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A beginner’s guide to The Ezra Klein Show

Four years and 300 episodes later, my favorite conversations for understanding the world and living better.

The first episode of The Ezra Klein Show aired in February 2016. It’s an episode I still like: In it, Rachel Maddow discusses her background as an HIV/AIDS activist, what she learned from skinhead rallies, how power works in politics, and the case for skipping the op-ed page.

Almost four years and 300 episodes later, the show has grown and changed, developing obsessions and themes that I never would’ve guessed back at the launch. For that reason, it can be hard to figure out where to start. This, then, is a beginner’s guide to The Ezra Klein Show.

The show is not formally divided into categories. But as I thought about my favorite episodes, five themes began to emerge:

  • Best-of: my favorite conversations of all time, full stop
  • Many lenses: the episodes that have changed the way I see the world
  • Living better: the shows that have changed how I live my life
  • Living morally: the conversations that have inspired me to be a better person
  • Productive disagreement: conversations where my guest and I disagreed significantly but learned from each other nonetheless
  • Climate change series: a series on the big questions behind our global climate crisis

Best-of

Let’s start with a few of my favorite conversations on the show, full stop. I’d be lost trying to choose the actual best episodes of the show. But these are five I love, and if you start here, you won’t be disappointed.

I build a world with fantasy master N.K. Jemisin

This may be the most fun I’ve ever had on a podcast. What made this episode such a delight is that it isn’t just a conversation. It’s a demonstration. Here, Jemisin — the only person ever to win the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row — takes me through the way she builds fictional worlds, and in doing so, she offers a master class on how to think more rigorously, clearly, and thoroughly about our world. Don’t miss it.


You will love this conversation with Jaron Lanier, but I can’t describe it

Jaron Lanier is a VR pioneer and a digital philosopher who coined the term “virtual reality.” This conversation begins with the story of Lanier trip-sitting Richard Feynman, the famed physicist, when he was dying of cancer and decided to try LSD, and it only gets better from there.

An inspiring conversation about democracy with Danielle Allen

I talk about democracy a lot on the show, but democracy is Harvard philosopher Danielle Allen’s life’s work. I’ve tried a bunch of different descriptions for this one, but they fail the conversation. At its core, this is about developing a deeper, richer understanding of what democracy means, what it asks of us, and what will be necessary if we’re to revive it not just as a political system, but as a way of relating to each other. I loved this one.

A mind-expanding conversation with Michael Pollan

This is a discussion that is, on one level, about psychedelics, but on a deeper level 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.

Jill Lepore on America’s two revolutions

Jill Lepore is the kind of history teacher everyone wishes they’d had. This is a conversation about who we are as a country, and how that self-definition is always contested and constantly in flux. Every answer she gives has something worth chewing over for weeks.

Many lenses

Ideology is a lens through which we see and evaluate the world. One particular joy of the show, for me, is the episodes I feel offer a new lens — the episodes that help me see more clearly, or that give me a way of seeing that I find myself returning to over and over again.

Kate Manne will change the way you think about misogyny

Politics is thick right now with arguments over misogyny, patriarchy, and gender roles. Kate Manne’s definition of misogyny as obstacles women face, not hatred men feel, makes so much more sense of this moment than the explanations most of us have been given.


Robert Sapolsky on the toxic intersection of poverty and stress

I often say on the show that politics and policy need to begin with a realistic model of human nature. This is a show about that level of the policy conversation: It’s about how poverty and stress exist in a doom loop together, each amplifying the other’s effects on the brain and body, deepening their harms. If I could get policymakers to listen to just one episode of the podcast, it’d be this one.

Daniel Markovits on how meritocracy harms everyone, including its winners

What makes Daniel Markovits’s perspective so interesting is that he doesn’t just condemn meritocracy as unfair for non-elites; he argues that it’s actually bad for the people benefiting from it. The “trap” of meritocracy ensnares all of us, he says, in ways that make life less satisfying for everyone.

Taking the Green Pill with Melanie Joy

The ideology that governs the way we treat animals is strange and contradictory. Melanie Joy names that ideology, investigates its beliefs and demands, and explores the defense mechanisms that make even discussing it so uncomfortable. But 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.

Alison Gopnik changed how I think about love

There is more great stuff in this conversation than I can write in a few sentences. Gopnik has changed my thinking on parenting, friendships, marriage, and schooling. Some of her ideas are ones you could build a life around.

Living better

Every so often, a conversation comes along that changes not only how I understand my life, but how I live it. These are some of those conversations.

Work as identity, burnout as lifestyle

This is a conversation about what happens when work becomes an identity, capitalism becomes a religion, and productivity becomes the way we measure human value. The conversation exceeded even the high hopes I had for it, and lives on as a fan favorite.


Former US surgeon general Vivek Murthy on the loneliness epidemic

Vivek Murthy’s explanation of how loneliness acts on the body is worth the time, all on its own. But the broader message here is deeper: You are not alone in your loneliness. None of us is. And the best thing we can do is, often, helping someone else out of the very pit we’re in.

Lisa Feldman Barrett on how emotions are constructed

For decades, Lisa Feldman Barrett has been demonstrating that emotions are not biologically hardwired into our brains but constructed by our minds. This episode has potentially radical implications. If we take her theory seriously, it follows that the ways we think about our daily emotional states, diagnose illnesses, interact with friends, raise our children, and experience reality all need some serious adjusting, if not complete rethinking.

Robert Wright on what Buddhism got right about the human brain

This episode is about how our minds evolved to keep us alive, not to keep us happy or satisfied — and what can be done about it. But there is practical advice in this podcast, too. Robert Wright beautifully describes what happens when he reaches what he calls “meditative depths,” what it’s like to go on a 10-day silent meditation retreat, and why a mindful outlook doesn’t lead to complacency or neutrality.

Johann Hari on how society is making us depressed

Johann Hari, who has struggled with depression since his youth, went on a journey to try to understand the social causes of mental illness, the ones we prefer not to talk about because changing them is harder than handing out a pill. On one level, this conversation is about depression; on another level, it’s about the ways we’ve screwed up modern society and created a world that leaves far too many of us alienated, anxious, despairing, and lost.

The art of attention, with Jenny Odell

Jenny Odell is a visual artist who has taught digital and physical design at Stanford since 2013, as well as done residencies at Facebook, the San Francisco Planning Department, the Dump, and the Internet Archive. All of which is to say she’s the perfect person to talk with about creativity and attention in a world designed to flatten both. In this conversation, we discuss the difference between productivity and creativity, how artists orchestrate attention, the ideologies we use to value our time, what it means to do nothing, lucid dreaming, and much more.

Living morally

Doing the right thing isn’t easy. Often it’s hard — and that’s all the more true when society is built around justifying the wrong thing and laughing off challenges to the status quo. These guests are uncowed, and their example is an inspiration.

Bryan Stevenson on why the opposite of poverty is justice

There are only a few people I’d say this about, but Bryan Stevenson is a genuine American hero. There are some people you meet who seem like they’re operating on a higher plane of decency, grace, and thoughtfulness. Stevenson is one of them. His thoughts on justice, on poverty, on racism, and on shame have stayed with me ever since this conversation, and they’ll do the same for you.


Varshini Prakash on generation climate change

This one of the most important conversations I’ve had on the show. The fact that it left me feeling better about the world rather than worse — that was shocking. Varshini Prakash is co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, a leader in the new generation of youth-led climate change movements that emerged from the failure of the global political system to address the climate crisis. Behind these movements is the experience of coming of age in the era of climate crisis and the new approach to organizing birthed by that trauma. This is a conversation about climate change and about political organizing, but it’s also about finding agency amid despair.

When doing the right thing makes you a criminal, with Wayne Hsiung

Wayne Hsiung is the founder of Direct Action Everywhere, an organization best known for conducting public, open rescues of animals too sick for slaughter. These rescues are, in many cases, illegal, and Hsiung and his fellow activists are risking years of imprisonment. But the sacrifice is the point: Hsiung and his colleagues are trying to highlight the sickness of a society that criminalizes doing what any child would recognize as the right thing to do. In our conversation, I wanted to understand a simple question: How did he get here? What leads someone with a safe, comfortable life to risk everything for a cause?

Peter Singer on the lives you can save

Imagine you’re walking to work. You see a child drowning in a lake. You’re about to jump in and save her when you realize you’re wearing your best suit, and the rescue will end up costing hundreds in dry cleaning bills. Should you still save the child?

Of course you should. But this simple thought experiment, taken seriously, has radical implications for how you live your life. And Peter Singer, the author of that thought experiment, is perhaps the most influential public intellectual of my lifetime. In Singer’s hands, the questions that motivate a moral life are startlingly simple. But if you take them seriously, living morally is very, very hard. And the way most of us are living, right now — well, we’re letting a lot of children drown. What happens if we force ourselves to recognize that fact? What does it demand of us?

Bruce Friedrich on ending the age of animal cruelty

Bruce Friedrich is one of the smartest, most informed, and most thoughtful experts I’ve ever found on animal suffering. He had immersed himself in a subject most of us — myself very much included — would prefer to ignore, and he learned some surprising things, including that vegetarianism was probably worse for animal welfare than cutting out eggs but keeping beef.

Productive disagreement

Some of the episodes I’ve learned the most from were those where I agreed with the guest least. One thing I love about podcasting is how conversation breaks down the illusion that discussions have binary outcomes: Someone is right and someone is wrong. Sometimes a view is 70 percent wrong and 30 percent right — and that 30 percent is important. So don’t think of these conversations as collisions that yield a winner. Think of them as explorations that yield insight.

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. This is a tricky, but necessary, 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.

Rod Dreher on America’s post-Christian culture wars

This conversation is a window into a mindset that is increasingly powerful in politics but befuddling to those who don’t share its premise: How have so many white Christians come to feel like America’s most persecuted class? A lot of the points Dreher and I differ on can’t be settled by debate, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for understanding.

The Sam Harris Debate

There’s a lot of backstory to this debate, most of which is covered in this piece. But the ultimate debate with Sam Harris was illuminating. Nothing has done as much to help me understand the fears that bind the “Intellectual Dark Web,” or the way identity politics is easier to see in others than in ourselves.

Andrew Sullivan and I work out our differences

I’ve been arguing with Andrew Sullivan online for almost 15 years now. It’s one of my oldest and most rewarding hobbies. This is a conversation about political movements, American religiosity, and identity. It’s about whether the illiberalism of today is really worse than the illiberalism of yesteryear, and whether the critiques of the campus left accurately describe anyone who holds real power. It’s about how much demographic change a society can absorb, and at what pace that change should occur. It’s about what conservatism is versus what it says it is.

Where Jonathan Haidt thinks the American mind went wrong

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt sees political correctness on campus as a threat not just to speakers’ incomes but to students’ psyches. I often find myself a skeptic in this conversation. The panic over campus activism seems overblown to me. It’s suffused with bad-faith efforts to nationalize isolated examples of college kids behaving badly in order to discredit serious critiques of social injustice. But that’s why I wanted to have Haidt on the show: If anyone could convince me I’m wrong about this, it’d be him.

Climate change series

I suspect I’m like a lot of people in that I accept that climate change is bad. What I struggled with before this series were questions like: how bad? Is it an existential threat that eclipses all else? Is it one of many serious problems politics must somehow address? What do viable solutions look like? And what’s standing in the way of those solutions being implemented?

So, these episodes aren’t concerned with whether “the science is real” on climate change. This is a series about what the science says — and what it means for our lives, our politics, and our future.

We live in The Good Place. And we’re screwing it up (with Dr. Kate Marvel)

I wanted to kick off the series with someone who knows the science cold. Kate Marvel is a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a professor at Columbia University’s Department of Applied Physics and Mathematics. But Marvel isn’t just a leading climate scientist. She’s also unique in her focus on the stories we tell each other, and ourselves, about climate change, and how they end up structuring our decisions.

The climate crisis is an oceans crisis (with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson)

The more I prepared for this series, the more I realize there was a big blue gap in my understanding of climate change. Oceans cover 70% of the earth, absorb 93% of the heat from the sun, and capture 30% of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As go the oceans, so goes humanity. Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is able to do something a lot of people aren’t: communicate not just the science of climate change from the ocean perspective, but the role oceans play in the human story. This is a vivid tour of the way oceans shape our lives, and the costs and consequences of reshaping them.

Saul Griffith on how to solve climate change and make life more awesome

This conversation is about what it will take to solve climate change and what kind of world we can build if we succeed. Saul Griffith knows the US energy system better than just about anyone on this planet — and he’s clearer than anyone else I’ve found on the paths to decarbonization, and how to navigate them. Most conversations about climate change are pretty depressing. This conversation is not. We have the tools we need to decarbonize. What’s more, decarbonizing doesn’t mean accepting a future of less — it can mean a more awesome, humane, technologically rich, and socially inspiring future for us all.

The geoengineering question (with Dr. Jane Flegal)

Most analyses of how to “solve” climate change start from a single, crucial assumption: that carbon emissions and global warming are inextricably linked. Geoengineering is a set of technologies and ideas with the potential to shatter that link. Can we use them? Should we? Could they be used in concert with other solutions, or would simply opening the door drain support from those ideas? Even if we did want to deploy geoengineering, who would govern its use? And is mucking with the earth at this level more dangerous than climate change itself — which may, ultimately, be the choice we face? This isn’t an argument for or against geoengineering. It’s a way to think about it, and that turns out to be a way to think about the climate change problem as a whole.

Republicans vs. the planet (with Dave Roberts)

Vox’s Dave Roberts started as his journalism career covering climate science and clean energy technology, but — for reasons we discuss here — he now writes just as much about political psychology, media ecosystems, political institutions, and how they intersect with climate change. This conversation is about the political dimension of climate change: how the GOP went from the party of cap-and-trade to the party of climate denial, what today’s climate activists get right about our politics that their predecessors got wrong, why the carbon tax is a dead end, how nuclear energy became so divisive and so much more.


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