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debate me, bro

My Night Among Bari Weiss’s Free Speech Warriors

At The Free Press’s Texas-size immigration debate, nothing was at stake and everybody won.

The Free Press founder Bari Weiss
Francine Orr/Getty Images
The Free Press founder Bari Weiss

At the first of the “American Debates” series, co-sponsored by Bari Weiss–founded Substack newsletter The Free Press and the libertarian Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, a prerecorded introduction instructed the Dallas audience to locate the emergency exits. It also warned that some in the audience might find the discussion upsetting. In which case, the recording deadpanned, they should look for the exits too.

Cue chuckles, with scattered clapter.

By now, most of the very online are familiar with Weiss’s schtick. The intellectual dark-web doyenne presides over a lucrative media empire centered on The Free Press, technically the most popular newsletter on Substack with over 600,000 subscribers, upward of 77,000 of them paying at least $8 a month. That reach and income have allowed Weiss to run The Free Press as much more than a newsletter: It has a staff, columists, podcasts—including a sympathetic platform for J.K. Rowling—and, naturally, events. The brand forcefully represents itself as a forum for people and ideas that have passed their sell-by date in today’s more enlightened and politically sensitive times, or, as their About page puts it, “We focus on stories that are ignored or misconstrued in the service of an ideological narrative.” You can argue among yourselves whether Rowling has really found herself without other outlets to air her grievances—at The Free Press, this is as canonical as the whole of her Wizarding World.

On the agenda: a classic “debate me, bro” event. The show in Dallas took immigration as its topic—a story that has inarguably been “misconstrued in the service of an ideological narrative,” though the organizers seemed to goose the ideological nature of the discussion rather than open it to novel or unaligned ideas. It was framed as “Should the United States shut its borders?” and the panelists on the “No” side were Reason editor-at-large Nick Gillespie and Young Turks co-founder Cenk Uygur. Arguing “shut” affirmatively? Former Wall Street Journal and New York Post columnist Sohrab Ahmari and intransigent racist Ann Coulter. Strap yourself in for a barn burner of unpredictable rhetoric, folks.

“Shutting” the border simplifies the border crisis so starkly I was genuinely curious about what policy was actually up for debate. Prior to the event’s start, I asked some folks in the concession line what they thought the question implied was, and they said they assumed it meant disallowing illegal immigration—but couldn’t tell me if that’s what it meant for sure. They laughed when I asked if “shutting” the border would also mean that no one could leave. (After all, whose border is more impenetrable than that of North Korea?)

As titillating as “Should the United States Shut Its Borders?” might seem to those flying in from the coasts (as all the panelists and the host did), it’s an odd question to pose in Texas if you want to highlight questions the woke police won’t let you ask anymore. That debate is pretty one-sided around here, but in the Lone Star State, it’s the woke types who are getting canceled—like when the state attorney general moved to shut down a Catholic migrant shelter earlier this year.* Indeed, the pre-debate text poll put the audience at 71 percent supporting a “shut” border and only 29 percent believing, well, something else.*

The debate itself proceeded mostly as you’d expect. It was mostly about illegal immigration. You’re familiar with the outlines. The libertarian and liberal spoke about our heritage as a “nation of immigrants” and lauded the contributions of immigrants as entrepreneurs and engines of cultural change. (Mexican food has unseated Italian food as the nation’s cuisine of choice, Gillispie pointed out: Isn’t that worth celebrating on its own? Even Greg Abbott would be hard-pressed to disagree.) Both Gillespie and Uygur mentioned their own immigrant heritage; they pointed to familiar statistics about the lower rates of criminal activity among migrants than legal citizens and that legal immigrants are more likely to start businesses and employ others.

And Ann Coulter was a poisonous bigot. She spoke about being OK with immigrants, but argued that they should be “better” than we are—“more educated … wealthier,” she said, as well as “better looking or taller.” She deplored the “illegal [who] runs across the border eight months pregnant, drops a baby, and then starts collecting welfare on that anchor baby.” (But what if that baby is really tall, Ann? What if they’re really tall?) She mocked the opposing side for getting “weepy about their grandfathers and Ellis Island.… [They] will tell you about every immigrant valedictorian but will not tell you about the child rape.” She ended her time on the stage by recommending everyone read Camp of the Saints.

Ahmari gifted the audience with something I haven’t seen in a while: the conservative perspective on immigration centered on the idea that immigrants themselves suffer with things how they are today. On the one hand, illegal immigrants drive down wages; he castigated the wealthy liberals and big businesses who profit from cheap labor and forcefully argued that there’s really no such job that “Americans won’t do,” just ones they’ve been priced out of. Even more powerfully, he asked the audience to consider the position of an undocumented worker, unable to do anything about being exploited, shut out of the criminal justice system unless they themselves are arrested, living in fear. It’s a great argument—so great that it used to be the Democratic Party’s, which Ahmari repeatedly pointed out with ever-increasing glee.

Here’s where the event’s cracked axis revealed itself: His argument didn’t belong on the same stage as Coulter’s; neither did he, and it showed. One of my personal pleasures during the debate was watching Ahmari physically shrink to the side of his chair, repelled by Coulter’s outsize (if also skeletal) presence. I sensed the audience shrinking away from her a bit as well. The postdebate text poll showed a swing of the “don’t shut” side by eight points: 63 percent for “shutting” and 37 percent against. (No word yet if they’ll follow up the poll after everyone in the audience completes Coulter’s racist homework.)

At the after-party (as one does), I found the better-dressed and older contingent of the audience positively giddy. Conversation bubbled with compliments for Weiss and the event. “I just love what she’s doing,” one gentleman in a fleece vest told me. “What a great debate!” I heard from another man in a fleece vest. The near-universal sentiment was that Coulter came out on the losing end, at least in terms of her approach: “It wasn’t a good argument,” and, “She didn’t do her side any favors.” I forwarded the assessment, “Well, she’s an unrepentant racist,” in almost every conversation and got in response everything from, “Well, I wouldn’t say that,” to wholehearted agreement, though one woman who had come to the same conclusion pivoted unexpectedly. Coulter was clearly a hateful xenophobe, yes, “and I loved that I got to hear every word she said.”

I said I could comfortably go a lifetime without ever hearing from Ann Coulter ever again. “But isn’t it good to know what some of the people arguing her side are really thinking?” she countered. Did you really not know? I asked. Did you need to see her here to know that she’s a terrible racist? Did The Free Press need to pay her to be here so that we could find that out? (I may have made the mistake of saying “platforming,” which of course is something only woke people say.) “It’s just good we can have this debate,” she said, echoing the theme of the night. The conversation petered out.

I talked with Ahmari for a long time. He was surprised and a little woozy, I think, at the number of people who approached him to congratulate him on “winning” the debate or to let him know how well he did. I overheard someone tell him that he worked in state government and he’d like to talk further about this wage-suppression idea. Since I didn’t ask, I can’t know, but my cynical suspicion is that some of his newly minted fans might never have encountered a closed-border argument that did not sound like it came from underneath a peaked white hood.

Some people call what Weiss is doing a grift, but I disagree: It’s not a grift if you are giving people what they paid for, and her customers are more than satisfied with the product. They are so satisfied you might call them smug, though it’s human instinct to be around people who agree with you—even if that agreement is based around the fuzzy notion that you should be able to disagree without actually being, you know, unpleasant.

As much as I found myself railing against whatever speaker fee they paid Coulter, as much as I gritted my teeth while she spouted her cold soup of nativist talking points, I think I came around to feeling grateful that she was there. While she didn’t make an appearance at the after-party, she was the turd in the punchbowl, the piece of shit in the spicy margarita at the open bar. Her repellent presence reminded people that perhaps arguments about immigration policy should have an unpleasant aspect to them—we were, after all, arguing about the fate of real people here. There is no public policy without human cost, and that’s especially true of immigration; even Ahmari’s aspirational vision doesn’t alleviate human suffering, it just leaves the desperate on the other side of our national door.

On my way out, I saw cheery Free Press flacks pushing logo-bedecked made-in-China baseball caps; FIRE was giving away T-shirts emblazoned with “Free Speech Makes Free People.” Alibaba offers custom printing on caps like the Free Press’s swag for $1.50 each in a bulk order of at least 50. Custom T-shirts cost even less. A “dad hat” manufactured within these borders at a union shop starts at $15 if you order at least 500; harder to give those away.

I used to love the kind of high-minded philosophical jousting that we were supposed to enjoy that night, even if what we got was more like a Punch-and-Judy show. Liberal-versus-conservative wrestling matches in the octagon of ideas used to be more popular in general. Back in the early 2000s, Ann Coulter had a successful run touring the country with Bill Maher as her “liberal” opponent; such partisan shills taking potshots at each other are still what you find on CNN but, uh, that’s not going great for them. In retrospect, it’s crushingly obvious how that desire for verbal fireworks and ideological spectacle got us exactly where we are today.

Two hundred dollars of this magazine’s money went to bite-size key lime cheesecakes and a high-end version of Chik-fil-A nuggets. I suppose I can justify it in the name of information-gathering—I went to the big debate so you don’t have to—and, I admit, I had a good time. Perhaps we deserve the scant pleasures to be had in this benighted world. I grabbed a hat too.

* This article originally miscalculated the poll results. It also misstated what happened to a migrant shelter.