Syntax Issue 10
Denver Syntax
{henry rollins, the problem of argument from celebrity authority & other stupid-yet-common logical fallacies}

brian m. clark

Henry Rollins. The name evokes images of shirtless, muscle-bound, tattooed, shaven-headed, testosterone fueled, amped-up hard rock. As well it should; as the frontman to his eponymous Rollins Band, the man successfully plugged away at sweaty, floor-punching stomp-rock for many years. But unlike the vast majority of hard rock singers out there, Rollins is something of a polymath; an orator, actor, TV presenter, radio deejay, publisher, and published writer as well. Partly as a result of this suite of varied talents, Rollins is one of those anomalous public figures who somehow manage to retain underground punk/hardcore credibility, while simultaneously achieving mainstream notoriety.

Rollins first made his mark as the vocalist to the seminal early ‘80s hardcore band Black Flag, following the demise of which he founded the more metal-ish Rollins Band, for which he is now probably best known. Being a charismatic fellow comfortable in front of both the camera and the microphone, a passionate performer, and (apparently) a generally hardworking guy, by the end of the ‘80s Rollins had become one of those recognizable underground music personas with a distinct ideological bent, whose names and visages are (to one degree or another) synonymous with a particular worldview.(1) Unlike similar underground-music-scene mainstays, however, Rollins is notable in the sense that by the mid-1990s he’d managed to break into the commercial music mainstream. He became an above-ground celebrity, while still somehow staying “indie.”

I first noticed Henry Rollins in my teens, back in the mid-1990s. While idly watching Mtv in my parents’ suburban living room, I was mildly befuddled by Rollins Band’s “Liar” video (on regular rotation at the time), for which Rollins alternately donned a cop uniform, a Superman outfit, a “square” white-collar getup, and was painted bright red. Throughout the video he grinned psychotically at the camera while lip-synch-screaming the song’s lyrics. I later spotted him hosting an episode of Mtv Sports, following which I recognized him again, playing bit parts in hip films like David Lynch’s Lost Highway.

As a teenager I was very into bands like Dead Kennedys, Big Black, Melvins, The Dwarves and other ostensibly “underground” acts that occasionally drew the same fans as Rollins Band. And of course, circulating in that sort of social milieu I soon became aware of Black Flag, and eventually picked up a copy of their Damaged album, on which Rollins delivers some pretty catchy paeans to violence and angst. But to be honest, that’s really the extent of my exposure to the work of Henry Rollins. I’ve seen his face grace the covers of magazines and noticed his name on the spines of books on friends’ bookshelves for years now, but I just haven’t paid him a lot of attention in the decade-and-a-half since I first became aware of him as the Superman-outfit-wearing singer of “Liar.”

About a week ago, however, I finally read a piece of Rollins’ writing; one installment of a column he regularly contributes to the website of the internationally distributed, glossy magazine Vanity Fair (I don’t know whether or not the piece appears in the actual print version). The column in question is titled “Change You Don’t Have To Believe In, Just Deal With,” and is but one of an ongoing series of op-ed pieces from “VanityFair.com’s resident straight talker” (a cartoon caricature of a stern-looking Rollins appears next to this title). It’s a fairly brief screed, wherein Rollins attacks those he disagrees with and defends those he does agree with regarding the issue of President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Great Britain. (The piece is available in its entirely online, here: http://www.vanityfair.com/online/politics/2009/04/change-you-dont-have-to-believe-in-just-deal-with.html)

Happening across this particular installment of Rollins’ column while sitting at my computer, sipping on a cold can of beer, I was shocked (yes, shocked!) at how mind-bogglingly terrible it was. How poorly written. How intellectually lazy and misguided. How directionless and pointless. How utterly juvenile. Most importantly, how undeserving of the imprimatur of legitimacy that comes with being a columnist for a magazine like Vanity Fair, having one’s work presented alongside that of real writers like Christopher Hitchens. Rollins’ piece was so bad that after I finished it I put down my beer and read it again, just to make sure I hadn’t missed something the first time around (nope – it was still terrible). On the second reading, however, I realized that this particular piece of writing is important, not for its content or ideas of course, but as an instructional tool. Although brief (it’s just a few short paragraphs) it’s worth discussing because it is absolutely chock-full of flawed logic – a smorgasbord of bad argumentation – and thus it inadvertently serves as an almost point-by-point guide to how not to make a convincing argument. As I will illustrate in the following paragraphs, every single point Rollins attempts to make in “Change You Don’t Have To Believe In, Just Deal With” is not supported using straightforward reason or solid logic, but rather, by his employment of a range of intellectually lazy argumentative shortcuts – that is to say, logical fallacies.(2) Foremost among these logical fallacies – and overarching Rollins’ piece as a whole – is a quintessentially American cultural affliction that I’ve been increasingly annoyed with as of late (and the reason I decided to write this essay): celebrity status as a stand-in for ability, or what is otherwise known as The Argument From (Celebrity) Authority.

Rollins begins “Change You Don’t Have To Believe In, Just Deal With” by informing his readers that he’s been “reading material at conservative sites” (he doesn’t say which) and that the “content contributors” to those sites (he doesn’t name who) are “sub-literates,” who’re bent out of shape over the fact that Britain is “in love” with President Barack Obama and the First Lady, Michelle. Rollins then goes on to refer to these unnamed conservatives as “mouth-breathers” and “knuckle-draggers,” who he asserts must be frustrated by the fact that “Obama will be received exceedingly well all over the world and perhaps help the entire planet become a more peaceful and prosperous place” – and that in so doing, President Obama will get in the way of all the “disaster” these unnamed conservatives had planned.

By not naming which writers at which conservative sites he’s been reading, Rollins gives himself the opportunity to simply ascribe whatever vague reactionary hysteria to them that he finds suits his argument; and in so doing make himself appear reasonable in tearing that hysteria down. With no quoted statements, no names named and no sites cited, Rollins can say whatever he likes about these nameless “conservatives,” and can’t be proven wrong. He then (needlessly) attempts to invalidate the opinions held by said “conservatives” by simply insulting them like a kid on the playground (“mouth-breathers,” et cetera). This is just petty name calling – hardly objective, reasonable writing for grown ups – but Rollins wants us to take him seriously.

Having already contrasted President Obama with his predecessor the “born-again Texan,” Rollins then devotes a paragraph to pointlessly speculating that, were a hypothetical President McCain to arrive on British shores for an official visit, “The Queen might have all of a sudden been unavoidably detained for an indefinite period and sent an assistant to apologize. The protests on the streets may have resulted in even more destruction and arrests.” He bases this speculation about what might have been on nothing, of course. But it doesn’t matter, because he’s already moved on to discussing the actual violent protests that accompanied President Obama’s real visit to Great Britain.

Being VanityFair.com’s “resident straight talker,” Rollins now levels with us and starts givin’ it to us straight, saying, “So, let’s talk about those protests. Some of the protestors did a fair bit of destruction but they were only a fraction of the huge amount of people on the streets in London. If you read some articles, the protestors were nothing but agitators. They were characterized as ‘anarchists,’ ‘anti-capitalists,’ and ‘environmentalists,’ out to end the existence of money. I’m not buying it.” Again, Rollins refers to “some articles” which impugn the character of the London protestors, but doesn’t bother citing them.(3) Nor does he bother to explain to us why he isn’t “buying it” – but the implication is that (sans evidence either way) we shouldn’t buy it either.

Rollins then goes on to assure us that he personally does not condone the destruction of property, but that nevertheless, “the anger expressed speaks to a very real, global ailment that is having catastrophic effects on people everywhere. It could very well be that many British folks know what’s at stake and are so alarmed by what they feel is an impending disaster that they took to the streets to let their voices be heard.” This statement leaves me wondering: If this “global ailment” is so “very real,” then why can’t Rollins just come out and simply say what it is? If he thinks that British folks “know what’s at stake,” and it’s as serious as he seems to believe it is, then perhaps – just perhaps – it might be worth sharing with the rest of us as well, no? If Rollins feels that there’s something out there which he alleges “is having catastrophic effects on people everywhere,” then why doesn’t he give it a name already? Is it poverty in Third World countries? Is it the specter of total global economic collapse? Is it impending food shortages? Is it the threat of epidemic disease? Is it overpopulation? Is it war? He sure makes it sound important, but apparently it’s not important enough to elucidate upon, so we’re left guessing as to what this “impending disaster” might be. (Here I’d like to point out that while it’s a bit specious – albeit common – to complain about a problem for which one can’t offer up a feasible solution, it’s another thing entirely to complain about a problem of global doom-n-gloom proportions and not even attempt to articulate what the fucking problem is. This is Rollins’ crowning achievement in intellectually lazy, bad, bad writing.)

Rollins’ doomsday omissions aside, there are also a couple of glaring inconsistencies that pop out midway into his column. Although he has no problem whatsoever characterizing conservatives as “sub-literates,” “mouth-breathers,” and “knuckle-draggers,” he nonetheless balks at the idea that those Britons who “took to the streets to let their voices be heard” are characterized unfairly as mere “agitators” and “anarchists” who want to destroy the monetary system. Likewise, while Rollins initially deplores “all the disaster” that he feels conservatives “had planned” for a McCain presidency, he nevertheless offhandedly excuses as justified the real, tangible destruction attendant to Obama’s visit to Great Britain. These are two, rather blatant, internal inconsistencies – and we’re only midway through his piece.

Moving on, Rollins then speculates, “Why you don’t see street scenes like this in America is perhaps due to the fact that many Americans don’t seem all that bothered by endless war, corporate greed, and a potentially ruined future. We go along with stuff, even when it’s totally destructive and insane.” All of Rollins’ other indefensible nonsense aside, this statement in particular is downright surreal to me – because I don’t know what “America” Henry Rollins has been living in for the last eight years, but in my own anecdotal experience, the Bush years were nothing if not politically volatile. Everyone I know was pissed off about something, all the time. People protested repeatedly throughout Bush’s entire presidency. Innumerable books, magazine articles, documentary films, and other articulations of collective frustration and impotence were produced. The country was bitterly polarized. The media became split between the pro-Bush Right of Fox News and the anti-Bush Left of MSNBC, et al. Moreover, as Bush’s presidency was drawing to its end, Americans went out to the polls and overwhelmingly elected a liberal, anti-war candidate whose platform was centered on the idea of “change,” with regard to the policies of the previous administration. So I find the idea that many Americans “don’t seem all that bothered by endless war, corporate greed, and a potentially ruined future,” to be delusional at best, and downright patronizing at worst. (Bear in mind, these are not comments that Rollins made off-the-cuff in an interview, they’re something that he actually sat down and wrote, and then submitted to an editor.)

From here, Rollins veers toward the precognizant. Like a TV psychic making vague, open-ended predictions of future events, he dourly warns us, “You can call the protestors in London any damn thing you want, but one thing is for sure: change is coming. It can be rational and beneficial to all or it can go another way. You might not dig those stats.” Well golly, with parameters that vague and open-ended, I guess Rollins will invariably be right in his predictions – “change” will come, but if it doesn’t benefit everyone then it will go “another way.” I find it difficult to come up with a more asinine statement to make in print, excepting perhaps the axiom “shit happens, dude.” Yes, “change” will indeed come – and if it doesn’t go one way, then you can put your money on the fact that it’ll go “another way.”

Still, Rollins continues irrationally slogging along: “The world is wanting to have a talk with America. I hope we can listen now. Eight years of arrogant deafness has done America no favors at all.” Reading this I ask myself, What in The Name Of Fuck is this guy even talking about at this point? To whom, exactly, is he referring when he says that “America” needs to listen to “The World”? Does he mean The British? The European Union? The Russians? North Korea? Iran? The Islamic world as a whole? We’re left scratching our heads because this aimless, hyperbolic statement, like the column as a whole, is essentially pointless. Moving on from hyperbole to complete non-sequiturs, Rollins then inexplicably states, “The Queen of England has an iPod. John McCain doesn’t know how one works.” Again, a totally pointless comparison and indicative of nothing whatsoever (especially considering that The Queen isn’t an elected British official, The Prime Minister is).

Finally closing out this meandering installment of “straight talk” – in lieu of making anything resembling a cogent argument – Rollins opts to leave his readers with yet some more playground-level insults, saying, “Oh, before I forget, I had an idea for you Glenn Beck fans. Get your pal Chuck Norris to send you a pair of his sweaty boxers, post Total Gym workout, drop them into a large pot of freshly boiled water, allow them to steep for several minutes and then serve at your next Tea Party, you crazy kids! Please stop breeding.” (For all intents and purposes, a simple “go eat your own poop you big dummies!” would have sufficed, no?)

So that’s internationally-recognizable rock persona, published author and “VanityFair.com’s resident straight talker,” Henry Rollins for you – driving home his closing argument with the suggestion that those he disagrees with should just go drink some sweaty-boxer-shorts-tea and “stop breeding.” After years of seeing this guy’s name on the spines of books, his stern “tough guy” mug on the cover of magazines, his albums in barroom jukeboxes, and his big, self-confident grin on national TV, I’m now confronted with the realization that this – this – is the adolescent level of discourse he’s capable of mustering on matters of international politics. Ridiculous. Just completely fucking ridiculous.

Regardless of what one may think of President Obama, President Bush, Senator McCain, The Queen Of England, Glenn Beck, Chuck Norris, Rollins Band or Black Flag I’m gonna’ go way out on a limb here and contend that this installment of Henry Rollins’ column for Vanity Fair is some pretty undeniably terrible writing. At best, it reads like an unfocused, angst-filled rant from a high school student; and that’s being charitable. More importantly – to reiterate, for the purposes of this essay – it contains either directly or by implication, the following intellectually lazy, argumentative copouts commonly known as logical fallacies:

• “Poisoning The Well” (Before I tell you what position I’m opposed to, you should know that the people supporting that position are “sub-literates.”)
• “Straw Man” (“Conservatives” have whatever crazy, extreme opinions I want to ascribe to them, but I’m not going to quote them because it’s easier for me to attack the exaggerated, proverbial “straw man” position I’ve erected to suit my argument.)
• “False Dichotomy” (A McCain presidency would be full of “disaster,” but “Obama will be received exceedingly well all over the world and perhaps help the entire planet become a more peaceful and prosperous place.” I.e. There is no middle ground between disaster and peace.)
• “False Analogy” (A McCain visit to Great Britain would essentially be the same as a Bush visit because even though they’re different people, they both represent “conservatives.”)
• “Ad Hominem” (The conservative commentators I disagree with are just mouth-breathing knuckle-draggers. It’s easier for me to insult them as people than it would be to mount an actual argument against their position.)
• “Inconsistency” (It’s fair for me to insult and generalize my opponents and their views, but unfair when people I agree with are likewise insulted and generalized.)
• “Circular Logic” (Protestors sensing an “impending disaster” are causing damage to property, which is justified because a “global ailment” is having “catastrophic effects” which is causing protestors to sense an “impending disaster” and damage property.)
• “Begging The Question” (“Change” is coming, but if it doesn’t benefit everyone, it will go “another way.”)
• “Appeal To Popularity” (President Bush was disliked by “The World” and Britain is “in love” with President Obama, therefore President Obama is somehow “better” than President Bush, simply because he is more well-liked by Britons.)
• “Hasty Generalization” (British protestors can sense “impending disaster” and are therefore protesting. Americans aren’t protesting, so therefore Americans don’t care about “endless war, corporate greed, and a potentially ruined future.”)
• “Non-sequitur” (The Queen has an iPod, but John McCain doesn’t know how one works.)
• “Unstated Major Premise” (Americans should care about how their president is received overseas because the president is synonymous with “America.” I.e. “Eight years of arrogant deafness has done America no favors at all” but now “America” is ready to listen to “The World,” because the world likes President Barack Obama.)

It’s impressive, really, that Rollins somehow managed to cram that many logical fallacies into such a sort piece – especially a piece which really has no central argument to it (and there are probably even more, subtle fallacies that I likely missed).

I’ve got nothing to say one way or the other about Rollins’ abilities as a singer, actor, orator, TV presenter or deejay (I’ve managed to mostly ignore him in all of these capacities), but I will say that in my humblest of most humble opinions, his “Change You Don’t Have To Believe In, Just Deal With” is absolutely, mind-bogglingly ineptly written. Irrespective of whether or not one agrees with Rollins’ basic political sentiments or feels that his heart is or isn’t “in the right place,” the fact remains that (at least in this particular example), the man cannot effectively articulate his ideas or communicate his views in a compelling way that sways readers. He tires, but even with the manifold crutches of logical fallacy, he still fails miserably.

So, if I may engage in my own speculation about what might have been, I would argue that, were the text “Change You Don’t Have To Believe In, Just Deal With” submitted by an unknown essayist, it would have been flatly rejected by any even moderately respectable magazine not published on a copy machine. But it wasn’t rejected. There it is, somehow having passed muster at Vanity Fair – and on the surface that doesn’t make a lot of sense. So the question we have to ask ourselves is: why?

And the answer is, in itself, the most overarching logical fallacy of all: “The Argument From Authority.” Henry Rollins’ political commentary is presumed worth reading simply because he is a celebrity. That’s it. Rollins is a public figure well schooled in being in the public eye, and in America, that makes him notable. It makes him respected by default. It gives his opinions and political views a weight that they, in truth, have not earned and simply do not deserve. Thus, the fallacious “Argument From Authority” here is the unstated implication on the part of Vanity Fair that what Rollins is saying should be accepted by readers as true and worth reading – not because he’s done a good job of arguing his case by presenting reasonable arguments and backing them up – but simply because he’s famous and he’s the one saying it. The emphasis is not on the veracity of arguments presented to support the case being made, but is instead on who is making them – in this case, the former singer to a hard rock band turned TV persona.

This is relevant (it prompted me to write this essay, anyway) because this particular isolated little example of a mediocre political column penned by a rock celebrity is unfortunately indicative of a much larger problem in American culture. I wish that Henry Rollins’ poorly-argued text were just a fluke – an isolated example of the connection between celebrity status and The Argument From Authority in America – but it isn’t. In fact, Rollins is just the tip of the hubristic Argument From Celebrity Authority Iceberg; and, to be fair, he isn’t even really one of the more egregious examples. Consider the following:

Actress Jenny McCarthy and her even-more-famous boyfriend Jim Carrey are ardent anti-vaccination activists who argue that despite the weight of evidence and the consensus of the scientific community, vaccines are the likely cause of autism in children. Actor and comedian Joe Rogan believes that NASA’s moon landing was a hoax; that Apollo astronauts never actually set foot on the moon. Actor Tom Cruise – an adherent of that most curious of organized religions, Scientology – denies the efficacy of psychiatry and the pharmacological treatment of mental disorders. Actor and born-again Christian Kirk Cameron rejects evolution as a scientific theory, instead positing that human origins are explainable solely by way of the creation story described in The Old Testament’s “Book of Genesis.” So does Chuck Norris – and similarly-minded actor Ben Stein felt strongly enough to make the faux-documentary film Expelled, arguing that quasi-scientific “creationist” ideas are being unfairly muscled out of the American education system by “Darwinism.” And so on, and so forth.

All of the aforementioned celebrities use their celebrity status to actively promote the dissemination of whatever zany flavor of crackpot nonsense they happen to subscribe to – and the credulous public, unfortunately, often falls for the Argument From Celebrity Authority, and occasionally actually listens to them.(4)

As Americans, we as a culture put celebrities on a pedestal for having achieved something notable that we respect, but the problem here is that we then go on to make the mistake of thinking that the respect that they have earned from us for their accomplishment should also be extended to everything else they say and do – and they know that, and they exploit it.

The Chinese have a saying (or so I’m told – I don’t speak Chinese) that I came across a long time ago, which I’ve always been very fond of. It goes something along the lines of, “Being on the right side of an argument does not involve having the loudest voice.” In our culture, celebrities have some of the loudest proverbial voices, and some of them choose to use those voices to shout-down doctors, researchers, economists, scientists, analysts, and other people who’ve devoted their lives to studying some particular topic of social import. But what’s stupid isn’t that celebrities opine on subjects about which they aren’t experts (after all, everyone does), what’s stupid is that the public often actually listens to them. Henry Rollins’ status as a celebrity by no means qualifies him to comment on international politics any more than anyone else – he’s not a political analyst, sociologist, economist, or an expert on international relations – but that doesn’t matter. Vanity Fair doesn’t give him a regular column based on his caliber as a competent political commentator or his ability to make a convincing rational argument – they do it because there is a significant number of people out there who will see his name and the little cartoon portrait of him beside it, and they’ll think to themselves, Oh, cool, a column by Henry Rollins, that guy rocks pretty hard. I wonder what he thinks about President Obama’s visit to Great Britain? And – my God, people – that is a moronic, foolhardy way to think.

Consider for a moment, if you will: maybe most astronomers aren’t as funny or self-assured as Joe Rogan is (and he certainly is both). Maybe they get awkward in front of the camera, or experience nervous brain-freeze and have trouble summarizing decades of research and observation into a single sound bite; but perhaps – just maybe – their collective body of accumulated knowledge and scientific consensus ought to be given way, way more credence than Rogan’s fringe conspiracy theory that the Apollo moon landing was a hoax. And consider that – yeah, probably most of the employees over at the Centers For Disease Control aren’t even close to as fuckable as Jenny McCarthy – but perhaps, just maybe, their collective research deserves to be taken far, far more seriously than her misplaced maternal instincts regarding the idea that vaccines are the likely culprit behind her son’s autism. And perhaps (again, just a maybe here), Tom Cruise, Chuck Norris, Kirk Cameron and Ben Stein are all so completely immersed in their religious views that they just can’t be objective about the subjects against which they’ve set themselves in opposition. Maybe, rather than being given air time by mainstream media outlets simply because they’re famous (as is often enough the case), all of these people simply ought to be ignored.

Members of bands like U2, Radiohead and Coldplay have strong opinions on issues of international trade, international banking, human rights, et cetera. Actors like Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen are all outspoken critics of U.S. foreign policy. Pamela Anderson is a spokesperson for P.E.T.A. And there are many others like them. Now, mind you, I’m not saying that any of these people are necessarily wrong per se – that’s a subjective judgment, and isn’t what’s at issue here – what I am saying is that just because they’re celebrities doesn’t make them right. If any of these individuals have a case to make, and they can present compelling arguments in favor of that case – just like anyone else advocating a particular position – then fine, by all means, let them present evidence to back up their arguments. However, whether or not one accepts those arguments should be based on the strength of the evidence presented, not whether or not one happens to like U2’s music or Pamela Anderson’s movies. Because it’s silly – just plain goddamned silly – to think that celebrities are more in touch with reality or somehow more privy to “the truth” than anyone else. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to argue that precisely because celebrities are often surrounded by sycophants (“yes men” and other assorted hangers-on), they’re actually probably less in touch with reality than the average person; less able to be objective and to question the premises of their own conclusions.

Bearing this in mind, it’s odd to me that as a culture Americans are (rightly) indifferent to what scientists, doctors, researchers and other specialists think about the subjective merit of music, movies, art or other forms of creative expression – yet so many of us put some level of significance on what musicians, actors, artists and other celebrities think about science, medicine or other areas of empirical knowledge. This seems all but insane to me. Celebrity status by no means nullifies one’s opinions – I’m not arguing that at all – but it doesn’t validate those opinions either. That’s the point. That’s the problem with the Argument From Celebrity Authority: what should matter to the public is the validity of a case being made and how well it’s argued and supported, not who’s making it.

The prevalence of this phenomenon – The Argument From Celebrity Authority – to me, is a far more damning exposal of the shortcomings of American culture than any hyperbolic indictments someone like Henry Rollins might make about our supposed deafness to the outside world. Certainly, “America” would do well to listen to “The World” in a metaphorical sense… but in a literal sense, it may also be a good idea for Americans to stop listening to what celebrities like Rollins think about anything other than what they’re famous for – especially when they can’t even backup their arguments without resorting to a host of logically fallacious argumentative copouts.

As a caveat, I’m obliged to add that I’m not saying that I’ve never been swayed by the Argument From Celebrity Authority. Of course I have – most of us have at one time or another. But I am saying that there’s no time like the present to simply stop and say: You know what, you famous, overpaid, unqualified blowhard – I don’t give a shit what you think about anything other than what you’re already famous for, because you’re anything but an expert. Show me the evidence, make a convincing argument using solid logic and reason, or just shut the fuck up already. I sincerely wish that we, as a culture, could do this – although unfortunately I don’t see it happening any time soon.

As for Rollins specifically… Just prior to finishing this piece I emailed a draft to a friend whose opinion I respect, and who also happens to be a pretty big fan of Rollins’ various creative endeavors. I wanted to get an objective, outside take on what I’d written about the guy – to make sure my criticism wasn’t too overbroad, unfair, off-base, or just plain wrong. My friend’s emailed response included the following:

“I was a big Black Flag fan in high school and I thought the better Rollins Band stuff was amazing. I’ve been to several of his spoken word shows and enjoyed them thoroughly… I’ve read a lot of his books, and he’s good when he follows that age-old rule that all writers should follow: write what you know. He’s a good storyteller when writing about his travels or touring with bands. He’s also an entertaining music writer, if somewhat absolutist… but he kind of writes about politics in the same way he writes about bands: in a black-and-white, absolutist voice.”

Okay, fine. Assuming that my friend’s statements are true, Rollins is a compelling storyteller who makes entertaining commentary about music, delivers enjoyable spoken word performances and used to put on great live shows back when he was performing. That’s all super. No argument from me there. Unfortunately, none of that has any bearing whatsoever on his qualifications (or lack thereof) to write about politics. In the case of his piece “Change You Don’t Have To Believe In, Just Deal With” Rollins manages to stumble his way thorough the perilous realm of Logic Land and somehow step on nearly every Logical Fallacy Landmine along the way. His piece never should have made it past an editor, but it did, precisely because of all the other (irrelevant) aspects of his career. That’s the problem.

My friend goes on to say, “I’m not sure where you’re publishing/submitting this, but… Rollins himself – he is known for directly replying to his critics.” Hmm… Well, if this is also true, then it actually only further supports my argument. Because again, what’s at issue here is the strength and validity of arguments themselves, not who’s making them – and that goes both ways. It’s childish to respond to “critics” – the substance of the criticism itself is what’s at issue. Bottom line: if someone is wrong and is using bad, sloppy argumentation, then they’re just plain fucking wrong – regardless of who they are, and regardless of who happens to be pointing it out. The idea that a muscle-bound celebrity like Henry Rollins would obliquely dissuade criticism of his work through his being “known for directly replying to his critics” only implies that the work being criticized probably isn’t really strong enough to stand on its own in the first place.

If Rollins wants to be taken seriously as a political commentator (at least by me anyway), then he’d do well to learn from criticism, and to devote the same sort of uncompromising discipline that he applies in his workout regimen to honing his critical thinking skills and vetting his ideas before publishing them. Because the simple fact of the matter is that calling one’s opponents “knuckle-draggers” and citing “some articles” as evidence to backup inarticulate political views doesn’t come even close to approximating a legitimate argument for or against anything – it’s lazy writing supported by the crutch that its author happens to be famous. That’s just downright silly – and Vanity Fair should know better.

(Brian M. Clark is a writer, interviewer, independent record label owner, and semi-professional drunkard. Information on him is available at his website www.brianmclark.com)


(1) Individuals who came out of some particular facet of the ‘80s or ‘90s “underground” music scene, developed a fan base, and have been able to make a living at it ever since, switching creative gears – from music, to art, or to writing, et cetera – all the while. Similar underground musicians-cum-icons include the likes of: Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys), Lydia Lunch (Teenage Jesus & The Jerks), Michael Gira (Swans), Genesis P-Orridge (Throbbing Gristle), Billy Childish (Thee Headcoats), Kathleen Hannah (Bikini Kill), Boyd Rice (Non), Sam McPheeters (Born Against), et al.

(2) Explanations and definitions of logical fallacies are available online at: www.logicalfallacies.info and http://www.theskepticsguide.org/resources/logicalfallacies.aspx

(3) I didn’t follow this particular tidbit of news at all, but I’m willing to agree with Rollins on this particular bit of conjecture. Most of the protestors who did damage in London probably weren’t ideologically-driven anarchists, anti-capitalists or environmentalists with some sort of cohesive political goal – like most smash-happy protestors in most places they were likely just a bunch of misguided malcontents with a seething contempt for that nebulous, vaguely-defined entity known as “the man.”

(4) This is not the same thing as celebrity endorsement. If people want to buy Paul Newman’s salad dressing, Francis Ford Coppola’s wine, George Foreman’s grill, or Marilyn Manson’s absinthe – simply because those particular celebrities have leant their names to such products – then fine. But when Tom Cruise and Jim Carrey think they’re qualified to dispense medical advice, the needle on my bullshit detector starts bouncing all over the place.