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Neil Young, Maus, and the difference between cancellation and censorship

Neil Young, Maus, and the difference between cancellation and censorship

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On a day when Joni Mitchell looked at both sides now and decided to join her friend Neil Young in demanding that her music be withdrawn from circulation on Spotify in protest of that streaming service’s continued promotion of the Joe Rogan podcast that disseminates vaccine disinformation, Maus — a Pulitzer prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust originally published in the 1980s — climbed back up the bestseller charts on Amazon, a massive sales jump primed by the controversy over the books banning by a local school board in McMinn County, Tennessee.

Many progressives now find themselves in the seemingly contradictory position of applauding Young and Mitchell for their principles in refusing to share a platform with Rogan over his vaccine lies and urging Spotify to cancel his podcast while simultaneously decrying the Tennessee school board for its egregious censorship and book banning of a comic about Jews, Nazis, and the Holocaust at a time of exploding expressions of racism and religious bias in our nation.

Indeed, one could ask if there is any difference between the school board’s removal of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel from the curriculum and the musicians’ peer pressure to deny distribution to Rogan’s podcast. Why is one considered censorship and the other relegated to the somewhat less egregious modern category of “cancelation”?

To reconcile the cognitive dissonance that these two apparently diametrically opposed views elicit in many people these days, let’s take a closer look at the two situations.

Both Neil Young and Joni Mitchell have personal experiences that have likely influenced their passionate desire to see Rogan’s anti-vax rants removed from wide public distribution. The two Canadian-born musicians were both among the last generation to suffer from bouts of polio, a virus that caused paralysis and was a scourge that killed or disabled thousands each year before an effective vaccine was developed in the 1950s.

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Their own childhood experience with polio and their witnessing of the miraculous near-eradication of the formerly pervasive childhood disease — after mandatory vaccinations became routine — have likely led them to value public health measures over libertarian selfishness.

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The McMinn County school board also had the interests of their children in mind when they decided to remove Maus from schools in their district. Citing the deleterious effects “of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide,” the members of the school board found the award-winning graphic novel “too adult-oriented” to be used as a tool to teach students about the Holocaust.

Neither Maus‘ banning from McMinn County schools nor the desired removal of Rogan’s podcast would prevent determined seekers of the canceled content from public access. Maus is available from bookstores and libraries, and Rogan could host his podcast on other platforms including his own website if Spotify had chosen to bend to the pressure being applied by Young and Mitchell.

The crucial difference here between the two situations is the nature of the institutions that would be canceling the access to the controversial works.

Spotify is a publicly-held private company being asked by two private citizens to choose between continuing to host and feature their own artistic works and that of a currently very popular podcast host who spreads disinformation that could lead to unnecessary illness and death if followed.

Young and Mitchell have other options like Apple Music, Tidal, and other audio streaming services that they can have distribute their music and simply would prefer not to be associated with a platform that they see as detrimental to public health.

While their attempts to “cancel” Joe Rogan may not have been successful to date, if enough other artists jump on this particular bandwagon, Spotify may be forced to reassess their decision to continue supporting the right-wing podcaster as their primary business of music streaming becomes increasingly affected.

The McMinn County school board, on the other hand, is a government institution whose actions are categorically distinct from that of a private company.

Cancellation of a published work by a government body is called censorship and treads dangerously into the territory covered by the First Amendment’s free speech rights.

In the end, though, the most important distinction between the uproar over Young’s removal of his music from Spotify and the Tennessee school board’s Maus trap is the nature of the aims each action seeks to achieve.

Young, and subsequently Mitchell, both seek to disassociate themselves from a platform they see as harming the public good through discouraging people from getting Covid vaccinations.

The McMinn County board, on the other hand, seeks to restrict access to a work of art that they find offensive, despite— or maybe because of — its portrayal of the evils of anti-Semitism and racism.

Both these controversies raise issues of free speech in America, but only the Tennesee school board’s book banning rises to the level of a threat to our First Amendment rights.

Art Spiegelman and Joe Rogan both have the right to express themselves, but only the author of Maus is being subject to censorship.

Follow Vinnie Longobardo on Twitter.  

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