Joe Rogan is under attack, stabbed in the back by a thousand knives he painstakingly forged over 12 years of shooting the shit with some of the worst people on the planet. There’s the compilation video of Rogan saying the n-word repeatedly. The video of Rogan laughing with guest Joey Diaz about coercing woman comics into sex. Comparing a Black neighborhood to Planet of the Apes. The clip where Rogan’s guest talks about how Black people have a gene that predisposes them to violence because "If you think about like white European Asian ancestors as we kind of moved out of Africa, like aggression and violence was less necessary because we were like farmers and stuff.”
But this article is not about Joe Rogan. Not really. It might be the only thing on the Internet right now that isn’t.
Let me tell you another story.
It is Portland, Oregon in the fall of 2020. The feds have gone home but the Portland police sure haven’t and protesters are still lighting dumpsters on fire and otherwise hitting the streets in the name of abolition. News outlets are still paying money for pictures and footage but there’s a lot less available cash than there used to be.
One photographer is becoming increasingly angry that her footage is not getting more play. There are reasons for this. She only attends a few events every month and never sticks around for the police clashes so she never gets the riot porn news outlets want. Absolutely her prerogative, especially given that she is Black.
But instead of deciding the problem is the media economy generally or the way she is dealing with it, she decides this dearth of business stems from other journalists grifting off the movement to sell footage and depriving Black people like herself of revenue. She stops trying to make money and instead begins to sic her Twitter followers on various journalists and activists, one at a time, for real or imagined crimes.
Because Portland has about 5 Black people—it is the whitest city in the country—attacking her means instant accusations of racism. People mostly just keep their heads down and try to stay out of it. Until, one day, an enterprising member of the community does a deep dive into her tweet history. He finds that she used ableist slurs a handful of times about 7 years earlier.
Suddenly, everyone has something to latch onto. Activists are no longer punching down (at a Black woman) but punching up (at an ableist). It works. After attempting to post through it, she apologizes, and with that apology her reign of terror ends. No one feels the need to blindly obey her any longer. Her power is broken.
No one outside a very small insular Twitter community will ever care about this story. I may be the only person who remembers it.
It is 2018 and President Donald Trump has nominated Brett Kavanaugh to replace Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh is a conservative justice, which is unpleasant for Democrats but expected under a Republican administration. But Kavanaugh also believes that presidents ought to be immune from criminal prosecution. The country is in the middle of Russiagate and also has a man with criminal tendencies for president, so this position is distressingly relevant. These concerns will only be proved more valid in the future, but they are not even remotely enough to deny Kavanaugh the nomination at the time.
Indelible in the hippocampus: the entrance of Christine Blasey Ford. The heartbreaking testimony. The outrage. The media frenzy. The hearings, Kavanaugh’s tears, calls for a delayed vote and deeper investigation. Kavanaugh is confirmed anyway, but the Blasey Ford shitstorm is as close as the Democrats ever get to thwarting that confirmation. The assault accusations make national headlines for weeks.
Two years later, Tara Reade will accuse Joe Biden of sexual harassment and these claims may be true or they may be false but the same liberal establishment that screamed “Believe women!” will dismiss these claims immediately and with extreme prejudice.
The year is 2016 and a small group of students at Reed College are attempting to remove the so-called “Western Canon” from the college’s required freshman course. The group immediately claims the rhetorical high ground by naming themselves “Reedies Against Racism,” which makes it very difficult to oppose the curriculum change without being called a racist. The students who eventually rise to oppose the group do not argue the merits of studying Aristotle and Plato but instead assert that Reedies Against Racism are stifling dissent.
I am one of the architects of this strategy. I will spend the rest of the year talking about the silencing of student voices instead of why it makes sense to study Greek and Roman literature if we want to fully understand our fucked modern world.
I just told the exact same story four times.
Intellectual Proxy Wars
By this point in the article you are likely very worried about where this is going and possibly already in the comments arguing about the details of one of the stories I have just told and I would like to remind you that this is not about Joe Rogan or Blasey-Ford or ancient Twitter drama or me being a manipulative little shit. At their core, none of these episodes were about any of that either.
We are in hell, all of us, and hell is a labyrinth where all paths lead to a central chamber. A battered chess board awaits you there. You know the pieces already. Hate speech. Cancel culture. Trauma. My right to an opinion. Platforming. First amendment. Vulnerable populations. Silencing. Minorities. Big Tech. Influence. 1984 is a great fiction novel to read but it seems like it is becoming the reality we are currently living under more and more each day.
This is the only game that matters.
The article is not about Joe Rogan but let’s get back to Joe Rogan for a second: why are we having this conversation right now?
The compilation video of Rogan saying the n-word is a compilation of episodes over the last twelve years. The clip of Rogan laughing while guest Joey Diaz talks about forcing female comedians to suck his dick is from 2011. It resurfaced again in 2020 and nothing happened. Rogan’s description of a Black neighborhood as “Planet of the Apes” is from 2013. This is ancient history. Why now?
Joe Rogan is the main character of the Internet right now because the powers that be need Joe Rogan to stop talking.
The powers that be have a point. Joe Rogan is pushing dangerous misinformation about a pandemic that is chewing its way through the American populace. 900,000 of us are dead, a major city’s worth of people are fucking deceased, and at least some of them are dead because they’ve listened to bullshit like the bullshit advanced on Joe Rogan’s podcast, which is the number 1 podcast in the United States, and it is becoming increasingly important that Joe Rogan shut the fuck up immediately.
Unlike Rogan’s use of the n-word or amusement at coerced sex, Joe Rogan platforming vaccine misinformation is new–as recent as the vaccine itself. Media Matters has compiled a helpful list of 13 different instances of Rogan-endorsed COVID or vaccine misinformation in 2021. He has, among other things, relentlessly promoted Ivermectin (unclear), claimed a study suggests vaccines lead to mutation and more virulent strains of the virus (they don’t), and claimed that the mRNA vaccine is “really gene therapy” (it isn’t).
Everyone knew about it. A lot of people saw it as a huge problem from the get-go. No one seemed to be able to do anything to stop it. People say lots of things on podcasts. What are you going to do, censor everyone you don’t like? Let the marketplace of ideas figure it out.
Here’s the thing. The viability of the marketplace of ideas depends entirely on the theory that people make rational and informed decisions about what’s best for them. The correct ideas will eventually win out. The invisible hand will guide us to the truth.
We take as axiomatic something easily disproved by logging onto Facebook for five goddamn minutes and wonder why we’re so fucked up.
Go to a grocery store and watch me walk right past the kale into the candy aisle: unless I actively fight it, the invisible hand of capitalism is guiding me to the most delicious corn-syrup-based products my money can buy. People do not gravitate towards the right ideas but the most appealing ideas, and that’s where Joe Rogan comes in. “He’s a comedian, why are people taking advice from a comedian?” I have made this very statement, and it sounds like a compelling argument only because we are engaged in this mass hallucination that the majority of people do things that make sense.
This is a huge problem with no good solution. Efforts to regulate the marketplace of ideas involve handing someone or someones the power to decide what should and should not be for sale. Even if we somehow found a philosopher king to regulate harmful speech, how loose are we going to make the word “harmful”? Anything can be recontextualized as harm. I should know. I’m on Twitter.
Even if you’re one of those people on Twitter, take heed: I go to a lot of conservative events, and the far right sees basically every left-of center position as harm. Any power you give anyone to deploy against Joe Rogan can and will be used against you when Trump wins in 2024.
So getting Joe Rogan off the air is dangerous, and yet the misinformation he promotes is actively killing people. What now?
Here’s where the chess game comes in.
You cannot kick Joe Rogan off the air for anti-vaxx propaganda. People have been trying for months. But you can kick him off for saying the n-word. You can kick him off for laughing about rape.
Spotify could survive being the Joe Rogan antivaxx corporation. They cannot survive being the racist corporation. At time of publication, they are flailing around trying to find ways to keep their cash cow and quell the frothing masses and it is not working. The outrage machine is churning. Rogan is going to lose his Spotify spot. I virtually guarantee it.
This process infuriates conservatives and you know what? I sympathize. They know good and goddamn well this isn’t about racism–if it was about racism, Rogan would not be on Spotify in the first place. It’s about chess. About winning. Bludgeoning the opposition with something that is, in fact, beside the real point.
(I do not have time or space to get into how cynically deploying accusations of racism as a political tool upholds structural racism. Maybe some other time.)
What Joe Rogan said is awful. Non-Black people should not use the n-word in any context, laughing about rape is awful, please get vaccinated, this isn’t about any of that. This is about trying to untangle the Gordian knot of free speech in an age when any psychopath can spend a few hundred dollars and start spewing the kind of high-fructose ideas that hook people into very dangerous movements.
Welcome to hell.
You thought there would be a solution at the end of this? There is no solution. Joe Rogan will lose his Spotify slot and some right-wing company will pick him up–maybe Rumble, maybe someone else. The shift will push Rogan’s audience farther right and remove whatever restraint Spotify exerted over his guest choice. No one in Rogan’s audience will be dissuaded from listening to him due to this controversy: if anything they will double down because it is excruciatingly clear that the libs were happy to profit off Rogan’s brand of racism right up to the point when it became a bad look. We’ll move onto the next iteration of the same goddamn argument, Trump will win in 2024, and liberals, bless their hearts, will be shocked all over again.
Any way out that might exist depends on us seeing these fights for exactly what they are. The Internet has fundamentally changed how individuals navigate the world and how society works. The race is on to figure out how to restructure things around this new reality.
Here’s hoping we can figure it out before it’s too late.