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Slate, March 21, 2019

... 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.

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, TheJoe 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.”

The first episode of TheJoe 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 TheJoe Rogan Experience would eventually become.

... 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.

... 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.”

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.
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