Who’s Afraid of Joe Rogan? A podcaster does the unthinkable and dares voice an opinion
In May 2017, I learned about the Joe Rogan Experience—stumbled upon it, more like—which earlier this year was listed by Forbes as the most profitable podcast in the world, pulling in a cool $30 million per year, giving you an idea why Spotify just shelled out $100 million to prize him away for an exclusive licensing agreement set to kick in by winter.
Quite the feat for a project Rogan has often said he began in imitation of the Opie and Anthony radio show, where he could invite friends and colleagues onto the airwaves and just…hang. Who knew such a harmless idea would produce a seismic shift in new media. But then, big things…small beginnings and all that.
This was my first experience with this new phenomenon, the quirky realm of “new media”. I’d heard about a Canadian professor who’d been causing a stir because of his … dangerous opinions on free speech, how he felt that a new bill then being fastracked through his country’s government was going to cause some constrictions.
When I looked up Jordan Peterson, I saw he’d appeared on Rogan’s podcast. Oh yeah, I thought, the Fear Factor guy. It was a really long interview, but I figured I’d watch for a bit to get a sense of what Peterson was about. Maybe Joe would force-feed him some snails while running him on a hamster wheel and ask him why Quebec isn’t a sovereign nation.
Three hours later, I could only classify my experience as a shining example of the Infinite Jest effect. A bombardment of information that leaves you dazed, that slack-jawed fuzzy feeling of (what I hope is) the brain expanding in an attempt to process the glut of information you’ve just come into contact with.
I’d follow Peterson over the coming years, attending one of his lectures but mostly keeping tabs from afar on his meteoric rise—which he’d often credit with having begun with that Rogan appearance. I kept track of the criticisms that grew as his popularity bloomed, studied the attempts at character assassination often coming in the form of pseudo-profiles by mainstream news. I’d compare those lambastings against what I perceived to be the truth—often aided by friends and colleagues of Peterson’s, Rogan included, who rushed to his aid.
I’d note the similarities in treatment when Rogan was deemed to have gotten a bit too big for his britches, in terms of his national influence. It really is remarkable when this unfolds in real time. The tools that are used to ensure that you are put back in your place, cognizant of where you stand in the pre-ordained societal class structure. Nipped in the bud.
And it always makes me wonder: the same people who agonize over how history will perceive them, constantly gauging every little thing in terms of patrimony, have a tenuous grasp on some constants. These secular warriors have simply switched a religious person’s notion of heaven as the ultimate goal. Their place in posterity is their version of it. Then you think, prophets always get kicked to the curb, right? So it should give you pause when you witness “controversial” figures effectively defenestrated and denied a platform. People probably thought Plato had the wrong politics. And Socrates was, y’know, forced to suicide for his thought crimes. Both those dudes probably smelled, too.
What it comes down to is one of the unspoken rules of our age, the ones that float almost unperceived, rather than the regulations we’re reminded of on a daily basis. The ones that adhere to our well-riven political divide, where we argue accordingly.
So back to Peterson. I wish, whenever the tide of public opinion seems to mass and designate someone so thoroughly reprehensible as to be unworthy of mass consumption, we were allowed a town hall in which the person just had a three hour interview to talk about what’s important to him. Let the people deal with the evidence and decide for themselves.
But that’s not what happens. What we get instead is an increasing evidence of gatekeeping. The same forces pushing for an abolition of the electoral college are quite keen to maintain cultural power in the hands of a chosen few. You can’t enter the playpen without their permission.
Rogan’s podcast was a refuge from all that controlled-narrative bullshit. He’s often said, and shown, that he’ll have anyone on his podcast. Even if, and sometimes especially, he (GASP) disagrees with them. At this point, he’s got enough clout to have on anybody in the world. What’s interesting is that he’ll go from comedian to A-list actor to MMA fighter to scientist to rock musician without skipping a beat. His infectious enthusiasm is what makes the show work.
What’s perhaps most interesting is the people who haven’t appeared on it. I’m struck by something Lawrence Lessig said during a guest appearance on the Rogan podcast back in December 2018—that a substantial way to do a little good would be to think twice about having any politicians on the show.
Take the politicians Rogan has had on, of late: Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders—both Democratic presidential candidates who were reviled by the establishment…until they bent the knee and endorsed the party’s chosen one.
The massive ratings Rogan has enjoyed would contradict one of the prevailing narratives of our age: that Americans’ attention spans are fried, that we are lazy and too stupid to engage complicated discussions. Rogan doesn’t preach. There was none of what currently ails the country in his studio—bringing an ossified filter to any news story: if it aligns with your political beliefs, you simply imbibe it like a glutton, adding to the unexamined mess collecting in your gut. If it dares challenge said sacred beliefs, well…it gets discarded like all those N-95 masks you see strewn about your local city’s streets.
It was the perfect storm of a symptom that has been steadily building since Donald Trump ascended to the presidency in 2016. After recovering from the shock of that result, to ensure that nothing so heinous ever happened again, Trump’s political opponents decided that they needed to infuse everything with politics, to push the public to the point of exhaustion where they decided that they would never do something so heinous as elect another Donald Trump. Then, they would be allowed to go back to sleep.
Rogan’s appeal stems in part, I think, from something Nassim Taleb outlined in his book Antifragile. It’s generally a good rule of thumb to adhere to principles that have been with us for thousands of years. Stood the test of time. Rogan eschews the soundbyte, de rigeur in the land of formulated television programming which is catered for the Gone-in-60-Seconds attention span. Often contrived, always tacky. You encounter so many in a day that it almost goes unnoticed, until it gets to around 5 o’clock and you realize you feel so…tense.
Contrast that to the tonic of simple conversation, unadorned and unadulterated. It’s one of the best ways to get to know someone, and one of the most rewarding ways to pass time. It’s no coincidence that I became a fan of Rogan’s because I was re-introduced to him (I caught a few episodes of Fear Factor, back in the day) through the podcast.
It’s like the simple act of changing your diet with better foods. After a few days, you realize you have more energy. It matters, what you imbibe.
Now that Rogan has had his status cemented as one of our age’s preeminent media voices, it will be interesting to follow the fallout. Where media smears often serve as a ringing endorsement, you wonder if Rogan has finally punched through that ceiling. As Chris Hedges wrote recently, “Intellectuals, artists and dissidents who attempt to address reality and warn about the self-delusion are ridiculed, silenced and demonized.”
What Rogan offers is specificity, often in stark contrast to the murky haze propagated by new media, which always seem obsessed with injecting us with an existential angst about the state of the world. Here’s this, this, and this reason why you should be scared out of your wits; the catch, of course, is that there’s never really anything we can do about it. It’s as if the point of the exercise was simply the dissemination of fear as a sort of herding mechanism. But I won’t get all tin-foil hat just yet.
It’s one of my favorite contradictions in modern society: that while we are bombarded with ever-improving technology that promises through each update to make everything that much easier, that much faster, leaving that much more time to do what we want to do…we end up sitting around agonizing about all the things we’re going to miss out on, all those great experiences we won’t be able to enjoy…order food from anywhere and a courier service will deliver it right to your door! Call a car and take it a mile because you don’t want to walk or bike in the rain! …that through all this ease, unparalleled in the scope of history, we are simultaneously bombarded by media outlets with the shape-shifting menace, always in the guise of an impossible existential threat, that will demand the ultimate sacrifice from us.
Just as we’re able to indulge every possible fancy, we’re slapped across the face and reprimanded for being so greedy. Just as we have access to information at our fingertips, we’re told of the danger in this Wild West mentality, and of the necessity of censoring certain voices that don’t conform to a set of criteria set forth by…well, someone.
And, if you might allow me to don that tinfoil hat for a moment, it’s one of the most brilliant moves by social media companies. They encourage you to tweet, post, whatever: unleash a torrent of thoughts, observations, that are then isolated entirely from who you are. There’s no inclination, no encouragement for the fellow users of a social media network to make any effort to interact on a human level. It’s why those preciously cultivated online relationships die on the vine when those couples finally work up the nerve to meet in person.
There’s the drone warfare of personality destruction. Eighty-six a person’s reputation without having to look him in the eye. It’s a lot more comfortable that way. Less personal.
One more reason prophets tend to be so unpopular: while society is preoccupied with the past, or already ruminating upon how the future will perceive the current times, creaming themselves over being on “the right side of history”, prophets pull that inane wool away from your eyes and simply tell the truth about the present.
The furor that broke over Rogan’s apparent endorsement of Bernie Sanders for president earlier this year was the perfect example. On an episode of his podcast—The Joe Rogan Experience—with Jimmy Dore guesting, Rogan mused about whom he might vote for for president. Why not Bernie; at least he’s been consistent. It’s something I remember Julian Casablancas tweeting in the run-up to the last election. There’s something endearing about a politician so universally reviled by the powers that be.
Immediately the Twitter brigade began brocading Rogan. It’s an awful quilt they weave. He said this, he did that, OMG look what he said here eight years ago. Casting such a pall about their subject that no right-minded person would ever dare search one of his videos. Let along listen and form his own opinion. They make that decision for you. Piff poof: see how easy it is to be a human now?
If there’s a tenet of the technological age—and this is something Casablancas has railed about, too—it’s that despite the freedom the internet should provide for us, we inevitably see it gridlocked by the same closed-minded restrictions we encounter in our daily, non-digital lives.
It’s something similar to what was seen with Peterson early last year. A figure becomes popular enough to have an impact on events, and he must be neutralized. With Peterson, it was a New York Times article inferring that Peterson effectively wanted to imprison women for sex-starved, involuntarily celibate young men.
The effect is always the same. Who makes these decisions, and why they do, is probably irrelevant. There is a cabal of power currently at the head of our culture, and they can’t stand it when people who don’t play their game, or kowtow to their rules, instead enjoying heaping levels of popularity that might help them (GASP) influence our youth.
Ideology is irrelevant. Thirty years ago it would have been conservatives railing against these upstarts. Now it’s something new. It always will be. It’s just a variation on a theme. You gain power, you start feeling like it’s within your mantle to tell normal people what to do. For their own good! If you ever feel uncertain as to who’s pulling the strings, ask yourself a simple question: who aren’t you allowed to make fun of? There’s your answer.
Rogan’s podcast is a tonic to this boring, boring culture we find ourselves in. Dude goes out of his way to not talk politics, which is about as rare as it gets these days. That character assassinations only seem to increase his popularity gives you hope for the future. Or maybe it just lessens the despair somewhat: because Rogan has a sturdy enough standing to risk voicing an unpopular opinion. The important question, now: is it possible for anyone getting into the game to grow to the same stature—would the current platforms in power even allow for that ascent?
That’s why his Spotify deal is so interesting. It seems like a wrench thrown into the humming machine that got a bit too comfortable with telling people what they can and can’t say.
Here’s hoping he’ll continue having on outsiders, different-thinkers. Despite so much information at our fingertips, people get all tunnel-visionny by nature. They don’t seek out information that might challenge their beliefs, because it’s uncomfortable. They are intellectually incurious, incapable of forming their own opinions based on original research. They are simply quite comfortable with some established entity telling them what to think, whom to oppose, etc.
That’s the danger: that all this information we have access to does nothing except reinforce our already well-worn grooves.
What they do is selectively choose to frame their argument. Standard practice for any propaganda. What’s most fun about Rogan’s podcast is that breadth of influences you’re likely to encounter, just in a given week. Malcolm Gladwell stopped by late last year. There’s the infamous photo of Elon Musk enveloped in a cloud of marijuana smoke. Conspiracy theorists, journalists, brilliant mathematicians, musicians. What binds these guests together is something that draws in the viewer as well: the sneaking suspicion that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark, that what we are shown, disseminated through approved mass media, is not the whole truth, and not wholly beneficial.
What he offers is something so many are starved for. One of the most poignant comments often seen are attached to videos that feature Rogan and some of his closest friends just shooting the shit for hours at a time. A cure for loneliness, as well as a chance to see polarizing figures in a neutral context. Rogan allows the viewer to decide for himself.
Just as the implementation of free speech restrictions becomes the “new normal”, Rogan has opened a last-chance saloon in open defiance of that edict. That maybe Americans don’t want their language controlled; maybe they don’t want to be told what to think.
The infiltration of politics into every nook of our daily lives has become tedious. Hopefully, Rogan just fired the first broadside at that cultural hegemony, and there will be many more to come.