up about the fact.

    And then there is a third category of person where we are both pundits and we’ve had some ferocious disagreements. And when one way or another we’ve come to realize that, hey, there’s much more to this relationship than just the kind of political enmity, which is real enough to be sure, and I put Matt in this category of that. There are also others where I’ve ferociously disagreed with them and taken them to task much earlier in life when I was what I now would consider politically immature and have since reached out to him and said, “Hey, you know what? You are actually right about X, Y, Z issue and I was wrong, and I’m sorry I wrote that cutting takedown of you.”

    So to give an example of that would be Katrina vanden Heuvel of the Nation. When I was just out of the gate Neocon, I wrote several takedowns of her in various places. And I reached out to her recently and I said, “Hey, actually on foreign policy, I’m much closer to you now than I ever was before.” Or another one where I’ve done it publicly was with Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote a book, and I’ll wrap this up, but he wrote a book called Foreign Policy Begins at Home and it’s actually a bland kind of Washington policy book. And I was relatively new as an assistant book review editor at the Wall Street Journal.

    And I sort of sharpened my knife and sure enough sort of sliced and diced the book and some of the bits in the book that are very kind of cliché ridden, he served it up for me and made it easy for me that said, on the substance, nation building does begin at home and that America’s domestic hearth is sort of crumbling. He was right.

    And so I wrote a piece maybe a decade later where I said Richard Haass was right. And so I say this because I know that at the time, Richard Haass was extremely angry and wrote an email to Paul Gigot, my boss at the Wall Street Journal, and to Karl Rove who was an intermediary was like, “Oh, this young little f***” ... I don’t know how he put it, but it was sort of like this little sh** dares to take me down or something like that. But actually the core concept in time, I feel like he was right then.

    What’s funny now is that because he’s such a barometer of establishment opinion, he’s now much more of a conventional sort of Ukraine hawk. And so when that public piece where I said, “Hey, Richard, you were right,” appeared. He replied by saying, “I could sort of imagine him grabbing his collar and being like, ‘Yeah, well, things are different now.’ Thank you.”

    Because that was in the retrenchment Obama era where Democrats had pitched themselves as being less hawkish or whatever. Now Democrats are the establishment. It was in the throes of regret over the post-9/11 wars where that has now kind of been forgotten so the apology weirdly came at an inconvenient time. So I thought that’s very fun.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Matt, what has been your experience? So just maybe ... I feel like maybe I’m just assuming this, I kind of assume that our listeners know a little bit more about Sohrab’s ideological changes over the years, but Matt, they might know yours less. Do you want to give a background a little bit?

    Matt Sitman: Sure. Yeah, I can talk about that and then just fold it into the friendship question. Yes, my story is that I was a young conservative, very much involved in the conservative intellectual wing of things. I was a graduate student studying political theory at Georgetown. Among my teachers, there are a number of people you probably both know: Josh Mitchell, Patrick Deneen, the late Jean Bethke Elshtain, people who are fairly, I think, conservative, at least by the standards of the academy.

    And so I was really in the thick of it. And then over the course of my twenties and into my early thirties, I kept moving left. And so now I wrote a kind of coming out piece for Dissent called “Leaving Conservatism Behind” that was published in the summer of 2016. I call myself a Democratic socialist. Listeners might have heard in my intro, Susannah, that you provided that I’m on the editorial board of Dissent.

    And of course, Know Your Enemy [podcast] is coming from a very left perspective, but we draw a lot on my personal experiences on the right. And I think there are a couple of things worth mentioning about my trajectory in particular. And that is that, unlike Sohrab, I didn’t make a lot of that journey, so to speak, in public. I was a graduate student. I wasn’t doing a lot of public-facing writing as a graduate student. Even my first job, once I left graduate school, I was the literary editor of the Dish, Andrew Sullivan’s old publication. That wasn’t a position where I was called upon to comment a lot politically, partly being literary editor. But that was even my first job in media. And so even then, I was definitely an Obama supporter. I had moved left, but it wasn’t something very public.

    So I don’t have a lot of old pieces that I’ve written that I regret now or where I took someone to task in a way that I might not now. So that’s one thing. By the time I was really a pundit, so to speak, commenting publicly, I had pretty much already moved left. So that’s one aspect of it that I think might be worth mentioning. But also, I’m not an embittered ex-conservative. I was treated extremely well by the conservative movement, the resources, the opportunities, the fellowships, the money. I’m not someone who spurred the right because of some interpersonal grievance or some problem like that.

    And so to maybe talk about friendship a little more, I come from a family that’s very conservative, so I have profound disagreements with my family and I’m not going to cut them out of my life because of those. So that’s just something that I’ve had to negotiate and navigate in my own life with my family, those kinds of differences and disagreements.

    And when it comes to the people I knew as a young conservative ... I mean, I admit I’m not in touch with a lot of them. That’s partly ... we’re talking about a time period here, fifteen years. You can grow apart from people, your social circles change, and you start hanging out with different kinds of people slowly but surely. So I can’t really say that I’m in close touch with a lot of the people I knew as a young conservative, but it really depends.

    Back in April, I went down to do an event at UVA and my first night there, the day before the event that evening, I went out to dinner with my old mentor, Jim Caeser, who is kind of a Straussian, studies American politics and political theory, was a long-time contributor to the Weekly Standard. And I loved seeing him and we had a great conversation. He and his wife Blair, who were both very good to me, and who I still love a lot.

    So in terms of those relationships from my past, it really depends. But I will say that in my experience, conservatives often had a ... were good at friendship and community building. There’s a way in which the kind of defense of particularity and community and things that people on the right sometimes talk about, sometimes they really are good at putting them into practice, at least for the people in their circles.

    So again, my trajectory has meant it has affected different friendships of mine in different ways over the years. But I wanted to pick up on one thing that Sohrab said. He said it might not be a very good Aristotelian definition of friendship. And I thought that as you were talking, Sohrab, because it is Montaigne kind of the great modern essayist about friendship when describing his friendship with de La Boétie says, “Because it was he, because it was I,” right? Why are you drawn to certain people? Why did you find certain people interesting as friends? And I will just say ... maybe I’ll quit talking after this and you know, can follow up or we can get into it.

    But I think this is one of my still remaining conservative impulses in a way, is the way I think about friendship. And in particular, I just wanted to cite. There’s the great Michael Oakeshott essay titled “On Being Conservative.” And he specifically talks about friendship as a relationship that requires a conservative disposition. And I just wanted ... and it really defines, I think, my approach to these things which deserve to be unpacked. But to read from the essay a little bit, he has these great lines like, “to go on changing one’s butcher until one gets the meat one likes, to go on educating one’s agent until he does what is required of him is conduct not appropriate to the relationship concerned,” meaning friendship. He says, “to discard friends because they do not behave as we expected and refuse to be educated to our requirements is the conduct of a man who is altogether mistaken the character of friendship.”

    And he goes on to say, “a friend is not someone one trusts to behave in a certain manner, who supplies certain wants, who has certain useful abilities, who possesses certain merely agreeable qualities or who holds acceptable opinions. He’s somebody who engages the imagination, who excites contemplation, who provokes interest, sympathy, delight, and loyalty simply on account of the relationship entered into.”

    And I will not read more from that, but that idea that friendship is not based on proper behavior or meeting certain expectations. There’s something almost ... it’s almost no strings attached. It’s kind of beyond that. Friendship is useless. It’s not about achieving certain things in light of that friendship or using the friend a certain way. As Oakeshott put it’s a relationship that’s dramatic, not utilitarian. And so I think if that’s your approach, it kind of opens up space for not reducing the people you may or may not be friends with to their political views.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yep. I think that’s really important. Sohrab, you’ve kind of recently entered more into lefty political spaces just because of the nature of your new book, which we will ... we’ve had you on to talk about before and I will drop another link in the show notes too now, which is much more sort of straightforwardly left, I would say.

    Have you noticed differences in kind of social mores or norms between the more rightish political spaces that you’d been in before, and the leftish ones that you are in now? Are people different? Is the way that people interact with each other different?

    Sohrab Ahmari: Oh, that’s a really good question. And I would add to it’s not just the book, it’s the project of Compact is on the part of the founders, Matthew Schmitz and I, is this conscious effort to break with conventional conservatism insofar as it doesn’t pay enough attention to material issues. And as soon as you get into that space, material analysis of our political economy, for the most part, it’s the left that is interested in that as the most of the serious writers and thinkers. And so a lot of the people we publish of the left are varying stripes ranging from self-identified communists like Slavoj Žižek to a social Democrat or a very progressive Democrat like Freddie DeBoer, et cetera.

    And I’m trying to think about whether having weirdly found myself in left spaces now, if I’d say that there’s something different about the people.

    That’s a really good question. I mean, I want to say largely no. I mean, in other words, you observe on the left and on the right the same dynamics of people as they approach you, as they do these calculations of, “OK, this person brings this to the table, that I agree with, and he may be able to do this or that for me, and she may not,” and da da da. So I make these sorts of mental calculations and decide whether or not I want to befriend the person. Maybe at first just the kind of acquaintance of interests and then things deepen.

    I was tempted to say, but on the left, they have a lot more red lines about certain things that would ... and they do, but I would just say that having been part of the official for more than a decade, those exist on the right as well. They’re enforced differently on the right than on the left. Now we’re veering beyond friendship, but I would just say that in so far as these are two camps that are in a kind of dynamic and perpetual opposition with each other that each side disciplines its own. I would say that on the left, the way it happens is through swarming on Twitter for the most part. Lots of people will come to the same tweet and say ... some progressive who said something that defies the general orthodoxy and it’ll be like, “Not cool, man,” or “Oh, I guess this is what we’re doing now.”

    And it’s just ... it’s very public. Whereas on the right, the way it happens, and it’s a little bit more terrifying and in a way more effective in some ways is you get a call from a donor or a supporter or whatever because some other donor has said something or someone has gone to it ... you know what I mean? It’s always much more behind ... that’s how the bow tie cons cancel each other, with donor phone calls.

    I don’t know if Matt has that much to say with friendship, but it’s one immediate observation is that the group dynamics are actually identical because these are human groups and there are boundary policing hierarchies, et cetera. But so fundamental form is the same, but there are different ... they instantiate along different substantive lines.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, it’s also really interesting just even thinking about the way that kind of lines up with left versus right philosophy. So the sort of public mob approach is the kind of French revolutionary approach versus the kind of hierarchical backroom, “You’ve been seen to step out of line on X, Y, or Z issue and we will not be renewing the grant.” That does map onto it, right?

    Sohrab Ahmari: Yeah, I’ve been told this is a worthy topic for an essay that ...

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m so interested.

    Sohrab Ahmari: ... only someone who has been in the various places that I’ve been could write, but maybe not yet. We’ll see.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. You have to get the ... what does Jane Austen call it? The competence. You have to get a competence first and then you can talk about how these all work.

    [Susannah Black Roberts: Just a little housekeeping: don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes! We’ll be back with the rest of my conversation with Matt and Sohrab after the break.]

    Susannah Black Roberts: Sitman, what do you think? Does that ring a bell to you as well in terms of social dynamics? What are the differences that you’ve noticed?

    Matt Sitman: Well, yeah, I mean I suppose because when I was on the right, I was not a very public-facing figure. Some of the kinds of discipline Sohrab describes I didn’t experience personally, but what he mentioned certainly jibes with my experience or things I’ve heard that totally makes sense to me. And I would just offer a couple comments.

    One is I do think there’s a grain of truth to the old saw that when talking about certain kind of progressive people on the left, that they love humanity but hate people, right? If there is a besetting sin on the left, it is kind of an abstract, idealistic version of justice that ends up giving permission to treat individual people in ways that are beneath their dignity, to say the least. Now, I don’t know how far I’d want to push that, but I do think that’s not totally divorced from all of reality.

    But I would also say that this is an area where being online and then in real life interactions, not saying Twitter isn’t real life, but ... I mean, it’s not fun to be swarmed. It’s not fun to be treated a certain way online and held up to ridicule or have your replies and mentions terrible for a couple of days. I’m not really defending that, but that’s it. In real life, my interactions on the left ... I mean, I’m openly religious on the left. I’m Catholic. And for example, that’s something that a lot of people ask me, especially I think people from the right or at least people more conservative than me, how does that work? That must be miserable. And I have to say that has not been my experience at all, especially in my actual relationships, friendships, personal and professional on the left, people seem interested in my religious faith.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Possibly a bit puzzled, but yeah.

    Matt Sitman: I’ve written about it. Possibly a bit puzzled, yeah. But not hostile necessarily. And I’ve written about topics like the religious left, the Christian left for Dissent and for the New Republic. So I’m someone that when asked about this kind of thing, it really... You have to drill down into the particulars.

    And again, certain online experiences can be terrible, but if we move beyond those, I’ve been treated really well On the left, I was treated well on the right too. But specifically in the ways you might expect me to be an odd fit on the left, I received far less hostility than I might’ve guessed even a few years ago.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So I have a hypothesis, which I think is probably wrong, but I’m going to say it and then we can figure out whether there’s anything to it.

    So the Jonathan Haidt book, the “Moral Foundations Theory” thing, which I will probably drop a link to in the show notes because I can’t run off all of the moral foundations off the top of my head, although you guys might be able to help. I think there are five different areas of moral attentiveness that Jonathan Haidt, the sociologist, has identified.

    And it’s like authority/submission, and justice and fairness. And then one of them ... and basically his take is that in general, people on the left have two of these, and then people on the right have all five. And one of the ones that he says that people on the left don’t have is the sense of purity and sort of contamination, which he regards as a kind of more right-wing phenomenon.

    And it seems to me that I’ve actually seen the purity thing be social contamination like you’re contaminated by talking to this person or having read this person. I’ve seen that actually quite a bit more on the left, which I just kind of noticed that, and it seemed like I want Haidt to write a piece where he admits that he’s wrong about that. Does that make sense to you guys? Does that ring a bell?

    Sohrab Ahmari: Yeah, I mean, I have to say that ... to step back, because I come from a place of ... my cast of mind is generally speaking universalist. In other words, I’ve changed my mind about some things, but I’ve never been not a ... and when I say universalist, I don’t mean in the theological sense that everyone is saved, I just mean in the sense that the world is orderly and that ... especially when it comes to human beings, there are a lot that we share transcending differences across contingent things like nationality, et cetera, et cetera.

    So it’s precisely because of that, I’m very suspicious of ascribing any of those foundations for moral reasoning or whatever Haidt calls them to one side or the other. I’ve seen both on both and the absence of both on all sides because they’re all just made up of people.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, human things.

    Sohrab Ahmari: So I’ve definitely seen some purity spiraling on the right for sure. I mean, that almost goes without saying, but I’ve seen my share of it on the left. We’ve had contributors who are leftists or are nonpolitical, but have had a book deal canceled because they associate with one of our editors or something like that.

    At small presses. And I think it’s partly because they’re like these are ... precisely because they’re small, the stakes are so high as the kind of Kissingerian quip about academy goes. So yeah, no, I wouldn’t say that the left has a monopoly on X, Y, Z or the right has a monopoly. We’re all human.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. No, I basically tend to agree, and I have the same suspicion also having a universalist cast of mind of Haidt’s approach. I just think it’s really funny when you see him being that obviously counter-indicated by reality. You can see all of these things in basically everyone, I think.

    Matt Sitman: I mean, well, I just want to express a note of agreement here with Sohrab about particularly that reaction to the Jonathan Haidt kind of schema, which I think at a glance there might be something to it. You kind of see people respond to the same phenomenon in very different ways. And so there’s something lurking in the different makeups, backgrounds, and experiences of people. I don’t know if that means Haidt is onto something exactly or not, but I am very skeptical of it as Sohrab said.

    And I think in this case it really comes from, and this might just be worth putting on the table explicitly, I am working from a Christian anthropology, so there’s no ... it’s the Solzhenitsyn and the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. And so there’s no one kind of so bad that they’re beyond dignity and me respecting that basic dignity regardless of what they’ve done.

    And there’s no one so virtuous that they can’t themselves, and I’m speaking to myself here, fall into really vicious and terrible behavior. And one thing I try to keep in mind is regular listeners, the true nerd listeners to Know Your Enemy who’ve listened to everything will know that one of my obsessions is the Staple Singers, Pop Staples and Mavis Staples. And they have this lovely song that’s one of my favorites called “I’m Just Another Soldier / You know I’m just another soldier in the army of love.”

    And in the second verse, they sing, “Now hate is my enemy / I got to fight it day and night / but love is the only weapon with which I have to fight.” And so I think that’s kind of the tricky Christian task is to be engaged in these debates and arguments, to be forthright, to speak the truth as you see it, but somehow that has to be leavened by love and a certain decency and a recognition of the way darkness in our own souls can rear its head. I just think that the complications and contradictions and complexity of the Christian view of who we are as human beings is a real antidote to a lot of the kind of pathologies left and right we’ve been describing.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yep. So I dinged the left for its purity spiraling, and we talked about that. I do want to kind of ding the right – in both sidesist fashion, I’d also want to ding the right for this recent “no enemies to the right” approach. “No enemies to the right” is an actual phrase that has been recently circulating on Twitter, having to do with strategy and also kind of ethos for everyone on who considers themself on the right. You shouldn’t be doing any self-policing to your right because it’s so important to own the libs. Owning the libs shall be the whole of the law.

    And I was trying to figure out what specifically it is that the kind of belligerence of owning the libs does that gets people into such incredibly dark places because when you go no enemies to the right, that means that you’re friends with a lot of people who are pretty terrifying.

    And I think it has to do, getting back to Aristotle, I think it has to do with those kinds of friendships or alliances are specifically not drawn around a good, they’re drawn around a bad, so they’re drawn around opposition to something that you ... they’re drawn around owning the libs, rejecting this bad thing that you see in society, liberalism, et cetera. And that’s very specifically not a positive good that you’re organizing your friendships around. And because of the sort of various ways that refracts through people’s psychology and approaches to things, you get things like Tucker Carlson having Andrew Tate on because at the very least he’s based.

    And I think that’s kind of the origin of the incredible darkness that you can see on the right at the moment in those areas. Does that make sense?

    Matt Sitman: Yes, totally. Not to cite one more of my literary heroes here, but Marilynne Robinson ... listeners to Know Your Enemy know I love to cite this line. It’s a line from her novel Gilead that she puts in the mouth of Reverend John Ames and he says something like, “Nothing true about God can be said from a posture of defense.” And I’ve always kind of extrapolated from that to mean when you are basing your position on what you’re against, there are no guardrails there. There’s no affirmative positive vision of the good of what kind of society you want to live in. And there’s no real, again, break to that. It’s just doing the opposite or doing what upsets certain people or causes a certain reaction.

    And so I think any political kind of movement or sensibility based off of, again, what you’re opposed to rather than what you’re for leads to a dark place. Because again, it’s no real principle that will say, “No, don’t do that, that crosses a line, that’s bad, that’s actually really destructive and terrible.”

    There’s no real principle that can provide that break because you’re not operating at all out of speaking from the good and the true and the beautiful as you perceive them.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Yeah, no, I completely agree with that and I’d love that line that Matt just quoted. Yeah, it should be obvious that the principle of no enemies to the right will bring you into friendship with ideologies that are just manifestly awful. I think part of it is what you said, which is, “Well, we’re all against liberalism, so whatever is antagonistic toward liberalism, I am for,” that’s part of it.

    I think one of the phenomena that I’ve observed, and now we’re going into the various subcultures of the left and right is there is also ... I’m observing right now, there has always been the sort of weird racial right, IQ-obsessed, ultimately is deeply anti-Catholic and anti-Christian because they view Christianity as somehow a slave morality that caters to the weak, and ties down the adventurous man, ties him down into the longhouse – these people. And this is completely alien to me because this was not my experience personally, but partly through Compact and other kinds of work that I’ve been doing on political economy, they sort of entered my radar.

    And it’s people who used to be on the left actually; sort of DSA bros and gals, I guess, whatever you want to call them. And for one reason or another ... and their attraction to democratic socialism was based on in part sort of shock the bourgeoisie or shock to whatever. And that got attention for a while and then that stopped paying dividends. So now they’re casting about the what is the next thing I can do that can be shocking. Oh, I’m going to go interview Alex Jones, and in a completely sort of adulatory, not critical, not interesting way journalistically.

    Or yeah, that is pretty cool. I’m going to start. So ironically, retweeting people who call for things like TND, Total N word Death. And so that’s another factor. I mean, I agree with you that just we’re all opposed to liberalism as part of it, but I also think the search for ...

    Susannah Black Roberts: The shock value.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Shock value and online notoriety can keep pushing you ever more into, like you said, pretty dark places, Susannah.

    So it’s interesting because I was not of the sort of Bernie left circa 2016, ’17, so to watch the speed with which people who were Bernieites are now espousing pseudo-scientific racial theories and skull measuring and stuff like that all the time. It’s the one touchstone, the one loadstar that explains the world, these kinds of group racial differences – it is pretty bizarre, pretty shocking, but it’s definitely a phenomenon.

    And yeah, I mean ... and now to extend the conversation into somewhere uncomfortable or provocative, I cannot find any common ground for friendship there. I mean these people call me mulatto, which is pretty bizarre to say to a Persian.

    Half Persian, half Azarai, but fully Iranian national. I have no idea what that means to call me a mulatto, but yeah. And you wonder if I meet this person, it may just be ... by the way, they’re not backcountry types or anything like that. My sense is that they’re largely ...

    Susannah Black Roberts: Lower East Side.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Yeah, they’re Lower East Side or just urban professionals who are deeply frustrated somehow with the life that they’ve built or whatever, or the life that the system has given them. And they’re just sort of simmering and raging. So you’re like if I encounter this person who just called me a mulatto from behind a sort of avatar, would you say that to me in a bar? Because I know you live in New York, dude. Or young lady.

    It’s a pretty bizarre thing to do. But that shuts down friendship, right? Maybe in some real-world context, there would be a possibility where I could say, “Hey man, these ideas that you’re hardy har har espousing have led to some horrific things and not-too-distant facts ...”

    Susannah Black Roberts: Fairly recently.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Fairly recently. You would have some shame or whatever and there’d be some sort of confrontation. Maybe it could be an element of changing someone’s mind, one hopes. But I think that the nature of the online medium makes that impossible because when I see that, when I’m called stuff like that, I just block them.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. It’s a tough one. I mean, obviously, there are various versions of this. You’re talking about Dimes Square, which I guess we can now mention, or I can take it out later, but then there’s also ...

    Sohrab Ahmari: No, no, I should say the play is an excellent play. Matt Gasda has no brief for these people, but the scene has some of that. Yeah, for sure.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. But there’s also kind of the equivalent more Christian, at least theoretically Christian-flavored version of this among the kind of reform bros who are discovering anti-Semitism as their new hobby, and Sohrab you’ve been incredibly supportive in various ways over the last year when Alastair and I have gotten ourselves in hot water with them. So thank you so much for that.

    But I mean, one thing that we prayed in church on just this past Sunday randomly was a call from ... I’m an Anglican. Sorry, guys. Don’t give me a hard time. But this was a prayer that we prayed and we were praying it, I was starting to think about even these guys who have started to be anti-Semitic towards me now and who are really trying to braid in a lot of this vision of the world, which requires that only people who are of the same White American ethnicity get to really be Americans and they’re doing their best to really make a world that is deeply rejecting of my whole self and my family and all of my friend group and all that I love.

    And then they’ve been attacking me personally. And so as we were praying this prayer, I was just like, “Well, can I really pray this for them?” Because theoretically Christians as well, and it actually worked. I actually could pray it for them. So I’m going to pray it now just to kind of wrap us up because we are getting to the place where I think we probably should wrap up.

    So it goes, “Oh God, the Father of all whose Son commanded us to love our enemies, lead them and us from prejudice to truth, deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge, and in your good time, enable us all to stand reconciled before you through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.”

    And it just seems like that’s kind of the only thing to do. When people are calling you ... being racially weird at you, Sohrab or ... I can’t give up. I can’t finally give up the idea of friendship, but it’s going to take some big changes.

    Matt Sitman: Yeah, well, I mean, I want to say that I agreed with Sohrab’s kind of ... by saying earlier that you don’t want to put conditions on friendship. That doesn’t mean you’re friends with everybody, right? And I think particular ... I mean, as a Catholic, as a Christian, I do have a particular revulsion towards anti-Semitism of the kind you’ve experienced, Susannah.

    And of course, the kind of racism and the way some of that is present on the right, maybe not only the right, but those are lines for me too. But the other thing I think as Christians and this might ... as something to close out on; I’m not trying to introduce a new subject at all, I promise. But we’re called to love our enemies as Christians. But that doesn’t mean that love doesn’t ... it’s not philia, right? It’s a more universal love. And so I do think as Christians one thing and given my own trajectory, I do try to keep in mind and its intention with some of what we’ve described, but it is that even terrible people ... people say and do terrible things. I’m obligated to believe they can change. They can experience conversion.

    And so I do think praying for your enemies is about as good as it gets. Because am struck by Simone Weil’s line that prayer is a form of attention. And I think holding people, especially the ones that you struggle to love as a Christian, holding them in your attention and praying, willing their good, praying for them to be released from these really dangerous and destructive and terrible ideas about other kinds of people, that might be the best we can do. And it’s not being their friend, but it is loving them and we have to do that regardless.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. And it is kind of holding out the possibility of future actual friendship, again, not immediately and not without change, but holding out the possibility of not holding yourself back from them, which feels really scary, but also really pretty much what Christianity is about or one of the things that it is about. Sohrab, any last thoughts?

    Sohrab Ahmari: Yeah. I just happen to be looking at one of these tweets of this scene, and I’m sorry to take us back to a dark place, but it goes, “Romantic love is a unique European cultural creation.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh yeah, I saw that.

    Sohrab Ahmari: And if that were so, the Song of Songs, which is obviously this beautiful product of the Hebrew Bible, but which means so much to Christians as well, it wouldn’t speak to us. And I think this is the problem with this kind of vicious particularism is that it shuts down things, connections that would otherwise be made across these barriers, as cliché as frankly that sounds.

    You have to ... as Christians, universalism is just ... and again, I don’t mean universalism in the David Bentley Hart sense, but universalism in a kind of political universalism is so essential. And so perhaps that means on our part it does mean perhaps prayer as the thing that can go beyond the force of just arguing with people and maybe reaching them where they think they have to build up these irrational walls like “romantic love is a unique cultural creation.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh, boy. Well, I think we can probably end there. You guys, thanks.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Sorry, I just have to bring it down to ...

    Susannah Black Roberts: Do it. Do it. You had to just ... I saw that and I saw who retweeted it too. Yep. That was interesting. I mean, someone has been reading Denis de Rougemont and has let themselves go a little bit. All right guys.

    Matt Sitman: A little Denis de Rougemont is a dangerous thing.

    Susannah Black Roberts: A little Denis de Rougemont is a dangerous thing. And then you have to kind of be like, “OK, wait.” The love between Christ and His church, which is the romantic love that is the foundation of all our hope for everything. OK. Yeah, that’s probably wrong. Early twentieth-century macro theorists have a lot to answer for.

    Matt Sitman: Indeed, indeed.

    Sohrab Ahmari: But also we have much to be grateful to some of them.

    Susannah Black Roberts: We do have much to be grateful to some of them. Yes. OK guys, thank you so much.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Thank you.

    Matt Sitman: Thanks for having us.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Contributed By SohrabAhmari Sohrab Ahmari

    Sohrab Ahmari is a founder and editor of Compact, and a contributing editor for The American Conservative.

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    Contributed By MatthewSitman Matthew Sitman

    Matthew Sitman is on the editorial board of Dissent magazine, and with Sam Adler-Bell, cohosts the legendary Know Your Enemy Podcast.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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