Bad Takes: COVID-19 disinformation spreader Joe Rogan is a perfect fit for Texas. Sadly.

click to enlarge Plague Brothers: Joe Rogan gets a Texas-sized greeting from Gov. Greg Abbott in fall of 2020. - Twitter / GregAbbott_TX
Twitter / GregAbbott_TX
Plague Brothers: Joe Rogan gets a Texas-sized greeting from Gov. Greg Abbott in fall of 2020.
Bad Takes is a periodic column of opinion and political analysis.

“I’m not an anti-vax person. When I say something stupid, I’m not thinking about what I’m going to say before I say it. I’m just saying it. If you say you disagree with me, I probably disagree with me too. I disagree with me all the time. I’m not a doctor, I’m a fucking moron, and I’m a cage-fighting commentator who’s a dirty stand-up comedian. I’m drunk most of the time, I do testosterone and I smoke a lot of weed. I’m not a respected source of information.” — Joe Rogan, April 29, 2021

“You kind of need the shitheads so that you can say, ‘Here’s why they’re wrong.’ And in the age of social media, that’s where it’s weird, because these shitheads never really had a platform before, and they can develop massive followings saying crazy shit.” — Joe Rogan, December 7, 2021

When writer Ernest Hemingway covered the Spanish Civil War from the frontlines, his dispatches didn't indulge in any out-of-school criticism that may have endangered the anti-fascist cause. After the Loyalists' defeat, however, with the dictatorship of Francisco Franco firmly entrenched, Hemingway wrote a masterpiece, For Whom The Bell Tolls, fictionally depicting in gruesome detail atrocities committed by all sides of the conflict. His journalism proselytized an unabashed faith in the ascendant glory of a free Spanish republic. His novel conceded moral ambiguity and exuded a tragic sense that, despite their best efforts, the republicans — small r — were doomed from the start. He was right both times.

Prospects are bleak for those of us who hoped vaccines could bring a swift end to the pandemic. Mere weeks ago, the first five cases of the stunningly contagious omicron variant of coronavirus were detected in San Antonio. On the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., almost 9,000 Bexar County residents tested positive — the highest number of new cases ever in a single day. And this figure is surely an undercount, given that we do not know how many people are relying on at-home tests or did not bother to wait in line at testing locations.

Once again, hospitals and intensive care wards are being stretched beyond capacity across the country, and thousands of Americans are needlessly dying. Only 30% of Texans have received a booster dose that's proved necessary for significant protection from symptomatic illness, and it's overwhelmingly the unboosted who require emergency medical care.

Recent California-to-Texas émigré Joe Rogan, the most popular podcaster in the world, chose this winter to host a pair of COVID vaccine-skeptics in two three-hour interviews broadcast to an audience larger than anything cable news can muster. The shows were summarily pulled from YouTube for violating that company's community standards, but they remain up on Spotify.

Hundreds of "scientists, medical professionals, professors, and science communicators" penned an open letter to Spotify to beef up enforcement against misinformation — only to be met with abject silence so far from the multibillion-dollar corporate giant. This week, rock legend Neil Young even threatened to pull his songs from Spotify, writing, “They can have [Joe] Rogan or Young. Not both."

The Gish gallop of falsehoods, misleading claims and unproven remedies peddled by Rogan's guests — Drs. Robert Malone and Peter McCullough — have been thoroughly debunked by infectious disease experts elsewhere. Both try their darndest to sound reasonable at first — initially blaming health officials for alleged incompetence rather than attributing malicious intent to a globally planned 'scamdemic' — but once Rogan riles them up, they cannot maintain the pretense of sobriety for longer than thirty minutes before going off the rails.

McCullough said asymptomatic transmission and reinfection after recovery simply doesn't occur, ever, and that omicron is less transmissible than delta — all evidence to the contrary. He said the anti-parasite drug Ivermectin, which the FDA does not recommend to treat COVID-19, would have prevented an incredibly dubious 85% or more of hospitalizations. For his part, Malone said point-blank that tens of thousands of Americans have died from vaccines.

If you would like to read fact-checks for said claims, click on the doctors' names above. One could hardly design a better crash course in how to spot conspiratorial paranoia in otherwise smart and accomplished men.

Let's focus on a certain historical parallel repeatedly harped on and heartily seconded by Joe the Comedian that persistently arose in these interviews: the notion we're now on the verge of a totalitarian dystopia akin to Nazi Germany.

McCullough told Rogan: "There was somebody in my circles around March who came by my house — guy like you, in shape, biking. Him and his wife said, 'We took the vaccines, we're safe.' And I said listen, I'm kind of concerned, by March we're at 1,200 deaths, Joe, twelve-hundred deaths. He said, 'What are you talking about? We vaccinated 60 million people. Twelve-hundred deaths, small price to pay.' I continue the thought in my mind, 'Small price to pay for the Aryan race.' That is the type of thinking that comes into people's minds — driven out of fear, driven out of mass psychosis."

Malone said: "What the heck happened in Germany, in the 20s and 30s? Very intelligent, highly educated population, and they went barking mad. The answer is 'mass formation psychosis.' When you have a society that has become decoupled from each other, and has free-floating anxiety and a sense that things don't make sense, then their attention gets focused by a leader or a series of events on one small point — just like hypnosis — they literally become hypnotized and can be led anywhere. And one of the aspects of that phenomena is the people that they identify as their leaders, the ones typically who come in and say, 'You have this pain, I and I alone can fix this problem for you,' then they will follow that person through Hell. It doesn't matter whether they lie to them or whatever. The data are irrelevant. And furthermore, anybody who questions that narrative is to be immediately attacked, they are 'the Other.' That is what's happened here."

Messiah complexes evidently don't apply to doctors trying to save us from a potentially lethal virus, one Ivermectin or Hydroxychloroquine prescription at a time. Nor does sacrificing the elderly, the overweight and the immunocompromised by the millions to keep the economy open even briefly call to mind the Nazi concept of Lebensunwertes Leben, or life unworthy of life.

At the 2016 Republican National Convention, then-candidate Donald Trump literally promised his followers, "I alone can fix it." Yet, somehow, the resurgence of authoritarian right-wing populism, from Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to Viktor Orbán in Hungary, never seems to warrant the inflammatory comparisons to fascist propagandists that Rogan and his cohorts reserve for the likes of the nation's top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci. Fauci is spoken of as a cartoon villain, perpetually twisting his non-existent mustache while brainstorming new excuses for controlling people's freedom. 

The pseudointellectual roots of the "mass formation psychosis" hypothesis resides with Mattias Desmet, professor of clinical psychology at Ghent University in Belgium. But mass hypnosis has roundly failed as an explanation for the Nazi horrors. Such a theory doesn't even show an adequate understanding of hypnosis, the suggestions of which most everyone can resist and oppose. You can't hypnotize someone into committing murder, for example, despite what Hollywood dreams up.

One can instantly glean the benefit of pathologizing and gaslighting those with whom we disagree. If they're delusional, we're in touch with reality. If they adhere to "a narrative," we recognize common sense. But we should never assume "mass formation psychosis" when simple motivated reasoning will do.

Desmet goes ever further: "Every crowd ultimately destroys itself," he told journalist Max Blumenthal. Should all mass movements exhibiting heroic self-sacrifice and an intoxicating feeling of group cohesion necessarily conjure images of Orwellian nightmares? Weren't such characteristics on full display in the women's suffrage or Civil Rights movements, or the Lincoln Brigades that Orwell himself fought alongside during the Spanish Civil War? Doesn't this 19th century take on "the madness of crowds" denigrate every collective mobilization, whether egalitarian or fascistic?

Dr. Stephen Reicher is a senior professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland who has studied crowd psychology for 40 years. Mass formation psychosis "has been totally discredited by contemporary work on groups and crowds," he told medical reporter Ryan Basen. "Telling people who disagree with you that they are deluded and in a state of psychosis is essentially a device to silence them and a form of disrespect. It alienates and hence undermines an attempt at dialogue. It isn't an explanation of the problem; it is part of the problem."

Returning to those who are part of the problem, should we hypnotized lemmings advocate pulling Joe Rogan off the air? I'm stuck between two Hemingways on that question. Consistent messaging is obviously crucial in an emergency.

Say a tornado or flash flood warning was declared for Austin, and Rogan broadcast the following statement live: "Don't let city officials and the National Weather Service establishment control you! The survival rate of tornadoes and flash floods is 99.9%! Unless you're a bad driver or drive a weak car, you really don't need to follow these advisories."

Alex Jones would no doubt chime in that the radar apps on our smartphones are fabricated by the lizard people. If dozens of avoidable traffic accidents then resulted, wouldn't we at least be within our rights to shun such "free speech" as irresponsible and dangerous, and to call on whatever media outlet distributed it to be more careful? 

COVID vaccines saved over 1 million Americans last year, according to the Commonwealth Fund. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that, in the six months between June and December, more than 160,000 COVID deaths could have been prevented by vaccines. Yet 20% of Americans say they remain unwilling to get vaccinated — a far higher percentage than almost every major country.

Hasn't Rogan played an outsized role in contributing to vaccine refusal?

There's a flip side though. Cultivating spaces where we can crack jokes and speculate loosely is extremely important in our fractious era. And Texans are avowedly friendly and welcoming in this respect — to a fault.

Alasdair MacIntyre may not host a star podcast, but at 93 years old, he is ostensibly our greatest living philosopher. Depressingly, his videos receive a couple thousand views each. In a talk at the beginning of 2021, "What We Owe to the Dead," he argued that those who have "lost their grasp of standards to which all of us need to appeal if we are to distinguish the true from the false" — his example was climate deniers — "have excluded themselves from participation in worthwhile conversation, except perhaps those conversations explicitly designed to demonstrate their errors to them."

So, the catch is one sometimes has to offer misinformers a platform in order to rebut them.

Not every Big Cause is inherently totalitarian, and not every state of emergency is a disguised attempt to seize power. Solidarity entails getting everyone on the same page and acting together, and if the misery we've been living through has any silver lining, maybe it's in forcing us to realize our own interdependence on one another. There's ample ground for post-mortems of the many mistakes made by public health officials in the fog of this war.

Now's the time to brush off willful ignorance and lend a helping hand. Save the novels for after.

Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.