“All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine.”
— Jeff Spicoli (Cameron Crowe)
— Fast Times at Ridgemont High
“Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow.”
— Steve Jobs
Joe Rogan began his public life as a second tier character on a sitcom called News Radio. The sitcom, famous for having Phil Hartman in the cast, was relatively successful but came and went and Rogan morphed into the host of a shock show called Fear Factor. After that he became something of a martial arts expert, with stints on the professional circuit, though we don’t know that with any certainty nor do we really care one way or another.
Sometime after that Rogan began a podcast. This was back when podcasts were rare and their potential was little understood.
Rogan’s podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience is, if Sam Seder of Majority Report is to be believed, either the most watched podcast in the country or close to the most watched. Either way, Rogan has a large audience.
The format is fairly low tech without any annoying or distracting bells and whistles. It is essentially Rogan and a guest or two and some off camera staff discussing things. The guests range from the currently ubiquitous Jordan Peterson, to famous comics like Bill Burr, to Neil deGrasse Tyson to assorted writers and people Rogan finds interesting.
The style of discussion is a reflection of Rogan’s personality and what comes across is that he is being genuine – there is seemingly nothing prefabricated or drenched in the designs of PR or stylists. What you see is what you get and that is part of Rogan’s success. He is being honest, which is a rare commodity.
But what you are getting is a fairly standard type common to large swaths of California, Oregon, Colorado, Austin and a few other pockets of what we might call weed culture. These are places where weed has been ubiquitous since before legalization. It is the tangential, sometimes well-informed and sometimes moronic musings of a committed pothead.
We hasten to add that we don’t mean pothead as a criticism. After all Thomas Jefferson used opium and he turned out alright, and plenty of other successful people like Carl Sagan and Louis Armstrong swore by marijuana.
But what is more important is that Rogan is also typical of a certain type of discourse summed up by a line from an episode of Seinfeld which we paraphrase: Kramer, trying to convince Elaine that he can fix her inflamed, tortured neck cramp, performs a sudden twist which seemingly relieves her pain. It’s a technique he says, he learned from a wise man – who sells hats at the Port Authority.
Of course, per Allen Ginsberg, or Walt Whitman, there is no rule that says a wise man cannot sell hats at the Port Authority. But let’s not quibble.
Rogan’s earnest and gentle sentimentality, his child-like wonder at the variety of the world is often a pleasure to watch. But like any club of potheads, or autodidacts without a background in close textual analysis, logic, rhetoric, or much of anything, things often go off the rails and quickly transform into nonsense – even when the discussion is ostensibly about nonsense.The result follows a pattern that goes something like this: Rogan: Wow The Rock is massive you know who’s huge the guy who plays The Mountain on Game of Thrones hey Jamie pull up The Rock such a nice guy that’s warrior stock ya know before guns see that’s the thing about genetics ya’know who’s the guy who knows about genetics what’s that guy’s name what’s that wow that’s The Mountain but genetics is amazing my friend Larry he’s brilliant improve guy I love that guy you know him what’s that wow That’s The Mountain man that show’s great.
Rogan’s politics such as they are, seem to move from kind hearted pragmatism to libraterrian to the reactionary neo-fascism of hacks like Peterson. Which, it is important to say definitively, is not because Rogan is in any way a fascist. He clearly is not right wing let alone an extremist, but he tends to offer little to no pushback against Peterson or people like him. And when he does it is a soft rebuke. For example consider that on the one hand he criticizes Alex Jones but on the other says he loves the guy.
That’s Bro Code. It couches the criticism in a preemptive declaration of solidarity in order to prevent a counterattack. But it also prevents Rogan from having to take a stand on one side or the other and allows Jones or Peterson, to go on spewing fascist and violent rhetoric unchallenged or challenged in any meaningful way.
The closest Rogan has come to a definitive statement was when he condemned Trump’s family separation terror campaign by saying that if you agree with it, you’re not part of the team and no one wants you on the team.
Again, Bro Code but while effective in the immediate moment, precisely because it’s Bro Code, it has little to no staying power.
The result is that the Joe Rogan Experience, with no discernable knowledge of complex issues, conveys a sense of legitimacy to Peterson and Jones and people like them. And of course we add that Peterson is not wrong when he points out that the standard issue SJW is fairly annoying if not absolutely some type of left wing fascist. But when it comes from Peterson it’s like listening to Jeffrey Dahmer recommend a cookbook. And Rogan gives this crank a platform that then conveys authority.
At the other end of that spectrum Rogan did confound Peterson and succeeding in gently pushing the Mad Hatter of Toronto into a logical cul de sac, in which Peterson ended up coming within a heartbeat of admitting that his anti-Marxist ideas, were in fact decidedly Marxist. This same type of public service was repeated when Rogan took apart the insipid aristocratic libertarian bullshit of Dave Rubin.
Rubin was trying to make the case that the government was useless, and that for example no one needed or benefitted from building codes, to which Rogan politely said – you’re a fucking idiot. Of course we need the government and city bureaucracies to enforce building codes, which is how you avoid people burning to death in unsafe apartments and office buildings, or avoid them collapsing and crushing people to death.
In that sense Rogan has an advantage over The Majority Report or The Young Turks. His lack of a “left wing” point of view, or any overt political consciousness gives him a certain street cred that others cannot manufacture or claim.
His defense of a gentle and kind hearted immigration policy was both refreshing and effective, in placing Trump in the political box labeled: sadistic mother fucker. But the criticism is etched in wet sand. Inevitably the tide rolls in and the criticism vanishes.
As an example consider how Rogan took internet ogre Alex Jones to task for being an alarmist and a freak in the Reichstag Fire style, devoid of a conscience, for his claims that Sandy Hook was staged. Rogan in the patois of the talk show host committed to offending no one, least of all advertisers, said he loved Jones but he was wrong. He repeated that several times. It is the code of the Bro; the stoner, surfer, philosopher who takes shrooms regularly and surprises you with his rude wit and his occasional bursts of wisdom. And then surprises and irritates you with his crude absence of depth.
But it works in a certain sense because when The Young Turks, or for that matter Colbert, mock Jones they are preaching to the choir. Which is not to say they are wrong but it is to say yes, but what does it accomplish? On the other hand there’s nothing wrong with listening to music you enjoy with lyrics you can quote from memory. Except, the stereo is shooting off sparks and smoke is pouring from your headphones.
The deeper and more pressing problem is that Jones is making public threats, and takes no responsibility for his audience, who have used his rhetoric as an excuse to stalk and threaten people including specifically, parents who lost children at Sandy Hook. This is an updated version of the standard behavior of the Brownshirts in Germany or Mussolini’s thugs in Italy. The chief denounces the system, insists without evidence that everything except what they’re telling you is a lie, and speaks in terms that are clearly incendiary and violent.
One must ask then, what exactly it is about Jones that Rogan loves?
On the one hand, Rogan is more likely to bring converts into the tent though on the other, it is at a price. That same lack of intellectual rigor, the absence of a committed political stance, can produce converts and just as easily produce antagonistic foot soldiers who adhere to the resurgent right or the vast limp indifferent middle.
In that sense The Joe Rogan Experience is the experience of our times.
Peterson’s appeal rests in part on the complete absence of intellectual rigor disguised as a profound commitment to intellectual rigor. It is the intellectualism of the swamp or the playground bully who is the smartest among the pinheads.
Forms of argument, forms of logic, forms of research, the strictures of academic debate, the commitment to the uses and preservation of knowledge, are subject to abuse and distortion by a culture and technology that thrives on speed at the expense of the slow pace that wisdom requires. And while the technology and the format of the podcast – available whenever you want it – allows for a positive disruption of the corporate hierarchy, which seeks to define and dominate the narrative, it also feeds into a negative cementing of a systemic null state in which knowledge is debased, and the idea of expertise is eliminated by a steady progression of false authorities, who claim authority because they have appeared on the podcast. This is a modified version of the spectacle as described by Debord as being dominated by the corporate aesthetic of, if it appears, it is good and, because it has appeared, it must be good. Thus, the tautology of the podcast.
We are reminded of the Samizdat movement. Samizdat was the reproduction and dissemination of banned works, usually novels, written by artists labeled as dissident or subversive by the Soviet dictatorship. The arrival of the photocopy machine and the reliance on the already by then, increasingly out of step typewriter, allowed an underground network to share a contrary narrative. That combination of alternative voices and technology spurred the collapse of the regime. The unintended blowback was of course the Thermidorian reaction that brought Putin Incorporated to power.
Trump will inevitably lead to a moment of decision. Either he will triumph and establish a blunt dictatorship that replaces the current soft dictatorship, or he will be defeated.
If you listen closely, the not so quiet underground is talking.
It is both the mirror and the reflection.