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Joe Rogan’s Galaxy Brain

How the former Fear Factor host’s podcast became an essential platform for “freethinkers” who hate the left.

On Feb. 7, on the 1,241st episode of his podcast, comedian Joe Rogan kicked off a discussion of one of the signal injustices of our time: the deplatforming of jerks on the internet.

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Rogan was against it, as was his guest, the author and podcaster Sam Harris, who urged Rogan’s listeners to consider the plight of all the witty provocateurs who have lately begun to suffer real-life consequences for their trollish online banter. Harris bemoaned a “world where people are having their reputations destroyed and their careers threatened for tweets they sent as teenagers,” though he didn’t specify whose reputations had been ruined by their teenage tweets, and Rogan didn’t ask him to clarify. But the implication was clear: Holding people accountable for what they say and what those words do is an offense far worse than saying cruel, racist, and divisive things in the first place. The reputational damage done to the utterer is the real social problem, not the more diffuse damage done by the utterance.

The proximate cause of Harris’ smarm was neither a teenager nor a Twitter troll but an actor who had made the rather old-fashioned mistake of saying something dumb to a journalist. In an interview promoting a movie, Liam Neeson had bizarrely volunteered that as a younger man, he had once roamed the streets hoping to be provoked into killing a black man—any black man—in retaliation for a friend’s rape. Harris, who has a practiced eye for these things, saw great liberal hypocrisy in the way that many people online had read racism into Neeson’s statement.

“The irony here for me is you have progressives and people on the far left who receive a disclosure like Liam Neeson’s—let’s take his—and they just want to see him burned alive, right?” These same people, he mused, “have as a genuine ethical norm the rehabilitation of murderers.” It was a flimsy argument but not as flimsy as the point Rogan made next: “Well, they’re constantly holding those two contradictions, right?” he said. “I mean, here’s another one: women’s rights and support of the hijab. I mean, what’s going on there? How do you do that? Don’t be Islamophobic but also support women’s rights and gay rights.”

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A flawed, limited understanding of what the hijab means in Muslim culture leads to broad allegations of liberal hypocrisy. A spurious comparison of two different types of societal offenses leads to the implication that liberals believe racially charged language is an offense worse than murder. Welcome to The Joe Rogan Experience, one of the most popular podcasts in the world, where shaky premises inevitably lead to sweeping conclusions, where there’s always time for endless discussions of truly exasperating ideas, and where the worst thing that you can do is not give a white guy a second chance.

That Sam Harris episode of The Joe Rogan Experience currently boasts about 2.3 million views on YouTube, and if that number shocks you, you haven’t been paying attention. The show was Apple Podcasts’ second-most-downloaded podcast in both 2017 and 2018. It routinely sits near the top of Stitcher’s weekly most-popular-podcast rankings. The YouTube streams of the podcast draw millions of views from the young male demographic that has long made up the entertainment industry’s most coveted audience. On New Year’s Day, Kanye West announced he was on board with Rogan. “Spoke with Joe Rogan … Podcast coming soon,” West wrote on Twitter. “🔥🔥🔥.” The conversation was bound to happen eventually. After all, the rapper spent his 2018 blaming antebellum American slaves for their own bondage, wearing Make America Great Again merchandise on Saturday Night Live, and claiming that he and his “brother” Donald Trump shared “dragon energy.” Like many of Rogan’s guests, West is a highly successful participant in a creative field who feels he has been harmed by a politically correct left that has expressed abhorrence at his views. It’s no wonder Rogan’s studio feels like a welcoming platform.

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The podcast isn’t just popular; it’s becoming politically important. In February, Rogan hosted fringe Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang for a two-hour discussion. Soon afterward, Yang reported an unprecedented flood of campaign donations. “Everything is up and to the right since the Joe Rogan podcast,” Yang’s campaign manager told the Daily Beast. “That was the key. That was the moment.” A writer for Quillette, an online hub for “freethinking” writers and academics who are aggrieved by the left, recently called Rogan “the Walter Cronkite of our era.”

I have listened to a lot of Rogan episodes over the past few months in order to try to understand why the show is so popular. It is a bizarro Fresh Air, a rambling, profane interview program in which the host is often high, loves to talk about cage fighting—Rogan has long worked as a UFC commentator—and never lets his guests go home. (Episodes can stretch past three hours.) His interviewees are an esoteric lot spanning Rogan’s wide range of interests: stand-up comedy, mixed martial arts, evolutionary psychology, alternative medicine, music, acting, business, and the excesses of leftist identity politics. Listening to the show is sort of like crashing an intense, intimate dinner party in which the only courses are whiskey and weed.

As a podcaster, the 51-year-old Rogan is basically what you’d get if a less-neurotic Marc Maron and a less-manic Alex Jones had a baby who looked like a muscular thumb. An enthusiastic, self-deprecating lunk with an abiding fondness for both snake oil and its salesmen, Rogan is funny and friendly and easy to like. His personal politics are a bit hard to nail down. He is not a supporter of President Donald Trump and does not generally host the sorts of overtly political figures who are fixtures on Fox News. “I go left on everything. Basically except guns,” he said recently, though he is also very clearly a libertarian, at least temperamentally. He reminds me of many of the intense, talkative stoners I knew in college, the sorts of people who were always yelling about how graphic novels were literature and who inevitably blamed their professors for being biased against them when they were kicked out of school for pulling a 0.0 GPA. Not for nothing does his podcast art depict him with a third eye.

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“I think a lot of people look at you, you’re like a real dude,” the independent journalist Tim Pool told Rogan during a recent podcast conversation. “You know, your conversations are real, you’re not one of these fake news journalists that people are very critical of, that feel they’re biased or have an agenda.” Pool’s observation is half-correct: Rogan is not a journalist and does not claim to be one. But Rogan’s agenda is, nevertheless, very clear.

Rogan’s podcast has become an important node in the “Intellectual Dark Web,” a loose network of “classical liberal” writers, scholars, and speakers who claim to have been marginalized by elitist progressives intent on maintaining identitarian orthodoxy. These people inveigh against political correctness and identity politics in publications like Quillette and on YouTube videos and one another’s podcasts. They claim to be personally liberal—like Rogan, they mostly all claim to “go left on everything”—even as they profess reactionary ideas. They take the fact that their theories and opinions are unpopular among their peers in academia and the media as proof that their peers are suppressive.

In Rogan, they have found an enthusiastic and receptive interlocutor. For the past several years, Rogan has made a point of regularly interviewing the IDW’s leading figures, declining the opportunity to meaningfully challenge them, and laundering their ideas in the process. Over the past year alone, he has hosted long conversations with Harris, the “Sokal Squared” academic hoaxsters Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, social psychologist and trigger-warning foe Jonathan Haidt, mathematician Eric Weinstein, former Evergreen State College professors Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, and Canadian psychology professor and anti-PC crusader Jordan Peterson.

We are living in the dumbest period of modern American history, where our centering institutions have destabilized, our governing social norms seem unenforceable, and our fast-food restaurants routinely insult one another on Twitter. Into this breach have stepped myriad articulate charlatans, aggro-provocateurs, and other confident dullards who seek to capitalize on the end of authority by using the internet to proclaim their own truths. Their goal is to convince the world’s least-informed people that they are actually the most-informed people, and they are very good at their jobs.

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These grifters, who include the president of the United States, profit by obscuring facts for personal gain. They are working an angle, all of them: the health gurus and conspiracy theorists, the life hackers peddling easy solutions to difficult problems, the IDW stalwarts who sneer at “PC culture” and “identity politics” as a means of reassuring cisgender white males that they are not and have never been the problem. Rogan has given these people a safe space where they and their grifts can feel right at home.

From its unambitious beginnings as a venue for Joe Rogan to shoot the shit with his comedian buddies, The Joe Rogan Experience has become one of the internet’s foremost vectors for anti-wokeness. With its mellow, welcoming vibe, its pretense of common sense, and its general reluctance to push back on any of its guests’ ideas save for only the battiest, the podcast has become the factory where red pills get sugarcoated.

So how did Rogan—the Fear Factor guy!—become the Larry King of the Intellectual Dark Web? Don’t ask him. “It’s an accident,” Rogan told Harris of his podcast’s success. “I just stuck with it. Stumbled upon it. And kept going. I’m good at that.”

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The first episode of The Joe Rogan Experience began the way most podcasts do: with the host trying to figure out how to work his equipment. The Dec. 24, 2009, debut features long stretches of dead air alongside distracted commentary by Rogan and his producer, Brian Redban. “We just started this. It’s not very good. I apologize,” Rogan said as he perused real-time feedback from fans who were listening in. “Snowflakes falling are a bit annoying,” one fan wrote, referring to a visual effect Rogan had activated on the video livestream. “Does everybody feel like the snowflakes are annoying?” Rogan asked. It’s a fine motto for the show that The Joe Rogan Experience would eventually become.

Rogan began his stand-up comedy career in Boston in the late 1980s, and he became nationally prominent in 1995 when he was cast on the NBC sitcom NewsRadio. After NewsRadio was canceled in 1999, Rogan hosted Fear Factor, the game show where contestants ate bugs for money. The program’s first run lasted six seasons, cementing Rogan’s association with a certain type of performative toughness in which the personal risks you run are directly proportional to the rewards you receive. “I am a big Fear Factor fan. Um, I’m a big fan of anything Joe Rogan does, actually,” Steve Carell’s Michael Scott said in one episode of The Office. Michael was an obnoxious buffoon who habitually missed the point; positioning him as the ur-Roganite was one of the sharpest jabs the show ever made.

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On NewsRadio, Rogan played the station electrician Joe Garrelli, a weirdo with a weakness for conspiracy theories. This aspect of the character mirrored Rogan himself. In his stand-up and on his podcasts, the comedian has been willing to at least entertain certain niche beliefs. Take, for example, his long stint as a “full-blown moon [landings] non-believer”—his thoughts on the topic have since evolved—or his interest in the theory that the building known as WTC 7, which collapsed on 9/11, may have actually been felled by a controlled demolition. “What I’m willing to do is look stupid,” said Rogan in a 2014 episode. “And by talking about things and saying, ‘That looks like a controlled demolition,’ I know that puts you in the nutter camp. But I’m not saying it’s a controlled demolition. But I say that not being willing to debate it and being insecure—to discuss it, rather, not debate it—but [being too insecure] to discuss the reality of what you’re viewing is silly. It’s preposterous.”

There is a difference between debating something that is a true matter of opinion and entertaining an argument that is palpably false, between a willingness to look stupid in one’s personal quest for wisdom and the choice to actually be stupid by deciding that all theories are equally valid and deserve equal consideration. Rogan does not see himself as an interviewer or a debater, someone tasked with challenging his guests and getting them on the record. He thinks of his episodes as friendly conversations—and it is not particularly friendly to tell your conversation partners that they are full of crap.

A recent interview with Alex Jones showcased the show’s charms and its frustrations. Jones had come on the podcast to bury the hatchet with Rogan, with whom he had been feuding over Jones’ previous assertions that the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting may not have actually happened—that conspiracy theory is the rare one that Rogan will not abide. The episode went entertainingly awry right near the start. “Stop saying I said [Sandy Hook] didn’t happen. And stop saying that I’m saying no kids died. ’Cause I want to talk about human-animal hybrids and humanoids,” Jones pleaded, and after establishing that he blames the mainstream media for accurately reporting on things he’s said for years now that those statements have begun to imperil his livelihood, he did just that.

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“China has no rules,” said Jones, who was wearing a NASA T-shirt. “They have human-animal hybrids 30 years ago, they’ve got giant human tissue farms. You know, you hear, ‘Oh, your Achilles is torn, we’ve got—grown in a lab—a tendon.’ It’s not a frickin’ tendon grown in a lab. It’s a frickin’ humanoid. These aren’t humans.”

Jones went on for a while—“I bet you $10 million that humanoids are real,” he announced at one point—until Rogan finally cut him off. “I believe you. I believe you,” he said. He clearly didn’t believe him, but the flipside of inviting Jones on a world-famous podcast to say dumb things for five hours is that there are people out there who listened to the episode and did come away believing that humanoids might be real, that the world is controlled by a secret cabal of elites, and that the mainstream media has been giving Alex Jones a raw deal. The resulting episode was thoroughly entertaining and also a bit disturbing. Jones is not just a friendly nut job. He is a purveyor of disinformation to a vast, ill-informed audience, some of whom have been unstable enough to take violent action against some of Jones’ favorite boogeymen. Rogan was sort of letting Jones hang himself with his own rope, but he also clearly wasn’t willing or able to refute some of Jones’ more outlandish points. Instead, he let the man ramble for four hours and 40 minutes.

The Joe Rogan Experience follows a deceptively simple formula. Rogan puts his guests at ease—often by offering them drugs and alcohol—affects a noncombative demeanor, and keeps them talking for hours until they inevitably say something provocative or unguarded. The discussions Rogan leads are often benign and silly, as if deliberately geared toward listeners who cannot decide whether their favorite film is The Hangover or The Matrix. In January, for example, Rogan and Mike Tyson shared a loopy conversation in which the former heavyweight champion explained how he came to purchase a tiger and praised a drug he referred to as “the toad.” In September, Rogan hosted the entrepreneur Elon Musk for a 2½-hour conversation during which the two men smoked weed, played with a flamethrower, and discoursed on the nature of reality. “Right now you think you’re in a studio in L.A.,” Musk told Rogan. “You might be in a computer.” (“Oh, listen, man, I think about this all the time,” said Rogan.)

The Elon Musk interview was a watershed moment for the podcast. Not only was Musk one of Rogan’s highest-profile guests ever, he may have also been Rogan’s most newsworthy guest, since the show took place at a moment when Musk appeared to be self-imploding in the public eye. The interview made headlines around the world, and Rogan’s fans were triumphant over the fact that it happened. “Traditional media is so pissed. This legitimizes Joe as a semi-serious media outlet and shows the power of podcasts and YouTube,” wrote the top-ranked commenter on the Reddit thread devoted to the Musk interview. “Props to Joe for taking power away from big media.”

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Here is the quandary: Rogan appeals to listeners who are aware enough to recognize that media consolidation is a bad thing yet naïve enough to mistake The Joe Rogan Experience for something other than a promotional tour stop for slicksters on the make. I found the Musk interview to be notable primarily for the things that the two men didn’t say. Rogan did not dwell on Musk’s bizarre recent stewardship of Tesla, or the gratuitous fights he has picked with people ranging from obscure British cave divers to stock analysts to the musician Azealia Banks, or the allegedly chaotic working conditions in Tesla plants, or any of the other controversies that, by the end of September, would lead the Securities and Exchange Commission to sue Musk and force his exit as chairman of Tesla. Instead, they talked about chimps and cyborgs.