Jun 22, 2022

The whole point of Tangle

A wave of angry emails inspired me to respond.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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The whole point.

On a typical day, about 10 to 30 Tangle subscribers drop off our mailing list.

This is all part of running a newsletter. The goal is to add more subscribers than you lose, and I’ve been fortunate to see Tangle do that consistently over the last three years. But yesterday, there was some unusual action: A couple hundred readers unsubscribed from the newsletter.

When someone leaves Tangle they get a brief, automated email that says, "Did you mean to unsubscribe?" This happens because people often accidentally click the unsubscribe button at the bottom of the email. I also do this because it gently invites people to share some feedback about our product, and helps us to improve it. If you reply to that email, it goes straight to my inbox.

So I was shocked to see the responses that came in yesterday.

Among them, readers — generally on the right — were objecting to my position on the drag show controversy that we covered yesterday. The responses included things like this:

"I unsubscribed because I disagree with your take on the drag queen issue," one reader wrote. "People don't always realize when they need help, and if pundits become too politically correct to speak the truth to obvious issues of mental illness... then our society devolves to the lowest forms."

"Today's article related to drag shows specifically geared toward children was the last straw for me," another reader said. "I cannot understand how this can be justified in any way."

"You're not unbiased. And your views on the drag show just show that," another reader wrote.

One reader wrote in, in all caps, and in all Spanish, to let me know I was an "imbecile" who "lived in an ivory tower" before describing a lewd sexual act they were going to do to me — which is one way to teach me a lesson about my purported support for the sexual corrupting of children. It was one of the few times I regretted having some Spanish skills.

Cancellations are normal. Negative feedback is also normal. I see both every day. But I was surprised by these emails and the number of people canceling, for two specific reasons.

For one, I didn't think my position was all that radical. There are times when I take a hard stance in "my take" of Tangle and I know I am about to piss a lot of people off. I usually clear my afternoon and brace myself for the anticipated blowback. I've written a few times before about Tangle issues that have caused waves of people to unsubscribe, like when I defended Joe Rogan (and a bunch of people on the left bailed) and more recently when I wrote about Florida and Disney (and a bunch of people on the right unsubscribed).

In both of those instances, I expected it. I felt strongly about my view; I knew the topics were sensitive; and I knew about half of my readership was really going to hate my position. I’ve promised readers I will be honest about what I think in “my take,” so when this happens all I can do is hold my breath and press send.

In this case, though, I wasn't expecting the blowback at all. If I were to give “my take” from yesterday’s issue the Tangle treatment and try to summarize it, it would essentially be this:

Drag queens and drag shows are related, but different things. Some of the videos of drag show performances do look inappropriate for children, and those more provocative performances have no place in schools. There are well-meaning parents objecting to them. That doesn't mean all drag queen interactions with kids are inappropriate, and it definitely doesn't mean all drag queens are sexual perverts, as some folks seem to think. If a cheerleader performing a similar act wouldn't bother you, then a drag queen shouldn’t either.

That's it.

There were some well-reasoned criticisms that came in about the issue. For instance, a reader named Michael who lives in Israel (and did not unsubscribe) wrote in and said this:

You omitted, and in fact implicitly dismissed, an objection to drag shows that I believe is widely held: Many parents have “traditional” views of sexuality and want to raise their children accordingly. Leaving aside how overtly “sexual” the content of a given drag show is and whether children should be shielded from it, it’s certainly meant to normalize homosexuality.

This isn’t a “bias” that the parents need to “reflect on”, it’s a conscious belief – correct or incorrect, but one with a great deal of sociological, historical, religious and philosophical heft behind it. One can make a case that the state has an interest in promoting tolerance among the citizenry, but that can be accomplished by educating to accept everyone’s rights as citizens and human beings to not be molested; it doesn’t have to mean telling kids that what their parents and pastors and Bible say we now know to be wrong. In fact, it seems obvious that any damage caused to social harmony by the absence of Heather has Two Mommies from the reading list is speculative, whereas the damage caused by its inclusion is right before our eyes.

Your stated goal is to present the best arguments on both sides of an issue. I’m not so vain as to think the above argument is the best, but it’s at least as good as some that you included and its absence is unfortunate.

That criticism is fair and respectfully delivered, even if I think there are some huge flaws in it. But I agree this view is widely held, and I also agree it wasn't properly represented (I think David Marcus's piece we shared came close, but it wasn't explicit). This person wrote in to make a point I do not agree with, and now their feedback is in the newsletter. That's how Tangle works.

Which brings me to the second, more important thing that shocked me about the responses: It just felt like people still don't get it.

"The whole point of Tangle is to read views you don't agree with," I kept thinking to myself as I read the feedback. "Why would you unsubscribe because I said something you didn't agree with?"

Then I realized I haven't ever written something that explicitly made this point — a piece I could point to that describes what Tangle is all about — so I figured it was time I should.

The entire point of Tangle is to get you out of your bubble.

The problem that we are solving is that most politically engaged people live in self-defined, tech-curated news bubbles where they mostly see well-articulated beliefs and ideas that reinforce the perspectives they already have. Even when they break these bubbles, they land in highly polarized news spaces. Politicians and pundits on both sides work hard to elevate the worst arguments and say they’re representative of the other side's perspective. Since most of us don't really know what people on the "other team" actually think, it makes this obfuscation even more effective.

A good litmus test for this is a question I often ask our readers: When was the last time you changed your mind on a major political issue?

If you struggle to think about something recent, there are two likely possibilities: One, you are right about everything. Two, you are not being exposed to good arguments that challenge your currently held beliefs (or you are, but you're unwilling to be open-minded about them). I'll let you decide which you think is more likely.

All of this is to say: I'm not trying to convince you of what I think. Each day, we try to find three opinions on the right and left, each spanning from the center to the most partisan, so you are getting a wide range of views from across the political spectrum on whatever debate we're covering. That means "My take" is one of seven opinions included in every newsletter. It exists because when I started Tangle, my advisory group of friends, family and random test readers said it would be a lot more interesting if I also shared what I thought. And when I started sharing, people seemed to like hearing from someone who was trying to address the arguments presented in the newsletter in an authentic way. It made Tangle unique.

That’s why, when you get to what I believe, or what I have to say, it's very clearly marked as my take. If you don't like it, please don't leave. I'd rather have you write me an angry email. I'll probably reply, and I may even share it. If you do like what I said, great! Let me know that, too. Those emails are also nice. And if reading Tangle changed your mind on something, then I definitely want to hear from you.

But please remember why we are here.

I am not trying to moderate your views. I am not trying to hold hands, bring everyone to the center, and pretend we all agree (as I’ve said before, I think centrism is an ideology of its own — and a rather poor one). I’m trying to do something even more basic and fundamental: I'm trying to tell you that you don't actually know the best arguments out there yet, so you couldn't possibly have a holistic, well-informed opinion yet either.

Tangle is about exposure, not coercion. It's about expanding the debate, not agreeing on the conclusion. You can land where you land. I'm just trying to make sure you actually get a chance to fly on the plane.

I'm also not claiming I'm "unbiased." Of course I personally have biases. We all do. Anyone who has experienced consciousness has biases. The whole premise of the newsletter is that we are all too entrenched in these biases, and I'd have to be foolishly arrogant to somehow believe I'm exempt from that rule. What I try to do in Tangle each day is explore and challenge my biases by consuming a whole lot of content I don't agree with (and some I do).

That's why I regularly change my mind, admit when I'm wrong, and try to clearly articulate to readers why I believe something that I believe. It’s why my own editors often find themselves helping me better articulate a position they disagree with, and why my political views end up all over the place. It’s why I often get accused of being a “closet Republican” or another “woke liberal.” Sometimes I agree with the right, sometimes I agree with the left, and sometimes — like yesterday — I just genuinely think news coverage across the spectrum has lost the plot.

And sometimes, it’s not my biases that are the problem. It’s yours. Yesterday, for example, while a bunch of readers on the right were unsubscribing, a lot of readers on the left were writing in upset with me, too. Some said I had “rose colored glasses on” about Republican bigotry. Others questioned why I’d give credence to the idea we should keep drag shows out of schools when it’s clearly about LGBTQ hate. Some were angry I covered the topic at all, insisting I’m just “allowing Republicans to drive the narrative.”

What do I take away from that feedback? That all those people who are upset should be reading Tangle. That it’s good they are here, and good this product exists. That even if it makes them mad every now and again, there will be days when they agree with me or learn something new or see an argument they hadn’t yet heard.

And that, more than anything, is why I hope they keep reading.


We'll be back tomorrow with our normal Tangle format.


Midterms.

In Alabama's Senate primary runoff, Katie Britt defeated Rep. Mo Brooks. Former President Trump had endorsed Brooks last year but retracted his endorsement after Brooks’s campaign struggled. Trump then threw his support behind Britt, a favorite of the Republican establishment. The endorsement divided many Trump supporters, but Britt ultimately prevailed by a wide margin. You can read more here.

In Georgia, Mike Collins, a "pro-Trump" and "America-first" candidate, defeated the Trump-endorsed Vernon Jones in a House race for Georgia's 10th Congressional District. In the 6th District, Jake Evans — who was also endorsed by Trump — lost to Rich McCormick, a physician who has questioned the results of the 2020 election. You can read more here.


Quick hits.

  1. Senate negotiators released an advance of the text of a gun reform bill that would prevent people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from purchasing a gun for five years, create incentives for states to enact red flag laws, increase resources for mental health and expand background checks for gun buyers under the age of 21. (The deal)
  2. President Joe Biden called for a three-month federal gas tax holiday. (The break)
  3. The Supreme Court ruled 6-3, along ideological lines, that Maine cannot exclude religious schools from taxpayer-funded private school tuition aid programs, saying it violates the First Amendment. (The ruling)
  4. The Texas public safety chief released new information on the "abject failure" in Uvalde, detailing how police could have stopped the shooting three minutes after it began, but instead waited almost an hour to breach an unlocked door. (The new info)
  5. Election officials from Georgia and Arizona testified under oath yesterday about pressure they received from the Trump administration to take action to overturn the results of the 2020 election. (The testimony)
  6. 1,000 people were killed and another 1,500 injured in an earthquake in Southern Afghanistan. (The quake)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


A story that matters.

The Biden administration is attempting to use the Federal Drug Administration to cut back on the amount of nicotine the tobacco industry can put in cigarettes. The agency proposed a new rule that would place a maximum nicotine level on cigarettes and other tobacco products. The plan will attempt to reduce the level of nicotine to "non-addictive" levels, an unprecedented move in the public health fight to end tobacco use. Since the FDA can't outright ban cigarettes, it is instead hoping to create standards that make them less attractive to people. It faces strong opposition from tobacco groups and libertarian-leaning consumer freedom groups, Axios reports.


Have a nice day.

Texas, the new home of Tesla, says it is planning to build charging stations for electric cars every 50 miles on most interstates. The plan will allow the state to support one million electric vehicles with dozens of new stations to allow easier long-distance travel. Around 129,000 people have electric cars in Texas, and the state has been a leader in producing oil, wind and solar energy. Now, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) says "the plan should ensure that every Texan can access the infrastructure they need to charge an EV." Funding for the project is coming from the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last year, which will allocate $408 million to Texas for the purpose of expanding its electric vehicle charging network. CBS Austin has the story.


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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.