I thought I knew the podcast world pretty well. I got started a long time ago with “Radiolab,” moved beyond PBS into the Gimlet group and then to everything from “Death, Sex and Money” to “Freakonomics” to “The Dollop.”
I have listened to most of Dan Carlen’s “Hardcore History” episodes at least twice. The “Migration Nation” podcast opened my eyes. “The Ricky Gervais Show” always makes me laugh. Sinica’s interviews and discussions on China are must-listen podcasting to me.
I like the interview format. I listen to Mark Maron some. I like Thaddeus Russell and “Unregistered,” but for some reason I didn’t get into “The Moment with Brian Koppelman.” I find it astounding that Terry Gross does a new “Fresh Air” every day.
A significant percentage of all media is interviews or conversations in one form or another. It’s the least expensive way to produce content that is, potentially, entertaining and engaging.
A good interviewer grows on you — they provide the constant human side, a person that you get to know very well over time. A good interviewee knows how to get away from the well-practiced ways of saying things and be present in the interview, so what is said feels spontaneous and natural. What starts as an interview grows into a conversation that we get to listen to.
I knew all that but I hadn’t listened to Joe yet. I was aware of him, of his popularity, but I hadn’t quite bought into his format. I still preferred nicely produced podcasts, shows with a topic. That’s not the “Joe Rogan Experience.” Joe does long-form, open-ended yakking and I wasn’t ready for three hours of it.
It was the Michael Pollan interview that finally drew me in; it was only an hour and a half. I knew he was back in the zeitgeist with his well-timed book on psychedelics, an area in which I had some direct experience in the past, as well as a re-emerging interest in the present. I wanted to hear
Michael Pollan. Checking out Joe was frosting on the cake.
Joe Rogan’s Excellent Spring
The Michael Pollan conversation, JRE # 1121, was released on May 24, about eight weeks ago. But the podcast has been growing in influence and stature for years, and significantly more so in recent months.
In January, 2018, Jordan Peterson talked with Joe for several hours. It was his third visit, and not his last. Jordan Peterson is arguably the most discussed and debated public intellectual in North America at the present time. His appearances on “The Joe Rogan Experience” did not make him what he is. He was already well underway when he had his first conversation with Joe in November, 2016. I think Joe Rogan’s podcast was kind of a booster rocket that propelled a force already in motion into new audiences.
A few days later Joe was talking with Steven Pinker. Harvard. Somewhere along the free thinking spectrum. Thinks things are getting better for our species if you just look at it from a broad perspective. Pinker gets some flack because people say he is ignoring the many terrible problems we have right now. Of course he isn’t, but if you focus on progress (his most recent book is titled, “Enlightenment”), someone is guaranteed to point out that you are not focusing on its opposite and get mad about it.
— Johann Hari, the anti-antidepressants guy
— David Goggins, retired Navy SEAL and current ultramarathon runner
— Bret Weinstein, at the heart of the Evergreen State College controversy
… all interspersed with Joe’s friends, mostly comedians, and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) guests and commentary. And that’s just January and February.
In March through early May, people like …
— Sam Harris, the neuroscientist with controversial views on cultures
— Abby Martin, a journalist who writes about uncomfortable topics like 9–11
— Matt Taibbi, the over-the-top truth-telling journalist who explains financial corruption like no one else
— Mike Baker, a former CIA agent (if there is such a thing)
— Stephen Tyler, father of Liv Tyler and, oh right, in some band back in the day
— Howard Bloom, an autodidact genius who has recovered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and has something smart to say about everything.
And more comedians and MMA dudes.
And then Michael Pollan.
Research on psychedelics is finally legal and we are learning how certain molecular substances can help with anxiety (like Death Anxiety, where most of the early research is concentrated), phobias, depression, and certain neurological disorders. Michael Pollan describes this brilliantly. His conversation with Joe began as reporting on a cool topic and then went way beyond reporting.
The Grey Lady Speaks
That should be enough for any podcaster, but there was another huge development that approximates the seismic impact of the famous June 22, 2015 interview with then-President Obama in Mark Maron’s home studio/garage. On May 8, 2018, a New York Times Op Ed columnist named Bari Weiss officially named the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) and opined that Joe Rogan provided a crucial platform for the movement.
What is the IDW? You either know or you don’t. I didn’t, but now I do. Not because of the New York Times, which is not on my regular daily reading list, but because of the “Joe Rogan Experience,” which has been my go-to podcast almost every day since I listened to him talking with Michael Pollan, about eight weeks ago.
I was immediately hooked on long open-ended conversations between smart curious people about topics not being discussed enough, not being talked about at all in the mainstream media. Michael Pollan is a serious person, does his research, and gives us a substantive basis to grant him some authority — but he does not pontificate and he is not at all professorial. He comes across as someone who is happy to question anything and who enjoys sharing what he is learning. That’s very attractive to me and, given the number of downloads, a lot of other people as well.
The NYT Op Ed captured the topics-not-being-discussed part and went further. It described a small group of individuals, not formally connected, who were operating at the margins as a result of discussing unwelcome topics. Bret Weinstein, former faculty member at Evergreen State College who resigned as a result of his actions, and the reactions to them, during the College’s annual Day of Absence event in March, 2017, was one of the individuals mentioned.
Bret Weinstein and Evergreen State College
I remember noticing the situation when it happened and seeing it as another example of too-much political correctness on campus these days. By the time I read about the Intellectual Dark Web, I had already listened to Bret Weinstein talking to Joe. He’s a likeable guy, a serious scientist (biologist) — and his telling of the Evergreen story fit the PC out-of-control narrative I started subscribing to a few years ago.
I am aware that I just showed my lack of woke-ness by admitting to a belief in the PC out-of-control narrative. People of the Left, if you decide to keep reading you will learn that I now see how that view can easily be construed as an attack on multiculturalism, diversity, and non-whiteness in general. People of the Right, if you decide to keep reading you will learn that I now see people who espouse progressive positions as a major force, but certainly not the only force, in the silencing of public debate just when we need it the most.
There are other perspectives on what happened at Evergreen State than the one Bret Weinstein shared with Joe. To me, the essence of what Weinstein objected to was being forced to act or not act in some way based on race. Objecting to being forced into something is also at the heart of Jordan Peterson’s ascent to stardom and the career of some, but not all, named IDW types.
Not everyone agrees with this claim of being forced. Huff-Po, and many others, have a different frame for many dimensions of the Evergreen State story, but the crucial aspect in my opinion, is the element of coercion. Plenty of people, including many Evergreen State students, say activities were completely voluntarily and have always been completely voluntary — the Day of Absence has been going on at the college for years.
The anti-Peterson position also describes the proposed Law that he objected to as non-coercive (Bill C-16, it has since passed by the Canadian Parliament, on May 27, 2016), that what he was objecting to wouldn’t really happen. I don’t know who is more accurate in their characterization. But I think it’s important to note that there is not a consensus about the heart of the matter. No one should really describe the level of coercion as if it is an agreed upon fact, although almost everyone does.
Why would Professors Weinstein and Peterson say they were forced if it was so obviously the case that they were not? Here’s a few possibilities:
- They want attention. Anyone challenging anything will hear this accusation. When it is levelled against someone who is actually getting attention, it is difficult to refute. But when most challengers first challenge, they don’t know for sure that they will get attention, or what kind it will be, or how long it will last.
- They have an agenda. This explanation assumes that ‘feeling forced’ is at least partly disingenuous or misleading, because the real reason for challenging the race- or gender identity-based-situation isn’t just the situation. The real reason is a larger ideological commitment, and the specific situation is just an excuse to advance the program.
In the case of Weinstein, the program is rolling back diversity and racial equity on campuses. However, nothing in his past suggests he would want to do those things. When I listen to him, he sure doesn’t sound like a racist to me.
- They were co-opted by other forces with an agenda. It is well-documented that emails were somehow leaked from Evergreen State College email lists to Fox news. Once Tucker Carlson got involved there was no hope for anything but anger and confrontation.
I can’t analyze Weinstein’s motives, but it is not difficult to analyze Tucker Carlson’s. Whether or not Weinstein wanted attention or had an agenda soon became irrelevant. Protests, threats of violence and temporary campus closures followed. Weinstein and his wife, Heather Heying, also a faculty member at Evergreen State College and also named as an IDW member, resigned from their positions in September, 2017.
Providing a Platform
I wrote this long deep dive into just one Intellectual Dark Web case because I wanted to try to touch some of the major claims from people with different views — and that was how many words it took me. It’s time-consuming to get to the heart of any controversy and even harder to sort out the competing positions. Most media outlets can’t or won’t do it. Which brings me back to the Joe Rogan Experience.
In the amount of time they allow themselves, Joe and someone else can go into plenty of deep dives. The problem is, in most podcasts, the only guest perspective represented in the deep dives are the IDW person’s. Which brings me back to the NYT Op Ed.
Joe Rogan is not Jordan Peterson or Bret Weinstein. The claim made about Joe in the NYT Op Ed is that he provides a platform for people who are [fill in the blank … racists, misogynists, alt-right lunatics].
Joe is well aware of the platform-for-bad-people criticism and he has spoken about it on the podcast. I thought JRE #1131 with Dave Rubin was especially fascinating when the two of them tried to explore live in the podcast what their limits would be, who they wouldn’t have on the show.
For example, Joe has known Alex Jones for a long time, way before ‘InfoWars,’ Jones’ infamous and influential radio show. Joe has stated many times that Jones overdoes it, seeing conspiracies everywhere, but that sometimes he is right. He gives the example of agents provocateurs being used in the Battle of Seattle WTO meeting in 1999 to provide an excuse to break up the otherwise peaceful demonstrators, which Jones reported first and now is part of a somewhat more widely accepted view of the evolution of police tactics.
On the other hand, Jones is wrong a lot too and so the question is: Are there some wrongs, some challenges to orthodoxy, which are so wrong that simply making them disqualifies someone from further public discourse.
If there are such forbidden challenges, would challenging the mainstream narrative of the Sandy Hook School Shootings be one of them? Alex Jones does challenge it. Joe Rogan had him on his show. Joe told Dave Rubin later that he didn’t know about Jones and Sandy Hook. So Rubin asked him if he would have him on again now that he does know? Joe said he’d be angry with him and Sandy Hook would be the first thing he would bring up.
Joe said that having someone on his show, doesn’t mean he agrees with everything the guest says. That claim is demonstrably true. Listen to him
talking with Candace Owen, a conservative commentator, Trump supporter, and Outreach Director of Turning Point America. After a long initial period of letting her tell her story, he disagrees with plenty of her statements and positions, strongly and repeatedly. He makes her look young and foolish, in my opinion, on the subject of climate change — and that section of the show is definitely tense. But it is also respectful and civil. There is no name calling by either one of them. I loved it and thought it was great live radio. It is precisely why I believe Candace Owen should be given a platform — as long as someone is there to challenge claims that need more discussion.
Better yet, for pure goofy entertainment, listen to the Alex Jones episode. Joe says he let Alex Jones expose himself for exactly what he is — an over-the-top rant-and-rave artist — when he got him going on intergalactic pedophilia rings and other deranged mind dumps. The booze and dope helped too.
It’s complicated. Giving someone a platform doesn’t mean agreeing with them, but it should mean taking responsibility for what is communicated through a channel so personally identified as the JRE is with Joe.
Joe wants to be free to talk with whoever he fucking feels like talking with. And I want him to. I also think he is at his best when he lets controversial people clarify their ideas (because there is a whole lot of misrepresentation), taking all the time they need, and then questioning them, hard if he has to, in order to make sure everyone sees the context and implications.
Great, you might say — but how many people are going to listen to three hours of Candace Owens and make up their own mind? Most people will just hear her provocative little sound bites, hear she was on the JRE, and connect the dots. Joe must approve. I don’t know what Joe would say to this endorsement he never intended. My guess is he would say that’s the chance he has to take to keep talking with interesting people and over time maybe more folks will be open to listening to the whole story.
Rockin’ the Boat
Identity politics, particularly involving gender or race, is a world in which both sides are oppressed and marginalized. Not all challenges to orthodoxy fit under that banner. Joe also has a strong personal interest in serious scientific efforts to reconsider the history of our species and talks often with researchers like Graham Hancock, Randall Carlson, Robert Schoch and others, whose work is not accepted by mainstream historians or archeologists.
The debate over our past is not some abstract exercise — in some ways it provides a framework for looking at our current situation in which climate change threatens civilization as we know it. Are we the Crown of Creation and if we are wiped away the human experiment is over? Or has all this happened before and our civilization is a restoration of past glories?
There are many vested interests in every field for whom the human story is fine left just the way it is, which means that challengers get subjected to many of the same treatments as someone who draws the wrath of the Right or Left Ideologues.
Maybe the questioning of every authority telling us how it is or was defines the present moment as much as anything. I can pick my authority and you can pick yours, but it’s awful tough to get people to agree on one. It’s all the effect of Post-Modernism, says Jordan Peterson, which of course has given every philosophy professor in the world the chance to sharpen their knives and attack his view of Post-Modernism.
Joe Rogan conducted four long, thought-provoking conversations in a row right after Michael Pollan’s visit.
— Donnie Vincent, professional Bow hunter and one of the most thoughtful people I have ever heard on the subject of killing animals
— Kevin Smith, the ‘Clerks’ guy and all-around smart and media savvy person, who doesn’t make films the way you’re supposed to
— Robert Schoch, well-established and credentialed scientist who believes the Sphinx and the Pyramids are dated incorrectly and that what we see as ancient history is a restoration of earlier cycles involving our species
— Candace Owens, smart, quick, young, black, female, conservative, controversial, (personally, I would emphasize, young)
None of them are official IDW members, but they all challenge convention. I couldn’t wait for my work out every day so I could start listening to the next one. When I was done, the conversations never were but I kept listening all through my errands and a cup of coffee.
I went into the JRE archives and learned about …
— Paul Stamnetz, mushroom expert
— Ben Shapiro, conservative political commentator
— Michael Shermer, the debunker
I already knew about …
— Matt Taibbi, who writes about the financial world something like Hunter Thompson would
Michael Malice and Robert Sapolsky were both totally engaging. I gained insights about nutrition from Kelly Brogan. Russell Brand is always a trip.
Joe talking with Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the Westboro Church, was riveting.
That’s not all and I’m still going strong.
The Joe Rogan Experience
To Joe, things have been gradually getting better. That’s how he tends to think good things happen, gradually. He is also aware of the possibility of relatively sudden bad things, like the potential disasters we are facing due to changes in the global system, wherever they’re coming from. But at heart, he is a gradualist.
When people talk about how bad things are, he frequently asks, ‘how are you doing compared to your grandparents?’
That’s a tricky one because many poor people today have better TVs and better TV shows to watch than anyone’s grandparents ever did. But when you think hard about what the question means and what dimensions of life should be in the comparison, better TVs don’t make it a slam dunk.
Still, I’d say I’m better off, because I feel like I have more options for living my life than my grandparents did and I value that highly. I think that’s close to how Joe sees it too; that, and better drugs.
Things have been improving for him most of his adult life. He got into martial arts in high school because nothing else was working. He got good at it and things started getting better. It’s been a steady ride to more options, more money, and more influence — which is important in understanding the “Joe Rogan Experience.”
On one hand, he has unparalleled freedom to explore anything he finds legitimately interesting, something that was not possible for most of human history unless you were royalty. He is curious about everything, even things we are not supposed to be curious about. That’s the other side — the teachers and hall monitors and authority figures didn’t mean that free, that curious. And they didn’t mean you should talk to people who we all know are just wrong.
He pulls it off because he feels authentic. I feel like the person I’ve gotten to know over 100 hours or so of listening is the same person I’d see in the hot-yoga class or in his kitchen at home.
I hope so, because I like the guy. I like that he is so curious about things I’m curious about too, and also that he is a bow hunter, which I’m not. I like that he listens deeply to people he doesn’t completely agree with, and also that he is an MMA commentator. I like that he’s a stand-up comic because I think that comedians are in a better position than anyone to tell the truth when it is not easy to do. I like that he has the balls to call-out joke-stealing professional comedians in public and that he cried with Kevin Smith talking about his dog dying.
Joe has a personal philosophy of life. He talks about it but he doesn’t push it on people. It’s an approach that must work well because a surprising number of his friends and guests have taken up Joe-activities, like sensory deprivation tanks and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
His core belief, it seems to me, is that we need to do hard things in order to feel good about ourselves. We need to bring it in every minute (always give everything you have, never mail it in), every day (hard physical workout, demanding mental challenges), and every month or year (try new stuff and get out of your comfort zone).
His belief is not based on morality, that we should work hard. It is based on his understanding of evolution, that we are designed to deal with difficulties and earn a reward, sometimes, when we do it well.
The Joe Rogan Experience and many other shows are doing something difficult and doing it well.
As of 2018, almost half of Americans over the age of 12 have listened to a podcast. There are plenty to listen to. You don’t need a license to do one. There are no major barriers to access.
Audience size is hard to determine due to multiple download sources and the extended periods over which individual podcasts can be downloaded. Three million listeners for a good episode of the JRE is a safe estimate, which puts him way ahead of MSNBC and even most of Fox News.
Many people are still seeking news to keep their resentments fresh. But others are hungry for a more exploratory form of discussion with real people conversing instead of scripted robots repeating predictable pablum. New forms are there to be found like never before, because the gatekeepers who have always restricted access are now tending gates that fewer and fewer people care about.
I’ve always been drawn to outlaws and heretics questioning the unquestionable. Buckminster Fuller said we should be designing with icosahedrons back in the 1960s and we’re finally catching up with him. Immanuel Velikovsky got a ton of details wrong, but his basic idea that our steadily-upward human narrative is missing a cosmic catastrophe or two is looking better all the time. Don’t get me started on Julian Jaynes.
It should be hard to question the unquestionable. A paradigm-shift-of-the-month wouldn’t make for a very stable society. Still, most people feel at a deep level that something big is coming soon, some kind of global cultural paradigm shift. We fear it and we hope for it because we know that without it we will surely go extinct or something close to it, as we may have before.
It is not a time to hunker down and hope the storm will all blow over and we’ll be back to something we’ve learned to call normal soon enough. It’s also not a time to proclaim solutions. It’s a time for people of good will to talk. And talk, as Joe says, not to seek comfort, but to seek lessons.