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Sure he’s wrong! But if you believe in free speech, you have to defend his right to be wrong
(Credit: Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

I have always admired and respected Jann Wenner, and still do. Yes, I know what he said in the New York Times about Black and female musicians, and that a day later he was unceremoniously dumped from the Board of Directors of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which he co-founded. But he’s entitled to his opinion, isn’t he? 

It’s inaccurate — and you can’t always say someone is wrong in their opinion, but in this case he’s empirically wrong — but all he’s really guilty of is expressing that opinion in clumsy language, if we’re being generous, or stupid, insensitive language if we’re not. Mostly he’s guilty of expressing a sentiment that is not politically correct. One that’s not part of the prescribed, sanctioned set of things you can say and think in America today.

And that’s what horrifies me, sickens me. That’s the greatest danger, not his indelicate way of saying that he thinks only old white rock stars can properly explain rock ‘n roll.

Of course Jann is factually wrong to declare there aren’t women or Black musicians who could be as expressive about it as, say, Springsteen, Pete Townshend, Dylan, or, God help us, Bono, who probably, secretly, maybe not so secretly, thinks that rock only really started mattering with him, and will cease to matter when he stops. 

But Wenner didn’t interview Sinead O’Connor or Tori Amos, for instance, as I have, and so wouldn’t have experienced, first hand, how brilliant and articulate they were/are about rock ‘n roll. I interviewed Ice-T in the early ‘90s and he was erudite and illuminating and profound. Every bit as much as Mick Jagger. Ditto Nile Rodgers. And there are many others I can think of. Earlier this year I heard Killer Mike stand up at a SPIN lunch and give an extemporaneous talk about free speech that blew everyone away. He reminded me of another of Wenner’s friends, Bill Clinton, who could enrapt a room, any room. Put it this way, I’ve never heard anyone give a better speech about what free speech really means than Killer Mike. 

But I was there and Jann Wenner wasn’t. And I also don’t believe that he thinks only old white men, some of them long dead, could truly articulate what rock ‘n roll is/was, or that only they could define their/his generation. I don’t think he meant that absolutely. And it is ironic that one of the seven legends he interviewed for his book, Masters, Bob Dylan, I think barely understands himself when he talks, he talks in such nonsensical riddles half the time, and another, Jerry Garcia, may he rest in peace, was hardly the most coherent of scholars. 

But it doesn’t matter! That is not the point! Even if Wenner did think that only they best “met his standard,” as he put it, for inclusion in his book, he is entitled to his opinion. Or at least he should be.

I think this whole furor, this landslide of righteous indignation that has cascaded on his head, is way out of proportion. He’s not raping school children! He simply thinks his friends — all of his interviewees he’s long been close with — did the best job of elucidating rock ‘n roll for the purpose of his book. That’s his opinion, his reasoning, his choices. He’s not saying Black people aren’t equal, or that women belong in the kitchen, which would be racist and misogynist and merit indignation and repudiation. 

And — wait, please sit down before you read this next bit, or hold onto something solid — he’s right, in one respect, that these seven old white guys are the best people to articulate old white guys’ rock ‘n roll — i.e. themselves! Mick Jagger really talks about the world the Rolling Stones sat in the middle of, Garcia talked about a world built up around the Grateful Dead. Bono talks about, well, Bono. But you get my point.

We all talk about free speech a lot these days, but it’s a sham. What the most virulent, nauseatingly sanctimonious of the free speech woke folks want is freedom for their speech. Just their speech. They do not want freedom for any dissenting speech. That they want crushed, vaporized. And they want to punish anyone who has the temerity, or stupidity, or just plain bad luck to utter something not in sync with the One True Gospel of How Everyone Must Think and Act.

Róisín Murphy (Credit: Elena Di Vincenzo/Archivio Elena Di Vincenzo/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

How did we get to a place where phony “liberals” are the problem, the impediment to free discourse instead of its most passionate defenders? As Bill Maher recently said, it’s ironic that the people who most shriekingly bleat about white privilege are themselves invariably privileged and usually white. 

But there’s no sense of irony here! Irony, and — Satan, keep your distance! — humor are nowhere to be found. There is only the incessant, monotonous drumbeat of rain falling on a tin roof, the sound of self-prescribed righteousness, an empty, fraudulent, masturbatory sanctimoniousness.

I say phony liberals because the self-elected and empowered hall monitors swarming social media like fruit flies are not liberals, they’re the opposite and an affront to the word (literally, look it up in the dictionary) and to the sensibility and courageous tradition. They are actually Puritans — the ancestral detritus of the Pilgrims who came to this continent from a continent that was, understandably, sick of them, and raped the land and slaughtered the existing population, and morally, effectively and literally enslaved their own sons and daughters, in the name of a God who couldn’t have been more ashamed and disappointed in them. 

That’s our heritage! And tell me the difference between the Plymouth settlers of the 1600s and today’s woke legion reading chapter and verse from their new tyrannical scriptures, and persecuting all perceived infractions. 

Even the right isn’t this conservative, this backwards, this theocratic! Because this is a new and repugnant designer religion, perpetrated by intellectually cowardly people who never actually do anything valuable for the people they pretend to care about. They just trawl language, looking for things they can object to, to demonstrate a false virtue, an ersatz piety.

I’ve often said this country is long on piety but short on morality, but I used to say that about born again Christians, the once obvious enemy of free speech and a free society. The people who didn’t want anyone else to be happy unless they behaved the way they told you to. Now the enemy is more insidious and slithers across our horizon darkly, masquerading as liberators and champions, while, in reality, they are wrapping marginalized people in the sticky, paralyzing saliva of perpetual victimhood.

Look at the recent backlash against pop singer Róisín Murphy, who is about as threatening a figure as the Pillsbury doughboy. She got involved in a trail of comments on Facebook, on her own personal page, mind you, and questioned — one would think quite sanely — the growing preponderance of “puberty blockers,” which are medications that prevent the natural biological evolution of a child. This is so that children, who don’t yet have sexual hormones but believe they are in the wrong body, can’t develop into the person they’re sure they’re not meant to be. This is young, pre-adolescent children we’re talking about. Who may not, let’s be fair, be entirely sure of anything, regardless of their often-changing instincts and sense of the world. 

In making her points, Roison used the phrase “little mixed up kids” — which they may well be, in all honesty — when challenging the wisdom of forcibly preventing a child from growing naturally. 

So, not an invalid issue to raise! And hardly a transphobic one. Additionally, Róisín expressed a healthy suspicion of the pharmaceutical industry marketing these treatments — not exactly a controversial suspicion. Someone screenshotted her comments, blasted them across social media and, of course, called for her commercial beheading, which is what cancel culture is, a bloodlust disemboweling of a person to signal your moral superiority. 

Róisín subsequently apologized for her remarks, cowed into disowning them, no doubt pressured to do so by all the people with a financial stake in her new album succeeding. 

“I should have known too that I was stepping out of line” she said as part of her apostasy — because having an opinion these days is “stepping out of line.”

And what is this, that if you’re not trans you can’t talk about trans people or issues, if you’re not gay you can’t talk about gay people or issues, not Black you can’t talk about Black experiences? Unless, of course, to echo the approved platitudes. What kind of world is that? What kind of conversations are we having, where actual conversation, the back and forth, is prohibited, banned, stamped out like an infestation of vermin? What possible value could these conversations have? 

Seriously, think about that for a second. And this isn’t a Pavlovian experiment where you have to respond with one of a handful of pre-set reactions. This isn’t I bang on your knee with a little hammer and you see how fast you can kick out your leg. 

This is crucial to think about! What is the value of conversation if you can’t have a conversation? What can be learned, formed, refreshed, inspired? What, for the love of all that is holy, is wrong with, at the most extreme end of the scale, occasional criticism, and at the least extreme end, asking a question?

Is it possible that some trans children are “mixed up little kids”? Can you with absolute surety say that’s not true? Of course you can’t! But what happens, in the real world, to real children, and their parents, if we don’t allow the question? Don’t even allow consideration of the possibility. Isn’t it obvious that that’s a disservice to fellow human beings? And for what? — for what do we suppress all alternative opinions? So that a group of people are never, ever, in any way, no matter how small a way, offended? 

Does that sound right to you? Balanced?

Is it such unconscionable heresy — enough to stone a person in the public square, like used to happen in biblical times or happens today in Taliban-run Afghanistan — to say that trans people are not always right or perfect? That gays aren’t, that people of color aren’t — not always, I’m saying, remember. That women aren’t always right. That Italian American straight white older men aren’t always right? 

Do you want to destroy someone for suggesting that — fill in “x” group, apparently fragile, defenseless victims — don’t always have all the answers? 

If so, why? How are you making the world better? Can you answer that question?

Protestors gather outside the PMRC senate hearing in Washington DC, September 18, 1985. (Credit: Mark Weiss/Getty Images)

I launched SPIN in 1985, just before the “Senate Wives” as they were known, four rather odious, not very smart women married to sitting US Senators who, prompted by Tipper Gore who wanted to make her ambitious husband Senator Al more palatable to middle America when he ran in the next Presidential election, started the PMRC, the loftily titled Parents Music Resource Center, designed to draw attention to and restrict “offensive music lyrics.” The very fabric of America was tearing, like the curtain in the Temple ripped asunder when Christ exhaled his last breath. Forget Russia and the constant hanging sword of nuclear war. Forget AIDS! The real threat to our way of life was Prince’s Nicky, masturbating in a hotel lobby with a magazine.

The PMRC were ridiculous. That is not me being insulting, that is me being kind. They had not a wit of evidence for their flimsy argument that rock and rap lyrics were damaging young people, but they were able, in an unfathomable abuse of access and privilege, to have full Senate hearings conducted. This wasn’t a small matter, this almost led to the criminalization of music. 

Naturally the media covered this seriously — appropriately so. And naturally they wanted editors of music magazines or executives from MTV and radio networks to come on TV and radio shows to discuss it. But no one on our side of the fence wanted to go! Just me! I was the last call the bookers usually made, when they’d exhausted every other possible source. Most had never heard of SPIN by the time they found our number. “Would your editor come on to talk about this?” they asked Diana Holtzberg, who handled our PR. “Oh, I think he will,” she said, knowing I’d give a speech to three people at a bus stop if the bus was late. So, by default — very complete, utter default — I became the spokesman for rock ‘n roll from the press, the only dumb lamb looking for the slaughter.

But I knew it was important to do this! My father was the publisher of Penthouse, the most successful and outrageous and probably most controversial magazine of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and a lightning rod for moralists who perpetually sought its destruction. Its canceling. My father stood up, bravely and defiantly and eloquently against the moral crusaders and fought for his — and everyone’s — First Amendment right to publish. He indemnified every newsstand in America that carried Penthouse, so that if they were prosecuted his lawyers would defend them. He knew if you didn’t fight for your rights, you lost them.

Frank Zappa appears at the PMRC senate hearing September 19, 1985. (Credit: Mark Weiss/Getty Images)

That was burned into my brain and I passionately and emphatically debated the rock lyrics issue, with journalists, conservatives, bible thumpers and, where I could, the PMRC founders. I debated Tipper Gore on Oprah, and at the end of the show she came up to me and said “I don’t know why we’re fighting, I’m against nuclear war!” a statement which, I think, perfectly captures the incoherency and unmooredness of their campaign. I debated Gore’s co-founder Susan Baker on Fox News and even Sean Hannity wound up siding with me against her. I debated Jimmy Swaggart live on CNN, and went on Christian radio and TV more times than most evangelists appeared. I was an evangelist! — for free speech. One day my father told me I was wrong to go on those channels. “You give them credibility,” he scorned. “Credibility?” I said, “They don’t need credibility, they’ve got God! What they don’t have is an opposing point of view.” I said there was no point just going on MTV and FM radio and preaching to the converted, it was important to speak to the people who didn’t agree with us. 

And I often did change people’s minds in those alien environments. It helped that I was a devout Catholic and knew the Bible and could argue (and quote) back at my interviewers. But more importantly I was reasonable, I wasn’t didactic. I genuinely understood their side, and showed that. They weren’t bad people! They just wanted the world to be nicer, simpler, rosier. Quieter. They weren’t all charlatans like Swaggart. I sometimes agreed with them — not about the dangerousness of music or aggressive or salacious lyrics, but the decline and sometimes outright loss of moral fascia in society. But my position was, very clearly, that wasn’t the fault of music.

One day, a music industry friend had a go at me, saying he thought it looked like I sometimes took the other side, was too understanding, that I didn’t finish them off, like a good matador killing the bull. I said, if we’re for freedom of speech and protecting the sanctity of the first amendment, then we have to be supportive of their free speech too. We were fighting for their first amendment rights as well, to disagree with us and hate us. 

We were striving for them to have the right to express an opinion we thought was very wrong, and didn’t want to hear.