My job at Vox is to talk to interesting people. And in 2020, I got to talk to a lot of really, really interesting people.
Nine conversations in particular stick out to me. They were the ones that challenged me the most, got me thinking in a new way about a difficult problem, or simply explained what the hell was happening in this disorienting year.
There’s no unifying thread tying all these conversations together, but each of them, in its own way, left a strong impression on me. One of my favorites was with Rabbi David Wolpe, who talked about how to find meaning in the middle of all this suffering and why our culture struggles with questions of deep existential significance.
My interview with professor Alexander Wendt about the UFO videos released by the Pentagon earlier this year managed to be both fun and a genuinely provocative discussion about the possibilities of aliens visiting our planet. I also really enjoyed talking to author Kristin Kobes Du Mez about why evangelical support for Donald Trump isn’t nearly as paradoxical as so many people have suggested.
Several conversations, like the one with Eddie Glaude Jr. about James Baldwin’s legacy, grappled with the social and political crises we faced this year, and hopefully offered something uplifting and constructive.
Whether you’re interested in religion or politics or aliens, there’s something in these conversations for you. So without further ado, here are the nine most interesting conversations I had this year.
“I think the other side wants us to think there are no swing voters, that we’re doomed and it doesn’t even matter if you have a message because you can’t reach anyone. I think that’s bullshit. I think that’s a wholly incorrect view of American politics. But look, if no one’s persuadable, then let’s just have the revolution. Falling into despair won’t help anyone, though. I mean, you can curse the darkness or you can light a candle. I’m getting a fucking welding torch. Okay?” —James Carville
“It’s not the ‘attention’ we find in human resource offices, or in banks, or in department stores, where people are pretending to listen to you but all the while thinking about how they need to respond or what they already have decided they’re going to say in response. What Camus means is what another French philosopher, Simone Weil, called ‘decreation,’ which is undoing yourself in order to make room for other selves in your life. And this is what Camus’s characters in The Plague understand. This is what motivates Rieux and Tarrou — they attend to their patients, to the sick, in ways that are wholly admirable.” —Robert Zaretsky
“Baldwin’s revolutionary inversion is to flip the white man’s burden. The white man’s burden becomes the Black man’s burden. That’s when he says, ‘I’m not the N-word. Never have been.’ The question is, why did you need to invent the N-word? Once you understand why, then maybe we can get off this damn hamster wheel. He didn’t say it that way, but you get what I mean. The point is that, ‘I’m not the N-word. You invented the N-word. We need to figure out why you invented the N-word. Until we do that, I’m going to give that N-word back to you. You must be the N-word.’ That’s the revolutionary move.” —Eddie Glaude Jr., author of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own
“Disasters shake us up. I’ve called them a crash course in Buddhism. You’re suddenly aware of ephemerality and interdependence, the fleetingness of all things, and the connection of all things. Often that connection is a deep empathic, emotional connection for their neighbors and people undergoing the same experience that people don’t necessarily feel at other times. We often experience everyone around us primarily in terms of their differences rather than the commonalities. A disaster changes that in an instant.” —Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell
“I’ve thought about this, and I worry less about poking around and getting conquered and more about the potential realization that these things are here and then an internal implosion of our society. So I worry about my fellow human beings more than I worry about the aliens. So I guess in that sense, I disagree with Hawking’s premise that they’re out to get us. But sure, it’s possible they’re on a surveillance mission. But people have been reporting UFOs for at least 80 years, and that’s a really, really long surveillance mission. And also, why would they want to conquer us? That’s like us conquering ants.” —Alexander Wendt
“This is what ‘family values’ evangelicalism looks like, and now it’s apparent to everyone. But for evangelical dissenters, this is indeed a tragedy. And yet I think even those who are resisting, or who are calling this out and who are struggling with the direction that evangelicalism has taken, still need to reckon with the ways in which they, too, as part of this tradition, have been complicit in this ideology. The Trump era didn’t just happen. We’ve been moving in this direction for a long time.” —Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation
“I think that the spiritual malaise of the society, the sense of the meaningless at the core, is partly a result of the fact that our tools, which make us so much more efficient, also serve to isolate us from one another. Then the pandemic came along and exacerbated that isolation, and people ask deep questions about what is this about and what is this for and how can life just change on a dime and how am I supposed to live in the absence of all the things that I used to take for granted and care about? In other words, we have been suddenly plunged into an existential crisis, and we’re not a society in general that turns to deep questions of life meaning.” —Rabbi David Wolpe, author of Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times
“Burnout is the feeling that you’ve hit the wall exhaustion-wise, but then have to scale the wall and just keep going. There’s no catharsis, no lasting rest, just this background hum of exhaustion. It manifests in not being able to make the sort of decisions you actually want to make — my classic example is that you’re so tired, you just scroll Instagram instead of reading the book that you legitimately do want to read — and everything in your life flattens into one endless, ever-recyling to-do list that you just feel like you have to get through so that you can do the next thing on the list.” —Anne Helen Petersen, author of Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation
“Suffering can be a door by which we exit our isolated ego and we enter into the suffering of another. And that isolated ego can be transformed into what we’re really created for: a deep relationship of shared life and being in love.” —Sister Ilia Delio