Winston Marshall risked it all last week. The man is probably the single most successful banjo player in history; he joined Mumford & Sons in 2007 as a 20-year-old, self-proclaimed trustafarian, just as the world was subsumed by a beguiling stadium-folk mania, and together, the British foursome made gobs of money by superimposing a Creed-ish veneer onto classic dust-bowl blues. (Their first record, Sigh No More, sold 3.2 million copies, nearly unprecedented for a debut.)
But Marshall, now 33 and no worse for wear, threw all of that away. On Thursday, he announced that he was quitting the band for good, abandoning Mumford with his two remaining sons. Marshall is not leaving because of creative differences, touring exhaustion, or any of the other classic vectors that pull a lucrative artistic collaboration apart. No, this banjoist wants to tweet, and he believes that his band was inhibiting that desire.
Take it from Marshall himself, on the Medium blog that explains his decision. “I hope in distancing myself from them I am able to speak my mind without them suffering the consequences. I leave with love in my heart and I wish those three boys nothing but the best,” he writes. “I have no doubt that their stars will shine long into the future. … I look forward to new creative projects as well as speaking and writing on a variety of issues, challenging as they may be.”
Some context: Marshall found himself in hot water in March when he tweeted in solidarity with Andy Ngo, a conservative journalist who has dedicated his career to the sensationalization of fringe antifa groups. Ngo is single-handedly responsible for convincing prime-time Fox News viewers across America that they are being hunted by a cabalistic, existentially threatening network of communist agitators. “You’re a brave man,” tweeted Marshall, above an image of Ngo’s book titled Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy. (The front cover also includes a quote from Tucker Carlson.) Mumford fans the world over were understandably upset that their favorite banjo player would publicly endorse such a flagrant right-wing charlatan, and Marshall issued an apology a few days later.
But close observers know that the start of Marshall’s radicalization goes back much further. After all, in August 2018, Marshall invited Jordan Peterson—a Canadian psychologist who has found a windfall of fame by expressing some questionable beliefs about the sanctity of masculinity—to the band’s recording studio. That incident caused a similar backlash when Peterson uploaded a photo of him and the group to his Instagram account, and Marshall immediately went on the defensive.
“I don’t think [Peterson’s] psychology is controversial,” said Marshall, in an interview with CBC after Peterson’s cameo. “But the quasi-political stuff … I think it’s a conversation we’re having a little bit as a band, and do we want to get into the political stuff? Probably not.”
Clearly, Marshall found the answer to his question. He has firmly taken the leap into the political strata, throwing his hat into the ring as yet another exhausting personality within that inscrutable symposium of center-right weirdos who can’t stop concern-trolling about the perils of wokeness. Ngo, Bari Weiss, and Meghan McCain have already shouted him out, and I greatly look forward to Marshall’s inevitable Joe Rogan appearance.* (I’m sure he’ll be moving to Austin before the end of the year.) Like so many others who have made this pivot from celebrity to reactionary—think Kanye West and Jerry Seinfeld—Marshall was eager to present his own self-cancellation as a martyring act of cultural defiance. In his Medium blog, he quotes both the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and, more brazenly, an idiom frequently misattributed to Winston Churchill, which both aim to articulate the anguish at his core: to post or not to post? Marshall chose the former option, which has extremely grim implications for the rest of us. Imagine wanting to tweet so badly that you’d happily give up a lifetime of future royalties. That’s like Smeagol sacrificing hot meals for the One Ring. There is no drug stronger than the Discourse.
Marshall, of course, is permitted to believe in all of his faulty theories, and he’ll likely fail upward from here. The rest of the band offered genial well wishes to their former banjoist on his next chapter, and I can envision Marshall quickly establishing professional relationships with the likes of Andy Ngo and Jordan Peterson, emerging as an inveterate talking head bobbing around the conservative media welfare state. Imagine that: From Mumford & Sons and big-font Coachella billings, to hustling thousands of Gamergaters out of their hard-earned wages—what a strange, if no longer exactly novel, twist of fate.
But there is also something instructive about Marshall’s diction. He writes with a certain satisfied gravitas, as if he’s living on the edge by unmuzzling his social media accounts and rebuking that dastardly RADICAL LEFT. It’s high time we take that mindset down a peg: There is truly nothing brave or provocative about making posts on the internet. Twitter was initially designed in 2007 so that Jimmy Fallon had a station for his scrapped monologue jokes, while the rest of us told our nine followers what sandwich we were eating for lunch. Nobody felt the need to unleash our threadbare, clueless, under-researched assessments of the daily news cycle back then, because we understood that there were certain things best left unsaid, and certain hills not worth dying on. Fourteen years have passed since the launch of the platform, and society has grown disconcertingly feral in the interim. As a sign of the times, we now have a banjo player invoking literally Winston Churchill—the guy who fought the Nazis—as a way to articulate an exasperating, world-weary sorrow (even if that quote wasn’t Churchill’s, after all). If he stopped posting at will, writes Marshall, it would “erode my sense of integrity. Gnaw my conscience.” Trust me dude, it’s not that deep!
Commentators like Jordan Peterson tend to preach a lot about the supposedly precarious state of free speech. The argument goes that if a population is constantly facing real-world ramifications for what they post online, then the First Amendment isn’t working as intended. That’s true, in a sense. It’s easier than ever to get in life-altering trouble for bad tweets, and Marshall and I likely are aligned in believing that digital culture ought to be much kinder and more patient than it is in its current, unruly state. What is also true, however, is that nobody needs to know your take about everything. Billions of people around the globe swallow up their unfiltered opinions every day. We do that to stay employed, stay polite, and keep our social contract afloat. The instinct to break that code of conduct—to exchange the banjo for an Andy Ngo book and broadcast your convictions to the universe, regardless of whether anyone was asking to hear them—is a very 21st-century phenomenon. The sweet, psychotic joys of posting are never worth detonating a career over. There is a better way, Marshall, and it starts by clicking the “log off” button.
Correction, June 28, 2021: This post originally misspelled Meghan McCain’s first name.