The Ezra Klein Show: Sarah Schulman’s Radical Approach to Conflict, Communication and Change

New York Times Opinion New York Times Opinion 6/22/21 - Episode Page

Sarah Schulman’s work — as a nonfiction writer, novelist, activist, playwright and filmmaker — confronts the very thing most people try to avoid: conflict. Schulman, far from running from it, believes we need more of it.

This was true in Schulman’s 2016 book, “Conflict Is Not Abuse,” which argues that people often mislabel conflict as abuse without recognizing the power that they have to potentially abuse others. Viewing oneself as a victim can be one way to earn compassion. But powerful groups often use their perceived victimhood as an excuse to harm those who are more vulnerable. And more individually, people often don’t see when they have power, and they often fear or dodge the work of repair. It’s a challenging and prescient book, with a deep faith in the healing power of not just communication, but of collision.

Schulman’s latest book, “Let the Record Show,” is a history of ACT UP New York, the direct-action group that reshaped AIDS activism in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It’s a book about necessary conflicts: between the AIDS community and the U.S. government, and between queer people and a widely homophobic society. But it’s also about conflict among people who generally agree with one another and are working toward a common goal. Schulman calls the book “a political history,” but it’s also a work of political theory: a proposal for how social movements can become more effective by embracing dissensus rather than striving for consensus.

We began this conversation discussing ACT UP, conflict and Schulman’s theory of political change. But we also ended up discussing Israel and Palestine, a topic she has written widely about. And Schulman shares her thoughts on contemporary L.G.B.T.Q. politics and what she thinks has been lost as queer culture has become more mainstream.

Mentioned in this episode: 

Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993 by Sarah Schulman 

Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair by Sarah Schulman


Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the University by Matt Brim

Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All by Martha S. Jones

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

You can find transcripts (posted midday) and more episodes of "The Ezra Klein Show" at, and you can find Ezra on Twitter @ezraklein.

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“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Rogé Karma; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld, audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Special thanks to Kristin Lin.