Podcast Review: Michael Shellenberger on Joe Rogan Experience

Michael Shellenberger is a journalist and author. His new book San Fransicko details how San Francisco and other West Coast cities – Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland – have gone beyond merely tolerating homelessness, drug dealing, and crime to actively enabling them. San Fransicko reveals that the underlying problem isn’t a lack of housing or money for social programs. The real problem is an ideology that designates some people, by identity or experience, as victims entitled to destructive behaviours. The result is an undermining of the values that make cities, and civilization itself, possible.


As a Prison Recovery Worker who labours in the field of addiction, I found Mr. Shellenberger’s recent appearance on The Joe Rogan experience to be both disturbing and enlightening. He articulated several viewpoints that I myself have long-held when it comes to addiction and certain other societal issues. One often feels a sense of relief when one’s own uncomfortable suspicions or hunches are validated by evidence-based research. Throughout the podcast conversation, the point that was hammered home, time and again, was that ‘the cult of the sacred victim’ is extremely damaging to both individuals and society.

I have transcribed several excerpts from the podcast episode – and have shared it below, with some of my own thoughts on the subject matter.

Shellenberger: My understanding is that we were going to move away from mass incarceration to a drug treatment model so that if you arrested addicts on the street then they would be mandated drug treatment. But we didn’t do that. We just stopped enforcing laws.

The question I wanted to ask was: How did we go from this place of ‘we need to help addicts get into recovery’ so that we deal with the root cause of the problem, to basically viewing addicts, people with mental illness, the homeless as victims who are sacred and who have to be protected from the consequences of their own behaviour?

This should be straightforward policy. Drug addicts require treatment.  

Shellenberger: This is about the real-world impact of victim ideology. It’s all about carrots and sticks. You always have to give people a chance to improve their lives – and there have to be consequences for bad behaviour.

We have to do more of what the Dutch do, you have to restore consequences for behaviour. They (the Dutch) probably do the best job as far as I can tell of any advanced country of dealing with difficult people, those who are dealing with mental illness but also from drug addiction. It’s compassionate but it also requires discipline. Love is not enough.

When listening to this, the following came to mind: Compassion without discipline is enablement at best, abuse at worst. As it says in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous: “He clamours for this or that, claiming he cannot master alcohol until his material needs are cared for. Nonsense. Some of us have taken very hard knocks to learn this truth: Job or no job – wife or no wife – we simply do not stop drinking so long as we place dependence upon other people ahead of dependence on God.” I have observed that practitioners who place a high premium on compassion and non -judgementalism are often the least effective practitioners. Anyone who has a track record of real success with treating addicts understands that tough love and compassionate love are one and the same. 

Shellenberger: California spends more money per capita on mental health than any other state in the United States and has the worse outcomes.

As it says in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous: “It is not the matter of giving that is in question, but when and how to give. That often makes the difference between failure and success.” Matthew 7:15-20 is perhaps as applicable to institutions as it is to individuals. “You will know them by their fruits”. 

Shellenberger: Basically, you need universal psychiatric care and I’m agnostic as to whether it’s government run or private but it needs to cover everybody, it needs to be simple, you need to have one set of case workers. Right now you have literally hundreds of non-profits who get contracts from the counties. It’s all duplicative, and also fragmented. We need a single agency ‘Calpsych’. If you want to get anything done in our society, particularly in situations of chaos, you need a hierarchy.

Shellenberger: I quote this amazing addiction specialist from Stanford, Keith Humphries, who calls it ‘left libertarianism’. It’s basically this idea that ‘to victims give everything and demand nothing’. It’s a combination of a radical left view but also combined with a libertarianism. There are people who think it’s immoral to demand anything from addicts or from homeless people. How dare you ask them to change their behaviour? They’re victims!

There was a very famous book published in 1970 called ‘Blaming The Victim’ and the idea is basically that any policies which demand some accountability and taking of personal responsibility is effectively a kind of victimisation.


Joe Rogan: Tax the rich? Well, what are you going to do with the taxes? Once you tax the rich, then what? You can’t just fucking say ‘tax the rich’. Then you just have bigger business, and that business is now government. What do we do? How do you get people to change the way they’re looking at this and say ‘clearly, we’re all compassionate people who want these homeless folks to have a better life. We don’t want people’s lives to suck. So, how do we get it into the mind of these progressive people that their current strategy is not working?

There is a tendency in the United Kingdom to blame every societal ill on the government. But as someone who has worked for both the NHS and the Ministry of Justice – institutional discourse and the cult(ure) of managerialism has stymied the operational effectiveness of these institutions. Criticise the government by all means – but government employees (myself included) are to some extent complicit in a culture of ineffectiveness. 

Shellenberger: What progressives are saying is dehumanizing. By their definition if you’re a victim than everything should be given and nothing asked. It sounds so dumb when you lay it out like that – but when you get to the bottom of it – that’s the ideology. Our civilization is in real trouble so this parasitic idea found a host in us – and I root this back to coddling culture.

Shellenberger: The opioid epidemic. If you look at why we overprescribed opioids ‘Well, because we have to treat pain’. But if you talk to the Dutch about it, somehow the Dutch kept some of the discipline and the fierceness. I said to one of my Dutch friends: ‘It seems as though you guys have kept some strictness within you domestic situation and he said ‘We have an expression in Dutch: ‘Soft doctors make wounds stink’. And I had to think abot that for a minute and I asked him: Do you mean that soft doctors don’t properly clean the wound and let it bleed and so they let it get infected and it stinks?’ And he said: ‘Yeah. You got it’. A complicated expression – but if you say ‘soft doctors make wounds stink’ in the Netherlands, then everyone will know what you mean’.

Zachte heelmeesters maken stinkende wonden. Literal translation: “Gentle healers make stinking wounds.” Meaning: “It is better to treat a problem thoroughly even if the treatment is painful, otherwise it may get worse.” One to be typed, printed and laminated. 

Joe Rogan: We need to come sort of an understanding about human behaviour and the requirements that people have that are essentially woven into the fabric of our biology. We need a certain amount of struggle, something to focus on, something that gives us a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose. And when you have people and you just allow them to camp out and do drugs all day then you eliminate that, there’s none of that. And the only way to help those folks is to take them along and give them some sense of purpose and meaning but also to let them know that their behaviour has consequences.

Rogan absolutely nails it here. “We need a certain amount of struggle, something to focus on, something that gives us a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose.” I would add – be careful about what you choose to focus on. Martin Luther King Jr., warned about the dangers of “turning one’s natural worship drive in to false channels”.

Joe Rogan: Some of my favourite people are former junkies. There’s something about them. They’ve been to hell.

Shellenberger: They’re the heroes of this book actually. There’s a chapter called ‘The Heroism of Recovery’. What I love about talking to people in recovery, recovering addicts, is just how honest they are about how terrible their own characters were. And the terrible things that hey did which they had to confront. They’re funnier.

My own experience is that humility and gratitude are the hallmarks of those who have suffered the hell of active addiction and experienced that form of resurrection known as recovery. Is that a heroic act? Well, yes, of sorts. But few of the hundreds of recovered addicts I know would wish to be described as heroes. The majority would probably view it as being somewhat risky terminology in terms of inflating their egos. 

One of the things that the Dutch did was say that you can’t just concentrate all this stuff addiction/homelessness/mental health services in a single neighbourhood. It’s got to be spread much more evenly around the city or around the state. Because people in Beverly Hills will mobilise against any sort of shelter or mental health treatment facility.

One of the interesting things I discovered in the research was that a sociologist went and studied private drug recovery facilities in Malibu for celebrities spending $50,000 a month, or whatever – and then he compared them to the drug rehab facilities on Skid Row. The biggest difference is that they are harsh and strict in Malibu but they are liberal and lenient on Skid Row. In Malibu they’re cracking the whip and it’s like a boot camp and in Skid Row you have people banging their heads against the wall until they bleed and they won’t intervene – because of this victim ideology.

The  bourgeoisie, the ruling class, when their kids have drug problems, they know how to treat it properly. They don’t mess around. It’s only for the lower classes, for the poor, that get this totally form of sub-standard treatment.

I see this all the time: at work, on training courses, online. There are people who believe that expecting high standards and positive outcomes is somehow repressive. I routinely challenge colleagues when I perceive their toxic compassion is harming the men in our care. ‘Would you give that advice to your own son?’ I ask. ‘Would you say it wasn’t a big deal if your own son had done that?’

Early in my research I discovered three books written in the early nineties, which basically got this issue just right. They were like, look, this is a problem of addiction and disaffiliation which is just a fancy way of saying… because you know the basic picture is: you get addicted to drugs, you stop working so you can do drugs full time, you steal from family and friends as you couch surf in their homes and they eventually kick you out. And they cut you off. That’s the basic picture of how people end up on the street. The end up on the street because they’re squirreling all their money away to maintain their drug habits. It’s the opposite picture of what progressives paint which is: ‘Oh, I couldn’t afford the rent and I’m a hard working guy anyway – I just wanted to go and live on the street anyway” I couldn’t find a single case of that. ‘Homelessness’ is a propaganda word because it’s designed to mix together various scenarios such as the mother who is escaping an abusive husband with her two kids – or a group of addicts who are congregating in an encampment. 

The word for addiction comes from the Latin word Addictus which means to enslave. My editor and I decided to keep it out of the book because we didn’t want to overly inflame people. But that’s what addiction means. It’s a kind of chemical slavery and to be in denial about that does a real disservice to people.

Shellenberger: I hate to use the word, because it’s such a nasty word – but zombies…

Joe Rogan: You have a problem with the word ‘zombie’?

Shellenberger: I’ve decided that I need to use stronger language because I’ve had politically correct people tell me: ‘I don’t even like to use the word ‘addict’ – it’s just so harsh’

Joe Rogan: You’ve gotta stop talking to those people.

There is a deeply disturbing trend in the field of addiction studies. It has become highly fashionable to promote the abandonment of supposedly ‘unhelpful’ or ‘stigmatizing’ terms such as addict or alcoholic. As with much of the cult of the sacred victim, I assume that the noble purpose is to separate the behaviour from the person or the sin from the sinner, so to speak. But here’s what actually happens: the watering down of the label leads to the watering down of the treatment which inevitably leads to less positive outcomes for the client. I wince when I find myself using sterile terms such as ‘substance misuse disorder’ for the class of men who wait in line at the methadone clinic – or ‘alcohol dependent’ for a man serving time for brutal acts of domestic violence who drinks a bottle of vodka a day and will continue to do so unless he realises the disturbing truth of his relationship with alcohol: that he cannot use safely use alcohol in any form and will likely return to jail should he relapse. As it says in The Doctor’s Opinion: “The only relief (for alcoholism) we have to suggest is entire abstinence. I have heard it said in 12 Step meetings that the ‘ism’ in alcoholism stands for ‘incredibly short memory’.  This immediately precipitates us into a seething caldron of debate.” Like so much of the basic text, the prescience is astonishing. 

Academia/NHS/Government: Great news! We have eradicated alcoholism and drug addiction in the United Kingdom.

Julio Nada: Wow. How did you achieve that?

Academia/NHS/Government: We simply outlawed the clinical and anecdotal use of the terms alcoholic and addict.

Listen to this episode from The Joe Rogan Experience on Spotify.


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