Oh, this country sure looks good to me
But these fences are comin’ apart at every nail.
— Neil Young
I love me some Neil Young.
Saw him live a bunch of times in some truly epic concerts— rocking with Crazy Horse, solo acoustic; the whole wild, erratic, eccentric range from the deep Americana of Harvest Moon to a bone-crunching Sedan Delivery.
After the Gold Rush was go-to High Sierra trek music. Unknown Legend (“Out there on a desert highway/She rides a Harley Davidson/ Her long blonde hair flyin’ in the wind”) was the soundtrack for a 1992 trip to Lone Pine, California, and Mt. Whitney where I asked my girl to be my wife.
In college I had me a denim jacket with a Neil Young patch on the sleeve and Waylon Jennings’ Flying W on the back — and that was before they collaborated on Old Ways.
That melding of shitkicker and hippie suited me down to the core — and still does. But cats are barking, dogs are purring, and I don’t recognize the world I live in anymore.
There’s something weird and disorienting in watching as a countercultural icon and former warrior for free speech demands that The Man censor a renegade podcast host. In case you missed this latest Through the Looking Glass moment in our cultural history, I’m referring to the recent spat in which Neil Young told the content streaming service Spotify to get rid of podcast host Joe Rogan (whose show Spotify is paying stupid money for exclusive rights) or to remove his music. Young is pissed that Rogan has guests on his show that spread “fake information about vaccines.”
Spotify went with Rogan.
“[I]t confirms, perfectly and horribly, that to be countercultural today is to be on the side of fear, on the side of censure, on the side of madly believing that vast, unaccountable corporate machines have the right and the responsibility to determine what the rest of us may hear and see. I wonder if the Neil Young who once went on stage with an entire rock of cocaine protruding from his nostril could have imagined that he would one day be begging the powerful to protect the little people from ‘offensive’ ideas?”
I don’t believe I’ve listened to a second of a Joe Rogan podcast (in contrast to countless hours with the music of Neil Young) and I can’t add to O’Neill’s take on the contretemps. But contemplating the wreckage did lead to some broader ponderations.
My experience with the countercultural left is wide and deep. I got my degree in history in 1987 at UC Santa Cruz. The choice of schools was a little idiosyncratic: It was close to UC Berkeley, where my then-girlfriend was going to school. I didn’t have the math grades to make it into that august institution, but I could swing UCSC. Besides, I liked the idea of going to school in the middle of a redwood forest. I had a romantic — and as it turned out, misplaced — notion that it would be a freewheeling’ sort of place that would naturally welcome my hybrid, Gram Parsons-influenced hippie-shitkicker style.
Yeah, not really.
I found out quickly, that the bastion of countercultural “freedom” I found myself in was full of petty authoritarians whose notions of “tolerance” only extended to their own kind. If you are thinking, “Why, that’s not tolerance at all!” you have touched with a needle the primary content of my education in that institution.
Pushing back against group-think and grievance theater put me squarely in the crosshairs of a “cancel culture” that thrived in the coastal forest environment before it had a name. Fortunately, the teaching staff at UCSC still actually believed in free speech and a marketplace of ideas and that sort of thing, and I avoided cancelation. Then. I am quite certain the outcome would be different now.
There were some genuine freedom-lovers around, of course, like my Arkansas hillbilly lesbian friend Amber, who called bullshit on efforts to have me removed from a Native American history class. Or the guy that ran the shooting range deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains. That guy was an outlaw; “countercultural” in the best, most authentic way.
But, mostly, I learned that a purportedly freedom-loving subculture was, in fact, highly conformist — and extremely hostile to anyone who did not conform completely to its norms.
Turns out, that this was very valuable education, because I learned early that authoritarianism and intolerance wears many guises. It can come wrapped in the flag, or in a tie-dye shirt.
Another aspect of all this that is worth pondering is that the recent efforts to enforce conformity of thought and de-platform dissenting viewpoints has actually created a bigger market for the wrong-think the censors are trying to stamp out. As Matt Taibbi pointed out in a recent Substack essay:
“Censors have a fantasy that if they get rid of all the [vaccine skeptics], and rein in people like Joe Rogan, that all the holdouts will suddenly rush to get vaccinated. The opposite is true. If you wipe out critics, people will immediately default to higher levels of suspicion. They will now be sure there’s something wrong with the vaccine. If you want to convince audiences, you have to allow everyone to talk, even the ones you disagree with. You have to make a better case.”
(Put a pin in this bit of interesting trivia: Until 2021, the most vociferous anti-vaxxers I encountered were hippies. What a long, strange trip it’s been).
I don’t think many of the “counterculture” authoritarians I dealt with back in the day had any confidence that they could “make a better case” about much of anything. Most of them weren’t willing to do the hard work to understand any subject at any depth, or account for evidence contrary to their adopted world view. They wanted me out of that Native American History class because I was a turd in the punchbowl at their group therapy session. So they ran to The Man. Simple as that.
This kind of mentality is pervasive in mainstream American culture right now, and the only real counterculture is one that pushes back against it. So I say to you my friends: Keep on rockin’ in the free world.