Blearily scanning the New York Times homepage yesterday morning as I sometimes reluctantly do, usually out of a faint sense of obligation, I was jolted into sudden hyper-alertness by the sight of an extraordinary revelation: turns out Tom Morello, the hard-charging Rage Against The Machine guitarist and radical activist, is the proud purveyor of a brand new subscriber-only newsletter at the New York Times! Fork over some dough to the NYT — the outfit long understood to be the country’s chief organ of establishment consensus — and among the exclusive perks you’ll receive are renegade insights from Tom delivered directly to your email inbox. Whoa, subversive!
Piggybacking off the success of subscriber-based newsletter platforms like Substack, the NYT recently launched an initiative to expand its reach in this burgeoning sector of the online media industry. And in Tom Morello, they have found a perfect addition to their commercial expansion, with the raging rocker now bolstering the NYT’s “distinct and diverse newsletter portfolio” — as part of what the publication calls its “investment in adding even more differential value to our subscriber experience.”
So there you have it: Tom Morello, the most radical of all radical musician activist whatevers, has brokered a deal with the epitome of establishment media, the NYT, whereby he will contribute his “differential value” to their product “portfolio” in hopes of making the publication a more profitable enterprise. Rock on, dude! “Fight the power” and so forth!
Astute observers might have already pegged Morello some time ago as a dude who, despite the assiduously cultivated “radical” brand, was on the sort of trajectory where you could see him settling comfortably into a nice little publishing arrangement with the NYT. Maybe it was when he started promoting White Fragility, the runaway bestseller that was a Godsend to Human Resources bureaucrats everywhere, giving a huge boon to their lavishly-paid behavioral modification seminar business — seminars ostensibly conducted under the auspices of eradicating racism, with “racism” defined by author Robin DiAngelo as being perpetuated anytime an employee bristles at corporate consultants (hired by their bosses) accusing them of racism.
Or maybe it was when Morello sprung to the defense of the CIA’s latest gender-fluid ad campaign, unable to wrap his head around how appealing to fashionable left/liberal cultural trends might help the CIA gain more recruits. It was lost on Tom that the CIA’s new PR strategy could signify something of note, seeing as every public and private power center is falling over themselves to accommodate this ascendant left/liberal cultural paradigm.
It couldn’t possibly have been when Morello’s autobiographical audiobook, subtitled “Speaking Truth to Power Through Stories and Song,” was published through an arrangement with Amazon-owned Audible. We mustn’t be too cynical about these things; man’s gotta eat!
Either way, there have been clues for awhile that Morello’s brand of Radical-er Than Thou activism could be quite easily absorbed by the New York Times, and that his Speaking Truth To And Fighting The Power, Et Cetera aesthetic could be quite commercially helpful in “adding differential value” to their product.
Some may complain that references to Christopher Lasch have become a bit played out, but there’s a reason his work has enjoyed a revival in recent years — much of it was incredibly prescient. Diagnoses he offered in 1979 can be seamlessly imported into 2021 without much modification. In “The Culture of Narcissism,” Lasch wrote: “Cultural radicalism has become so fashionable, and so pernicious in the support it unwittingly provides for the status quo, that any criticism of contemporary society that hopes to get beneath the surface has to criticize, at the same time, much of what currently goes under the name of radicalism.”
I would love to send Tom Morello a complimentary PDF copy!
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve enjoyed some of Tom’s musical output in the past. Not so much the screeching loud “rage” stuff that sounds like a bunch of guitars being chopped up in a malfunctioning blender, but his more recent “folk” oeuvre has sometimes been decent, especially the collaborations with Bruce Springsteen. However, what I derived enjoyment from was the musicality, not the thought that I was sticking it to The Man by consuming super-subversive counter-cultural contraband. If anyone’s at the locus of contemporary mainstream commercial culture it’s Springsteen, notwithstanding whatever paens to the working man might remain in his lyrics. After all, he’s the in-house entertainment for every Democratic Party presidential nominee!
And look, there’s nothing uncommon or even particularly remarkable about wealthy activists like Morello entering middle age and embracing their induction into the centers of cultural and political power. Tom’s eventual acquisition of a comfy NYT gig isn’t the least bit surprising for someone who emerged from his milieu, nor is his becoming the sort of guy who quotes his seven-year-old son making suspiciously on-the-nose anti-Trump statements. In a sense, you can hardly blame him for enjoying the “privileges” afforded by such a life. But you’d think Morello and others of that ilk would at least have the dignity and/or self-awareness to drop the “cringe” radical branding at some point, and just accept that they’re part of “the club.” Congrats Tom, you made it!
There was a time when Morello could’ve perhaps gotten away with appearing somewhat radical merely by railing endlessly against the depredations of the American Right, especially the Cultural Right, with all its hoary, scolding pretensions and Jerry Falwell-style religious obstinacy. That might have also been around the time that wearing “Rage Against The Machine” t-shirts your mom got at Walmart — after you heard “Guerrilla Radio” on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 — might’ve been a bit silly, but at least suggested you were trying to be an inchoately conscientious teen.
The cultural dynamics have shifted dramatically since then however, and legacy radicals like Morello don’t appear to have the bandwidth to grapple with this development. Back during his rabble-rousing heyday, for instance, Morello pulled out all the stops to protest acts of censorship that in 2021 seem almost quaint. Furious about the placement of “Parental Advisory” stickers on the covers of music albums deemed to contain explicit lyrics, Morello joined his Raging bandmates in taking the stage at Lollapalooza 1993 butt naked, with his “mouth covered in duct tape and body painted with the acronym for the Parents Music Resource Center.” Pretty funny, when you think about it, that the signature censorship controversy of that era was musicians having a dumb little warning label stuck onto their CDs. Now the real censors — whose views roughly align with those of Morello and his NYT colleagues — can simultaneously purge the sitting President of the United States from every major online public communications platform. How times have changed!
I’m in Quebec City, Quebec at the moment, and there was just a big protest a few days ago against vaccine mandates. The protesters actually succeeded in pressuring the provincial government to delay the deadline at which officials had previously said healthcare workers would be fired for not complying. Having relented on threat, the government now looks feckless and weak, and annoyed newspaper columnists remarked that “anti-vaxxers” have ironically “won.” Weirdly, in order to enter dining establishments, I’m required to produce not only my “vaccine passport” (just a screenshot of the notice I got from the US hospital system that administered my vaccine last spring) but also a government-issued ID, so now Canadian waitresses have been deputized as multi-dimensional security inspectors. I comply with these dictates, and I don’t feel particularly “tyrannized” by them, but I do recognize that they are gradual encroachments of a bio-medical surveillance apparatus into normal life on shaky pretenses. And so I’m not entirely unsympathetic with the pejoratively-labeled “anti-vax” protesters, even having been vaccinated myself. The protesters in Quebec City appeared to be a melange of “frontline workers,” including a surprisingly equitable number of women, and they even “put their bodies on the line” by physically blocking off a street in a busy downtown corridor.
But whether you fervently support or fervently oppose these protesters, you’d be hard-pressed not to acknowledge that they’re the people most conspicuously “fighting the power” for the time being. State and corporate power, it should go without saying, is firmly on the side of imposing a system of permanent bio-surveillance, with mandatory vaccination just one component of that. The protesters are willing to sacrifice their livelihoods on principle to resist these impositions. Maybe they’re wrong, maybe they’re right, but at the moment they’re certainly “fighting the power” in a more tangible way than a guy like Tom Morello. Let me know when someone with their views gets a fancy newsletter perch at the NYT.