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It Just Makes No Sense 9 min read

It Just Makes No Sense

Musings on Jan. 6 "discourse," Spotify's Joe Rogan problem, humanity in art and everyday life, and much more.

By Cary Littlejohn
It Just Makes No Sense Post image

Recent news has been a series of head-scratching incidents where up is down and nothing seems to make sense anymore.

More than a year after a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the Republican National Convention chose to formally censure Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for their participation on the congressional committee that’s seeking to investigate the assault on the Capitol.

In the RNC’s statement, it accused the two Republican House members of  “participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.”

After this news was announced, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel had the unenviable task of walking back the statement so that the GOP doesn’t look like a party completely off the rails. Her attempts didn’t work; the party still looks off the rails.

Those words — “legitimate political discourse” — have not stopped rattling around in my head. It is a staggering display of the decline of a once-great American political party. It brought back memories of watching the news capture the rioting at the Capitol more than a year ago, and more than that, the general feeling of profound disappointment and hopelessness that filled the weeks afterward. That the RNC not only wants to downplay the events of that day but now elevate it to the status of legitimate political discourse is just depressing. It shouldn’t be this way, and it is crazy-making that any sane person should have to say that in 2022.

The same can be said for all of the nonsense happening at Spotify over now numerous controversies involving podcaster Joe Rogan. It’s not surprise to anyone who’s aware of Rogan’s brand of podcasting: He’s an incredibly charming and affable host, and he’s not interested in pushing or challenging his guests. He is interested in bringing on voices considered to be outside the mainstream. Who knows how much of this is because it drives clicks and makes for lots of conversation after an episode publishes, or whether it’s because these guests speak to Rogan’s own worldview, like your crazy uncle full of weird takes but with a massive, MASSIVE platform.

The drama kicked off when Neil Young made an ultimatum for the streaming company: You can have Neil Young’s music or Joe Rogan’s podcast, but you can’t have both. Unsurprisingly, Spotify sided with its podcaster, which it paid more than $100 million to secure the sole distribution rights. Spotify responded by clarifying its rules about COVID-19 misinformation on its platform, saying that there would be an advisory notice if misinformation appeared in an episode while also stating that it had removed some 20,000 podcast episodes elsewhere on its platform for COVID-19 misinformation.

Therein lies the controversy and the nonsensical nature of Spotify’s response. It seeks to be categorized as a platform, not a publisher. “We just provide the space; we’re not responsible for what is said on these podcasts.” But in the cleaning up of the Rogan/Young mess, Spotify damages its own argument by giving out more information than was asked for in the moment. You removed 20,000 episodes? Oh, wow. That’s great. Were any of them from this ridiculously popular podcaster that you sought out and purchased? Probably not.

But there it is, moderating its content, like a publisher would be expected to do. It wasn’t throwing up its hands with respect to the makers of those other 20,000 podcasts; Spotify didn’t mind regulating that content. Why should it? It didn’t own those episodes.

Don’t worry though, folks; Spotify is going to put out an advisory notice when Joe Rogan crosses that line. It’s not a matter of whether they can find and identify the misinformation; the advisory will be evidence of the fact that it could. But it won’t flex the same muscles it did with lesser-known podcasters.

Of course Spotify is a publisher; if not in the general sense of all content published there, certainly in the specific sense of Joe Rogan. They paid for this man’s show in the middle of the pandemic, after he’d already put out tons of misinformation about COVID-19. They knew exactly what they were buying, and it’s a minor statement to say it should be considered responsible for it.

Again, it’s crazy-making that any sane person should have to say that in 2022.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. In more head-scratching news, Whoopi Goldberg was suspended from ABC’s The View after she made the comment that the Holocaust wasn’t rooted in racism. It’s not so much head-scratching to me that Goldberg would say such a thing as it is that the reaction from so many online thought she ought to be fired for it. To be clear, I was surprised to hear that she didn’t think of the Holocaust as rooted in racism, but I then listened to her explanation of what she was saying and it made sense. As a Black woman, racism means something very different to her than it does to me, as a daily reality. Her conception of racism was limited to what is easily seen on the surface, such as the often easily distinguishable difference between a white person and a Black person. As Adam Serwer wrote in The Atlantic: “I don’t mean to pile on Goldberg here, who I think is struggling with an American conception of “race” that renders the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust illegible. I regard her remarks not as malicious, but as an ignorant projection of that American conception onto circumstances to which it does not apply.” His piece is an interesting encapsulation of just how and why Goldberg’s statements were so wrong and misguided. But to call that ignorance “anti-semitism,” as if spouted with ill will toward a group of people, seems a bridge too far. She enjoys a large audience, and her words matter. She responded thoughtfully and provided an instance for a lot of people to be educated on an important topic. Her suspension seems counterproductive to the notion of learning from a mistake and to educating those around us.

  2. Some part of the decision to suspend Goldberg seemed like it was the product of some algorithm’s process on what the optimal response would be. I’m sure that’s from the reality of it, and perhaps someone(s) struggled mightily over what was "right” decision and simply did the best they could. But, for the reasons laid out above, it felt like a decision that was less than human. It’s long been said that to err is human. That’s what she did. We've further decided that after erring, a person should take steps to make it right. Again, she did that. But the decision to suspend her feels cold and calculated. None of that has anything to do with Chris Jones’s book, The Eye Test, save for the fact that he’s advocating for the value of human judgment and insight. The former Esquire writer talked with MEL magazine about his book and his new lease on life. He’s long been one of my favorite voices in journalism, and now he’s one of Twitter’s most beloved funnymen, always quick with a self-deprecating story or reminder to be kind. The book is talking about the value of all the things that make us human in the context of creative ventures. I think he’s right, and I think his thesis could extend further than just the creative process.

  3. Not losing sight of humanity in its various forms. That’s a theme of Jones’s book, and as evidenced through my ragged attempt to graft that theme onto another story I found interesting, it can cover a great many topics. For another flash of it, read this New York Times Q&A with Pearl Jam frontman, Eddie Vedder. In the middle of the questioning, the interviewer asks about the lyrics to a song on a solo album to be released this week. He asks if the lyrics are about dealing with a friend’s suicide. Instead of a pat answer, the interview takes an interesting turn. The interviewer said he’d lost a friend to suicide, and that was why he interpreted the lyrics in that way. In a moment of humanity, rarely seen printed in an interview, Vedder flips the roles with a simple question: “Can I ask you about that?”

  4. Back to Goldberg’s misguided comments, she said that instead of the Holocaust being about race it was about “man’s inhumanity to man.” Rolling Stone recently published a report from the frontlines of that inhumanity. A decorated undercover FBI agent who’d infiltrated groups like the Nazis and the KKK recently retired, and he had concerning words of warning about the ongoing plans of far-right extremists in this country.

  5. To be the only sane person at a rally of Nazis or Klan members has to be a lonely experience. And frightening. Another lonely and frightening place to be is attempting to scale Mt. Everest in the winter. With no supplemental oxygen. That’s what Jost Kobusch is attempting to do: solo Mt. Everest in the winter without oxygen. This New York Times story details his ongoing effort. Come for the crazy details about the expedition, but stay for the breathtaking photography.

  6. I've written about my fondness for the game Wordle before. The game, the brainchild of Matt Wardle, is now a property of the New York Times, which it reportedly purchased from Wardle for a seven-figure sum. The obsession with the game got the good folks at Longreads to thinking about pieces of journalism centered on similar games, from sudoku to crosswords and more. It’s a great list of interesting stories that go so much deeper than just fact that people play these games.

  7. Last month, The New Yorker published a piece by one of its elder statesmen, John McPhee. It’s a beautifully all-over-the-place kind of piece, which is exactly the point. It’s a collection of anecdotes about stories that never were, the things he didn’t write, the ones that got away. They are the kinds of stories that any reporter could conjure, but these in particular are of the scope and grandeur that only John McPhee, writing on behalf of The New Yorker, could muster.

  8. Later this week, I’ll be participating in a virtual book event for Chuck Klosterman’s new book, called The Nineties. To say I’m excited about this one would be an understatement.  In The New Yorker's review of the book, the author said: “Like Klosterman’s other nonfiction books, ‘The Nineties’ is arranged in fleeting episodes: ruminations about ‘Titanic,’ David Koresh, ‘American Beauty,’ Ross Perot, Nirvana. The transitions are thin, sometimes nonexistent. The effect is like watching TV with an opinionated but impatient connoisseur of everything that’s on—hopscotching, riffing, channel-flipping. This may be part of the point. The prime mover of the nineties, to Klosterman’s mind, was a machine: in an era when the interactivity of Internet culture remained fledgling, TV was, he says, ‘the way to understand everything, ruling from a position of one-way control.’”

  9. In the meantime, I'll be reading The Method: How The Twentieth Century Learned to Act, by Isaac Butler. The newly released book is all about how method acting became such a dominant force in America’s actors’ repertoires. Here’s an excerpt from the book published on Slate.

  10. I recently went to my local theater because it was the first night of Nightmare Alley, which the theater seemed, begrudgingly, resigned to letting the film play for a week. (I was annoyed that within two days of doing so, the film was available on not one but two of the streaming services I have.) It was a big movie with bigger movie stars, but the reception to it had been somewhat lukewarm. But you know who loved it? Martin Scorcese. And dear old Marty is a great writer of essays where he discusses film (like that time he wrote about the non-art status of Marvel films and essentially broke Twitter to this day), and he really, really thinks you should go see this film in the theater if you can manage. I happen to agree.

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been watching in the past week.

Remember: The legend for my list was stolen from Mr. Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, and Sentence Case is a TV show. A number in parentheses after a TV shows highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

1/31:Gilmore Girls (1) (Netflix); LOUDER THAN BOMBS (Criterion Channel); MARNIE (Criterion Channel)
2/1: Gilmore Girls (3) (Netflix); Mayor of Kingstown (3) (Paramount+)
2/2: The Book of Boba Fett (Disney+); Abbott Elementary (Hulu); Gilmore Girls (Netflix)
2/3: Gilmore Girls (4) (Netflix); RIFIFI (Criterion Collection); GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (Showtime)
2/4:Gilmore Girls (Netflix)
2/5: TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (Netflix); THE TOWN (Netflix); RED ROCKET (A24 Screening Room)
2/6: Mayor of Kingstown (5) (Paramount+)

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