Ezra Klein is the editor-at-large and founder of Vox. He was previously a columnist and editor at The Washington Post, a policy analyst at MSNBC, and a contributor to Bloomberg News.
The Politic: To frame the discussion, I really admired the conversation you had with Sam Harris about Charles Murray and The Bell Curve. It seems like you truly care about holding yourself and others to high standards… in this case, acknowledging the context of such a charged and sensitive conversation, particularly as it relates to the historical legacy of slavery. What inspired you to have this discussion and to treat it so carefully?
You know, I’d listened to Harris’ podcast. I liked some of his stuff, I disagreed with some of his stuff, but I thought he was a smart guy. I’m curious. I’m curious about him, and I’m curious about this world that he’s part of and that is emergent. I wrote a big piece about the YouTube, reactionary Right. I think that there is a significant new ideology taking shape that is best understood as a reactionary ideology in the technical sense of reaction ideologies, which is responding to a threat coming from PC culture and what folks see as the social justice Left–campus protestors and all the rest of it–and it’s responding to that threat, by doubling down on some of the arguments in that space–like the Murray argument about race and IQ–but also by trying to cast those stances less in terms of the arguments themselves and more in terms of a brave, courageous stance for free speech and free inquiry. And I’m fascinated by that. As somebody who reports on politics and political culture and tries to understand ideological trends, understanding how those moves are being made is really important to me. So, in that conversation… look, I had always told Sam–you can see it in the emails–that he should have these discussions with actual IQ scientists, the people who had written the piece he was upset about. He did not want to do that.
So, when we talked, what I was interested in was this discourse around political correctness and identity politics. And what’s really happening is people sneak different ideas in through these back and side doors. So, obviously, Sam and I have a different view on some of the underlying IQ questions. But, the thing I was really trying to show in that discussion, and what was interesting to me as somebody who was curious going into it, was to see the way identity politics was operating, or at least, the way I thought identity politics was operating… without it even being noticed.
It’s one of my views that identity politics is all over politics on all sides. But one of the things I’m interested in is when it gets named ‘identity politics’ and when it just gets thought of as ‘politics.’ So, being able to trace how that happens live, and watching it happen live, and being able to see some of the reactions and boundaries live, was fascinating. That’s how I went into that. I did go in with the intent of trying to understand what was going on here a little bit better, and for me, I came out understanding what was going on a little bit better. So, you know, it was useful.
I think it’s really interesting what’s been going on!
I think this stuff is really important. I think it is important to watch when new ideologies are emerging. It’s a funny thing… I wear a lot of different hats, and one hat which I where sometimes is on a side of that argument. You know– I’m making a point, or I have a conclusion and maybe that conclusion is controversial, or maybe it’s not. But the one I experience myself as wearing more is just curiosity. I do this job substantially because I’m curious. I’m very curious about this world. I think trying to understand it is important. I think a huge blind spot in journalism among many–we have many blind spots, but this is a huge blind spot in journalism–is that we’re pretty blind to what’s happening on YouTube. I do a lot of college campus speaking, and one of the lessons I’ve taken from that is that you almost can’t overstate how important YouTube is in how young people get their political information. But, the heavy YouTube use is almost unknown in the over-30 crowd because it’s completely not mirrored in the way you see it among 17-year-olds. It’s like Snapchat– you just don’t see it used that way in people who are over 30. So, the people who are in the media and covering political trends and ideologies are quite blind to it. Not everybody, obviously. There are really good people. Charlie Warzel at BuzzFeed is a really good example of this. But, I think it’s something that we don’t give enough attention to. So, this to me is a thing that people need to take more seriously. Because if you don’t, you’re going to see these issues coming up, these fights–things like Gamergate is a great example–and you’re not going to understand why they’re happening, because you’re not going to understand what people are really arguing about anymore. And that, to me, is a big thing. I feel like what we’re arguing about has subtly but importantly changed. The lines that people can and can’t cross have subtly but importantly changed. And meanwhile, Washington half the time operates under this new paradigm and half the time pretends things are still the way they were in the 80s. That’s not a reasonable way to understand politics.
I would be interested if someone is researching the way memes work in political discourse. I think a lot of people get their political views from these kind of impersonal, social forces… not really through reason.
Absolutely. Absolutely. I remember back in the 2004 election, Chris Hayes, who’s now at MSNBC but back then was writing at In These Times, wrote this great piece about email forwards, about how unbelievably powerful email forwarding was, because he’d been canvassing in that election. And what he kept finding was… He would talk to somebody in Ohio, and they’d say something that he couldn’t quite understand, that didn’t seem true to him, and he’d be like, “Where did you get that?” And the response was, “Oh, my uncle forwarded it to me in an email.”
There have always been these really powerful, informal communications systems. But as technology changes, the way [information] propagate[s] changes too. From the conspiratorial stuff, we used to have the John Birch Society. More ideologically, you know… [inaudible]. We’ve also had groups that are just new ideologically. But one thing that’s different now is that if you’re working on these social platforms, and you’re saying something that develops an intense audience, the algorithms pick it up, the recommendation engines pick it up, and all of a sudden, people are getting drawn to it when they weren’t searching for anything like that in the first place. So, email forwards always had this possibility for virality. Jonah Peretti, who started BuzzFeed, his first taste of virality came through architecting email forwards. But now, it takes so much less to really get on that exponential curve. So, understanding what’s getting there and how it’s getting there, I think, is a really big deal.