Rogan's enthusiasm for spreading dangerous ignorance to his podcast audience is unnacceptable in the midst of the COVID fight.
For those who've managed to avoid his sprawling online presence over the last few years — and who are old enough to remember 2006 — it may be a surprise to learn that comedian and presenter Joe Rogan has become one of the most powerful voices in the modern media landscape.
"The Fear Factor guy? Is he still making people eat bugs for money?" No he's not. But what he's doing now is at least as stupid, and far more dangerous.
Through his wildly popular podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, he has cultivated a massive fanbase that tunes in to hear his sincere thoughts on everything from politics, to mixed martial arts, and psychedelic drugs. His broad curiosity, goofy "alpha-male" persona, and interest in talking to a mix of entertaining and controversial figures has endeared him to a huge audience, resulting in a 2020 Spotify deal worth more than $100 million.
Speaking on the deal with Bari Weiss (before her departure from the New York Times), Rogan referred to himself as as "weirdly rich" and said at the time that the windfall "feels gross. Especially right now, when people can't work."
And maybe he should have trusted that instinct and turned down that influx of wealth. Because in the months since he expressed that gross feeling, Rogan has indeed gotten significantly grosser.
Granted, Rogan has never shied away from platforming toxic cultural figures like Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, and Alex Jones — in addition to far superior guests like Duncan Trussell. But what could be charitably interpreted as open-mindedness and a skeptical attitude toward prescribed opinions has become truly unhinged in the era of COVID.
While there's such a thing as healthy skepticism when it comes to topics like anti-drug rhetoric and internet censorship, Rogan's willingness to question everything is expansive enough to spill over into the category of purely stupid skepticism — on par with doubting the wisdom of chewing before you swallow. And nowhere is that stupidity more apparent than in the opinions he's shared on COVID-19 and America's response to it.
On Relief Checks
For a start, Rogan's alienation from the struggles and experiences of everyday people was made startlingly clear in his recent conversation with congressional troll and wannabe-Avenger Dan Crenshaw (R-TX). Not only was Rogan somehow shocked to learn that stimulus checks were sent out to most Americans — not just people who lost their jobs — he seemed to accept, without question, Crenshaw's framing that those vital relief payments were therefore unnecessary.
Dan Crenshaw's Problem with Stimulus Checks www.youtube.com
With nearly 90% of American households receiving some amount of stimulus money, Rogan's surprise is revealing of how out-of-touch he's become. But where his ignorance reaches dangerous levels is in his certainty that he knows better than policymakers and public health officials which COVID prevention measures are valid and which should be scrapped or ignored.
On Face Masks
Mask use has long been an area of particular contention in the US. Early uncertainty about mask effectiveness and how the virus really spreads left a lot of room for contrarians to claim that mask mandates are either unnecessary or actively harmful.
While Rogan hasn't gone quite that far, he has mocked the push for wearing face masks, saying in a conversation with comedian Bill Burr last June that he thinks face masks are "for b**ches," and claiming that the WHO was advising "that you shouldn't wear a mask unless you're treating a coronavirus patient." While it's possible that was close to the truth when he said it, by the time that episode was released, the WHO had revised their recommendations to advocate for cloth masks "in situations where social distancing cannot be maintained."
Bill Burr on Coronavirus Quarantine, Rants About Mask Wearing www.youtube.com
As it turns out, masks are extremely effective at preventing the spread of COVID. And Rogan's derision for those "b**ches" he perceives as overly cautious for "not taking chances" should probably take into account the fact that those chances Rogan loves taking do not simply involve his own health. He's taking chances — and encouraging others to take chances — with the lives of loved ones and strangers who could end up exposed to a deadly contagion.
In that same conversation with Burr, Rogan also argued that we should "lockdown old people and sick people," but, "let regular people do whatever the **** they want." He added, "You can't just lock people's freedom down for something that killed a small fraction of what you thought it was going to kill."
He seemed to think that it should be possible to isolate vulnerable segments of the population from "regular people," and that allowing the virus to spread and mutate among healthy people would have no consequences worth worrying about. The fact that California didn't take this approach supposedly even motivated Rogan to move to Texas — shortly before that state became a major COVID hotspot.
Joe Rogan now lives in Texas. Tonight he visited the Governor’s Mansion. He may be a new resident but you can t… https://t.co/iWrm2IYgi2— Greg Abbott (@Greg Abbott) 1604631739.0
Since that time, more contagious and deadly variants have cropped up around the world, and US COVID deaths have surpassed 570,000 — outpacing every other country on Earth. But Rogan still seems to doubt the importance and efficacy of the lockdown efforts that have likely prevented that death toll from being far worse.
Just last month, he spoke with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is a doctor famous for her prominent epidemiology… Wait, no, she's a former politician known primarily for her criticisms of Islam.
When she expressed her skepticism of lockdown measures in London, Rogan referred to COVID as "a bad cold." Which could actually be a fair comparison if he could point to a "bad cold" that kills millions and leads to blood clots and other long-term complications.
The Divisive Nature of Covid Policies www.youtube.com
Rogan also claimed — incorrectly — that there is "no evidence whatsoever that [COVID] spreads outside," and asked "why, in the age of testing, are those rules applicable?" Perhaps he's under the mistaken impression that we all have the luxury of getting a COVID test every day — as he did for at least a week back in January, after hanging out with Dave Chappelle, Elon Musk, and Grimes, around the time that Grimes and Chappelle both had COVID.
These days vaccines are the primary target of Rogan's stupid COVID skepticism, which has earned him some sharp criticism from Dr. Anthony Fauci.
In the past he had expressed concern over the admittedly unpleasant side effects of the mRNA vaccines. But this week he went a step further in a conversation with comedian Dave Smith.
According to Rogan, "if you're like 21 years old, and you say to me, 'Should I get vaccinated?' I'll go, 'No,'" adding, "If you're a healthy person, and you're exercising all the time, and you're young, and you're eating well, like, I don't think you need to worry about this."
He's wrong. For one thing, the COVID variant that is currently dominant in the US is significantly more dangerous for young people than previous strains, and even young athletes have had surprisingly severe cases of COVID with worrying long-term effects that remain mysterious.
Dave Smith Passionately Opposes Vaccine Passports www.youtube.com
But there were a couple even more important points that Dave Smith wasn't quite qualified to address. Perhaps Joe Rogan would have been better served finding a doctor to ask "who are we protecting" by requiring vaccines for healthy people who may not want them.
As Rogan put it, "People who've been vaccinated … they're not vulnerable … so it doesn't matter." But the reality is far more complicated. For one thing, not every vulnerable person is necessarily eligible for vaccination, due to allergies or other issues. But the more important issue is that vaccines are only effective for a limited period of time.
We don't know how long vaccine-induced immunity will last even for existing strains of COVID. And as society reopens, and unvaccinated people mingle again with people who've gotten the vaccines, there will be a powerful selection pressure for COVID mutations that can skirt that immunity.
The larger the portion of the population that remains unvaccinated, the greater chance COVID will spread, adapt, and find a way to infect vulnerable people who got vaccinated and are hoping to get back to normal.
Should vaccinated people go back into lockdown as soon as there's evidence of a variant that can get past the vaccine? Obviously not, when the alternative is so simple. We need to encourage every eligible person to get a free vaccine so we can achieve herd immunity, and the spread of COVID can be minimized.
They don't need to get it for themselves. They can have every confidence in their immune systems — and in Rogan's valid recommendations of a healthy diet, exercise, and vitamin D supplements — but everyone who can should still get vaccinated.
Individualism in a Pandemic
Ultimately, Rogan's views on COVID are upsettingly stupid, but they're really not that surprising. His ethos has always been built around an American conception of freedom and individualism. But the simplistic notion that a person should just be allowed to make choices for their own life — without regard for others — is thrown into question by the reality of a pandemic.
When a viral respiratory contagion is ravaging the world, people "yearning to breathe free" have to contend with the fact that their breath has the potential to kill. The way individual choices butt up against each other within a complex global society cannot be ignored, as much as Joe Rogan and his backers might want to believe they can.
While Spotify removed a number of questionable episodes of the Joe Rogan Experience earlier this month, they have so far declined to delete much of Rogan's stupid skepticism on COVID, including his latest thoughts on the vaccines.
With millions of young fans nodding along to his opinions, Joe Rogan can't keep shouting fire in a crowded theater. He needs to either contend with his contribution to ideas that are killing people and prolonging this awful pandemic, or lose his platform.