I suspect that, like me, the reaction of a majority of people under the age of 65 to Neil Young’s boycott of Spotify over Joe Rogan’s controversial podcast was something along the lines of, “Huh, he’s still alive? Good for him!” The spectacle of a septuagenarian Boomer who enthusiastically supported the USA PATRIOT Act and spent years spreading misinformation about genetically modified foods and other trendy liberal conspiracy theories throwing a tantrum over someone else spreading what he considers misinformation about COVID is almost too on the nose. It would be downright comical if the implications weren’t actually serious. Not “Putin invading Kyiv” serious, not “J-Lo and Affleck getting back together” serious, but serious nonetheless. Serious in the context of the utterly unhinged political and social discourse around the pandemic.
The dust-up is also a microcosm of the United States circa 2022: It’s Boomer vs. Gen X, Reagan Democrat vs. Obama Republican, music vs. muscle, Canada vs. the United States, regular vs. diet, LSD vs. HMB, pop music vs. reality television. Meanwhile, in the secular Eucharist that has become grimly quotidian in our hyper-partisan era, the nomenklatura are busily choosing up sides and unleashing furious Twitter fusillades. Because that’ll show ’em. The whole thing so perfectly captures 2022 it almost gives credence to the living in a construct theory. This sort of symmetry should be impossible out of natural entropy.
Those are the parallels, now consider the levels of irony in the situation:
- An aging hippie folk rocker who previously trucked in anti-GMO and other conspiracy theories and a former MMA fighter who spent twelve years hosting a reality TV show in which contestants ate horse rectums and bathed in cow blood are now viewed by tens of millions as authorities on public health. For this fact alone 2022 should be taken out into the street and shot.
- Neil Young, whose motto in his teens was “don’t trust anyone over 30,” is now in his 70s and fighting with a guy in his 50s he believes is polluting the minds of people in their 20s. Consider the condescension in his attitude: “When I was in my 20s I was smarter than people in their 70s. Now that I’m in my 70s I’m smarter than people in their 20s.” Like so many Boomers, Young was only anti-Establishment when someone else was running it.
- As part of his protest, Young is urging listeners to abandon Spotify because it might expose them to people whose ideas he considers dangerous. He wants them instead on Amazon, where they cannot only listen to some of those very same people but also enrich and sustain them by purchasing their books, schwag, and other materials thereby making those dangerous ideas permanent. Seems ol’ Neil didn’t think this one through all the way.
- For his part, Rogan is so far out of his depth that light doesn’t even penetrate. Someone needs to gently remind him that building big muscles is not a medical qualification.
- Does anyone even really know what they’re arguing about? Something about COVID, right? Vaccines? Ivermectin? Wet markets? Sunspots? The spat has taken up all the air in the room, to the point that all substance has been eliminated and all we have left is two grown men shouting at each other on the digital playground while everyone else eggs them on: “Shut up!” “You can’t make me!” “Fine, I’m taking my toys and going home!” (Though it’s to be admitted that over the last few days Rogan has taken the higher road). Welcome to the United States circa 2022. Pass the popcorn and Xanax.
I hasten to add, I’ve listened to Joe Rogan’s podcast precisely once, and the few times I’ve listened to Neil Young I’m fairly sure I suffered internal bleeding in my eardrums. Dude’s voice and guitar sound like cats being violated. I mean, yikes (thought it must be conceded that his spare, improvised instrumental soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s criminally underrated Dead Man is a minor masterpiece). Which is the point: I don’t have to listen to either of them, no one does, in order to recognize the danger inherent in any call for censorship. With apologies to Lynyrd Skynyrd, I hope Neil Young will remember that it’s a terrifyingly short journey from censoring offensive or objectionable content to banning offensive or objectionable art.
On one hand you have to laugh, because otherwise we would all go fetal in the corner and never come out. On the other hand there’s a darker side to this otherwise inconsequential kerfuffle. The United States has embarked on a censorship binge the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Comstock Act and early Twentieth Century book burnings. Anthony Comstock himself would be proud. The difference is that a century ago the targets of censorship were almost exclusively liberals: Civil rights activists, feminists, the nascent gay and lesbian rights movements, and so forth. These days it’s an equal opportunity operation. Both political parties are jumping on the bandwagon with equal enthusiasm. A lot of Republicans want to ban Maus and anything that makes white Anglo Saxon Protestants mildly uncomfortable, while a lot of Democrats want to ban Joe Rogan and anyone who deviates from the new woke orthodoxy.
Normal people, which is to say the vast majority of Americans, are watching the spectacle with a combination of bemusement and mild horror (for what it’s worth my school assigned Maus in eighth grade, all the way back in 1989, and I turned out just fine. Ok, ok, not “just fine,” but the point is my dysfunction has nothing to do with reading a graphic novel about the Holocaust at the age of thirteen. If anything it made me a slightly better and more empathetic person).
Let’s be absolutely crystal: Any act of censorship is profoundly dangerous. Period, full stop, end of discussion. Personally I’m not even in favor of banning the n-word. It seems like a good idea at the time, but people forget, the first hit’s always free. Of course it’s one thing to rate content for different levels of maturity to help people know what they’re about to see or hear. That’s the equivalent of calorie and nutrient information on food boxes. People want to know whether a movie is rated G or NC-17 before taking their young children to see it, and they want to have a general idea of what they’re about to put in their families’ bodies. Those are advisory, not prohibitory, the result of actual rather than contrived demand. And as every authoritarian government in human history has learned to its great and abiding regret, prohibition only leads to workarounds anyway.
At this point both sides are equally loony. Any conservative who thinks that a generation of kids raised on Grand Theft Auto, naked selfies, and social media is going to be traumatized by cartoon pictures of naked anthropomorphized rodents in the context of a factual history lesson isn’t living in reality. Liberals who think that the solution to what they consider (in their infinite, Youngian wisdom, natch) misinformation is to censor it are equally delusional — if history teaches us anything it’s that efforts to control, much less prohibit human behavior always fail. The solution to misinformation is more information. Always. Liberals used to believe that more than anyone. It wasn’t so long ago that they were the ones arguing against trigger warnings. I’m old enough to remember when musicians like Neil Young positively lost their crackers at the notion of little stickers on CDs alerting consumers to graphic content. I remember when Tipper Gore was public enemy number one in the music and entertainment businesses. And again, those were advisory, not outright prohibitory. Flash forward thirty years and those selfsame people are demanding major corporations use their heft and wealth to silence entire lines of conversation. The times they are a-changin’, indeed.
Like every modern social and political (is there even a difference anymore?) sturm und drang this spat will peter out. After all the average American has the attention span of an inebriated fruit fly these days. Joe Rogan has already extended an olive branch of sorts, offering the now-standard “I’ll do better” attempt at a get out of woke jail free card. Time will tell if it works, though it very likely won’t. Once the woke battalion gets you in their sights they rarely relent. Compromise, much less apologizing, only energizes them. They are heat-seeking missiles of emotive outrage.
Then again, of course Rogan shouldn’t have to explain or apologize. He’s obviously getting a lot of pressure from upstairs at Spotify – somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million worth of it. But the rest of us can’t lose sight of the essential fact that an otherwise inconsequential disagreement between celebrities hinges on the single most important freedom of all, freedom of speech. Which is why it’s worth talking about and writing about.
The right to make an ass of yourself and spread dubious information or even outright lies is integral to the First Amendment. The list of things about which human beings have been wrong is as long as history itself. It wasn’t so long ago that doctors in lab coats sang the praises of cigarettes. It’s the same reason we provide free defense attorneys to child rapists. Freedom demands we protect the least savory among us and give them the exact same rights the rest of us enjoy. Once you start splitting those rights along ideological, much less sociological lines — well, that way be monsters. If Rogan wants to go on the air and claim that a paste made of roasted acorn husks and lark’s vomit has therapeutic effects when applied generously to the backs of the knees, well, this is ‘Murica and he’s free to do it. If people believe him that’s on them.
All of which, somehow, brings us to Whoopi Goldberg and Gina Carano. Sister Mary Clarence and Cara Dune both ran afoul of the Right Think Police by making incandescently stupid, offensive, and ignorant remarks about the Holocaust. In Whoopi’s case she said that the Holocaust was not about race, that it basically amounted to white-on-white crime. Oof. Carano compared the silencing of conservative voices in the United States in the 2020s to the persecution of Jews in the years leading up to the Final Solution. Double oof. In both cases the Outrage Machine cranked up to eleven. Within forty-eight hours Whoopi had been suspended from her spot on The View, ABC’s offering in the soul-crushing, brain-numbing circle of Hell known as daytime television. Disney, which also happens to own ABC, canned Carano altogether from her career-making role in the hugely popular The Mandalorian series.
Three high-profile examples, three completely different reactions. Spotify’s $100 million man keeps on truckin’, an ensemble member at ABC’s reasonably highly-rated TV show gets put in timeout, and a key but disposable character on a popular but niche sci-fi show gets axed altogether. I think we can see the pattern, can’t we? It seems that some acts of wrongspeak have become more equal than others, that a person’s freedom of speech is proportionate to their level of fame. Stars and key ensemble members are clear. Supporting cast, not so much. Bill Clinton can get away with decades of race baiting and shameless exploitation and abuse of women because he’s Bill Clinton. Al Franken posed in one stupid picture and he was toast. I can’t help but think this is all a result of the excesses of wokeness: Once a movement starts devouring its own it’s got to change its own rules or die. They are only — mercifully — only so many Harvey Weinsteins.
Like Rogan, Goldberg’s and Carano’s offenses weren’t malicious. There was no ill intent, just ignorance. What it all proves, yet again, for the millionth time, is that the only solution to ignorance is light. I would much rather people live in a world where people like Joe Rogan and Whoopi Goldberg and Gina Carano are free to say the most incandescently stupid, offensive, misleading, fake news, down is up and water isn’t wet things imaginable than to censor a single word that comes out of their entertaining but occasionally idiotic mouths.
As for Neil Young, turns out he’s as tone deaf when it comes to social discourse as he is when it comes to singing. He was for the PATRIOT Act before he was against it. He once said, ““Even though we have to protect freedoms, it seems we’re going to have to relinquish some of our freedoms for a short period of time.”
Keep on rockin’ in your (sort of) free world, buddy.