Flat White

We said nothing, and then they came for us

15 February 2022

4:00 AM

15 February 2022

4:00 AM

First they came for the freaks – Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones – and we did nothing because, you know, freaks.

Then they came for the US Senator Tom Cotton, and we did nothing because you know, Republicans.

Then they came for the President of the United States, and we did nothing because, ‘freak’ and Republican.

Now they’ve come for Joe Rogan, and maybe that matters more because he’s kind of the average Joe – neither freak nor Republican – but will we do anything?

Rogan may be a turning point, or he might be just an inflection on the long ride into darkness.

Sectarianism isn’t universal in societies, but its remnants are startlingly recent in our own.

My parents were state school kids, born in 1912 and 1922 in Brisbane and Townsville respectively. When they went to school it was customary for the State School (Protestant) and Catholic kids to hurl abuse and stones at each other. Everyone knew which department stores were owned by Protestants and which by Catholics, just as there were legal and accounting firms that exclusively hired on a sectarian basis. Many shopped for goods and legal and accounting advice accordingly. In the police force there were the Knights of Columbus on one side of the divide and the Masons on the other. And so on.

The worst thing that could happen to a Protestant family was their son or daughter marrying a Catholic because the church would swallow the kids as a condition of allowing the marriage and their whole lineage would be lost to the Pope.

When I was a child in the sixties and seventies, those rifts still existed. When, as a Protestant, I went to a Catholic school in 1969 it was more or less unprecedented. I have lawyer friends my age who joined firms hiring on the basis of denomination as well as results.

But it could have been worse. Between 1517 and 1712 (but mostly before 1648) there was a series of religious wars in Europe as a result of the Protestant Reformation. 1648 marked the Westphalian Peace, and 1712 the Toggenburg War. It’s the echoes of these wars that were still resounding in Australia in the mid-20th century. These wars also shaped the Constitution of the United State of America, particularly the First Amendment, as well as its system of checks and balances.

We thought we had put sectarianism behind us and then along comes Cancel Culture. It’s the same phenomenon, just substitute politics for religion and round we go again. Instead of Catholic versus Protestant it’s the Woke versus Awake.

Which brings us to the latest potential martyr in the Culture Wars – Joe Rogan. Rogan is a behemoth, not just physically imposing but a broadcasting giant. He’s gone from being a stand-up comic and colour reporter for UFC to the host of the Joe Rogan Experience with an audience for each of his podcasts around 11 million.

To put this in perspective, he gets roughly the same size audience as the next four shows combined (all on Fox) and is five times larger than Rachel Maddow, the first non-Fox contender, and nine and 13 times larger than MSN Primetime and CNN Primetime respectively. Adjusted for population size, this is about the same size audience as Nine and Seven news in Australia, and much larger than that of the ABC news.

Spotify liked the cut of his jib so much they paid $100 million to have the exclusive rights to broadcast the Joe Rogan Experience for an unspecified period of time.

So what does Rogan do? Talks … anywhere up to five times a week to a wide variety of guests at length – two hours and more of talk. He seems to have only one producer, and he has conversations rather than posing a series of gotchas to guests.

The conversations aren’t partisan and neither is he. One election he was Libertarian, another he voted for Bernie Saunders, and in 2020 he said he would vote for Trump.

He doesn’t sound like a Culture War hero, but he is because he asks guests the questions that are in his head. Being an average Joe, some of them aren’t politically correct. They happen to be the same questions as are in a lot of other people’s heads. Not tough questions, just searching, but if you’re the wilting flower type you might not feel in safe space listening to them.

He’s made the news lately because a number of ageing rockers – Neil Young and Joni Mitchell to start with – gave Spotify an ultimatum, ‘Take his podcasts down or take ours down. We don’t want to be associated with him.’

Spotify has 36 per cent of the streaming market so that is a pretty strong statement, so why?

In December last year, Rogan had the gall to spend three hours and six minutes chatting to Dr Robert Malone MD – one of the patent holders for the mRNA vaccine technology – and in a separate podcast to Dr Peter McCullough – a cardiologist and academic – which ran for only two hours 45 minutes.

Both men were accused of spreading ‘misinformation’ during the course of those interviews. Misinformation is the vogue, all-purpose word to shut your opponent out of the argument by implying they are being deliberately misleading. Say ‘you are telling lies’ and I sound shrill, add a few syllables and call it ‘misinformation’ and you sound shrill.

Out of almost six hours’ worth of interviews the censors have managed to distil one ‘misinformation’ for Malone – a proposition that the population is being subjected to what he calls Mass Formation Psychosis, a term invented by a Professor of Clinical Psychology Mattias Desmet, and largely in tune with what I understand about mass hysteria and political movements. You might disagree with the theory, but an academic theory is hardly misinformation.

McCullough did get a few things wrong. Recovery from Covid does not give you 100 per cent immunity (but according to studies it gives you much better immunity than the vaccines) and Covid can be spread asymptomatically. The other alleged misinformation was that a vaccine in Australia had to be abandoned because it turned people into AIDS positive. He did say that, but it comes under the category of ‘misspeaking’ rather than ‘misinforming’ because he corrected it later in the interview. It was false positives to AIDS tests, rather than being AIDS positive.

So that’s it. That’s the entire case against Malone and McCullough, and suddenly the bonfire of ancient rockers flares into flames.

Just like the old sectarianism, neo-sectarianism hinges on arcane distinctions that mean little to disinterested third parties. Would you kill your neighbour over ‘real presence’, ‘justification by faith’, ‘indulgences’? Well, now you are being asked to excommunicate your fellow citizens and destroy their livelihoods over terms like ‘Mass Formation Psychosis’ and ‘Natural Immunity’.

In reality, the substance behind these terms matters little. They are tribal markers used to identify which tribe you are from and to advertise your virtue. Part of McCullough’s theory of Mass Formation Psychosis is that at times of ‘free floating anxiety’ these forces can be accentuated and manipulated so that around a third of the population becomes automatons.

So far Spotify has stood its ground, more or less, trying to be ecumenical, but is this possible when adherence to creeds is high and tolerance low. It’s also possible that its staff might revolt, like staff at the New York Times did, or at Facebook.

What can we discern of the possible future, with or without a successful Spotify resistance?

First, firms that rely on selling audiences and audience metrics to advertisers are in trouble. Once you start labelling contentious information as misinformation and play handmaid to government, you will unsettle half or more of your audience.

Then you will lose users and content makers all at the same time.

For the first time in history, for example, Facebook’s audience has dropped. So has its share price – by 39 per cent from a peak of $379.38 to $232 today – 27 per cent of it in the last month. Twitter’s share price has more than halved in the last year. There are conservative alternatives around with aspects of both like Parler, Telegraph, Gab and Gettr. Their audiences are growing strongly.

If you play the sectarian game, this is disastrous in an industry where companies run at a loss, funded by capital raised on promises of becoming wildly profitable once they have scaled-up. What happens if instead of scaling-up the scales are falling off?

Ironically, without your legacy technology, and with the lessons learned from watching you blaze the trail, new upstart rivals can borrow the IP of your platform to more cheaply, and maybe even profitably, copy and surpass you.

Companies will also tend increasingly towards subscription services (Spotify has that going for it with 90 per cent of its revenues coming from subscriptions, but it still makes a huge loss).

Subscription models like Substack will grow as they guarantee you get an audience that is sufficiently interested in your product to pay up and that won’t decamp lightly as a result, while you minimise or eliminate the threat of advertiser boycott.

The downside is that we are disintegrating into a world of silos. Denomination used to be a silo, but radio and TV dragged us back together – we might not have worshipped together, but we had public cultural spaces where we still gathered together.

Now politics has been imported into every part of life, which robs life of moral and aesthetic values, and reduces it to tribal fighting and shifting values depending on what suits ‘our side’. The communications architecture is evolving to exacerbate that by destroying the disinterested public square.

In his seminal paper on the Law of Group Polarisation Cass Sunstein explains that in groups that tend in a particular direction there is a tendency for their views to become more extreme after discussing an issue without dissenting voices. This applies to any group, from a knitting circle to judges on the High Court of Australia.

So silos are likely to produce vicious cycles, making sectarianism much worse. The Woke claim to be the peacemakers, but their actions increase the degree of hate in society.

When we look at other periods of sectarianism, the war is often a precondition of the peace. Until people are confronted with how badly things can be they have no interest in making the compromises that mean we can get on together. Perhaps we can eventually get to a Westphalian peace and set ourselves up for another 470 years of improvement. Or perhaps the Chinese and Russians will take advantage of the moment and eat us up.

Or just maybe Spotify will be the high-water mark and we’ll pull back before doing ourselves serious harm.

Whichever, even on the most benign scenario, it looks like it’s going to be hell for quite a while.

Graham Young is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress and founder and editor of On Line Opinion.

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