On the Red Couch: ‘No Safe Spaces’ at Louise Mensch’s Heat Street

Gabriella Schwarz / July 13, 2016

Louise Mensch takes part in a debate entitled 'Oxbridge Is A Finishing School For The Privileged' at The Cambridge Union on October 8, 2015 in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire.  Photo by Chris Williamson/Getty Images

Louise Mensch takes part in a debate entitled ‘Oxbridge Is A Finishing School For The Privileged’ at The Cambridge Union on October 8, 2015 in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire. Photo by Chris Williamson/Getty Images

Heat Street launched in February under the leadership of former British member of Parliament and conservative firebrand Louise Mensch and producer Noah Kotch. The News Corps-owned publication is focused on commentary around larger tentpoles including culture, politics and technology, all of which fall under the “no safe spaces” mantra of the blog—meaning they turn the same critical eye on all leaders and institutions. It’s a familiar refrain for Mensch, the British native who served the town of Corby from 2010-2012. In the U.K. she is a familiar face on TV and in print and an outspoken voice on fiscal and social issues.

Mensch, now a New York resident, and I spoke in her Upper West Side townhouse about her desire to create a space for conservatives who are socially liberal and fiscally conservative and want to take part in “big sky debates.”

“I think we should insulate ourselves from many things, but insulating ourselves from ideas is problematic,” Mensch said.

Mensch’s passion about her new venture and the issues they’re covering, from Donald Trump to the Broadway hit Hamilton, was evident throughout our 45 minutes together. After years using her self-described fearless feminist voice to shake up U.K. politics, she’s now using it to shake up the U.S. media through Heat Street, where she said her impact could potentially be even greater.

What was missing in the media landscape that you want Heat Street to fill?
I wanted there to be something for conservatives like me, with a small “c,” who are quite socially relaxed but economically conservative. I always say it’s like people who watch Silicon Valley on HBO—have a sense of humor, would like to have a startup, would like to have low taxes, literally don’t care what people do in their bedrooms whatsoever and aren’t racist.

In New York, being a Republican is a protected minority status. My first Passover dinner with my husband’s family (I’m Catholic), and they asked, “How would you vote if you could?” I said, “Republican.” My husband was genuinely embarrassed. He went: “Stop, stop, stop.” I said: “I beg your pardon, I’m a feminist, I shall have my own opinions.” But he was quite serious, and I realized I’d just embarrassed him. I thought, ‘Gosh, this is so toxic.’ It’s so associated with this whole Tea Party rubbish. But yet there’s quite a lot of people who would like there to be lower taxes and strong national defense and think we could be doing a lot more against ISIS. They’re there to be pitched to, and I think there is literally nothing for those people.

Heat Street was launched in the spirit of free speech and “no safe places.” Are people from across the political spectrum not safe?
A safe space is a space where you’re actually safe. If you’re offended by ideas, grow up. I’m a complete absolutist on it. God, there are real problems in this world. Why don’t you ask some of the Yazidi women what they think about safe space discussions and trigger warnings. We’re turning into a nation, not just America, but the whole of the West, is turning into a nation of complete idiots. I was horrified to see one of my reporters bring me, which I didn’t know, that law students at Oxford have been told they don’t have to attend lectures if the discussion of cases makes them feel unsafe. You’re going to be a lawyer. What if somebody says, “I’d like you to prosecute this child abuse case”? Are they to have no advocates? You’re stepping into a field where the nature of the job requires that you look at difficult things at times. I think we should insulate ourselves from many things, but insulating ourselves from ideas is problematic.

Has your past as an elected official impacted your leadership style and what you choose to take on?
I guess so, yes. I set a tone and I try to be balanced. When people come in with things I don’t agree with, I sort of check myself before I say, “No, don’t put that out.” We’ve published a lot of pro-Trump pieces. I had to grit my teeth; it’s not my personal website. I really was convinced that there were a lot of people that fell in that middle…moderate entrepreneurial minded young people, who actually really can’t stand to see Putin bossing the United States around. There’s got to be something for them.

Politics, though, turns out to be very much a second string to what our readers like. Our readers really like issues of free speech and big thinking, big sky debates, and they hate hypocrisy. We did a successful series on PayPal, who boycotted North Carolina because of its bathroom bill. You can stand one way or the other on the bathroom bill and that’s fine, but what is not OK, Heat Street thinks, is for PayPal to both virtue signal by saying we won’t do business in North Carolina and at the same time have huge offices in Malaysia and in other places where gay men can be hung for being gay, executed. Moral consistency, we’re asking for moral consistency. If you’re going to virtue signal then that’s OK but just have some virtue.

Is that what you’re hoping to bring to the election, or what else are you hoping to add?
I think we want to ask difficult questions, and the media on both sides has really failed to ask those difficult questions. Me speaking as a conservative now, if I look back I think the media has been terrible in how it’s failed to hold Obama to account. The media should be ashamed.

Ben Rhodes [Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor] publically said, “We just tricked the press ha ha ha…the Iran deal was all a fake, we lied to you ha ha ha”…nothing happened. There’s the IRS scandal. She’s [Lois Lerner] allowed to say, “I plead the fifth.” Everyone moved right along. What happened to the press holding politicians to account?

With Donald Trump, the press said, “The New York Times allegedly has this tape of you saying you would not build the wall [border between the U.S. and Mexico], you were making it up to impress the voters. Will you release the tape?” If I may say so, that is the wrong question. Say “Did you say it? Did you say it?” Is that difficult? I mean, I’m not a professional journalist, I’m a commentator, but nobody is asking the questions.

With Hillary Clinton, I’d say, “Were you given training at the State Department that said that all material is classified? Did you attend those courses? Were you ever warned personally?” Nobody wants to ask the question.

I feel that the press in general has completely abdicated its responsibility to hold politicians to account—it doesn’t matter if you’re Bernie, Donald or Hillary. You’re not going to get any difficulty at all because you won’t go in front of the people who would ask you a difficult question. Reporters and television stations these days value access over accountability and therefore are willing to play the game. Unless people like the Times and the Journal sit down and say we’re going to stop this, we’re all going to ask some difficult questions so they can’t play us one against another, nothing will change.

You notably wrote about the “toxic trolls” of social media and have seen firsthand the positive and negative side effects of social media. Do you feel a responsibility to use the Heat Street platform to impact discourse on social media?
Nope, because we’re not about safe spaces. Free speech does not mean absolutist free speech. We would not allow terrible images, we won’t allow racial slurs, we won’t allow people to say ridiculously anti-Semitic things, but we will allow so-called offensive ideas to be argued. A guy saying to me, “I don’t think women should have the vote”—that would get banned on The Guardian, and it will not get banned on my website. You can come on my website and say “feminism is cancer.” That’s totally fine, I don’t care. I’ll debate them or I’ll ignore them.

You mentioned feminism, and I was particularly struck by something you said recently: “…conservatism was about equal opportunity, and to me feminism is therefore a subset of conservatism.” Is that opinion being represented in this election cycle in the U.S.?
I don’t think anyone’s talking about it. Hillary’s afraid to talk about it, which she shouldn’t be. My partner Noah Kotch said this to POLITICO and he’s right: The same force that is driving Heat Street to this level of success in the market is the same force that’s behind both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, I think. America is rising up and saying, “Don’t lecture me anymore.”

People don’t support Trump for the ideas. When he says he’s going to ban all of the Muslims, people go “yay.” Then he says I’m not going to ban all of the Muslims, and by the way I never said it, that’s spin, people go “yay” because they don’t care about policy. He is an avatar, and he is an avatar of anti-political correctness. And everybody likes anti-political correctness, so that’s hard to fight. Whereas Hillary Clinton is an avatar for competence and reliability and intelligence, but she has failed to ignite passions. As I said in an editorial meeting, first woman president, how do you make that boring? I’m a Republican, but I’m itching to write her copy.

Why is Heat Street successful and Donald Trump successful? We take a tiny slice of that feeling of ‘I am sick of being talked down to and lectured and taught what to think and bossed around by basically anybody who’s nanny-stating me to death or nanny blogosphere-ing me to death.’ People are completely fed up with it. And I thought this would work. I didn’t think it would work like this, though; I cannot but lie—I am completely taken aback by our numbers. We have a staff of 16, on a shoestring, with good ideas.

How does feminism here compare to feminism in the U.K.? And what has surprised you about the difference?
Well, it’s kind of the same. It’s academic feminism I don’t like. I like feminism where people get on and bloody well do things. To my mind, feminism is simple—it’s equal rights and opportunities. I totally reject this sexual rubbish; it’s just an attempt to make feminism into socialism. Socialism is fine, but it is not feminism. Feminism is: I believe the sexes should have equal opportunities, whereas nowadays people think it’s equal outcome.

To my mind, conservatism is or should be about equality and progress because it should believe in a free market that believes everybody should have an equal opportunity. That means no racism, no sexism, no disablism; you should look at somebody’s talents and bring them through. At the same time, I do believe in a welfare net and a welfare state for those people who cannot help themselves. That is basic human compassion. In Britain that is standard. We have the National Health Service (NHS), which is single payer. There’s not a conservative in Britain who would disagree with it. Look I just excommunicated myself from the Republican Party in the U.S.

You clearly write and speak your mind. Are you fearless?
I’d like to think that I am, yes. That’s one thing I’d like to say that I believe that I am. I’ve said things that I’m not supposed to say, even as a politician. I was known as an extreme loyalist to David Cameron, the prime minister. I still respect him greatly. I got into Parliament right after two years of campaigning in my seat, so I’d effectively been a national figure and was quite well known on British TV before that. There was a motion passed looking to take away anonymity from women who accuse men of rape because they said that you had to name the suspect. But, as I pointed out, the man enjoys or should enjoy the presumption of innocence. It’s so hard to prove a rape conviction after the fact, and one of the only things that does get rape convictions rates up is if people see the name of the accused and other women who have had the same experience will come forward. And then people will corroborate it beyond a reasonable doubt.

So I found myself arguing against the government. I went to my whips. I said, “I can’t support this and neither can half of the women in the back benches. What’s even going on here?” I thought it would go away and it didn’t. So within days of getting into parliament, I found myself on my feet supporting Labour and getting ‘hear hears’ from across the chamber. I nearly had a panic attack actually. I was standing up…My head was crashing, and I thought I am going to have a panic attack in a second. I did not, but I very nearly did. I left that room, went straight to the doctor.

The next day I was in the Daily Mail, which is an English semi-tabloid, had a full page going “Blonde Torrie Leads Anti-Government Rebellion on Rape.” I was like, I just said something on the floor. How did I lead it?

I was proud in that I did stand up for my principles when called to, immediately. Rape needs to have protection…the trouble here is a presumption of guilt, a presumption of truth-telling by the accuser. That is not right. Anonymity is fine but you cannot give them both anonymity and the presumption of truth-telling. The accused also has their rights. Under British law you are presumed innocent until you’re proven guilty.

Are you going to run for office again?
I’m not even an American, until next year. I’ve got my green card and next year I’ll apply for citizenship for sure. I think I’m doing politics by other means by doing this.There’s not going to be a generation left in the conservative movement unless the GOP changes its ways. And if they won’t change their ways, I will. Somebody has to. I think this is a crucial moment for my own point of view, and I do not speak for the website. I want to show young people that I will not stand for Donald Trump at any price because to me that’s not what conservatism is. Would Harriet Tubman, who was a member of the Republican Party, join the Republican Party today? I have no doubt that she would not, and it’s our job to turn that around.

You could go run and be a congresswoman and then see if your husband would stay with you, which he probably would not. But equally, Arianna Huffington failed miserably in her run against Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor of California. Immediately after that she started The Huffington Post, and I would say that that has had a greater impact on politics than if she’d become a congressman like her former husband, who without disrespect to him, nobody remembers. But everybody knows The Huffington Post.

Read Heat Street’s take on culture, politics, business and more through their section on Flipboard.

~GabyS is reading 2016 Election Central