I’ve just been through the weirdest book-related experience I’ve had since a Canadian university professor with a loaded rat trap chased me around after a talk I gave a dozen years ago, threatening to spring it on me. Last week I got the following email bearing the title “Invitation to Appear on Bloggingheads TV” from a senior editor at that site:
I’d like to invite you to appear on Bloggingheads.tv, a web site that hosts video dialogues between journalists, bloggers, and scholars. We have a partnership with the New York Times by which they feature excerpts from some of our shows on their site.
Past guests include prominent thinkers such as Paul Krugman, Paul Ehrlich, Frans de Waal, David Frum, Richard Wrangham, Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kagan, and Michael Kinsley.
Here is one of our recent shows, a dialogue between Paul Nelson, of the Discovery Institute, and Ron Numbers, of Wisconsin-Madison:
I’m hoping that you might be interested in participating, as well. First-time participants often report how refreshingly unconstrained they find the format—how it lets them present their views with a depth and subtlety not possible on TV or radio. We’d love to have you join us.
If you’re available, please let me know, and we can see about arranging a taping. Thank you for your time.
He seemed like such a nice fellow, so after a couple days I emailed him back to say, sure, I’d be glad to. The editor responded, okay, sometime next week, your discussion partner will be John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute. I had never heard of McWhorter before, so googled his name, and saw that he’s a linguist who often writes on race matters. I didn’t know what to expect because I know some conservatives (which he seemed to be from his bio) don’t like ID one bit.
Everything was arranged for the taping Tuesday afternoon. When the interview started, I was surprised and delighted to learn that McWhorter was actually a fan of mine. He said (I’m paraphrasing here) he loved The Edge of Evolution and wanted the book to become better known. He said that this was one of the few times that he initiated an interview at Bloggingheads. He said he was familiar with criticisms of the book and found them unpersuasive. He said that Darwinism just didn’t seem to him to be able to cut the mustard in explaining life, and he had yet to read a good, detailed explanation for a large evolutionary change. He also said that he had never believed in God, but that EOE got him thinking. In return I summarized my arguments from EOE, talked about protein structure, addressed his objections that intelligent design is “boring” and a scientific dead-end, and so on. At the end of the taping I thought, gee, those folks at Bloggingheads TV are a real nice bunch.
The next day I emailed the Bloggingheads editor to ask when the show would go on. He answered right back that at that very moment it had been activated, and thanks for participating. I clicked the link, and there was the show. I thought I looked older on screen than I am (my beard isn’t really that white), but emailed some friends to let them know the interview was up anyway. That evening I got an email from one of them saying that he couldn’t find the interview — it had been yanked.
Let me emphasize this, dear readers. Here we are living in the land of the free and the home of the brave. And yet a web site puts up an interview with an (ahem…) somewhat controversial figure, pulls it back down within hours, erases it, sends it down the memory hole. Why might that be? There would seem to be two possibilities: 1) maybe we aren’t quite as free as we think, or 2) maybe not quite as brave.
I bet on possibility #2. Because of the magic of the internet, it turns out that shortly after the show’s posting the comments section of the site was overrun by “bitterly virulent” (in the words of one principal in this saga) cyber bullies, some murmuring darkly about a grim future for Bloggingheads. After I found out the video was removed I emailed John McWhorter and the editor to ask for an explanation, and John emailed back that he himself requested the video to be pulled because people thought he was too easy on me, which was supposedly contrary to that old Bloggingheads spirit. I find that quite implausible (other shows on the site feature discussions between people who agree on many things). Rather, I suspect the folks at the website weren’t expecting the vitriolic reaction, began to worry about their good names and future employment prospects, pictured themselves banished to a virtual leper colony, panicked, and folded.
Well, mobs, including internet mobs, are scary things, and it’s understandable to panic when they unexpectedly show up at your door. But if you’re going to set up a website to air discussions about contentious issues of the day, you should have a whole lot more guts than displayed by Bloggingheads TV.
For those who want to watch for themselves the interview that made grown men tremble, it can be seen at http://tinyurl.com/lqonmn.
Below is a time-lapse picture of my Bloggingheads interview. I’m the guy on the right.