Earlier this week, legendary Canadian-American musician Neil Young laid out an ultimatum to the streaming music service Spotify. “I want you to let Spotify know immediately TODAY that I want all my music off their platform,” he wrote in an open letter he posted on his website. “They can have [Joe] Rogan or Young. Not both.”
Young was furious at the “fake information about vaccines” on Rogan’s podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, which gets an average of 11 million listeners per episode, according to some estimates. In recent months, Rogan has interviewed various medical experts and scientists, some of whom have voiced skepticism about the Covid-19 vaccines.
Though Young quickly scrubbed the letter from his website, it appears that his ultimatum was serious. The streaming service has begun taking down the singer’s music.
In a way, the market worked here. Young decided that he couldn’t share Spotify with Rogan; Spotify stood by Rogan. Each party in the dispute chose his own path: Rogan got to keep his independence, while Young can avoid the discomfort of sharing a platform with someone whose views he finds abhorrent. The censors didn’t win.
If you doubt that “censor” is an appropriate word to describe those pressuring Spotify to dump Rogan, consider this: the platform is the world’s largest streaming service, with a whopping 31 percent market share in the second quarter of 2021. When a private corporation controls such a large portion of an information ecosystem, its content decisions are more than mere acts of moderation; it is laying out the boundaries of the discourse itself. That’s precisely why Young believed that Rogan’s views shouldn’t have a platform.
This brings us to perhaps the most surprising detail about this episode: since when did Young become the sort of person to advocate for shutting up his ideological opponents? The rock and folk artist made his name as a countercultural figure in the 1960s, raging against the cultural and political establishment, working with Crosby, Stills, & Nash to release “Ohio,” a powerful protest song released after the killing of student protesters at Kent State University in 1970. The song became an anthem for the anti-Vietnam War movement. Some mainstream AM radio stations, sensitive to lyrics referring to “soldiers gunning us down,” banned it, but underground radio helped make it a hit anyway. Young continued to be a mainstay of the counterculture in the decades to come. In 2006, he reunited with Crosby, Stills, & Nash to barnstorm the country singing anti-Iraq War and anti-George W. Bush songs. They called it the “Freedom of Speech Tour” and kicked it off in Philadelphia, birthplace of the Constitution.
Young’s transformation from countercultural champion of freedom of speech to corporate censorship advocate and defender of the public-health bureaucracy didn’t occur in a vacuum. Progressives have become increasingly censorious over the past few years. A majority of Democrats now believe that both private tech companies and the U.S. government should “take steps to restrict false info online.”
Many on the left were once militant in their support for free expression, believing that misinformed, even offensive, viewpoints were as worthy of airing as any other speech. When the Yale Political Union invited segregationist politician George Wallace to speak at the university, famed civil rights activist Pauli Murray (who was attending law school there) rose to defend freedom of speech.
“This controversy affects me in a dual sense, for I am both a lawyer committed to civil rights including civil liberties and a Negro who has suffered from the evils of racial segregation,” she wrote. But she could see no justification to deny Wallace the same freedoms she wanted for all people.
“The possibility of violence is not sufficient reason in law to prevent an individual from exercising his constitutional right,” she noted. “This has been the principle behind the enforcement of the rights of the Little Rock Nine, James Meredith and others to attend desegregated schools in the face of a hostile community and threats of violence. It must operate equally in the case of Governor Wallace.”
This viewpoint bears little resemblance to that of the activists of the modern Left, who are now quick to label expressions they disapprove of as “misinformation” or “hate speech” to justify censoring it.
Young’s crusade against scientific misinformation is also ironic because he has spread it himself. The musician has long been an opponent of the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food. His 2015 song “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop” tells us that “Yeah I want a cup of coffee but I don’t want a GMO / I like to start my day off without helping Monsanto.” When CBS host Stephen Colbert confronted Young with research showing that GMOs are fine for human consumption, the singer was dismissive. “That must be a Monsanto study!” Young told Colbert. “It didn’t notice the terrible diseases and all the things that are happening.” If simply being wrong about a scientific technology that is saving lives is justification enough for censoring someone, then shouldn’t Young himself be censored?
In reflecting on the censorious turn in American political culture, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a Pakistani friend when I was in graduate school. Unlike me—I was born and raised in the United States—he was Pakistani-born. Like me, he was a journalist. We discussed how people in Pakistan were calling for the government to shut down a popular television station that was airing poorly sourced anti-government stories. To my surprise, he supported shutting the station down, even though he had protested in the streets against the Musharaff dictatorship earlier in life. He told me that I was able to defend freedom of speech because I live in the United States, a stable country that can afford liberties, while Pakistan can’t.
Americans today face a choice of what kind of country we believe ourselves to be. Do we want to see ourselves as fragile and unable to enjoy a luxury like freedom of expression? Or do we have enough confidence in ourselves to stand by one of our foundational principles? We don’t have to follow Neil Young and others down their gloomy trail.
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