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Joe Rogan Is the Aleph

The massively popular podcast host provides a glimpse into Borges’ ‘multitudes of America’

Jacob Siegel
November 05, 2020
Original images: Twitter; Flickr Commons
Original images: Twitter; Flickr Commons
Original images: Twitter; Flickr Commons
Original images: Twitter; Flickr Commons

My vote this election day was for coming to terms finally with the fact that the past is gone and never coming back, even if it’s never really past.

Only three modern candidates competed in this year’s presidential race: Futurist Social Democrat Andrew Yang, mystical love-healer Marianne Williamson, and the avant-garde Christian humanist Kanye West. None had a chance. Instead we got two men aging into their late 70s whose attachments to the past, even in the insults they use to discredit each other, obscure the kind of future they would work to bring about in America.

Joe Biden is neither a socialist nor a Democrat in the 20th-century sense, since that party no longer exists. Donald Trump is no fascist but neither is he a Republican in the same mold as Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. The political organizations denoted by those names belong to a bygone age. Economically, we live now in a country that is globalized, dominated by finance and technology, supported by an overburdened service sector, and moving toward dependence on forms of artificial intelligence that, in the course of manufacturing goods and amusements, also remake the fabric of reality. Socially we have been cast out of the protective sphere of communal institutions and the stability of elite consensus, and into the unknowable wilds of the digital.

The story of the 20th century was individuals living within the institutions of mass society. The 21st, so far, has identities rather than individuals, connected by digital networks that periodically effloresce into large collectives like “The Resistance” and MAGA. Our ability to comprehend reality is strained to the breaking point by the pace of technological change. And yet our political leadership is divided between postwar boomers and modernizers who are still fighting the Cold War. It’s time to update our political maps to understand what the world really looks like now, once the clutter of outdated relics is removed. To do that, let us clear a space, if we can, from our election-addled minds to spare a thought for the powerful podcaster and political harbinger, Joe Rogan.

Recently, one of the key architects of the creaking post-2001 political framework that updated the Cold War as the War on Terror turned his attention to Rogan. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum almost acknowledged reality when he gestured disapprovingly at the podcast host. “Wanted,” Frum tweeted: “Smart, non-polemical assessment of emergence of Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan, Glenn Greenwald, Donald Trump Jr., Matt Taibbi, the Federalist group of writers etc. as a coherent and cohesive faction in American politics. They share more than just the same dislikes.”

To appreciate the meaning of the Rogan phenomenon, it’s best to leave Frum and turn to the work of the Argentine writer Jorge Louis Borges. In Borges’ short story The Aleph a character discovers that an acquaintance’s basement contains a portal into infinity called ‘the aleph.’ In this single point located on a cellar stair, all of space-time has been compressed and is revealed to the observer who stumbles into just the right position to peer through the keyhole into existence:

The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America …

The multitudes of America, elsewhere denied and hidden, are revealed in the Joe Rogan Experience. On Internet messageboards, Rogan-admiring conspiracists and gossips posit that the podcaster’s unusually large head is the result of a fitness regime supplemented with human growth hormone. I have a different theory. It is my belief that Rogan’s prominent cranium and bulging physiognomy are the physical manifestations of a fluctuating aperture, a portal through which one glimpses the cultural mood of the American mind and spirit that is, at that moment, most popular and most repressed.

Rogan, unsurprisingly, is dogged by controversy. His views about transgender athletes, friendly treatment of conspiracy purveyors like Alex Jones, and underlying moral philosophy—that instinctive attitude that American pragmatist William James called “temperament”—have made him a target for political and media activists. Employees at the Spotify streaming service where Rogan was recently hired in a record-breaking $100 million deal, have been petitioning the company to censor or fire him. A similar controversy broke out in August after Bernie Sanders, the socialist candidate for president whom Rogan had endorsed, appeared on his show. Sanders’ supporters demanded that their candidate disavow the wildly popular podcast host for his impolitic statements and what they imagined to be his connections to the alt right. But the controversies Rogan engenders are perhaps the least important thing about him, which is why they get so much attention.

What matters about Rogan is that his interests and instincts both defy standard left-right and Democrat-Republican divisions and appeal to an enormous audience—the show is downloaded nearly 200 million times per month. The tenets of the Rogan worldview include rugged individualism, swings between techno enthusiasm and techno skepticism, the value of hard work and thrift, patriotic social obligation to the needy and disenfranchised, anti-interventionism in foreign affairs coupled with strong national defense, and cultural traditionalism nagging at a libertarian faith in sovereign individual rights. He preaches personal growth through risk, pain, and confrontation, supports both police reform initiatives and the imperative of maintaining law and order, evinces a “live and let live” attitude combined with a disdain for the maximalist social positions ascendant on the left. In short, he has opinions that resonate with many different kinds of Americans yet are systematically underrepresented in organized politics.

Rogan is the portal through which one glimpses the American mood that is, at that moment, most popular and most repressed.

Fundamentally Rogan is not a political figure. He is a modern American original seeking out his providential destiny in comedy, mixed martial arts, podcasting, elk hunting, some new frontier. He channels something elemental in the national character, which makes him fundamentally unlike most media figures who merely surf currents of ephemera. His instinctual attachment to his countrymen and the promise of American freedom does not dampen the disgust at jingoism that he shares with Mark Twain, Muhammad Ali, and Bill Hicks. And he loves to talk; long talks navigating challenging subjects that veer from comic asides into the dark, beckoning regions accessible after the third drink, the second toke, the daily microdose. On his show, Rogan has 2-to-3-hour long, deeply engaged, and open-minded conversations with a diverse cast of guests ranging from the stalwarts of the Intellectual Dark Web, dissident left-libertarians like Glenn Greenwald, health experts, powerlifting champions, professional prizefighters, quantum physicists, and fellow comedians. Critics charge that Rogan’s rebellion against woke dictums and political correctness is motivated by cruelty and the white cis male propensity for bullying and oppression. But his characteristic qualities are curiosity, empathy, and a boundless and sometimes naive desire for self-improvement. He is an all American tinkerer and self-taught amateur intellectual. There is plenty of macho posturing and arrogance as well but it is simply human, not fundamentally vicious.

Visible through the Rogan Aleph is the obvious untapped majority in the American electorate that favors a political arrangement combining a moderate redistributionist welfare state with moderate social conservatism. This coalition has promised an electoral victory for the past decade and yet neither party has really captured it.

Most Americans want secure work, safe streets, healthcare, dignity, freedom, and a governing class that prioritizes them above itself. People want plenty else besides, of course, that politics cannot provide, like love and meaning—but even a movement organized around the minimum would threaten entrenched interests in both parties. It would undermine the Democrat’s dependency on Silicon Valley’s surveillance economy, elite-driven offshoring, and embrace of corporate consumerism in liberation drag. And it would finish off the well-funded Republican party of fiscal responsibility and austerity politics underwritten by foreign policy and financial globalism.

To discredit the possibilities of new political coalitions, old coalitions go on the attack. Liberals denounce Sen. Josh Hawley for the supposedly anti-Semitic implications of his references to cosmopolitanism while ignoring or impugning his antitrust legislation and fight against corporate monopolies. Meanwhile, the new realities of power in America, revolve around a tech-media-Democratic party complex. The Democrats now take for granted the support of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and the overwhelming majority of the wealthiest districts in America. The Republicans have drawn in more working-class men of all races despite the president’s lapses into nativist rhetoric and the party’s continued staffing by pro-business class cadres who stifle critical stimulus payments in a moment of national need.

Hostility to the Rogan coalition has less to do with its members’ ideological eccentricities than with the fact that it speaks to large numbers of Americans who want to see their government pursue policies that might terminate the sinecures of countless pundits, D.C. functionaries, campus administrators, defense contractors, and corporate consultants. Conservatives like David Frum and his allies on the left understand that while they can fend off the occasional anti-establishment coups and insurgencies, the gravest threat to their continued power comes from the possibility of a broad new political consensus, triggered by the kind of fundamental technological and economic transformation we are currently living through.

Whoever wins the election, it is the consolidation of power and the curtailment of freedom that matter; everything else is entertainment. And speaking of entertainment: Where will Joe Rogan fit in the future? What place is there for a meathead who contains the American multitudes floating in the darkness of his tank towards transcendence?

At the end of Borges’ story, the house containing the Aleph is demolished. Its destruction is the work of the conniving narrator who relays a startling finding in the story’s postscript: There may be other alephs out there.

Jacob Siegel is Senior Editor of News and The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon news digest, which you can subscribe to here.