34: Zev Weinstein - On Parenting, Boys & Generation Z
This is the first episode of The Portal which was 100% recorded at home, during quarantine, under social isolation. The guest is none other than my own son Zev Weinstein and the recording was timed to straddle his midnight transition from being 14 into being 15 years old.
|On Parenting, Boys & Generation Z
|13 May 2020
Zev is currently a 9th grader who occasionally posts to his YouTube Channel GenerationZ (https://www.youtube.com/c/GenerationZW) and his Twitter Account @Zev__Weinstein (https://twitter.com/Zev__Weinstein). In this episode, we sit down to discuss history, poetry, COVID19, jewish humor and other issues, as well as the three questions I am frequently asked about on the topic of parenting:
A) What is the proper approach to parenting a child whose learning differences are significant?
B) Do you have any novel approaches to parenting?
C) What is the best way to parent young boys in a world that cannot find a shared positive vision of masculinity worth celebrating?
Rather than attempt to answer these questions entirely on my own, I thought it would make sense to bring Zev onto The Portal to discuss them with me in his own distinct voice. I hope you will enjoy this episode in the spirit with which it was recorded, and that you will encourage Zev to speak on issues of Generation Z. They are already quite well equipped to discuss how they view the generations above them in handling the world, whose stewardship they will soon inherit.
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Eric Weinstein: Hello, it's Eric with a few thoughts for this week. I want to talk about a topic that is surprisingly dangerous: taste. Now, taste doesn't sound like a dangerous topic, at least to my ears. When I hear the word, I think about an ineffable quality that famously does not lend itself to discussion. As the Latin saying goes, "de gustibus non est disputandum," indicating a belief that, in matters of taste, unlike matters of fact, there can be no productive disputation.
How marvelous: a quality, then, that is highly individualistic, and cannot be argued, because no one's taste is better than anyone else's. However, I don't quite see it like that. Instead, I have a deep feeling of dread that, beneath all this mechanistic talk about rights and rules and laws, there's ultimately an issue of taste at the bottom of it all. To make matters even worse, I believe that, if there is a type of taste essential to making society work, it is likely not our individual taste, but the coherence of our group taste.
In this picture, we lost a concept of group taste where many members of the leadership of a social group could roughly agree on what was desirable on behalf of society, and act upon that accordingly. When that sense of shared group taste was lost, people increasingly turned to rules, rights, and laws to govern how they should get along in the absence of shared cultural expectations.
If I hear someone screaming obscenities into a cell phone at a supermarket, for example, my first inclination is to alert the person, as they likely don't realize that they're swearing in front of families shopping. That is, I would be making an appeal to shared taste. But what if that person were to say to me in return, "What business is it of yours or anyone else’s what I yell and how loud I yell it? If you don't want children to hear this, leave them at home.”?
Well, that would alert me to the idea that we do not share a sense of taste. The immediate next question would become, what are the laws or rules governing the situation? And is there anyone here with the ability or authority to enforce them? That is a fairly serious change in orientation. One second, I think I am helping someone not to humiliate him or herself. The next, I'm looking for a security guard armed with a nightstick or firearm.
Well, this is what I am seeing more each day. We are losing a sense that our central tastes are shared, and so we are looking to control each other through the appeal to rights rules and laws. The hunter and the vegan may have a shared appreciation of nature, for example, that is much greater than that of the general population. But while one analogizes man to a noble apex predator like the eagle, the other analogizes our prey to other humans. Whether we choose to buy into one, both, or neither of these analogies is an issue largely of taste, which will generally determine our perspective in these matters.
Well, increasingly, I'm trying to avoid all conversations that involve our hypothetical hunter and vegan talking together. I am more interested in a conversation between two hunters, or one taking place between two vegans. At least when people agree on a basic framework built on shared taste, the conversation isn't guaranteed to stagnate year after year into sloganeering that accomplishes nothing.
Somehow when we share our tastes with another, our conversations become symphonic within that framework. When we agree on taste, we get to play intellectual chess with each other, whereas, when we disagree, we end up in infinite drawn games of Tic-Tac-Toe.
So why do we see the internet turning civil society into an infinite sea of pointless, drawn Tic-Tac-Toe style disputes?
Well, I would say the following: We have weirdly become fearful of anyone accomplishing anything, it seems. The goal of many concerned with issues of oppression and justice is to open up any discussion to the veto of the very people who would want to shut down. An atheist sees every move towards religiosity and a discussion between priests as a step towards the madness of the Crusades, while a priest might view every conversation between progressive atheists as bringing us closer to the atrocities of communism. For some reason, a concept of taste that values moderation in both our belief and skepticism has been lost, even though it allows us to coexist and make progress with each other. Instead, we are now left with a shouting match—as if every recitation of the Lord's Prayer leads inexorably to the Inquisition, and every questioning of God's existence must lead to Stalinist show trials.
So this is my concern: when we insist on tearing each other to shreds or look to shackle our interlocutors with rules about what they can and cannot say or do, we are really looking to reestablish some concept of shared taste in a much bigger world. We want to be able to communicate that, of COURSE Pushkin and Tagore were much more important writers than Ogden Nash, or that Stephen Hawking was not nearly as important to physics as Dirac, without much of an argument. We are so tempted to want to communicate that between JS Bach and Weird Al Yankovic, only one of them is of timeless importance. Yet we have all learned exactly what will ensue in any open forum that is sufficiently large and diverse. You can likely hear the voice already: "Just who are you, and what gives YOU the right to make such sweeping generalizations?" A world that cannot distinguish via taste whether a word is being said hatefully with contempt or being used clinically incorrectly in a scholarly context, needs the childlike concept of “the N-word" to make sure that taste never enters into the discussion of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Gilbert and Sullivan, or Mark Twain.
And so, this is my final thought for you for this week: Don't be fooled into thinking that our new internet-enabled world can be sorted out with mere rules; don't waste your lives trying to come up with laws and protocols to make everyone behave properly towards each other. At the bottom of all this, is really an issue we don't talk about because we have become afraid to slight anyone who might be listening. And that issue is taste.
The people who are fighting against compelled pronouns, for example, may want to use those same pronouns to make someone struggling with their sexual identity in one context, feel comfortable. Likewise, the people fighting for prohibitions on so called dead-naming might really be fighting against targeted bullying, and have no real difficulty when discussing Bruce Jenner's Olympic decathlon victory in 1976.
If there is a way forward, it has to do with communicating taste. It is important for me that we learn again to discuss and transmit issues of taste in public. The following are all statements of taste that will offend those of you who find all such public discussions insufferable, but I think it's important that we again try to remember that taste is one of the most important things we can transmit.
So here are 10 issues:
1. Algebraic geometry is far more rich and beautiful than combinatorics.
2. The importance of Bach's music, and Shakespeare's prose, is unequaled by any of the composers and writers working today.
3. The Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Judson, about the birth of molecular biology, is an amazing book you should both know and own.
4. The American-developed Tommy Atkins mango variety that dominates the US market is in fact terrible, and is wildly inferior to Western India's Alphonso mango which ripens each May.
5. Turkish is a much more beautiful language than Indonesian, but Indonesian is in fact much easier to learn and much more satisfying to learn than Turkish.
6. Biology and music theory are far more accomplished fields than ecology and sociology, and would generally be better to major and if you are already college-bound.
7. Tom Lehrer is an off-color and obscene national treasure, and he should still probably be played for small children.
8. Parmigiano Reggiano is a far more important cheese than Emmentaler—it's not even close.
9. The worm and model organism, C. elegans, deserves your attention, no matter who you are, or what you do for a living.
10. The simple system of a weight on a spring is unexpectedly the key to all of physics. Study that much more than you would study any other system and you will be richly rewarded.
So, you may ask, why engage in such non-political statements of taste at all? Well, because I believe that daring to transmit the gift of taste is one of the most important acts of trust in which we can engage. When you share your well-chosen tastes with others, and they take hold, it allows your group to progress beyond basic conversations. It allows you to stop engaging in framing wars and to start listening to each other. But perhaps most importantly, if the taste is well chosen, it allows the recipient not to waste time chasing meaning and truth down all of the blind alleys which radiate out from every direction in a young life.
And so, I thought I would experiment by leaving you with a small number of value-laden statements representing my tastes in areas in which I think many of you may disagree. Unlike the ones above, I would expect these statements to engender a fair amount of pushback. Yet I have roughly the same level of conviction about them, so I thought I would try to share them at scale to see what happens when you ask people to rely on shared taste and reasonability rather than rules and rights.
Here are five points of taste, which I think are all on fairly solid ground, but I think maybe upsetting to some people:
A. Don't waste too much of your time trying to solve old problems (like free will versus determinism, or pro-life versus pro-choice or the existence versus the non existence of God). If you want to think about these things, think about them as entertainment, and compute their considerable opportunity costs as part of your entertainment budget. If you want to be more productive, however, instead ask why these well-worn positions so regularly fight to reliable stalemates, and start from that perspective instead.
B. The reason that a 74-year-old has never run against a 77-year-old for the presidency of the United States is that every previous generation knew that this is preposterous, given how demanding the job is. The fact that this is not leading to a protest movement, demanding better, younger, and more technically-adept candidates is indicative of just how far we may be slipping in the United States towards being a failed state. There is simply something both mysterious and wrong with just how little the Silent and Baby Boomer generations, in general, are focused on the well-being of their own children and grandchildren, as well as the world that they will leave after they are gone. And there is not time to study, understand, explain, or fix this problem. Thus, they should not be mined repeatedly for leadership from their established pools of wealthy and powerful figures.
C. Modern social justice has become an insane movement seeking to end-run logic, science, due process, and rule of law. That said, it does have some merit to it, and thus its objectives cannot, and should not, be ignored. However, it does not have enough merit to want to undo all of our sense-making abilities.
D. You should engage in activities that are unforgiving (like rock climbing, violin playing, stand up comedy and improvisation, jujitsu, STEM subjects, etc.), where feedback and reward can usually be measured without recourse to expert opinion. This will train you to see the world as it really is, and how far the world of institutions and experts has deviated from reality itself.
E. Stop trying to constrain each other by insisting on your rights. Taste is more important than laws in the affairs of men. There are many issues of taste that don't need to end up as a hard rule requiring brutal enforcement. If you are in any of the countries with the largest audiences for our podcast, you are far better served by working to return your country to a working and mid-sized modern moderate government—built on strong national identity, with modest immigration—than you are by fantasizing about some new utopian concept that will never really work in reality.
After some words from our sponsors, I'll be back to introduce today's guest.
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Eric Weinstein: Today's episode is the first for The Portal: it is the first episode to be recorded and released entirely from quarantine. And that means that any guest had to be from my immediate family.
Now, there are a trio of topics that are family-related and that I get asked about with some frequency. The first of them is what it is like to be part of a family with profound inherited learning differences, but a family that has been somewhat aggressive and creative in trying to overcome them. The second question is whether I have any surprising parenting advice. And lastly, I get asked about what it is like to raise a boy in the current era, without a positive agreed upon version of masculinity. I had wanted to begin discussing all of these topics, but it's somehow never gotten around to focusing on them.
Well, a little over a year and a half ago, and before The Portal was launched, I recorded a very brief 15 minute discussion with my then 13 year old son, Zev. I didn't think much of it at the time. But when I posted the video, it drew a fair amount of interest and has now registered over 80,000 views. So with those previous questions in mind, I decided to ask Zev back with the idea of recording through the stroke of midnight on his actual birthday, so that he would go from being 14 years old to 15 years old while the episode was in fact in-progress.
As for what it is like to deal with learning differences like Zev’s, it has been mostly fantastic. Zev has been great intellectual company for me since he was about three years of age. The tricky part is fully believing in your child rather than institutional assessment, which somehow reliably manages to always value compliance over anything generative or creative. You may ask why I say this, but if a child with an interesting learning difference teaches us anything about the problem of schooling, it is this: compliance is what makes TEACHERS look good, rather than what makes a student truly interesting. And thus, compliance always trades at a premium to intellect, which persistently trades at the deepest of discounts.
A simple example from Zev’s preschool years will illustrate. One day I bought Zev a lemonade when he was perhaps three or four years old. He asked, “Is lemonade an object?” It didn't make sense to me at first why he would call a liquid an object, so I said, “Why do you ask?” And he replied, “Well, I wanted to know if it was electrically-charged.” Now honestly, that didn't make sense to me. But something told me that he was doing more than picking up the physics lingo in the house and playing with it, so I asked him to explain. “Well,” he said, “if it is an object, then it would be an object resting in my class. But Newton says an object at rest would remain at rest unless there were a force pulling it up my straw. And there are only four forces. So it can't be gravity or the weak force doing it because they are too weak. And it can't be the strong force because this isn't nuclear. So it has to be electromagnetism. But I can understand how that can be if lemonade isn't electrically charged.” Suddenly, I could see his whole line of thinking, except for how to actually answer this wonderful question. Now you can just imagine how that would play at nursery school. I'm sure that the answers would be “No, lemonade isn't an object, it's a liquid.” Or, “No, it isn't about electromagnetism. And don't worry about your lemonade having electricity in it,” with no discussion of intermolecular forces, capillary action, or anything else of relevance to his question. And, in fact, these frustrating interactions with teachers WOULD happen several times every week in service preschool, leaving his teachers frazzled, and poor Zev bewildered as to what he had done wrong. He would regularly tell me that his teachers were not making sense, or were giving him wrong information, or they weren't focused on education. And year after year, Zev would continue to grow as an intellect and as a self-teacher in such a way as to always be in the blind spot of the formal educational system.
So if you've ever been curious as to what I was like as a child, or what my brother Bret Weinstein (from Episode 19) was like, I would say that Zev’s learning profile is intermediate between the two of ours. If you lack a picture of what educators call “learning disabilities,” this episode might be helpful.
As for what parenting tips I have, I would recommend the following: start listening VERY carefully to your children between the ages of two and four to see if they are operating on an advanced abstract level. If you take this advice, it may lead you to feeling quite isolated and even a bit insane, because it is hard to believe what you may be hearing. Quite honestly, I couldn't quite get myself to believe the conversation Zev was trying to have with the world. He wasn't a prodigy at anything, but the quality of his abstract thinking was nearly adult in nature, and was lost on almost everyone because no one was expecting most of the crazy-sounding things a little kid says to actually make sense. To be heard by even one person at home makes it possible for a child to relax and not get quite as frustrated when he or she is not able to make him or herself understood at school.
And as for the question of masculinity and how we are raising boys in the current time, I am sad to say that I don't have an answer. I personally think that masculinity (with some mild updating) is due for a Renaissance. I could be wrong in this, but I have observed the pressure put on young boys to contend with the weight of so-called “toxic masculinity” with no analogue of “toxic femininity” being co-taught in schools, and it strikes me as perfectly misguided. Simply taking seriously the old rules for being a gentleman and a mensch takes care of almost everything valid we hear under the rubric of “toxic masculinity,” and it does so without gutting the essential experience of coming-of-age for young boys and men. Many of these brilliant young women that we are so eager to create are going to have to find their impressive male counterparts when they want to start families, and it is better that those young men were aspirationally raised to be respectful and masculine gentlemen than to be expected to be non-toxic and nondescript so as to allay our fears of the excesses of one gender, at the expense of missing everything wonderful about raising young men.
After a few brief words from our sponsors, I'll be back with my uninterrupted conversation on parenting in the age of COVID with my son Zev Weinstein.
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Eric Weinstein: Hello, you found the portal. I'm your host, Eric Weinstein, and I'm here today with my own son, Zev Weinstein. We are socially isolating in quarantine. Zev: Welcome to the portal!
Zev Weinstein: Happy to be here.
EW: So I've had you on my channel once before—before I even started The Portal—and you were 13 at the time. And today is in fact the last moment we have to look back on you being 14, as tomorrow is your birthday.
ZW: Well, I’ll have my whole life to look back on being 14, but it's the last day [laugh] during which I'm actually in it.
EW: Fair enough.
So I wanted to just, sort of, talk a little bit about parenting; about what it's like to be a kid at the current moment; and what you see as some of the highlights of life to this point, Generation Z, and how you guys are all going through this very strange corona epidemic. So, let me just start off by saying, how would you talk about the last year in terms of your own life?
ZW: Well, I think the last year has been anomalous for all of us. And the interesting thing—I think I was talking to you about this earlier—is that, usually, younger generations can look back to older generations for very strange, very powerful, sometimes very devastating times. So if we were in the middle 1940s and we were going through World War II, and it seemed like a novelty, we would have past generations to tell us about World War I. And even though casualties were certainly much higher during World War II, we would have some sense of what a devastating crisis like this looked like to older generations and what they were going through. With this pandemic, in particular, this is so novel and so specific to our time, that I think the interesting thing is, I feel like I know very little about it, but there's also no one who really knows that much about it (or so we assume at least). So I think I have something that I can bring to the table in that I belong to a different generation—I can offer a youthful view—but really, I think some of the things we're going through right now, generationally, look quite similar.
EW: Hm. So here's a strange question: Is there a way in which it is disturbing to see adults not seemingly knowing how to cope with something? That they're encountering something novel, and they don't seem to be able to come to any kind of strong conclusions about what should be done?
ZW: You know, it's an interesting question. There's a way in which it's jarring knowing that no one really knows better—there's no one adequate, whom we can look to for guidance. On the other hand, there's something sort of satisfying about always feeling like … We didn't really have proof that older generations understood the world that much better, and now is one of the only times when that can really be confirmed.
I know you frequently look at, you know, the problems with the Boomers and how their weird economic placement created all of these corrupt incentive structures, and they were looked to as those who knew what they were doing when really they were benefiting off of a strange economic time. I think now is one of the few times when we can really say, “Okay, the Boomers don't know what they're doing; they never experienced this,” and it's very apparent that they don't have the wisdom that they're always assumed to have, simply because of their position and their age.
So I think there's something satisfying about that, despite how shocking it is.
EW: It is shocking. You know, I should say that in our own family structure, we actually are skipping the Boomers and the Millennials. So in other words, your grandparents are The Silent Generation. Then came the Boomers—we don't have any. Both your parents are in Generation X. Then the Millennials—we don't have any. And then we get to you, in Generation Z. So somehow our family is sort of off by one In terms of the main Boomer/Millennial story.
But I do think that The Silent Generation, which is still around (I think Joe Biden would be a part of that) … You have to ask yourself the question: Do they really have any particular leg up? And I would say that they don't. I mean, it might be that the very old people (like Jimmy Carter, you know, who was born in the 20s) might have more of a memory of people talking about the 1918 pandemic. But it's really humbling, from a generational perspective, that nobody knows what's going on, and the two generations above us (at least above my generation—the Silents and the Boomers) … I don't get the sense that they really want to think about this in terms that makes sense. I can't follow what they're doing.
ZW: Well, I think you have an interesting belief about a very long era where nothing much happened, and everything happened, at the same time. I mean, it was a bright time for science, and little was screwing up, and everyone was immune to everything. I'm not sure I always agree with some of the characteristics that you ascribe to this era. But I do agree with you, usually, about some of the demons that I think it's produced. And unfortunately, a lot of those people are in positions of power now.
EW: You're super interested in history. How do you see it differently than you think (I would imagine) that many of my audience would have an idea about my perspective—how might you see it in an adjusted fashion?
ZW: Well, firstly, do you want to give a brief outline of the era in which we're both referring, so I know that we're talking about the same sorts of things?
EW: Yeah, I would say that just a quick recap would be that 1945 ushered in this miraculous post-war economy. It grew at an incredible rate; it was fairly broadly distributed in terms of the spoils (up until the early 1970s). There's a very short, mysterious period where everything changes. And then there's a very long period of gimmickry in order to make things look like they're growing for a small number of people, but you're sort of selling off the future, and you're cutting your obligations to your fellow countrymen. And so, that picture is one which I see being characterized by scientific and technological slowdowns outside of a few areas, as well as a period of kind of nonsensical accounting (that if you were “lucky” enough to engage in it, you could sort of do things with abstractions that transferred wealth into your pocket, but at the expense of either the future or somebody else or national security, let's say).
ZW: So, I think in many ways we can agree about this time. I do think, though, that usually, your depiction of the era between 1945 and mid-70s is that everyone felt immune to the dangers of the world.
EW: Oh, no no no—I wouldn't say that.
EW: I would say that there were these storm clouds that were constantly on the horizon …
ZW: Cold War.
EW: … Yeah. And, you know, I mean, look: Obviously, the Great Leap Forward was an enormous catastrophe inside of China. There were, you know … The Cuban Missile Crisis was a very close call. There's no shortage of super serious things that happened in the point-.
And maybe it's a good opportunity for me to sort of be more clear, which is that: It was a very tense period, because of the amount of potential energy in the system. But I think most of that wasn't realized—the Cold War remained “cold,” it just was terrifying.
ZW: So I agree with you that there is a lot of potential energy. I guess to use an analogous term, there would also be a lot of kinetic energy WITHIN the states. And I think you and I talked a lot about the 60s. But sometimes I feel like you look past it in this analysis. I think that was a similar time to where we are right now, because of how divided the world was, because of how much upheaval there was at the time. I also … I think that, even though you and I could probably agree that in biology, for example, (like, what? 1950 … I’ll say 1950 to maybe 1965.)
EW: Like, nothing like it.
ZW: it was insane. The number of … there was, what? There was the discovery of DNA—there was the discovery of the alpha helix. That’s 53, 51. What was it? … Chargaff’s experiment—when was that?
EW: Chargaff’s experiment has to be be before 1953 with the equimolar relation.
ZW: I think it was like 52, then.
EW: And then Marshall Nierenberg comes up with the genetic code in like 63?
ZW: I don't know when Hershey and Chase was. There was all this … interesting things with stuff with hemoglobin and myoglobin. Like, even in the course of five years, we went from literally not having the structure of a single biological micromolecule to having all this really advanced stuff about genetics. And I don't think a time like that has been seen since, but if you look at, for example, the Human Genome Project (that was, what? 1992 to, like, 2003?)
EW: Something like that, I don't know exactly.
ZW: (I think it was, I think is around that.) That seems to me like a really huge leap forward. And I think sometimes you sort of have dual views of the stagnation that we're seeing now. I think sometimes your view on the matter is that there's a tremendous amount of stagnation and not very much as getting done in many areas of science. And I think sometimes you feel that there's a tremendous amount of progress, and it isn't recognizable in the same way. The culture doesn't feel how powerful each one of these discoveries is. I remember you said this in your live episode with Peter, when you were talking about the compilation of data that resembled a picture of the black hole: I think your general contention was that this was some incredible thing that had happened in science, and people felt it for, like, 10 minutes and then moved on.
EW: Yeah, it was a very strange thing.
ZW: So I think sometimes you believe that you're … you believe in stagnation, during the moment—a lot of scientific stagnation. And I think sometimes you believe that there isn't so much stagnation as a failure to recognize progress. And [laughing] I’m not trying to call you out in any way …
EW: I don't mind! This is interesting.
ZW: … but I think, in some sense, I know all of your insights are real, but I don't know how to interpret them because sometimes they resemble to me this, like, Schrodinger’s position on stagnation. And I think that's very central to any analysis you would have this time and how it differs from a time previous.
EW: Well, I think it probably is less interesting than Schrodinger’s pessimist. Probably what it is, is that I'm SKETCHING things rather than stating them clearly. So, I would say that there's no shortage of new scientific discoveries—you could ask a different question, which is, “How many of them are foundational?” So, you know, the first imaging of a black hole, or the discovery of gravity waves, and being able to see black hole collisions-
ZW: Hasn’t really had its subsequent discoveries.
EW: Well … There's an issue about how well is that going to translate into something concrete—like a technology? I’m not sure that that actually matters. But that's one level of stagnation. So sometimes you, for example, would learn about genes, but you wouldn't be able to develop enough gene therapy. And so there's a question about, is it the TECHNOLOGICAL translation? Is it the DEPTHS of the insights? Do these things cause us to CHANGE our picture, or do they merely sort of get higher resolution on a picture we already had?
So I think that you're quite correct, that there are a number of refinements to really get at what's stagnating and what's progressing. It’s certainly not a simple story of of global stagnation everywhere. But, you know, a key question would be: What is what is the significance? How do these insights cash out as culture? Do they build? Do they give us technologies? Do they clarify our position in the cosmos?
ZW: You know, it's interesting to me that these are the things with which you're concerned, because I think as a mathematician, you're sort of the scientist whose job it is to care least about the practical applications of their work. So I think very often math and technology have been linked, but I think, also, if some incredible mathematical discovery was made, that would be very interesting to a mathematician (and hopefully to the rest of the world) on its own terms. So it's surprising to me that these are the sort of issues that are making this more complicated for you.
EW: Well, so I think that there's a way in which what I care about—at the level, let's say, of a mathematician talking about new insights that might not translate—is different than what I care about in terms of the world economy that's going to support all of us. And I probably don't get enough of an opportunity to break out the difference in those two conversations.
ZW: You know Dad? I think that's true. And I will say: I know you talk to me sometimes about math, and I have no … I have a lot of faith in you as a mathematician. But I think, by nature, you're not so much a mathematician as you are a thinker. And I think we've all been forced into these positions, because … I think culture has destroyed the polymath. And I think this is one of the things which you and I both agree on. And I know I'm not the first person to make this point; and I know this is something you've talked about extensively. But I think that's really why you are in the unique position that you're in: You have a podcast; you're a mathematician. I think you're supposed to be a thinker, more so than simply a mathematician. And that pushes us into all of these weird, uncomfortable positions.
EW: Hmm. [grinning] You want to take over this podcast?
EW: Do you see yourself in, sort of, … Do you think a polymath would be, like, a good role model for you, in terms of charting your path?
ZW: Well, yes and no. So a lot of the people, up to whom I look [laughs], would be polymaths, but from a bygone era. So unfortunately, I don't think those are the people that I should look towards for inspiration—even though they're the people I care about—because I don't think the future (or at least the present) supports polymaths or thinkers in that simple of a capacity.
So, like, I really … I look up to a lot of old Renaissance figures and philosophers and … for a long time philosophers WERE the mathematicians and the scientists. And they were also … Thinkers were also the painters, etc. And I really, I wish we had more of those people in these times, but I don't think they're a good inspiration because the world won't support them anymore.
EW: Well, that's that's very troubling to me that at the tender age of 14-going-on-15 you don't feel that—even if that is your natural inclination—that that is something that is supported. Because one would like to think that that would give you the ability to connect many disparate things.
So let me let me sort of turn this to you: How do you see the future and your place in it? Do you have the sense that this coronavirus is a turning point? Do you think I have too much faith that this is actually going to change things? I mean, it's pretty dramatic change in your life from the beginning of the year.
ZW: That's true. … I’m not sure how much it would convince me of a career path, if that was a facet of the question.
EW: Well do you see the old order crumbling?
EW: Do you see it crumbling quickly?
EW: Okay. Do you have a sense of what way in which the old order will crumble or what characterize the old order? And how does a 14-year-old take a look at it and see what's next?
ZW: You like pulling out the number 14 just because it's right before my birthday, aren't you?
EW: Well, I don't … I'm actually on the fence as to whether I should use 14 or 15.
ZW: Depends how long this podcast runs for—it’s late right now.
Um, but … yes, I think the world is—
EW: I don't mean to diminish you. Should I say that you're 15? I'm just thinking: we're retrospectively looking at it as you're looking back on 14.
Um, yes, I see the world crumbling and I'm not sure exactly how to interact with it, but I'm wondering if parts of the new world will resemble the best of the old world—particularly the parts of the old world which I feel have been destroyed, which we've referenced just previously.
But honestly, I think that makes right now the hardest time to examine something like my future or a career, because not only was whatever this era is—which is falling—confusing in that sense. And not only did that era make it difficult to think about the future, but now we're in an even weirder period, which is a transition from a confusing era to something which is uncertain, which is the future, right? So I think now might be the worst time to ask that question, unfortunately.
EW: Well, okay, but … So you made—just to throw it out there and play with it—you made the comparison to the 60s. And I would say that the 60s gave way around 1971 through 73 to something very different. So is it possible—
ZW: 1971 to 73?
EW: … that that would be the transitional period where you start to see all sorts of breaks in the economic data. You can clearly see that the structure of the economy changes radically and very dramatically.
ZW: Do you think that has anything to do with major cultural events?
EW: I think that it had to do with the Arab oil embargo. It had to do with the gold standard and going towards fiat currency. It had to do with cultural events—the Vietnam War, the entrance of women, the effects of the 1965 Immigration Act. I think a lot of it had to do with scientific exhaustion as per the Science Since Babylon theory of Derek de Solla Price (that we were on an exponential curve that couldn't be continued). I think that all of those things are probably downstream from an idea that I've called umwelt-hacking: that we learned a lot inside of the 20th century, just by being able to see all sorts of things that had been invisible, and whatever we could see (by slowing something down or blowing it up and shrinking it, whatever), we learn things. And a lot of those things we could put to use. And then a lot of those things actually remained beyond usefulness because we couldn't figure out how to harness them.
ZW: Do you think the past hundred years were sort of a golden age?
EW: Well, I mean, I think that's a really interesting question. In some ways. It's a golden age from the point of view of knowledge. But it was also a hellish age. I mean, like the 20th century, in so many ways, was a terrible time. And it's unclear to me whether we should remember it one way or the other. As Dickens said, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and I think that in many ways that really fit the 20th century to a T.
ZW: Well, sort of I actually … I do feel like it taught us a lot of good lessons. My guess is before World War O, there was a lot of very disturbing things about nationalism, for example, unifying Europe under some Nationalist government. World War II: obviously there were some very dangerous ideologies that play. The Cold War … And I'm not a huge believer in Social Darwinism between countries and how it's implemented. But I do feel like after watching the Germans defeated twice—the first time with this nationalist perspective (which was very uncomfortable) and the second time, obviously, with fascism and the Nazi movement—and then later, we got to see the Soviet Union crumble. … I can understand why it was certainly a time full of unrest. But I do feel like the best positions and the best values, sort of, overcame whatever their rivals were. For one thing, we also saw colonialism stamped out. Like, the world before the 20th century was so different and there were so many dangerous ideologies. Like, the 1800s: we had slavery on top of all of that. I do feel like this was a time when, in many ways, the good overcame the evil.
EW: That’s an interesting perspective.
So if I understand you correctly, you would almost have expected that there would have to be a tremendous amount of violence given the amount of change and how rapid it was for the better.
ZW: I do think that's [laughs] a more than adequate summary of my perspective.
EW: It's funny because I don't know that I've ever thought about this in those terms. [laughs] You got anything else?
So, just to examine that: Could you have imagined a less bloody transition? So I think about the end of the Cold War, and it was sort of remarkable how the Soviet Union just kind of came apart without the expected descent into total chaos. I mean, you know, the situation in South Africa wasn't GREAT when apartheid ended, but it, you know … People expected a level of massacre there that would have been without parallel—I don't know that that happened.
So is there a way in which you're really suggesting that, as bloody as World War II was, and as bad as partition might have been in India, that it would be almost inconceivable to unwind this with less bloodshed? Or maybe that's too strong of a statement.
ZW: You know, it's an interesting it's an interesting question. I think, as you mentioned earlier, the Cold War remained cold. That could have been the case with tensions and World War I. That could have been the … It's an interesting question. But it could have been the case with tensions in World War II.
But I think usually the ideologies which we call “flawed” are immoral to us because they're unfit. And I'll explain what I mean by that. I don't think morality is really subjective. I think morality is a proxy for the fitness of a society. You know, if you look at morals throughout different religions and cultures, there's usually a pretty general set of commands like “don't steal,” “don't murder,” etc., and those are accepted as morals because it's very hard to have a successful civilization that believes in … Like, I don't know if you've ever watched The Purge. Like, The Purge (I haven't watched it either, but I understand the premise).
It's not reasonable to accept that a society that lives without social commandments will be successful. So I think those social commandments which are proxies for fitness, become accepted as morals. And therefore, I think, usually immoral, or … states, at least, with immoral ideologies collapse. And so I think that's always inevitable. I think that's actually … that’s sort of an optimistic view of the world because that means that good sort of has to overpower evil because, by definition, good is the thing that allows societies to succeed.
EW: Although if you look to nature, I would have to say that all sorts of strategies seem to be evolutionarily stable. We might point to a virus that's too aggressive—and therefore dies out because it does too much damage to its host—but certainly there are plenty of dangerous viruses and parasites and things that have existed for long enough that you would have to say that there's …
It's very tough to make an argument through natural selection for good winning overall. I do agree with you that morals play an important part in figuring out what outcompetes what.
ZW: Well, I think it's good that you were apprehensive to use nature as inspiration for how we should run civilizations—I think appeal to nature is commonly accepted as a logical fallacy. So I think that means we don't really have to take that too seriously as …
But I'm just … I guess one of the things I'm very concerned about at the moment is is that China is not being made to pay the price for its authoritarian ways because it's able to borrow the benefits and the spoils of freedom—
ZW: Capitalism and democracy.
EW: … so the idea is that they let us deal with all the chaos of a free society. And when we produce things that they would find it very challenging to produce—like new insights (because that might challenge an orthodoxy)—they're then able to implement those new changes in perspective at a mechanical level without having to pay the price of having a society that's unruly.
ZW: I think that's a good point. I think very often successful companies and enterprises in China sort of resemble parasites and …
EW: This might not be a good thing for you to say, whatever age it is that you are, given that you might be working for a Chinese company one day.
ZW: I revoke my previous statement. [laughing]
EW: That’s alright.
ZW: That said, you're right: it's a very uncomfortable position.
EW: So what are you excited about in terms of your own time and your own era? What are you seeing in your layer of kids on the verge of becoming adults? Can you see a difference between them and people 10 years ahead? I know that history is something that you're very interested in, so you've probably studied different generations at the same age. What are you seeing as, kind of, definitional for Generation Z, in particular, in reference to where we're checking-in since last you and I appeared on video two years ago?
ZW: Well … I guess, unfortunately, then, in some sense, a lot of my perspectives are similar. I think my generation will face the consequences of being raised in a transitional period.
I wonder what it was like to be my age during the 60s.
EW: Well, so … What would you think?
ZW: I don't know. You're off by about 10 years, so it's hard to look to you for insights on this.
EW: But if you were born in 1953 or something, then you would be approximately your age around the Summer of Love—the time right before Woodstock.
ZW: Well, I'll tell you what my guess is about youth during that time, and then I'll try to say how I think it's similar to youth during this time.
I think it's very easy to get pulled into that which is novel, that which disrupts disrupts an older way of living and older narrative. I think it's very common at this time to be opposed to tradition and history. Because it feels like something which is constraining you. And if you're growing up at a time like the ‘60s, for example, there is an entire world out there which is telling you, “Rebel against your parents; the institution's …”
EW: Don’t you try it. [laughing]
ZW: [laughing] Where do you think this is all going?
Um, no, but … Now I'll say how I think growing up in this time to similar.
I see a lot of people my age being … falling into some very new push against older ways of living, older ways of thinking. A lot of this is, like, social justice-based. It's actually interesting the way I see that. I think a lot of the girls my age are much more into social justice than a lot of the boys my age. And I think that might tell us something about what kind of chaos this division between all of us will create.
But I think it's very, it's very appealing for certain reasons to get pulled into all of these countermovements. And unfortunately, I think particular institutions are sort of backing these things—because, as you point out, they're the shells that have been inhabited by something newer, by something younger. And it's frustrating to me, because if you look at a lot of the destruction that was caused by counterculture in the ‘60s, you wonder about what the future will hold for us.
That said, so many of the people that I find aspirational from that time period were completely part of that counterculture. You know, it's like, I think I have a Doors poster and a Jimi Hendrix poster in my room, and those were the really interesting people at the time. You know, I'm like … I'm a huge fan of the Beach Boys, and Brian Wilson, and the Beatles, and just … I guess a lot of the people who I see as intellectuals during the time were probably in music, probably in … I don't know, maybe in the film industry? And they were very much a part of this counterculture.
So I'm held in sort of a strange position where I see a lot of the chaos that was created by countercultures in the 60s, and a lot of the figures that belonged to whatever those countercultures were, were the bright shining stars and the intellectuals whom I find very inspirational.
And I know … You and I were having a recent conversation about the ‘60s. I think it's hard to say whether the institutional demons were better or worse than the chaos of this counterculture. And I don't think that's an easy question to answer. I think, sort of the consensus that we came to (in our last conversation about the 60s) was that both the institutional part of the world and the counterculture saw both their highest achievements and their failure modes at a very similar time.
So the … we'll call them the hippies. The hippies had Woodstock—which was, like, this incredible work of culture and music and so many bright important things. And then we also had the Manson murders, which was taking the same thing too far—and that was its failure mode. And we landed on the moon …
EW: So that those are the extremes of the, sort of, counterculture spectrum. And then you're going to contrast that with the, sort of, central spectrum.
ZW: Well if that's all—
EW: Whatever you wan to call it.
ZW: I don't know, I don't think anyone has good terminology.
But I think Vietnam was the great failure mode of whatever this institutional thing was. And I think the moon landing was its summit. And all of these things were happening during the same time period.
EW: So the moon landing and Woodstock both happen—
EW: … summer of ’69.
EW: Vietnam, of course, is a long-standing train wreck.
ZW: So I think that … And Manson murders was ’71? I'm not sure about that.
EW: ’70/’71. Okay.
ZW: Around then.
I think the Vietnam War was probably the biggest complication in this narrative. I think the first president that ever sent our men to Vietnam was Truman, and Truman left office in ’53. So, we were really there for quite some time before the 60s, and whatever that time period was.
EW: Though[?] our capacity changed over time.
ZW: That's true. When we got into it we were helping the French try to take back their colonies—which was weird given our values as the United States. But … Yeah, I think it was it was quite some time. Before the ‘60s that we were involved in Vietnam. That said, Gulf of Tonkin was what? ’64?
EW: I’ve forgotten. I'll have our researchers check that out.
ZW: [laughing] Okay.
So it was something around that time, and that's really when a lot of this amped up. So, in some sense, those were very good …
EW: Okay, so is all this historical … is all this mining of the historical record actually helpful to you and trying to locate where you and your generation might be?
ZW: Well, I've just tried to contrast something older with something which we're living through. But as I said, I don't think there's anything to which we can really look for good answers. So looking to history is like this really poor attempt to resolve some of the complications we're seeing during this time. I wish there were wiser people. I wish that there was some time closer to our own, previous to this time. You know, you brought up the pandemic of 1918—that was, like, very different. And yet it's sort of the closest we've seen to this. That had more to do with like World War I, etc. [sigh]
EW: Well, weirdly, maybe the idea is that we've been looking BACK for examples (almost religiously) and we haven't thought that we should be thinking, “Well, what are our new … What are the new paradigms?” We keep thinking that there's nothing new under the sun. To your point, that we've never been through something like this particular response to the coronavirus.
Is it possible that the really exciting thing is, is that maybe it's time to finally stop comparing everything to 1968 or 1945 or 1918. Maybe we're just somewhere new. What do you think?
ZW: That might be the best way to look at this. But I think if that was the only way to look at this, or that was the decided perspective, you and I could not have this conversation: there would be nothing to discuss. You would say, “I don't know what we're dealing with.” And I would say, “I agree,” and that would be the end of the conversation.
EW: So let me touch on something else. You were decrying the problem that it seemed like we're in a wisdom drought.
ZW: And looking to history like kludge-y solution.
EW: Well, it IS always a kludge-y solution—because you're looking for things that rhyme and then you're trying to stitch them together to come up with analogues.
Question about parenting: Do you feel like there are ways in which there was wisdom that you needed imparted to you that, because of our generational difference, I wasn't able to communicate to you? Maybe I didn't have the wisdom, or maybe just the translation layer between these two experiences is too vast. What do you think about that?
ZW: Well …
EW: Keep in mind …
ZW: [laughing] Okay.
EW: … if you want to eat tomorrow, get it right!
ZW: All right. Um—
EW: No, no. You should actually answer the question.
ZW: Yeah. Honestly. … [laughing ]I think—
EW: Honestly, but nicely.
ZW: I think it's actually unbelievably important to have someone like a father, or a member of an older time, to give very old life lessons to you. I think one of the things that we see in most areas (but this era, particularly) is that certain parts of speech become censored—they become inappropriate. Right?
So, you know, during this time, there are a lot of things that probably need to be said, but they've become very uncomfortable to say, so you can't say them publicly. Right? And I think that's why it's very important to have someone who remembers an older time to tell you, “Listen, this isn't necessarily a good thing to say, maybe this is a flawed and old way of looking at the world, but this is a lesson which I need to impart to you.”
EW: Well, sometimes the vehicle can be inappropriate. So for example, we've talked before about canned humor. So your grandfather (my father) loves to tell old jokes with punchlines, which is an old style that almost nobody engages in anymore. And it turns out that a lot of those jokes weren't even really about humor—they were about teaching life lessons that you might have learned if you were studying Talmud, or something like that.
So one question is, what happens when the old wisdom is adulterated with things in the vehicle that make it seem inappropriate to our age? Like, you'd have to actually change the nature of the lesson in order to get the payload. The vehicle is too tied to something that we've outgrown.
ZW: Well honestly, I feel like it's my responsibility to look past the vehicle by which he's conveying whatever the wisdom is in this joke. Perhaps the joke is canned and outdated and possibly insensitive. But because I'm the one who's grounded in these times, he does not have the opposite the option to make the lesson easier for me in the same sense that I do. So I think that's why the burden sort of has to fall on the shoulders of whoever's newer in this world.
EW: Do you see new art forms, new wisdom? What are you attracted to in terms of your education? Obviously, you're stuck with me for a father, so you're getting a certain amount of very extreme and unusual, offbeat perspective. I mean, one question I could ask is: Do you feel like a desire to rebel? Does it feel inappropriate as a perspective, and you feel like, “Well, my parents just don't get it.”?
ZW: The reason—which, I don't think I've ever been particularly rebellious, at least against your authority and the things for which you stand—is, I think that you're usually very open to the fact that I may oppose your views. I don't feel like … I think that's, in some sense, the point of this conversation: we believe … I think we belong to a similar idiom, because I've grown up in this household …
ZW: … but we have slightly different beliefs on myriad issues. And I think the reason which I've never felt a strong desire to rebel is that you will accept me questioning the things which you hold as truth. And we're able to have these discussions and to look at them logically and rationally. And I think therefore, you and I can both come closer to what we believe is true. I think this is sort of a very Socratic relationship, and that prevents me from rebelling.
EW: Do you see it as an unusual— I mean, just in terms of, I get asked lots of questions about parenting. Do you feel that the parenting that you've been subjected to is normal, or not normal, from me? (Let's leave your mom out of it.)
ZW: Yeah. I think it's unusual. I think, quite honestly, you have very high expectations of me. And sometimes …
EW: So far, so good.
ZW: [laugh] Well, you know, maybe it would be nice sometimes to run into my room and slam my door and I say, “I hate you, you don't understand me.” Um, but …
EW: Instead you just come to me and say, “Dad, you're not being logical or reasonable. I would have thought better of you.”
ZW: [laughs] Well, I think that's because we both hold each other to very high expectations. And in some sense, that's a lot of pressure. [laughing]
EW: [laughing] I noticed! Yeah.
So okay. What would you have done differently? Like, are you thinking about, “Jeez, when I'm raising my kid here, the things that I would never do that you did.”?
ZW: You know, honestly, Dad? If I have kids, I would look forward to allowing them the same freedoms and privileges that you've allowed me in this relationship. That's something that I would really enjoy. And I would enjoy telling them that this is something which came from my father.
EW: Wow! I really appreciate that.
What what sort of things … Like, what are the edgier things that you think that I've done parenting you that have worked out?
ZW: Well, for one thing, you bought me a Tom Lehrer CD when I was about five years old or something, right? And that made us that made a profound difference in my life.
EW: Isn't that weird?
ZW: It's like 10 years ago.
EW: I know. But it just … You know, obviously, I was recapitulating what my own mom had done for me, which is she introduced me to this guy and I learned all sorts of things terrible …
ZW: I mean, he was singing about prostitution and dope peddlers and … who knows what.
EW: World War III … severed limbs … sadomasochism …
ZW: There was … I think, I always struggled, like … There were, like, children's books and things which be read to me. And they would have these very simple messages about, “And that's why it's important to be generous and to love one another.” And I never disagreed with those messages. It just … something about it always felt much too simple to be the only truth—there had to be some nuance to it. And I feel like I was constantly begging for nuance and trying to disprove these children's books and—
EW: I mean, you were. At a very early age (two or three) you weren't satisfied with any simple explanations that were wrong. And you were a great detective: you could usually tell when …
I remember the time when you were trying to figure out how the Large Hadron Collider worked. And you asked the physicist David Kaplan, “Why do they call it the Large Hadron Collider?” So we talked about protons being accelerated. And you said, “Well, yes. But then why not call it the Large Proton Collider? Why not say neutrons?” And he said, “Oh, because neutrons you can't accelerate because they don't feel the electromagnetic force.” And then you came back with, “Okay, then why don't you accelerate them using the strong force—because they're hadrons.” And we went through this whole thing, and I recall that we had somehow given you the wrong definition of leptons, and then it had discounted the fact … That we had leptons being things that didn't feel the strong force, but not mentioning the difference between bosons and fermions. And so you deduce that the photon should be a leptons in the description given to you (which it isn’t) and we had to go back and sort of say, “No, the RULE was incorrect.” This was like, when you were three or four.
ZW: Yeah, I don’t have any recollection of this.
EW: Well, no, but the point is, was that your brain was very precise and it caught all sorts … Every shortcut that I took to define something for you came back to bite me, because you would usually find the edge case that revealed the failure in what I had said.
So I mean, just as a challenge, you can imagine … You know, the famous story about you distinguishing between the empty set and zero, which many people don't distinguish, because they have a sense of nothing. And your point was that you knew that zero wasn't nothing, it was itself a thing. And … You know, I think about the number of times that if I didn't happen to know the answers to a lot of your questions (and a lot of them I didn't, some of them I did) … but in a normal house, you would have been treated as as a guy who is just wacko. And in fact, what you were doing, was you were deducing the world at an incredible rate from comparing what we told you over here versus what you told you over there.
And I think about the number of times in my own childhood, there was no one there to intuit what it was that I was struggling with. Because if I had to tell all the stories of you when you were three, no one would ever believe them. It just …there was, like, an adult mind in an infant—almost an infant's body. And it was a very strange thing to be in dialogue with somebody who's capable of making these distinctions. But not often capable of making them understandable to almost anyone.
ZW: No, Dad, I appreciate that. And I think that's why it's been … I think things could have been a lot simpler …
EW: Oh, my god. [laughs]
ZW: … [laughs] if we were much more normal. You know, maybe we'd play catch every Sunday and have a …
EW: We’ll get there!
ZW: [laughing] Alright. I'm not very coordinated.
But, um, I don't think I would have had an easy time having anyone else as a father because I think I would … I probably would have gone all this time believing I was completely insane for doubting everything that was taught to me at this simple level.
Um, anyway, I think that's sort of why Tumblr was important, which is that I was being taught very simplistic lessons, and I was positive that there was more out there, and then suddenly here were, like, the craziest, most gruesome, most, like, it's not necessarily that it was realistic, but it was some part of the world that was unsung to me, previously. And I felt, I think then … first, that I was beginning to see the real world and to see something that wasn't reduced artificially to some sweet thing.
EW: Well, transgression has been very important to our family. And the responsibility for transgressing appropriately—not just celebrating transgression for the purpose of breaking rules, which obviously we're not huge fans of. But I would say that, you know … If you recall, when you were driving the family sedan, at age 11, on deserted roads.
ZW: It's very important that mom does not watch this podcast. [laughing]
EW: We're kidding people.
That was an important moment for you bec— And it was an important moment for ME, because I really wanted to know that in an emergency, you had some hope of being able to drive a car. And … With the experience of kids on farms, you're aware of what children can do, and it's just … I wanted you to have the experience where you felt like, “Okay, I'd driven a car by the time I was 11 in a fairly serious capacity,” and not have the sense of, “Okay, I will have to wait until magical ages, decreed by the state, for me to have the sense that I'm actually capable.”
ZW: You know, I appreciate that Dad, [laughs] but I really don't want to give our audience an oversimplified, too perfect, …
EW: Then correct it.
ZW: … picture of myself when I was younger. I think there are ways in which I was completely incompetent. I think we were talking about music.
EW: You were completely incompetent with music.
ZW: Completely! I think when I was young (like five or something) you sat down a few times tried to teach me, you know, the basic chords.
EW: Notes! You couldn't remember a note.
ZW: I don't think I could resemble a single chord because, like … You know, if you think about a triad, I'd have to to remember three different things at the same time. And then, at some point when I was older, I decided I was going to teach myself music and I found some amount of success with that, which made me very pleased. I think also part of that has to do with the fact that I'm stubborn and unable to learn from people as much as I should …
EW: But you were stubborn earlier. And for whatever reason, something in your brain wouldn't let you teach yourself music. I mean, you taught yourself things like ripstik, which nobody was in the position to teach you because nobody knew how to do it. So I can definitely point to things where you were able to self-teach at an early age.
The fact that you couldn't learn … I don't think at age 10 or 11 you would have been able to teach yourself music and then miraculously at age 12, …
ZW: Well, more like 13.
EW: Okay, the end of 12, was your explosion—was, like, the last two months of your being 12 (the last six weeks) …
ZW: That said, Dad, I think if I had never decided to teach myself music, and you had sat down with me at this age and tried to teach me music, perhaps I wouldn't have been as purely incompetent. But I don't think I would have been successful. I think one of my deep flaws is that I have a very hard time learning from people for the reasons we just discussed: it's like, you might have to give me some bad definition to get past some very simple thing in the beginning. And then I wouldn't be able to understand any concept that relied on a flawed definition and I would be completely screwed over. I think it's just … I've always been an exceedingly technical person, and that gets me into its own sort of trouble.
EW: Well, do you see that as a as a deficit? I mean, first of all, do you see yourself as learning disabled. Do those terms fit? Or not?
ZW: I think in a classic sense they do. You know, I think we've tested me and I have dyslexia, and ADHD, and whatever … all the fun stuff.
EW: Useless, right? Absolutely useless.
ZW: Yeah, right. Um, so … [laughs]
EW: [smiling] I’m sorry. There is an aspect of it which is just funny to me, but go on.
ZW: I think I am … I think my ability to be compatible with some systemic form of education is in many ways disabled. And that does not mean that I think I am at a net disadvantage with the way my mind works. So … I think I'm incompatible, in some sense, with institutional education and traditional forms of learning. But I don't view that as a net disability at all. You know, like, maybe I should be stupid.
EW: Well, I mean, look: this is setting up the same problem for you, to some extent, as it did for me and for your uncle Bret. How do you deal with the fact that you probably don't come across as 14 or 15? I mean, when we recorded you at 13, clearly, nobody thought you sounded like a 13-year-old.
To have to call you learning disabled does seem funny. I mean, perversely funny. Psychotically sad and tragic, because of the amount of effort wasted on conflicts with standard systems. But, like …
It's very [indecipherable]. It's very funny. I can't figure out how I can call you learning disabled when you're able to teach yourself so many different things. But yet, when things come through these very standard formats, it doesn't always work.
ZW: You know, Dad? I think the great misfortune there Is that I've … in that, absorbed a tremendous amount of responsibility. I want to be a learned person. And I aspire to be a learned person. And I'm somewhere in that journey. But it's much more difficult for me, because it means I have to teach myself certain things, because, as we've previously established, there are ways in which I'm stubborn and incompetent and unable to learn from traditional methods. So …
EW: Hang on one second.
[aside] Ivy League universities: he's kidding.
ZW: In some sense, I feel like, you know: you break it, you bought it.
ZW: … I’m incompatible, so I have to do a lot of extra work to be able to be knowledgeable about the world. In some sense, I feel like you broke it and I bought it, …
ZW: … because I inherited your fucked up genes, and who knows? So, [laughing] I guess, in some sense, I blame you for that.
Well, okay, here’s another aspect of parenting: So we have in general always let you taste alcohol when it's served. And while I don't think you've ever been inebriated, we tried to decrease the mystery of alcohol in your life. Was that a positive? Negative? Does that put you out-of-step? Do other families practice something similar? (I think that was a part of our culture going …)
ZW: I think it’s, like, I guess, Ashkenazi Jewish culture. It's sort of a very common thing.
You know, I'm very happy you've done that Dad. I feel like, because this is always something with which you've trusted me, and it's been sort of a symbol of trust in our relationship, it's kept me away from doing things that are probably unwise external to our relationship. I guess I feel like, because you've trusted me with these things, it would be … I would feel enormously guilty making unwise decisions elsewhere.
So I'm happy that you've raised me in this way. It's sort of, like, you know … In some ways, it's similar to the, the Tom Lehrer CD, it's like …
EW: Well, it’s like inoculating you, so that you get an early exposure to something and it doesn't become …
ZW: You're not lying to me that this stuff is out there. You know, people get mutilated in in real life. And I think you're keeping me from that by giving me things which show me that it's out there.
EW: Yeah, it's, again, similar argument with first person shooters and video games. There's a level at which, if you don't expose kids, it becomes forbidden fruit. If you do expose them, sometimes they get a distorted sense of reality. So … I don't know exactly how to do the balancing act. We've tried our best and we—
ZW: Well I don't think any parent does.
EW: Let me take another line of questioning. Where do you think, parenting … Where do you think we are with respect to masculinity as a virtue? You know, you're born a boy—I want you to be a strong, masculine man. But we have a tremendous fear of all things masculine, somehow, in the culture …
ZW: I think that's a very new thing.
EW: … and a desire to redefine masculinity in order to deal with that fear. Do you feel that, one, that's a really tough pressure on you? Do you think that your parents have negotiated the responsibility of that training? Or do you think it's up for grabs and nobody knows where we are?
ZW: You know, it's a good question. I feel like, in some sense, traditional gender roles have been called into question in recent times. And even if they're jeopardized now, my guess is they will be rediscovered, because they’re something very important.
If you look at the fact that, for example … Like if you take homosexual relationships: with lesbians you have like the whole concept of “butch.” And maybe in gay relationships there are men that are more effeminate. And usually it's sort of a … you see the same sorts of gender roles recapitulated …
EW: Even in same-sex relationships.
ZW: … even in same-sex relationships. And I think that should be proof to us that traditional masculinity and femininity, while they both have their failures, are designed evolutionarily to fit together like puzzle pieces. I think that should be proof to us that traditional gender roles, while flawed, are designed to work together like puzzle pieces. And so even in a time when these are being called into question conceptually, I think we can make very accurate predictions about the fact that they will be rediscovered and reinvented, and that's why I think I would be probably a few steps ahead of a very ambiguous time to keep my faith, to some extent, in whatever these flawed gender roles are.
EW: So do you identify strongly with sort of a masculine perspective? Or do you identify as somebody who wants to renegotiate what it means to be masculine? Or somewhere in between? How do you how do you view this on the cusp of being 15?
ZW: I think, as I said, I certainly believe that masculinity and femininity need to exist—in many ways, the way that they've always existed.
That said, I think gender roles have been distorted—we still have a lot of very vestigial aspects of traditional gender roles. And I think a lot of the reason that feminism is important is that, to the extent to which a bad deal has been negotiated between two things which are supposed to be equally balanced in power, somehow has gotten corrupt. I can understand the need to renegotiate that. But I'm certainly not in favor of destroying masculinity at a conceptual level. I think If we choose to do that as a culture (which is something I already see happening), we will have a very chaotic time. And then we will see it reinvented in a very similar way.
EW: Well, one thing I find (which, I don't know how to talk about) is that I think that there's a very strong demand for masculinity in women seeking to found families. And that this desire is somehow at odds with the commentariat that wants to upend the roles more than I see most men and women wanting to upend the roles. If I think about, you know, viewer accounts on Instagram, it's very clear that heteronormative beauty norms are still very much what often generates enormous following. So the biology doesn't seem to move nearly as much as the think pieces would suggest that it has.
So do you think that, in part, … Could this be, in part, having to do with the way in which we're talking and thinking about these changes, as opposed to the level of change that's actually going on? Or do you see conflicting directives as you're growing up? Obviously, you're in a formative stage. Do you feel that there are strange pressures on you that are probably different than have been on a young man of your age in previous times?
ZW: Well, I do. But as I said, I feel like I have some insight into this, and therefore I feel it would be unwise to abandon masculinity just because it's coming under attack culturally. But yes: I think it's hard to win with a lot of these …
EW: You think it's no win situation?
ZW: Well … yes and no. I'd like to think that I'm winning.
ZW: But that's sort of a common mistake.
But I think, if we want to think about how masculinity and femininity should change, we have to create a very complex analysis of exactly what the puzzle pieces look like. You know, what are the ways … I mean, I sort of think of gender roles as being fictions that are designed to cooperate. And I'm not opposed to them simply because they're fiction. I feel like a lot of culture now is very excited that it's seen that these gender roles are somewhat fictional, and they have … You know, maybe they have less to do with sex than we previously imagined. And I think …
EW: By “sex” you mean, like, biological—
ZW: … biological sex.
EW: Like at birth. Okay.
ZW: … And I think that should be the first in a set of insights. I think maybe the first insight is, “Okay, this is fiction. It's a lie.” And maybe the the second level deep is relying upon the fiction but not realizing that it's a fiction. And then I think the third level would be understanding that these are fictions which we fall to, but the fictions are there for a reason and it's very important that we maintain them, in some sense.
So I think if we want them to change in any way, we have to create a very complex analysis of exactly what these frictions are, how they’ve become unbalanced. It's important that we do our homework before we throw the world into chaos.
EW: This is super interesting. Let me just see If I have this.
So your point is, you're open to the idea that there are flaws that have been found in the gender roles and gender expectations in our society. But your point would be that simply naively insisting that the flaws be made to go away is not the way to cure the problem.
ZW: I think the flaws should go away, but I think it has to be done with a lot of very complex thought and understanding of what these fictions are that allow us to maintain healthy relationships to build strong families … I mean, I think families are built on fictions around gender roles. And the same can be said of relationships. And I think by saying, “Eureka, this is bullshit. This is fiction,” and not actually solving the problem, we're going to create a tremendous amount of chaos and upheaval, only to watch gender roles re-emerge naturally.
EW: So, for example. Like, you and I have talked about the problem with third person singular pronouns being inflected for gender (in English) and that using “they” for “he” or “she” has a different problem, which is that you can't inflect for number if your third person singular pronoun is the same as your third person plural.
ZW: “They” is supposed to be third person plural.
And I think you and I are both agreement in agreement that the best solution to this would simply be to create a gender neutral third person SINGULAR pronoun.
EW: And yet if you if you mentioned this, it's like, “Wow: you hate non-binary people.” Or something like this. And then you can even make the point that it's probably fairly important for an error-correcting code inside of a language to be able to distinguish singular versus plural in the third person, because those are the situations in which the person being discussed is not present.
ZW: This is the thing. I think we should all be opposed to ambiguity of language where it's unnecessary. And we should all be opposed to the ways in which language can discriminate against all different sorts of people, which is something that we've seen is contradictory in the English language, since, probably, William of Normandy conquered England, right?
Unknown Speaker 1:32:28 You’re blame William of Normandy?
ZW: Ugh, bastard! [laughing]
EW: [giggles] … [away from mic] Sorry.
ZW: But I think there's a solution which allows us to maintain both of these constraints. And yet I feel like they're all of these very chaotic solutions being proposed about, like, everyone generates their own pronoun, and this and that … And it seems like there's a very simple solution right in front of us, and it's …
EW: Very hard to figure out why we can't get there.
Do you have a strong sense of whether some of the social justice things that you've seen percolate down from the Millennials are having a different reception inside of your generation? Or is it pretty much seamless from one to the other?
ZW: Well, I’ve said, I think they usually make a lot of the boys my age very angry. Because I think the world for which a lot of social justice now is advocating, would be a world that would be a very bad bargain for masculinity, in the sense that we're talking about. And I actually don't think either gender ends up happy when you destroy a gender role. I think—
EW: OR when you give it what everything that it wants.
EW: Like, in other words, part of what each gender wants is FRUSTRATED by the other, and that frustration causes people to have to work and to pair. That's probably—
ZW: I think that's always been the case evolutionarily as well.
ZW: So … I think there's a lot of anger and there's a lot of resentment because the implications of whatever this new deal are can potentially be very hurtful.
EW: What do you think about … obviously, you know, when you're around the age that you are, there's sort of … there is a sexual awakening and a romantic awakening—you have situations where your schools force you to take classes to inform you of all of the terrible things that can go wrong. Do you have a sense that in addition to all of the social changes, that the COVID epidemic is going to have an interesting impact? Is it going to possibly push courtship backwards towards a more antiquated model? Do you have any theory as to what might be happening?
ZW: [through a smile] I see: you think you can bring me in here and get me to discuss my romantic life during COVID?
EW: It was worth a shot.
ZW: You are sadly mistaken. [laughing]
EW: Okay. No, seriously.
ZW: I think that all depends on whether or not COVID is … or situations like this pandemic are recurring—which, like many things, is something we have yet to understand.
EW: So, I mean, I would say that when I got to college, herpes and HIV were the two big stories in the early 1980s. And there was a way in which disease played a role in social norms and the expectations of the era. And so I’ll be curious to see whether it's true for COVID.
What are you looking at artistically? What's exciting to you, and is it of your era, or is it of other eras?
ZW: Well, as we've discussed, a lot of the music which I find very interesting is much older than I am. I think objectively, we could probably agree that most popular music lacks the complexity that it had during the 60s. I think you were the one that got me to look at the chords for Strawberry Fields, for example, which is like … It's unbelievable to me that that was the level of complexity found in a pop song. I think the same can be said of like, God Only Knows, for example.
EW: By the—
ZW: By the beach Beach Boys.
I think Paul McCartney said that that was the greatest song ever written. Which was, like … it's a very strange piece of commentary. (I certainly didn't expect that.)
But I think really what we have circulated now are many different impressions of four chord songs. So, I mean, that's that's really all pop music is right now, if you disregard rap.
EW: Well rap is a pretty vibrant area—it has a very different structure. A producer JW Lucas was just making the point to me that … He said, “Eric, you know, don't make the mistake of expecting the complexity in the LOOP, because the real issue is the lyrics, and the complexity of their structure and their delivery.” And so from his perspective, he said, “You know, a lot of what you would think of as ‘the music,’ we would think of as ‘the canvas.’ And if the canvas is too interesting, it distracts from what's painted on it.”
ZW: So I think we can pull apart music and see where is something interesting (in a number of places).
Obviously, we have melody, harmony, and rhythm. So we can pull those apart and see if something is complex MUSICALLY on any one of those fronts. And we also have lyrics available to us, right? And I think good music should always be on the efficient frontier somewhere on … with regards to those four evaluations.
Obviously, I think you have very powerful lyrics that aren't necessarily accompanied by music at all. I'm certainly not opposed to poetry—I’ve taken quite an interest in poetry. But that means that it has to be so exceptional and complex, lyrically—
EW: If you're gonna give up a lot of music, you better make it up on the lyrics.
ZW: Exactly. And that's why that's … weirdly poetry is then somewhere on that efficient frontier. But …
EW: What's some poetry that really speaks to you in terms of … just really evidencing the power of the spoken word in the absence of other structure?
ZW: Well, I think the poem—which was probably the first poem I found interesting—was actually a poem that YOU found for me, which is, The boys i mean are not refined by e.e. cummings. I had previously regarded poetry as probably somewhat pretentious. Like, poets were speaking in ways that they didn't need to speak to complicate simpler messages. And then, I think the amount of foul language and foul imagery and profanity in that poem contrasted with the fact that it was still so beautiful and it so clearly represented an archetype with which we still interact … proved to me that poetry was not as pretentious as I imagined it to be. So I think that that was sort of my introduction into this world.
EW: That’s interesting. If you take that poem, it's very unusual in that it's called “the holograph poem” because it was written out longhand, and you actually just, sort of, have a picture of cummings’ own writing. And it takes the form almost of a schoolyard recitation: it rhymes; it's in very regular meter. Do you remember the opening of it?
ZW: The boys I mean, are not refined. They go with girls who buck and bite. They do not give a fuck for luck. They hump them 13 times a night.
EW: So that gives an idea of being kind of a schoolyard poem, but this idea that you've got some bad guys out there who are just not subscribed to the same rules as everyone else.
And do you remember, actually, the final stanza?
ZW: Yeah. They speak whatever's on their minds. They do whatever's in their pants. The boys I mean are not refined. They shake the mountains when they dance.
EW: I think that last line, to me … How do you hear it?
ZW: I think that defines to you what the entire poem was about—you don't understand, until that point, that he's describing the fact that these are the people who change the world.
ZW: These are the people, very often, in tremendous positions of power.
EW: I think about that a lot. When I think about some of the very, like, … You know, Elon, for example, is not very easy for a lot of people to digest at the moment. And, you know, he's sort of almost trolling on Twitter, at this time (with respect to the COVID epidemic). And I think about that line. And, you know, it's frustrating to me, because not enough people … there aren't enough people who know that poem and you want to quote the line, “They shake the mountains when they dance.”
Do you think that the profanity and the violent and sexual imagery is necessary in that poem? Or do you think it is gratuitous?
ZW: Well, I think, very often, imagery and sensory content is very important in poetry. So I don't think that it's gratuitous, per se. But I think it does something more in that poem, which I described, which is that it shows the power of … the power that we have with language without necessarily using it in this very old, very pretentious-sounding sense. So I think its importance there was two-fold.
EW: Do you have other poems that really mean a lot to you? Or … That was a pretty great one.,
ZW: I do. But I think that's the one for which I can make …
EW: It was a gateway for you.
ZW: Yeah, that was a gateway poem for me.
EW: So here's another question I have: You started recording videos when we did this last (two years ago or something) and there was a lot of interest in having you share your thoughts. I think you're coming for a very interesting perspective—it’s not exactly mine; it's clearly of your own making. Are you interested in kind of sharing your thoughts on your generation and your situation as you come up?
ZW: You know, Dad, I'm very interested in interacting with this world. But ... as I've mentioned, I feel very lost when looking at this time, because it's so confusing, and there's so little which I understand, and … I think, to the extent where I'm interacting with the public, I will have to be very open about the fact that I'm very clueless. And I don't think I'm … I don't think it's a foolish sort of cluelessness. I don't think that there are good answers available.
So I think, you know, there's something uncomfortable, even, about making yourself open to the world and calling attention to the fact that you're trying to think, but you're clueless, you're starved for information, you don't know how to interact with a time as confusing as ours. And I think that's difficult for me. I like to feel like I'm knowledgeable, like I understand what to do, like I have plans. And I don't know how to plan in this time.
EW: Well, I don't either. And part of what I'm trying to do is to stay open with my audience.
In part, there's an arrogance about deciding that you're going to say something and making it available and imagining that anybody's going to care. And so, you know, why should anyone want to listen in on me talk to my son, because we both happen to be incarcerated together [laughs].
I don't know. A lot of people asked me about parenting and they asked me for tips and what it what it was like. And I always think it's really irresponsible for me to give my version of it if you're not here to validate [laughs] what worked and didn't work.
I personally think that one of the things that people get out of my program is the fact that I don't know. And that I am confused. And I'm willing to trust them. And I guess one of my thoughts for you and your audience is, what if you were just to trust your audience? That this is such a confusing time, but that you're actually open to the idea that it CAN’T be made sense of, and that's part of the frustration. I think that that's completely authentic to your perspective.
ZW: That's true. And, you know, you mentioned this arrogance which you sort of have to have when assuming that you have something to offer.
ZW: I would love- I would love to be arrogant. Right? It's …
EW: Don't say it that way because you're gonna get scolded. But I understand exactly what you mean.
ZW: No, I think I’m … Actually, I'll stick to that, because I think we would all love to be arrogant. But with where I am right now, and with what I understand of our current situation in this world, I am in no position to hold that arrogance. And that is frustrating to me. But I have to be open about that. That's part of what it means to be authentic, in some sense.
EW: Yeah, I don't think that you mean arrogance. I think you mean like extreme self-confidence—like really “out there” levels of self-confidence so that you can hold a position in a world in which everything is up for grabs, and I very much appreciate that.
I've never seen anything like this. And I've never felt so dumb in my entire life. And I don't know whether or not that means anything to you, but it's certainly the case that … I feel like we're watching, not only the nonsense fall apart, but a lot of the things that we did right are no longer valued. And that we're very much, sort of, in that famous Yeats poem where everything … all the interstitial … all the connective tissue is somehow coming apart; we can't quite figure out why …
ZW: The center cannot hold.
EW: … It doesn't [laughs] feel like the falcon and the falconer are having much of a conversation. Yeah.
And I don't know what we do about that, because people have to care enough. And the whole idea behind, like, the Intellectual Dark Web, was just, “At least let's hang on to The Enlightenment.” And then the idea is that, well The Enlightenment, you know, the Constitution, if anything, is a product of a patriarchy—there really were Founding Fathers and not Founding Mothers who signed the documents.
And so then it became like, “Okay, can we hold on to anything?” Or is everything now to be re-evaluated from the perspective of, “All previous generations were bad, oppressive generations and the world begins now with the enlightenment that has superseded what we've CALLED The Enlightenment.”? I don't even know how to THINK in these terms, because every age has had good and bad, and this one is no exception.
ZW: Well, we’ve discussed my love of history.
ZW: I think that has a lot to do with the fact that I'm not yet ready to throw out all we've learned. I think that would be a quite colossal mistake.
EW: But you are willing to take on the, sort, of burden of trying to figure out, how do you interpret it in the modern era without saying that everything was okay from from history …
ZW: And I think that's a bigger burden, if we do this carefully.
EW: If we do it … Okay.
So, you know, I really liked what you said before about changing the notions of male and female, which is that you somehow … Like, if you think about pairs dancing rules: If you wanted to change how pairs dancing occurs, you would have to change both the male and female role at the same time for the puzzle pieces to remain interlocking.
ZW: Exactly. You wouldn't just say, “These roles no longer exist. Now dance.”
EW: Or this piece says, “I gotta be Me, and I'm going to change in some way that doesn't take into account You.”
ZW: We are looking at chaos.
EW: We are looking at chaos.
Well, let me just say this: …
ZW: What time is it?
EW: It is now your birthday. You are now 15. The reason I was hitting 14 was that I thought if we could push it over the midnight mark, then you could in fact become 15 ON the podcast. So Happy Birthday, son.
ZW: Thank you.
EW: What I wanted to know is, do you have anything else that YOU’D like to bring up? (Other than grievances.)
I know we touched on this, but it's been very important to me that this was my household. And it was a very unconventional household, admittedly. But I don't think I could have confidence that I was not completely insane in a household that was unlike this. So I think it was … it's a good thing to record this and put it out in the world and give them some insight into what this was like, because I think this is … I’m very happy that you're my father. That’s all.
EW: Well, let me say I just … I can't tell you how much I appreciate that—it really means a lot to me.
But let me also turn it around. I think you WILDLY underestimate the power and importance of your voice at a time when everybody's lost. And in fact, there is something calming about hearing somebody very smart, very well-spoken, say, “I can't make sense of this. We're heading towards chaos.”
And I think it is absolutely essential to me that you try. And then you find out whether people want to hear what you have to say or not. But I really hope that you'll go back to recording more of your thoughts. Putting them out either in written form—I love the way you write. And I love what you have to say. And so if we can be all helpful in boosting your channel— You have a YouTube channel for Zev Weinstein?
ZW: I think it’s “Generation Z.”
EW: Generation Z? Z for Zev, Z for your cohort.
You're on Twitter?
ZW: I am.
EW: ZW: And Zev, I would actually love to figure out how to do some sort of regular gig with the two of us talking about current events or different topics as they come up. And any way in which I can help launch your voice to a larger world, I think it would be good for them—whether or not it'd be good for you I can’t say.
ZW: Thanks for having me on The Portal.
EW: Well, thanks for coming!
So you've been through the portal with my son, Zev Weinstein, who just turned 15 moments ago.
And make sure to subscribe to us on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify—wherever you listen to podcasts—as well as going over to YouTube, where we have our main YouTube channel, and not only click Subscribe, but also the bell icon to be notified whenever the next video episode drops.
Everybody stay safe, and we'll see you soon on a future episode. Be well.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai and human-edited by @Nick_N#5749