Or, Saturday Night with Borat and the Commentariat
“Hello all, the subject of this audio essay is — ”
Yes, Eric Weinstein is back! Admittedly, I hadn’t noticed he’d been away. But it seems that he was — and now he’s back, kicking off his latest episode of The Portal with an audio essay about his absence, the tech platforms, the 2020 election…
The intro audio essays are often the best part of Eric’s podcast. I’m running around my apartment half listening, but I really don’t want to miss a moment. I have to set my phone down a few times — in the kitchen, now in the living room — as I rush around, getting ready for a walk. A walk to dinner, with luck, if I can find a place with outdoor seating. Should I just order take-out? No, I’m optimistic!
They say Eric Weinstein is a super genius. To what extent that’s true, I can’t be sure. I’m forever on the lookout for evidence to the contrary. He has solved the problem of relativity vs. quantum mechanics. At least that’s the story. What are the chances? This is always in the back of my mind as I listen.
I sit down on my couch to put my shoes on, also pulling up Google Maps on my laptop.
ERIC: “Which brings us to Article 58 of the Soviet era Russian penal code, which introduced the concept of ‘enemy of the workers and counter-revolutionary activities as the major crime.’ You see, Article 58 was a law where everyone was guilty, but not everyone was prosecuted. Thus, any inconvenient person could be disappeared into the gulags or executed in show trials under Article 58. And that is where we are.”
I pause the podcast to focus on my laptop, where, in Google Maps, I have recently searched “burrito” while zoomed into the Noe Valley/Mission/Castro region of San Francisco. There are many, many hits. Most are familiar. I already have my eye on one: El Capitan Taqueria. Never been before but walk by it often. What stands out in my mind are the colorful outdoor tables, nearly always empty. I try to picture it. The perfect location to sit at a table all to myself and eat a burrito on a Saturday night.
Ready to go, I don my blue Dre Beats and push play on the podcast. Back to Eric. He’s still in the midst of his audio essay. I always enjoy his coined terms. “The gated institutional narrative,” etc. I also enjoy the blame he casts on the Boomers, the way he chastises them for gaining institutional power in their 30s and then holding onto it well into their 60s and 70s. They’ve held onto power too long! Let the Millennials have some political and economic power already! God damn!
I’m walking now through the colorful, tree-lined streets of Noe Valley, toward the Castro. Douglas Murray, the guest on Eric’s latest episode, is about to come on. Eric is introducing him. We know, we know. It’s not like he hasn’t been on three other podcasts I subscribe to in the past few days. I’d listened to bits and pieces of them. He’s got his talking points. His perspective on the culture wars. He’s got his audience. No surprises or revelations to see here, folks.
Earlier today I was on Twitter, skimming the trending topics. “Ivanka and Jared threaten to sue The Lincoln Project over Times Square billboards.” “Kanye West says his calling is to be the leader of the free world.” Etc. Typical Twitter news. That’s how I stumbled on Douglas Murray being on The Portal. Someone was tweeting about it. I think it was Douglas? “One of the most important podcasts I’ve ever listened to,” someone commented.
I glance at Twitter as a I walk along, now going downhill, coming up on 18th Street, where I expect to find the taqueria. Oh man. Borat’s new movie is now all over Twitter. I’m going to watch that tonight, most likely. I do have ice cream in the freezer, I think, which makes a movie night sound like a pretty good idea.
Of course people are already destroying the film. And loving it. Everyone has an opinion. No middle-of-the-road takes for this movie. Imagine if everyone was just appreciative of the entertainment value without even thinking about casting value judgements. What kind of world would that be?
DOUGLAS: “But it turned out that we actually did have significant levels of societal trust, which, by the way, in Britain we said in recent years that we didn’t have. And to some extent I thought maybe all of the last years have been sort of performative to that extent. We’ve kept on talking about what a divided country we were, yet a pandemic came along and we turned out to have pockets of residual societal trust. We, for instance, wanted to hear from the Queen. You know, that was a rather wonderful moment for some of us.”
Success! Ordered a burrito, no line, and the outdoor seating area was indeed all but vacant. I take the table furthest way from the restaurant’s entrance and set out my feast. A tinfoil-wrapped chicken super burrito with chips and salsa. It’s a little chilly outside but the walk had warmed me up enough to easily put the cold out of my mind for at least the next twenty minutes.
The burrito is okay. Why isn’t it better? Too much rice. And the rice is like brown rice. It’s white rice but thick and chewy like brown. It’s definitely not light in a way that melts between your teeth like Mexican rice. Also the chicken, like the rice, is oddly chewy. Let’s just say I’ve had better.
On my phone, I go from Twitter to The Atlantic to Medium. On The Atlantic, I read about how Millennials and Gen Zers are going to be the death of Republicanism — certainly of Trumpism. Makes sense. On Medium, I scroll through article titles at first with interest, then with irritation. It’s as if the article titles were written specifically to annoy me, although I can’t say why for any specific reason. The one article I click on — about the unexpected success of the Taco Bell Hotel — has a headline photo of a girl in a white bikini pulling herself out of a pool. How much did I really care about the Taco Bell Hotel? I did actually skim the article. I had heard about this hotel before. I was rooting for it.
On Twitter I find Chloe Valdary participating in the Borat commentary. Specifically, she commented “This. This is it.” to a retweet of a long thread bashing the new Borat movie. I trust Chloe. She is often the rare voice of reason and levelheadedness on Twitter, even amidst discussions involving the most complex of social issues. The long thread she retweeted starts out: “normie friends decided to stream new borat movie and it’s honestly a transcendent piece of art for the age. entire thing is unintentionally self-parody of prog worldview. just endless paranoia, unearned condescension, and thinly suppressed rage.” It goes on a few tweets and concludes “he cant even do the accent anymore lol.”
Really Chloe? Really? I haven’t even seen the movie yet but this take just doesn’t strike me as the thing that’s “it.” Although I get it. The person who wrote that tweet Chloe retweeted has (it seems) a very opinionated, whiny Twitter brand, and that’s how you get a lot of followers, a lot of engagement. Personally, I can’t fully get on board with that. I just want to tell everyone involved to get a hobby.
Back to Chloe’s tweet. I get down in there in the comments on her comment. One jumps out and I immediately “like” it. It reads (to Chloe): “isn’t your brand supposed to be about transcending bad faith and instead coming together / why endorse someone engaging in a bad faith criticism of progressives aimed at what they consider a bad faith criticism of trump”
At this point I want to comment myself. Perhaps not to Chloe but to the person she was retweeting. And unlike apparently everyone involved, I’d capitalize the first letter of every new sentence and my punctuation would be flawless.
I drop it. Back to The Atlantic. “Before Millennials entered the electorate in large numbers in the 2004 election, adults younger than 30 had generally tracked voting preferences of the country overall, without providing any — ” Etc.
Walking back now.
ERIC: “So, Douglas, what the hell is going on? I mean, it’s as if we’re under some kind of swarm attack where every institution goes mad in succession.”
DOUGLAS: “Yes. I, um, as you know, I thought for a long time that the job of the era is not to go mad.”
DOUGLAS: “Thou shalt not go mad is absolutely the first rule of the time. And I did think — ”
Then, in the kitchen about to open up Ben and Jerry’s, I have this thought. I stop in my tracks to consider it. No, I keep walking, moving toward the sink to wash my hands. I set my phone down beside the sink.
I press “play.” I accidentally double pressed it and have to press it again. Douglass gets out two words before I stop it again. I pick up my phone and walk quickly to my laptop to type this out. This is the spark of an idea for an essay. An essay about listening to Douglas Murray on The Portal. Except it’s not really about Douglass Murray or Eric Weinstein. I stop myself from writing exactly what it is. I want to discover it. I want it to be a process of discovery. I press play!
ERIC: “I try to tell this to people: Remember some poems because storing them between your ears allows you to make references to them. If they only exist on the internet, then you won’t necessarily be able to make a connection between two of them.”
DOUGLAS: “I’m so glad you said that. This is a very, very deeply held view of mine. I heard it once as a schoolboy when a man called Terry Waite was held captive in Lebanon famously in the 1980s. He was an envoy of the then Archbishop of Canterbury. When I was growing up, Terry Waite’s name was in the news all the time.”
ERIC: “All the time.”
DOUGLAS: “And he once came to my school after he was released. He gave an extraordinary talk that has remained with me about how he had got through years chained to a radiator in a basement in Beirut. And one of the things — I’ll never forget him saying it — was that he had the opening of ‘Four Quartets’ by T.S. Eliot in his mind all the time. ‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past. / If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable.”
I’m eating the ice cream now. It’s Netflix and Chilll’d. Not enough brownie. C’mon guys (I hear Joe Biden say in my head).
Finally I’m watching “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” It reminds me. On Twitter the other day, someone I follow said: Great, another generation of teenage boys will be saying the Borat phrases in the Borat voice. “Very nice.” Then Yesterday I was visiting my in-laws in Sacramento. My brother-in-law (30) does the Borat voice again and again and again. He narrates almost every scene in the new movie. “It’s amazing. You have to watch it,” he says. “As good as the first?” I ask. “Almost, not really, but almost. Still a much watch!”
In the end, I make it about halfway through Borat before I just get bored. It feels like I’ve seen it already. I suppose I have — in bits and pieces, in clips and snippets.
“Thank you for listening.”