Soviet America’s Sweethearts
The Red Scare podcast brings a downtown dissident edge to the table.
If you ask friends about Red Scare, you get two types of responses. From those my age or thereabouts, ignorance (“What is it, a restaurant, a film?” replied one, a courageous best-selling author). Those who humor my urging to listen to it (it’s a podcast) are unimpressed. “Tedious gossip about people I don’t know and am not interested in,” said one after a 40-minute sampling. Millennials on the other hand often do know it. Younger journalists have insights into the differences between Anna and Dasha, their intellectual trajectories and influences. They also often admire the podcast’s impressive financial success: Red Scare is where two young women get together roughly once a week, drink wine, schmooze and giggle for 90 minutes about Page Six-type items, art world gossip, and politics, broadcast it on the internet, and net healthy six-figure incomes for their efforts.
I can’t remember why I first tuned in last November, but I was instantly taken in. Anna Khachiyan’s deep low-affect voice evoked grad school days when a subset of English department students in the Columbia library (the smoking room) arrived in nice clothes and makeup, able to quote Derrida and his cohort with daunting fluency. They were downtown girls even if they lived on the Upper West Side and memorable, though seldom in my ambit. (Downtown was mostly a foreign country, though I did in the late seventies see a bit of Rene Ricard, a friend of a friend.)
Anna and Dasha were born in the Soviet Union, brought here as young children, and grew up in America. Dasha Nekrasova’s parents were performing artists, Anna’s father a famous mathematician who died of a heart attack at 52. A lay person reading his Times obituary might conclude that his breakthrough insight (published in a Moscow mathematics journal in 1979) paved the way for the widespread entry of computer science into modern life. Before starting the pod, Anna was a grad student and art critic; Dasha is an actress (she had a supporting role in Succession) and wrote and directed an indie film about Jeffrey Epstein.
Though Red Scare is mainly a cultural podcast, its importance lies in its politics. When they began streaming in 2018, they were perceived as Bernie Sanders-friendly socialists (a clip of Dasha praising Sanders while improbably clad in a sailor suit had recently gone viral). The Times of London the next year enthusiastically presented the podcast as emblematic of a Left not in the thrall of a stultifying political correctness about identity politics. By 2022, they were an eclectically right-wing podcast, not Republican in any way but one which had devoted an entire episode to the popular alt-right book Bronze Age Mindset, another to an interview with Curtis Yarvin, the New Right blogger whose analysis of liberal intellectual hegemony (“the Cathedral”) is admired by many conservatives. Edgier still were the pod’s occasional friendly shoutouts to Steve Sailer, the influential Los Angeles blogger about social science and contemporary American culture.
Intellectual transitions by leftists rejecting former revolutionary beliefs may be the single most durable and important trend in Western political culture since at least the French Revolution. Did Anna and Dasha experience a kind of Kronstadt? The 1921 suppression by the Bolsheviks of a sailor and worker protest became a catchword for the moment when Western progressives ceased stifling their misgivings about the communist revolution and actually broke with communism: other notorious “Kronstadts” were the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the 1956 invasion of Hungary.
For the pod, the summer of 2020 seemed critical. At its outset, Red Scare was still very much a lefty podcast. The women are not wild enthusiasts of the violent George Floyd protests; Dasha seemed shaken by them, talked of not being able to sleep, staying off the streets. But both made standard-for-mainstream-media comments about police racism and the supposed violence America systematically inflicts upon black people. Anna said violence might be necessary to change an “unjust system.” The intellectual authority figures they most cite favorably are Adolph Reed and Cornel West, venerable black progressives worried that the identitarian BLM sloganeering around the riots will thwart the cross-racial class solidarity needed for real reform. Riots, Anna said on June 4, create the ability to understand that things could be different.
The first glimmer I heard from them which ran counter to the standard progressive narrative concerned the white guys of Philadelphia’s Fishtown who came out with bats and guns to prevent looting, which an overwhelmed city police department was clearly unable to do. They were, said Anna, obviously not Nazis, as progressives were calling them, but working class guys defending their neighborhood. But during the first weeks, the two women seemed almost overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the accusations of racism and cascading white efforts to expiate a sense of collective guilt. Anna, wishing to opt out, said “I’m just gonna speak in Melania voice…. I’m just an immigrant.”
By mid-June, waves of wokeness-driven cancellation campaigns began to crash through the media in full force, taking out editors from the New York Times to Bon Appetit, and the podcast’s tone began to shift. Anna depicted as “Stalinist” the campaign against The Intercept’s Lee Fang (who was targeted as racist because he interviewed a black man concerned about black crime), and by July their reactions to the continuing protests mostly stressed their absurdity. Left-wing lawmakers advocating the defunding of the police were, the ladies noted, hiring private security. Fort Bragg was going to be “renamed Fort Jussie Smollet or something.” The intellectual or journalistic figures referenced favorably in the pod turned increasingly from leftist to the eclectic left-critical voices, from the late Christopher Lasch to Glenn Greenwald and Michael Tracey. As if to illustrate Robert Conquest’s dictum that people are most conservative about the subjects they know best, the ladies offered a hilarious takedown of a young art student’s campaign to deplatform the Canadian artist Jon Rafman after she had failed to establish the kind of relationship she hoped for with the artist; Rafman had evidently slept with her a few times and didn’t pursue things further. The ambitions and wiles of women seeking the favor of more established men had been a topic the podcast addressed, invariably with cynical realism. “Your nihilistic vision is making my pussy so wet,” was Dasha’s over the top rendition of Rafman’s accuser’s initial approach to her target.
The ladies’ turn from the Left has not gone without reproach by the progressive world. Anna and Dasha took wry note of denunciations of them as “Strasserites” (anti-capitalist Nazis purged by Hitler early on), a hit more amusing than is typical for leftist slurs. Attacks have done nothing to diminish their popularity. Dasha was recently invited to a debate in the Yale Political Union (where she performed with great aplomb and little self-seriousness.) As semi-conservatives, noting that the cultural hegemony in America is left-liberal, they have an endless supply of balloons to puncture. In the first Red Scare episode I heard, they ventured into the woods of transgenderism, whose practitioners had suddenly emerged in prominent roles in the Biden Administration and seemingly everywhere else. It can be difficult to find the tone to discuss if one wants neither to engage in hate speech nor come across as a humorless fuddy-duddy, but also doesn’t want to accept the current trans dispensation as a new normal. The ladies resorted to relentless mockery of the transvestite fashion choices—dresses, coloring, makeup, while coining the term “gender goblins” to describe them—a phrase which leans nicely toward ridicule rather than genocide.
Given the right subject, they can approach a kind of perfection. Commenting on the re-writing of Roald Dahl’s works to iron out so-called offensive passages, Dasha gave an introduction which acknowledged and quoted numerous examples of the author’s (rather traditional English) antisemitism and expressed their admiration for him regardless. After which Anna remarked, “If Roald Dahl were alive today, he’d wish the Jews were still in charge.” As a one sentence commentary about the fraught subject of the cultural power of American Jewry, that is hard to top.
Anna and Dasha don’t talk about black-white race relations very often: listeners are more likely to hear a digression on stereotypical-but-probably-true ethnic traits of peoples from the edges of the old Russian empire. About the black-white relations which obsess American progressives, the pod generally says little. But it does mention Steve Sailer. “The arc of the moral universe is long and it bends towards Steve Sailer,” one of them said, in a way that, like much else on the podcast, could be passed off as a joke. Anna has praised his prose style on Twitter.
There are risks to praising Sailer that don’t apply to Curtis Yarvin or Bronze Age Mindset, whose writings veer between intentional obscurity and self-parody. Sailer is quite mainstream and centrist in his views of how America should be run, and his writing is broadly accessible. But he is also conversant with virtually all the nation’s social science data as it applies to race and ethnicity, and there seems to be none of it he doesn’t at least occasionally bring up: income, crime rates, demographic shifts, academic and cognitive test scores. As a result, (in addition to the fact that he is a gifted and often very funny prose stylist) he is widely read and almost never cited. Helen Andrews’s excellent portrait of him in Compact does a good job of tracing how an original Sailer observation slowly percolates through the nation’s laptop class.
But Sailer is almost never quoted. The how-can-we-all-best-get-along-as-fellow-citizens arguments that render certain topics unfit for normal conversation are powerful. One recalls Richard Nixon’s private (but recorded) remarks to Daniel Moynihan when discussing Richard Herrnstein’s famous article on IQ tests in The Atlantic: “it is my responsibility as a President to know these things and it also my responsibility to do everything I possibly can to deny them.” That eminently sensible approach becomes more difficult to follow in the face of unrelenting insistence on the part of liberals and progressives that race be brought into every discussion of public policy or culture, with the caveat that expressing the incorrect opinion will destroy your career.
Anna and Dasha are near the center of a sort of counterculture that has arisen within the counterculture. A number of writers have recently chronicled, usually in disapproving tones, the emergence of a new political tendency in arty bohemian Manhattan, paralleled by a minisurge in Christian observance. This has been sometimes interpreted as a weariness with wokeness and depicted as a cultural battle between still very woke Brooklyn and the newly hipsterized neighborhood of “Dimes Square,” a corner of Manhattan near Chinatown. The Baffler took time recently to mock the new scene: “god isn’t dead anymore, the models and micro-influencers brought him back…If Anna and Dasha said it on Red Scare, then it must be true.”
All who follow the shifting battle lines around the advances and retreats of wokeness know that what happens at elite institutions like Yale and Stanford law schools is critically important. But something as potentially ephemeral as the tone of “downtown” bohemia matters too, perhaps more so. More than a hundred years ago, Sinclair Lewis’s novel Main Street depicted a city woman stuck in a Midwestern town, yearning to escape the limitations of her environment. “I am sick with the Village Virus. Will you please tell me what people are saying and playing in New York?” laments protagonist Carol Kennicott. When Lewis wrote Main Street, “the Village” was talking about the Bolshevik Revolution, and Max Eastman and Mabel Dodge had raised the funds to send John Reed to Russia to write his famous panegyric to Lenin and Trotsky, Ten Days That Shook the World. Fifteen years later, communism or fellow traveling would be the default position of most American intellectuals. Fifteen years after that, Eastman, once the golden boy of the Village’s bohemian “lyrical left,” would join William F. Buckley’s National Review as a key contributor.
Despite all that has changed, downtown today (if geographically displaced from Greenwich Village) retains some of that cultural power as a nexus of artists and designers and trust fund kids and the clubs and restaurants which cater to them, proximate to Wall Street and not without pull on young millionaires who seek to be avant garde as well as rich. So what people are talking about downtown still resonates, and because of Anna and Dasha they are talking at least some of the time about moving America past its current preoccupations with equity and identity, which in our present climate passes for dissidence.
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