Neil Young, Spotify, Joe Rogan, And “Censorship”

Neil Young made headlines recently by calling on Spotify, a music streaming service, to remove his music so long as Spotify offers the podcasts of Joe Rogan, a commentator who Young accused of spreading misinformation about COVID vaccines. Young’s music was then removed from Spotify, and a number of other artists have followed his lead and removed their music–all of which caused Spotify’s stock to take a hit and prompted Rogan, whose podcast has such a large following that he has a large contract with Spotify, to offer what has been called a “quasi-apology” in hopes of bringing the controversy to a close.

The varying responses to the Young-Rogan-Spotify dust-up have been interesting. Some have applauded Neil Young for taking a principled stand, whereas others, like Jon Stewart, have suggested that Young’s approach is akin to supporting censorship. Stewart is quoted as saying: “Don’t censor. Engage.” I suspect that Stewart’s position is based on a broader concern about efforts to prevent people from ever expressing unpopular views or forcing people to adopt only one viewpoint because some people find the opposing position too upsetting–efforts that are contrary to America’s traditional tolerance of a wide spectrum of opinions and that prevent the give-and-take that our political and social system is built on.

I’m a big proponent of free speech, and I get Stewart’s broader point, but I don’t think Neil Young’s position constitutes censorship. In fact, I think the opposite is true: what Neil Young did constituted speech in its own right. Young took an action that sent an unmistakable message about his views on what Joe Rogan was saying about COVID vaccination. Neil Young had as much right to clearly express his views as Joe Rogan has to express his in the first place. A boycott has long been recognized as a form of protest, and protests have long been recognized as speech. And there is a big difference, under the Constitution and in the law, between a private actor like Young making a decision about where his music is played, for example, and governmental bodies or public institutions acting to quash dissent or silence contrary views.

To be sure, Neil Young could have simply written a public letter objecting to what Rogan was saying, but it’s pretty obvious that it would not have had anywhere close to the impact that his public stance and boycott has produced. Young gets to choose his form of speech, and I’d say his chosen approach has expressed his position very powerfully and effectively. And his position has produced results: Spotify has now announced that it will add content advisories to podcasts that discuss COVID issues, and Rogan has been made aware that his positions are on the radar screen for many people who might not have been aware of them otherwise. That’s not censorship or anti-free speech activity–instead, that’s just being held accountable for your opinions and statements.

One important point in all of this is that both Neil Young and Joe Rogan continue to have forums where they can express their views on the issues of the day

Blazing Saddles In A PC America

Tonight the CAPA summer movie series screens the Mel Brooks epic Blazing Saddles.  I’ll be joining a group of guys from the firm who will be going to watch the film that features the greatest fart scene in the history of American cinema.

blazesaddle129It’s pretty amazing that CAPA is showing the movie in this day and age, because Blazing Saddles has to be one of the most politically incorrect films ever made.  Released in 1974, and written by Brooks and Richard Pryor, among others, it tells the tale of an ex-slave in the post-Civil War American West who is appointed sheriff and, with his drunken gunslinger sidekick the Waco Kid, works to save the aghast and unappreciative townsfolk of Rock Ridge from the depredations of a carefully recruited gang of thugs — all as part of a deep scheme to drive the people out of town and allow a corrupt politician to cheaply buy land needed for a railroad.  Along the way, Blazing Saddles manages to skewer every racial and sexual stereotype, insult just about every ethnic group and sexual orientation imaginable, and hilariously spoof all of the hackneyed elements of the western movie genre.

I think Blazing Saddles is one of the funniest movies ever — which undoubtedly says something about my sophomoric sense of humor — but it’s hard to imagine it being made today.  Our modern time seems like a more brittle, more easily offended America, where colleges have speech codes, comedians are being censored on campus, and people often seem to be actively looking for ways to scale new heights of political correctness.  Perhaps the America of 1974, in the twilight of the ugly Vietnam War/Watergate era, was just more willing to enjoy a hearty laugh at the expense of racist townspeople and gassy cowboys.

So tonight, as Lili von Shtupp cavorts onstage with dancing Germans, Mongo punches a horse and later expresses feelings for Sheriff Bart, the ungrateful people of Rock Ridge list their preferences for different ethnic groups, and a brawl in cowboy movie spills onto the sound stage of a musical featuring prancing, tuxedo-clad dancers, I’ll be mindful of the audience, too.  How many of the people in attendance will laugh at one of the stereotype-bursting lines — and then look around with a guilty conscience for having breached the invisible wall of modern political correctness?

Censorship And Safety

Who is responsible for pulling the film The Interview from its planned Christmas Day release in the face of threats from terrorist hackers?  Was Sony craven, as many have suggested, or was it the theater chain owners who triggered the decision to pull The Interview because of liability concerns, as Sony responds?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know this:  Totally removing a movie, or any other form of expression, from widespread public distribution because of threats is censorship and sets a terrible precedent.  Does anyone really dispute the conclusion that somewhere in Pyongyang or some other rathole the terrorist hackers are high-fiving over their success in this instance, and that terrorist groups elsewhere haven’t taken note of the new weapon that has now been added their arsenal?  What movie, book, play, or TV show is going to be the next target of this technique?

The Interview isn’t the kind of movie I would ever go to a theater to see, but that’s obviously not the point.  The next time it might be  controversial biography I’ve been eagerly anticipating, or the next installment of the Game of Thrones series because the terrorists disagree with how religion is depicted by George R. R. Martin. Regardless of the subject, a free society cannot tolerate a world in which terrorists dictate who gets to see, read, or consider what.

One other point: if I were an author, actor, or historian, I would be thinking long and hard about who brings my work to market and whether they have the courage to do it in the face of threats.  I don’t think I’d want to entrust my creative work product to a company, or a theater chain, that crumbled and caved in the face of threats.  Are actors, directors, and producers going to shy away from Sony projects?