Elizabeth Bruenig (New York Times) joins Ryan McAnnally-Linz on the podcast to discuss the ethical and theological commitments that underlie her political and cultural commentary; work, labor, and employment; and how to be opinionated and very online at a time when most Americans are afraid of what other people think of their beliefs.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.
Elizabeth Bruenig: Everybody is mad at me for something all the time. And, not to complain about it, more often than not, they have these reasons so articulated. Being someone who sits between two well-defined ideological modes, it's going to be hard to find your place in the order of things. People have felt like I'm either a poor Catholic or a poor socialist, and I'm absolutely certain both of those things are true, but doing my best at all times. And, I just try to navigate by what I can live with, what lets me sleep at night; what do I really believe is good and true.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity.
Hi everyone, I'm Evan Rosa.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: And I'm Ryan McAnnally-Linz.
Evan Rosa: And we are with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Thanks for listening to For the Life of the World. Today we have with us Elizabeth Bruenig, an opinion writer at the New York Times, formerly with the Washington Post and New Republic and widely self identifies as a Catholic socialist. Ryan, I'm so excited that we've got Liz on the show today. What were you most excited about getting her for this conversation?
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: So for me, it's really interesting to talk to somebody who's—not a lot of Catholics are socialists and not a lot of socialists are Catholic—so somebody who's sitting a little uncomfortably in a couple of really important communities. Also in this moment where work is such a big deal, we talk about opening the economy back up, and that seems to reduce at some level too "let's make sure everybody's back at work." And the big political fight right now is over supplemental unemployment benefits and whether to extend them for how long. And people are talking about how if you give too much, it discourages work. And I thought it'll be really interesting to hear from somebody who owns their socialism on how to think about work in a moment like this: what its purpose is? And why, from a Christian standpoint, we might be suspicious of that emphasis on work as employment in this moment?
Evan Rosa: Yeah, I think what's fascinating about Liz in particular on this topic is the mode of discourse that she exhibits is one of a kind of generosity and humility, a willingness to listen to arguments to the alternative, or to the contrary, but nonetheless, a very strong commitment and willingness to speak her mind. And right now we're in a moment where speaking one's mind comes along with a healthy dose of fear. There's a recent poll, even, that suggests that 62% of Americans believe today's political climate will prevent them from saying things because they're afraid of what other people are thinking about their beliefs. And Liz really does exhibit a kind of a freedom of thought that comes along with a generosity of discourse. And I think that's really on display in the way that she talks about her ideas.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: It's always interesting to talk to somebody who is so thoroughly engaged in a public discourse that always feels like it's maybe falling apart at the seams, but is engaged with a compass and is actually trying to do something out there.
Evan Rosa: Yes, absolutely. So listener friends, thank you for tuning in to this episode, featuring the New York Times Elizabeth Bruenig, where she talks about her perspective on being a commentator for one of the most influential media platforms in the world, her ethical and religious commitments that underlie her commentary, being very online as an opinion writer in the midst of a cancellation culture, and the meaning of work, employment, and labor. So thanks for listening and enjoy this conversation.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Liz, thanks for taking some time to join us. You're a commentator and working at the New York Times, previously at the Washington Post. You've had, it seems like, a lot of latitude to cover a whole host of issues and to speak about a lot of things. And I'm curious, what sort of things, what sort of commitments or sensibilities do you want to take with you across all of that? What's driving your commentary?
Elizabeth Bruenig: Yeah. For first, thank you for having me on. And in terms of the kind of compass I have going, that's the thing that unites all these different things that I work on. I don't really like being a "takester." I don't like writing takes that much. I have a hard time going short, which the take form requires. A good take in this industry is 750 words, and I would usually prefer to go a thousand or more. But the takes put the food on the table and then the interesting, the fun stuff—the stuff I like to do—is that long form reported stuff. And this sensibility that unites it all is this sensibility of justice. I like to think an interest in justice and an interest in the human person, the human condition.
Somebody once said to me on Twitter, "you're not a journalist," in one of those typical Twitter spats. And I jokingly said, "I'm a chronicler of the human condition." This is also my explanation for why I retweet really bizarre stuff that I find. Humanity actually is very interesting to me. And as I thought about it more and more, being a chronicler of the human condition, that's the energy I try to bring to the reported stuff and to the common interest in people.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Where does the kind of convergence between interest in people and the commitment to justice come from?
Elizabeth Bruenig: From the faith, right? So I'm Catholic; I'm a Catholic socialist. This sense of justice or the necessity of justice is predicated on the dignity of the human person. And it also comes from an understanding of the character of God. God is very emphatic that he is just, and also merciful. So those two qualities are exemplary, I think, in terms of how people should be. And then if you're going to, maximally value a person's inherent dignity, recognize it, that means you're going to be operating by certain rules. There are particular things you can't do. And when you violate those rules, that is injustice.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: From my perspective, as I think like an older millennial—I think I technically am—you appear to be what I believe they say very online, and I don't consider that space, that kind of public discourse to be exemplifying justice and mercy in general, like that's not what is usually landing in people's Twitter replies and what not. I'm curious, so, for one thing: why do that? Why be out there and subjected to that kind of mode of discourse? And then secondly, does your faith have anything to say about how you try to take your place there?
Elizabeth Bruenig: Yeah, the reason that I'm very online is some combination of addiction, habit, and needing to do it for work. I've been in publishing and in the media—I guess I should say—for several years now, the entirety of my adult career. And, they want you to tweet. They want you to have a following. They want you to have a built-in audience that you can bring to a publication. And this is just part of the new shape of media. They're not just hiring super talented writers or writers with good portfolios. They hire writers who have audience. So if you're new on the scene, you haven't been a writer since the seventies, eighties, nineties, you're not a known property, that's, important. And then once you're in the job, they want you to be able to reach out to your audience. They want you to be able to bring in readers who weren't readers before, and so on. So yeah, I think that's one of the best reasons for being on social media, more or less.
And then, the other reasons are I also enjoy the weird freak show. A friend of mine once said that there are two types of stupid in the world, there's happy stupid, and angry stupid. And I'm totally fine with happy stupid. That's just being silly and there's quite a bit of that on social media. I think that's pretty funny and partake in it myself to a huge degree. It's the angry stupid stuff that's frustrating. And I just don't partake in it. I just don't. There's been like a debate for the past few weeks, raging over a cancel culture. Do people get canceled? And if so, is it good or bad? I think it's absolutely a thing and you can see it happening. And I think in some cases, it's fine. Bill Cosby being canceled seems fair. And then in some cases, it really sucks. So some people being canceled for political opinions that are wrong, but it shouldn't impoverish a person. They shouldn't lose a job or whatever or be unable to find new work because of the wrong politics they have. That's a core tenant of liberalism.
And so I'm in a weird position here of being a socialist critic of liberalism who is having to defend it. But I don't partake in that. I don't dogpile. I don't fight with people on Twitter. I don't tag people's employers, call people's bosses, try to give people a hard time. My view is I'm a New York Times writer. I'm going to have my say. there's a place for me to have my say and I don't need to swing at every pitch on Twitter.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: So do you get the sense that people are legitimately afraid to speak their mind? And if so, do you think that's well founded?
Elizabeth Bruenig: Yes and yes. Yeah, for sure. Lot of writers seem quite worried about what they can or can't say or how they need to put things to smuggle them in, just because it's difficult to predict—I think a lot of writers have come to the conclusion that it's difficult to predict what could spark one of these major backlashes. And so it seems safer to refrain from publishing exotic arguments. The exception is if you're crowdfunded, right? So if you have a Substack or a Patreon or something, it doesn't matter. So like my husband was canceled. In 2016, he lost his job as a national labor relations board attorney, and as a policy analyst at Demos, the think tank, because he made a Scumbag Steve meme remark to the head of a prominent DC think tank. And for that, he was, quite broadly accused of being a misogynist and a woman hating harasser. This was part of the discourse around Bernie fans in 2016. And, he's totally crowdfunded now. So that works.
If you want to say something that is distressing or unwelcome to people who frequently have power, then you get crowdfunded and just take the money direct from your readership. So he runs a think tank—a socialist think tank—and a podcast. And he's a socialist, right? It's not like this stuff is strictly the province of right-wingers. And yeah, unless you're crowdfunded, if you're at a big institution, that's already a target because we're at an anti-institutional moment, and people are absolutely concerned and I don't blame them.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: What's work like for you these days in coronavirus time. You're at home, I assume?
Elizabeth Bruenig: Yes, I am at home with my two kids. And at least one of them is old enough to ignore and overcome the boundaries that we try to place such as a gate in the den. And so the little one is still trapped in there. We can treat it like the baby jail. But the older one can easily get out. And it was convenient in that there's certainly something quite bad going on, attitudinally in the discourse. People are super angry and very touchy probably for good reasons. So unemployment is at a record high. There's a deadly virus circulating in the United States, on the rise at this point in many locales. There's this impending unemployment insurance cliff. And, we know people tend to be a little bit edgier in the summer when it's super hot. We're now hitting the kind of dog days of summer, the worst of summer. And people are stuck indoors. They can't go do anything. They can't really go on vacation probably in the ways that they had planned or even just go out and hang out with friends.
So people are pissed and and it shows. I'm taking care of my kids. Everything is extremely slow, which sucks. I like my job and I like my work. And so it's not great to see that but at the same time, I think, maybe I, fortuitously stumbled into good timing cause now it's not a great time to be publishing anyway.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: You're in the position of having pretty steady job as it goes. It sounds like the flexibility to flex towards childcare. Maybe you're writing less than you want to be. I also, for what it's worth, have a pretty good situation going with the pandemic work world, but that's super far, I think, from a normal experience, from what I gather,.It has gotten me thinking a lot about how there's something work-like about everything we do when we're at home. And I wonder if this might be a moment where we can think better about the ways that we tend in our general discourse to equate work and employment, like there's a lot of stuff happening that is not for pay.
Elizabeth Bruenig: There's a lot of work that's not labor market work, but it's work nonetheless.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Yeah. So there's a pretty significant Catholic tradition of thinking about labor, and I do think it, at least sometimes, is really attentive to that fact of labor that takes place outside of the labor market. Are there ways you are re-evaluating work from a theological perspective in this moment?
Elizabeth Bruenig: I've always hated work. I like my work in that I enjoy what I do for a living. It's the sort of labor market aspect of it that's really difficult because that's going to impose certain restrictions on your time and on where you can go in terms of subjects and so forth and what you can do. And I think that's true for everyone who quite likes what they do. They still get fed up with the work aspect of it on occasion. My dissertation advisor at Cambridge, where I did theology, wrote a book called The End of Work—Marxist critique of capitalism through a Christian lens basically, Christian socialist lens. And so I think I've been on board for a while with this sense that there are ways in which the types of work we do in modernity, especially, are alienating. And this is about 20,000 times as true for working class people, compared to people who work white collar jobs, richer people.
As you said, I have quite a good deal of flexibility in my job. That's certainly true. That's something the company really values—flexibility with respect to family and so forth. And the majority of Americans have nothing like that. They struggle to pay for or find safe, reliable childcare and to do the jobs, they need to take care of their families. And it doesn't really seem like there's a ton of interest in doing something about it. I think all of the energy from the social program crowd, the people who would consider themselves something like socialist or democratic socialists, that energy tends to be aimed at healthcare. Noble reasonable, I agree with that, or like free college, other things like that. But because this is a young cohort, I think then, of course they're not going to be as focused on childcare, etc. I had kids quite young, for my, generational cohort, I got pregnant with my first daughter when I was 24, two years out of college. So I've been exposed to these things, these complications a little earlier.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: You're a Catholic socialist. You got exposed to parenting earlier than a lot of the other folks in your political cohort. How are you ending up feeling and what are you thinking about as somebody who's sitting in weird intersections between a lot of different communities?
Elizabeth Bruenig: Yeah, everybody's mad at me for something all the time. And, not to complain about it, more often than not, they have decent reasons so articulated. But being someone who sits between two well-defined, I guess, ideological modes, it's going to be hard to find your place in the order of things. And so that's certainly been something that I've encountered. People have felt like I'm either a poor Catholic or a poor socialist and I'm absolutely certain both of those things are true, but doing my best at all times. And, I just try to navigate by what I can live with, what lets me sleep at night, what do I really believe is good and true. And then I try to, whatever the cost socially or even in just irritation, I tried to do that.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Are there places where you see good expressions of the kind of stance that you're trying to take out in culture today? Where do you get excited? Where do you see any grounds for hope from your perspective?
Elizabeth Bruenig: No, hope springs eternal. I have all kinds of hope, but no obvious area where I think anything like my politics is, taking root.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: What do you go back to when you're looking for refreshment and your attachment to that tradition of theology and politics? Where do you go for encouragement?
Elizabeth Bruenig: I don't. I think it's right, and when people hit me with arguments against it, I consider them and I just haven't been convinced otherwise yet. I always get emails from people saying, "Could you tell me what Christian socialists books to read?" And they're very rare and they're few and far between, and they're usually not great. I have like PDFs that I send people on occasion, but really what got me to where I am is just a normal study of Christian theology, even an orthodox study of Christian theology centered on Saint Augustine, and then a study of the history of private property, especially the Christian approach to private property.
And so nowhere in those sort of primary texts that I have read does someone do an aside and say, "this means that a Christian welfare state is licit." You just have to put two and two together yourself, which is what I have done. And I definitely do spend some time thumbing through those old kind of foundational things. I will say that, Eugene McCarraher is amazing, at Villanova. He is an absolutely amazing guy. He just wrote a fantastic book called The Enchantments of Mammon, and it's great. And it's certainly the text I'll be recommending going forward when people ask for a Christian socialist text. So that's very exciting and that's very encouraging.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: You said you don't see a lot of expressions around you. What's the experience like looking at a world that is far from the vision that you've got and maybe doesn't have? There's not a lot of immediate prospects.
Elizabeth Bruenig: It's not great. It certainly doesn't pack in the kind of sense of excitement and possibility that seemed reasonable to feel in, say, 2015 when the Bernie thing was really taking off and skyrocketing. I'm not terribly thrilled about the prospects for the American Left at the moment. The most irritating thing I think is certain commenters will say: "No way, Joe Biden is the most progressive Democrat ever to run for president. When he wins, he'll be the most progressive Democrat ever to take office." And yes, I think mainstream Democrats realized after 2016 that it might be useful to integrate some of Bernie's talking points and style into their stump speeches, but I don't see any reason to assume that there was actually much persuasion going on. I don't think that the post McGovern turn to the right in the Democratic Party is changed. I think that there's a realization now that to get younger voters, you have to make different kinds of remarks.
So, I don't expect the world to be good, right? It' s primarily bad, which, comes from a theology of the fall. I have no expectation that this place is going to be anything, but riven by sin. And that's true of me. It's true on the micro level. It's true of the choices I make as an individual. And I don't exempt myself from it. I'm not the only good person. I'm not that at all. And so I guess it's just not very surprising. I have so much other stuff going on in my life that as far as a good time to tap out of thinking too much about politics goes, being in lockdown with two kids while trying to hold down a brand new full-time job, that's plenty.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: How are you trying to live faithfully in this moment from your perspective?
Elizabeth Bruenig: We can't go to mass or say the sacraments and stuff. That's fine. I understand why that is. So I think, for me, the biggest problem is getting scared off of honest witness because I know there are occasions where people don't want to hear it. What I've been trying to do is I guess, find a little bit more courage, be a little bit more sympathetic, be a little bit more compassionate. Living faithfully is just like morally performing the task in front of you every day at this point. And the tasks are usually quite mundane, so the usual mothering, so forth, working, and interacting with people on a very limited basis. And I think what I've been focused on is just doing those things in a compassionate, kind, understanding way, and treating people with honesty and dignity and humor and giving people the same kind of leeway that I would want. I think that's about it at this point with the state of things.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: I'm reminded that this passage in Dorothy Day, somewhere, where she's talking about how she had this idea of what a devotional life was supposed to be, like intense prayer and lots of time set aside just to be focused on God. And then she found herself in this domestic situation where there're kids with needs all the time and all these other people. And the initial response was like, these people are like stymieing my faith, like blocking my devotional life. But then the transformation was "no, the devotional life has to be here."
Elizabeth Bruenig: Yes, here and now. I'm certainly impressed by and reverent of the contemplative life. I can see how that is a good deal, if you can get it. But, that was not my vocation. This is. And this is where I have been put. It's what I've been given. I've been given wonderful things, more than I could've ever dreamed of—an embarrassment of riches in terms of my husband, my kids, the opportunities I have with my job. And my role, is just to try to do all of those things well in an exemplary way. And I fail at that very often, but I'm trying.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Oh man, me too.
Elizabeth Bruenig: Yeah. I want to please God, and to show God gratitude every day for the things that I've been given: my children, my work, my husband, my happiness and my peace. These are all beautiful things that God has given me, and I didn't earn them. I don't deserve them, but I'm grateful for them.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Not to draw us too far back into the politics stuff, but is there a connection between that sense of "I didn't earn them, I don't deserve them" and your political social outlook?
Elizabeth Bruenig: Yeah, absolutely. So I don't take desert theories of justice seriously at all because when you see conservative arguments against the welfare state, or against raising the minimum wage or what have you, it often time comes down to these people aren't working or they're not doing useful work, or they made bad choices in my view. So, they don't deserve money or whatever security. And I just don't buy that at all. Everybody deserves the the capacity to live a dignified life. And in our current situation, that's going to mean, I think, a fair distribution of goods. And the church calls this the universal destination of goods.
And I think that's very key to how I see things. It doesn't matter if someone can be proven to have made a bad choice or everyone makes bad choices. Some of them result in becoming impoverished. Some bad choices result in becoming rich. Where it comes to the necessary things for living a dignified life, I don't think "deserve" has anything to do with it. I already believe everyone deserves that.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: I think is about the time we've got. So let me just thank you. it's been a delight talking to you.
Elizabeth Bruenig: It's been great. Thanks so much.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured theologian, Ryan McAnnally-Linz with Elizabeth Bruenig of the New York Times. I'm Evan Rosa and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. We produce a new episode every Saturday, and you can subscribe through any podcast app. Thanks for listening this week. We've enjoyed reading your recent responses and reviews, and we've been delighted that you found the show meaningful, and we would appreciate your continued support. Three ways to do that today would be sharing the show with a friend by text or email, then talking about it with them, posting on your own social feed, or opening Apple Podcasts to leave a review and a rating. It's really all for the sake of growing a community of people who believe in seeking a life that is worthy of our humanity. So thank you for your support for listening, and we'll be back next week.