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How We Changed Our Minds in 2021

Enes Kanter Freedom on his name. Ayaan Hirsi Ali on liberalism. Tim Urban on religion. Plus: Nellie Bowles, Ross Douthat, Chloé Valdary, Karol Markowicz, and Balaji Srinivasan.

In the waning days of 2021, or year two of the pandemic, or year zero, depending on how you count, the stakes of changing your mind can feel insurmountable. And of course.

Because the personal has become political, and because politics has swallowed everything, to change is to risk betrayal: of your people, your culture, your tribe. It is to make yourself suspicious. If you change your mind on something, can you still sit with those friends in the endless high school cafeteria that is modern life? Often, the answer is no. 

So it should come as no surprise that everywhere you look, people are digging in. It can feel safer to plug your ears to new information. It can feel comforting to cover your eyes to the terrible outcome of an idea you once embraced as beautiful.

I get it. 

A year ago, I still believed very much that the best use of my energy was to try to work to shore up the old institutions from the inside. I was wrong. My readers know: This newsletter would not exist if I hadn’t changed my mind.  

And once I changed my mind, once I stopped trying to repair a decayed thing from within and set out to build something new, I was suddenly waking up peppy at 5 a.m., no alarm needed. I think that’s because changing your mind is a hopeful act. It means you think there’s a better path forward. It means you’re not done becoming.

As we approach the new year—a time of promises to change; of commitments to resolve something big or something small—I asked people I admire how they have changed their minds in the past year.

We heard so many good answers that we’re running them over the next two days.

Their answers range from quite deep (Celtics player Enes Kanter changed his last name to “Freedom”) to the seemingly small (Leandra Medine, who we’ll publish tomorrow, embraced Birkenstocks and brown suede).

What these writers share is humility. To change is to admit we’re fallible, fumbling along, and that still we reach. It’s to be hopeful and human and alive. — BW


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MY NAME

ENES KANTER FREEDOM

The first time I came to America, in 2009, one of my teammates at Stoneridge Prep, in Simi Valley, California, was criticizing the president. I was scared for him, because I thought he was going to be jailed. Then he sat down and talked to me about freedom of speech, religion and the press. “Wait,” I said, “you’re telling me a TV channel or a newspaper is not going to be shut down because they are criticizing the regime?” He told me that's not how it works here. I was shocked.

The thing about freedom is, once you taste it, you want everyone else to taste it, too. That’s why I marched for Black Lives Matter and spoke out for democracy in Hong Kong. It’s why I advocate for Tibetan freedom and safety for Taiwan. It’s why I continue to call out the corporations that talk about social justice but ignore China’s Uyghur genocide. And it’s why, a few months ago, I changed my name. I’m now Enes Kanter Freedom.

I wanted young people to see my jersey on the court and go online and research what I’ve been through. They’d find that my passport had been revoked by my home country, Turkey. They’d read about how there have been ten arrest warrants for me in the past four years. They’d know that my father was put in jail and tortured, and that I’ve been called a “terrorist” and an “enemy of the state,” all because I dared to criticize the government—just as my high school teammate, and just as my Celtics teammates, do so casually.

I want them to realize how lucky they are. 

I see the comments that say I am misguided, or naive, or that I am being used as a convenient face to paper over our country’s real problems. I know that America has its share of problems, chief among them racism. I know that there’s much progress left to be made, and my hope is to continue to use my voice and platform to push for it.

We are currently living in a time of intense division—one in which many Americans seem to enjoy playing politics as much as they love to watch basketball. At the risk of disappointing the partisans, I’ll admit that I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican. I don’t have a side. I don’t do politics. What I do is human rights. My only angle is this: How am I going to protect people’s basic rights? And how am I going to promote freedom to the greatest extent possible?

My new country comes with a few tools of trade: checks and balances, freedom of speech and the rule of law, which cannot be bent or discarded on a dictator’s whim. Here, if you hate your leader, you’re allowed to say so.

Enes Kanter Freedom is a human rights activist and a professional basketball player for the Boston Celtics.


PRESTIGE

NELLIE BOWLES

This is the year that I changed my mind about prestige and what it is to be proud of your work. It takes some humility and a bit of ego collapse to go from writing for The New York Times to writing for a newsletter with your wife’s name as the URL, but that is what I did this year. 

I was very good at prestige-seeking, and prestige gave me a lot of pleasure. I scored well on tests and went to a nice school and got the very fanciest job that can be gotten in my profession, features writer for The New York Times. I loved how fancy it was. 

A couple weeks ago, a Times editor called some gun rights groups and left them messages asking if they were scared of going to hell for what they do. Details aside, I really empathize with how often this furious Times editor reminded them during her voicemails that she was with The New York Times. “Again, I am from The New York Times, and I’m letting everyone in The New York Times know what kind of f—ing a—holes you are,” she said in one voicemail. I don’t blame her.

But do you know what's better than prestige? Play, risk, challenge. What’s better than prestige is writing what you mean. And, maybe the new thing we’re building will become prestigious one day, and in a hundred years some ambitious young writer will quit in a huff and write this same thing, and that will be great for her. 

All I mean to say is there is a lot to want in these short lives, and prestige is the least interesting thing on the menu. It took me too long to learn that. 

Nellie Bowles lives in Los Angeles and writes for Common Sense.


RELIGION

TIM URBAN

I’ve spent most of my life thinking “the more atheists, the better.” Looking back, this now feels like a “be careful what you wish for” hope. It’s easy for non-religious people to look down on religion, but we take for granted the extent to which a good society is good because of the moral structure it provides.

The world’s major religions, for all their faults, have been shaped by millennia of experience with human nature. I was one of tens of millions of 2008 Obama voters who had come to see religion as an organ of bigoted right-wing backwardness and the root of most of the world’s evil. That’s a pretty one-dimensional way to see systems of thought that have been around since antiquity.

Over the past few years, it’s been made starkly clear that a world without the major religions is not a world without religion—it’s a world with a bunch of new religions sprouting up and quickly capturing millions of “atheists.” These new religions—many political—have not been put through centuries of trial and error, and the moral structures they provide often stoke the worst parts of our nature.

The major traditional religions are far from perfect, and I would hope we can develop newer, better moral structures in the future that adopt the wisdom of old religions while shedding their uglier components. In the meantime, we should keep in mind that there’s probably no such thing as a non-religious person. Me included.

Tim Urban writes and illustrates the blog Wait But Why. He is currently buried in a book about why U.S. society is acting like such a baby about everything.


NEW YORK

KAROL MARKOWICZ 

I was 15 when my friends and I took the subway from Flatbush, Brooklyn into Manhattan and ran across a rainy 6th Avenue toward the Limelight nightclub at the corner of 20th Street. It was 1992. Kenny Kenny was at the door and opened the rope to let us in. There were club kids, drag queens, banker bros, an ad man from New Jersey in his wife’s fishnet stockings. (Really.) We couldn’t hear a word over the music.

You could be anything you wanted, and you could do it forever or just for the weekend. The point was that absolutely no one would make you be anything at all.

For my family, that was especially precious: We had moved to New York from the Soviet Union when I was small. We were Jewish refugees. And freedom was the focal point of our new lives. 

But something broke during the pandemic. The conformity of our age took hold in my corner of Brooklyn and did not let go. You could not question irrational mitigation policies. You could not say what we all knew to be true: That double-masking outside does nothing. That we don't need to bathe in Purell. That it is bad for kids not to be in school.

I loved New York so much, but loving it over the past two years has felt like pleading the case for your terrible boyfriend to your friends. “He takes a little while to open up. Really, he’s not so bad.” You hand over your best picture. “That’s him? You’re putting up with all of it for this?”

I will—I already do—miss my glorious, funky, singular New York. But the point of New York was its freedom. I want my kids to feel the way I felt in my hometown in the ‘90s. So we’re moving to Florida. 

Karol Markowicz is a columnist at The New York Post.


CRITICAL RACE THEORY

CHLOE VALDARY

When the term “critical race theory” entered and then swallowed the Twittersphere, cable news shows, and school board meetings across the country all at once, I felt that I had to choose a side. Given my core beliefs about grace, empathy and forgiveness, I thought I had to be against it. 

I believed—and preached—that critical race theory was a kind of archetypal evil, a modern version of Original Sin that required all of us, as people of good faith, to eradicate it, root and branch. 

Then, embarrassed that I was railing against CRT without completely understanding it, I read “Silent Covenants,” a book about education by Derrick Bell, who, along with Kimberlé Crenshaw and others, was one of the originators of critical race theory. I was surprised to read Bell’s argument promoting school choice for black and white Americans alike. Bell also laments what he calls “racial balance remedies,” or the conflation of equality of opportunity with the notion that racial parity (the idea that an institution should perfectly match the racial breakdown of the community it serves) as the only measure of “anti-racism.” 

This overlap between traditionally conservative views about education and critical race theorists can be helpful to those, like me, who are trying to fight racism by avoiding the temptation to caricature others. A vision of anti-racism that genuinely seeks to refrain from demonizing our differences has to begin with finding common ground.

Chloé Valdary is the founder of Theory of Enchantment, an innovative framework for compassionate anti-racism.


LIBERALISM

AYAAN HIRSI ALI

Since I left the world I was born into—the world of Somalia, the world of Islam, and all of the strictures that society and religion put on me as a woman—I have always identified as a liberal. I mean that in the most capacious sense of the world: a belief in the rule of law; in individual liberty; in equality between men and women; in due process; and in, yes, a belief that some cultures—namely, liberal and democratic ones—are better than others. 

Lately, I worry that liberalism is insufficient. Or to put it another way: that the weak version of liberalism we see across the West cannot compete with muscular ideologies, like Islamism and populism rising on the right and the left across Europe and here in America.

A value-neutral liberalism that insists that all cultures and choices are equally good is liberalism in name only. For liberalism to win, it needs to stand up to its enemies yet again. 

The fate of the West depends on it.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s most recent book is “Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights.”


THAT AMERICA WOULD RISE TO THE OCCASION 

​​ROSS DOUTHAT

At the start of 2021, I believed that for all of our fumbles and disasters, the success of our vaccine efforts meant that the United States was actually going to come out ahead of many of our developed-world peers when it came to handling the pandemic. This seemed especially plausible as winter gave way to spring and our vaccination rates were racing ahead of most European countries, even as our case rates were collapsing.

As the year turns, however, looking at the American death toll I don’t believe this anymore. You can still hail our scientific achievements, and still defend our response in terms of civil liberties and economic freedom, especially relative to models like Australia. But in terms of the core mission of saving lives, we failed the test of the Delta variant: We didn’t get enough people vaccinated, we didn’t get people boosters fast enough, we didn’t make enough progress with therapeutics, and as a consequence America is ending the year as a death-toll outlier once again.

There is blame for this to go around—for Republicans who helped nurture vaccine skepticism; for a Biden administration and a public health establishment that showed very little policy creativity once it became clear that the initial vaccination push was not enough; and for deep American patterns of disconnectedness, paranoia and simple unhealthiness that impeded public-health efforts. But however you apportion blame it’s a bad result, and it has snuffed out what I felt for a little while last winter: that brief and welcome surge of patriotic pride, and replaced it with profound disappointment. 

Ross Douthat is a columnist at The New York Times. His most recent book is called “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery.” 


HOW THIS ALL ENDS

BALAJI SRINIVASAN

For some time, I’ve been increasingly concerned that instead of marching into a future of freedom we were heading toward a time of tyranny. I still think something like this may take place in China’s sphere of influence. Arguably, it already is. But as the events of this year have unfolded, it appears that we are not on track for a dictatorship of either the right- or left-wing variety, but for something more like American anarchy.

Squint past today’s half-ignored, TSA-like Covid regulations and you see a half-ignored, TSA-like Covid regulator—namely, a failing state that people can half-ignore, and arguably must half-ignore, because the USA itself is now the TSA, and the TSA, we know, is safety theater. 

In the territory governed by this inept bureaucracy, you see power outages, supply chain shortages, rampant flooding, and uncontrolled fires. You see riots, arsons, shootings, stabbings, robberies, and murders. You see digital mobs that become physical mobs. You see a complete loss of trust in institutions from the state to the media. You see anti-capitalism and anti-vaxxism. You see states breaking away from the U.S. federal government, at home and abroad. And you see the End of Power, the Revolt of the Public, the defeat of the military, the inflation of the dollar, and—looming ahead—an American anarchy.

What’s coming isn’t fascism or communism, like the left-wing and right-wing pundits will have you believe, even though they don’t believe it themselves. What’s coming is the exact opposite of that, a world where the civilized concepts of freedom and equity are extrapolated to their decivilizational limit, where you ain’t the boss of me and we are all equal, where all hierarchy is illegitimate and with it all authority, where no one is in charge and everything is in chaos.

You can argue this may be preferable to the status quo, in the same way the chaotic Russia of the 1990s was on balance better than the authoritarian Soviet Union of the ’80s. You can argue it may be inevitable; as the Chinese proverb goes, “the empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.” And you can argue that this transitional period of anarchy may be lamentable, but that it’s better than the other team being in charge, and that we can build a better order on the other side.

Maybe so. But prior to any rebundling, I think we’re on track for quite the unbundling.

Balaji Srinivasan is an angel investor and founder.

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