One way celebrities are like the rest of us is that they shouldn’t be tweeting late on Saturday nights. Last night, Kanye West demonstrated why. “I’m a little sleepy tonight but when I wake up I’m gonna die with 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE,” the rapper wrote to his 31 million followers. “Funny thing is, I can’t be anti-Semitic because black people are actually Jewish too. You played with me and tried to test anyone who opposes your agenda.” He followed that up ask: “Who do you think created the cancel culture?” (He probably didn’t mean Mormons.) The next morning, the first tweet had been deleted by Twitter and West’s account had been locked for violating the platform’s rules.
At first glance, this story is both sad and saddening – the unmoored reflections of a sick man. But it actually contains a surprising number of important lessons for us about why anti-Semitism persists today, how social prejudice interacts with mental illness, and how we might better respond to such sad situations as these. .
Anti-Jewish bigotry is a self-perpetuating cycle. It is a common misconception that anti-Semitism is simply personal prejudice against Jewish people. It’s not. It is also a conspiracy theory about how the whole world works, blaming obscure Jewish figures for countless societal problems. Kanye’s tweets illustrate why this form of anti-Semitism is so hard to root out: it’s a self-asserting conspiracy theory. The anti-Semite claims that the Jews control everything. Then, if they are penalized for their bigotry, they show it. Faces, they win; tails, the Jews lose.
This dynamic creates an agonizing catch-22 for Jews when confronted with prejudice: if they don’t say anything, hatred will spread unchecked. If they say something, and it has consequences for the anti-Semite, the bigot simply uses it as evidence of his anti-Semitic worldview.
For centuries, Jewish communities have found themselves in the precarious position of trying to push back against anti-Jewish prejudice without also nurturing its foundations. Foreigners who criticize Jewish organizations for their response to this or that anti-Semitic incident often fail to understand this point. But in any case, there is no way for Jews to square this circle. Anti-Semitism is a non-Jewish problem, and it requires a non-Jewish solution.
Conspiratorial anti-Semitism is sadly common in all communities, but rarely condemned unless it becomes embarrassingly obvious. If West had replaced globalist Where Zionist Where bankers or another euphemism for Jewish in his tweet, he would probably still be up. These terms have legitimate uses but are often used improperly to recall anti-Semitic conspiracy. If you want to see this in practice, look no further than Iran’s supreme leader, arguably the most powerful anti-Semite on Twitter, whose account, unlike West’s, is unhampered by the platform :
West’s anti-Semitism proved too blatant for Twitter to ignore. But had he added the slightest hint of plausible deniability to his words, it’s likely that many on the platform and beyond would be defending them right now. Most anti-Semites today are not as clumsy as the West, and that is why anti-Semitism remains. Erasing obvious anti-Semitism is easy; it’s hard to honestly reckon with the coded variety, especially when it emanates of his own friends and allies.
The choice between “prejudice” and “mental illness” is often wrong. West and his family have recognized that he is struggling mightily with his sanity. Over the course of his career, the rapper has had numerous public outbursts, including on social media, which seem to reflect his precarious state. It’s also not hard to see how those internal challenges might have been exacerbated by recent events in West’s personal life, including his divorce from Kim Kardashian.
In sensitive situations such as these, there is a lamentable tendency to stigmatize mental illness as a source of societal prejudice, or to excuse such prejudice as the mere expression of illness. But this equation is deeply flawed. Most people who deal with mental health issues are not fanatics and should never be viewed as such. In the minority of cases where such biases arise, something deeper is likely at work.
The sad reality is that those who struggle with mental illness are not the source of their society’s fanaticism, but in their confusion and pain they can sometimes cling to it. In other words, sick people like Kanye rarely go on tirades against, say, the Amish; they tend to land on those already targeted by the wider culture, and reflect pre-existing pathologies in their society, whether anti-Semitism or racism. They are not innovators but reflectors, which means that if we don’t like what we see, we need to take a closer look inside.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with those who have enabled West thus far…
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