Transcript: On Being Wrong

  • “Mistakes Were Made, but Not by Us”

    WalterShapiro: Stage one isanonymity: You want to be the invisible man, you hope no one will notice. Thenyou go into rooting for amnesia: If you don’t remember it-and you willfully don’t remember it-maybe no one elsedoes. Then you go into the madness of crowds: “Yeah, I was wrong, but I wasn’tthe only one.” And then, in the era of Donald Trump, you hope the parade moveson. Luckily, I never got to the fifth stop, which is fake passport and leave thecountry.

    LauraMarsh: That was WalterShapiro, a politics reporter and frequent guest on The Politics of Everything, describing what it feels like to bewrong, and the stages of grief he’s gone through.

I’m Laura Marsh. I’mthe literary editor of The New Republic.

AlexPareene: And I’m Alex Pareene.I’m a staff writer at the magazine.

Laura: Today on the show we’re talking aboutbeing wrong.

Alex: What makes it so difficult to recognizewhen you’ve gotten something wrong?

Laura: Why is it so hard to take responsibility? Isit easier to be wrong in this political moment?

Alex: And is it possible to be less wrong?

Laura: This is The Politics of public has been on our minds lately. We’ve been doing this podcast for abouta year, and, looking back in review of that year, we’ve painfully noted thethings that we were very confident about at the time that perhaps we should nothave been. For example, we did an episode casting doubt on the idea ofelectability as an important factor in selecting a presidential nominee likeJoe Biden.

Laura: That one hasn’t held up particularlywell.

Alex: We should clarify: We’re not talkingabout things that required corrections here. We’re talking about things thatilluminate how your assumptions about the world may have been on shaky groundor incorrect.

Laura: Right. I mean, you go into somethingwith a set of ideas about how the world works, and then something happens thatproves that those ideas didn’t describe the world accurately. We also did anepisode near the beginning of the pandemic about the inequalities that thepandemic was exposing and how people ideally should be able to go and protest.

Alex: The basic premise of that was, “Demonstrationand the protest as we know it can’t really happen in a pandemic world.” Andthen what happened a little bit after that aired?

Laura: Just after that aired, there werehuge, nationwide-and in fact international-protests against police brutalitythat proved us wrong.

Alex: Yeah, the pandemic turned out to beless of an obstacle to protest than your local police department, for example.And then, more recently, we did an episode previewing the vaccine rollout. And whileI think that it contained a lot of interesting information, and I certainlylearned a lot doing it, do you think that it turned out in the end too sanguineabout how that rollout would go?

Laura: Yeah, I think we were talking aboutwhat should happen so much that we didn’tget into a satisfying discussion of what was likely to happen.

Alex: With all that in mind, we decided to aother people who had gotten things wrong to come clean, to explain themselves,to say why they thought they got things wrong. It turns out it’s surprisinglyhard to track down a large number of people who want to talk about things thatthey got wrong that actually mattered and aren’t, like, I mispronouncedsomething.

Laura: Right. I mean, it’s reallyuncomfortable to get things wrong. Especially because what we’re going to beasking people is not just to talk about whatthey got wrong, but why, how does it feel, and how you move on from that. Ifeel like these are awkward questions to put to someone!

Alex: So I’ll say that it’s to his creditthat the first person we talked to, Walter Shapiro, who you’ve already heardfrom, could not wait to address not just the worst mistakes he’s made in hislong career, but the most recent.

Walter: Oh, it’s not even close to the worst,not even close. I mean, the record of error is so long. The most recent wasprobably that I underestimated, in the pages of The New Republic, Trump’s resistance to a democratic election. Ioperated on the assumption that after a little sturm and drang, he would justpout in the White House and spend his time throwing the cable clicker at theway Fox News turned on him. I never expected that this would get to a level ofmadness King George would envy, let alone the horrors of January 6.

Alex: Why do you think you were inclined tobelieve he would do that?

Walter: I really thought that there was alimit, even for Trump. I didn’t realize the degree to which this was theultimate subterranean president. The other thing is, I was assuming that if therewas no network projection for Trump, no maps filled with red states, itwould be impossible for him to claim he had won. I was wrong.

Laura: You’re obviously far from the onlyperson who got things about Trump wrong, because I think pretty much everyonehas experienced that in the last four years. What do you think we can take awayfrom that kind of collective miscalculation?

Walter: Humility, more than anything. I try tostay away from election predictions, even though I’m a political reporter. Idon’t always do it, but there’s a sense of humility that anyone who makes anyforecast about the future should couple with it.

Alex: You say you try not to do electoralpredictions. In the recent few years I’ve very much tried the same-I don’t like towrite things that are like, “Here’s who’s going to win and why,” becauseobviously that’s unknowable. But then your neighbor finds out what you do for aliving-what’s the very first question they always ask you?

Walter: Oh, trust me, no one ever asked me, “Couldyou explain Joe Biden’s foreign policy in depth?”

Alex: Yeah. I have one person in particularwho lives in my building who spent a month, every time I saw him, asking, “Who’sBiden gonna pick?” Like, I’m not in Biden’s inner circle, I probably have notmuch more information than you do on that.

Laura: Do you think that it’s becomeharder in the last four years to be right?

Walter: Absolutely not, because the press hasalways been wrong. I just finished a new book called Lost in a Gallup,which is about how polling has been consistently wrong in almost everypresidential campaign heading back to 1936. Yet reporters totally worship atthe shrine of the latest polls. We have always been, as a profession,grotesquely wrong. It wasn’t that election night in 2016 was a totalaberration; it was par for the course. The only aberration is the result-thehorrible presidency of Donald J. Trump.

Alex: So the takeaway from Walter isthat everyone has always been wrong, especially in professions like journalismwhere people have this specialized knowledge that leads them to think they knowwhat’s going on. People have just always been misinterpreting things and havealways been wrong. Laura, what do you think?

Laura: Sure, that seems clear to me. There’salways going to be mistakes, there’s always going to be errors in understanding.My question, I think, is whether it’s easier to be wrong when you’re working ina really unpredictable and unstable political environment. The last four yearshave seen so many departures from standard operating procedure, so many normsbeing broken. And if that’s what you’re basing your understanding of what willhappen on, surely it’s got to be easier to keep getting things wrong.

Alex: And in that sort of environment-a lessstable American society, if it is a less stable one-someone who has years ofexperience with a much more stableand arguably predictable society and government might have more trouble nowthan they would have before.

Laura: I think my question is whether you’re moresusceptible if you have more experience of a stable environment, or whether everyone is susceptible to being morewrong at the moment.

Alex: So we turned to another colleague, MattFord, a staff writer at The New Republic,who believes that he has been getting things wrong for the past four years.

MattFord: I assumed that therewas a point at which most of the Republican Party, if not the bulk of it, wouldrealize that Trump had gone too far, that their Faustian bargain wasn’t worththe price they paid for it, and that they would place the republic’s well-being overhis political interests. And I think it’s really apparent now that that’s notthe case.

Laura: So you say this spans fouryears. Was the week of the Capitol Hill riot the moment that you realizedthis was unequivocally wrong, that this was an opinion that could not besalvaged?

Matt: I went into a lot of the scandals ofthe Trump administration, especially the Russian investigation and the Ukrainescandal, not necessarily saying outright that there’s a point that Republicanswould break away but definitely with the understanding that maybe if we hadthe right amount of evidence, if we had the right witnesses, if we had the rightfacts to back this up, that maybe they will see the light. And I can seenow that that doesn’t really hold water anymore.

Laura: What has that felt like over four years?Because there are these points at which the Republicans could have comeforward, and if you were expecting that, that’s when you’d hope they would, andthen it didn’t happen.

Matt: Well, it’s sort of like-I don’t want todraw too clear a comparison to this, but it’s sort of like the QAnon thing, wherethey keep expecting that, OK, nexttime is the time Trump will launch mass raids and execute all the Democrats. Soit’s like, Trump was able to wiggle out of this one, but perhaps down the road,he’ll do something truly abominable, and that will be the moment when therewill be some sort of consequences for his actions, some sort of snap back tonormality for the system.

Alex: What made you persist in the belief that theywould break from him or that there was a line they wouldn’t cross?

Matt: This is the hardest part. I feel like Ihad the ingredients. I’ve written about how Republicans in state legislatureswould basically draw the maps so they couldn’t lose their majority. I wroteabout political violence and how Republican politicians have discussions aboutthe Second Amendment and the right to stand up to tyranny that can lead peopleto think that armed violence is justified. I feel like I had the buildingblocks and yet part of me, I think, just wanted to hope that it would not allcome together into what we saw. I think it was a little mixture of naïveté andI guess willful blindness that things could not get that bad.

Laura: So we’re talking to several people. Somepeople are very sanguine about the prospect of having been wrong-I think forsome it’s easy to embrace that idea, take something from it, and kind of moveon. You sound very somber abou t this, almost chastened, I think. What does itmean to you to feel like you were wrong about this?

Matt: Well, there’s certainly a personalelement of, I guess, shame. I don’t go around moping about this, but I do feelthat I’ve made a mistake that impacts the quality of my work.

Laura: Of all the people we’ve spoken to,is the most searching and raw, he’s the hardest on himself about being wrong. Whenhe mentioned the quality of his work, it’s interesting, because I think by anyobjective standard, his work is of a very high quality. He makes really clear,rigorous arguments. But he’s troubled by this deeper sense of havingmisunderstood the Trump era.

Alex: Not in the sense of “I got these factswrong,” but that he was just wrong about the state of the world.

Laura: And I think that’s something that mostpeople who go into any process with expectations that people will act in goodfaith have felt over the last four years. Something that I wondered about is ifMatt was more susceptible to feeling like he’d gotten things so wrongbecause his beat as someone who writes about legal affairs means that it’s his..job to know what all the correct procedures are, and he has an expectation thatthey would be followed. And so then when they’re not, that is maybe moreshocking than it would be to most people.

Alex: Yeah. When it’s your job to understandthe law and to communicate clearly what the law says to the layperson, the ideaof the law not mattering-I mean, it would make your work a lot harder.

Laura: So both people we’ve talkeare politics writers, and both of the things that they feel they got wrong arepolitical, specifically related to the Trump era. The next person we’re goingto talk to feels like he got something broader wrong.

Alex: Paul Ford, who’s a columnist for Wired,the co-founder of Postlight, a digital strategy, design, and engineering firm,has been involved in the internet and writing about the internet for twodecades. We wanted to talk to him about what he got wrong about the informationsuperhighway.

Paul, youpublished a post on Medium, actually two posts, one sarcastic and one much moresincere, in which your self from the year 2000 interviews your current selfabout what the internet is like now. What did your 2000 selfget wrong?

Paul: Oh geez. Everything, everything. That poor? little baby, sitting there at his computer, seeing wonderful things coming down ?the pike, seeing communities rise up and cultures form, and everybody was goingto get along so great, and we were going to use blogging as a way to build anew society, where everyone had a voice. And he was wrong. That guy was wrong.

Alex: What specifically did he get wrong? web was something that everybody was going to get excited about in just the waythat I did and that we would get into building the web as a society together. Inever realized that there were two huge forces out in the world. One is laziness:Humans don’t want to build their own publishing platforms, it turns out, andyou can’t blame them, right? Who would want to? And that was just being young andinto the web and not understanding that my nerdy interests weren’t shared byevery other human being on earth. And the other is that I just had no sense ofhow powerful a big digital platform could be. At that point, around 2000,Microsoft was the giant, terrifying player, they were looking to destroy a lotof open internet culture, or that’s how we felt. So you’re like, well, they’re..the enemy, but the web is going to keep eating away at them and we’re going tosomehow build a new culture where all things are open and we can read ebooks onProject Gutenberg and so on. So what did that leave out? It left out Amazon, andit left out Google, and it left out Facebook consolidating so muchpower. It never occurred to me because at the time I’d never seen anything likethat.

Laura: When did you feel like the move awayfrom the ideal was becoming apparent? What was the first turning point when youfelt like you might not have been right?

Paul: The problem is you don’t ever getanything wrong all at once, right? So obviously you could see dystopiantendencies, even in the earliest days. People have been seeing problematictelecommunications issues forever. Lily Tomlin did an entire stand-up albumabout the Bell Telephone monopoly-she’s playing a switchboard operator, and she’smocking the phone company for being a big monopoly that doesn’t care about you. (Of course, in 1984, it’s broken up. As far as I know, it’s the only comedyalbum that’s been made obsolete by monopoly law. I don’t think that happens alot.) But incrementally what would happen is you would see it going wrong, but whatI would tend to do is see it going wrong away from America. There was apiece I wrote for The New Yorkerwebsite, this would be 2014, maybe, when Turkey was shutting down parts of theinternet, shutting down Twitter. It was Erdogan. And I was like, “Hey, the big ‘Off’switch is a fantasy, but can you imagine what would happen if somebody withfascist tendencies just really went to town on Twitter? They’d have a lot offans and they could do whatever the hell they wanted and theywouldn’t have the mediating influence of government or the media, they couldjust use Twitter to be fascist, and that would be bad, wouldn’t it?” I had nosense that Donald Trump would have 88 million followers. It’s actually alwaysreally easy to see the worst-case scenario, it’s just much harder to see itclose to home.

Alex: Very unfair to bring you on for anepisode of being wrong and you bring up something you were right about.

Paul: Well, now that I’m a corporate leader,I’m much better at turning these things to my own advantage.

Alex: What are the assumptions you had that you think turned out to be incorrect?

Paul: I mean, it’s brutal, right? This is thewrong audience for it, and I’m sorry, but it’s the significance of good..communication, good writing, good narrative, the idea that good writing and goodthinking could save the world. I really believed that deep down. And it’s justheartbreak, right?

Alex: Yeah.

I just knew I didn’thave it. And that becomes a real puzzle. Like, why don’t I have authority? Iseem to be really smart. I have a degree in English literature. And yet thereare people in politics who are able to make decisions about me and I’m not ableto make decisions about them. That seems incredibly unfair to me. I’m going tostart a blog and write about going out to bars in Brooklyn, which willabsolutely change this culture. So you’re living in your world, and you’ve got a..set of rules, an ethos, and you aren’t really participating in the big world,you’re living in a scene. I think the power of the scene, especially when you’rea little bit younger-it just seems like it’s the whole world. You don’t realizejust how many people completely don’t share your point of view.

Alex: And don’t share your values. I thinkthat that’s important, right? Because that sort of attitude, that 2000 attitude,was like, if we democratize everything, there will be a groundswell of peoplewho broadly share my values.

Paul: And it’s free speech, right? You’renailing it. It’s “We’re all going to come together and more communication willbe better.” And look, everybody knows it-it didn’t work.

Laura: It’s interesting talking to you aboutthis kind of 20-year span, because a lot of the people we’re talking to, they’vebeen wrong about something, but maybe they realize that six months or a year downthe line. And with you, it’s been over your whole adult life.

Paul: Yeah, Paul. You were incredibly wrong. Like, wow.

Laura: So my question is how much the sense ofbeing wrong is based on the subject itself, because this is something that mostpeople were wrong about, how the internet was going to turn out, and how muchof it is the wisdom of age versus the idealism of youth?

PaulFord: That’s a tricky one.I think it’s a lot of the latter, right? First of all, I mentor and work with youngpeople who come across the technology industry and they say, “Boy, I’d likesome of that economic opportunity. I’d like to learn some of those things, I’dlike to participate.” I love working with people like that, and they findwonderful things to be excited about. They’re really motivated by tech, thereare still a lot of puzzles to solve, and they’re figuring out culture as theygo along. So is their experience not valid because things are weird and ugly?No. I mean, we knew who the enemies were back then. It’s just like powerconsolidated. What I didn’t realize-and I think this is where age comes in-Idon’t actually blame the internet. I don’t blame even, like, a Facebook. I feelthat certain people are around, they come up with ideas, they centralize enormousamounts of power and revenue, and then the ethics don’t scale. Commonlyunderstood ethics don’t scale unless you have frameworks-literally institutionalframeworks, things like governance and law, that allow you to evaluate howpeople are performing ethically and punish and reward accordingly. And Facebookis like, “We went to the animal shelter and got an oversight board, and aren’twe great?” So I’m not surprised that that happened. I think a lot of it is justyou’re getting older and you realize, “Oh, this is how power works. And boy, peoplereally want those things, and instead of feeling really bad about that, theyfeel completely fine about it. And now they have 50,000 employees and they’recompletely central to the world economy and they’re not going to put theirheadquarters in Queens.” It’s just very weird to have been part of somethingthat then later became the economy. It’s like if you were into a band and you’relike, “Wow, they’re good. They’ve got two guitars and that vocalist, she’samazing.” And then, 20 or 30 years later, they literally run the world economy.You’re like, “They were just a weird indie band. That’s strange.”

Alex: Facebook is an interesting examplebecause Jeff Bezos just stepped down as CEO of Amazon-Facebook is the last onewith the founder still running it. But Mark Zuckerberg, when asked in 2021 what’s the point of Facebook, he still talks like 2000 Paul. He’s like, “The point ofFacebook is, we’re bringing everyone together.”

PaulFord: Man, it worked out sogood for that guy.

Alex: Is he being completely cynical?

PaulFord: No. He’s in a worldin which billions of people love his free service. He gives hundreds ofmillion dollars away. People in government are very critical, it’sannoying, you gotta go sit on a cushion, but for the most part, he works withreally smart people, and they do really important work, and it scales well, andthen they release the new products and everybody hates them in the press andthe government, but the users love it. Who are you going to go with? So letthem yell. If you need to go to another congressional hearing, you will, but myGod, and then you’re going to smoke your meat, you’re going to hang out with? your buds, you’re going to raise your kids, and you’re going to say to hell ?with it. All of us have had in our careers people who absolutely think we cango to hell. And what do you do? You just go, “Well, I guess I’m going tokeep doing what I’m going to do, because I really don’t feel like bendingmy life around somebody who’s angry at me on Twitter or sent me a weird email.”

Alex: So the government is the person who’sangry at him on Twit

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