The problem with Joe Rogan…and white boys

OPINION: A group of researchers, doctors and medical experts expressed concerns about the Spotify podcaster’s willingness to spread COVID misinformation. But no one cared when people raised those red flags about Rogan’s willingness to spread white supremacy. 

If you’re reading this piece (and you are reading it, I can tell), you should understand what this piece will not be.

You are not about to read about how Joe Rogan is racist. You aren’t going to read how Rogan isn’t funny or even deserving of being considered the most influential podcaster of all time. However, I cannot, in good conscience, declare that I am unbiased when it comes to Spotify’s $100 million white man because of one fact:

I like Joe Rogan.

Perhaps “like” is too austere a word. I’ve paid to see him perform live. I have listened to hundreds of episodes of The Joe Rogan Experience and that number may well reach four digits if you include podcasters in the Rogan comedy universe such as Ari Shaffir, Tom Segura and Joey Diaz. I’ve heard Rogan speak about growing up in liberal San Francisco, living in Florida and spending his teenage years near Boston, which seems to have created a diverse set of interests, from mixed martial arts to Egyptology to dick jokes. My unvarnished opinion of Rogan is that he seems to be extremely interested in things and not just on a facile level. To be fair, I haven’t really listened to his podcast since he became exclusive to Spotify. 

Still, there is no question that he created the most powerful platform in podcasting and may very well be the most powerful person in all of media. His estimated audience nearly triples Tucker Carlson’s, dwarfs all three networks’ late-night talk shows combined and, when Rogan’s YouTube views are included, his audience rivals The Oprah Winfrey Show at the height of its popularity. Plus, Rogan has cultivated a legion of young, mostly white, mostly male fans who have exalted him to a level that ranks somewhere between a guru and a renaissance man. 

Rogan’s status as a counterculture icon of libertarian white boys who wear Ed Hardy shirts to jujitsu practice is why last week a “coalition of scientists, medical professionals, professors, and science communicators spanning a wide range of fields such as microbiology, immunology, epidemiology, and neuroscience” wrote an open letter to Spotify about Rogan’s “concerning history of broadcasting misinformation, particularly regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.” The letter didn’t ask Spotify to censor or ban Rogan. Instead, they wanted to express their concern over Spotify’s “failure to mitigate the damage it is causing.”

But even before he became the official COVID consultant to NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers and other prominent celebrities who weren’t worried about the coronavirus until they tested positive for the coronavirus, Rogan wasn’t shy about sharing his belief that young, healthy people like himself didn’t have anything to worry about when it came to COVID. Even though most people aren’t as healthy as Rogan, according to the data, he was statistically correct. More than 80 percent of the people who died from COVID were over 65, and many more had comorbidities. Then again, only 10 to 20 percent of smokers get lung cancer and most people survive gunshot wounds to the chest. But there’s a reason Rogan is so fearless about saying what doctors around the world will never tell you:

Joe Rogan is not a doctor.

In fact, Rogan has the same medical expertise as a monkey or a man who makes a living describing face kicks. Because Rogan’s job is to say things and a doctor’s primary role is to make sure each one of their patients doesn’t die, very few physicians would advise their patients to puff Newports while taking a slug to the torso. That’s why we rarely hear actual doctors say: “In my medical opinion, you’ll prolly be aight.”

Then Rogan got the ‘rona.

After he apparently cured himself with ivermectin, monoclonal antibodies and advanced medical care not available to people who don’t have the resources to move halfway across the country when they want “a little bit more freedom,” the comedian and UFC commentator would never be the same. He ranted about how ivermectin was not horse paste, blasted CNN and responded to public criticism by inviting COVID quacks on his show, most notably with Dr. Robert Malone, a scientist who has been banned from Twitter for spreading debunked medical misinformation during a global pandemic. During the Dec. 31 episode of Rogan’s show, Malone attributed the public’s acceptance of the world medical community’s consensus opinion to the debunked theory of “mass formation hypnosis.” Two weeks later, Rogan’s audience watched him chuck his usual evidence-based open-mindedness into the wind when his argument that the vaccine was worse than COVID was upended by peer-reviewed research in real time. Even as he read the words written by people who know stuff, Rogan could not accept the objective facts, much to the lament of some of his actual fans who clearly saw the cognitive dissonance. 

For almost any other podcaster in America, this pattern of white wackadoodle doo would be laughable, but COVID broke Rogan. Part of his thing was that he was always open-minded, unbiased and would often verify the most innocuous fact. I’ve heard him dismantle the argument that the moon landing was fake, that vegans are healthier and that monkeys eating psychedelic mushrooms are what made the human brain evolve (Luckily, another Rogan guest explained that mushrooms clearly came from aliens). 

“By allowing the propagation of false and societally harmful assertions, Spotify is enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals,” read the letter. “Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Rogan has repeatedly spread misleading and false claims on his podcast, provoking distrust in science and medicine. He has discouraged vaccination in young people and children, incorrectly claimed that mRNA vaccines are “gene therapy,” promoted off-label use of ivermectin to treat COVID-19 (contrary to FDA warnings), and spread a number of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.

“Mass-misinformation events of this scale have extraordinarily dangerous ramifications,” the letter continued. “This is not only a scientific or medical concern; it is a sociological issue of devastating proportions and Spotify is responsible for allowing this activity to thrive on its platform.”

When the physicians noted how they “bear the arduous weight of a pandemic that has stretched our medical systems to their limits,” in the letter, I knew exactly how they felt. When the researchers spelled out how they “face backlash and resistance,” a lot of Black people knew exactly how the experts felt because many of us have pointed out this problem for years. 

I do not believe Joe Rogan is a white supremacist. 

However, along with an interest in psychedelic drugs, recreational choking and chimpanzees, Rogan has always held a fascination with white supremacists. Long before a makeshift militia was indicted for attempting a coup on the American legislature, Rogan hosted a sit-down with Gavin McInnes, founder of a then-unknown group called the Proud Boys. He has welcomed people who dabble around the periphery of the alt-right, such as Peter Boghossian, who was one of the founders of the “grievance studies” hoax that evolved into the demonization of critical race theory. Right-wing troll Chuck C. Johnson has made it to the JRE along with Jordan Peterson who The Guardian notes, “attracts a heterogeneous audience that includes Christian conservatives, atheist libertarians, centrist pundits and neo-Nazis.” Rogan has also entertained the musings of far-right provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos and Stefan Molyneux, two of the handful of JRE guests who promote the long-debunked “race science” belief that people of African descent have lower IQs. 

In all fairness, most episodes of The Joe Rogan Experience are not a three-hour discourse on the intellectual and social inferiority of people who don’t listen to Joe Rogan. Rogan sometimes openly disagrees with his guests and often pushes back against many of their ideologies. He believes that thoughts shouldn’t be censored, which is a valid point. But Rogan isn’t having a conversation with these guests in his living room over a joint and a cup of Bulletproof coffee; he’s asking them to speak into a microphone and talk, unfiltered, to tens of millions of people, many of whom are probably dumber than Rogan. And, while I don’t consider Rogan to be especially intelligent, he is probably more open-minded, more progressive and more informed than many of his listeners. Yet, his congenial, constantly curious personality sometimes makes it seem as if he agrees with what his guests are saying. 

Moreover, in many cases, Rogan is just not intellectually equipped to challenge many of his guests’ ideas—especially ones that have formed debunked ideas based on faulty research, personal prejudice and anecdotal evidence. For instance, before he migrated to Spotify, Rogan was obsessed with the lawsuit accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian Americans. He repeatedly asserted that, by denying students who tested higher on standardized tests, the Ivy League institution’s admissions policy was “racist,” which was a good point…

Commentator Joe Rogan during the UFC 209 event at T-Mobile Arena on March 4, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

But Rogan never mentioned the fact that research shows “wealthy students enjoy significant advantages throughout the college application process, and that income greatly impacts a student’s performance on standardized tests.” Rogan probably didn’t know that Asian Americans have the highest income in America. He didn’t acknowledge that most Black students attend underfunded, high-poverty schools that don’t have the same academic resources and curriculums.  He didn’t consider the fact that standardized tests don’t accurately measure college success. He never spoke about the right of private institutions to curate a diverse academic environment because it more accurately reflects the real world. He never even quantified what he meant by “best students.” Rogan never even mentioned that the people who overcome disparities might be better students than those who graduate from the best schools, have the best test preparation money can afford and have been guided by people who know how to get into Ivy League schools. More importantly, he never considered that these disparities prove that white supremacy exists. However, there is a good reason for this:

Joe Rogan didn’t know what he was talking about. 

He was just saying things. Into a microphone. To millions of people. Because he can. Because that’s what white boys get to do. As with COVID, Rogan and his minion of bearded free-thinkers who used-to-be-libertarian will never be substantially affected by the deadly virus of white supremacy. It is disingenuous at best and outright stupid at worst for someone as famous as Rogan to pretend that he is allowing his listeners to explore ideas without acknowledging the actions these positions can inspire and the harm these racist concepts cause in real life. Although Rogan may feel like the prototypical everyman, his guests know that millions of people are listening. Even if 1 percent of Rogan’s listeners are radicalized by a JRE guest, it means hundreds of thousands of people have been converted to a baseless philosophy thanks to Rogan’s pulpit.

It might be interesting for him to sit down with author Abigail Shrier to discuss The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters because Rogan or his children probably won’t be murdered by a transphobic bigot. It’s probably interesting to debate if white people are genetically more intelligent than sub-Saharan Africans because he doesn’t have to wonder if his kid’s teacher or his cousin’s employer saw that Rogan clip and reached a different conclusion. Far too many times, white boys will say something idiotic or harmful and wipe away the prospect of being held accountable by saying: “I’m just asking questions!” It’s a neat trick, really. It’s as if the entire universe is an Etch A Sketch for white boys to shake and erase the consequences of their actions. What could possibly be wrong with asking questions?

White boys are free to poke, prod and play around with the poisonous snake of white supremacy because they are born with natural immunity to its venom. They can publicly ruminate about how disenfranchised people should combat voter suppression with “personal responsibility.” They can sit on a Supreme Court and decide what women should do with their vaginas because they will never be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to full term. They can explain why Black people should just comply with police officers instead of running away because they have never been paralyzed by the fear of living in a country where they are hunted by people armed with guns and the authority of a legal system. 

Perhaps the greatest example of this is Rogan’s fascination with tossing around the n-word as if it were a lit firecracker and not a piece of dynamite. For Rogan, it is not a piece of dynamite. It does not conjure up the memories of his grandparents with nooses around their necks or the wealth stolen from everyone who will ever be in his family or the non-memories of cousins whose existences were snuffed out before they began. Watch him giggle while kicking the history of a people’s pain around as if it is a game of cornhole or a theoretical hackysack. 

And no, Joe Rogan is not a white supremacist.

Rogan is just a man who built a soapbox on which he allows white supremacists to stand. Of course, some people will claim that holding Rogan accountable for the stage he built is “cancel culture.” But do not weep, my child; if there’s anyone who can’t be canceled, it’s Joe Rogan and white boys like him. If all else fails, he’ll be forced to earn millions of dollars performing comedy around the country while hosting his podcast on his own, where his pre–Spotify audience was even larger. White boys will never lose their freedom to speak, even if they claim they are just asking questions and exposing ideas to the public. 

“Public opinion is a sort of atmosphere, fresh, keen and full of sunlight…and this sunlight kills many of those noxious germs,” wrote Supreme Court justice and free speech advocate Louis Brandeis. “Selfishness, injustice, cruelty, tricks and jobs of all sorts shun the light; to expose them is to defeat them.” Brandeis—a “militant crusader for social justice”—wrote volumes of fearless opinions on every social, political and economic issue—except for one. Whenever a case involved Black people, Brandeis would become curiously silent. In 23 years on the Supreme Court, he did not write a single opinion on the “race question.”

Louis Brandeis was not a white supremacist.

Just because he repeatedly voted in support of segregation, voted in favor of the Klan and helped elect a white supremacist president doesn’t mean Brandeis was wrong. Speech should be free, sunlight is the best disinfectant for toxic ideas and Joe Rogan is a bright and shining star. 

But Joe Rogan is not the sun.

Of course, I could be biased.

Remember, I like Joe Rogan.

Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in 2022.

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