Joe Rogan, Parody of the Open Mind

a free speech warrior by default, a mind that looks open in contrast

Culture war is exhausting and it corrupts how we think and feel in myriad bizarre ways. When I think of Joe Rogan and his podcast I think of a reasonably entertaining interviewer who asks some incisive questions, has some dopey opinions, and is really remarkable only in his huge audience and cultural impact. But of course our media hates him, passionately and performatively, which speaks to just how singular and important he’s become despite his fundamental ordinary-guy nature; his chronic unfussiness has led to a permanent state of fuss. And that’s what I also think about, when I think of Joe Rogan: as culture war’s greatest beneficiary, one of cancel culture’s biggest winners and the unintended but utterly predictable consequence of the absurd mores of contemporary liberals. Ridicule broad swaths of diverse people under a political pretext and they will rally to that which you ridicule, and then they will elect champions to represent them. In standing up for the unpretentious and frequently-thoughtless mainstream Rogan has become the antithesis of media liberals, their negation, and they are thus the source of his considerable fortune. They can also be blamed for giving him a reputation he doesn’t quite deserve.

The trouble is that this culture war dynamic, the celebration of Rogan’s success driven by his power to annoy the right people, creates a conversation about him that is itself a pure expression of culture war. It’s always difficult to find the man himself amid the swirl of whatever latest controversy follows him. Take the fiasco related to Rogan’s use of Ivermectin. The entire news media linking arms to mock as “horse dewormer” a drug that absolutely should not be taken to treat Covid-19 but which absolutely is not accurately referred to as “horse dewormer” is a perfect illustration of the mutually-parasitic equilibrium between the liberal media and its antagonists. The term became a clever meme for three days for the former and permanent proof of the the media’s duplicity for the latter. Progressives won the Twitter trending topics sidebar, while their critics won the ability to reference one of the most embarrassing displays in media conformity and thoughtlessness I can imagine.

Meanwhile no one seems interested in assessing the degree to which Rogan’s legend as a broadcaster matches his reality, instead of doing him the favor of defining him as either a free speech warrior or alt-light brodude. This New York Times appraisal from earlier this year is notable if only for exemplifying the media’s dedication to playing into Rogan’s narrative rather than actually evaluating his weaknesses and strengths. The writer of that piece, lazily documenting his contempt, sneers through the usual litany of complaints about Rogan’s podcast, attacking him for all of the things that make him a legend to his fans. (That writer, unsurprisingly, is an Ivy League-educated lifetime New Yorker.) He points out the same supposedly-cutting irony they all do - Rogan claims we are living in a censorious time, but he himself has not been entirely censored! - but does little to trouble the shit Rogan’s defenders actually care about. What’s remarkable about mainstream coverage of Rogan is how much time it spends reciting liberal fantasies about Rogan’s weaknesses and how little time considering the mythology about his strengths. As so often happens, the media’s refusal to look beyond their sneers has led them to give Joe Rogan’s actual failures a pass.

Let’s use, as a lens, the recent JRE episode featuring the Canadian “gender critical” feminist Meghan Murphy.

It’s Rogan’s habit of having on people like Murphy that has earned him lionization from what I call the marginal mainstream and condemnation from the broad social justice movement, which includes essentially the entirety of our media. Murphy is a very controversial figure, often represented by enemies as the queen of the “TERFs,” or trans-exclusionary radical feminists, which is to say a feminist who is highly critical of what she sees as the philosophy and agenda of the mainstream trans rights movement. Murphy has been deplatformed at Twitter specifically and has been systematically barred from all manner of forums due to her views and caustic expression of them, such as her refusal to honor the pronouns of trans people. As she discusses in the podcast she is particularly at legal risk in Canada where free expression is far less protected than in the United States. Murphy gave more or less her usual argument on the Joe Rogan Experience, throwing in some general regressive attitudes towards the left and about culture and complaining about her own marginalization in the conversation. It was, in other words, a pretty typical episode of The Joe Rogan Experience, at least in my limited experience.

I won’t bother to discuss the trans question here, as using the lens of Joe Rogan to explore that question would be unhelpful to all sides. I hope it would not surprise you that I disagree with Murphy about almost everything regarding gender issues, although I also reject any attempts to censor her and wince at the excesses of the Very Online side of the trans rights movement. Instead I’d like to first think about this episode from the perspective of a a typical liberal critique of Rogan’s political position.

Let’s set aside the more overtly censorious takes, that is, that Murphy should be prevented any opportunity to express her opinions, and that Rogan and all others should have strict limits on who they can interview and what they can say. Though Rogan’s time on Spotify will no doubt end unhappily, he is too powerful a market force to ever be truly deplatformed. I think instead that the sharpest liberal criticism lies in wondering whether Rogan’s vaunted intellectual bravery amounts to anything. Rogan hosting Murphy might seem to his champions like an act of courage, having the integrity to defy the crowd and risk the negative consequences of this unpopular action. What the liberal critics would say is that there’s actually nothing really brave about what Rogan is doing - yes, there is a clear orthodoxy about trans issues in mainstream media and on social networking sites, but opposition to trans rights and transphobia are very common; Murphy is not an iconoclastic truth-teller but simply an avatar of a bigoted reality. And if you’re less sympathetic to the show’s sensibility then Rogan’s guest list looks less like a free speech army and more like a roster of representatives for ugly ideas that are largely taboo in our ideas industries but prevalent in our larger culture.

It seems to me that the problems with this position are obvious. Most importantly, if Murphy actually does speak for a wider group of people who are unheard of in the national conversation, that means it’s more important that she be allowed to speak, not less. Part of the problem with liberal censoriousness is that it has badly deluded them about the popularity of their beliefs. It’s hard to imagine a more dangerous scenario for any political movement than to be lulled to sleep by the impression that their ideas are much more widespread than they are, and the social justice movement’s odd colonization of media and academia means that they look out at the world and see only themselves. It’s also fair to ask whether people who would censor if they could get to point to the lack of effective censorship as a sign of their opponent’s lack of courage.

But if the liberal critique is wrong in its particulars, it does underline the degree to which Rogan receives the benefit of falling into a strange analytical void. If his progressive critics condemn him for being receptive to ideas that are not brave but rather just appropriately condemned, and his fans celebrate him for being open to narratives that are forbidden by the man, both are in agreement that his is an open mind. This is central to the whole story, that he will entertain any notion proffered to him with deadly seriousness, especially if that idea is represented as dangerous and taboo. For his critics, he is the man so open-minded his brain fall out, a credulous doofus whose willingness to listen has left him aligned with the worse elements in our society. Open-mindedness towards someone like Murphy or anti-vaxxers is no virtue, they say. I think, though, that the biggest problem with the Joe Rogan Experience is that its host is not all that he has been made out to be. I think he’s frequently rather close-minded, in fact, and despite his famous intensity and work ethic he often strikes me as lazy about ideas he is not predisposed to like.

See, again, the Murphy episode. For an endless stretch of the podcast, Murphy and Rogan go through the motions of typical right-winger complaints about Marxism, or really “Marxism.” They say that only young people are Marxists and that only unsuccessful people are Marxist and that Marxists are in general a bunch of whiners who have never tried hard. There are, of course, old Marxists and rich and famous Marxists, and if we’re allowed to dip into history I would perhaps argue that men who squatted in the Cuban jungle for years to engage in a brutal guerilla insurgency against a superior opponent knew a bit about being tough. I don’t think the Communist Party of China is authentically Marxist, but Rogan and most of his guests would, and I suspect even they would not question the tenacity or results of the men who run the world’s most powerful political party.

But let’s set defenses of Marxism aside. Even if Rogan and Murphy are right in all of their insults, I would argue that this is not exactly a scintillating bit of conversation. You can hear “socialists are lazy whiners” just about anywhere you look for it in conservative media, and often expressed more charismatically. Of course Murphy did not appear to offer her expertise in Marxism but rather to engage in some provocation about trans people, and Rogan frequently suggests that no one should listen to him, but then again they were speaking on a massively-lucrative and hugely influential program, and you might think in such a context as to whether what you were saying made any sense. (One of the problems with the podcasting era is that while it has elevated a number of ordinary conversations to the status of professional media, it has also prompted a lot of professional media to sink to the level of ordinary conversation.) My problem is not that a guest disdained Marxism, but that it was not someone who was a serious critic of Marx. They do exist, even in my eyes; I’m sure he’s past his podcasting days but Thomas Sowell could be a thoughtful critic of Marxism, in part because he once was a Marxist. Or bring on a liberal economist like Paul Krugman to make the economic case against communism. I don’t need to see a defense but I’d much rather hear a substantive prosecution.

Beyond that, this failure to be rigorous in critique of Marxism would be far less troublesome if there was anything like an equal number of guests who represent the left-wing view and who might, in conversation, inspire Rogan to take a few digs at capitalism. But there is nothing like balance in Rogan’s guest list. I’ve argued this point more in the past than I would like to, but I find it hard to dispute if you look at the episode list. (As I did for an embarrassingly long time while researching this.) Just look over that first page and its 45 or so listed episodes. I think you’ll find many who trend towards the, shall we say, counter-woke side, including a lot of comedians who skew strongly in that direction, and some neutral figures from sports or science or Hollywood who are probably hoping the conversation stays as apolitical as possible. There are few decidedly left-leaning people, and those that are there tend (as with Jesse Singal or Jimmie Dore) to drive liberals crazy. The drift is obvious to me even as I admit that the lockstep liberalism of mainstream media makes me eager to forgive it. Obviously, Rogan is under no obligation to have any particular range of viewpoints on his podcast at all. But rigorously cultivating a reputation for an open-mind strikes me as a bit disingenuous if you hardly ever invite over people who might pour left-wing opinions into that open mind. This is my issue with Rogan: this and other ways in which he has his thumb on the scale.

If I’m being honest, the greater part of my frustration with Rogan and Murphy’s complaints about Marxism lies in the fact that they repeat the misconception that Marxism mandates “equality of outcomes,” the notion that Marxism’s purpose is to make all of us equal, whatever that might mean. But no such sentiment exists in The Communist Manifesto or any of the other major texts, and in fact Marx and Engels both maintained that equality was a nonsensical political goal1, arguing correctly that any difference between two people can be expressed as an inequality, which are therefore inevitable, and that the objective was rather to eliminate the parasitic relationship between capital and labor, to end exploitation. (Which would not, for the record, result in anything like genuine summative equality.) Murphy and Rogan were damning Marxism for a goal it simply doesn’t hold, and once again this would not be a problem if not for the fact that so few visitors to his show are likely to argue in favor of Marx. Put it his way: who will the average JRE listener ever hear who will correct the record on this issue?

What makes this especially frustrating is that Rogan has made this error before and has had ample time to learn that Marxism does not call for equality of outcomes and correct himself. The video below makes the same point as I made above, that the assumption that Marxism mandates equality of outcomes (or any other equality) is clearly contradicted by the foundational texts of the philosophy. In doing so it references a conversation Rogan had with Jordan Peterson that occurred in January 2018, meaning that nearly four years have passed since then in which he could have learned about his misunderstanding of Marxism and corrected it. Instead, he appears to have doubled down on a criticism of an ideology he complains about all the time and does not remotely understand.

If anyone has the reach necessary to get a committed Marxist on his podcast to defend the ideology, it’s Rogan. Richard Wolff, who’d appear on my niece’s Tik Tok if she asked him to, springs immediately to mind. Instead we get the full spectrum of opinion on Marx, from Jordan Peterson (who has the laziest and least-informed critiques of Marxism I’ve ever seen) to… Megan Murphy. He had Bernie on, which is cool, but it’s not like they really spent a ton of time on the theoretical dimensions of socialism. The left-leaning people on the show tend to be more oriented towards cultural issues than economics, and while some of the celebrities are lefties I doubt many would be willing to publicly debate Marx.

So since we’re talking about many years of fundamentally misunderstanding what Marxism is while complaining about Marxism constantly, we’ve got two possibilities. The first is that he’s been informed that his take is incorrect and has refused to correct it, which is bad. The second option, and the more likely one, is that the simply hasn’t interacted with anyone who could correct him or was willing to. And that’s worse! It’s much worse because his brand is as a freethinking and reasonable guy who loves hearing all manner of opinions and isn’t afraid to stretch outside of his comfort zone. But you can paw through that episode list all you like, and you’ll find that it’s hard to find any that might have been willing even to discuss radical left philosophy seriously. Whenever there’s a left-leaning person on I hope for some pushback, some fireworks, but it never seems to happen. I get it - Rogan is an affable guy, it’s got to be intimidating, and you’d like to be invited to return to a podcast with 11 million listeners. But most of those conversations fixate on what host and guest share, not on where they disagree. And on those issues which Rogan expects to disagree, his questions are often far more pointed than the norm.

There’s the guests you invite on your show and then there’s the way you interview them. Consider Rogan’s somewhat infamous interview with Comedy Central’s Adam Conover. On the one hand, I think Conover is a dink, kind of the Platonic ideal of the sneering, superior liberal; his episode on IQ tests was an absolute clinic in someone speaking in total ignorance and with total confidence. So the JRE interview is enjoyable for me, personally. But it’s also clear, if you listen to the whole thing, that Rogan was on the offensive from the jump, and that he’s not listening to Conover with any of the friendliness for which he’s received so much praise. You might contrast Rogan’s tone towards Conover with that he uses towards Yeonmi Park, a refugee and dissident from North Korea. It’s a sympathetic story about a genuinely nightmarish regime, which is perhaps why so few have asked whether some of the more fantastical claims she makes should be seen as similar to those of Curveball. Why did Park receive the softball interview and Conover the grilling? It’s hard not to conclude that this is Rogan’s underlying political sympathies asserting themselves, the same sympathies that we are constantly told don’t dictate his willingness to listen. Some will object that Rogan was also hard on Steven Crowder, which is true. But the point is not that Rogan is hard on lefties exclusively. The point is that being selectively amenable to ideas that you’ll really listen to is not entirely different from being picky about the ideas you’ll allow yourself to hear.

It would offend many of Rogan’s fans to call him incurious, given that his curiosity is so widely acclaimed. But life has taught me that curiosity and incuriosity can live very comfortably together, that in fact often the former fuels the latter, as one’s voracious desire to learn everything new keeps them too busy to invite complications into what they already know.

There are of course other examples of reflexive anti-Marxism and generally witless reactionary takes on the Joe Rogan Experience, and other guests that he displayed preexisting distaste for. I find his irritation shows much more often than his reputation allows, especially if his priors are upset. Crowder, who is an absolute clown, received the rough treatment for questioning marijuana’s safety, while others advance tendentious and unjustified claims about an active pandemic and receive only sympathy. And this is the issue when your brand is equanimity and a willingness to listen to anyone: if you both have on many more guests associated with one side of the cultural divide than the other, and you are selectively harsh as an interviewer depending on your whims, it’s hard not to conclude that the openness is a pose designed to camouflage a specific political project. That doesn’t invalidate the things that are said there, nor imply we shouldn’t listen, but it does suggest that your show pushes in a particular political direction despite your denials, and might prompt you to ask whether you could rebalance your guest list to compensate. It also means that defenders of the show should probably spend less time fixating on their imperfect evaluation of their host’s neutrality and more time thinking about whether the podcast really serves no political master or if it merely serves a somewhat idiosyncratic one.

I’m not a regular listener but I have affection for Rogan’s podcast, and when I encounter it I frequently find his self-presentation refreshingly straightforward in a culture full of fakes. More importantly, I believe not only in the right to free expression but the civic duty of free expression, the ability to discuss any opinion that has some relevance to our society as a guarantor of that society’s best interest. I am glad the canceled have a place to go to reach a large audience. But you’d love to have other options, wouldn’t you? It would be great if there was such a commitment to freedom of ideas and the controversial that didn’t come wrapped with so much bro mysticism and weird sponsors. What if you had a wide-ranging podcast that was committed to exploring controversial ideas and which attracted a diverse guest list, but which shaded towards the radical left as much as Rogan shades towards the Intellectual Dark Web? I guess that’s Breaking Points, which has been remarkably successful in short order, but that’s also a show founded on a left-right balance. Like other podcasts offered as left-wing examples of the JRE style, Breaking Points also has the kind of built-in antagonism to establishment liberalism that bends the guest list in a particular direction. And that’s the basic problem, not just that someone like Rogan is unlikely to have a conventional liberal on but also that so many conventional liberals would self-select out of his guest pool. The walls are built by both sides.

A thousand flowers could bloom, if we weren’t laboring under such a ritualistically repressive media culture. Were there not such fear of dangerous ideas, we might have far more effective counterpoints to the downsides of Rogan’s influence, and indeed in such a world Rogan would have had a much harder time becoming what he is now. But there simply is no big-tent, open-minded, let’s-really-explore-ideas left-aligned platform operating at nearly the scale of the Joe Rogan Experience. The Pod Save America boys are not having people on to talk about Bigfoot, and worse, they’re not having on Candace Owens to discredit herself. As I will not stop saying, this absence of choice benefits the wallets of those who are conspicuously not woke. It’s the same basic point I’ve been making about Substack since day one: the platform would not be nearly as successful as it has been if liberals in media hadn’t shut dissenters out of all of their major outlets. If they really hated Substack, they’d lure big-name people on here back to their own platforms. But that would reintroduce the kind of diversity of opinion they’ve done so much to destroy for the past decade. Well, guess what? Contrary opinion is going to go somewhere. Establishment liberalism has sought to censor, to its eternal discredit, but this has not succeeded in squelching the ideas it hates but has merely pressed them into tighter spaces, where they grow in the damp warmth. The essential logic that those bad ideas can only be defeated by being countered is no less true today than it always has been. But who on the left today will drag them out of the dark long enough to kill them?

I will no doubt be accused of writing this piece as some sort of career swerve or rebranding; Rogan is a big enough deal that all takes about him are seen as existential. Like I said, culture war sucks; it compels us to invest things with a certain kind of social meaning, to view everything through the lens of what team we sort others into. It’s unpleasant, to always worry you’ll fall unintentionally over the dividing line of our era and wind up on the wrong side of where you want to be. The spaces without that constant fear of sitting at the wrong table feel refreshing, and the Joe Rogan Experience is such a space. But its host’s indifference to the culture war has made him one of the most powerful figures within it. I suspect he’d like it better if that were not the case; all of the tension surrounding him seems like a drag. And I, too, would like to not care about Rogan and his show, not out of any real antipathy towards them but rather simply because I’m not a podcasts guy in general and because his podcast specifically is not my thing. But as it stands I have some weird ambient attachment to them, if only because the cultural hegemony of upwardly-mobile SLAC grads sometimes seems so suffocating. I’d like to wash my hands of both the priests and their heretic, if you please, neither NPR nor the Intellectual Dark Web.

Perhaps in a smarter and more adult world, one where we do not build identity out of what we aren’t, Joe Rogan could be what he so clearly wants to be - just a guy, ambling cheerfully through life, talking to cool people and smoking some good weed, not meaning to hurt anybody but just asking questions, serving his curiosity as he sees fit even if he steps on somebody’s toes, never meaning no harm, good-natured, clumsy, a little callous, a little loud. There used to be space for people to just be things, in an organic way, without being symbols of everything other people despise. But then they invented the internet, and we’ve been living in hell ever since.

1

As with most big-picture questions in Marxism, you can learn best about what the philosophy does and does not hope to achieve by reading Critique of the Gotha Program.