John McWhorter talks to Sam Harris

September 19, 2020 • 1:15 pm

It’s supposed to be my day off, so I’ll save the braining for other days. But here’s a nice listen if you have an hour to spare.

If you click on the screenshot below, you’ll get to hear an hour and eleven minutes of linguist and writer John McWhorter chatting with Sam Harris on Harris’s podcast “Making Sense.”  McWhorter’s topic is, as the title indicates, “The New Religion of Anti-Racism,” which I believe is the subject of his next book. You don’t get to listen to the entire conversation (I’m not sure how long the whole thing is) unless you subscribe to Sam’s podcast series.

Here are Sam’s notes on the podcast:

In this episode of the podcast, Sam Harris speaks with John McWhorter about race, racism, and “anti-racism” in America.

They discuss:

    • how conceptions of racism have changed
    • the ubiquitous threat of being branded a “racist”
    • the contradictions within identity politics
    • recent echoes of the OJ verdict
    • willingness among progressives to lose the 2020 election
    • racism as the all-purpose explanation of racial disparities in the U.S.
    • double standards for the black community
    • the war on drugs
    • the lure of identity politics
    • police violence
    • the enduring riddle of affirmative action
    • the politics of “black face” and other topics

I’ve listened to all but the last ten minutes or so, as I fell asleep—not because it was boring, but because I was exhausted from lack of sleep.

If you’ve read or hear McWhorter, or read about him on this site, you’ll know he doesn’t take the Black Lives Matter party line, even though he’s black. In fact, he’s highly critical of that line, which he calls “the Critical Race Theory-infused way of looking at things”, assuming a “nation of identities”.  McWhorter’s call is a strong one: telling us that the whole dialogue with BLM/CRT advocates “is something that enlightened people have to learn to stand down” (he loves that last phrase). In other words, don’t engage with these people; just “work around them.”

Normally I’m not an “ignore the other side” person, but, as McWhorter says, “don’t engage the woke,” as “they can’t be reasoned with”: something that we’ve all learned through experience. It’s like trying to engage any zealot convinced that they’ve got the absolute truth. Although Sam tends to bang on a bit too long in a conversation that should highlight the guest, it’s not too obtrusive, and McWhorter does get his say in.

I’m also not a podcast kind of guy, as I can read much faster than I can listen, but I think you’ll enjoy this 71 minutes. Click just below (not on the photo):


23 thoughts on “John McWhorter talks to Sam Harris

  1. I follow both Sam and Mcwhorter and felt this was a fantastic podcast (though I’d heard most of it before from each of them).

    McWhorter astonishes me in his ability to speak so fluidly, with complexity, without any uhms or ahs. Like text lifted from a page.

    As to this:

    “Although Sam tends to bang on a bit too long in a conversation that should highlight the guest, it’s not too obtrusive, and McWhorter does get his say in.”

    I actually didn’t have the same impression. I found that Sam kept mostly quiet and let McWhorter “bang on” for much of the show and mostly dominate. Which was fine with me.

    Another thing is that, when some people are taken aback by the time Sam takes up when he has a guest on, Sam has reminded his audience now and again that his podcast is not an interview show. It’s a conversation.
    His fans come there for Sam and his ideas and thoughts, not for Sam as merely an interviewer, a job many others do fine. So it’s always going to be a conversation where you hear a lot from Sam too, bouncing his take of things off the guest and visa versa.

    I appreciate that as I wouldn’t want Sam to just turn into yet another “interview” show with Sam just tossing questions to a guest.
    Plenty of those around.

    1. “Sam has reminded his audience now and again that his podcast is not an interview show. It’s a conversation.”

      I reasonably understand that. But I trust that any podcast host remembers that the conversation is two-way, as some reasonably consideration to the guest. I thoroughly enjoy Mr. Harris’s podcasts. I’m usually quite patient, but during this particular podcast I found myself, for the first time, out loud voicing, “Sam, finish that up so your guest can speak” (and to that extent be more inclined to return in the future).

      I’m reminded of Hitch telling Lara Ingraham, “You should have me on more often so that you can give your opinion.”

      I recently listened to a podcast of Mr. Harris enduring Kara Swisher’s repeated logorrheic niagara of interruption. I take it that she feels hers is a conversation, not an interview. I don’t consider such volcanic interruption conversation. I slogged through to the end, quite impressed at Sam’s patience in dealing with her rude behavior. I gather that he knew in advance what he was in for. Sam was speaking at (what I perceive for him) quite a rapid clip, I gather to try to get something blurted out before he was cut off in mid-sentence.

    2. Felt like we’d been waiting a long time for John to take-up Sam’s offer (first issued years ago) to join him on the podcast – but it was well worth waiting for, really good conversation.
      I think Sam pretty much always gets the balance right re his share of time speaking; I’m usually just as interested in hearing what Sam has to say as I am with what the guest offers up.
      One aspect that sometime frustrates: the lack of disagreement, failure to pushback.
      Sam and John did disagree about Sam’s view that woke ideology & activism is often cynical, but the rest they pretty much agreed on.
      Hope Sam has him back on after John’s book has been published, once the woke have tried to cancel him.
      Would also be good to see Sam on Glenn Loury’s BloggingHeadsTV show sometime soon,
      Chris G.

  2. “I’m also not a podcast kind of guy, as I can read much faster than I can listen” – you can usually set the playback speed for podcasts to be slightly faster to compensate for this. (Without the speakers sounding like Mickey Mouse!)

  3. Betsy DeVos has her eyes on school curriculum written by a group of conservatives. McWhorter is part of that group. This is the patriotic education tRump speaks of. Another “scholar” in the group hasn’t even attained a Bachelor’s degree. Many have credentials such as appearances on the Rush Limbaugh Show, Sean Hannity, and Fox News, as well as Sam’s podcast.

    1. Sorry, but are you implying that what McWhorter said was worthless because somehow he’s lumped in with a group of morons? What is the point of this comment except to push guilt by association. If I’m wrong, please clarify.

      1. I’ve seen McWhorter speak at Cal Tech. He is a very smart man. His expertise is language. I didn’t group him in with a bunch of morons, he did that himself.

        1. Yep, that’s what I thought you meant. I love the comment that “his expertise is language.” I suppose you woudn’t group YOURSELF with those morons.

          Sorry, but you tried to devalue someone’s words because of his associations. THAT is moronic. You judge what he said by its coherence and cogency. You didn’t do that.

          I suggest you start commenting at Pharyngula.

          1. I’m sorry, but I was in no way disparaging his words. I didn’t listen to the podcast. I was merely relaying what I read on Education Week’s newsletter. He is actually one of the few on that list that is qualified to write curriculum. I was just pointing out something unrelated to the post itself, but surely something of interest.

            1. You were disparaging the man, and by extension his words, by disparaging not only the company he’s in (I haven’t checked that) but also saying he chose to be in that company. Please don’t insult our collective intelligence by saying it was just “something of interest.” WHY was is of interest.

              One more ad hominem comment like that and you’re gone. Capiche?

    2. ‘Another “scholar” in the group hasn’t even attained a Bachelor’s degree.’

      For some reason Gore Vidal (and, among other works, his “United States of Amnesia”) comes to mind.

  4. It was an excellent dialogue on the subject. They were practical and common sense about racism, something hard to find anywhere these days. I was interested to hear Sam Harris using the cult word to describe the woke tribe. A kind of religion that affects me the same. Good warning from John not to argue with these folks as it is a waste of time.

  5. I saw this excellent title and later thought that yes, it’s almost as if A Great Thing is anticipated as a direct result of pious activities – A Great Thing to supplant the Declaration of Independence, The Emancipation Proclamation, and The Civil Rights Act – A Great Thing to solve everything.

    Anything on structural racism?

  6. I think McWhorter is dead on here. You cannot succeed by engaging the woke, or as I keep finding out, engaging with people who don’t think they are woke but parrot their views and talking points. My parents, my sister, my coworkers… it’s quite dispiriting but to hear him talk is to feel a little less alone. I look forward to his book, which I’d love share with my relatives but I’d be better off trying to get my cat to read it.

  7. I have enormous respect for McWhorter. My wife was one of the organizers of a”Dewey Decimal” series of 10 lectures (one for each 100 in the Dewey Decimal classification system) at the Salt Lake City Public Library. It was our pleasure to pick up at the airport and escort around town a number of the 10 speakers, including Dr. McWhorter He was very impressive in every way. Subsequently, I have followed a number of his publications, which have more than confirmed my initial impression.

  8. This was a fantastic conversation. Political ideology has always had a vaguely religious slant to it, but it seems to be becoming a crushing bipartisan disorder. Look right and you’ve got a cult of personality boiling around a perpetually dishonest nincompoop. Look left and you’ve got a circular firing squad organized around a largely baseless moral panic. It’s both distressing and exhausting.

    The puzzling thing is that, as McWhorter and Harris note, the political religion on the left is chiefly a fashion among melanin-depleted elites. Most liberals don’t like it. But, because of the outsized influence of social media and the staffing mechanics of major media organizations, that unhinged political religion monopolizes the conversation and makes it seem to casual observers like everyone left of center is off their rocker.

  9. At 19:00 this conversation with Coleman Hughes, they discuss a bit about how religion works and how anti-racism would match those factors:

    In particular, Hughes refers to something I thought only occurred to me – the “religion shaped hole” – and especially how increasing secularization in certain demographics leaves an open wound in which things that aren’t officially called religion can infect and grow, as nothing is there to compete with it. Anti-racism appears to be such a thing – obviously not easy to show, but they discuss this.

  10. It is good to see sensible debate here. The issue of racism should not exist as we are all part of the human race. Period. Unless of course you believe that the aliens have invaded and hide among us.

    We should be talking about tribalism, nationalism, familyism (!), anything but racism. And there is ‘the religion shaped hole’ in all of us. But true ‘religion’ is loving one another and that can be tough. I have written on race and racism (and Black Lives Matter) in my blog if anyone is interested.

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