Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Zach, thanks for coming on the show.
Zach Wood: Thanks for having me.
Nico: Tell me what it’s like writing a book. How old are you?
Zach: I’m 22, turning 23 in a few days.
Nico: Yeah, so when did you start writing?
Zach: In a month.
Nico: What’s it like writing a book at that age, a memoir?
Zach: It was a lot of work. For one, it requires a lot of discipline, a lot of focus, a lot of time, a lot of energy, and doing it while I was studying away at Columbia University in New York City meant that I just had to really be on top of it and be committed fully to the whole process.
Nico: How’d you do it? Did you just try and write a page a day or something?
Zach: You try to set aside time every day to look at what you’ve written, to revise. I was sharing it with professors, with mentors. I had all kinds of people who were helping me think through, how do I make sense of writing a memoir at 22, and what psychological structure that makes sense, because that’s something I really didn’t know?
Nico: Yeah, and you became kind of a public persona through your involvement with this group, Uncomfortable Learning, in Williams College, and that’s how you got the opportunity to write a memoir.
Nico: Tell me a little bit about Uncomfortable Learning?
Zach: When I got to Williams, there were certain trends I noticed on campus. I’d always been the kind of student who was interested in political, social, economic issues and so I was eager to debate these things and discuss these things with my peers and professors, and so it became very clear that that was difficult to do. I started looking for avenues, opportunities, groups that I could join and be a part of and contribute to that would help.
Nico: That wanted to debate.
Zach: That wanted to debate, basically, and Uncomfortable Learning, just the name alone caught my attention and I said, hmm, I wonder what this is about, and as it turns out, it fits the bill for exactly what I’m looking for. The thing is, it was a little-known organization at the time and the leaders of the organization were trying to kind of have greater influence on the Williams community.
I joined this organization eager to be a part of it, and the idea behind Uncomfortable Learning is that you invite speakers with views that you know do not align with the majority of students on campus, even views that are unpleasant, views that are controversial, views that many would find offensive, and you bring them to campus. The speaker will talk for 30 minutes to 45 minutes and then there should be an intense but respectful Q&A.
Nico: Yeah, the first speaker that you attended through the Uncomfortable Learning series was Randall Kennedy, right?
Zach: Yes, right.
Nico: He’s actually been on this podcast before.
Zach: Okay, yeah. Actually, yeah. I saw that, yeah.
Nico: Because he wrote an article about the history of the student speech movement in the 1950’s and 60s ad how it kind of percolated –
Zach: Yep, American Prospect, right?
Nico: Yeah, as a result of the civil rights movement, and so that was fascinating to me, and then I learned his history and that he can be a controversial figure, but I don’t think he’s the same sort of controversial figure that you started inviting to speak on campus when you became president.
Zach: No, Randall Kennedy – yeah, I take – I mean, Randall Kennedy is a very thoughtful, rigorous thinker.
Nico: Harvard professor.
Zach: Harvard professor. He just happens to take nuanced and sometimes controversial views, whether it’s on affirmative action at one point in his career, on the use of the N-word at one point in his career, things of that sort, but the speakers I was inviting were speakers that I just fundamentally deeply disagreed with on big issues.
Nico: Such as?
Zach: Such as, one speaker I invited, Charles Murray, is known for writing a book called The Bell Curve in 1994.
Nico: Yeah, I’m sure most of my listeners will be familiar with him.
Zach: Right, the idea that there’s a difference when it comes to intelligence that can be observed between races. That’s the conclusion many have drawn from it.
Nico: Yeah, that the last chapter in his book, I believe.
Nico: The book – I haven’t read the book – is about how intelligent –
Zach: Class is a big deal. There’s a lot in there.
Nico: Yeah, how intelligence is going to play a greater role in society –
Zach: In society, right.
Nico: – or something, and it’s gonna start separating groups and individuals more because it’s an IQ basis society. It’s not like, who can pick up the biggest log and haul it down the river?
Zach: And, of course, people focus on one slice of the – I mean, that’s just how things work
Nico: Yeah, the race and IQ, which is the most controversial thing and has been controversial for a century.
Zach: Exactly, right. I invite him to campus and I disagree with the premise there, and – because, I mean, really, the reason why I disagree, even before it gets to the issue of race, is just because I think, from the reading that I’ve done and from what I’ve learned, and there’s certainly many experts who know more than I do about this, but intelligence is complicated. Howard Gardner is a psychologist at Harvard who came up with the theory of multiple intelligences, and so I think someone can be –
Nico: How much of it is heritable?
Zach: How much of it is heritable, how much of it is creativity, analytical, and critical thinking skills, different kinds of intelligence. For me, to say that one test means anything, that premise alone –
Nico: You wanted to bring him to campus –
Zach: Bring him to campus –
Nico: – to talk about it.
Zach: To talk about it, right, to engage and debate, and that was extremely difficult to do. That’s an example of a speaker that I brought, and that was the idea of Uncomfortable Learning. You bring these speakers, more or less big names, but big names isn’t necessarily the criteria. The criteria is that they are serious about serious arguments of some intellectual or political import in our time and that through engaging with them students will gain something.
Nico: Yeah, so what happened when you brought Charles Murray to campus? What was the response?
Zach: Everybody loved it. No, so there was significant pushback from the administration. I met with my colleagues –
Nico: Were you expecting that?
Zach: At that point, yes. At that point in time –
Nico: Because he wasn’t the first speaker you brought.
Zach: He was not the first speaker, he was not the second speaker, he was not the third speaker, so at that point, I’d been around this track a few times and I expected it, but my college president actually told me face-to-face beforehand, he was kind of grousing, saying, so you’re gonna bring Charles Murray. He knew before I had announced it –
Nico: Because other students around the country have been bringing Charles Murray, because he wrote a book, what was it, Coming Apart, that kind of spoke to the divide that many people perceive in America and that can – many people think can explain the rise of Trump.
Nico: He was doing the speaking circuit, he was coming to campus, but people weren’t – that wasn’t so controversial, that book, but his Bell Curve book was, so all of those appearances were framed by The Bell Curve.
Zach: Exactly, framed by the Bell Curve and that’s the – even though Coming Apart – there are some interesting things in here that need to be taken seriously.
Nico: I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard other people say that there are some really interesting insights.
Zach: There are, especially in terms of social and public policy, but what people still focus on and people still talk about is this two pages of The Bell Curve.
Nico: Yeah, from like 1991 or whenever it was published.
Zach: Exactly, right, 1994, and people don’t even talk about the coauthor at all, they just talk about him.
Nico: Well, he died before it was published, right?
Zach: He died right before it was published, Richard Herrnstein, he was a political scientist, so he doesn’t really get much credit for the controversy, it’s all Murray, but so I invited Murray to campus. You had administrative backlash, and that took the form of several deans, several administrators stepping in, and face-to-face with me going through all the reasons why they thought this was a terrible idea.
Nico: Well, tell me a little bit about Williams College. What is the zeitgeist there? Why would they be concerned about him coming to campus?
Zach: Williams College is a pretty liberal campus.
Nico: Western Massachusetts.
Zach: Western Massachusetts.
Zach: Rural, in the middle of nowhere, geographically dislocated.
Nico: You have to drive pretty far to go to a movie.
Zach: Oh, yeah, I mean, 45 minutes at least. You’ve got to go all the way to Albany.
Zach: And there are about six places to eat within two blocks of campus. There’s one Thai place. You got a Subway. You have McDonalds. That’s a sandwich shop, but that’s about it.
Nico: Fine dining, yep.
Zach: Exactly, right? This is where you’re located, and so, because you’re, in some sense, geographically dislocated, because you’re at a college that is very small, even among the liberal arts colleges –
Nico: How many students?
Zach: 2,300 in total. We’re talking roughly – each year’s a little different, but my year was about 560.
Nico: Okay, so that’s about as big as my high school.
Zach: Exactly. You see what I mean? Everything –
Nico: Yeah, and I knew most of the people in my high school, so everyone knows each other.
Zach: Everyone knows each other, you see the same people in the same spaces, chilling, relaxing, reading whatever, eating in the dining hall, right, and so everyone knows everyone, and what that means is that, unlike at, say, Syracuse or UCLA, anything controversial that happens at Williams, everyone knows about it. Everyone knows who’s responsible for it. Everyone knows who started it. Everyone – you see what I mean?
Zach: There’s always an easy whipping boy, basically, and I was –because I was the president of Uncomfortable Learning at the time, it was all kind of pinned on Zach as this controversial figure who is, in some sense, doing harm on campus. Now, there were some people who supported what I was doing. There were professors. There were –
Nico: Would they speak up, though, in defense of you?
Zach: Very few.
Nico: Yeah, what I find often is that you’ll get a lot of emails or comments behind closed doors that are in support of what you’re doing, but they’re not willing to put their skin in the game.
Zach: Exactly, and the thing is, I had great relationships with so many students there, I mean, lots of peers who I consider to this day close friends of mine, good friends of mine, but even many of them – some were just not really that engaged or interested in the political stuff, but some who were supportive would say, I really like what you’re doing, but, shh, keep it on the down-low. When Murray happens, when it takes place, there is a big, significant resistance and pushback, and backlash, basically, takes the form of Tweets, posts on Facebook. There was this thing, this app called Yik Yak. I don’t know if it’s still around.
Nico: Oh, I remember Yik Yak. No, it’s not around anymore, but it was –
Zach: It’s anonymous Twitter.
Nico: Yeah, more or less.
Zach: More or less.
Nico: Geographically –
Nico: – based, yeah, so if you are at Williams where there are not many students, it’s pretty rural, it’s anonymous, it’s the community talking, and you can’t see anyone outside.
Zach: You can say whatever you want. I can say whatever I want to say about you and you have no idea who said it. All you do is see it on the screen, so I was getting texts from friends every day, Zach, did you see the latest comment? Some people saying things like, Uncomfortable Learning was responsible for assassinating Abraham Lincoln, just crazy things, and then to more direct personal criticisms directed at me. I’ve been called a white supremacist, which makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
Nico: For our listeners who can’t see, Zach, he’s black.
Zach: Exactly, a range of –
Nico: There were some threats that I think you mentioned in your book.
Zach: There were some clear implicit threats that were made. There was a note slipped under my door. There was one note I found in my mail box at one point. I got calls from blocked numbers a few times. There were a range of things. No one ever said, I am going to kill you, that was never said, but the note that I received under my door had a picture that was very clear. It was referring to a lynching. You had leaves, a tree, and a noose hanging from it. It was very clear what the person intended, and it was actually very detailed. Someone had put time into this. I never found out who did it. I really didn’t make much of a – make a big deal.
Nico: Campus police didn’t get involved?
Zach: No, they didn’t. The way I thought about it was, this is a little concerning and I’ll be more aware of my surroundings, but I did not get the sense that I was in grave danger. If I was, I certainly would have taken other steps.
Nico: Charles Murray ended up coming, right?
Zach: He ended up coming.
Nico: But, previously, you had invited Suzanne Venker, who is critical of feminism.
Nico: You invited John Derbyshire who was kicked off of National Review for writing some racist commentary, and one or both of them were disinvited by President Falk. What’s his first name?
Zach: Adam Falk. That was my former college president. He and I had some deep disagreements.
Nico: He’s not there anymore?
Zach: He is not there anymore, and I personally think Williams is the better for it. He disinvited Derbyshire. That was a kind of unitary, direct executive decision, no consultation, nothing.
Nico: He tried to call you and let you know he was gonna do it, and then he sent a –
Zach: He tried to call me a few hours –
Nico: – a message to the university.
Zach: – before and then sent a message out to the whole student body saying, the group that has invited, as if people didn’t know which group, the group that has invited John Derbyshire, we have rescinded the invitation, and it will not be taking place. While we support debate, this is not what this was about and blah, blah, blah. With Suzanne Venker, that disinvite came from Uncomfortable Learning, but it was because of student pushback.
Nico: Yeah, the previous – so you were a part of the group, but you were not the only leader –
Nico: – there were many leaders.
Zach: Exactly, there were three leaders –
Nico: You said something like, it’s a democracy.
Zach: Exactly, and if you’ve got three people who are kind of running Uncomfortable Learning, really running the group, and two of them have been doing it for two, three years now, well, I’ve only been a part of the group for a year, and so they certainly have say in what’s going on, and so majority rules. Three people making the call, and two of the three wanted to disinvite, so we disinvited and in loyalty to the group, in loyalty to them, I would say, this is the decision we’ve made. While I personally was in favor of going forward with the event, I support my group’s decision.
Nico: Why get involved in this group? It must have made you uncomfortable being on campus, inviting these people, knowing that people in the cafeteria are probably looking at you from afar as, oh, there’s that guy who’s inviting John Derbyshire and Charles Murray. It must have been hard to feel a part of the community.
Zach: Definitely. I think, for me, it was, in some sense, I was wired to do something like that. A lot of it has to do with, I guess, how I was raised.
Nico: And I want to get into that.
Zach: Yeah, I mean, a family of educators, always being pushed to see things from different sides, to be prepared for arguments, for debates, for articulating my point of view, my mom stressing the importance of being a good listener, and being able to empathize. All of those things, for me, I think, brought me to a point where, when I arrived at Williams college in the fall of 2014, I was eager to take on difficult intellectual challenges and to see what I could gain from them, because every conversation I had, no matter how much I tried to listen actively and intently, you weren’t always going to make the same progress with each individual.
Nico: Yeah, well, your background, again, I want to get into it a little bit, would suggest someone who wouldn’t be uncomfortable with uncomfortable conversation, but it doesn’t necessarily foretell you becoming an activist –
Nico: – for uncomfortable conversations.
Zach: No, it doesn’t. Right, that’s true. Some of that also is just things that – how I – intellectually, how I developed through the years, and so, me seeing – wanting to be engaged in political issues in my future, wanting to be engaged with public life, wanting to be a part of public life, to me, I said, you know what, these are issues I can’t shy away from. These are concerns and grievances, and challenges that we face in our time, that I want to be prepared to handle, and I’ll never be able to do a perfect job, but maybe I’ll be able to be more effective in creating change if I take this on in college.
Nico: Were you sensing what was happening on college campuses across the country when you became involved in Uncomfortable Learning or was this as everything was starting percolate and the issue became hot, and you just happened to become involved in a group like this at the time when journalist at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are writing about it?
Zach: When I first got involved with Uncomfortable Learning, I did not understand free speech as a broad banner, significant issue on campus. Free speech was something that I knew about, I’d read the work of a few constitutional legal scholars.
Nico: What was this, 2014-ish?
Zach: It was 2014-ish, yeah.
Nico: Yeah, that’s before the Yale controversy with Nicholas Christakis, that’s before the protests at University of Missouri when these issues became hot.
Zach: Exactly, so I was aware of the fact that there had been some issues about what could be said, and I’d heard things like a bias incident, I’d heard of –
Nico: Maybe free speech zone.
Zach: Free speech zones, I’ve heard of a safe space, but it was not the defining issue or one of the defining issues of my generation, really. And so, when I get involved, I get involved out of personal interest, kind of a philosophical commitment to the market of ideas, being engaged in the market of ideas, trying to further develop and refine my own scene. Where does my mind change? Why hasn’t my mind changed? What are the nuances and complexities of things that kind of hold the attention and interest of many?
That was what led me to the work and that was what sustained my commitment to it, and then I guess some of this was a part of my personality, but if I believe in something and I am pushing for something, advocating for something, and it happens to not be easy to do so, I am not the kind of person who’s just gonna stop doing it because it’s difficult. And so, that’s how this unfolded into a saga of some sort.
Nico: In your book, you talk about how you did a lot of news interviews, reporters would reach out to you and talk about what was happening at Williams and across the country, and at one point there was a reporter who asked you, more or less, the same question I just asked you, why are you doing this, what makes you different, what makes you one of the three people at Williams who wants to become a part of Uncomfortable Learning and invite these people to campus, and he or she asked, are you just wired differently?
In your book, that’s your segue into talking about all the stuff you had to deal with growing up, which – this is a memoir that takes you from the time you must be like a toddler through present day and I’ve read a lot of memoirs in, especially, your earlier life. It’s moving, and I’ve known you for a couple years. I knew none of this. I see you every day, you’re wearing a suit and tie, you’re one of the most articulate guys I know, but you had a lot of challenges coming up, and the book almost reminds me of J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, understanding a way someone else lives because I grew up upper middle class.
I did not have the challenges you had, and I’ve never seen those sorts of challenges from this perspective before, so let’s start with growing up with your mom outside Detroit. Your mom had a mental health issue that was very tough for you to understand growing up.
Zach: Exactly, so she was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder when I was 10, and schizoaffective disorder is basically a combination of the symptoms of schizophrenia, paranoid schizophrenia, and bipolar. That means you’ve got mood swings, paranoid delusions, an extremely volatile, unpredictable personality, so what this meant was that, even though she was diagnosed when I was ten, from the point that my parents got divorced when I was three and I lived with my mom, saw my dad a few times a week –
Nico: He was in Washington D.C.
Zach: Right, and then when we moved to Detroit, I saw him less frequently, but what this meant, my mom’s illness, was that every day I would wake up and I wouldn’t know. Was she gonna be happy or sad? Was she gonna be angry and upset? Was she gonna be – I had to read signs and I had to pay very close attention to certain behavioral queues, learn to read her eyes, her behavior, what she was saying, what she wasn’t saying.
Nico: Because you didn’t want to exacerbate things –
Zach: Absolutely not.
Nico: – and you also thought that you were the cause of it.
Zach: Yeah, because when you’re younger and your mom is so upset over dropping your fork at the dinner table, you just can’t understand, why is she so mad at me all the time, and any child, any young child, you want a positive, loving, nurturing relationship with your mom.
Zach: A stable relationship with your mom, and when that is not manifested, when that’s not what you have, and what you have is closer to the opposite of that, you can’t help but wonder, am I the problem? And so, I spent so much of my childhood thinking about how I could be a better son, a more caring, more loving son, a more understanding son.
And so, even when there were times where I really resented what my mother did and resented her for the things she did, I was always still thinking, how can I be more understanding? How can I be more empathic? How can I show her that I love her and care about her and just make our relationship better? What was always a concern, and so, essentially, the affect was it made me a very conscientious person where I was constantly aware of everything I did and said, how I said it, and all this stuff.
Nico: Yeah, did you have a sense at the time that your home life was different?
Zach: Yes. No, I certainly –
Nico: Well, you started – I think you started in a public school, but then you got in to some of these elite private schools and you saw how your friends lived with gated communities, huge manors or mansions.
Zach: Right, yeah. I should say, to my mother’s credit, the reason why I ended up on the private school track, in large part, I had done well on a standardized test, and so it was mentioned before my mom made this move, but my teacher wrote on my progress report that, Zach asks a lot of questions and the fact that he is asking these questions is a little disruptive, and these were all serious questions about the stuff that we were reading, but I would read stuff that was not assigned, that might have challenged or complicated what we were assigned to read in class, and so my mom was like, this is not the kind of education I want my son to receive, you should be encouraged to explore your curiosity and take on more –
Nico: And she was a scholar herself, she had a master’s degree, she graduated from college.
Zach: Exactly, she – all but dissertation at one point, so she went all the way to get her PhD, and so she said, I’m gonna put you in a private school, you’re not going to stay in a school where you’re just encouraged to be obedient and get your work done on time, so I give her credit for that.
Nico: Yeah, but the relationship, you had started to – it had started to deteriorate –
Zach: It did, yeah.
Nico: – and you started to recognize it more as you got older and you started talking with people about the relationship. Your mom was making you uncomfortable, asking very private things about your sex life –
Zach: Yep, exactly.
Nico: – and eventually that resulted in child protective services coming to your home.
Zach: Exactly. When I got the point that I was toward the end of middle school, it was eighth grade, and I’m no longer just interested in girls, but actually want to date someone and things like this, my mom became extremely invasive. She wanted to know everything, every text message I sent, every phone call I made. If I was just gonna go up the street to get a slice of pizza from this place, she thought maybe I’m sneaking around to go see my girlfriend, this girlfriend I have.
Nico: Yeah, it’s like she’s jealous.
Zach: Exactly, it was like she was jealous, and so she became incredibly invasive, and it became very clear to me after a series of events that I was not going to be able to stay with my mom, and really developed into the person that I think in some sense she really wanted me to be. That would not be possible if I were to stay with her. There would be too much anxiety, too much stress, too much invasion of my privacy, and there were forms of abuse going on, emotionally and psychologically.
Nico: That you didn’t recognize as abuse until someone actually said the word.
Zach: Exactly, and when they first said it, I was like, no, that’s not the case, and so – because I wanted to kind of resist that label. I didn’t like the idea of that. Once I came to terms with that, I recognized that the best thing for me, for my personal aspirations of going as far as I can with my interest in the life of the mind, and things of that nature, was to leave my mom’s custody and then go, if possible, and live with my father.
Nico: Which you did.
Zach: I did.
Nico: And that brought challenges all their own.
Zach: Other challenges, oh, yeah.
Nico: I mean, your dad comes across as a hero in the book. This is a guy who works three jobs, works from early morning –
Zach: There is no more hardworking person that I know of. I mean, this guy had three, four jobs at once, delivering newspapers, working as an accounts payable coordinator, doing valet, doing Uber once he got a car. I mean, there is nothing my dad would not do to ensure that I and my sister have greater life chances than he did.
Nico: Yeah, and he would work from early in the morning, then not get home until 2:00.
Zach: Yeah, people think I don’t sleep a lot. That’s where I get it from.
Nico: Yeah, and he was living with your grandmother and your uncle, I believe.
Zach: Grandmother, Uncle, yep.
Nico: In Anacostia –
Nico: – which is a rougher part of Washington D.C, and the things you were telling me about home, it sounds like a very loving environment, but poor, you got leaks in the roof every time it rains, you have a floor –
Zach: Weak floorboards in the kitchen, and my grandmother has diabetes, and so the medication she takes makes her gain weight, and we don’t really even have any money, even now, for certain things, conveniences that would be helpful for her to have, and so she’s got to kind of tiptoe around the kitchen. This was when I was in high school.
Nico: Yeah, she was a janitor and a janitorial supervisor.
Zach: Exactly, and that was just extremely difficult to see, to see her have to do that just to get to the refrigerator to cook or make a sandwich, or do whatever she was gonna do. She’s got to go through these weak floorboards, and we’re worried about the floor caving in. You’ve got things like that in your mind every day.
Nico: And the basement has got like mold and mildew because it’s wet.
Zach: Mold and mildew. Exactly and there are leaks everywhere. At one point, there was a leak at the top of the steps. There’s a leak over the sink, there was a big hole in the ceiling.
Nico: No money to fix the foundation.
Zach: No money to fix the foundation and the house is in utter disrepair and has been for 15 years now. You see what I mean? That was just this kind of daily thing hanging over my head on top of the commute, and taking all these classes and all that.
Nico: Yeah, so amidst all of this, you’re sleeping on the floor next to your dad who’s sleeping on a five-foot couch, he’s six feet tall, your parents, your mom and your dad, still wanted you to get that exemplary education and you had the intellectual chops to do it, and there was this school in Potomac, Maryland, two hours by public transportation to get to, and you would go there, you would take the subway, you’d catch the bus in a very rough part of town, people are aggressive, you were assaulted at one point, and you’d got there, and you’d spend your day there, and then you had to get home after doing all these extracurriculars.
I lived here. I live in Arlington. I work in Washington D.C. I’ve got a 30-minute commute. I’m tired when I get home at the end of the day. I couldn’t even imagine what it was like for you. You were –
Zach: Oh, man.
Nico: – reading journal articles, you’re reading books, you had this drive to succeed and overcome everything that’s going on in your life, and also try to not let anyone see it, because you didn’t want to be viewed that way.
Zach: Exactly. I wanted to come to school and be seen as the student who was ready to go, who was prepared to answer the questions that the teachers had in class. My favorite courses were history and English and so I wanted to be able to anticipate the questions and be ready for the questions. I wanted to be a leading contributor in class discussions. I wanted to be a student tutor. That was something I really valued, was being able to help my peers, and so trying to tutor and help and being an ambassador and a peer mentor; I held six or seven leadership positions at one point.
I was involved in Model UN because it was the closest thing to a debate society, and I was interested in politics and international relations, so it fit perfectly, and I prepared for these Model UN conferences, and so I’m doing all of these things, juggling all these responsibilities on top of three APs and four honors courses, and in this commute, there was a point there where it was just extremely overwhelming, and I described this scene in the book where it took a physical toll at one point and I ended up in the hospital because I wanted to stay up and read all this stuff.
Nico: Yeah, you got so exhausted you needed to be taken to the hospital. You collapsed next to your bed as you were studying. You talk about how you had to code switch. What does it mean to code switch and tell me about some of the environments that you were in and what that meant and how you had to change your personality to sometimes get home safely?
Zach: Safely, right. Code switching meant that when I was on my way home, or even on the first quarter to the first half of my commute from home to school, because of the environment I was in, because of the community I was in, and the people who were in the space at that time, I had to say less. I had to change my demeanor. I had to comport myself a little bit differently, walk differently. Why? Because it was almost like they could smell fear or smell weakness, or smell the fact that I didn’t quite come from the neighborhood.
Nico: These are the people hanging out on the street or on the corner?
Zach: Exactly, and so, if you’re worried, well, is there a chance I might be robbed? Is there a chance I might be hurt? Is there a chance I might end up in an altercation with someone? Some people say when you hear these things, oh, that’s a stereotype and you shouldn’t think that, but it is a very real thing when you’re in a community that is under-resourced and you know that crime and violence are adjacent to where you are that you just become very aware.
I mean, I lived in a community where if I walked three or four blocks from where my actual home was and I looked at someone the wrong way, that could lead to me being killed, and I understood that, and so, because of that, you become hyperaware. My mom already made me a pretty critically vigilant person, and so I was paying attention to people’s body language and you just –
Nico: And you stuck out like a sore thumb. You’re wearing a private school uniform, you had a backpack.
Zach: Oh, yeah, always walking around with a book, and I didn’t have contacts until my junior year, so I’ve got glasses on, all this, and I looked like I was a studious kid, and that was not the norm. It wasn’t cool to be intellectual.
Nico: You said some people said it was that you were acting white.
Zach: You’re acting white, exactly. The one thing I learned was that part of code switching was, when you encountered someone, you knew how to diffuse the situation. You talked the way that they talk, but you don’t try to aggress upon them in any way, you don’t try to challenge them in any way.
Nico: It seems like your go to line was, I don’t want any trouble, man.
Zach: Exactly, yes. I would call him, you’re the boss, you’re the boss, whatever you – you defer, respectfully, and you don’t show that you’re afraid, because if you show that you’re afraid, then some people might think they can take advantage of you in some way, but you just respectfully diffuse the situation, no disrespect, boss, whatever you want.
Nico: It’s in this environment that you rise up through it and you end up at Williams. Why did you choose Williams after you gradated?
Zach: For me, part of it was you have this thing called tutorial courses, which sounded like the idyllic intellectual engagement for me.
Nico: Tutorial courses, they have those at Williams?
Zach: Oh, yes. At Williams, you have these things called tutorial courses, which is where you would basically have – let’s say you’re the professor, it would be me and one other student, one other peer, and we would be – we could be discussing the work of Walt Whitman or William James, or whomever, and we would get into the details, the nitty-gritty stuff.
Nico: You appear and the professor.
Zach: And the professor, and the idea was that, one week, I would write a primary paper and my partner would write a critique of it, and then we would alternate, and so I love this. I mean, this was perfect for me, and so once I found out about this, I started saying, is that an option at Harvard? Because Harvard had always been in my mind as the school that is most well-known for being the best school. Whether it necessarily is or not, it’s a great school of course, but I thought that if I went to Williams College, I would be the first-rate priority to my professors.
I didn’t think that if I went to Williams, their top priority would be being on CNN or their next big research fund, or their grad students. I knew that, at a liberal arts college, the top liberal arts college, my education, my learning, my developing relationships with my professors was something that’d be taken seriously, and so, in the end, beyond rankings, beyond a visit, it wasn’t the location. It was the –
Nico: And was all that stuff true after you got to Williams? Do you feel as though you got that sort of interest and attention from your professors, and did that interest and attention wane when you became a controversial figure on campus?
Zach: Great question, I would say, the first thing I should note is that I took eight of these tutorials in my first two years and that was an absurd number and I got –
Nico: Were those classes, did you get class credit for them or were they ancillary to the main class?
Zach: No, these were class credits. They were seen as the most intense courses you could take.
Nico: And you’d meet once a week or something.
Zach: You’d meet once a week and there’s actually a record. The record was nine in four years, and so, at one point, I was like, I’m gonna take way more, but then I went to Columbia for a year, so I took eight in my first two years and I just love this. I couldn’t get enough of it. You get the debate, you get the engagement, you get to focus on the details, every question you have, you get to discuss, and so I had great discussions about poets. I had great discussions about Richard Wright, about James Baldwin.
Nico: Were you an English major?
Zach: Well, so I majored in politics, but I took courses in psychology, English, and anthropology, a range. Some of the best discussions I had in college were about Sigmund Freud in this tutorial I took on Freud, so there was rigorous, intellectual engagement. There was rigorous debate. However, outside the context of these tutorials, which, typically, someone taking a tutorial was prepared for that and was taking it because they were interested, in kind of fleshing out tensions between ideas and concepts –
Nico: Yeah, so the students that were there were –
Zach: Set and ready to go, right? They were there for a reason. Broadly speaking, on campus, whether it’s in dorms or dining halls, the general feel, vibe, right, of the campus climate was that people were less open to debating sensitive things, things like, how do you explain achievement gaps between races in terms of test scores and things like that, things like how you address issues of racial inequality, how you address gender inequality, how you address people who want to break the gender binary and don’t really believe in just there being male and female, but any number of other identities.
Nico: Why were you interested in talking about this stuff?
Zach: Because it matters in society right now. I’m someone who’s a big –inequality. Income inequality matters to me.
Nico: Yeah, you’ve experienced it.
Zach: Yeah, social mobility and economic opportunity matter to me. Gender inequality matters to me. These are issues I want to address and I hope in the future to be a part of creating positive change with respect to these areas, and so, for me, that meant making the most of my four years on a college campus in terms of having that kind of intellectual discourse that would help me gain a better understanding, so that meant having tough conversations. That meant talking to people who it was gonna be a little difficult to reach them.
It was a very slow process, and there were times where I’d sit down and I’d talk to someone for an hour and a half, and we would not – neither of us with modify our positions at all, but I think the person walked away understanding, wow, Zach Wood is really serious about this, and I walked away understanding that this person is not opposed to Uncomfortable Learning because they just don’t like ideas or they don’t like learning. They’re opposed to it because their very traumatic personal experiences that they’ve had that make it extremely difficult for them to accept the idea of having someone who questions the number of sexual assaults on campus.
Nico: How empathetic were you to those arguments? Because you see this in the free speech world a lot, that to hear certain arguments for some people is an attack on them personally and causes – has a physical manifestation in them, it’s harmful to them, and their safety. You didn’t have it so easy yourself, so there are two ways that somebody like yourself could respond. You could be very empathetic to that or you can be very dismissive and be like, I’ve had those same experiences. They might have been even worse than yours. I’ve been able to overcome them. Part of dealing with them is gaining a sort of resilience. How did you respond in these situations?
Zach: The first thing was kind of putting my skills to the test and kind of doing what my mom taught me to do, which was listen first and ask questions that will give you a better understanding of the other person. I never wanted to be someone who just talked about engaging in –
Zach: Yeah, just lectured about – I wanted to practice what I preached.
Nico: Yeah, so you took the Ben Franklin approach, which is just ask questions.
Zach: Exactly, I would ask questions, so if I were talking to you about a sensitive topic or an issue that you didn’t think of, a controversial speaker should be on campus speaking about, my first few questions would be, so when did you develop that understanding? Are there significant life experiences that you’re open to sharing or conversations that led you to that viewpoint? I get a better understanding of you so that you don’t think I’m just here to persuade and convince and win and dominate the conversation.
Now, there were times where it was clear someone was just there to debate and they just wanted to debate so that we could get straight to it, that’s what they wanted to do, but so that was the tact I would take. In terms of how empathetic I was, even though I was kind of firm in my convictions, in my beliefs about what should be done on campus and the approach we should take, I was very interested in in trying to convey that I did not expect this to be easy for people, and that there really are a number of legitimate reasons for it to be difficult.
Now, just because I think it’s difficult does not mean that I don’t think it should happen, but there are legitimate reasons for why it would be difficult for some students, minorities to hear someone like Charles Murray on campus, and there are reasons that would be apparent to those students that might not be apparent to a number of professors, and I think that is a conversation we should have. Where I would end up disagreeing, for the most part, with that person is that even though I understood where they were coming from, my kind of endpoint would be, and so I totally understand if you don’t want to come to the talk, but I do think there should be a space for those who want to engage in that kind of thing.
We shouldn’t shut the space down just because this is grievous or challenging for –
Nico: But, did you ever talk to them about their emotional mindset in engaging with speech or their reaction to certain speech, the idea being that how you think about something can change? It seems for you that you’re not afraid of an argument. An argument isn’t going to wound you because you’re not gonna let it wound you because you believe you have agency that’s separate from the arguments people are making, and the only way to overcome them is to defeat them in the gauntlet of intellectual discourse.
Zach: Right, so, I mean, I would try to kind of acknowledge and stay mindful of the fact that people have different proclivities, different capacities, different interests, different ways of dealing with things, and so I could never expect every person to say, yeah, let’s debate, let’s do it right now. I could not expect everyone to do that, but I could explain the virtues of discomfort, intellectual discomfort. I could explain the virtues of testing your conclusions, of rethinking firmly held beliefs, questioning your assumptions and presuppositions.
I could explain those things and I could try to do it in a way that was intelligible, in a way that might be more relatable, and so with respect to the emotional mindset, I mean, look, it’s clear to me I think some are healthier than others. I think that there’s a good way of – I think that there are a number of good ways of going about handling Charles Murray on campus if you don’t want him to be there. Write an op-ed in the school newspaper about why you don’t think he should be there. Use speech. Write an article saying, Zach Wood, I get what you’re doing, but hold on. Hold it, hold it, these are my three or four reasons why I don’t think he should be here, and I would love to sit down and talk with you about it, or you can create a protest beforehand.
As long as the protest is not disrupting or interfering with his right and ability to actually articulate his views when he arrives, I have no problem with you having a protest of some sort. I’d probably come to it check it out and I’d try to talk to people.
Nico: If the administration would let you have it.
Zach: If the administration would let you have it, but you see what I’m saying? There are a number ways to exercise dissent. Show up. This is, of course, the one that I favor the most. Show up and listen closely, and surprise him with the question that he hasn’t been asked, or say, you know what, on this page of your book, you say this and I think here, this is what I think are the likely conclusions to be drawn from it, and my horse sense tells me this is a bad idea because these are the kinds of ideas it propagates in society and I have an issue with it. Tell him that, you know what I mean?
Nico: Yeah. There was a moment – you’ve been to FIRE summer conferences before.
Zach: Yeah, I have.
Nico: And there was one two years ago.
Zach: I recommend them. I recommend them to many students, yeah.
Nico: Yes, please. You can go to thefire.org, and I don’t know that we’re announcing or taking registrations for next summer’s conference, but just monitor it. You came to one conference.
Zach: I did, yeah.
Nico: And you asked a really great question of one of our keynote speakers.
Nico: You might know what I’m about to ask you, is Jason Riley –
Nico: – your former colleague at The Wall Street Journal, he’s a conservative, black intellectual, and you asked him a very Zach Wood question.
Zach: Exactly, yeah.
Nico: You said, if I’m recalling it correctly, what is one argument made by someone with whom you disagree that has really stung you that has really made you reconsider –
Zach: That you’ve learned from, exactly.
Nico: – your premises that you’ve learned from?
Zach: I asked him for two. Exactly, yeah.
Nico: And I’ll never forget it. He wasn’t able to respond.
Zach: He was not able to respond, yeah.
Nico: He didn’t have an intellectual opponent with whom he could articulate something he disagreed with but learned something from, or maybe even changed his mind, and that was – I spent that entire night thinking, when have I changed my mind? If someone was gonna ask me that question and I want to be a serious intellectual, I better have a response, because as Alice Dreger, former Northwestern University professor, once said, if you’ve never changed your mind recently, how do you know it’s working?
Nico: And so, I’d thought of some things and I’m pretty confident I’d be able to articulate some things I’ve changed my mind on, especially in the era of Donald Trump, but what did you think after that?
Zach: Yeah, I was just – I was a little disappointed because he’s a smart guy who’s given this talk many times, but I wanted to know. Who are – he is well-read.
Nico: Smart cat, yeah.
Zach: He’s a very smart guy, yeah.
Nico: He’s been on this podcast.
Zach: Yeah, it was clear he had thought through his argument. I wanted to know, can you give me two examples of arguments from liberal thinkers, philosophers, commentators, political figures that have really stumped you, that have challenged you, that have made you pause and backpedal and say, I’m not sure this position or the logical flow of this argument makes sense, and so when he didn’t have an answer, I was like, hmm, okay, and then also when he kind of evaded answering the question. He kind of slid past the question, and so I thought that that was useful. I thought that that was important for people to see.
Nico: It was important for me. That question, even though there wasn’t a satisfactory answer, the question forced me to ask myself, how would I answer?
Zach: Exactly, right, and so that’s the approach that I hope students, especially – again, I understand everyone’s different. Some people want to be artists and painters or pianists. Some people want to be schoolteachers. Some people want to be political figures. Some people want to be scholars. Some people want to come and work for an organization like FIRE. People want to do different things, and because of that, I’m not expecting everybody to be interest in coming to hear Jason Riley speak, whom I invited to Williams, by the way.
Nico: Did you?
Zach: Yeah, I invited him to Williams.
Nico: How’d that go?
Zach: Because of the timing of the talk, he didn’t receive as large of an audience as one would have expected, but there was serious dialogue, I, again, asked a few questions, and I asked him a question about something he’d said about Thomas Sowell and welfare policy.
Nico: The conservative economist.
Zach: Economist, exactly. And so, there was a good discussion afterwards, very good discussion.
Nico: What does success look like for Uncomfortable Learning at Williams? Actually, let me rephrase the question. Do you feel like the effort, everything you went through at Williams, to see Uncomfortable Learning bring controversial speakers to campus and hopefully encourage students to engage in the dialogue that you wanted to see – was it successful in retrospect? Did you move the needle on campus towards more open discourse in talking across lines of difference? You graduated this year.
Zach: Right, I graduated in June of this year. I think that there was a point in which you had 20 students on campus who would have never been interested in thinking about Chris Christie’s platform when he ran for office, who were interested in thinking about Chris Christie’s platform.
I think you had maybe 20 to 50 students or so who were not interested in thinking about what Jason Riley had to say, but were actually reading and thinking about an article that I sent out in an email to people, because I had worked so hard at one point while I was on campus meeting with people individually, trying to explain the virtues of what I was doing, and trying to show them this wasn’t just about my intellectual engagement, but about the Williams community, about, really, in some sense, the efficacy of me and my peers when we get out in the world in terms of our ability to affect change right, to pursue issues of justice and equality right, and to promote those things in effective ways.
And so, when I was doing that work at its peak, I think I was making some difference, even if only individually. I never changed the broader campus community in the ways that I’d hoped. It was too difficult.
Nico: Yeah, have you seen this response to the effort by some faculty to get the Chicago Statement passed at Williams? Chicago Statement, for our listeners who are not familiar with it, is a statement that was written by a group of people at the University of Chicago, I believe 2014, early 2015, that articulated a vision for a liberal arts university –
Zach: Exemplary, right.
Nico: – that privileged academic freedom and free speech as a way to learn, and I think something like close to 50 or above 50 universities have adopted a form of this statement and some faculty members at Williams, wanted to get it passed, but there was a response from students. Had you heard about this?
Zach: I had. I had actually received two interview requests for it.
Zach: Before this, yeah.
Nico: Because I had a hard time believing it was real, not because the arguments in it seemed unreal.
Nico: It was circulating through a Google Doc, and so I want to ask someone who is –
Zach: Right, is this real?
Nico: – more connected to the community than me. Is this actually –
Zach: You notice I’m mentioned indirectly in there at the end.
Nico: I know.
Zach: They throw me a bone.
Nico: Yeah, so let’s actually read through it if we think it’s real.
Zach: Yeah, it’s real, it’s real.
Nico: The arguments the students are making against the Chicago Statement, so this will take a minute. I’m just quoting a few passages here that I think are representative. Recently, a petition has circulated throughout the faculty urging the College to adopt a statement released by the University of Chicago in 2015, which claims to defend the right to free speech and free expression on college campuses, and the students are angry in the first couple of paragraphs because they weren’t involved in the process of petitioning for the statement.
They say, allowing students into the discussion and circulation of the petition limits the potential for conflicting viewpoints and is this completely antithetical to a free speech premise. And then they go on to say, with increasing visible violence towards the most marginalized by our society, why is this discussion happening now? Free speech, which they put in quotation marks, as a term has been co-opted by right-wing and liberal parties as a discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism.
They continue, why can’t we actually have a campus-wide discussion on this issue, one that is not dominated by conservative and white faculty? Can this instead be an opportunity to take a critical eye to how free speech is constructed and weaponized at institutions like Williams? They continue later, and while the University of Chicago statement says that students, quote, may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject, close quote, the issue is that these are not views we reject, and this gets back to something we were talking about earlier. They say, they are views that reject us and our very right to speak/breathe, and this is where they start talking about you indirectly.
Who does this campus prioritize and who does this statement truly aim to protect? John Derbyshire is a self-proclaimed, quote, racist, end quote, homophobe who was invited to speak at Williams by Uncomfortable Learning, and Zach Wood, in 2016.
Zach: I was flattered, really.
Nico: They continue, Adam Falk, who was the president at the time, disinvited Derbyshire to campus, but a free speech absolutism policy like the one in this petition would have limited the president and allowed Derbyshire to spew homophobia and anti-black racism on campus. They continue, who are we okay with making uncomfortable? Why are we so driven to making those particular people uncomfortable? If we are so insistent on making them uncomfortable, then at least we need some institutional support to get through all the discomfort that you are thrusting upon us. It continues, and then at the bottom is a list of signatories.
Zach: Right, they got quite a number.
Nico: Yeah, I didn’t count but there were –
Nico: Yeah, and you never want to say that this sort of view is representative of the whole campus because you just don’t know.
Zach: Right, no. There were a few names on there I was shocked to see, actually.
Nico: Really? You knew them?
Zach: I knew them, yeah.
Nico: Some friends or –
Zach: Yeah, not all of them, but I knew some of them.
Nico: Yeah, so what was your response?
Zach: I mean I disagree.
Nico: Yeah, obviously.
Zach: I strongly – right, I disagree strongly. There’s one point in there that I think is important to acknowledge, and Jeffrey Stone, a professor at UChicago –
Nico: Who drafted the Chicago Statement.
Zach: Exactly – has noted this. There is a sense in which political correctness has been used by some on the right. It’s used in ways on the left too, but it’s politicized. This this whole issue of free speech is politicized, and for some on the right, there are some who are concerned about debate and intellectual discourse on campus and the life of the mind and so forth, but there are some people out there who this is a political battle, and because conservative views are in the minority on some college campuses, it’s important for that reason.
Nico: So, they say that there’s conservative faculty at Williams. How many are there?
Zach: There’s one person who, if you ask him, he’ll say he’s conservative in the political science department. Now, there may be some visiting professors there since I’ve left that I don’t know about, but there might be five, four, four or five, and then a number of moderate centrist liberals. The majority is about where Hillary Clinton stands, Barack Obama stands, politically down the line.
Nico: And they seem to criticize –
Zach: And then some Bernie supporters.
Nico: – those people. As well as being neoliberal, they say liberal ideology asserts that morality is logical, that dehumanizing ideas can be fixed with logic and therefore needed to be debated, so it seems like their critique is from the left of the left.
Zach: Right, so basically, what I gave you was the one point in there that I think is valid that should be addressed. The overwhelming majority of the statement, I disagree with. I think we should acknowledge that there are points in time in which this debate is politicized by some, but that there are a lot of people out there who are really concerned about the fact that it’s become increasingly difficult to have difficult conversations on campus, and I think it just – I am sympathetic to some of the grievances.
They talked about the visibility of seeing minorities. I forget exactly how they phrased it, but we do live in a time where, videos of police misconduct, you see them often on social media, and me, coming from Ward 8 in Washington DC, that’s something that hits home, that I’ve seen. That’s a conversation I’ve had with my parents, so I understand some of the grievances and concerns, but I don’t think – no, I don’t think that having Charles Murray on campus denies their right to speak or their right to breathe. That’s just not true. It’s not accurate.
Nico: I never had –
Zach: It’s a distortion of –
Nico: I never had the same experiences as you –
Nico: – or many of these students, so for me, it seems as though a protection of free speech, which is, in essence, in my mind, I believe, a protection for the minority, you do not need a First Amendment to protect views that the majority favors. The vote, democracy protects those sorts of things, but it seems as though they’re arguing when they say, with increasingly visible violence towards those most marginalized by our society, why is this discussion happening now, it’s either you either discuss about the visible violence or you discuss free speech. It’s a zero-sum game.
Zach: Right. Yeah, you can’t discuss it. Right, exactly.
Nico: So, where are they seeing the connection?
Zach: The connection between –
Nico: Free speech and the sort of violence that they think we should be talking about. I think they see John Derbyshire, for example, and they say –
Zach: That’s free speech, yeah.
Nico: Yeah, that’s free speech, and it’s also free speech that it happens to be harmful to this cause, which is the cause of marginalized communities on whom visible violence is being done.
Zach: There’s this one aspect of it that I think is kind of left out of the discussion, and I think that there was a time where the goal of more progressive factions on university – university campuses, the goal was to increase the presence of minorities. That was one of the goals, and there’s a sense in which that’s still the goal, but it’s gone a step further where now the goal is, everyone has to feel included, everyone has to feel welcome, everyone has to feel like they belong, and if Zach says that he does not feel like he belongs because the expression of a particular viewpoint harms him, causes psychological trauma, let’s just play along with the argument for a minute –
Nico: Yeah, of course.
Zach: – causes psychological trauma, we can’t have this because we want Zach, a student, an African-American student from a disadvantaged community, to feel welcome. You see logic –
Nico: Zach can never feel as though he belongs.
Zach: Exactly, we have –
Nico: If there is someone here who –
Zach: You’ve got it. You’ve got it, and that is where – that is the error and I don’t think we frame it in that way, and I think it’s illuminating when we do. The error is that the tone, in some sense, is really set by professors and administrators, so yes, you see the complaints and the petitions and so forth often put forward by students. You get some students like this who tend to be pretty far to the left who would say things like someone like me should have been punished while I was at Williams, and suspended or something for inviting him.
Nico: And you never were.
Zach: I never was, but they would suggest that that should happen. The tone is set by professors who don’t permit certain things being said in their class. The tone is set by –
Nico: Did that ever happen?
Zach: Yeah, the tone is set by professors who, when you – on the first day in their class, they say, well, I know everyone in here is on the left, and so we really don’t need to discuss that stupid point of view.
Nico: I’ve heard that from other –
Zach: They say stuff like that.
Nico: I never experienced that in my classrooms, I went to Indiana University, but I have heard students talk about that, having that sort of experience in a particular sort of class, like my buddy Coleman Hughes at Columbia talked about how there was certainly philosophy classes –
Zach: I was in a class with Coleman.
Nico: Were you, really?
Nico: Were you in that class?
Zach: It was called Darwinism.
Nico: Oh, okay.
Zach: Yeah, a little less contentious than some of the others he’s written about.
Nico: Yeah, he wrote an article about one such class in which there were certain topics off-limits for Heterodox Academy. I believe it was a blog post and I’ll try and remember to put that in the show notes, but it’s astounding to me that in a university, not only are certain topics off-limits, but if you bring them up, you’ll almost be vilified.
Nico: Where do we go from here? What are you doing now? Actually, I want to ask you this, and feel free to not answer.
Zach: No, yeah, sure.
Nico: You open up your life, you open up your soul in this book. You open up your family. What has that response been like from your family, from those people close to you, to writing a tell-all, more or less? You do things in the book to kind of protect some people, change name, do composite characters, but I imagine most of it is true-to-life.
Zach: Exactly, it is, and –
Nico: You make some mistakes in the course of your life, too, that you’re very open about.
Zach: Exactly, I’m very – I try to be transparent and upfront about things, and where I need to protect identities, I try to do so, but it has been, all in all, the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. Writing the book and then knowing just that it’s on a shelf –
Nico: Well, why did you feel like you had to do it?
Zach: I didn’t feel like I had to, but I felt like, for someone who cares about the life of the mind, for someone who cares about having influence, for someone who wants to pursue a career in public service, for someone who values communicating with people individually in larger groups, for someone who wants to be a part of conversations about race and class, and inequality, and healthcare, and opportunity and access to greater education, I think that there might be some value, even if it’s small in me sharing my story, and –
Nico: I think it absolutely is. I think people better connect with stories than they do abstract philosophical or policy arguments, and I learned, honestly, more about what it means to live in a poor impoverished neighborhood or to live with someone with a mental illness from your story than I would from any sort of abstract argument about, for example, welfare policy or social policy in poor neighborhoods. I hear about Ward 8 all the time on NPR here in the district, but never has the impact and understanding of what the average person or what some people in that community have to go through on a day-to-day basis just to get by, so in that sense, it was very valuable to me thank.
Zach: Thank you.
Nico: But, you’re Zach Wood, you got to live with a family who you talk about in some in depth ways.
Zach: My mom was not a fan. There was some sense in which –
Nico: She read it?
Zach: She read it. She read it before it came out. I tried to find a way to facilitate that and make sure that happened. I am sure – I think, I can’t be certain of this, but I get the sense that, in some sense or another, she is proud of the fact that her son, at 22, is able to write a book, and to address these issues that he cares about, but that the only thing she can do is kind of be in this state of denial with respect to the story, and there’s a sense in which I could have written a portrayal of my mom that is extremely favorable and completely untrue and she would still have been upset with something. That’s just how she is.
Nico: She comes off as a complex character as we are.
Zach: I tried to make her – I tried to, yeah.
Nico: You would never, I don’t think, be the man that you are today had she not given you the opportunities and access to education that she did.
Zach: Absolutely not. And then the advice –
Nico: But, it was clear that there was a mental health issue going on here.
Zach: So, it has been difficult. My father, my sister, both of my grandmothers, my uncle, a number of my cousins, my uncle Ray, who I described briefly in the book, he read the whole book, and they – a number of them have read the whole book and they have been incredibly supportive, and without their support, I would not have been able to kind of withstand and overcome some of the more – the rougher patches in this process because there have been rough patches.
Nico: Yeah, well, I mean, a lot of them, your dad, your grandma, your uncle, right, they come off as heroes in this book.
Zach: Right, I’m glad.
Nico: Well, cool, I want to end by asking you the question that you asked Jason Riley. I mean, what is one thing in this process or in the process doing Uncomfortable Learning that you’ve either come to better understand, learn more about, or change your mind on?
Zach: I’m going to give you a specific issue-based concern and then I’ll give you a more human relations-based concern.
Nico: All right.
Zach: I’ll start with the issue-based concern. I spoke at the Heritage Foundation in mid-June of this year, and I had a pretty set view on healthcare. I was a pretty strong support of the Affordable Care Act. I thought it was best for everyday people.
Nico: Which was actually a Heritage Foundation idea.
Zach: A policy in ’79, right, exactly, individual mandate. It’s still not quite acknowledged as one, but it was. And so, there’s this idea of direct primary care and it’s a really a conservative idea. It kind of was born out of conservative think-tanks, and I don’t think it can work on a national scale for everyone, but I think that there are communities, there are ways in which we can integrate aspects of that plan into a broader plan that is either public option or individual mandate.
Nico: What does it mean?
Zach: Direct primary care means that you work directly with one doctor who can address your needs in a way that you can’t when you rely on insurance or rely on certain coverage packages and plans, but it’s very – the specifics and the details of it, it would be very difficult to work out on a national scale. It’s almost like school choice, in a sense, which I’ve also modified on. I used to think that school choice disadvantaged teachers, but I think the primary concern is students. I think teachers are very important.
Nico: You’re a product of school choice, more or less. You chose to go to a different school.
Zach: Exactly, so those are two issues in particular. Essentially, my stance now in healthcare is that I think it’s very complicated. I don’t think – I think we can do better than what Obamacare was, and I think that there are some – it’s not necessarily what Mitch McConnell is putting forward, but I think that if we pay attention to some of what AEI has to say about healthcare and some of what the Heritage Foundation has to say about healthcare, we can have something, a more comprehensive plan that better reflects the resources that we have and how well our economy is doing now, so that’s the issue-based concern, is that we can integrate direct primary care now.
Nico: You say in the book you want to be president one day.
Zach: I do say that. I do say –
Nico: You have a very –
Zach: I’ve thought –
Nico: – particular interest in policy.
Zach: Exactly. The broader human relations concern is that – and there’s some sense I had some understanding of this, but it’s become ever clearer in doing this work. One thing you want to avoid assuming is not just that you know someone’s position, but that you understand their intentions and their motivations. It can be so easy.
I’m giving a book talk somewhere and someone stands up, and my mom taught me to pay attention to body language and all these things, and I see someone. It looks like they’re standing up to aggress upon me in some way and say something, and I don’t necessarily know just because I can see that what their motivations are, what their intentions are, what they hope to achieve, why they felt the need to do that, and I think that there’s a lost opportunity when it comes to just learning more about, really, what it means to be a human being when we walk away from a difficult or unpleasant experience and assume that we know why someone did what they did.
Nico: Well, I think that’s a good place to end Zach. Thanks for coming to FIRE’s DC office and talking to me about your book today.
Zach: Always a pleasure, man. Thanks for having me.