The New York Times published an interactive article of epic scale last weekend, entitled “The Making of a YouTube Radical.”  Kevin Roose’s ambitious piece purports to shed light on the abuses and excesses of YouTube’s profit motive by tracing the journey of one young man who burrowed down into an “alt-right rabbit hole,” then clawed his way back out, and finally found refuge on the left.

Much has been said about the piece on the right, from outlets like The Federalist and The Daily Wire who, perhaps not-so-shockingly, weren’t big fans of it.  The core criticism is that the Times portends this dark, radical transformation and then, at the zenith of the eponymous “YouTube radical” Caleb Cain’s so-called radicalization, he describes himself as a “traditional conservative.”

A YouTube Radical is…. A Traditional Conservative?

A majority of the article passes by without ever attributing actual views to Cain.  You’d be forgiven for not noticing this – at points, the article reads like a fever dream of ultra-conservative ideas, what Cain himself describes as “an alt-right rabbit hole.”  These ideas and the figures behind them, however, are recounted as a part of Cain’s viewing history, which the author Kevin Roose digs into after speaking with Cain at length.  Roose never makes clear which of these ideas, if any, became a crystalized part of Cain’s ideology.

Finally, near the end of the article, some views are imputed to Cain directly, starting at “By the night of Nov. 8, 2016, Mr. Cain’s transformation was complete.”  Roose describes Cain’s excitement over Trump’s 2016 victory, and then this:

Mr. Cain never bought into the far right’s most extreme views, like Holocaust denial or the need for a white ethnostate, he said. Still, far-right ideology bled into his daily life. He began referring to himself as a “tradcon” — a traditional conservative, committed to old-fashioned gender norms.

Among Cain’s eventual vices of note, he dated an evangelical Christian woman and “fought with his liberal friends.” 

This line raised flags for me since I also argue, sometimes fight, with my liberal friends and, cards on the table, I am unambiguously liberal.  It’s troubling that the New York Times would use that phrase intending to instill a sense of dread in its readers.  The sentiment smacks of an ideological litmus test.  Worse, not only are you conservative if you voice disagreement with your liberal friends, you must be “a radical.”

I got the sense Roose may not have intended all those implications, that some words not chosen carefully enough could have been to blame, and that some readers might not take them that way.  And so, to get a better sense of what this article got right and what it got wrong, I grilled liberal friends and conservative friends on their reactions.  An interesting trend emerged – conservatives seemed livid, offering terms like “dumpster fire” and “hit piece” while liberals were surprised that I was even focusing on it for a media bias piece at all.

Upon further reflection and several re-reads, my conclusion is that there is some problematic bias in the article and that the central culprit for this chasm in perception is a problem of empathy.

Some of These Figures Are Not Like the Others

A banner laden with images greets readers at the beginning of the article.  Amongst a flurry of right-wing extremists in stills from YouTube videos, however, some of these figures are not quite like the others.  Of note, images can be seen of Milton Friedman, Dave Rubin, Jordan Peterson, and Ben Shapiro.

Those depicted took notice:

In small print, the Times does save face: “A sampling of the more than 12,000 videos that Caleb Cain watched going back to 2015, many but not all of which were from far-right commentators.”  The author defends the collage in much the same way on Twitter, saying:

Critically, however, it’s not as if any of the clips in this sampling are trailers for the upcoming Star Wars movie or other, lighter fare.  Rather, the banner only includes the political videos.  Readers who just clicked on a link to read about “The Making of a YouTube Radical” are shown a flurry of images depicting political figures, some of the most recognizable being sensational conspiracy theorist Alex Jones as well as alt-right (and pedophilia apologist) Milo Yiannopoulos.  All of the sampled videos are political and conservative in nature.  At bottom, the most natural parsing of the display’s message is “a barrage of radical right-wing extremists.”

This makes the inclusion of Friedman, Rubin, Peterson, and Shapiro (among others) worth discussing. 

It shouldn’t be at all surprising if you are liberal and disagree with these men’s ideas: they are, after all, (at least mostly) conservative thinkers.  Whether they are radicals, though, is a very different inquiry and one that shouldn’t be ignored.

How Radical Are They Actually?

Milton Friedman

This 1977 file photo shows Dr. Milton Friedman who won the 1976 Nobel Prize for economics. Friedman taught for 30 years at the University of Chicago and died in 2006 at age 94. Some professors and students at the university oppose the naming of a new institute after Friedman, saying the association with the economist’s hands-off economic prescriptions is increasingly troubling amid the global financial meltdown. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams, File)

Viewed from the lens of an “alt-right rabbit hole,” the inclusion of Milton Friedman is, quite frankly, bizarre.  Friedman was one of the most influential economists of the 20th century and a Nobel prize recipient.

He’s also the father of modern Republican fiscal policy and he was an influential economic advisor to Ronald Reagan.  For better or for worse, the world has Friedman to thank for the ubiquity of trickle-down economics and its successful political branding as “Reaganomics.”

Any fiscal lefty will disagree with Milton Friedman’s tenets and lament his massive influence on modern economic theory.  None of this changes the fact that Friedman’s ideas are a mainstay of conservatism everywhere along the spectrum, from the right to the center.

Dave Rubin

Dave Rubin at the 2018 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Dave Rubin isn’t even conservative.  Once liberal (he formerly worked for The Young Turks), Dave Rubin is most accurately described as a libertarian in American parlance.

Rubin favors same-sex marriage (he himself is married to a man), criminal justice reform, marijuana legalization, a social safety net, public schooling, and he supports abortion (although not without limitations).

Aside from being a fiscal conservative, the biggest reason Rubin comes under fire on the left is that he often hosts figures much further to the right.  This evokes an ideological divide.  Critics are ardent that he’s giving legitimacy to bad views.  Rubin, for his part, doesn’t endorse these views.  As a libertarian with strong views on free speech, he believes his actions are facilitating “the marketplace of ideas.”

Critics don’t see the difference when Rubin is a notoriously soft interviewer.  In one interview, he invited Canadian conservative Stefan Molyneux onto his show to talk about race and IQ.  Part of the exchange:

Rubin: “Is there evidence it’s genetic?”

Molyneux: “Yes.”

Rubin: “Genetic in what regard? I mean if we took the brain of a 25-year-old black man and the brain of a 25-year-old white man, what is it that they are doing that …”

Molyneux: “They are different sizes.”

Rubin: “Yeah?”

Molyneux: “Yeah.”

This isn’t exactly “holding his feet to the fire.”

It’s not clear that making the topic “forbidden” does any better, though.  This ensures that the opposing view is the only one getting air time.  Then, people who encounter that view, who might not even be predisposed to agree, might wonder “Is that true?  Nobody seems to be pushing back in any meaningful way.  Just calling to silence them.  Must be true.”

Or as the Atlantic put it:

“It’s easy enough to shut down that debate with cries of racism, but stigmatizing a point of view as morally tainted isn’t the same thing as demonstrating that it’s untrue.”

If we were willing to have more open discourse with people across the aisle, and we didn’t decree topics forbidden, we could fight Molyneux’s “science” with… better science.

The Atlantic article cited above talks a lot about the shortcomings of IQ testing.  For instance, it’s biased toward certain domains of thinking that might be overvalued in some cultures and undervalued in others (for instance, Ashkenazi Jews score lower in visuospatial subtests but higher overall). 

Another issue rarely mentioned is that poverty is highly (and negatively) correlated with IQ.  Molyneux disingenuously implies brain size MUST imply genetic difference when this is far from the truth.  Poverty is just one of many environmental factors that affect the way our brains develop.  I grew up very poor myself and in what researchers call “an environment of adversity.”  Research suggests I have an over-developed amygdala (highly implicated in fear, anxiety, and aggression response) and an under-developed pre-frontal cortex (used for sophisticated reasoning).

A great deal of our biology is environmental.  Tackling the data honestly can actually lend credence to the view that we are failing in our aim for a racially egalitarian society.

Finally, much to the dismay of anyone trying to establish white genetic superiority (and never acknowledged), Caucasians are third on the list of highest IQ statistically.

Dave Rubin didn’t dispel racist IQ research, but what he did may be an important first step.  His soft interview style isn’t the best way to challenge contentious views, but that doesn’t make him a radical.

If he’s guilty of anything, it’s engaging with the wrong people, and as some see it, giving them a platform to spread their views.

Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson speaking with attendees at the 2018 Young Women’s Leadership Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Hyatt Regency DFW Hotel in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Jordan Peterson describes himself as a “classic British liberal.”  According to Politico:

“[The label] serves as a useful differential from the popular conception of conservatism—while right-leaning in many ways, these newcomers to classical liberalism’s big tent are ill at ease with a movement that ostensibly includes the Mike Pences and Mike Huckabees of the world.”

By American political standards, Jordan Peterson is absolutely right-of-center, but he has a lot to say, and some of it is sorely needed in modern-day echo chambers. 

Peterson is critical of identity politics on the left and the right.  He is concerned with what he sees as an interplay with cultural appropriation and self-censorship.  He is highly vocal on issues of free speech and worries that campus backlash to right-wing speakers is paving the way for a culture of censorship.  He is a voice for affirmative messages to men on masculinity (something the left would do well to get into, since white nationalism is capitalizing on a lot of generalized angst and search for purpose, mostly unopposed in modern times).

Peterson believes his approach is better than mainstream American liberalism at stymying the increase of white nationalism.  In Peterson’s view, “if men are pushed too hard to feminize they will become more and more interested in harsh, fascist political ideology.”

There are even figures on the left like Sam Harris (and non-partisans like Jonathan Haidt) starting to take up some of these concerns – for instance, that the modern campus breeds a culture of sensitivity rather than resilience.

On the other hand, Peterson has called for the defunding of women’s studies programs and pushes a “grand theory” of neo-Marxism inculcating itself into our culture, infiltrating and “poisoning” academia.  Peterson preaches that fields like sociology, anthropology, English literature, ethnic studies, and racial studies have all fallen victim.

For a scientist, he’s also at times lazy, or worse, selective with his data.  He is ardent about the biological nature of gender.  This isn’t a crazy debate to wade into – a lot of well-regarded psychologists are worried that modern progressives take identity politics to anti-scientific extremes, and so civilized debates can help get to the facts.  But Peterson presents purportedly unassailable “facts” on transgenderism that are anything but. 

While he is right that our gender binary has some basis in biology, he neglects to acknowledge strong findings suggesting transgender identity also has a basis in biology (transgender people appear to be born with brain structures more similar to the gender with which they identify, rather than the one to which they were assigned) and that a strict binary envisioned by hardliners is biologically implausible (due to natural variances in large populations).

Ben Shapiro

Ben Shapiro speaking with attendees at the 2018 Young Women’s Leadership Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Hyatt Regency DFW Hotel in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Of these four men, Shapiro is perhaps the most offensive to the sensitivities of the modern “woke” liberal.  Shapiro is very clearly, if not admittedly, ethnocentrist.  He calls the modern left “a hierarchy of victimhood.”  He is vocally in support of lower taxes on the wealthy (a believer in Friedman).  He is ardently pro-life.  His publication The Daily Wire almost obsessively abounds with criticism of far-left views on gender and race.

Ben Shapiro is vocal about freedom of speech, although he’s probably a wash on the First Amendment overall because of his support for sedition laws and his views on freedom of religion heavily skewed to favor Judeo-Christian freedom in particular.

Shapiro clearly has principles.  He is consistently a critic of President Trump.  While he cut his media teeth at Breitbart, he left after an incident in 2016 where Donald Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski forcibly grabbed a female reporter’s arm to move her away from the candidate as she tried to ask a question and, in Shapiro’s view, Breitbart “threw her under the bus” in favor of its loyalty to the Trump Campaign.

Indisputably, Ben Shapiro is deeply conservative.  Some apply the inaptly cute term “alt-lite.”  But it would be a mistake to call him alt-right, a mistake The Economist had to apologize for in March.

He also makes an effort to engage with figures with whom he is politically opposed.  Granted, sometimes Shapiro’s tactic of choice is shouting down opponents.  And in a recent, quasi-famous BBC interview, Shapiro stormed off after calling conservative journalist Andrew Neil “left-wing” for bringing up various (incredibly) anti-Islamic comments Shapiro had made in the past. 

But he can be an engaging interviewer, as he was in his recent interview with Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang.  Conversations like these are important for the continued health of American political discourse, and if critics think Shapiro is too right-wing to be a part of those conversations, maybe they should be trying to take on the role of facilitating them.

Ben Shapiro is clearly, firmly “very conservative.”  Does that make him fairly included as part of a “radicalization” horror story?

Perhaps.  Ben Shapiro could be a part of a radical conservative YouTube diet without being out of place.  But he could also be a part of a diet of broader political ideology.  He has produced some content with value to liberals, conservatives, and centrists alike.  If he were the only borderline figure that made the Times’ banner, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice.  But coupled with more mainstream conservative thinkers, it raises some flags.

For other liberals, Shapiro’s inclusion may even be a no-brainer.  This is an important point, and one worth dwelling on.  It also poses a tough question we haven’t really acknowledged yet.

Drawing the ‘Radical’ Line

An issue central to this conflict is that we are never going to agree on the boundaries of what constitutes a radical.  The problem intensifies with progressively more influential echo chambers.  We paint our lines with broader and broader strokes, giving less and less room for civilized disagreement.

Roose’s piece is full of these gracelessly blurred lines.  The problem with this fact may not be immediately clear to those of us who lean left, but the crux of the problem is that these kinds of biased lumping errors contribute to a Great Issue of our time – partisans are pushing further and further apart and demonizing a larger and larger swath of opposed ideology as “radical.”

If you disagree with these men’s views, that doesn’t cut against this point one bit.  They each have thoughts to contribute – and have ideas worth understanding. 

Milton Friedman was one of the most influential economists in modern times.  Even if you’re a straight Keynesian who disagrees fervently with strong laissez faire ideology, how can you profess to actually understand that belief (as opposed to uncritically siding with a tribe) if you don’t understand Milton Friedman’s influence on economic theory? 

Even if you’re “all in” on liberal identity politics, do you really think any ideas pushing back are “radical,” dangerous, or a part of an “alt-right rabbit hole”?  Bad ideas crop up in any movement.  In modern culture, we are less and less willing to disagree with “our tribe” – which makes those bad ideas more resilient than they ought to be. 

There aren’t any ideologies immune to spawning “bad ideas,” and there aren’t any ideologies above scrutiny.

The fact is, most liberals would benefit from a little bit of exposure to these four figures – not because they need to be “schooled” on the correct ideology, but because it’s intellectually dishonest to ignore them.  It also gives little faith to your own views – if you are correct in your ideology, why should you be afraid to hear the criticism?  If you listen with an open mind, it might even help you understand your own views better.

On the whole, painting this piece as a cautionary tale of one man’s dissent into radicalism is strange to me.  At times, I’m not sure Roose is telling the story he thinks he’s telling.

Granting this as true, it’s not immediately obvious how it’s a bad or scary thing.  Perhaps intentionally, perhaps unintentionally, Roose’s piece told the story of YouTube algorithms and pragmatic thinkers willing to engage with differing views, a willingness often vilified by activists on the left and the right.  The result was a YouTube user consuming viewpoints across the ambit of political ideology and actually rejecting some, while ultimately coming to favor others.

This sounds more like the marketplace of ideas at work than an “alt-right rabbit hole.”  Yet, having arrived at the liberal-leaning conclusion of his ideological evolution, Roose and Cain both denounce the journey that got him there.

The Oft-Neglected Role of Empathy

At bottom, the article’s anticlimactic “tradcon” zenith and its misleading selection of images are very likely the result of laziness or a good-faith mistake not intended to imply what I and others interpreted Roose as implying.

They’re also symptomatic of a lack of empathy – something I see in both the conservative and liberal reactions to the piece, as well.

Those on the right are alarmed that Milton Friedman or Dave Rubin would be lumped together with the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos or that a self-described “tradcon” would be painted as a radical.  Yet, one conservative who vented to me about just that, in the very same conversation, thoughtlessly called Andrew Yang “a radical.”  When pushed, he backpedaled a bit, but also found some justification in his UBI platform (something he’s getting positive attention for from the left and the right).  On balance, Yang is a liberal who also has a clear libertarian streak – a trust that, if we provide certain nudges, markets can solve a lot of our problems. 

This problem harkens back to the line-drawing problem discussed in the prior section.  The broader a brush we use to paint our “radical” line, the less room we leave.  We worsen the problem when we get up-in-arms about the other side’s irresponsible paint job while failing to introspect about our own.

This one-way-street mindset my conservative friend exhibited at times in our talk about the article is precisely the same culprit at work in the broader liberal response (or lack thereof).  Most liberal readers didn’t see problems in the loose association between traditional conservatism and radicalism, and they explained away problematic implications in the Time’s selection of pictures at the beginning of the article.  Yet, it’s very likely most of these same readers would have been wildly critical if a piece purporting to shed light on “radical alt-left rabbit holes” thoughtlessly included pictures of Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher, and John Oliver in its title banner.[1]

No one is above it – importantly, it took a lot of talking with multiple conservative friends for me to come to a deeper understanding myself.  We can only begin to tackle the issue when we empathize, when we introspect and realize the intellectual dishonesty that transcends partisan lines, that we all fall victim to, at times.  It’s important to remember – and act on the idea – that failing to label a position “radical” is not an endorsement, and you don’t have to label every position you disagree with radical as a kind of amateur rhetorical flourish.

We won’t solve this overnight.  Introspecting and challenging our own beliefs is a difficult, uphill battle – and quite frankly, some people are just never going to do it.  But publications like the New York Times need to be above that.  Instead, they needlessly perpetuate the problem when they publish pieces like this.

Update: a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Ben Shapiro is ardently pro-choice, when it should have said ardently pro-life.


[1] For irony points, I hope at least some of our conservative readers react to this list by thinking “but x is radical!”