Hippies for censorship

Neil Young’s grumpy war on Joe Rogan is a betrayal of everything he once stood for.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Covid-19 Culture Free Speech Science & Tech UK

Hippies are the most disappointing subculture, aren’t they? They always let you down. They cut their hair, become therapists or corporate sustainability advisers, and before you know it these people who wanged on about Woodstock for 50 years are being paid a fortune by The Man to badger me and you. Just look at Neil Young. The one-time cocaine-stained hero of LA’s alternative scene, singer of angry songs about Vietnam and the Kent State massacre, participant with Crosby, Stills and Nash in the Freedom of Speech Tour of 2006, is now basically pleading with a huge corporation to silence people he doesn’t like. From protest singer to agitator for capitalist censorship? What a fall.

Neil Young’s set-to with Spotify over its hosting of Joe Rogan’s podcast is such a disappointment. And not only because it means I can no longer listen to ‘Birds’ or ‘Harvest Moon’ or ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ and other Young tracks that choke me up just thinking about them. (‘Sorry, that command is not supported right now’, my Alexa informed me this morning when I asked it to play ‘Birds’ on Spotify. He really has gone, folks.) But also because it confirms, perfectly and horribly, that to be countercultural today is to be on the side of fear, on the side of censure, on the side of madly believing that vast, unaccountable corporate machines have the right and the responsibility to determine what the rest of us may hear and see. I wonder if the Neil Young who once went on stage with an entire rock of cocaine protruding from his nostril could have imagined that he would one day be begging the powerful to protect the little people from ‘offensive’ ideas?

Young vs Rogan is so 2020s. On one side we have the grizzled rocker angry about having to share a streaming platform with the giant of the podcasting world. In an open letter published (and swiftly unpublished) on his website, Young issued Spotify with an ultimatum: ‘They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.’ His beef? That Rogan ‘[spreads] fake information about vaccines’. That could kill people, he said, depressingly borrowing a belief from the kind of stiffs he once raged against – ie, that words wound, heresies hurt, blasphemies pollute men’s souls and bodies, and thus people with clout must clamp down on them. And on the other side there’s Rogan, not so much a man as a media industry, whose pod gets more than 10million listeners per episode. No wonder Spotify recently snapped it up for a cool $100million, in the process pissing off some of its own woke staff as well as Young and other people who believe, quite remarkably, that they have the right to glide through life without ever encountering an utterance they disapprove of.

Here’s the simultaneously funny and tragic part of the story – Spotify chose Rogan. It heard those words ‘You can have Rogan or Young’, and it went with Rogan. Which isn’t surprising. Spotify, for all its woke posturing, is a business, so it picked the bloke who has millions of faithful weekly listeners over the singer who is probably mainly streamed by old duffers who can’t believe it is no longer 1969. Young’s entire catalogue is coming down. He estimates he will lose 60 per cent of his streaming revenue. But he thinks it’s worth it because at least he is taking a stand against ‘life-threatening misinformation’. Oh calm down, Mary Whitehouse.

Some observers have deluded themselves into thinking that Young’s punch-up with Spotify is a continuation of his 60s and 70s rebellious streak, proof that the old dog still bristles at ‘established authority’. Come off it. Young is not challenging corporate power – he’s demanding a keener, more ruthless exercising of corporate power. He’s not calling for shackles to be put on a marauding big business – he’s insisting that a big business shackle a man whose views he considers to be dangerous. The Rogan-loathers of the liberal media can kid themselves all they like that one of the great hippies has risen up to confront the new capitalism and one of its allegedly most reckless cultural outputs, but in truth Young is laying waste to his own free-wheelin’, speech-defendin’ counter-authoritarian personal history by demanding the expulsion of Rogan from Spotify in the same way horrified pink-rinsed ladies once demanded the censorship of hippy revolt. (‘Ohio’, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s song about Kent State, was banned by numerous radio stations in 1970 for being anti-Nixon.)

Of course Young has been drifting from hippiedom for a while. This is a man who has dabbled in every genre from protest folk to country music to Americana. He’s produced great albums and, erm, not-so-great albums. Yet he usually managed to maintain the spirit of freedom that first endeared him to spaced-out West Coasters 50-plus years ago. His autobiography, published in 2012, was called Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream. In 2006 he got back together with Crosby, Stills and Nash for that Freedom of Speech Tour, which was largely an unadventurous Bush-bashing affair (Young loathed Dubya) but which nonetheless celebrated the crucial liberty of speaking truth to power. Threats were made against CSNY over their song ‘Let’s Impeach the President’. At some gigs the bomb squad had to be called in. But the show had to go on, Young said. ‘[It’s] called the Freedom of Speech Tour for a reason.’

Fast forward to 2022, and the man who battled the censors for the right to mock Nixon, and who stood up to bomb threats over his criticisms of Bush, is running scared from… Joe Rogan? The hippie has become the stiff. The free-speech warrior has morphed into an aspiring censor. The battler against ‘established authority’ has become a supporter of established authority’s right to shut down those who are ‘dangerous’. Most ironically of all, the man who made a whole album of songs containing BS anti-scientific claims about genetically modified organisms – hippies are often idiots – now thinks he has the moral authority to bash Spotify for hosting anti-scientific chat about Covid vaccines. What a mess.

But here’s the thing – Young isn’t alone. Bizarrely, agitating for powerful corporations and publishers to exclude ‘offensive’ speech is all the rage among supposed radicals. Witness those mobs that are forever calling on Twitter to cast out Donald Trump or feminists who believe that people with penises are men and anyone else found guilty of wrongthink in the kangaroo court of wokeness. These phoney leftists and liberals are essentially calling on a corporation to use its property rights as a sledgehammer to crush dissenting and discomfiting speech. At Spotify itself, employees threatened to strike when Rogan was added to the platform’s podcast family. Remember when striking was something working-class people did for better pay and conditions? Now it’s a tactic of the easily offended Ivy League middle classes who cannot abide breathing the same air as someone they disagree with. Some Netflix staff revolted over Dave Chappelle’s show The Closer, shocked that their employer would give airtime to a man who thinks that if you have a dick then you are not a woman. Millennial employees at Penguin Random House Canada went nuts when they discovered that their bosses had decided to publish a book by Jordan Peterson. Some apparently wept at the news.

All of these cases highlight the alarming intolerance of the woke era. There is a puritanical zeal to the new censorship. These ‘platform’-depriving mobs, these weeping millennials, are not content with simply not listening to Joe Rogan, or not buying Jordan Peterson’s books, or not watching Dave Chappelle’s specials (your loss). No, they want to make sure that nobody else can access such scandalous material, either. They are so arrogantly concerned with preserving their own moral purity that even the knowledge that Rogan’s podcast exists makes them feel uncomfortable. They consider it a pollutant to their virtue. They consider having to share the world with Joe Rogan to be an intolerable affront to the pristine moral condition they believe they live in. This is why some people have sworn to stop using Spotify if it refuses to excommunicate Rogan – because lurking behind wokeness there is the staggeringly narcissistic and borderline medieval conviction that any belief system that runs counter to one’s own must be exterminated. They require the scalps of wrongthinkers in order to feed their own moralistic hubris. Rogan is the sacrifice this hungry, conceited mob yearns for the most. It would sustain them for decades.

Does Rogan give space to some crackers views about the Covid vaccines? Yep. So what? And I ask that as someone who is very pro-vaccination. If you dislike what Rogan says, then set up your own podcast to counter him. How about doing that, Neil Young? You could be pro-science for a change. Here’s the thing about Rogan: his success is the least mysterious thing in the 21st-century media landscape. It is the colonisation of the mainstream media by woke elites who all think in the exact same way, and who will hound you off their turf if you don’t, that created the conditions in which a questioning, dissenting pod like Rogan’s could become a global phenomenon. It is the mainstream media’s failures that birthed the success of Rogan and others; it is the stifling of free, frank, deep discussion in the old media that created the space for new media to emerge and flourish. The old hippy Neil Young would have understood that; the newly square Neil Young clearly doesn’t.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: YouTube.

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