Kmele Foster is one of the most original and important public intellectuals you will hear speak candidly on race. Foster co-hosts The Fifth Column podcast and co-founded Freethink Media, an online video platform dedicated to telling stories about human perseverance, inspiration and progress. In speaking with our CEO Jennifer Grossman on June 30th, 2021, Foster shared his nuanced perspective on Black Lives Matter, affirmative action, Diversity Equity & Inclusion (DEI) and Critical Race Theory. Watch the interview HERE or check out this transcript below.
JAG: Welcome to The Atlas Society Asks. My name is Jennifer Anju Grossman. My friends know me as JAG. I'm the CEO of The Atlas Society. We are the leading nonprofit, introducing young people to the ideas of Ayn Rand in creative ways, like our graphic novels, animated videos—you know the score. You may also know our guest, Kmele Foster, who has just exploded onto the national scene. He is the co-founder of Freethink, a media company that showcases the technological and social innovations that are disrupting and accelerating progress in our world. He is the co-host of the podcast, The Fifth Column. He is an outspoken individualist, and also an outspoken libertarian critic of Black Lives Matter, critical race theory and political orthodoxy. But Kmele advances, not just a provocative, but also extremely nuanced perspective on things like affirmative action and cancel culture that don't quite fit into a soundbite, which is why we're so grateful to dig into some of these issues at greater length today. Kmele, welcome again. Thanks for joining us.
KF: Thanks so much for the invitation and for the generous introduction. I think my propensity for nuance and my inability to summarize in certain contexts often makes it really hard for me to do cable news hits successfully. So I'm always delighted to have opportunities like this where we can go a bit wider.
JAG: Well, yes, because if there's one phrase that you've repeated again and again on your various podcasts and interviews it is “it's complicated.”
KF: It's complicated. Yes..
JAG: So, okay, here we are in an age of identity politics and you identify as a lot of things. You identify as a father, a husband, an American, a libertarian, an entrepreneur, most broadly as a human being, but you don't identify as black. So, explain what you mean by that.
KF: Well, I think the best way to explain it is to say, maybe begin like this, all of the designations that you just referenced are facts about my life and my experience, my legal status, personal convictions, at least all but one. The notion of distinct human races is very different. It's just kind of this muddled contrivance with a ton of historical and philosophical baggage attached to it that most people never bother to scrutinize. What is it that we are talking about when we talk about blackness or whiteness? Are we talking about ancestry, biology, genetics? Not really. It's something broader than that. And I think what I've come to understand is that race is really an ideological framework. And by self-identifying in that way, we really kind of adopt this ideological framework that's been handed down to us.
KF: And, one thing that I'm very careful about is glomming onto any sort of philosophical baggage or toolkits without really scrutinizing them. And I find that when I think about myself and I think about how jealously I guard my individuality and the sort of sense of myself, I cannot find a way to reconcile, I think, any contemporary notion of racial identity with a robust understanding of who I am as an individual in virtually every context that I encounter. It tends to obscure things, as opposed to making them more clear. So that is why I don't choose to self-identify that way. And whether people like it or not, I grant them the dignity of their own individuality in that I try not to make assumptions about people on the basis of their race.
JAG: I love the way that you use the word jealous. You know, envy is a theme we focus on a lot here at The Atlas Society and jealousy and envy are used interchangeably. And, you know, Ayn Rand described envy as the hatred of the good for being good, but jealousy, while it can be a negative, it can refer to a fear of losing what you have as opposed to coveting what somebody else has. But in a positive sense, I think it can be like a guard -- a god jealously guarding his powers and prerogatives -- that there actually is a positive connotation to it as well. Another term that I've seen associated with you is “race abolitionist.” Abolition, of course, has a history of the abolition of slavery, but how do you understand the term?
KF: Well, it's funny, “race abolitionist” is something that I may have coined. But to the extent I did it, I did it half jokingly. I think it does appropriately describe some attribute of my public project, which is I'm very much committed to trying to share my understanding and beliefs about what race is and the various ways that it, whether we know it or not, divides us, obscures the truth and generally ruins everything. So if I can get more people to acknowledge the fact that the world is in fact complicated, that things are often not what they seem, and that race in particular seems to play a very unique role in undermining our capacity to engage with one another in fruitful ways and to understand the world and important aspects and complicated issues, then I feel like I'm doing something good for the world. So, I'm the John Brown of race. I hope perhaps my end won't be quite so cataclysmic.
JAG: We hope not.
KF: But I hope to be so radical -- just a little bit,
JAG: You know, it's really interesting, we do these Draw My Life videos. I was inspired a few years ago. I saw various celebrities doing these kinds of stick figure drawings on a whiteboard that gets speed ramped. And we did one on Rand. And then we did one on a couple of characters from her novels and then our chairman, Jay, really encouraged us to take these concepts and to give them a narrative and to give them a history and a goal. And, we've done that with envy, with greed, with victimhood, with money, with America. I mean, we've done dozens by now, but one that we tried to do and we just couldn't even get a consensus—we tried to do My Name is Racism. It was interesting, one of the producers I was working with, he kind of took more of your position, which is that it's a fiction or that it's a concept that doesn't really have a lot of meaning, but you know, in the middle of last year, I just didn't see a plot line of “Hi, my name is Race and I don't exist.” So, maybe we'll take another crack at that with you at the helm.
KF: If I could interject briefly because I find that very interesting. Even the phrase, as you say, “race doesn't have a lot of meaning,” that feels like something I've probably said before, but I think it's obviously true that race has a great deal of meaning—what it lacks is precision. It means all manner of things to different people in different contexts. We use it in ways that suggest it means a great deal of things in contexts that it simply can't mean nearly as much as we imagine. And if we were actually confronted about it and pushed, we would have to acknowledge those limitations. So yeah, it's a peculiar thing. And I think it's kind of uniquely and distinctly American in some respects. What's been most amazing perhaps about the last 14-odd months is the degree to which we've managed to successfully export our race monomania to other parts of the world and ignite some really insane cultural conflicts on other continents. So yay. Go America.
JAG: Yay, yeah. Well I want to remind everybody who's watching to please ask your questions for Kmele. This is a really unique opportunity. This guy gets paid a lot of money to give advice and to give his view. He was very generous to agree to come on and share his thoughts with us today. So let's please take advantage of that. So, Kmele, you've said that America has never been less racist in its history, and I could probably have agreed with that two years ago--and I know there is a viewpoint that while we've had this reckoning and we're talking about it, isn't that good and we've made progress. But is there a possibility that the obsession, the overlay of kind of a victimology -- talking about race in our institutions, our schools, media, entertainment, government -- that at the very least it makes us more race conscious if not racist? And that, an identification as a victim conveys a certain cache, a certain power --
Though I also think it's pretty disempowering. And on the other hand that it could fuel kind of exasperation and resentment that among whites that's maybe not helping race relations. So do you still have this positive view? Has it changed?
KF: Yes and yes. I certainly still hold that view and I can talk about that. But I also think you're right that we are increasingly race conscious in ways that I think are unhelpful. We've seen some recent Pew polling that suggests that public opinion about the state of race relations has declined over the course of the past two decades, which is kind of remarkable. And after making substantial progress, and it might even be like the past 10 years, and not so much the past two decades, but it's certainly not headed in the right direction. That said, I think in a fundamental sense, there is kind of a philosophical progression that's taking place like that moral arc that bends towards justice, that Martin Luther King referred to with respect to race.
KF: It is universally accepted at this point in the United States that people of any ethnic background ought to be able to get married to one another. We don't have miscegenation laws on the books anymore that prohibit that sort of thing for the most part. And in much the same way people, generally the overwhelming majority of Americans, abhor racism, they hate it. They may disagree over the definition of that thing, but they all hate it. They don't want to be called racist. Unless you're Robin DiAngelo and things are a little more complicated there. But they try not to be racist. There's even to the extent there's a disagreement about this sort of stuff today, a whole contingent of people who refer to themselves as anti-racist, which is again, another kind of complicated thing. And I think in a fundamental sense, the United States does not have formal prohibitions against different races doing all manner of things and has adopted a legal tradition that actually makes it impossible for states to do certain things to people on the basis of their race.
KF: Now there have been new developments that kind of complicate that picture, affirmative action laws complicate that picture. I think some of the things that we've seen recently with the renewed commitment to equity and diversity and inclusion, at the federal level and in other contexts, complicates that picture. But I think those are materially different challenges than the ones that have plagued the United States for most of its history. And I would say that there was almost certainly more consciousness of your race as an American in the United States 150 years ago than there is today. You know, there's this kind of ever-present notion of it in the New York Times in a way that makes us kind of weirded out. Any good, thoughtful person is weirded out by seeing this capital “B” black all over the place. But I don't think that's nearly the same thing as knowing that you need to step off of the sidewalk, if you're a black man walking down the road -- or you have to wonder about whether or not you can apply to Harvard or Yale, because they don't let people like you. Now it's more so a function of choices, like meaningful choices and the universe of options that people have available to them regardless of their racial background. It's unrivaled in the history of this country with respect to that. So in a material sense, we've never been better off. And in other respects, we have the same sort of age-old challenge that we've had for a very long time: getting out of our own way and refusing to permit tribalism to dictate how we'll interact with one another. And that's a choice that we have to make. It's perhaps even a bit of a forever war where we'll always have to contend with impulses in the wrong direction there.
JAG: So everything you've just said sounds pretty reasonable to me, and in fact a lot of what you said back in January on the Bill Maher show sounded pretty reasonable as criticism of equity as focusing on outcomes rather than opportunity, a concern that when we're talking about COVID, perhaps we should talk about risk factors rather than trying to view it through the lens of racial justice. But a lot of people were kind of blown away and had some issues with what you were talking about. Was there one point in particular or one issue that really struck a nerve with people? And were you surprised by the blowback?
KF: Not at all surprised by the blowback. I was perhaps a bit taken aback by the strength of the affirmative response of people who just responded very positively to the appearance, which was great. In a number of instances, it wasn't people who felt comfortable responding publicly, so I got a lot of messages and emails, people who would find my email address and send me messages. Just saying, “Thank you so much for articulating these things. It's something I've thought about a lot, and haven't been able to put it into words or I've thought precisely the same thing, but I don't feel safe saying these things publicly,” which is more often than not the case. And if anything, I suppose I'm somewhat struck by just how common a theme that is and how very tangible a sense I have of just how many Americans kind of feel, but they can't share things.
KF: These days that they are publicly put in a position where they have to either disavow their actual beliefs or not state their actual beliefs, because they worry they'll get in trouble for kind of disagreeing with certain views in different contexts. And, in terms of the specific thing that I said that people agreed with or that resonated with them or that they disagreed with, I think it's probably easier to characterize the nature of the disagreement. More often than not the backlash seemed to be rooted in ”you're not allowed to speak for us,'' which is to say you're not allowed to speak on behalf of black people. You have the wrong ideas for someone who looks like you and you are there for an Uncle Tom, a Coon, a house Negro, although they weren't so polite.
KF: I never made a claim to be speaking on anyone else's behalf. I've only ever publicly spoken on my own behalf. And to the extent I'm doing more than that, I'm pretty narrow and specific about it. And I'm certainly not a person who goes out and speaks on behalf of the black community. I try not to even talk in those terms. So it's interesting that that's usually the substance of the response to things that I say publicly. And that's not to say that I don't occasionally make mistakes or that some people don't make meaningful counter arguments. But most of the time, it’s not that, it's just “How dare you? How dare you have the wrong opinion for someone who looks like you? We look too much alike for you to disagree with me publicly; you’re degrading my authority in various areas and on various issues by publicly taking positions that contrast sharply with mine.” Which, “You're welcome.” I suppose that is my response to that.
JAG: Well, and you said you'd also received responses like they were ashamed…
KF: Yeah. Which is bizarre. I mean, why would anyone want to feel pride or shame or guilt on account of something you had nothing to do with, the behavior of someone who you've never met, you have no relation to even, and even that I find a bit odd. But I suppose those are sentiments that are probably very familiar to anyone who's familiar with Objectivism and Randianism. I don't know if both are okay.
JAG: Well, yes, it was interesting in the Mike Wallace interview that she did, he asked her to explain her philosophy of “Randianism,” and she replied that she didn't like that term, and named her philosophy as Objectivism, so we don't use it, but I do think it's common parlance. So, well, I was pleasantly surprised; perhaps I shouldn't have been just because I've read your public interviews. And, you've mentioned some of the chief influences that you've had, stemming more from Austrian economics, but that your Randian or objectivist influences are actually a lot deeper than that. Having read multiple times Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, and Philosophy Who Needs It. Bit I thought her analysis and the way that she described racism as a primitive barnyard version of collectivism, I thought it was really helpful because it's when you say this is not just about racism and race division, but this collective identity, and certainly, using it as grievance and trying to set up these conflict matrices one sees it's not specific to race.
KF: Yeah. I mean,when Rand talks about things like pride and shame in her work, it always resonates with me in a really profound way. These are decisions and choices that we're making. The notion of having pride in something that you had nothing to do with, that it is just happenstance, is obscene to me. I can appreciate coming out of a circumstance where you've been made to feel shame on account of certain attributes that you have, and wanting to push back against that by cultivating some sort of pride, which is how you end up with James Brown screaming, I'm black and I'm proud. But I think it's important to acknowledge that a pendulum swinging too far in the opposite direction, that doesn't make it virtuous, that it is possible to over-respond to some past injury.
KF: And I think that that's precisely what happens there. And yeah, I've read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead multiple times. And I think what I most enjoyed about those books and took away from them was that there is this very kind of pure distillation of a personal philosophy there. And that was something that I found intensely attractive, whether or not I agreed with every aspect of what was there. I really wanted to embrace the challenge that Rand outlines perhaps most potently in the spaceman story that she told at the beginning of Philosophy Who Needs It, that you are here on this remarkable planet you have, and then again, is it remarkable or not? That's another thing, but you're here, you're on this planet, you have these tools. Do you trust them? Do you try to cultivate an understanding of the space around you? Or do you wait for someone to tell you what to do? And if you do the latter, there may be profound consequences to that whicht aren't great for you. And, I am not content to have someone tell me what to do in almost any circumstance, which is, you know, perhaps a gift and a curse.
JAG: Yeah. And Rand’s perspective on the heroic and the ideal, and I think it's bound up also with pride, that we're not necessarily proud of things that we have nothing to do with, but the things that we have accomplished or realized against great odds. And, in that regard, particularly with what you were talking about, the overwhelming response that you got to your appearance on Maher from people who said, “I agree, but I feel afraid to speak up, I'm going to get canceled or something, people aren't going to like me, I'm going to lose my job.” So, to the extent that you are going out there, and you're braving these slurs and these smears, and you're doing that for people who don't feel strong enough to do it, I think that there's something heroic in that. I also think that we need perspective. We need a more nuanced take on these issues, but we also need courage. And that is probably in shorter supply today than in times past.
KF: As you're talking, I'm remembering, and I think I may have mentioned this before we started recording, I have a tattoo on my forearm. It's actually something that I adopted from Ludwig Von Mises, he’s an Austrian economist, as you mentioned, but there was a moment there where it was very nearly this passage from The Fountainhead, which it was just too long. And my wife was like, you can't do it. But it began like, this is my pride. And it talks about people approaching the end of their life and having been confronted with this question, what was the use and the meaning, and the response is I was the use and the meaning.
JAG: Yeah. I think that's from Anthem. Yeah.
KF: And that's just another thing that I've really just embraced as my own. I mean, I think that it's really important to be able to account for your time here, that there's something unique and particular about you and your opportunity to do something on this planet. And, yeah, it's something that has always stayed with me.
JAG: I think it's also interesting. You identify among other things as a libertarian and something that I sometimes wish we had more emphasis on in libertarian circles is responsibility. And it's kind of taken for granted. I don't think it's necessarily being discounted, but we focus on, “Well, this bad thing shouldn't be outlawed these other bad things shouldn't be outlawed.” And maybe that just implies a value neutrality. But I always say: “What are you going to do with your freedom?” And that you should have the freedom to do good. That needs to be emphasized more.
KF: Yeah. Libertarianism does not prescribe a great deal in that respect. You know, “don't hurt people, don't take their stuff” is pretty much it, but what should you do with your time here? I mean, you really do owe it to yourself to give that some careful thought, and it does seem to me that when it comes to having good outcomes and living a life that you can be proud of, that there are particular virtues, particular customs, particularly the habits that are most conducive to that. And it's worth trying to figure out what those things are for yourselves. And I think that goes beyond the spectrum of what sort of classical liberal libertarian philosophy can offer you, which is primarily about the political means for organizing society and what the limitations ought to be, and the things that ought to be done. And to the extent it's doing anything, how it ought to do it.
JAG: I agree. And I think that was a bit of Rand’s criticism, which was, contextually, at a certain time in history, that there was not enough of an emphasis on values; it was the politics of laissez-faire economics, and Objectivism, of course, encompasses a lot more than that. All right. I want to, again, encourage people to ask questions. I know that there’ve been a lot of people waiting for this interview, but I want to ask another one of my own, going off of that appearance that you had on the Bill Maher show, you said you found the term, “systemic racism,” frustrating because it categorizes things without helping us to fix them in any material way; first, maybe you could just help what is meant by “systemic racism” as opposed to “institutional racism.” Are they the same? And then to the extent that disparities may be the clue like, “Hey, this is not the ideal situation,” where should we be looking for some of the solutions?
KF: Yeah, well, we're here again, and you probably won't be surprised by this, systemic racism, there's not broad agreement on precisely what this means. I think I've encountered a number of academics and journalists who would generally apply the label, systemic racism, to any kind of instance where there's a social outcome or a societal outcome that produces disparities between different racial groups and those disparities are themselves systemic racism. So that's a definition for a phenomena that we observe, which doesn't tell me anything about exactly why this happened, how it happened, whether or not it was even a quote-unquote “bad” or a “good” that it happened. I'm not sure why or how those values actually ended up getting mixed up in there. But it seems to me that because race and racism are so freighted and so loaded with connotations that we come away from an entanglement with something that's been labeled as systemically racist with a particular set of concerns and a particular set of thoughts about how we ought to think about this thing.
KF: And I think that context generally tends to make it harder for us to think carefully about what actually may be going on under the hood; you know, to say that black students and white students are having different kinds of academic outcomes in their high school doesn't really tell me a great deal at all, in any sort of meaningful sense. Are there things that kids who are doing well in this school, regardless of their race, all have in common? That's interesting if I'm actually interested in helping more kids to do well. So, unfortunately, the conversation about systemic racism generally becomes all about the disparities. It becomes all about the underperformance. And of course, if you think about it long enough, you realize very quickly that in order to deal with a universe where there are disparities -- and there will be because inequalities are everywhere, and our differences are actually something we can leverage to make the world a much better place through markets, et cetera.
KF: But if you just want to level the playing field, you can do that in two different ways. You can lift up the people who are at the bottom, or you can chop off the heads of the piece, those who are at the top. And I think in very real senses we kind of like lurch towards that latter course, when we adopt a policy that puts more of an emphasis on race when it comes to a dreaded pestilence that is spreading across the land and has us all huddled in our homes, hoping for some sort of remedy, we know that age is the thing that made one uniquely vulnerable COVID along with whether or not you had any sort of comorbidities. The correlation with race seems to be kind of happenstance.
KF: Are there historical roots to that? Maybe. But the notion that you would prioritize that, in any universe, strikes me as just absurd and quite frankly self destructive, like you will kill people with a policy of that sort. And it's something certain policy makers would have had to acknowledge eventually in certain contexts. Again, our obsessive monomania with respect to race has led us down a lot of really dangerous dead ends. In many instances, it's not so much dangerous as just hopelessly counterproductive. I don't have a profound fear that we're kind of approaching a race war. I do worry we’re foregoing a great deal of potential productivity and societal growth and personal happiness for the benefit of this ridiculous commitment that we've all made to this preposterous backwards way of imagining ourselves and the things that make us different from one another and similar to one another. It's obscene. I think we ought to be committing ourselves to growing the hell up.
JAG: Speaking of productivity. we have a question here from the chairman of The Atlas Society, Jay Lapeyre, joining us on Zoom. Yay. He asks, “What are the drivers and experience with critical race theory, DEI and other race essentialism training in institutions and companies and long-term implications in reducing racial tensions within organizations.”
KF: Well, that's a great question. And something that I've had to talk about in a bunch of different contexts. It won't surprise anyone who's been paying attention that a lot of employers and corporations have committed themselves to trying to make themselves more racially conscious to becoming anti-racists, to implementing these diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings and protocols in their organizations. And I think most of these folks are doing it with very noble intentions. They just want to do the right thing -- and in some cases they're doing it because they feel that it’s their choice. But the outcome of a lot of this training is not obviously beneficial, and in many instances seems to inculcate a lot of these pernicious incentives that we talked about a little while ago. The fact that in certain contexts, there are particular benefits that accrue to someone who either perceives themselves as a victim in a real meaningful sense and communicates that to other people, or sees that as an opportunity to be kind of a cudgel that they can use to bludgeon their bosses or other people that they don't like at the workplace.
KF: You'll have workplaces that begin to segregate themselves along racial lines, imagining that this is the path to enlightenment. And,even stated that way, I hope it becomes very obvious, painfully obvious, that this can't be a sensible path forward. It can't be sensible to generally regard every black student that enrolls in a particular school as disadvantaged in much the same way. In much the same way, it can't be generally beneficial to an employer to regard every “white” quote-unquote employee that they have working for them as someone who is harboring these kinds of subtextual racist instincts that they are inserting into conversations. Workplaces in the United States where we have this diversity of perspectives and views that we take everywhere with us are places where we have to find ways to collaborate with one another, despite the things that make us different.
KF: And if your diversity and equity and inclusion training isn't about recognizing the reality of those differences, a reality that doesn't respect racial lines -- it just does not -- people who are black are different from one another in much the same way that people who are white are different from one another. Shocking. Then it isn't preparing your workplace to be as productive as it could be. It isn't preparing employees to be able to collaborate with one another in a way that's going to be productive in the long run. And it seems to me like a pathway to inculcating a set of practices and values that are likely to make your organization far less productive, and to almost ensure that there will be all kinds of weird internal conflicts as well. Some of which are manifestations of people yelling at one another and others are going to be manifestations of people not willing to say anything because they're too afraid of who they might offend.
JAG: Hmm. Interesting. John Davis, another long-time Atlas Society supporter, is asking us to take a step back and just define for us—we hear it talked about all the time—critical race theory, CRT, what is it?
KF: Well, it's interesting. I'm in a place where I hear us talking about it a great deal, specifically in the context of these debates about K through 12 education and public schools and activists who have in very, very real senses engaged in this kind of overreach where they're trying to control curriculums -- and I think in certain instances, genuinely engage in a kind of a process of indoctrination or at least hope to be able to indoctrinate students. They're committed to turning students into activists, and making their institutions fundamentally anti-racist. And one of the unfortunate things that I think has happened in response to that is we have, I think for reasons of expediency that are understandable, kind of taken a universe of different impulses that are all related in the sense that they have at their heart a sense that race is kind of all important.
KF: And that race explains a great deal about what's wrong with America. And, why particular kinds of problems are so persistent, taking a universe of different things -- diversity and equity and inclusion training, and critical race theory, which is a legal theory that's borrowed from academia and anti-racism, which is kind of a new fangled way of imagining our relationships to one another, and what specifically do disparities mean? We talked about systemic racism a little earlier. So if in fact you observe a disparity between whites and blacks in any context, then those disparities between whites and blacks to the disadvantage of blacks anyways, are generally going to be regarded as racist. That doesn't require any sort of intentionality on anyone's part that's racist. And if you are comfortable with that status quo, you are also racist. You're complicit in it. You need to be anti-racist, which means that you need to be committing yourself to sort of deconstructing those disparities and ensuring that the outcomes are more even.
KF: So suffice it to say, all of those things are generally being referred to as “critical race theory” today. And all of those things, the legal notion of critical race theory, this ideology, or at least this premise that when we look at society, we're talking about these systems of power and that there is kind of intersectional matrix that we all exist within that has something to do with our race and our religion or gender, and perhaps other characteristics and disabilities that put us on some sort of hierarchy of oppression or power. So that notion of critical race theory, the notion of anti-racism and this diversity, equity, inclusion thing are all kind of seeping their way into the schools in different contexts.
KF: People are collectively referring to this as critical race theory. Actually, again, I think that's a little bit unfortunate because these really are kind of different projects, even if they present in many of the same ways, and even if they annoy us and for the same sorts of reasons, because they're all projects that engage in a kind of racial essentialism, and that place race into center of the project of trying to educate kids in public school settings, or even in university settings. I hope that's a useful explanation, but I know that it's a bit convoluted.
JAG: Well, it's complicated. First I want to say I'm seeing a lot of great questions and also seeing actually a lot of people who are on this webinar, who are supporters of The Atlas Society, not just consumers of The Atlas Society. So a big thank you to all of you out there, who make it possible through your tax deductible donations for us to provide forums like this. I really appreciate it. Jeff Daley, I think we might've answered your question on intersectionality. Let us know if you have a follow up to that. Also David Kelley, our founder, is here and, David, thank you -- he corrected me. I was thinking of the soliloquy at the end of Anthem, but David says that Kmele was correct, that it was from The Fountainhead, that when Gail Wynand says “this is my pride that now thinking of the end, I do not cry like all the other men of my age, but what was the use and what was the meaning? I was the use and the meaning. I, Gail Wynand, in that I lived and that I acted.”. So thank you, David.
JAG: Okay. We have Dylan Montiero: “Hi, Kmele, longtime follower and big fan of The Fifth Column. Is there one book or favorite one that impacted you the most in your early adulthood?” And that kind of feeds into one of the questions that I had about your distinct kind of upbringing, your parents, your mother came from Jamaica, and that kind of cultural background was something that also maybe set you apart from kind of identifying with the kind of racial identities that we use commonly here. So what book when your daughter, who is three now, ten years from now, what are you hoping that she'll be reading?
KF: Well, I know the book that first kind of shattered my perception of politics and philosophy, and government broadly, and it was Bastiat’s The Law, which is very short and just kind of shocking. And I remember the opening lines, which I believe in the version I had, had an exclamation point, but always felt like they needed it, where it says, “The law perverted! And the police powers of the state perverted, along with it.” I believe that's exactly the quote and there's just this exclamation point. And it felt like he was shouting at me. And thinking about the origins of our legal traditions and structures was, again, something that you kind of do in school, in a very rote sort of way. It's like memorization going on there. But really doing critical thinking about what this all means and how it works and whether or not it is quote-unquote “good” is entirely different and Bastiat challenges me to do that work.
KF: And I remember reading shortly thereafter, Milton Friedman's book, Capitalism and Freedom. And between those two books, a lot of the ideas that are still kind of central to my thinking are there, they're in those books and in Milton in particular. I remember reading, I believe it was in the introduction or the foreword to the book, he talks about the Kennedy speech where he says, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And Milton saying that neither one of those sentiments are consistent with the ideals of a free man and a free society. And I think another thing that he says in that same book is that freedom is a rare and delicate plant. And he underscores this, this thing that I'm constantly trying to remind people of that most people throughout most of history have not been free.
KF: They haven't enjoyed that privilege. Um, so those two things, um, were really kind of vital for kind of setting me on fire and making me want to understand these things a bit more and doing a bit more and thinking about my own perspective on the good and the right ways, the best ways to organize the society and to making me -- I think what I hope people get is that I'm an advocate for human thriving and for breaking down tribalist structures so that we can expand on this project that I think of as the most fundamental and important project that our species has been engaged in, in its short time here on earth, which is recognizing that we're all part of the same tribe, and that we can gain much, much more from cooperating with one another and leveraging our differences than we can by kind of balkanizing things. And by imagining ourselves as these distinct representatives of particular ancestral populations, which is just inane, it doesn't make sense. So, I'm an advocate for that more than I am a critic of anything else. To the extent I become a critic of something else it's largely in most instances, because other people either feel uncomfortable saying it, or perhaps haven't thought about things long enough to be able to say them publicly.
JAG: Yeah. Jeff Daley asks if you've had any dialogue with “the powers that be” from Black Lives Matter or similar groups. I've seen, you've had few, I don't think there are many people that want to come up and debate you, but–
KF: Yeah, a few, and yeah, the problem these days is most people don't want to have conversations at all. They don't want to talk. And quite frankly, these are the ascendant powers in our culture. It's not to say that most people agree with all of the sentiments that are fundamental to Black Lives Matter, or that most Americans understand and are anti-racist, but it is certainly the case that in our political establishment, and in the major sense-making institutions in this country, the people who are responsible for being the keepers of the culture, that the perspectives there are pretty uniform now, and it is much harder to find people who have anything like the perspectives that I do, who are willing to share them in contexts like that and in environments like that.
KF: And I think they are, fortunately for us, at odds with the general impulses and the proclivities of most Americans. I don't think most Americans have thought about these things nearly as carefully as they ought to, but most Americans have a sense that the thing that brings us together is those sentiments that are embodied in King's “I have a dream” speech, that people should be judged by the content of their character. It's the reason why that bit of the speech is the thing that everyone remembers, you know, it's as American as apple pie, like that is part of our cultural DNA. And I think that's still very much true today and I suspect that there will be a bit of a backlash, and I think we're already seeing evidence of it too. A lot of the trends that are currently in both.
JAG: So it's interesting. I remember being on MSNBC once and, and being told that I wasn't allowed to quote Martin Luther King because I’m white, and I'm sorry, that was weird.,
KF: No, that's obscene. I mean no one else has any more authority to quote him on account of their appearance than you do. It's not a demerit and it's not a point in our favor. It's all of our tradition. My biological father is also Jamaican. And my stepfather who raised me from the time I was two or three on is not; he was born in this country. But I've adopted Martin Luther King and those philosophical traditions as my own.
JAG: That’s not allowed if you don't identify as black, then…
KF: I mean, it's ridiculous. It's preposterous.
JAG: All right, well, we've got about 10 minutes. So if we have burning questions, folks, I have a few of my own. Last weekend I was in Park City at a Reason event and had the opportunity to attend a speech by your colleague on The Fifth Column. And I want to get to why it's become such a phenomenon. So I'd like to get to a bit of how it got started and all of that, but one of the things that McWorther has said in the past which I thought it was very striking. He talked about anti-racism as a profoundly religious movement in everything but terminology. Is that analysis something that resonates or is that also in itself a bit of an oversimplification?
KF: Well, yeah, but I think it's a useful analogy. It's a useful abstraction. It's a way to kind of engage with the ideas. I think there are plenty of people who consider themselves anti-racist who will bristle at that description. But the notion that there aren't sacred texts and a priesthood and a saint, or roll of saints who people appeal to, or they're interested in the notion of certain kinds of sacraments, of original sin, even that is translated from father to son on and on and on for generations…There's something religious about that, and I think drawing attention to that is important and worthwhile. I'm glad that John has done it because I think it does help to underscore the degree to which particular ideas can really take this kind of fundamental role in our lives, whether or not we're willing scrutinize them carefully because ideas, have implications, they have consequences, and whether or not you're aware of those implications and consequences or the degree to which your particular ideas have bad implications or consequences, you may eventually find out so better to do some thinking about it early on.
JAG: Yeah. I thought it was really striking. In retrospect, we remember the kneeling, the prostrating, the washing of the feet, the “I am guilty.” That was just a really interesting lens to look at it through. And then also sociologically, as we've become a more secular culture, is there a God-shaped vacuum, to quote CS Lewis, where we're looking for something to fill the role that philosophy used to play. I have some suggestions on that score, but that religion used to fiil. But I did want to talk a bit about The Fifth Column. It's become such a phenomenon. You guys have recorded over 300 episodes. Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind it. How did it come together? How has it evolved, how has it changed and what is making it so successful?
KF: I wish I had great answers to all of those questions. They are things I'm still trying to figure out. The short version of how it came to be is I found out from a buddy, a guy named Dave Lee who's a former spouse of a good friend, Kennedy, who suggested that Moynahan and Welch, Michael Moynihan, who is at Vice News, and Matt Welch, who is at Reason, that they do a podcast together. And then he suggested you should have Kmele join you. And it began that way. I mean, I liked those guys well enough already. We talked all the time anyhow. The possibility of getting together on a maybe weekly basis to talk for an hour into a microphone. And at the time it wasn't even about monetizing so much, just this seems like fun. And I wanted to learn more about the podcasting space because I hadn't done anything in this space at all.
KF: And, yeah, we got together. We did it. I think Katherine Mangu-Ward also at Reason gave us a name that we thought sounded cool. So we embraced The Fifth Column, which, you know, you have the fifth column, the historical fifth column. But you also have newspapers which have columns. And I kind of liked the fact that it worked in both directions and we're all of these, these people who have a role in the media ecosystem, but who have never really been terribly comfortable in a lot of different media spaces because of our particular politics, which are, I think, competing flavors of libertarian, if I'm honest about it. But the podcast itself really isn't a libertarian podcast. I think it has a libertarian bent and the audience tends to over-index for libertarians, but it's a media criticism podcast.
KF: We talk about the news of the day, how the stories are being covered by different media outlets. And we do our best to try and elevate discussions about those things. We do it with a shiv every once in a while and with brass knuckles because it's a little bit more fun. But we also try our best to bring on people who may disagree with all three of us, people who, in some instances, we've had some sort of sharp criticism of in the past and to try and model good constructive conversations where we can find both points of agreement and disagreement. And I think we’re at a time when that sort of thing is increasingly difficult to find, and people who are being candid and honest, are difficult to find. And certainly in the wake of America’s quote-unquote “racial reckoning,” which I generally refer to as “racial retrogression,” it's a wonderful help to have an oasis sanity where people are willing to talk honestly about things.JAG: And you guys have fun, that’s for sure.
KF: Yeah, we try, we like each other, that's genuine most of the time we like each other, which is, I think—that's the secret sauce. The guys are generally pretty smart, smarter than me, and we try to stay in our lane. But we also don't take ourselves overly seriously. Yes.
JAG: Well, and there's so many episodes. Should people just dive in from the beginning or start with the latest -- a greatest hits that would be helpful.
KF: It is a news-of-the moment show. So it's useful, I think, to start with the more recent episodes. I mean, I have favorites of mine. I think certainly the ones that we recorded with John McWhorter and Glenn Loury and Thomas Chatterton Williams and Coleman Hughes, I think we've done two of those ensemble cast episodes in the past. And I think those are really great. I did something with a guy named Van Lathan who was at TMZ until a couple of years ago. And that was actually following that appearance I did on Maher and I just thought it was a great example of two people who disagree vehemently on lots and lots of important things, but who have enormous respect for one another, just talking and sorting through some of their disagreements.
KF: I thought those were great. And then, if you want to laugh, you can go find any of the episodes we've done with Ben Dreyfuss, which are just incredible, insane, a little bit dangerous, but fun. And there's plenty of that stuff in our back catalog. Again, it's news-of-the moment, but I also think that they stand up pretty well. There're interesting conversations in there. So people tell me that they go back and listen to episode one and they still laugh and they still find something interesting in it, especially since we've been through so much since back then, and this is kind of pre-Trump when we started the podcast. So we’ve come a long way.
JAG: Well, I think I got introduced to it from one of our donors, Raymie Stata, and it was right at the time of the riots and the protests and this and that. And, wow. You guys were letting it all hang out and I was like, “Are they really saying things like? Are they allowed to do that? Does my mommy know about this?” So then, just to close it up, I want to talk a little bit about Freethink, and I love that name, which is your new media company. And I just realized, as we were talking before the show, that our honoree at our fall gala on November 4th was Peter Thiel whose Founders Fund was an earlier investor in it.
JAG: And I can see why, because it covers everything from exponential technologies, like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, psychology and health. I read an interesting article on it recently about bringing back the boarding house, which is interesting because there has been a lot of disruption in the housing and urban planning space. So what are some of the hot topics, hot areas of innovation that you are excited about, and is there kind of an overlap with your Fifth Column and your commentary on race, are there some new technologies or innovations that really offer positive reasons to hope for the future that might bring unexpected solutions to some of the problems we obsess about today?
KF: Yeah. Well, I think the fact that we've exited the COVID pandemic after barely a year, that we actually had this breakthrough new, innovative technology with these RNA-based vaccines that was on deck and that we could deploy. And that seems prime to disrupt a bunch of really hard problems that we were having difficulty trying to figure out for a while. There may be a malaria vaccine on the way, thanks to the same regime of vaccines. So I think that's very exciting. There's so much stuff happening in the healthcare universe. I think there's so much stuff happening in the FinTech universe, the stuff that we've seen with Bitcoin over the course of the last couple of months and cryptocurrencies, it's hard to know exactly what the final form of crypto will be.
KF: But it is undoubtedly the case that this has become institutionalized in a meaningful sense that there is real money and support behind these projects and a lot of possibilities for the ways in which that could begin to change people's lives. And, you know, the ethos at Freethink is very much that we like to imagine that had we been around when the Wright brothers were flying at Kitty Hawk, even though that initial flight was very, very short, didn't really seem like the sort of thing that could change the world, that there was some possibility there and that we would have seen that possibility. And while most people ignored it for years, decades, even, we would have been there on the day and we would have been excited and we would have been trying to imagine what the future looks like. And it's just an optimistic disposition. You know, you encounter a hard problem and you imagine, well, what can we do to fix this problem? Who's working on a solution? And what do we need to do to make them succeed? We just want to inspire people to think about possibilities and to not think of reasons why not?
JAG: Well, I highly recommend it. We embrace optimism and gratitude and, you know, what you focus on, you tend to go towards. So to the extent that you focus on problems, you can kind of move in a negative direction. So I just found Freethink so refreshing. And I'm really excited to dig in more and excited to learn that we are in the same state. Yes, guys, you always give me such a hard time. He moved from Brooklyn to the Bay Area.
KF: A bizarre choice.
JAG: Well, Tiburon -- Malibu where I live, these are exceptions to the rule. So anyway, thank you very much. I really, really appreciate it. Kmele, it's been just a joy and I look forward to seeing you, getting to know you better. So thank you. And thanks to all of you who joined us today, especially thank you to the many, many supporters of The Atlas Society who came forward to ask great questions, but also who put their money where their mouth is and make it possible for us to do these kinds of things. So we really appreciate you all and we will see you next week. We have an interview with Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and his new book, Freedom. So see you next week. Thanks everyone. Bye.