Substack: The last, best hope for free speech

For those whose epistemology boils down to: Let everything be discussed, and may the best ideas win, it’s essential to build a safe haven for free exchange of ideas. Just in the past few months, Substack has emerged as that platform. To call it a breath of fresh air would be an understatement; it’s more like a blast of pure oxygen after emerging from a coal mine. Legacy outlets such as New York magazine and the New York Times, and even sites built specifically to challenge existing narratives such as Vox and The Intercept, have driven out some of their most talented people, but they’re all having the last laugh on Substack, where they are finding large and receptive audiences — and in some cases are startled to suddenly find themselves among the highest-paid columnists in the United States.

There are Substack newsletters about running, Hollywood, basketball, art, food, wine, money, sex and lots of other subjects, but the platform’s greatest value is in publishing thinkers who challenge the intellectual ruling class. Bari Weiss, the New York Times writer and editor who quit last year in spectacular fashion after being bullied by her colleagues — ‘Twitter is not on the masthead of the New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor,” she said in her resignation letter — has quickly established a Substack op-ed page, Common Sense with Bari Weiss, that doggedly and vigorously challenges conventional wisdom and has become essential reading. The left-wing writer Glenn Greenwald, who was hounded out of The Intercept even though he was its principal founder, continues to strike an anti-imperialist, anti-war, class-based approach to politics on his Substack. That approach makes him deplorable to mainstream progressives, who are far more interested in race than in anything else and tend to parrot the Democratic party line on everything. Matt Yglesias, who co-founded Vox in 2014 but was increasingly marginalized by his own colleagues, started the wonkish newsletter Slow Boring to emphasize policy solutions over woke rants. Jesse Singal delves into social-science research and how it sometimes conflicts with progressive dogma on his newsletter. John McWhorter dares to wade into the turbulent waters of race and language. All of these newsletters offer some of their content for nothing but ask for a small fee, typically $5 a month, from subscribers who want to unlock everything they write.