Democratic Skullfuckery: Neil Young, Joe Rogan, and Art Spiegelman
Various thinkers throughout the ages, such as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, and Madison, have criticized democracy. Plato believed that excessive liberty in democracy is its very undoing: “is it not the excess and greed of this and the neglect of all other things that revolutionizes this constitution too and prepares the way for the necessity of a dictatorship?” Aristotle, writing nearly around the same time, cautioned against extreme democracies, in which the will of the people supersedes the law: “where the laws are not sovereign, then demagogues arise; for the common people become a single composite monarch, since the many are sovereign not as individuals but collectively.” In other words, democracy becomes mob rule.
Hobbes preferred the stability of monarchy over the instability of democracy: “The riches, power, and honour of a monarch arise only from the riches, strength, and reputation of his subjects … whereas in a democracy, or aristocracy, the public prosperity confers not so much to the private fortune of one that is corrupt, or ambitious, as doth many times a perfidious advice, a treacherous action, or a civil war.” In other words, a strong, stable, prosperous society is less likely to create civil unrest.
James Madison took the Aristotelian view, that majority opinion is likely based on passion rather than reason, which can lead to chaos: “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates; every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” Indeed, it was a democratic vote that put Socrates to death, not tyranny or monarchy—or perhaps the excesses of democracy had led to tyranny, as Plato argued. Who knows?
Whatever you may believe, democracy today is suffering from a total meltdown. The political climate surrounding the pandemic, along with the banning of books has made this all too clear. Let’s begin with the latter and move towards the less interesting virulent arena—less interesting only because it’s been discussed to death.
The Tennessee School Board’s recent banning of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Maus, has created a new conundrum—an added layer to the already difficult-to-navigate waters surrounding freedom of speech and public safety. On one hand, we have a Pulitzer Prize winning author and illustrator, who created one of the most magnificent pieces of Shoah literature ever conceived. On the other hand, we have Joe Rogan, an American UFC color commentator and TV personality turned anti-vax podcaster, who, together with Canadian Neil Young, have essentially sunk the popular streaming platform Spotify. It looks like Spiegelman and Rogan are on totally opposite spectrums, and that seems to be the case—upon closer inspection, however, they do have one little thing in common: Their right to freedom of speech.
Below are protesters supporting Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s dissent in the landmark case Abrams v. United States (1919). Along with Justice Louis D. Brandeis, Holmes argued that “the principle of the right to free speech is always the same. It is only the present danger of immediate evil or an intent to bring it about that warrants Congress in setting a limit to the expression of opinion where private rights are not concerned.” The case in question dealt with sedition. Now imagine if Supreme Court judges were stripped of their ability to dissent in cases that dealt with national security, much less protesters being allowed to protest the decision.
Let’s forget Holmes and his dissent, however. In defending Spiegelman and denouncing Rogan, many will immediately point out that the former’s work is based on totally verifiable facts—on completely honest historicity, while the latter is simply a right-wing nutjob. Duly noted. It still doesn’t change the fact that in a democratic society we must try our best to protect all freedom of speech—even the speech we disagree with. It’s important to highlight the difference between “trying to protect all freedoms of speech” as opposed to “actually protecting all speech.” John A. Powell, a Berkeley scholar and one of the foremost authorities on the topic, distinguishes between speech which aims to create dialogue, and speech which merely aims to demonize. He emphasizes how people often take advantage of the First Amendment simply to demonize others. In this way, these individuals are exploiting the Constitution’s democratic principles to achieve their racist agendas. Their main aim is racism, not dialogue, and Powell argues that such speech shouldn’t be protected, since it’s not about communication at all, but rather the desire to harm—a psychological assault, if you will, no different from a physical one: “Assaultive racist speech functions as a preemptive strike. The racial invective is experienced as a blow, not a proffered idea, and once the blow is struck, it is unlikely that dialogue will follow. Racial insults are undeserving of first amendment protection because the perpetrator’s intention is not to discover truth or initiate dialogue but to injure the victim.” Nothing we can disagree with here.
Having now established the boundaries of free speech, it’s time to return to the topic. Spiegelman and Rogan—the former an artistic transmitter of the ultimate truth; the latter a semi-conspiracy theorist at best. The reality is that the democratic struggle for both is essentially the same. Today, The Guardian ran an article on Spiegelman with the following subtitle: “Since his early days in the underground comix scene, Spiegleman has reveled in ‘saying the unsayable’ and subverting convention.” The issue isn’t that they misspelled the great artist’s name, but that on the very same day they ran an article on Rogan with the following headline: “Can Joe Rogan change?” He may be a bit of a wacko, but why should he? If, for years, Spiegelman had the privilege of saying the unsayable, are we really allowed, in a democratic society, to take that very same privilege away from Rogan—even if we disagree with what he says, even if what he says isn’t entirely accurate? In a democracy we can’t have it both ways. We can’t have the United States when we want democracy, and the Soviet Union when we want safety and decorum. We must live in one system or another.
The right to exercise one’s freedom of speech has always brought with it certain perils, regardless of whether the speech offered undeniable truth, or whether it was dubious at best. Under the First Amendment, things like flag burning and even the burning of Bibles are allowed because such freedom is healthy for a democratic, free society. While these actions bring with them certain dangers, they’re nevertheless necessary ingredients for the vitality of our democracy.
When, after 9/11, there was an incredible backlash against the Muslim community—to the extent that Balbir Singh Sodhi (a Sikh, not a Muslim man, wearing the traditional beard and turban) was gunned down at a Chevron gas station in irrational retaliation for the attacks—no Muslim or even Sikh ever thought of shaving his beard to eliminate the “threats” facing him then. The dangers inherent to the freedom of expression were worth bearing in the name of one’s choices, beliefs, and lifestyle.
The same must be said for the other so called “dangers” we associate with the freedom of expression. A democratic society—as powerful and robust as the American one—must have the institutional capability to bear the rhetorical impact made by speech that passes the aforementioned Powell test. American democracy must come equipped with some sort of linguistic airbag that prevents the death of freedom no matter how gravely any given rhetorical impact affects it.
All this leads to the less interesting side of things: Neil Young—an aging self-righteous rocker who penned the hit “Keep on Rockin’ in The Free World,” a song he should’ve called “Keep on Rockin’ in the Fully Vaccinated Better-Agree-With-Everything-I-Say-Free World.” We should’ve seen it coming from a mile away. Neil Young is a selfish, entitled, Canadian rock star (not that we should hold it against him). We should’ve known this as early as 1970, when Mr. Young had the good sense—not—to write a song called “Southern Man,” essentially dissing that whole part of our country, but for this he was swiftly posterized by the great Ronnie Van Zant in “Sweet Home Alabama:” “Well I hope Neil Young will remember / A southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” Good for you, Ronnie.
Neil Young should shut his mouth and not concern himself with business that doesn’t concern him. If America ever suffers the misfortune of totally succumbing to fascism or communism, it will precisely be Neil Young who’ll be denouncing fellow artists and compatriots left and right—the perfect Beria or Goebbels for Stalin and Hitler, respectively. And one more thing, Neil: All the songs you’ve ever written are essentially one song. And that’s not my opinion—take it from Dana Carvey. Click below to hear “every Neil Young song you’ve ever heard.”
Here we have an aging hippy who in the ’60s was spreading messages of freedom and peace—a man singing proudly about transcending our differences. Well, it only took fifty or so years for him to become a capitalist tool, getting in bed with a billion-dollar corporation to try and silence someone whose views he disagrees with. Here’s a tip, Neil: You shouldn’t have said “They can have Rogan or Young. Not Both.” You should’ve just pulled your music and gone your own way. That would’ve been emblematic of the freedom you so espouse—a real protest. But the scheming attitude of trying to get a platform to cancel someone you don’t agree with so this very platform can continue to play your music is a bit pathetic coming from a guy who wrote many songs that all sound like one song. Again, I didn’t say it.
In the interest of countering “misinformation,” Neil Young should probably delete his Facebook page with 2.6 million followers, his Instagram page with almost 250,000 followers, and any other social media website where misinformation is spread, especially as it relates to COVID, only one of the many problems plaguing our planet today. If you didn’t already know, Facebook’s response to human rights abuses is so slow in many parts of the world, that Mexican drug cartels, for example, “were using Facebook to recruit, train and pay hit men … the company didn’t stop the cartel from posting on Facebook or Instagram, the company’s photo-sharing site.” So, why just Spotify, Neil? Scared you’ll fall into obscurity? Be a man and do the real difficult thing, won’t you? Get off the grid.
The doublethink in today’s society is off the charts. Orwell would’ve been proud. American democracy is being shit on, and Facebook is having a field day with it. All the users posting and reposting the news of every single debonair band pulling their music are complicit in what I can only call an orchestrated virtual stinkfest of hollow solidarity resembling the day after Coachella. The next person to pull their tracks from Spotify better be a suburbanite Neil Young garage cover band that once had a decent following in remote parts of Winnipeg, until they finally realized the futility of trying to score with those songs, and so they humbly called it quits. I’ll have it no other way.
About David Garyan
David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He received a master’s degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage from the University of Bologna. He lives in Trento.