Dan Riley [00:00:19]:
Jeremi Suri [00:00:19]:
Well, first I just want to say thank you for having me to your house and taking some time to talk. It's great have you on the show, and welcome.
Dan Riley [00:00:26]:
Thank you. I'm delighted to have a chance to talk with you.
Jeremi Suri [00:00:29]:
Likewise. I always like to start by getting some background on people to learn about how they became who they are. Now, you have a lot of important positions. You now teach at UT. I've looked at your credentials and your academic history. What got you interested in what you now study and what you now spend a lot of your time dedicated to?
Dan Riley [00:00:50]:
It's a great question. In some ways, I've always been interested in history and the relationship between societies and different peoples and cultures. I'm the product of a very mixed background. My father is an immigrant from India, and my mother is the child of immigrants from Russia. So I'm half jewish, half hindu. And ever since I can remember, I've always been fascinated by those histories and by the strange ways in which these histories crossed and created me and how I could grow up in a society with parents from these very difficult backgrounds who really were working class at best and get to do what I do now. What a land of opportunity we have for some people, at least. So that's at the root of it.
Dan Riley [00:01:35]:
And then I was very fortunate going to public schools in New York City to have some very good teachers. I had some very bad teachers. I had some very good teachers. And then to get into Stanford University, where I did my undergraduate degree on a full fellowship, I didn't have any money, and I was exposed to some history professors. And it was really like seeing that what I had always been interested in was something one could do. It opened my eyes not necessarily to new interests, but seeing a future in those interests and finding work that allowed me to pursue those interests and make public contributions rather than working in a coal mine or something else.
Jeremi Suri [00:02:12]:
Yeah. What about history, do you think spoke to you as a person? What fascinated you or interested you about the topic?
Dan Riley [00:02:19]:
Two things from a very young age. First, the power of individuals. I remember reading a lot of historical novels. I used to do those as a kid, not even realizing it was history. Novels about the russian revolution, novels about the French Revolution, and the influence that individuals, not always people with big titles, not always people with the most money or the most guns, but the role that at certain moments in certain circumstances, individuals can have. That's always fascinated me. And I remember even as a young child, thinking about that and then the other side of that story, the way that circumstances often limit opportunity for people and that interplay between circumstances and individuals, I think that's at the root of everything in our society.
Jeremi Suri [00:02:59]:
As you began to see a potential future for yourself in that field, how did you see yourself fitting into that area of study? Was there a specific contribution, specific area of history that you wanted to really study and be a professor in? What was kind of your narrative, your internal thinking, and your development as an academic, as you are now?
Dan Riley [00:03:20]:
So I started out as a cold War historian, as a scholar of international relations, nuclear weapons, foreign policy. I came of age, really, in the 1980s in the what was in the early eighty s, a very scary moment when we thought the world was going to go to nuclear war. 1983. The movie the day after was shown on tv. It was a story about a nuclear attack on Lawrence, Kansas, and what happened to the world. And then we had the end of the Cold War while Nan was in high school. And I was fascinated by what the Cold War was about, why it ended, what we could learn from that. So my early work, even as an undergrad at Stanford, my work in graduate school was very much on researching the Cold War.
Dan Riley [00:04:00]:
It also made sense because since it was so recent, other historians hadn't worked on it yet. So it was a good way to get in and do some new scholarship that would explain something I was interested in without having to go over the work so many other people had done.
Jeremi Suri [00:04:15]:
I was telling you before we started recording, I was just in college station interviewing the director of the Bush library. In your estimation, I imagine this is a part of your scholarship as well. In the early 80s, my parents, I wasn't yet alive at that time, but I think for my dad, he had the impression that this could go on for generations, and within a decade, it was over. How do you, as a historian, think about or diagnose what happened in the Soviet Union that led to its collapse? Big question. I know.
Dan Riley [00:04:45]:
Yeah, it's a great question. It's one I've spent a lot of time writing about, researching and lecturing on. And my answer changes as time goes on, right? I mean that because you see new material, the circumstances we're in change, the way we view these issues. I'd say three things about this, three ways of starting to answer this huge question. First, I think the evolution of the soviet system had reached a point where the system could not sustain itself any longer, and that had very little to do with the direct policies on a day to day basis of the United States, had to do with the failures of communism and quite frankly, the failures of a system that did not promote innovation and actually discouraged, gave disincentives for people to work. So that's one thing that was a long term process. It takes a long time for a failing system to actually fail. Or another way to put it, you can fail for a long time.
Dan Riley [00:05:35]:
I know entrepreneurs like to say fail fast. It's very good advice. If you're going to fail, fail fast. The Soviet Union failed slowly. That process did not make the way it ended inevitable, but it made some kind of ending inevitable. Second, I think you had a new generation of soviet leaders, a new generation of leaders across Europe who wanted to try to do things differently. Gorbachev, who I think is really the hero in many respects. Gorbachev wanted to save the soviet system, but he also didn't want to use violence in the way that Stalin and others had.
Dan Riley [00:06:07]:
He didn't have the stomach for it. He had lived through the consequences of that. His humanity, quite frankly, I've had the chance to meet Gorbachev a few times. His humanity doesn't make him a genius. It doesn't make him clairvoyant. But his humanity, his unwillingness to destroy in the pursuit of what he wanted, I think that was crucially important. And then the third part, and I think it comes after those first two, is where the United States and other countries step in. I think the most important thing you can say about Ronald Reagan and any of his predecessors is not that they were mean.
Dan Riley [00:06:38]:
Some of that was necessary, but more, they were willing to reach out, and they were willing to believe that change could happen. And most of Reagan's advisors, including Robert Gates's CIA advisor and others, told him, no, the Soviet Union won't change. Reagan was willing to believe that they could change. And I think the lesson we need to take away from that is even longstanding systems of horror have the opportunity to reform. If we try to encourage that, it doesn't mean we should deny the horrors of what they've done, but it also means that war is not the answer that we have to reach out. We have to find a way to help societies reform themselves. Reagan was committed to that, particularly in his second term, and he deserves a lot of credit for that.
Jeremi Suri [00:07:18]:
Yeah, I was alive when the Soviet Union collapsed, and I think in my lifetime, that may have been the most important historic moment that has happened in the last 30, 35 years.
Dan Riley [00:07:30]:
Jeremi Suri [00:07:31]:
So you're involved in that, or you're at least interested in that subject matter. Then there's the collapse of the Soviet Union. As somebody who's interested in history and important ideas, important events. Where do you go personally from there in terms of your interests and your efforts?
Dan Riley [00:07:46]:
Well, two things I did as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed. I was just starting as an. Actually, I just explained this to my undergrads the other day. The collapse of the Soviet Union was my senior year in high school, and it was such a wonderful time to be graduating high school. Very different from our world today, because everything seemed possible. This was the moment of liberation. I went off to college thinking, we're going to solve every problem, and we shouldn't forget that we have the capacity to solve a lot of problems. So for me, it meant two things immediately.
Dan Riley [00:08:13]:
First, I wanted to learn Russian, which I did, and go to Russia to study, to do research, because now archives were opening. Now we could interview people. And I did that in graduate school, which was great. It was complicated, but it was great. And the second thing was just what was in your brilliant question, thinking about the role of ideas and how powerful ideas could be, but how different or difficult they are to put into place. Right. And really focusing on what was often neglected by scholars, which are the non material elements of what motivates our behavior. It is, in a certain way, easier to study how money motivates behavior.
Dan Riley [00:08:49]:
You look at someone's bank account, you look at how they act, but ideas are much more difficult, and I think that's really important because so much of what happened after that moment in our world has been driven by ideas. You think about the influence of religion. Right? That's of the same piece. It's ideas motivating changes in behavior.
Jeremi Suri [00:09:07]:
That experience, I have to imagine going over to Russia at that time in its history must have been fascinating in terms of opening up information that had never previously been available, I imagine, to western academics. Talk to me about that experience. What did you learn? What do you remember? What resonated from that time?
Dan Riley [00:09:25]:
Well, I first remember the economic difficulties Russians were going through. I went over the first time, and I rented a bedroom from Babushka, from my grandmother. And the way it worked in the Soviet Union in that time in Russia, you kind of owned an apartment, even though you didn't own it. Once the soviet system allocated a Kvartira an apartment to you, you lived in it the rest of your life. You didn't pay any rent. And you've probably seen pictures or experiences yourself where they're in these buildings that are terribly run down. But the apartment is really nice because that's all they own. No one owns the common space.
Dan Riley [00:09:59]:
No one takes care of it. And I was renting this bedroom from this grandmother, and what I paid her for the month of renting the bedroom was more than her pension was worth over two to three years, because her pension was in rubles that had collapsed. And so I was this student who was richer than the one that was one thing. Second, it was the wild west. I mean, so many things were happening there without much law and order. It was a very dangerous place. It was a very exciting place. There were newspapers with all kinds of commentary everywhere for the research.
Dan Riley [00:10:41]:
What was most interesting to me was sitting in the old headquarters of the communist party with the big Lenin portrait staring at me in the reading room. I was sitting where the soviet leaders used to sit, reading through boxes, literally file boxes of their papers, and noticing. And this was the real insight I had. And a number of us who were there at that time, they spoke in private the way they spoke in public. So they really believed that the world looked the way their propaganda said it did. This comes back to my point about ideas. They had been so inculcated with these ideas that they had forgotten that reality was different. And that's a real warning.
Dan Riley [00:11:21]:
I think there's some of that issue in our society, too. You can live in your own propaganda bubble.
Jeremi Suri [00:11:27]:
I remember, it's funny you mentioned mean. I got into a very big Stephen Cotkin kick.
Dan Riley [00:11:32]:
Jeremi Suri [00:11:34]:
And he's got so many great lectures and interviews online. And I remember that was one of the major points he was stating as well from his research, is that it turns out the communists were actually communists.
Dan Riley [00:11:44]:
Jeremi Suri [00:11:44]:
Dan Riley [00:11:46]:
Exactly right. I mean, his books on Stalin, I think, make this point that Stalin, who at some level looks so Machiavellian, so manipulative and brilliant at it, he really believes this stuff. I mean, he really believes the US and Britain are going to go to war because the two capitalist powers, according to marxist theory, are supposed to go to war with one another. And so, yeah, I think that comes through loud and clear in the archives. The other thing I should say is, and this is one of the difficulties of being a scholar, there aren't many heroes out there, even someone like Ed Gorbachev. When you get into the documents, you realize that he was trying to prevent the worst of things from happening. He had an aversion to killing lots of people, thankfully, but he also looked out for his own after the Chernobyl explosion in 1986. He moves all the communist party officials and moves his family before he tells the public.
Dan Riley [00:12:36]:
And some of that might be the corruption of power inherently. But you do also recognize, you see the best and the worst in human beings, and you see them in the same human beings when you're doing this research.
Jeremi Suri [00:12:46]:
So you get back, I assume, to the US after your stint in Russia. Talk to me about where your life goes, where your interests then lie, and what has brought you to your current place in life and in academia.
Dan Riley [00:13:01]:
Well, so I began a lot of my early work trying to understand the relationship coming out of the experience at the end of the cold War between what happens in the street and what happens in the halls of power. And my dissertation and first book and a number of first articles were on the relationship between protest movements and foreign policy. I actually went back to the early 70s because I think that's, as cotkin and others have said, too, I think that's really the beginning of the end of the Cold War, when you see a fundamental transformation in so many societies with a new generation and how they think about politics. And what's extraordinary is 1968 is a simultaneous moment of protest across all these societies, us, Germany, and France. Everyone knows that. Russia, too, China, Japan. And so I was really looking across societies with Russia as one of the societies. Germany, I spent a lot of time in as well, trying to understand what changed.
Dan Riley [00:13:57]:
And I became very interested in the role of generational change, generational experiences, and very interested also in the role of communications. So underground newspapers, new forms of media. How do groups communicate to one another, and then how do those in power respond? And my early work was on how the period of detent, the early 80s, was actually a response to these problems on the ground as leaders looked to fortify their power, looked to escape some of the most egregious actions, war in Vietnam and elsewhere, but also looked to hold on to power by trying to, one way or another, isolate themselves from these movements on the ground. And I think that tension is still one we see today. So that's where a lot of my research went initially, and that's moved over time. One research project builds on another right to understanding. I wrote a book about Henry Kissinger, because Kissinger was right in the center of this. And then I wrote a book on nation building, because I think that's fundamentally what nation building is, the effort to go into another society and build on the desire citizens have for a new government, but still build a government somehow and get things functioning.
Dan Riley [00:15:05]:
And then how presidents struggle with this. And the new book I'm writing is really how democracy in the United States has always been contrary to how it's taught, I think, always been a struggle over different groups seeking to claim power and seeking to claim that their interests should be represented better than they are represented otherwise.
Jeremi Suri [00:15:24]:
You may have been alluding to this earlier when you were talking about seeing at least some echoes or similarities between what you were noticing and reading the communist documents and what is going on in the US today. I want to talk about today, and I want to talk about how history, from your perspective, can inform or better educate, better inform, better help a nation that I noticed just in living here over the past four to eight years that I feel like is in trouble and has reached a level of divisiveness and distrust that I certainly don't remember when I was a kid seeing it from both sides, just opening up that realm of discussion generally. I would love to get your sense on, maybe to start what you meant when you were talking about earlier, some of the propaganda, some of the echo chamber like dialogue that you notice in the Soviet Union happening today. I want to leave that open to you to sort of dissect or analyze however you think is appropriate.
Dan Riley [00:16:25]:
And I think your observations are astute. And it's something I think a lot about. In fact, it's one of my main areas of both research interest and policy interest today. And I think history is crucial for this. I think our society, like other societies, is not a society where people naturally talk to people who disagree with them. That has to be created, that has to be cultivated. Alexis de Tocqueville, when he visits in the early 19th century, he points to the role of these social associations. They exist because people have to work together.
Dan Riley [00:16:58]:
They don't exist because people naturally gravitate to those who see the world differently. And part of the genius of democracy is getting people with different views to work together while they keep their different views. This is what Madison means by pluralism, and we go through different phases. This is where I think history is important, where the technology and institutionalization of our world can either encourage or discourage people from different areas to come together. And we're in a moment now where, at least for the last decade, if not longer, much of our society has discouraged interaction across areas. The most obvious way to look at this, I think, is in terms of our communications technology. And I don't just mean social media. I mean the way we electronically communicate now.
Dan Riley [00:17:36]:
We can find and sort more easily the people who think the way we think. And we can form what looks like a global, diverse group of like minded thinkers. I find this. This is the comparison I like to use with my students, when my wife and I in the 1990s, traveled overseas to Europe, we would backpack, take a ura pass, and we would stay in a hostel. And you just meet people there. Then you go out and you drink. Now, my students, when they travel, they coordinate with their phones exactly who they're going to meet, where, and then they're communicating with other people. So there's no spontaneity.
Dan Riley [00:18:15]:
They're sorting even when they're traveling. They're sorting even when they're traveling. And so we have to find some ways to unsort, and we will. But we're in a sorting moment. I think that's part of what's happened. The were a fascinating period because new kinds of groups came together. A new kind of sorting occurred. All of these.
Dan Riley [00:18:36]:
This is a whole book that I wrote about all. All of these middle class kids whose parents had served in World War II, in the army, navy, served in hospitals, wherever else, they got to go to college for the first time. When they went to college, they were around kids they never would have been around before. And they formed student groups, and then they protested the war in Vietnam, and they rode buses to desegregate bus stations. Right. Today we've sorted. We need to find ways, as leaders of organizations, to unsort students and young people. That's one element of what's happened in our society.
Dan Riley [00:19:10]:
The second is we've developed a winner take all mentality because it appears as if the pie is not big enough for everyone. So there's more of a premium on not growing the pie but taking what's there. And I think that's how we talk about natural resources. Too often, that's how we talk about so many things, and we need leadership to discourage that. We know historically that resources grow when you commit yourself to growing resources. Resources remain constrained when you don't invest in building resources. Right. Moments of infrastructure development in the United States have actually been moments of growth and opportunity, moments when we don't invest in our infrastructure or moments when we get into these kinds of battles that we're in today.
Dan Riley [00:19:50]:
And then I'll make one other historical point that I think is really important. I think those who are in a group that has traditionally been powerful or groups that have traditionally been powerful that are still doing well but are going to be challenged now by more groups. What Richard Hofsteider called social status anxiety, downward mobility, they have to give way. That's the engine of history, especially in a capitalist system, is new groups challenging old groups. New money challenges old money, new tech challenges, old tech, and we have to deinstitutionalize the brakes that those at the top always put on limiting competition. This is the dirty secret of how capitalism works. If it's not regulated, those who have made money through innovation will stop all innovation that challenges their status. And we need to do things that open the door for new challenges.
Dan Riley [00:20:48]:
That often means cross race, cross gender, across all sorts of areas. And we're in a moment where we have to make those choices. We will. I think we've been through this before. It's just particularly ugly, right? So on the one hand, I take optimism, knowing we've been through this before, but I also see how difficult it is to get through these moments. We're not anywhere near it yet.
Jeremi Suri [00:21:10]:
I'll tell you a quick anecdote. So I grew up in northwestern Pennsylvania, historically a very union town. Had voted for a democratic president, I think, in every election since Ronald Reagan.
Dan Riley [00:21:23]:
Jeremi Suri [00:21:24]:
Dan Riley [00:21:25]:
Oh, sure, yeah, I've been there.
Jeremi Suri [00:21:27]:
It's a rust belt city, and it has been bleeding population for 30 years. My dad, after law school, came up there in the mid 70s when I think it was roughly at its population height. And I look at 2016, I think for so many reasons, was such a watershed year. And that was a moment in which I was living in San Francisco, but was really born and raised in this place. That was a crucial victory location for Trump, and it flipped for Trump. And I remember just hearing in the national media about people actually caring about Erie, Pennsylvania for the first time, and making in the big cities. I was tending to spend my time in observations about how these cities were deeply racist, that these people were deeply ignorant. I would never deny that there isn't some of that going on there, but on the whole, I know that city because I was born and raised there.
Jeremi Suri [00:22:28]:
And it was the most poignant anecdote, I guess, for me personally, of the separation between the cultures that maybe you were alluding to a little bit earlier, and that people who were tending to live in New York City, San Francisco, Austin, Texas, had never been to and probably never would go to a place like Erie, Pennsylvania. In a way, I did feel like I was in a bit of a unique position to try to hold the center conversationally just in meeting people. I think it is human nature for people who find out that they have similarities with others to flock together, right, birds of a feather flock together. And in some ways, I would love to get your thoughts on how, because I think it is healthier for the society, for having a degree of intermixture among people that have different backgrounds. You were talking about the college kids that were going after World War II together, and worlds were colliding that otherwise wouldn't have historically. How can we, in your judgment, help to break some of the bifurcation, the tribalism, the echo chambers that we're noticing all over the country?
Dan Riley [00:23:40]:
Well, we know how to do this. We've done it again in the past. This is where history really helps. One thing we did is through public service in our past. So one of the great things about the new deal in a very difficult moment in our society, the Great Depression, is it did some of what you just described. It took people from communities who had never interacted with those in other communities and put them together in CCC, civilian conservation corps camps, in the military. Henry Kissinger wrote a book about. He's a german jewish immigrant to the United States.
Dan Riley [00:24:14]:
His family flees Germany just before Christal knocked in October 38. He comes to the United States at age 15, doesn't speak any English. In three years, he's in a us army camp in South Carolina, the only Jewish. The first time in his life he's been outside of an orthodox kosher household.
Jeremi Suri [00:24:31]:
Dan Riley [00:24:31]:
He's eating ham for Uncle Sam, literally for the first time in his life, surrounded by farm boys from South Carolina, city boys from Raleigh Durham and elsewhere, and forced to connect. And it's not always smooth, by the way. It's not always easy. And I'm not arguing it has to be through the military. It could be through something like a civilian conservation corps. It could be through any kind of organization like that. But you put people together in a location where they're devoted to serving the public for a short period of time, and they learn a lot from one another. And again, that has to be done with intentionality, because, as you said, so well, birds of a feather flock together.
Dan Riley [00:25:10]:
People look for affinity groups. It's natural. And we're free. We should be able to do that. I want to be around people who have similar interests. Right. But we also have to counteract that. And these kinds of programs have existed many times in our history.
Dan Riley [00:25:23]:
We could say the same thing about the Union army. I mean, you think of all of those politicians and business people who came out of the civil war, which is this horrible event, but the connections they had made in the Union army. You think of someone like Harry Truman, who serviced in World War I. Again, it doesn't have to be in the military. Countries like Germany have shown us you can create mandatory public service for young people, let's take 1920 year olds, maybe right before they go to college, give them a year, give them a reasonable wage. Let them do something of public interest where they have to work with people who are different from themselves. Many people advocate for this and have for a long time. Stanley McChrystal is an advocate of this.
Dan Riley [00:26:05]:
Robert Gates is an advocate of this. So we could do that. We could invest in that. That's one thing. Another thing we could do is really work on desegregating our schools. One of the dirty secrets of american society is that we've ended legal segregation, but we still have de facto segregation in our schools, particularly in progressive places like Austin. Particularly in progressive places like Austin. Now, I'm a believer, especially as a parent of teenagers.
Dan Riley [00:26:32]:
I want my kids to go to a good school. I want some choice. But I also want us to do more to make it possible for kids who aren't in certain schools to have access to schools and for kids to be around other kinds of kids other than just their own background when they go to school. This is really important. It takes an investment of resources and a willingness to do that. We haven't bust kids in decades. That might not be the solution, but boy, oh boy, we could look for some other solutions for this. And then the third thing, I think that might even be the most important way for us to do this is to build public spaces that draw people together.
Dan Riley [00:27:09]:
One of the reasons I love the part of Austin we live in is we have some parks. My wife was on the city council. This is how she got started in politics, was actually working to raise money for our parks. Right. Notice during COVID how important our parks have been. Right. And too much of our spaces. I'm recounting now a whole area of urban history.
Dan Riley [00:27:29]:
That's a very rich literature. That's not really my area of expertise, but that I draw on in my work. I mean, it's shown how we have privatized space to such an extent that our neighborhoods now are not really neighborhoods. They're just extended families of people who look like us. Why don't we push it the other way? Why don't we try to create more public spaces, maybe on the european model, with a piazza. Right. Look, in the world we live in today, if you create and allow for free broadband access or easily accessible broadband access, you and I will go sit outside. You and I just give us a table somewhere, and I'll interact with people instead of the people I meet or the people at the airport who are like me.
Dan Riley [00:28:08]:
Why not meet people in different settings? So those are just three examples. The key point here, I think, historically, is it has to be an intention of government policy not to detract from anyone's freedom, but to create encouraged incentives for individuals to interact with those who are different from themselves. If we don't do that, then the entropic elements. Right. The centrifugal elements, take the lead.
Jeremi Suri [00:28:34]:
You were mentioning that this happened to Kissinger early in his time as an American, where he was going to North Carolina, interacting with people he otherwise never would have interacted with. And I'm curious, what happens? I totally agree with you. There is something that happens with people. They don't necessarily become lifelong best friends with individuals who they would otherwise have not really had anything in common with. But what does happen to people when they have those interactions, in your judgment, that if you agree with this, that sort of takes some of the poison out of the caricature of people who are, for example, from the south, who are Republicans, who are Democrats, who are this caricature of a person in people's minds.
Dan Riley [00:29:19]:
I think the historian says people develop comfort. Familiarity does breed comfort. Familiarity doesn't eliminate prejudice. You can interact with people and still be prejudiced, and that's a deeper psychological issue, but you learn to be comfortable. This is, again, back Tocville. What amazed him about Jacksonian America were how you had people who were so different from one another meeting together in saloons and doing business deals. They were comfortable, and they didn't vilify the person across the table. You don't actually have to love everyone.
Dan Riley [00:29:52]:
I don't think our system is built on the notion that all groups will join hands and say, it's a small world after all. Now we're a pluralist system that has conflict built into it. But the point is, it has to be productive conflict on terms of humanity that recognize the legitimacy of the other side and what we're doing today, you said this so well, is we're in a situation which is even different from a few years ago, where you demonize the other side, where it's all or nothing, and to work with, to talk about the other side, to grant that they might have an argument, even if you agree on your side, is somehow treasonous. No, you learn to empathize. You learn to be able to at least see the world through someone else's eyes when you're living with them, working with them, doing things together, especially when you're working for the public interest together, because then you have to think about both sides being part of that public. And I think that's the crucial word here. A capitalist, liberal, democratic society needs investment in the public. There's nothing undemocratic or uncapitalist about that.
Dan Riley [00:30:49]:
We need the public. We have underinvested in the public as an idea and as a resource.
Jeremi Suri [00:30:54]:
Yeah, I think you're right. And if I'm understanding your perspective on this, that it basically allows you to see the humanity in people. Even if you strongly disagree with them on some subject, you at least have some understanding of where they're coming from. And there is just a greater sense of decency. I think, that comes out of interactions like that.
Dan Riley [00:31:15]:
Yes. And empathy is probably the most important characteristic that we all need to nurture in ourselves. Right. It's what made Franklin Roosevelt a great leader. He could empathize with people so different. What does empathy really mean? It's just as you said. It's not just putting yourself in someone else's shoes. It's respecting where they stand.
Dan Riley [00:31:35]:
That doesn't mean apologizing. You can still prefer your set of shoes to theirs, but you have to respect that what they are doing. You gave a great example. It makes no sense. And it is deeply condescending to say people from Erie, Pennsylvania, are dumb or racist. Look, there are plenty of racists in progressive Austin. You don't have to be from Erie, Pennsylvania. There might be more in Austin than there are there.
Dan Riley [00:31:57]:
Right. We have to be able to not just put ourselves in their shoes, understand their socioeconomic factors in your hometown, but also respect those people, and then talk to them in a way that explains why, I think, at least, that investing in green technology is the way to go for them as well as for us. Even though they might not see that today. We have to try to persuade them and at least respect their position.
Jeremi Suri [00:32:21]:
I've been of the view generally that the kind of certainty with which people castigate large swaths of the population when they make statements like the one you just articulated comes from a place of anxiety that that kind know thou protest too much, or whatever the Shakespeare line is, they're just overselling the certainty a little bit too much, that they're almost baked into statements like that. In my mind, psychologically, is a recognition that you may not fully know what you're talking about and that you have lost something deeply important in human nature or in your perspective on the world, which is like, you don't know these people. And I bet if you did, you would probably still hold the position you do now, but you would at least I doubt you would speak the same way afterwards once you had a long interaction with someone from a place that I was just mentioning.
Dan Riley [00:33:12]:
I agree. I mean, the historian in me says that, as I think across the range of many figures I've studied closely, the more certain ones are almost always the worst leaders, because certainty is in some ways, a protection of ignorance, not a curiosity. The curious person knows what they know and knows. There's so much more they don't know and wants to learn. I think one of the most interesting things is to look at how someone, especially in a powerful position, political, business, whatever it is, how they start a conversation. Do they start by telling you what they think or by asking who you are and where you come from? Right. Podcasts are interesting on this, too. Right.
Dan Riley [00:33:54]:
I ask my students all the time, what do they listen to? And most of them want to listen to things in areas where they don't know. Very few want to listen to a sermon, and students have the right insight on that. They want to understand a problem, see it from a different point of view. And I think one has to be willing to do that. It never makes sense to offer categorical judgments that write people out, because all you do then is create adversaries, and you give them a reason not to like you. Now, all of that said, we still also have to face facts that exist. Right. And I don't think large population groups should ever be called racist or anything like that.
Dan Riley [00:34:34]:
But I do think we have to recognize that our system, this is how I like to talk about it, encourages certain behaviors in people. So I don't think, just to take one recent example, I don't think that the evidence of large and frequent violence towards African Americans by police officers, I don't think that in any way means that police officers are racist. They're probably no more racist than the general population. But I do think, as a historian, that there's a system of policing that encourages low information uses of violence towards certain groups, and that's not even the fault of the police officers. That's what the system is reinforcing. My guess is I don't understand Yuri as well as you did, but if we talked about it long enough, there are probably systems in place that encourage certain attitudes. Those could be changed, but they probably encourage certain attitudes toward people who might be viewed as socialist or might be viewed as environmentalist, and that's how we should talk about it. What is the system doing to encourage human beings to think in certain ways and close off communication and others?
Jeremi Suri [00:35:37]:
Yeah, the power of incentives. Right. I mean, if you explain the incentive, you can explain the behavior as we close. Love. I've been thinking throughout this conversation of the book, bowling alone. I'm not sure if you've heard the. Robert, Robert Putnam's book. Yeah, sure.
Jeremi Suri [00:35:51]:
And how, I think one of the general arguments in the book is that those sort of social groups that you were mentioning before that would bring together people of different ethnic backgrounds, different political backgrounds, that was sort of the hallmark of american society, have begun to fray, seriously fray over the last 30 or 40 years. For somebody who's interested in this and is interested in being a bulwark against the tide of tribalism and disparaging large swaths of the american population against one another, what are a few things or a few ideas? Something to think about for those people, for organizations they can join, activities that they can implement in their own life that can begin to blunt some of those momentous forces.
Dan Riley [00:36:35]:
It's something I'm asked about often and think a lot about, and I'll give some preliminary answers, but they're preliminary answers, and I'm eager to learn from others. I'm sure many of your other guests will have great insights on this. It's one of the reasons I listen to podcasts, because this is the kind of topic where I think we all can learn, and you don't need to have a PhD to have really good ideas here. We kind of know where we want to go. Right. We need to, as you say, reweave the fabric that connects the different patterns of our society. Without overriding those patterns. There still should be different points of view.
Dan Riley [00:37:05]:
So here were some of the things that I've thought about. Again, from a historian's point of view, we need to think about institutions. What are the places in our society where people are going to come together, and how can we reinvest in those institutions? So schools are obviously one place, right. Young kids, especially in early age levels, before their parents sort them into magnet schools and private schools, they tend to go to middle schools together. Right. Neighborhood schools still matter a lot, even in cities like Austin, certainly in smaller towns, I'm sure in Erie, it's not just money. Let's get more involved in those schools. Let's get more involved in connecting kids and getting these conversations going at a very young age.
Dan Riley [00:37:45]:
Oftentimes you have to work against the parents. I mean, I see this at the college level. Parents are well intentioned, but they're part of the system.
Jeremi Suri [00:37:51]:
Dan Riley [00:37:52]:
And so this is one area where we can work against that I think. By the way, a lot of cities have programs of summer camps, especially for disadvantaged kids, that bring kids together with other kinds of kids. I think that's really important. So starting young, right? That's what all the research says, right? You start young. That's the most important time. Second, I think those of us who have the opportunity to talk and once in a while have people listen. We need to talk about know too many people until recently. This is why I'm so optimistic now.
Dan Riley [00:38:20]:
Until a year or two ago, were know, I don't want to talk about this stuff. It's too radioactive. I have a lot of friends. I'm sure you do, too, who are business leaders. Business didn't want to get involved in this. George Floyd changed that and Donald Trump changed that. Right now, businesses are not doing this to be woke. They're doing this because they recognize it's important for their long term sustainability to be able to have customers and employees who can work together.
Dan Riley [00:38:45]:
They need to invest in that now. We need to speak out. Speak out not for left or right. Speak out against those who divide us. Speak out against those who do just what you said before. Right? Categorize people. Speak out against, even if you're on the left, someone who says horrible things about people on the other side in these categorical ways, speak out against that. Encourage conversation.
Dan Riley [00:39:08]:
We all need to do that, and I think we need to invest locally. Locally is where we can make a real difference. In Austin, thanks to my wife's leadership on the city council, they're creating an Austin civilian conservation corps to do some of the things that the CCC did in the 1930s, where young people can get involved in making parks better, planting trees, invest in those kinds of local activities. In Austin, as in anywhere else, you have all kinds of nonprofits that are working on various things, education, neighborhood development, homelessness, all sorts of issues. Those organizations are not just about the topic. They're also bringing people together. Get involved, bring people in who are from other organizations. And then the last thing I'd say is, support media just through your patronage, that encourage exactly these kinds of conversations.
Dan Riley [00:40:00]:
Please stop watching and subscribing to sites that send out conspiracies, left or right, and encourage sites. Put your dollars, your pennies into sites that are building these kinds of conversations. I think it's really important to do that. One thing I've become very interested in is the world of podcasts. For this reason, what I find, and I'm only a novice in podcasts, I have my own little podcast and then I love listening to podcasts like yours and others is these are spaces for some podcasts where you do have people coming together, and usually it's free to listen. But sometimes you have to put a few pennies in, I think put your money into the things you believe in.
Jeremi Suri [00:40:44]:
I have loved this conversation. I really hope we can do this again at some point.
Dan Riley [00:40:47]:
Jeremi Suri [00:40:48]:
Me too. In closing, one final thing I'll say this dovetails nicely into what you were saying. A source of hope, honestly, for me as well, and I have benefited enormously from consuming this information, are the new media, podcasting platforms, and the capacity of those conversations to be lengthy, nuanced, much less difficult to attack. It's much more difficult to attack someone who is given an hour or more to state their case and not see the humanity in them than if you see some splice quote in the New York times or some other publication. And I do view these kind of conversations as a source of optimism and hope for improving the quality of our civilization and our community here in Austin. So I want to thank you for the time. I know you're a busy guy, and you're obviously a brilliant guy, and thank you for the ideas and the time and the conversation. It was a pleasure.
Dan Riley [00:41:46]:
And Dan, I want to praise what you're doing. You're a model, and I'm not just saying this to blow smoke in your face, but you're devoting your time and your resources to this because you care about it and you love it, too.
Jeremi Suri [00:41:58]:
Dan Riley [00:41:59]:
And that's the other secret. Working with people together across differences is I'm sure you and I agree on a lot. I'm sure you and I have different experience. You're from Erie, Pennsylvania. I'm from New York City. Right. I'm a historian. You're someone with a tech background, right? This is so much fun.
Dan Riley [00:42:16]:
Let's invest in this because it's the right thing to do, but also because we love doing it. You're a model for that, and I appreciate getting to know you.
Jeremi Suri [00:42:22]:
Thank you, budy. I appreciate it.
Dan Riley [00:42:24]:
My pleasure. Thanks.