In 2018, I recorded and released about 70 episodes of my interview podcast, The Ezra Klein Show. Every one of them was an education. Immersing yourself in another person’s ideas and words and story is a small way of inhabiting someone else’s mind, at least for a while. Comparing how you see the world to how they see the world makes clear how much you’re missing. The power of these conversations, for me, is in that learning.
Here are nine of the episodes I learned the most from in 2018, in alphabetical order. This isn’t a best-of list — I’m not even sure what that would mean. A lot of my favorite conversations from the year aren’t on here. But these are the conversations that most changed how I thought in 2018.
A mind-expanding conversation with Michael Pollan
You know Michael Pollan’s work. He wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma, perhaps the most influential book about how we eat in the modern era. He’s the guy who told us, sensibly: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” His new book is called How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. And it is, quite honestly, a trip.
You don’t have to be interested in taking magic mushrooms to listen to this conversation. Most of it isn’t about psychedelics at all. This is a discussion about how to expand your mind: It’s about how we think, how we learn, whether spiritual experiences can have materialist consequences, what makes us afraid of death, what our minds filter out in the world around us, why travel is good for us, and much more.
Pollan changed how I think about my mind. He’ll change how you think about yours.
David French on “The Great White Culture War”
David French is a senior writer for National Review and one of the conservatives I read most closely. In mid-2018, he wrote a column, partly in response to things I’d said, that particularly caught my eye. Responding to a spate of controversies at the intersection of race, speech, and power, he argued that conflicts that liberals believe to be about building a more diverse, representative America look very different to conservative eyes.
“Conservative white Americans look at urban multicultural liberalism and notice an important fact,” he wrote. “Its white elite remains, and continues to enjoy staggering amounts of power and privilege. So when that same white elite applauds the decline of ‘white America,’ what conservatives often hear isn’t a cheer for racial justice but another salvo in our ongoing cultural grudge match, with the victors seeking to elevate black and brown voices while remaining on top themselves.”
I asked French to come on the podcast to discuss this idea — and the controversies that motivated it — more deeply. The result is a tricky conversation about very sensitive territory in our politics. It’s about how we talk about race and class and status and gender and sexuality and religion, how we understand and misunderstand each other, how our political identities turn conflicts about one thing into conflicts about all things, why groups that are objectively powerful feel so powerless, and much more.
I built a world with fantasy master N.K. Jemisin
This may be the most fun I’ve ever had on a podcast.
In 2018, Nora Jemisin — better known by her pen name, N.K. Jemisin — won the Hugo Award for best novel for the third year in a row. No one had ever done that before. Jemisin is also the first author to have every book in a single series win the Hugo for best novel, and the first black author to win a Hugo for best novel. She’s a badass.
What made this episode such a delight is that it isn’t just a conversation. It’s a demonstration. Here, Jemisin takes me through the way she builds fictional worlds, and in doing, she offers a master class on how to think more rigorously, clearly, and thoroughly about our own world. Don’t miss it.
Jennifer Richeson on political threat in a browning America
America is changing. A majority of infants are, for the first time in US history, nonwhite — and the rest of the population is expected to follow suit in the coming decades. The number of religiously affiliated Americans is at a record low, and the share of foreign-born residents is historically high.
Yale psychologist (and MacArthur genius) Jennifer Richeson has done pioneering work on the way perceptions of demographic threat and change affect people’s political opinions, voting behavior, and ideas about themselves. The short answer? The more conscious we are of other groups gaining strength, the more politically conservative we become.
What Richeson explains in this conversation is the crucial context of American politics in this era. If all you listen to on this list is this podcast and the Lilliana Mason conversation, you’ll have a better handle on what’s driving the age of Trump.
Lilliana Mason on the age of “mega-identity” politics
If you want to understand the way identity is shaping American politics, and how it’s changing in this era, Lilliana Mason’s work is essential.
In her book Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, Mason traces the construction of our partisan “mega-identities”: identities that fuse party affiliation to ideology, race, religion, gender, sexuality, geography, and more. These mega-identities didn’t exist 50 or even 30 years ago, but now that they’re here, they change the way we see each other, the way we engage in politics, and the way politics absorbs other — previously nonpolitical — spheres of our culture.
In this conversation, Mason shows how little it takes to activate a sense of group identity in human beings, and how far-reaching the cognitive and social implications are once that group identity takes hold. And she does the necessary, overdue work of centering political identity at the core of “identity politics.”
Mehrsa Baradaran on political power and the racial wealth gap
In 2016, the median white family in America had $171,000 in wealth. The median black family had just $17,400. Put differently, for every dollar in wealth the average white family has, the average black family has a dime. And the gap is growing.
I came across law professor Mehrsa Baradaran’s work while researching our Netflix, Explained episode on the racial wealth gap. Her book The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap focuses on a part of the American story that’s often ignored: the way African Americans were locked out of the financial engines that create wealth in America, and the way the rhetoric of equal treatment under the law was weaponized, literally as soon as slavery ended, against efforts to achieve economic equality.
The racial wealth gap isn’t an accident. As Baradaran shows, there were policies and institutions America used to build and share its wealth, and there were decisions made to close those policies and institutions to African Americans. The racial wealth gap is where past injustice compounds into present inequality, and understanding its mechanisms is the first step toward fixing it.
Taking the Green Pill, with Melanie Joy
The same Americans who would pay for antidepressants for their pet dogs or cancer treatments for their beloved cats often have no problem eating breakfast sandwiches made of pigs that have lived lives of endless suffering and eggs produced by tortured chickens. The ideology that governs the way most of us eat is strange and contradictory.
This is the topic of Dr. Melanie Joy’s Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows. Joy does something both obvious and necessary: She names the ideology that governs the way we eat, investigates its beliefs and demands, and explores the defense mechanisms that make even discussing it such an uncomfortable experience.
Joy’s work applies to much more than how we eat: It’s a lens for thinking about all the systems we’re so deeply embedded in that we can no longer see them. And it’s about what happens when those ideologies become visible and we have to grapple with what they’ve done to us and the world we live in.
The Sam Harris debate
There’s a lot of backstory to this debate, most of which is covered in this piece. The short version is that Sam Harris, the host of the Waking Up podcast, conducted an interview with The Bell Curve author Charles Murray in which the two argued that African Americans are, for a combination of genetic and environmental reasons, intrinsically and immutably less intelligent than white Americans. Harris framed the discussion as a courageous stand against political correctness, and Murray argued that the implications of this “forbidden knowledge” were that America should abandon affirmative action and other efforts to build a more racially equitable society.
In response, Vox ran an article by three leading IQ scientists arguing that Harris and Murray were flatly wrong. Harris took angry offense, accusing me of everything from defamation to punishing “thought crime,” and I published a response arguing that Harris had gotten both the science and the history of the debate backwards:
Research shows measurable consequences on IQ and a host of other outcomes from the kind of violence and discrimination America inflicted for centuries against African Americans. In a vicious cycle, the consequences of that violence have pushed forward the underlying attitudes that allow discriminatory policies to flourish and justify the racially unequal world we’ve built.
The ultimate debate with Harris was illuminating. Nothing has done as much to help me understand the fears that bind the “Intellectual Dark Web,” or the way otherwise smart people are blind to the way they practice identity politics even as they use the term to condemn others, as the resulting conversation. There’s also a transcript here, though fair warning, it is exceptionally long.
You will love this conversation with Jaron Lanier, but I can’t describe it
This conversation begins with the story of Jaron Lanier trip-sitting Richard Feynman, the famed physicist, when he was dying from cancer and decided to try LSD, and it only gets better from there.
Lanier is a VR pioneer and a digital philosopher. He coined the term “virtual reality,” founded one of the first companies in the space, and has been involved in the practice and theory of creating and living in virtual worlds for decades now. He’s one of the most trenchant critics of Silicon Valley’s business model and the way it’s screwed up both the internet and the world. And somehow, all this has made him a much more humanistic, insightful analyst of what it’s like to live in this world too.