Joe Rogan, Whoopi Goldberg, the Canadian Truckers, and free speech

Jon Stewart and Bill Maher defend free speech for fellow celebrities, but I can’t help wondering if they are speaking up more in sympathy than in support of free speech as a universal principle when few if any are concerned about the truckers in Canada protesting cross-border vaccine mandates under the name Freedom Convoy 2022.

Late last month, legendary rocker and the godfather of grunge, Neil Young, decided he could no longer share streaming media space with podcast superstar and cultural phenomenon, Joe Rogan.  He told the popular online radio service, Spotify, they had to choose between the two, either pull his music or Mr. Rogan’s content, to protest supposed “misinformation” about vaccines coming from Mr. Rogan.  This wasn’t much of a choice for Spotify, given they had recently signed a $100 million deal with Mr. Rogan while Mr. Young hasn’t done anything of real relevance in decades.  Shortly afterwards, however, other musicians followed suit:  Joni Mitchell gave Spotify the same ultimatum, as did longtime Bruce Springsteen guitarist and songwriter in his own right, Nils Lofgren.  The message was the same:  For deviating from the approved pandemic script, Mr. Rogan must be canceled.  Spotify itself has defended their podcast star, but also seemed to bow to pressure by adding a warning to his shows.  This past weekend, comedian and social commentator Jon Stewart stepped in to defend Mr. Rogan as well, saying on his own podcast that it was a “mistake” and an “overreaction” to try to ban him from the public sphere.  “There’s no question that there is egregious misinformation that’s purposeful and hateful, and that being moderated is a credit to the platforms that run them,” he said.  “But this overreaction to Rogan, I think, is a mistake.” “I think there are dishonest bad actors in the world and identifying those is so much more important to me,” he continued, adding, “Don’t leave. Don’t abandon. Don’t censor. Engage.”

In the meantime, Whoopi Goldberg also found herself in the censorship crosshairs for comments on The View.  Ms. Goldberg was reacting to a Tennessee School Board’s decision to ban a non-fiction graphic novel about the Holocaust, Maus by Art Spiegelman.  The book, which visualizes his father’s fight to survive the Nazi regime, won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992, but the school board found it unsuitable for 13-year old students because of foul language and drawings of nude figures, not exactly a radical position given the popular PG-13 rating doesn’t allow either.  In response, Ms. Goldberg claimed, “Let’s be truthful about it because [the] Holocaust isn’t about race.  It’s not about race. It’s about man’s inhumanity to man.”  The reaction to these comments was swift and fierce.   “The Holocaust was about the Nazi’s systemic annihilation of the Jewish people — who they deemed to be an inferior race,” explained Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. “They dehumanized them and used their racist propaganda to justify slaughtering 6 million Jews. Holocaust distortion is dangerous.”  This is ironic coming from a group that recently changed its own definition of racism to seemingly exclude the Holocaust, by defining it as “the marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges White people.”

Regardless, Ms. Goldberg received a two week suspension as punishment for her comments.    “Effective immediately, I am suspending Whoopi Goldberg for two weeks for her wrong and hurtful comments,” read a statement believed to have been written by Kim Godwin, president of ABC News. “While Whoopi has apologized, I’ve asked her to take time to reflect and learn about the impact of her comments. The entire ABC News organization stands in solidarity with our Jewish colleagues, friends, family and communities.”  A few days later, comedian Bill Maher came to Ms. Goldberg’s defense on his show, Real Time.  He began by noting that “Whoopi attacks me on a regular basis, she says stupid s— on a regular basis, it just so happened to coincide.”  Still, Mr. Maher insisted, “Whoopi Goldberg, who, by the way, I hope is still a friend — we can disagree with each other — should not be canceled or put off her show, as much as I totally disagree with her crazy statement — free speech! She should be there! She shouldn’t get a timeout!”  He continued, “That’s the problem in America. There is just one view, one true opinion. And everyone else can go sit in the corner.” 

Overall, I agree with both Mr. Stewart and Mr. Maher, but can’t help wondering if they are speaking up more in sympathy than in support of free speech as a universal principle.  My goal here is not to impugn their motives.  I do not know either man personally, and both have spoken out against cancel culture in the past, but they make their living voicing their opinions, the same as Mr. Rogan and Ms. Goldberg.  It’s easy to imagine that at least some of their concern is finding themselves on the receiving end of these same tactics in the future, or to see this as celebrities defending other celebrities, the rich and powerful protecting their own.  Free speech, however, isn’t just for celebrities and talking heads.  It’s a fundamental right guaranteed to everyone, and yet one that is increasingly under assault, especially for average people that lack a large platform to be heard and the connected colleagues for support.  Mr. Rogan speaks to millions on a weekly basis.  He can defend himself from the likes of Neil Young, but consider the truckers in Canada protesting cross-border vaccine mandates under the name Freedom Convoy 2022.  Who will defend them?

The protests began about two weeks ago in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, when hundreds of trucks stopped in the streets in a classic display of civil disobedience.  The protesters have since set up camp, refusing to move until their voices are heard.  The tote signs with basic slogans like “Freedom” and “No vaccine mandates.” The precise number of people and trucks participating in these protests is difficult to determine.  The organizers estimate around 50,000.  “There are estimates the Canadian convoy could compromise 50,000 trucks from West, East, and even from the United States.  It’s difficult to speculate what will translate in the days ahead.”   On January 26, a press release was posted to the Facebook group Freedom Convoy 2022 which claimed “although our initial convoy (is) estimated to be 1,600 trucks, that number significantly increased to 36,000 trucks in just a few days. It is now estimated that the number of heavy trucks heading to Ottawa is closer to 50,000.”  The authorities and newspapers, however, both report far lower figures though this could be misleading because each report is merely a snapshot in time.  On January 23rd, there were “hundreds” bound for Ottawa.  On January 24th, about 1,200.  By January 24th, the Canadian Mounted Police said the convoy was over 12 miles long, numbering some 800 plus trucks and other vehicles.  A couple of days later, a reporter for Toronto’s City News said there were thousands of cars and SUVs, but “you’d be hard pressed to find a hundred trucks.”  Others have claimed 113, 230, and 120.  It seems clear that no one knows for sure, though how that is possible at this point is also unclear, but the number of people involved, including both truckers and average citizens is obviously substantial.

Overall, their demand is exceedingly simple:  They don’t believe they should be forced to take a vaccine to keep on truckin’ and they have organized to ensure their voices are heard.  You can certainly disagree with their position, but the very concept of free speech and civil disobedience shouldn’t be controversial in the 21st century western world.  Once upon a time we said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” in the words of the French writer and philosopher, Voltaire.  Today, we are increasingly prone to smear and malign those who disagree, and the participants in the Freedom Convoy have been branded everything from “white supremacists” to violent criminals, sometimes by their own Prime Minister.    Last week, Justin Trudeau personally denounced the movement, claiming the truckers were displaying “symbols of hatred and division” and that “hate can never be the answer.”  “Over the past few days, Canadians were shocked and frankly disgusted by the behaviour displayed by some people protesting in our nation’s capital,” the Prime Minister said during a news conference.  “I want to be very clear: We are not intimidated by those who hurl insults and abuse at small business workers and steal food from the homeless. We won’t give in to those who fly racist flags. We won’t cave to those who engage in vandalism or dishonour the memory of our veterans.”  “To anyone who joined the convoy but is rightly uncomfortable with the symbols of hatred and division on display: join with your fellow Canadians, be courageous and speak out – do not stand for or with intolerance and hate,” he continued.

Apparently, Prime Minister Trudeau was responding to media reports that there were Confederate flags on display, as well as a symbol of the “three percenters,” an anti-government militia group.  There are claims of Nazi flags as well, though I could not find any actual images.  To be sure, the residents of Ottawa aren’t thrilled with the protest and the occupation.  No one would be, that is the point of civil disobedience.  Some have claimed there’s “illegal & disturbing activity,” and that the residents are “tired & frightened.”  Shepherds of Good Hope, a homeless center in Ottawa, claimed volunteers have been subject to “verbal harassment and pressure,” and that a worker was assaulted followed by a security guard who “was threatened and called racial slurs.”  Elizabeth Payne, a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen, said rocks have been thrown at ambulances along with racial slurs, tweeting that  “Paramedics working downtown asked for police escorts because they didn’t feel safe.”

Despite these claims, there have been precious few actual arrests, a handful of people for mischief and driving while prohibited and a mere 60 “investigations.”  This hasn’t prevented Ottawa Police Chief Peter Slol from complaining that the truckers will not simply walk away and end the demonstrations, saying they are “highly organized, well funded, extremely committed to resisting all attempts to end the demonstrations safely.” The mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson, took the drastic step of declaring a state of emergency this weekend, saying the city was “losing this battle” and that the protests were “completely out of control.”  The participants, in his view, were behaving “insensitively” by continuously “blaring horns and sirens, [setting off] fireworks and turning it into a party.”  “Clearly, we are outnumbered and we are losing this battle,” he noted, adding, “This has to be reversed – we have to get our city back.”  Of course, Mayor Watson failed to mention the government could just as easily reverse a policy that demands people get fired for failing to comply with mandate by political whim.  He could have called for an actual vote in Parliament, you know democracy and all that. Instead, he has proceeded to arrest the protestors, seize their vehicles, and threaten arrests for anyone aiding the movement. 

Overall, this appears to be a “mostly peaceful” protest if ever there was one, and yet the government still intervened to crush it.  As far as I can tell, there has been no looting, destruction of property, seizure and take over of buildings, arson, murders, or attacks on the populace, all of which accompanied a summer of protests in the United States after George Floyd was murdered at the hands of police in Minneapolis in May 2020.  Unfortunately, engaging in peaceful civil disobedience these days is no defense if you find yourself on the wrong side of the establishment narrative.  Nor was the Canadian government the only organization moving to shut the protests down and malign the participants.  Last week, the giving site GoFundMe.com announced they were freezing donations to the group, seizing some $9,000,000 Canadian dollars and redirecting it to their own favored charities.  In a press release, they noted “GoFundMe supports peaceful protests and we believe that was the intention of the Freedom Convoy 2022 fundraiser when it was first created.  We now have evidence from law enforcement that the previously peaceful demonstration has become an occupation, with police reports of violence and other unlawful activity.”  Critics, however, were quick to point out that they applied a completely different standard when it came to left-leaning protests and occupations in the United States.  For example, they were happy to support Seattle’s occupied zone, CHAZ or CHOP, which began with the forceful takeover of a police precinct and continued through multiple deaths and other violent crime.  This time around, they are seizing money, potentially illegally, and shutting the protestors down.

The mainstream media in both the United States and Canada is also on the march against the Freedom Convoy.  Claims that protests need to be uncomfortable to be effective have been completely forgotten, replaced with the bizarre and the borderline reprehensible.  The Canadian Broadcast Company’s Nil Koksal wondered whether Russian President Vladimir Putin might be involved, telling Marco Mendicino, Minister of Public Safety, “But there is concern that Russian actors could be continuing to fuel things as this protest grows. But perhaps even instigating it from, from the outset.”  Incredibly, Mr. Mendocino didn’t deny the charge, replying instead with a deflection making it look like Russia could truly be involved.  “Again, I’m gonna defer to our partners in the public safety of trained officials and experts in that area.”   Other media outlets like Politico worried about how the “Ottawa trucker’s convoy galvanizes the far-right worldwide.”  They surmised that the original purpose of the protests “has fast become a magnet for far-right grievances around the world.”  They too repeat the white supremacy charge, claiming “it’s becoming viral online as a rallying cry for leading U.S. Republican politicians, far-right influencers and white supremacist groups who have transposed the criticism of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to an international audience for their own political gain.”  Politico concluded, “In Ottawa, the trucker protests may be settling in for the long haul. But for supporters in the U.S. and elsewhere, they have offered a case study in how to bring anti-establishment sentiment into the mainstream.”  Other media organizations have followed suit.  The Washington Post called it a “stunt,” focusing their coverage on the handful of arrests rather than the fundamental rights of the protestors while their political cartoonist labeled it “fascism.”  “It’s a cult,” declared MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough.

Ultimately, no one outside of conservative circles has risen to their defense with the exception of freedom-loving former Canadian, Elon Musk, who said “Canadian truckers rule,” and noted that “If you scare people enough, they will demand removal of freedom. This is the path to tyranny.”  He also called out GoFundMe’s double standard and labeled them “Professional Thieves.”  GoFundMe has since reversed course, at least in stealing the donations.  The smears against the truckers remain uncontested, however, and it seems very few people still agree with Voltaire’s maxim.  Free speech isn’t just for the rich and powerful.  It’s for everyone, and all of us must defend it at every turn.  Perhaps now more than ever.  It would be nice to see celebrities like Mr. Stewart and Mr. Maher speaking up for the little guy for a change.  Mr. Rogan and Ms. Goldberg can surely take care of themselves.

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