The mainstream media can, in an effort to appease their readers, purify their pages of debates that offend those readers. But it can’t make those debates go away; they’ll happen somewhere else. Increasingly, the civil discussion of controversial topics is happening in places other than the traditional American media — and we would all do well to pay attention.
There’s nowhere better to start than with Joe Rogan, the standup comedian and martial artist who cut his teeth as an Ultimate Fighting Championship commentator before hosting Fear Factor and, eventually, one of the most popular podcasts in the country. The eccentric political conversations Rogan frequently conducts on “The Joe Rogan Experience” are an essential ingredient of his show, and often give oxygen to the kinds of controversial ideas that are no longer discussed in the mainstream. For better or for worse, a podcast hosted by a weed-smoking DMT-obsessive whose most cherished political cause is the quest to end male circumcision has become one of the last bastions for civil discussion in contemporary America.
“The Joe Rogan Experience” consistently tops the charts with tens of millions of downloads per month. It often beats out offerings from the New York Times, Vox, and National Public Radio. The popularity of the show is in large part due to its guests, who reflect Rogan’s bizarre but wide-ranging set of interests — mostly fellow comics, such as Ari Shaffir and Tom Segura, but also martial artists such as Eddie Bravo (most recently featured alongside an extra-guttural and blitzed-sounding Alex Jones in, yes, episode #911); has-been celebrities from Tommy Chong to Roseanne Barr to Kid Cudi; neuroscientists; the professors who were forced out of Evergreen State College; astrophysicists; the nutritionist who soaked Major League Baseball in steroids; the founder of Reddit; assorted conspiracy theorists; and vaguely crackpot medical doctors.
Joe Rogan comes through clearly as a committed anti-tribalist and a fierce advocate of free speech.
So the show is not principally political. Still, about one in eight episodes, not an insignificant chunk for a show of more than 1,000 installments, is about politics. On these, Rogan helpfully reminds listeners without fail what he thinks about contemporary political discourse. “What I hate is,” Rogan said on an episode that could’ve been any other, “you get lumped into these categories and then you start defending your turf.” The act gets tiresome to fans who listen to the show to hear stoned disquisitions about the wonders of sensory deprivation or intense conversations about martial arts, but Rogan the political animal comes through clearly as a committed anti-tribalist, a fierce advocate of free speech, a dispositional libertarian who is curious about conspiracy theories, and dismissive of transgender rights.
Which all means that, to his chagrin, Rogan is part of a political tribe: the anti-tribalists. It’s a loose contingent of podcasters, academics, and writers who agree with Rogan on some of the above issues and formulate their rhetorical styles in reaction to modern progressivism. These anti-tribalists disclaim any partisan loyalties but often call themselves liberals; they claim to have things in common with progressives but spend most of their time assailing “social-justice warriors” and political correctness and modern Islam. They — Sam Harris and Dave Rubin are the quintessential examples, but their ranks are growing — are self-styled gadflies who often host their own podcasts. Though they certainly chose the right enemies, they tend to have less in common with Socrates than they do with his sophist interlocutors: Rhetorical half-truths are common among the clique.
And Rogan should not be considered an especially sophisticated thinker. An alarmingly stimulated Alex Jones spent his most recent appearance discussing the Pizzagate conspiracy theory as a half-amused, half-convinced Rogan only goaded him on. The show has few boundaries, and Rogan will host guests who believe anything, as long as they’re interesting. The question naturally arises why there hasn’t been a Two Minutes Hate for the man who is giving problematic people a platform. Part of the answer must lie in the soft bigotry of low expectations; Rogan, who once called himself the link “between the potheads and the meatheads,” isn’t supposed to be responsible. Part of the answer lies in the medium: The podcast has run for more than a thousand episodes, many of them more than three hours long, so combing through his archive to find a “gotcha” quote is a challenge.
But Rogan’s show is a good case study in the value these anti-tribalist shows can bring to our politics — and not just because he takes politics less seriously than his fellow travelers. The political side of Rogan’s show is not just a hangout for culture-war rabble-rousers or conspiracy theorists. It has also become an obligatory pit stop for intelligent people whose ideas should be welcome in polite society, but for whatever reason are not. The episode featuring professors Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying was the show at its best: interesting guests who had plenty of time to tell their story (of being forced out of Evergreen State), to develop their thoughts on their academic field (evolutionary biology), with Rogan chiming in on occasion with offbeat questions and clever humor. The episode featuring British author Douglas Murray was even better, evoking a meandering conversation at a barbecue or over beers between a well-traveled intellectual and his good-natured friend. Conversations with a former writer for the The Daily Show, and with a progressive activist were similarly respectful. All of it was good radio.
This isn’t to say the Sunday shows should put Alex Jones on their panels or even that the rise of Rogan-style alternative media is a good thing. And the effect Rogan’s politics has on the appeal of his show shouldn’t be exaggerated. Yet his listeners seem to think that his show simply is more interesting and honest than the mainstream media. It’s no coincidence that no-boundaries pundits explicitly committed to airing controversial debates such as Rogan are gaining popularity just as traditional forums banish the discussion of certain questions. These days, if you want to understand what Americans are thinking, arguing, and worrying about, you can’t just read The Atlantic or listen to NPR. You have to submit, at least in part, to the Joe Rogan experience.