Late last week, I was sitting in my kitchen when I read an essay that made me stand up and cheer.
It was written by Winston Marshall, who, before last week, was the banjo player and lead guitarist of Mumford & Sons. It was a gig he’d had for the past decade and a half.
If you’ve never heard of the band, go listen. But suffice it to say, it was a runaway success. Mumford & Sons’ 2012 album “Babel” was the fastest-selling rock album of the last decade. They’ve won a boatload of Grammys. They’ve performed onstage with Bob Dylan. And so on. For any musician, it’d be a dream.
Who would willingly walk away from a job they love at the peak of their career?
As you might imagine, that’s the question I’ve been asked more than any other over the past year.
The answer, for me, was that staying at The New York Times would have meant that I had to become a half-version of myself. Staying would mean betraying my deeper values. And that was the sense I got from reading Winston Marshall’s essay.
He writes: “I could remain and continue to self-censor but it will erode my sense of integrity. Gnaw my conscience. I’ve already felt that beginning.”
Marshall’s original sin took place in early March when he liked the wrong book written by the wrong journalist. “Congratulations @MrAndyNgo. Finally had the time to read your important book. You’re a brave man,” he tweeted.
The book was “Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy” and it was written by Andy Ngo. Both the subject and the reporter have been subjected to powerful propaganda campaigns. Andy Ngo, we are told by the mainstream press, is nothing more than a far-right troll, never mind his often groundbreaking reporting. Meantime Antifa has variously been nothing more than a figment of the conservative imagination or a brave group of sincere activists genuinely fighting fascism.
And so, in our Manichean moment, by recommending a book criticizing Antifa, Winston Marshall was turned into a fascist. The politics of contamination — if you stand near a person with smelly views the smell passes onto you — meant that his bandmates were, too.
As anyone who has been at the center of a digital dogpile can attest: all you want is for it to stop. I am loath to admit this, but I think it’s important to understand how low the online noise can bring you: I once had a weekend after a misinterpreted tweet about a figure skater where I could barely get out of bed. It can feel like the only thing that will make it go away is to apologize. And so Marshall did.
Bill Maher called the apology “Soviet” at the time. When I read it, I confess, I felt sad and a little betrayed. If someone like Winston Marshall felt compelled to apologize for the sin of reading a conservative book, or if Lin-Manuel Miranda apologizes for the sin of making one of the most diverse movie musicals of all time (he was accused of colorism for “In the Heights”), what does that mean for the rest of us? The downstream effects of such apologies are invisible but they are very, very real.
So when I read this line in Marshall’s essay — “my previous apology in a small way participates in the lie that such extremism does not exist, or worse, is a force for good” — I knew I wanted to speak to him.
I have been in touch with various people who, in the moral frenzy of the past year, have resigned or have been pushed out of their high-profile jobs. These are people who, in private, speak frankly about what happened to them. They are variously in shock, angry, sad and regretful. Often the biggest regret has to do with apologizing. This is the advice PR hacks gave to them: say sorry and all the noise will go away. This is terrible advice because it is untrue. This movement has weaponized apologies, which are among the most intimate and empathetic of human acts. It treats apologies like confessions. And so to apologize to these online mobs is to put blood in the water.
There is an important conversation to be had about all of this, but when I ask these people if they’d like to do so publicly, they decline. And I get it completely. Why risk enduring the same thing again?
So I wasn’t only struck by the courage Marshall displayed in his essay, but by his willingness to risk speaking with me even while he is so clearly still in the midst of it.
Earlier this week we sat down for a wide-ranging conversation. We talk about his faith, about self-censorship in the music industry, and about what it means to have moral courage. We also talk about Jordan Peterson, Kanye West, Vaclav Havel, Winston Churchill, and more.
We’ve heard you loud and clear about wanting options, so we’re giving you three: video, audio and print.
Here is the video. You’ll have to excuse the somewhat janky set-up (my laptop camera). Starting in August, we’ll be moving out of our rental into a house of our very own and, ultimately, a studio in the backyard to go along with it:
If you prefer to listen, which I always do, click play right here:
And for an edited and condensed version of our talk, just click right here.
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Have a wonderful weekend. And happy Independence Day!