What does a famous atheist with degrees in philosophy and neuroscience, a mathematical physicist and investment fund director, a YouTube comedian-slash-right-wing troll with millions of followers, the host of the world’s biggest podcast, and the host of a somewhat less popular but lavishly funded (by libertarian pockets) podcast have in common?
For starters, all of these people are well-known personalities of the New Right, particularly the ecosystem known the “Intellectual Dark Web”. This is a group of loosely collected pundits and intellectuals that have pushed forward many of the same narratives pursued by the more notorious Alt-Right, albeit with a more intellectually reputable facade (and which I have described at length in a previous long post). I am, of course, talking about Sam Harris, Eric Weinstein, Steven Crowder, Joe Rogan, and Dave Rubin; names that should be familiar to anyone who has spent any respectable amount of time wading through the battlegrounds of the internet’s culture wars. And in the case of Harris (one of the original “four Horsemen” of New Atheism) and Rogan (former Fear Factor host and stand-up), are also very well known in more mainstream circles as well.
What may be less familiar is the other thing that they all have in common: all five of them are seemingly terrified of having a conversation with former comedian, small-time Hollywood actor, occasional TV pundit, and full-time radio host Sam Seder. This is the story of the greatest debate on the internet that never happened and most likely never will.
Brooklyn’s own libertarian slayer
I came across Sam Seder’s radio show/podcast, The Majority Report, sometime in 2018 and despite not caring much (at the time) for internet punditry, quickly became a fan. Its original incarnation in 2004 under the Air America network had none other than Jeanene Garofalo as host before Seder eventually took over, and in its current format began back in 2010 with Seder at the helm. The show has had a number of co-hosts as well, and features lively interactions with its young producers giving it a collaborative feel rather than being just a one-man affair. From its studio in the “industrially ravaged Gowanus canal in downtown Brooklyn”, the daily line-up of guests usually features academics, authors, journalists, or other pundits who analyze the usual political, socio-economic, and cultural current affairs with a very left-wing progressive slant.
Just how progressive? Like much of left-wing YouTube, The Majority Report is unabashedly in the Bernie Sanders camp and dishes out criticism even for other leftists like Elizabeth Warren, to say nothing of establishment, center-left Democrats. Their political arguments are well reasoned and passionately defended, and much of my affinity with the show is that they broadly align with my own (with some exceptions). But what sets apart The Majority Report from its left-wing peers is that it is delightfully irreverent. Not to the extreme levels of the so-called “dirtbag left”, but certainly far more than would be expected by a show of equivalent popularity and production value. The show never shies away from relentless mockery of right-wing figures and positions (criticism of shows like Fox and Friends is an almost daily affair) which in the Trump era there is no shortage of. Ideological compatibility aside, the main reason I like the show is because we hate the same people (the Sam Harrises, Elon Musks, and Steven Pinkers of the world among many others) and no other show goes to such lengths to expose them for the disingenuous shills that they are.
One particular group of people on their hit list are libertarians. Seder made a name for himself sometime during mid-decade by an open challenge to libertarians to debate him on his show, and plenty of them did. It is there that Seder’s rather formidable qualities as a debater came to light, successfully shooting down most of his libertarian opponent’s arguments with remarkable ease which is all the more impressive considering he has no economics degree to fall back on. As someone who enjoys debate myself (as any of you who have me on Facebook will attest to), I certainly appreciate anyone who can handle himself well in an intellectual mano a mano. Particularly against an ideology like libertarianism which I find particularly abhorrent and which is not always easy to debate against given their penchant for unfalsifiable, axiomatic argumentation which means you better come to battle with a good arsenal of empirical facts.
In recent years, the show has focused a lot of energy against the New Right particularly given the movement’s popularity on the internet and dominance of YouTube political punditry. A good part of the show is devoted to discussing the daily shenanigans of these new right-wing channels and it has set itself up as a very good barometer of what are the topics du jour in online politics and the so-called culture war. Given the constant cross-referencing of each side in the others’ discourse, it is highly unlikely that Seder and his crew have gone unnoticed on right-wing radars. Yet despite being a show which takes callers from the public on a daily basis and which typically allows their opponents a chance to present their views on air, virtually nobody in these circles has bothered to do so. All the more surprising considering that Seder’s criticism of them should be perceived as bordering on slander if not personal insult.
Hot heads, cold feet
If Seder’s reputation doesn’t precede him, then surely there are other reasons why the Alt-Right/Alt-Lite and particularly the more intellectually-reputable IDW refuse to debate. One reason could be popularity. With millions of followers or even large non-internet fan bases, perhaps they could claim that the only moderately well-known Majority Report is too much of a minnow given their much larger fan bases. But the numbers suggest otherwise. At time of writing, The Majority Report has 710 thousand subscribers on YouTube, not too far behind fellow leftists David Pakman (754K) and Kyle Kulinski of Secular Talk (756K) both of whom have appeared on Joe Rogan’s show – Kulinski more than once. Sam Harris has also had a very recent appearance on Pakman’s show, which suggests he is not beneath engaging with these personalities, albeit clearly picking the ones that will be the least combative.
The more common argument, however, seems to be dishonesty. Almost all of these pundits have dismissed Seder as a bad faith ideologue who is not interested in an honest debate. Dave Rubin has claimed he will never debate Seder because he was once called “stupid” (not by Seder but by co-host Michael Brooks), notwithstanding that Rubin’s entire brand has been built on complaining about perpetually-offended “regressive left” snowflakes and how political correctness is destroying liberal democracy. That Rubin is notorious for blocking Twitter users (this author included) for even the slightest criticism of his views makes the hypocrisy all that worse.
Joe Rogan later went on to say that Seder bullies Rubin too much despite the fact that if your business is the “marketplace of ideas” (a term that Rubin has popularized more than any other), people have every right to call you out for not being particularly bright just as much as a marathon runner can be called out for not being particularly fast. Rogan’s refusal to invite Seder to his show, arguably the biggest podcast on the planet, is most surprising given that Rogan does not appear to be a right-winger himself. And although he has hosted alt-right darlings like Milo Yiannopolous, Mike Cernovich and Stefan Molyneaux, he has had no shortage of respectable personalities as well like astrophysicist Neil deGrass Tyson, whistleblower Edward Snowden, and even leftist politicians like Bernie Sanders. To say that Seder would not fit somewhere into this spectrum beggars belief.
For someone like Sam Harris, the dishonesty argument is particularly problematic. This is a man who by labelling Seder as a dishonest actor appears to have forgotten that his own (rather overrated) career as a public intellectual was built on debating religious zealots during the noughties. Religious zealots who one would imagine he considers inherently dishonest. One of his bêtes noires was Muslim author Reza Aslan who he has even accused of defamation, yet always left the door open to his response even when Aslan has called him a “genocidal fascist maniac”. Watching Harris calmly describe Seder as “psychopathic” and epitomizing the “banality of evil” (Seder is Jewish, which makes the not-so-subtle reference to Adolf Eichmann a rather disturbing choice of words) in a recent discussion with Eric Weinstein just reeks of a dishonesty that is quantum leaps ahead of anything Seder can be reasonably accused of.
Steven Crowder too has built his career on debate, in his case by setting up a desk on college campuses with provocative statements like “Male Privilege is a Myth”, “Hate Speech isn’t Real” or “Build the Wall” and asking students to “change his mind”. Were he content to keep his shtick buried in New Right internet circles this would be forgivable, but he has at least attempted to present himself as a more serious pundit as evidenced by his participation in the 2013 CPAC conference as well as frequent appearances on Fox News. And along with much of his New Right brethren, he has also had a seat on Rogan and Rubin’s tables. Crowder was scheduled to debate Seder at Politicon 2018 but walked out once he realized what he was getting into, something that he initially denied until the truth came to light.
On the positive side, there has been a backlash for their cowardice. Both Rubin and Crowder’s twitter feeds have been relentlessly trolled with hashtags like #DebateSamSeder and #ColdFeetCrowder, not just by leftists but even from their own fans (or former fans) as well. Some have even paid to do so, like one user shelling out $100 to ask a live question asking Rubin to debate Seder, which he mumbled over and ignored. But Crowder has had it much worse. His refusal to engage with Seder has been mocked by numerous celebrities including Anthony Scaramucci and Kevin Sorbo (of Hercules fame), both of which have told him to “man up”. For someone who endears himself to the “dude bro” and college jock types, these jives against his masculine ego must be particularly humiliating.
That battle that will never be
For the grander narrative, that people like Harris, Weinstein, or Rogan refuse to engage with Seder is less important than the excuses given for why they don’t. To accuse Seder of dishonesty or bad faith implies that they believe every other pundit they have interacted with, however vile their views are, to have been honest actors. This is clearly not the case. But it is a convenient excuse to not want to debate someone and appear like you have the moral high ground. It also means that changing your mind would beg the question of why you suddenly found them honest enough to debate. This is not only a convenient excuse to not debate someone; it also locks you out of the possibility of ever doing so in the future.
So why don’t these people debate Seder? Surely someone like Sam Harris who has no shortage of public debating experience should feel confident enough to take on a lesser known radio host. Surely Eric Weinstein with his impressive academic and professional qualifications would accept the challenge as well. But to their credit, they are smart enough to know why it would be a bad idea. The very reason Seder would want to debate them is to expose the hypocrisy and disingenuity of the Intellectual Dark Web as a whole, which is nothing more than an outlet for alt-right views to be promoted with a veneer of respectability. One recent study even showed it to be a sort of gateway drug to far right extremism. It might fool their easily impressionable followers, who are more concerned about validating their racist, misogynist, chauvinistic world views. It does not fool anyone who wants to engage with ideas in a serious, unbiased way.
So will we ever have the Battle of the Sams (Seder vs Harris)? Or Seder vs Weinstein? Will Seder ever have a seat on the Joe Rogan Experience or The Rubin Report? Or will any of them ever call in to The Majority Report? Probably not. Because if history is any guide, it’s not going to end with a mere agreement to disagree. Perhaps it would be slightly comical, like Seder’s hilarious debate against the rather unhinged (if not clinically psychotic) libertarian academic Walter Block in 2014:
Perhaps it would be a heated but civilized affair, like that against Charlie Kirk of Turning Points USA who took over from Crowder at Politicon 2018 (got to give it to the libertarians, at least they’re not afraid of a debate despite their ridiculous views):
But given the bad blood that goes back years between Seder and the IDW, it would probably be no holds barred. A few months ago, independent journalist Michael Tracey called into The Majority Report to demand “an apology” from Seder for his show’s coverage of the Russia collusion scandal. He was absolutely annihilated in what are probably the most savage 45 minutes of the show ever aired:
Can’t blame Harris or Weinstein from wanting to avoid that fate. Ultimately, the “marketplace of ideas” is not unlike the market of goods: a monopoly is far more profitable than competition.