Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class

DATE: 20th March, 5:00 – 6:00 pm

VENUE: Henry Jackson Society and Online

SPEAKER: Dr Rob Henderson

EVENT CHAIR: Marc Sidwell



Marc Sidwell 0:03

Good afternoon, everyone. I’m Mark Sidwell. I’m the Director of Research here at the Henry Jackson society. Hello to those of you in the room and those of you who are watching online, thank you for being here. We’re here today to discuss an excellent new book, troubled, a memoir of foster care, family and social class with its author, Rob Henderson. Those of you who are in the room can buy copies afterwards, those of you online, it’s available at all good digital outlets. I’m really pleased that we’ve got Rob here to discuss his book. Rob’s story is a remarkable one. And the book was very much telling that story. He’s risen up as an intellectual force, who is at home on the latest social media and all the new channels like Substack, but he’s also academically rigorous and thoughtful. And he’s particularly known for his concept of luxury beliefs, which I’m sure we’ll be discussing. I’m just going to quote something from a recent critical article about Rob, which I think captures him very well. Rob Henderson is a rare example of a dying breed, a Cambridge scholar, a public intellectual, and an unsentimental writer. These qualities radiate from his new memoir troubled, which recounts his miraculous trajectory, family dysfunction, foster care, the United States Air Force, and into high academia. And I should add that Rob has a BS from Yale, and a PhD in psychology, from Cambridge, as well as very large audiences on Twitter and Substack. What makes this book so interesting, is not only is it a memoir, but it’s also a critique of certain attitudes at the top of our society, that fail the less fortunate. Here in Henry Jackson society, we very much believe, not just in worrying about threats overseas and freedom overseas but understanding what makes for a resilient free society at home. So, I’m delighted to have Rob with us to discuss his book. Rob’s just going to talk for a little bit to introduce it, we’ll have something of a conversation, and then we’ll open the floor to questions. And we have about an hour for the event. So, without further ado, Rob.


Rob Henderson 2:26

Thank you, Mark. And thanks, everyone, for joining today. Well, I started writing this book, early 2020. I mean, it sort of been in a working progress since 2018, really. And I did find it difficult to write, in some ways. If I had known in advance what it was going to be like, I might not have done it. Especially the first half of the book, some of you may have read the book, or some of the early chapters, and they were really sort of emotionally trying and draining in a lot of ways. You know, as an adult, we sort of live our lives day to day and you know, you have responsibilities and obligations and work and all these commitments. So, you don’t really have time to dwell on some of the most difficult and challenging and painful periods of your early life things that all of us just to varying degrees have experienced. But I started writing the book in a lockdown at Cambridge and universities generally, research slowed for a period in early 2020 event essentially stopped and so I had a lot more time to channel my attention and energy into writing this book. And you know, I opened the preface introducing the reader to my wife and my story through the origin of my name. So, my three names Robert Kim Anderson. I use the preface, you know, a lot of people they’re not going to read the whole book, but maybe if they just read the preface, they’ll get a sense of the story and its main themes and the takeaways that I have these drew from reflecting on everything that I had been through and all of this sort of research that I’ve read as an adult. So, my first name Robert comes from my supposed birth father, who I never met.  The only information I have about him is his name. It was given to social workers and forensic psychologists and people who are involved in my case when I entered the foster care system in Los Angeles. My birth mother, it was it was her family name. She came to the US from Seoul as a young woman to study and started partying and doing drugs and her life started to quickly unravel. And so, she and I were homeless for a time. And then we live in a car, and then eventually settled in this slum apartment in LA. And she was strung out and unable to adequately care for me and so neighbours called the police was eventually placed into the LA County foster care system. And I went my whole life not knowing anything about my father. But last year, I took this, this 23inme genetic ancestry test and learned, you know, I kind of in my whole life thinking, okay, like mixed race, Asian, or biracial or something like, I didn’t really know. And I wasn’t really that concerned, really either. Maybe just didn’t want to maybe acknowledge that side of my family, something like that. But I took this test and discovered that I’m half Hispanic, my father was Mexican. And, you know, one of my friends, I showed him the results just to get him to kind of double check for me and, and it was like, Dude, you were born in LA. So, to surprise that you’re half Mexican. So that was new. That was I mean; it was kind of new to me. But it wasn’t that much of a surprise. I mean, so I live here in England now. And like, I’ve lived in like kind of cold and rainy places for, like, large stretches of my adult life. And so, I’m very, like, very pale. But when I was growing up in California, and it’s like much sunnier, the weather is just much warmer, my skin can get like, very dark. And so like, you look at little big pictures of myself when I’m a little kid, and it’s like, you know, I’ve looked much more sort of, you know, Hispanic than I do now. And so, I spent five years in the Los Angeles County foster care system. Eventually I was adopted by this working-class family. We settled in this kind of dusty, blue-collar town in northern California called Red Bluff. my adoptive father was his last name Henderson, I took that name. He was a truck driver; my adoptive mother was an assistant social worker. And they had a young daughter, it was their biological daughter who became my adoptive sister. And they raised me for about a year 18 months in and I remember, you know, that way I had been in seven different foster homes by the time I was adopted, that was my eighth, you know, these this language placement, you know, this eighth placement. And you know, they told me that I was going to be with this family permanently, but it didn’t really click for me until, you know, I had always called my foster mothers buy. They’re like Mrs. So and So Mrs. Martinez, Mrs. Dela Pena, Mrs. So and so. And I referred to my adoptive mother, I dressed her as Mrs. Henderson and she stopped me she said, Honey, you can just call me Mom, you can call him Dad, if you want. It’s up to you. And that was when it kind of clicked for me that this was a different placement. It was a different kind of family. And I expected it to be permanent. But it wasn’t there was a divorce. There was a lot of contentious disputes, concerns around custody. But eventually my adopted father stopped speaking with me. He was upset with my adoptive mother for separating from him and was raised by my mother for a time single mother. Later, she fell in love with a woman I tell that story in the book and how that surprised me. I mean, in some ways, it was surprising, it introduced a lot of stability into my early life, that relationship and that security that they provided. But there were, you know, more family tragedies and financial catastrophes and a lot of drama that that’s, you know, documents throughout the book. But eventually I joined the Air Force when I was 17. And I was ready to leave as soon as I was able, I mean, I wasn’t even an adult at this point, I had to have my mother sign this, what essentially was a permission slip because I was legally still a child. But she could sign this form. And I give to the recruiter and went on my way to basic training in Texas. And, you know, through a series of, you know, obstacles and self-reflection and some setbacks along the way. Eventually, I found myself in a position to apply to Yale on the GI Bill, which is a tuition programme that covered expenses. I learned a lot there at Yale, not all of it in the classroom. A lot of it through my interactions with the students with this, of the future ruling class, I met members of the current ruling class, professors, administrators, grad students, just that whole sort of dynamic of where a lot of the ideas that become popular among the you know, this word elites gets thrown around but I think that’s, you know, that’s a suitable word, you know, for our purposes. A lot of the idea has come from these universities, and then to Cambridge. And I worked at a lab in Stanford one summer and kind of spent the last. Almost, you know, it’s been about nine years now. And I arrived at Yale in 2015. But I spent the last nine years or so kind of in and around elite universities in the US in the UK and spent maybe the last third of the book or so documenting my observations and my perspective and the give us sort of a full the fullest treatment yet of this luxury beliefs idea, which I’ve written about and other outlets and on my sub stack. But we can maybe we can go from there. That’s the short version of the whole book.

Marc Sidwell 10:45

Thank you so much. Well, you mentioned there, you’re talking about takeaways, and some of the takeaways that you’ve had as sort of reflected on your life. I wonder what those main ones were, that you mentioned – was they like stability and security? Is that that the family structure? Is that sort of the heart of it for you as things that you thought mattered most when you reflect? Or is it something else?




Rob Henderson 11:06

I mean, that was one of the main core concepts that emerged as I was writing the book and reflecting on my life. And, you know, my, I mean, one, one indicator of this was sort of my academic performance, like waxed and waned throughout my childhood, depending on how stable things were at home. I know a lot of, you know, a lot of people think that if you have a smart kid, they’re going to be okay, no matter what. And that’s, that’s not true. I think, you know, if you are having that sort of baseline level of curiosity and academic ability, that’s, that’s necessary, but not sufficient to ensure that a kid will go on to, you know, fulfil their, their underlying potential. And, you know, I, among my friends, when I was growing up, I was probably the most sort of academically inclined and curious of them, but I still didn’t go to college, I was 25. And I had to take a sort of long, winding indirect path. But whenever there were periods of stability in my life, my grades improved, my I was more focused, I was more willing to do the assignments in the homework, and even against my will, you know, like, if you have parents who are monitoring you, and checking in on you, and ensuring that you’re doing the work, and, you know, you’ll do it. But if you don’t, then you know, very, very few kids will, you know, would rather do homework, and go on misadventures with their friends. And so, you can sort of see that, you know, there was a period when I was changing schools all the time when I was in the foster system. So, there’s extreme instability. And I didn’t learn to read until I was in second grade, I was seven years old. I barely knew the alphabet and sort of had to teach myself from like square one, how to how to sound words out and how to read. And I also, you know, in addition to telling the stories from my own life, about the effects of instability, not only for myself, but also for the friends that I grew up with, I also cite a lot of relevant research in developmental psychology. Psychologists have separated these two kinds of categories of childhood poverty and childhood instability, and investigated which of those are a stronger predictor of detrimental outcomes in early adulthood. Things like likelihood of incarceration, substance abuse, likelihood of graduating from high school, from college or university, teen pregnancy and all these kinds of things. And they find that poverty has either no link at all, no predictive power in terms of predicting those outcomes, or it’s kind of weak, it’s kind of a tenuous connection. But they do find a strong and consistent fact for instability. And instability is measured by things like were you raised by two parents? Were they married? Was there any divorce? How many different romantic partners did your primary caregiver had when you were growing up? How frequently Did you relocate? Essentially, just how much day-to-day instability and disorder was there in your sort of everyday life? I took this test and unsurprisingly, I scored like well into the top 1%, which is, I mean, that’s probably true for just about any foster kid, simply because like, if you live through multiple different, you know, placements, different homes, that’s already going to sort of max out on multiple different items on that kind of questionnaire. And so, by the time I got to Yale, and I started to ask people questions and make friends and learn a bit more about people’s backgrounds and realise that a lot of these students had, you know, of course, they very few of them grew up poor, if any. And there’s obviously me and there’s like a handful. But I’ve never met anyone like me at any of these numbers, I met one foster kid, but it was like a sort of temporary placement. But in addition to sort of the absence of people who grew up, or I met, very few who had any sort of Extreme Instability disorder, there were a few, actually, but I just didn’t think it was a coincidence that the people who go to these kinds of universities, of course, you know, they tend to be economically fortunate, but they also had parents and families that were stable and secure and prioritise education and achievement and success. And you know, the kind of conventional values that we all kind of know do predict success, hard work, focus, discipline, you know, good caretaking, good parenting, all those things that a lot of people are, especially people who occupy elite institutions are very reluctant to publicly promote and advertise and say that these are good practices.

Marc Sidwell 16:05

Could you talk a little bit to about your military sort of study that you sort of found the opposite brand you found in the face of all that instability? Then you went to military, and it seemed like that sort of gave you a counterweight or a different kind of thing? What did you find valuable in that?

Rob Henderson 16:20

I joined the military kind of half impulsively. And this is something else that kind of emerges out of the book, you know, people will ask me, you know, what can we do to help young people in these situations, and I described the reason why I joined, because two older males in my early life, and my high school history teacher, he was in the military, he suggested It’s my friend’s father. So, I moved out when I was 16, moved in with my friend and his brother and his dad, and I tell the story of why in the book, but he had been in the Air Force too. And so that was like an idea planted in my mind. You know, it’s one thing to sort of know about possibilities in the abstract of, oh, you could do this, you could do that. But when you meet a human being a flesh and blood human being in front of you, an older person who you respect, saying, I did this, and this could be an option for you. That’s like a much more sort of real intangible path. And so, they suggested this to me. And that was, it was harder, like a military experience, the training process, I enlisted when I was 70. This is 2007. So, it was like George Bush was still president, we were still in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the Air Force had just revamped their whole training regimen. And like, I arrived, and, you know, as soon as I got off the bus, instructor instructors are like, I don’t know what you guys heard. But this isn’t the chair force. And you know, it’s just a brutal eight weeks of training, and then like another sort of several months of technical training, and all these other things, and that really sucked. But it did create these boundaries and these constraints and contain that sort of impulsive and aggressive energy that exists in a lot of young people, a lot of young men, especially young males, who grew up the way that I did without a lot of oversight without many rules and filter match to suddenly like, every aspect of your life is tightly controlled from how you wear your uniform to how you make your bed to how back then we still had to shine our shoes, I don’t think they should shine shoes anymore. sound like an old person back when we shine their shoes, but we had to shine our shoes, and all these things. And it was it was sort of tedious and mind numbing, and dull, you know, I sort of gloss over it in the book, because I didn’t want to bore the reader with page after page of all the sort of tedious tasks, and like, you know, dusting and cleaning and you know, all that stuff, the classic image of like, the new recruit cleaning a toilet with a toothbrush, like that’s real, you know, it’s not fun. And you know, I tell the story in the book, one of my friends who I graduated high school with he, he went to prison. And he was sentenced to 18 months, he got out in 12. And I met him. So, I think by this point, I had been I had been in the military for a little over a year by this point. And we met up and I we started talking to them, like I asked him what was prison like? And he asked me what the military was like, and we kind of gave the same answers. Because like, you know, you wake up at this time and you do this and then you make your bed and then you must go here and you know, report to this person and we both initially sort of agreed like it was a like a very dull and obnoxious experience at first. But then we both kind of gradually converge on this agreement that it was it was enjoyable, in some ways. Like it was good for us. It was nice to have sort of day to day predictable I need to know in advance what your day would look like what your week would look like who was around you, you know what you were responsible for who like what the sort of you knows, in prison, they have their own kind of pecking order. The military has its hierarchy, you know, who to report to, and who’s beneath you, and who’s above and all this stuff. And there’s something like suiting about that. And my friend, he just got out of prison. And he was telling me about, you know, in some ways, I liked it so much that I wish I could go back. And eventually, he did, I think about six months later. And I ended up re enlisting, I mean, I signed it for four years, and then four years had passed, I was 21. And I knew on some level, I wasn’t ready to like, be free. And I knew that like, at age 21, if I had stepped out of that system, my life could have still been, you know, still could have unravelled. And so, I needed to, like every second of those eight years to sort of retain my focus and, you know, learn all the things that I needed to learn about camaraderie and discipline and how to be, you know, an adult and fulfil commitments and obligations, all those things.


Marc Sidwell 21:09

I read you also said that it was quite meritocratic world, which I was struck by. See, that’d be powerful, too. And so then the elite universities, yet another phase, but I mean, this book was written, of course, but before October, the seventh, which, in particular, since then, in some ways, the university campuses in America have sort of been unveiled a little bit to the public on some of the crazier things that go on there and very upsetting ways the university presidents turning up at Congress and saying things that are out quite out of touch with, you know, most normal people. Would you reflect on that? I mean, do you think that was consonant with what you saw, it was sort of just people didn’t know. And now that’s sort of showing people what could be like on campus a little bit?

Rob Henderson 21:52

I think people have kind of known for a while, but that was like an inflection point where it. I mean, I think like ordinary people who aren’t connected to the universities have kind of slowly become aware. But that was a moment where it became appropriate and acceptable for the elites to start speaking out. I think there was this kind of omerta among elites, like, we’re not going to criticise their own university, because whatever the Republicans are doing, we don’t want to be one of the bad guys. But then that occurred. And that was just too. You know, it was so egregious the responses and the attitudes and you know, that finally people started to speak out more. I mean, I arrived at Yale in 2015. That was just a few years after the birth of what people now call wokeness. I know Jonathan hight and Greg Luciano, and others have traced it to 2011 2012. But by the time I got to Yale in 2015, the universities were kind of immersed in that way of thinking, but it kind of spilled out with all the controversies that were happening and sort of the mid late 2010s. At Yale at Harvard, there was a story of a Yale, they tried to get some professors fired at Princeton, some students locked themselves in the president’s office, I think, to get them to change the name of a building or something. You know, Evergreen was a big story around that time, just sort of story after story of Steve students. And faculty, too. I mean, a lot of these movements were supported by faculty and administrators and graduates of these schools as well. I mean, I came into Yale not knowing anything about elite college campus culture, I write in the book about how, you know, I have this is my first semester, this must have been in September. So, I got out of the air force in August started classes in September. And I think this was in late September, Jonathan Hite came to give a talk at Yale. And he started to talk about the purpose of a university whether it’s to seek truth, whether it’s academic freedom, whether it’s social justice, like what are the aims of these institutions? And I was just sitting there thinking like, what is he talking about? Like, it’s, I mean, to me, it just seemed obvious. Like I thought, that’s what the university is for is for truth for inquiry. Social justice. I didn’t even know what social justice was. At this point. It was just so outside of my purview. And then, about a month after that, this big controversy kicked off the Halloween costume controversy as it came to be known at Yale. And students accused these two professors of being racist because they have essentially said like, you know, you can wear the Halloween costumes you want to wear, and students said that they were supporting cultural appropriation and these kinds of things. And that was just such a strange experience for me, because I heard students say like, you know, the emails that these professors sent in defence sort of freedom of expression, made them feel unsafe on campus, or they felt like they were in danger, or they felt that they weren’t welcomed on campus. And these were the sons and daughters of millionaires who’d went to private schools. And now they were at Yale. And it was like if anyone belongs here, like this, you guys. And they were using this kind of very evocative language. And so, for me is coming from the environments I came from and foster homes, in the military, and so on, when I heard people say, they felt didn’t really make sense to me. And then I would ask students to explain it. And they would say, like me, there was one once did I die until this interaction is one student that I was too privileged to understand why that email was offensive. I mean, the students would sort of make assumptions. I mean, you know, ironically, I think this is like kind of a taboo that they were engaging in, which is like judging someone based on their appearance, but they made these assumptions about me, and assumed that I must be, you know, whatever, a cisgender, a biracial Asian male, something, so I must have been very privileged growing up. And that was the kind of new environment I was immersed in. It was a strange stretch. But that’s when the idea of luxury belief started to take shape in my mind.

Marc Sidwell 26:24

Well, let’s talk about that. Because I want to come out and see if there are questions for people too. But I think we need to get into the idea. So can you just explain it succinctly for people.


Rob Henderson 26:35

Luxury beliefs are ideas and opinions that confer status on the affluent, while inflicting costs on the lower classes. And a core feature of a luxury belief is that the believer is sheltered from the consequences of his or her belief. There are multiple kinds of sociological frameworks and recent empirical research findings and so on that support the general idea, but my main idea is that luxury beliefs are a way for people who are very affluent, very educated, very privileged to distinguish themselves from the masses. Some of it is unconsciously, but it doesn’t have to be, you know, I gave it this, you know, this is like the academic give me I gave it that very specific definition. You know, does the idea confer status on the affluent? And does it influence costs on the lower classes? And if the answer is yes, then it’s a luxury belief. I don’t say anything about intent, or whether it’s deliberate or whether it’s calculated, and so on. But I, you know, there’s sort of study psychology, and there’s a rich body of research indicating that the driver esteem and prestige and status and social reputation in the eyes of others is like a primary fundamental need, that all of us have. And if you sort of look at empirically, sort of who are the people who have the strongest desire for wealth, and for status, and for esteem, they are the people who are at or near the top of the economic and social ladder. So, when researchers, when they collect objective data from participants about their levels of education, and income, and occupational prestige, and so on, they find that people who are at or near the top of those scales are also the most likely to agree with statements like it would please me to be in a position of power over others. I enjoy when people look at me when I walk into a room, you know, I enjoy having social influence over others, and so on and so forth. And so that drive for distinction for esteem for status. In this case, I think it’s channels to sort of cultivating these provocative and new-fangled ideas, and we can get into examples, if you want.

Marc Sidwell 28:54

That’d be good. Just to make it concrete. I mean, perhaps something like family structures, that’d be an example?

Rob Henderson 28:58

Family structure is one that I do a lot like in the book, but I think like a very simple way to understand it would be something like defunding the police, which was a very popular movement in the US from 2020 to 2022. I think it still has its supporters, but it’s not nearly as they’re not nearly as vocal as they were two years ago. But it’s, there were multiple elite organisations, media outlets, people who were supporting this defund the police movement. And there was a representative survey in late 2020, which found that the highest income Americans were the most in support of defunding the police. There were kind of smaller scale surveys done in individual cities like in New York and Detroit, Minneapolis and elsewhere, which found that white Democrats were far more supportive of defunding the police than black and Hispanic Democrats, and essentially people who are more likely to live in gated communities or safe neighbourhoods or low crime, relatively high income area As you know, if there are no police, it would be the least likely to affect them. But there were also reports of wealthy neighbourhoods in Chicago, hiring off duty police officers and security guards. And so even then, like even if you do sort of even if the crime does kind of touch your neighbourhood, they have the resources and the ability to hire private security, so they get police, but everyone else, let’s defund. And in the wake of that movement in 2020, there were different policies implemented in many cities throughout the US and violent crime increased homicide rates increased. And, you know, I cited studies in the book that poor people are like, by far the most likely to be targets of crime. And often the perpetrators of crime tend to be young men. And the targets of crime tend to be low-income women, or elderly or children or people who are physically more at risk. And I think a lot of people who are championing the defunded police movement were made them look exciting and interesting. And it separated them from the unwashed masses. And when these policies were implemented, they were untouched and unaffected by it.

Marc Sidwell 31:18

Thank you. That’s a great example. So, we can keep talking, but I’d love to hear if there’s any questions that people in the room might want to have.

Speaker 1 31:27

I’ve been doing my PhD I looked at environmental behaviour. And it seemed since plausible to me that things like deep growth was a luxury belief where people might. So, the idea that lower economy for environmental reasons, when thinking about how luxury beliefs act as a costly signal, presumably the costs on cheats or mimics of the belief must be quite high. So, someone who comes from not a privileged background, they might be able to equally say defund the police and then be perceived to be pro status, is the cost on them coming from the fact they don’t have access to the idea? Or is it that they think it will harm themselves if they express that belief, or that there would be socially have social costs ostracised by their community?

Rob Henderson 32:19

Well, typically, like by the time a luxury belief becomes popular enough for the massive list you have adopted, and usually the elites will move on to a different belief. And it’s not just the belief itself, but it’s the way you communicate it. It’s the reasons you give for it. I mean, there are all these sorts of intricate subtleties around well, why do you believe in defending the police and you have to, you know, cite the right ideas undergirding it about, you know, channelling resources to violence interrupters, and social workers, and so on and so forth. If you just say, because cops are bad, that’s not enough, like you’ll give yourself away as someone who actually didn’t absorb the ideas in the right way. It’s an expression of cultural capital. So, you know, I watched this movie recently, it was this guy, someone asked him about this music composer, and what he thought of him. And his character said something like, he started to tell us details about this composer’s life he was born in this year, you know, he was he was relevant for these reasons. And the person asked him said, no, no, I want to know what you think of the music. And this person didn’t know how to communicate about music, all he knew were the sort of facts and that kind of reminded me of this, this idea here of, you know, you have to be able to communicate in the right way to pass yourself off as someone who moves in these rarefied circles.

Marc Sidwell 33:40

Something very interesting that struck me is the power of vocabulary in that way. So, things like cultural appropriation or cisgender, whatever these words are ways of saying, I went to a really good university, but they are also ways of actually excluding most people from being able to join that cultural conversation, because you need to be quite highly educated in these complicated codes to be able to be part of it.

Rob Henderson 34:05

That’s right. I mean, that was one of the like, when I got to Yale, and I talked about this in the book, too, about how you have to sort of keep up with the latest fashions keep up with the media, the latest think pieces. What did so and so’s op ed say, and the New York Times or this new splashy piece in The Atlantic, like just, you know, keeping up with the latest opinions and ideas and sort of views that even if you didn’t agree with them, you were still expected to kind of know about them. And that was very new for me, as someone who, you know, when I was growing up, we couldn’t afford cable. So, we didn’t like I didn’t watch CNN or Fox or MSNBC. We subscribe to the local newspaper. And that was it. That was the extent of it.

Speaker 2 34:51

I’m totally interested about universities, not so much the students, students, and all kinds of ideas. But the academics and the administrators would be such, not just defenders, but proponents of luxury beliefs. Are these people who are meant to consider evidence?

Rob Henderson 35:14

They do it the universities there. I think the right now there is this sort of internal conflict, like I mean, Jonathan Hite talks about this at length about what are what is the aim of the university. Is it to help the dispossessed and the marginalised and achieve some vision of social justice? Or is it to just sort of do the work and advance knowledge? And? But how did they come to these views? I mean, I think it just goes back to that drive for distinction. And there are multiple ways you can do that, you know, one pathway is to sort of break any scientific ground or write an interesting paper or book or something like that. But you know, that’s very hard, it’s very hard to do that. And I’ve been coming up with new luxury believes it may be an easier idea, or it may be sort of an easier path to achieving distinction in some ways of some new-fangled idea of really reimagining how society should be operated, or a new policy or a new movement. There’s also a lot of guilt, I think, at these places. And it’s, you know, it is kind of aggravated and promoted, in some ways, by professors, by administrators, not all of them, but many of them that there is this kind of undercurrent of, you know, you are so privileged to be here. And this, I think, like this almost implicit belief that the only reason you’re so privileged is because someone else must be like up, you either directly or indirectly, must have inflicted some kind of harm on someone else. And you must make up for it. Or looking at the ugly history of the US or the west or something that we must use your privilege to somehow mitigate those inequalities. Instead of just, you know, doing the work doing the scientific research or achieving the degree and getting a successful career. So, yes, it’s an interesting question. I’ll be thinking about it.

Marc Sidwell 37:32

I’ve got a question here from online, which is more about the political implications, I suppose. So, he’s talking about family structure again. So, if we take these common sensical old fashioned views about well you know, it’s good for family structure to be stable and consistent or that, are there political implications of that? What can government’s do? Do you feel that there is sort of implications in that direction from your line of thinking?

Rob Henderson 37:57

I think this is like a very, maybe the most overlooked factor that gives rise to all kinds of social ills when it comes to addiction and homelessness and poverty. And many of you read surveys of people who end up homeless or people who end up in the foster care system are people who kind of live on the margins of society. A very large number of them disproportionate number of them come from sort of chaotic early family lives. There’s one stat I cite in the book. So only 3% of foster kids graduate from university in the US, compared to around 35% of Americans overall. 3% for foster kids, but for boys who spent any amount of time in foster care, the numbers of those boys who go to jail or prison is 60%. So, if you’re a boy in the foster system, you’re 20 times more likely to be incarcerated than to graduate college. And, like, that’s something I think people should be aware of. You know, I’ve looked a lot at the correlates of childhood instability. I mentioned all the detrimental factors earlier about incarceration and substance abuse and addiction and so on. But also, it does seem to have some relationship with like personality changes over time. It reduces impulse control; it’s associated with what are called the Dark triad personality traits. So, childhood instability is a strong and significant predictor of psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism. Of course, there are questions of sort of genetic contributions, there’s always that question of nature and nurture. But you know, there’s a large body of developmental psychology to research indicating that the first five to seven years of life kind of regardless of your inherent intrinsic propensities, if you spend those first five years or seven years in sort of extremes disorder in a kind of, like a I mean, it’s in evolutionary terms is very novel to be in an environment where the number of adult caregivers you have rapidly turns over. I mean, that’s not a, you know, it’s not a natural or normal experience for young humans. And that does seem to have some plays a contributing role in sort of changes in brain circuitry and behaviour and thoughts and feelings. And so, you know, there have been interesting studies indicating the rise in suspicion, narcissism, of feelings of self-importance and hostility in young people. And I know there’s like there’s a million different variables that would be impossible to disentangle with smartphones and social media and all these other things. But, you know, one thing I’ve noticed, like no one is really, I mean, some are, but they just don’t get as much attention is this sort of family structure? I think that does play some non-trivial role.

Marc Sidwell 41:16

Maybe as our political parties, somewhat captured in the UK by luxury beliefs. Certainly, if you think about the Labour Party, they’re very detached from their own working class roots, they’re very much a sort of an urban liberal party that’s driving a lot of policy agenda these days, the Conservative Party, arguably, too is that strong disjunction between the Conservative Party membership in the country voters and the parliamentary party in London, which has, you know, it’s much more sort of luxury belief type beliefs or something closer to that belief set. I didn’t know how you get past that if the parties themselves aren’t willing to talk about these things.

Rob Henderson 41:55

I think there has been this sort of stratification where the elites in every political party, regardless of the left or the right, go to the same thing, they have the same kind of lives, in the same neighbourhoods attend the same universities. Okay, at least in the US context, college educated Republican, and a college educated, democratic, much more in common with one another than they do with a low-income person in their own party, in terms of the way that they think about the world and communicate, and there’s sort of general habitus and outlook. And I think like that there is that kind of growing divide along class lines, more so than political lines, which may explain I think, some of the rise in populist movements and that sort of divergence in sort of the political establishment in Western countries and the voters and to earlier questions. So, I think, family stability is important. What can we do? I think there’s, like 111, successful, like large scale. And in hindsight, I think it’s very surprising the success of this movement of the anti-smoking movement. I don’t know the figures in the UK. But I’d imagine they’re not too dissimilar from what I’ve seen in the US where the number of smokers in the US has dropped by half since the early 1980s. Something like more than that, it’s around 40% of Americans smoked, at least semi regularly in the early 80s. And today, I think it’s something on the order of 10 to 15%. And a lot of that was due to sort of policies, guidelines, regulations, introducing what they call the syntax of increasing the cost of cigarettes, I think all those things played a role. But I think there was also a sort of a larger movement, where at least when I was a kid in the 90s, it was like, every third commercial was how smoking was going to kill you. If it wasn’t going to kill you, it was going to kill someone next to you because of second-hand smoke. And it was just sort of, I mean, I still smoked anyway. I do think that like on the margins, there are like, there were some non-trivial number of people who would have smoked but because there was this sort of atmosphere of, you know, smoking, like it obtained is kind of immoral, unethical quality, that that did change people’s behaviour over time, but that I guess the challenge would be so I think the idea would be to do something like that, but for family structure, but to do it in a way that isn’t quite so pronounced in terms of shame and stigma, but maybe more so focusing on the positive end of things that mean a simple example would be you know, like a child with a like a father who prioritises their well-being at home is X percent more likely to graduate or X percent less likely to go to prison something like that. Just finding ways to promote that family stability and framing it in the right way.

Marc Sidwell 45:10

The irony, of course, is often the people at the top of society live their lives by those values, but then they feel bad about it, perhaps because they didn’t want maybe people feel bad about that their lives, which is fair enough, I suppose. More questions from the pool?

Speaker 3 45:27

So, two questions: the first one, what do you make of it? It would be interesting to hear your perspective. And secondly, do you really think that this thesis of luxury believes applies to the UK?

Rob Henderson 45:30

I think it’s less pronounced here. I mean, the UK just has a much more rigid class structure. I made this joke on Twitter back when it was still called Twitter once, where if elites could go back to wearing powdered wigs in public, that luxury beliefs would wither away overnight? You know, because then they wouldn’t have to feel the need to always distinguish themselves, they would just be very odd. And I think in the UK, you almost have you don’t have like, the courts. But I think you know, the sort of everyday version of that is accents and dialect and where you’re from, and it does seem like there’s also a comfort with the class structure here. I mean, there’s a bit of self-criticism and some concern, but it does seem sort of more publicly discussed. I remember I had this conversation with a Cambridge professor. I mean, it was It wasn’t you know; he was very comfortable saying this in a public setting where he was talking about some postdocs in his department. And he said something like, you know, they’re, they’re good researchers, but they’re never really going to make it because they’re northerners. Like, I didn’t even know what it what that meant. Like, as an American total outsider. I’m like a northerner, like, is this Game of Thrones or something? And, and then, like, I looked this up and asked him to, I’m like, okay, so there’s this kind of, I guess, north south divide, where I guess the southern part is like the Metropolitan elite part. And almost the reverse, I guess it’d be us where the South in the US is like the backwards rural part. But in the US, no one would ever openly and publicly say that they would think it, but they wouldn’t say like, oh, you’re a southerner. So, you’re not going to, you know, but so it seems like there’s just an ease with the class structure here. I’ve never, I’ve never quite seen it in the US. I also think it’s less politically contentious, less. I mean, it exists and especially like, I think, when I first arrived, 2018, Brexit was still this, you know, it was still kind of a polarising topic. But I still think even then, it wasn’t, it wasn’t anything like what we saw in the US with Trump and with the presidential election. It seems like people can still be friends across party lines here. I mean, more so at least then in the US. So that’s, I think that’s one of the reasons why I like it here. And it’s just it’s not quite as polarised. People aren’t quite as quick to ostracise one another for their political views.

Marc Sidwell 48:30

Does that apply to universities as well? Comparing Cambridge to Yale, is it?

Rob Henderson 48:34

Yes, Yale was much worse. This isn’t to say that Cambridge doesn’t have its share of sort of self-inflicted controversies and, you know, kind of identity politics. But the Ivy League is just on another level, like if Yale is a 10 out of 10, then Cambridge is like a, I don’t know what, an eight and a half or something. I mean, people still get cancelled and disinvited and these kinds of things. But at Yale, it’s just, you know, seems like every other month, there’s some kind of controversy either at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, it’s just nonstop relentless.

Marc Sidwell 49:12

Have you thought about what could be done with the universities? Now that you are slightly involved with a new university in Austin, is that right? I don’t know if that’s a sort of despair is like, well, we just need to start again, or is there a reform? What do you think about the prospects rather sort of approach?

Ron Henderson 49:31

It’s a good question. I was dead set on, on sort of severing any tie with any university. By the time I was sort of closing my PhD in 2022. I was kind of finished with academia, but I met some of the people involved with this new start-up University meeting out in Texas, the University of Austin, and so I’ve taught some summer courses for them and still retain an affiliation with them. I think there’s room for both, though I think there’s room to experiment, and there’s more room for experiments in higher education. I mean, I think we’ve, I mean, the internet’s been around sort of, more or less available to just about anyone in developed countries for 20 years plus, and I still think like, we haven’t fully managed to capitalise on that to create new methods of providing education for people that maybe because we thought these institutions were for education, and that’s one purpose, but they provide all these other benefits to like dating and social life. And, you know, just creating a bridge between adolescence and adulthood. And there’s so many other things that that universities do. But I think there’s room for reform. And starting new institutions, I think that’s a reform also good depends on your temperament, too. I have friends who are in universities, professors, and postdocs, and grad students, and they’re doing great work. And they’re kind of able to walk that tightrope of, you know, speaking out when they need to, but keeping their head down and doing the research and, you know, they just have a more, I guess, even keeled temperament or something, but they’re able to handle that. Whereas I don’t think I could have I don’t think I could have done it. It was it took everything I had to sort of, you know, stay right before, you know that that that line, you know, like trying to determine where it was and stay on the on the right side of it. Until I finished my PhD. It was really, really difficult.


Marc Sidwell 51:38

I suppose now you’re walking the third line that the internet has enabled being essentially a sort of independent scholar with Substack supporting to ensure an X or whatever we call it now and the book and that seems to work, too. And you think that the internet sort of allowing the ideas that might be hard in those in those sorts of institutional settings to come across to sort of take on a new life and reach audiences?

Rob Henderson 52:03

I think that’s right. I mean, it’s opened up new possibilities. I think for people Substack has been great. I mean, there have been sort of notable cases of exiled journalists at prestigious legacy media outlets. I mean, you know, so many different people now. Iglesias, and Barry Weiss and many other professors, too. I mean, there are professors Now Jonathan Hite has a very popular Substack now, which I recommend. And so, it’s been a great platform, I think for scholars and professors and journalists and in general to share ideas. A friend of mine, he’s starting a YouTube channel where he’s doing a sort of series on the great books. He’s doing sort of one lecture on each of the books in the Western canon. And those books are kind of unfashionable at elite universities now. But people will always I think, there’s a reason why it’s the Western canon, right? Like it speaks to something, I think in humans that why those books have retained relevance, but now people are speaking about them online rather than in universities or in addition to universities.

Marc Sidwell 53:19

Well, we’re out of time, unfortunately. But for those of you who are in the room, if you’d like to chat further or to buy a book or get a book signed that that’s going to be possible, but I just wanted to say do follow up on X or on Substack, which is excellent, do buy the book. It’s terrific read and thank you so much for being here.

Rob Henderson 53:34

Thanks, Marc.


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