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Over recent years, several (always male) friends have tried to persuade me to listen to Joe Rogan. Until now, I’ve resisted. I wasn’t sure I needed anything else very time-consuming in my life. In the clips I’d inevitably come across, Rogan seemed to have a laid-back charisma, and I vaguely approved of his reputation for holding free discussions. I was put off by the muscly MMA (mixed martial arts) stuff though, and the whole thing had the slight whiff of the tech bro.
Now that Neil Young has removed his music from Spotify - in protest of their hosting Rogan’s podcast, which Young claimed was the source of vaccine misinformation - I decided it was time to take the plunge. Rogan has become an institution in America and beyond, with millions of listeners.
The show generates big cultural moments – see Elon Musk causing Tesla stock to plummet by smoking weed on the podcast. I’ve now listened (and watched – Spotify includes the video podcasts) so you don’t have to. Having half-heartedly searched for the best Rogan episodes, I settled on one with Tim Pool from late in 2021.
Pool is an “independent journalist”, and I’d been aware of him since a friend had tried to sign him up for a book almost a decade ago. I knew he’d started out in the orbit of Vice, and had the sense he’d since become politically unwholesome, having moved too far to the left or the right.
What I can report is as follows. Rogan is easy-going and charming. Pool is strident and slightly fanatical. The pair of them have a long, rambling conversation that moves rapidly from nuggets of truth to the wilder stretches of conspiracy. Yes, the vaccines don’t last very long in the protection they give – but they have still saved the day.
Did Bill Gates really buy stock in BioNTech just before the pandemic? Did Dr Fauci really implicate himself in a plan to mandate flu vaccination by the spread of a novel respiratory virus? It’s almost exciting, in the way watching a conspiracy film is. It will almost certainly influence some people in a way most of us would disapprove of. But so does some music – it has done for me.
Rogan makes valid points, too. At one stage he says that “people in Los Angeles are afraid”. He’s right. Whatever your take on the culture wars, I think it’s safe to say that the atmosphere in LA in 2020 had become oppressive. Everyone seemed to be angry about something. Before I left the city, we’d been under both lockdown and curfews due to the 2020 protests. The National Guard were on the streets and our phones buzzed alarmingly with official messages telling us to be inside our homes by 5pm.
The city’s wealthy, refined, neurotic milieu did not take Covid calmly. Friends have posted about the “shame” of thinking they’d caught it, which seems close to being the opposite of a healthy reaction. You’d think such a progressive culture would’ve learned its lesson regarding treating viruses as something to be ashamed of. And it’s difficult not to think, now, that much of what was forced on us was potentially unnecessary.
In LA, we were told to wear masks outside – people began shouting at each other for not doing so. It wasn’t necessary to know much about virology to understand that covering your face, outside, while metres away from anyone else, was silly. It was frightening to see a population stoop to a futile signal. We all have our limits around the pandemic, do we not? My own is masking children in school, something that’s still happening in Southern California.
None of this is intended to condone conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci, about big pharma, the New York Times and the FBI, all of which are touched on by Rogan and Pool. It’s all slightly mad. And yet… unless you’ve been extraordinarily lucky, there’s nothing in here you won’t have heard elsewhere, probably in person, from the nuttier people you’ll have come across. These views are out there.
To my mind, it’s arguably more alarming to think it’s possible or even desirable to somehow shut them down. You’d have to be naïve at best, and fanatically puritanical at worst, to think that’s any sort of answer. For all his millions of listeners and viewers, many, many more millions are hearing and agreeing with the mainstream view. We must have dissent, and better to have it out in the open where we can all hear it. And forgive me a cliché: how about competing in the marketplace of ideas?
And so we come to Neil Young. He has made some great music, through which his vast ego has often shone. In his frequent forays into politics, he’s nearly always been pompous and embarrassing. Southern Man is fascinating for being so listenable while, as Lynyrd Skynyrd made clear (Google their dispute if you’re not up to speed), simultaneously ridiculous.
In the Eighties, he lassoed himself to the Reagan wagon. As with many artists, his political insight is not his primary strength. Rogan isn’t a doctor, but neither is Young. Nor Bill Gates, for that matter.
In removing his work from the mad, wild marketplace of content and ideas, while Rogan’s remains up, Young has demonstrated that his cultural capital – his very financial worth – is less valuable than his target’s. Was it worth it? I think not.
And I’m afraid we can’t have it both ways. There’s either the truth, or your truth. Rogan is presumably just speaking his.