Nowadays, there is hardly a song one can’t find in one form or another on the Internet, and most of them can be found on YouTube. But when Jacob Siegel sought out Bob Dylan’s 1983 “Neighborhood Bully,” he realized that it had “vanished”:
I can assure you that Googling “Neighborhood Bully” was in no way intended by me as a political statement or gesture. “Neighborhood Bully” is assumed to be a song about Israel being singled out and maligned among the world’s nations, but Dylan has rejected this interpretation just as he always denied narrow political readings of his work. “I’m not a political songwriter,” he told an interviewer shortly after the record came out. “‘Neighborhood Bully,’ to me, is not a political song, because if it were, it would fall into a certain political party. If you’re talking about it as an Israeli political song—in Israel alone, there are maybe twenty political parties. I don’t know where that would fall, what party.”
Further investigation led Seigel to evidence that YouTube’s administrators, or their algorithms, had removed the video after classifying it as hate speech. Here are some of the lyrics that were somehow deemed offensive:
The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land
He’s wandered the earth an exiled man
Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn
He’s always on trial for just being born
He’s the neighborhood bully. . . .
Well, the chances are against it and the odds are slim
That he’ll live by the rules that the world makes for him.
A platform like YouTube is not just a “content provider,” like a digital jukebox. It’s not an artist, who can choose which versions of which songs he chooses to make available to whom and when. It’s a ledger, on which the shared events and references that together add up to something like a social or cultural whole are recorded. Instantaneously altering that shared database based on nothing more than the half-formed political whims of whatever cadre of censors has been appointed to control the “hate speech” algorithms is the first step to controlling memory itself. I see it, and it scares me.