Rebecca Pierce: Hello and welcome back to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. I’m Rebecca Pierce, Contributing Writer at Jewish Currents, and I’m your host today. I’m joined by Jewish Currents Editor in Chief, Arielle Angel, and Adam Serwer, a staff writer at The Atlantic. Today, we’re going to discuss the controversy surrounding recent comments by Kanye West that expressed antisemitic stereotypes and animus towards Jewish people. For some background: Last week, Kanye took to Instagram sharing a message he sent to rapper Sean Diddy Combs, claiming he had been influenced by Jews when he pushed back against the stunt that Kanye pulled posing in a “white lives matter” shirt at Paris Fashion Week. The situation then escalated when Instagram took down his posts and restricted his account, and Kanye then took to Twitter saying he was going, quote unquote, “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.” In the days that followed, Kanye doubled down on his comments, claimed that he can’t be antisemitic because Black people are the real Jews, and made further antisemitic comments in an interview with Tucker Carlson. Needless to say, this has caused an uproar well beyond the Jewish community. Adam and Arielle, what kind of responses have you been seeing all of this?
Adam Serwer: I think the most interesting response to me was the report in Vice that they had edited Kanye’s interview to make it seem less disturbing than it was. And it was already very weird because fundamentally, what’s happening now is that Kanye is seen as a politically useful person to the American conservative movement and so they want to make sure that he remains useful. So they have to minimize his antisemitism and his mental health problems in order to make him a political symbol that can be used to further their purposes. And when you look at the Instagram thing, obviously most mainstream social media platforms have rules about expressing bigotry, so they restricted his account. And Fox News immediately pivoted to like, “He shouldn’t have said that, but the real issue is that his account was restricted,” which is like, these guys are nothing if not extremely good at staying on message.
But I think it’s important when you look at what Kanye said—a couple of people made this point. John Ganz made it in his newsletter, Yair Rosenberg made it in an interview with The Atlantic—this is not “Jews are good with money,” or like “Black people have rhythm.” It’s not merely an expression of a stereotype; Kanye’s statements about Jews controlling the world, these are expressions of ideology. And so I think it’s important to distinguish between sort of casual bigotry, which is something that I think can be dealt with much more easily, and embracing an ideological view of who Jewish people are in the world. It’s a very uncomfortable position to be in. What do you do about this? I don’t think there are really any easy answers.
Arielle Angel: I want to speak to some of that alarm that you mentioned, because I’ve been going back and forth on this for the last couple of days. I mean, there have been what I would consider to be a number of very hyperbolic responses. The AJC—the American Jewish Community—put out a statement, for example, saying that Kanye’s speech presents a clear and present danger to Jews. And I guess I’m trying to figure out—like yes, it’s antisemitic, but what does it actually mean? And what does it actually do? Like clear and present danger is a really strong combination of words.
AS: Yeah, I mean, I would have just gone with, “He’s an asshole.” Not that we didn’t already know that, but we now know that he’s a particular kind of asshole. I wouldn’t describe him as a clear and present danger, but I do think the issue really is that the right wants to use Kanye as a validator of certain ideas, and in particular, certain racist ideas, because if they come from him, then they can deflect the accusation of racism. I mean, that’s the whole point of the white lives matter t-shirts. But the issue now is that he is a validator for different kinds of ideas that they didn’t necessarily want to put forth, which is that Jewish people control everything. To the extent that they want to put that out there, they want it to be in a deniable way, like: “George Soros controls everything and George Soros isn’t really Jewish. We’re just talking about Soros. We’re not talking about Jews writ large, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.” But when he’s saying Puffy is controlled by the Jews, he’s talking about Hanukkah as a holiday about financial engineering—look, this is crazy stuff. It doesn’t scare me. What worries me is that it validates a certain kind of conspiratorial thought, and it ties into some ideas that are dangerous if taken very seriously.
RP: My concern with some of the fear-based reaction is: What is the logical next conclusion? I think it’s valid, like you’re saying, for people to have a reaction to someone with 30 million followers who many, many people look up to saying something antisemitic, but then what do we do with that fear? And I’ve seen comments that pivot towards, “Well, why isn’t the Black community saying more about this?” Which, of course, Black folks have been talking about Kanye for a long time in a lot of different ways and there were some really interesting conversations actually happening. Like if you bothered to pay attention to what the discourse is on Black Twitter, there were interesting and generative conversations happening. But what I see from some folks, especially to the right in the Jewish community, is this claim that, “Well, Jews supported Black people during the Civil Rights Movement, and Black people aren’t saying anything about Kanye.” And it feeds into this idea of isolation—that Jews suffer alone, that no one will ever come to our aid—and it also removes the ideological connections between what Kanye is saying about Jewish people and this right-wing ideology that is taking hold in the country, that he’s sort of become the Black avatar on the right, that is inherently anti-Black, inherently anti-immigrant, and has all of these other forms of oppression bound up in it. And so what we lose is the actual possibility of solidarity that can come when you start to analyze the connections between these things.
I really dislike this thing that comes up from time to time—and I really hate this idea—that Jewish people did Black people a favor during the Civil Rights Movement, and therefore Black people owe Jews something. And it’s like, no, that’s not what that was. The Civil Rights era alliance—which to some extent still exists, really. Two of the most left-wing demographics in the country in terms of voting behavior, you’re talking about Black people and Jewish people—but that was an alliance rooted in mutual self-interest.
AA: Which is what politics is.
AS: Which is what politics is, and I think people forget that tearing down institutional bigotry in the United States was a boon to Jews, and not just a boon to Black people. But I do think that that conversation is like, if you were trying to cause the type of tensions that we’re discussing, there is really no better way to do it than to drop that piece of chum in the water, and be like, “Well, how come Black people aren’t standing up for us?”
AA: There’s no better way of seeing who wouldn’t have marched with like MLK and Heschel than having people say, “Well, Heschel marched with MLK,” you know?
AS: If you were someone who is backing Kanye, you would love for Blacks and Jews to start getting angry at each other, rather than talking about the actual issue. And this is something that happens frequently. There are often stories that conservative outlets push because they like the idea of stoking tension between Black Americans and Jews over issues like these.
AA: Have any of us seen anything hopeful in here? Is there any indication that this conversation is shifting a little bit? I’m just wondering because there’s the sense of like, “Oh, here we are, again, having the same, depressing conversation.” But I do feel like because there’s been so many rounds of this discourse in the past, it seems like there should be something breaking through, and yet I’m not sure what’s there.
RP: Yeah, actually, what I’ve seen on Black Twitter is some interesting conversations about the ideology behind what Kanye was saying, specifically, his comment about Black people being the real Jews. This is a refrain that you hear in a lot of Black Hebrew Israelite teachings, which is an attempt by Black religious groups in the US to reframe the legacy of slavery as like, Black people had our identity and our roots from Africa stolen through slavery; we’re not that anymore. We’re, in fact, descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel, we have this noble lineage, and our history of slavery is a reflection of the fact that we’re chosen in some way.
And what I saw that was kind of interesting in response to that was discussions about the way that antisemitism can be seen in the Black community in the in the framework of toxic masculinity. Kimberly Nicole Foster tweeted about this and the connection between what some people call Hotepism, this attempt to reclaim a feeling of power. And I was discussing this with a Jewish colleague of mine, and when I explained the roots of the ideology, he immediately made a connection to his own experiences of Holocaust trauma and Jewish people trying to reclaim a narrative of power. And so, personally, I’ve seen some seeds of what could be a really generative conversation about like: How do we all, as oppressed people, approach identity, and community, and our relationships with other groups when our whole sense of our self in history is distorted by what’s been taken from us? And how do you take some of your power back without relying on problematic ideologies that can rob other people of their story, or rely on logics that come from the same systems that a process?
AS: It’s actually based on a really old idea, right, like supersessionism. It’s actually an old, Christian idea that the new covenant replaced the old covenant and Christians are now the new chosen people. And there’s a white supremacist version of this where it’s like, “white Christians are the real Jews, and Jews are usurpers,” and this has been adopted by extreme factions of the Black Hebrew Israelites. Most Black Hebrew Israelites are not like this. Unfortunately, the ones that tend to get the most attention whenever something like this happens, there’s a lot of attention drawn to the most extreme aspects of the movement. But the majority of Black Hebrew Israelites are not like this. And so it’s a kind of supersessionism, but reinterpreted for a particular political perspective. And the way I look at it is, it’s a little like Farrakhan’s ideas, which are to take the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and instead of claiming it as a global conspiracy for communism or capitalism, it’s a global conspiracy that explains white supremacy. So Jews become the hidden hand behind the slave trade, behind Jim Crow, which, obviously, is historically false. Conspiracy theories give people a sense of control and elevation above other people because you feel like you have the inside story, you understand things that other people don’t understand. And as Kanye said, he doesn’t read books. If you have no understanding of the history of these ideas and where they come from—and like I said, they’re very old, they’ve gone through many permutations—then you are susceptible to believing some pretty malicious things. I mean, he’s acknowledged that part of this has to do with his own mental illness. I want to acknowledge that.
AA: I’ve been curious about the question of mental illness in this and how mental illness interacts with these kinds of ideas. I mean, obviously, if you are suffering from psychosis, conspiratorialism is really a part of this. But you still have to obviously take responsibility for your actions, and your worldview, and what you’re pushing. But obviously, a lot has been made about the inaccessibility of mental health care. Obviously, that’s not really a factor for Kanye, but I am struggling with how to understand these comments in relationship to his mental illness, also from the perspective of their impact. I know that you’re saying, Adam, that the way that things were edited on Fox News are to try to make him seem as coherent as possible, but I think most people know that he’s. . .
AS: Got problems.
AA: Yeah. And I’m not sure that he is like, this beacon of influence.
RP: On one hand, you don’t want to take away his agency and the impact of his words—he has like 30 million followers, right? There are going to be people who are absorbing that, even if a lot of people feel like he’s ridiculous. I think there’s some merit to at least thinking about this for two reasons. One is, for example, I was working at a Jewish community event this summer, and there was a guy who came up—and it was clearly advertised as a Jewish community event—and he starts ranting about Jews. And he was clearly going through a mental break, and what he was saying I didn’t really interpret as a direct threat. It was his inner monologue that he’s externalizing because he doesn’t have that filter. I don’t know who he would be if he had treatment and support for his mental illness, if he would still believe these things or not. But it was really clearly, to me, a big part of why and how he was reacting in that way. And I was forced in that moment, because I’m working at this event, by the structures of Jewish community security, to call the police and get them involved. And I felt very, very uncomfortable with that, because I’m like, “I don’t think this is a mass shooter. I think this is someone who needs help.”
But in some ways, because of the reality of violence, we don’t have the luxury always—or the tools—to respond properly to these instances. And I’m not saying Kanye is exactly like that. But there’s another thing that I want to also bring up that’s outside of both ideology and mental illness, and that’s celebrity and wealth. He doesn’t have people telling him no very often. And what struck me about his comments to Diddy, specifically, was that he took someone telling him, “No, actually, I draw a line at you wearing a white lives matter shirt,” to mean that Diddy was being controlled by the Jews. So there’s this kind of grandiose-ness that is not totally separate from mental illness, but part of it has to do with like, “I just don’t think he likes to be told no.” And I think when he is, he has to connect it to a deeper conspiracy.
And you’ll see this with how he reacts to his custody disputes with Kim Kardashian. And of course, she does have a powerful machine behind her, but this “it’s me versus the Jews” kind of thing also strikes me as coming from a place of him not being able to take no for an answer and needing enemies to justify why he’s being held accountable in some way. And what better enemies if you’re a really grandiose person than Jews? Because like, if you’re a Christian, those were Christ’s enemies in a lot of antisemitic, Christian teachings. He’s called himself Yeezus, like it really fits into this personality issue that’s also at play, that comes from just being sheltered from having any consequences by the fact that you’re a celebrity.
AS: Yeah, a lot of antisemitic ideas are embedded in Western philosophy because of the way that that discipline grew out of Christian study of the Bible, and it’s just a part of Western argumentation. It has been for millennia. It’s already in the water and some people get poisoned by it, is how I would describe it. As far as the mental health aspect—in some ways, whether or not his mental health problems are exacerbating this is sort of a separate problem. That’s for evaluating him as a person, not for evaluating the idea which is itself, obviously and clearly, harmful for reasons we’ve already discussed.
RP: So I guess I have this question whenever these conversations come up, like, “Why is this black Jewish dynamic always such a hotbed of controversy?” You just see it over and over again. I think it’s given a special kind of attention. I have questions even during this episode, like “What are we serving by continuing to talk about it?” Why is this such a recurring part of American political discourse?
AS: I think for me, it’s hard for me to speak about it because this is my life. My mom is black, my father is Jewish, this has always been a part of my life. And so I think I’m coming at it from a different perspective, because this conflict has always been at the heart of my being. Conflict is maybe the wrong word. But this dynamic—and I think it stems from a few things. I mean, Black Americans and Jews share a kind of spiritual mythology, talking about slavery, and Exodus, and deliverance, and stuff like that kind of language. They share a history of mutual political interest, and they share a history of political cooperation, and conflict comes up in cooperation. When you are totally isolated from other people, you don’t come into conflict with them. But when you are close, and sometimes when you are very close, you come into even more conflict than you would if you didn’t care about each other at all. And, of course, the contrasts come into play here, too. Black people were brought here as slaves, whereas America has largely been a site of deliverance for Jews, particularly compared to the rest of the world and the rest of our existence in history. And so both the commonalities and the contrasts are a source of interest for people, both within those two communities and people who are outside of it.
AA: I do think that both groups have found in the other a perfect foil, you know? Like for Jews, it’s the idea that nobody cares about our suffering, but in America, everybody cares about the suffering of Black people. Or at least on the left, or like in the progressive left, which obviously is a certain kind of fantasy, but one that they feel like they see playing out online in this kind of thing. And I can’t speak for Black people, but I do think that Jews create a convenient foil in the sense that Jews in America do have white privilege for white Jews. And there is a way in which they, by virtue of also suffering from antisemitism, and also by virtue of being in the positions that they’re in, are able to sometimes get a certain kind of response.
I’m just thinking particularly about—I recently wrote about the response to the Colleyville shooting, wherein there was a lot of complaints from Jewish people that nobody cared about what was happening. But if you looked at the actual response, particularly from government, there was a big response, and not just words and people denouncing antisemitism, but also money. I mean, they doubled the amount of money going to security education from the federal government to $360 million. Even Colleyville, that synagogue itself had a ton of resources in terms of figuring out how to protect the synagogue. So I do feel like there is a way that there’s this perfect mirror, like Jews feel like they’re really lacking in a certain kind of acknowledgement that they feel like the left is affording to Black people. And at the same time, there’s a different kind of acknowledgement that’s being afforded to Jewish people in the current system.
And there is also, on top of this, an internet culture of grievance, of “We’re not getting this kind of political attention,” the kind of response from Sarah Silverman that’s like, “Nobody cares about us. How come no one’s talking about this?” It is really frustrating for me to see someone like her, with so many followers, reiterating a certain kind of Jewish grievance and a certain idea that like, nobody cares about antisemitism, which I don’t think is true. But I feel like there’s no exiting this until we also shift some of the discourse norms on the left around grievance.
RP: Resisting that tendency towards despair is a really important political act. Because, first of all, as Jews, no one else is going to describe our struggle better than we can or understand our communal history better than we will. Like, you’re not going to get what you want in terms of articulating that from other people. And Black folks know that because we’ve had to articulate our own struggle for so long. And there’s an interesting thing in all of this that just makes me think of responses to trauma. I think that in the Jewish community, we have a very deep set of traumas that are intergenerational from the Holocaust, and it’s just passed down that we always have to be afraid of what comes next. And in the Black community, we also have intense trauma that’s kind of unending from the violence of living in this country. And it’s really easy to trigger that.
And I think cultural discussions can be, in some cases, intentionally wielded to trigger that, to get people in this agitated state where they’re gonna go along with extreme assumptions of the other. I see this all the time, of emails that go out to the Jewish community from different Jewish organizations, that are clearly aimed at getting little ladies at my synagogue to be really afraid of Black Lives Matter. I think that there’s an opportunity to look at this impact of trauma on both communities and take a step back in these moments and refuse that attempt to hype people up out of fear and get people in a position of feeling like our communities are diametrically opposed. We don’t have to buy into the us-versus-them discourse around this. We can look at how our trauma influences how we talk about other groups, and I would like to see more of that in the Jewish community. And not just being led by Jews of color, but some internal thought and introspection from people like Sarah Silverman, for example, who I’ve written about before. And I don’t want to harp on her, but it’s like, why is this happening over and over again?
AS: Yeah. I think that social media really encourages this stuff, what I like to call “take inflation” which is that you have to have the most extreme sentiment of whatever it is you’re saying in order to get the validation and attention that you get when lots of people retweet or fave what you’re saying. I also think the easy answer to despair here is that Kanye West does not speak for Black people. Kanye West is one guy, you know? It’s not that antisemitism is nonexistent among Black people, or that racism is nonexistent among Jews. But the point is, you just should not take this one person’s misbehavior as evidence of a far greater sentiment, especially since he is, at the moment, in the middle of his own firestorm for what he’s been saying about Black people. So it’s a bit weird to then, as Rebecca was talking about, take Kanye West as a harbinger of this wave of Black antisemitism that’s cresting. I think it’s very unfair. As disturbing as it is to see him validating things that we’ve seen time and time again, and ideas that can lead people to violence, he is speaking for himself.
RP: If you really think Kanye West speaks for all Black people, it might be because Kanye West is the only Black person you’ve been listening to. You know what I’m saying? Like I know a lot of white, Jewish guys I went to college with just love hip hop, and that’s their entry into Black culture. And prior to hip hop, they had not had much contact with Black people. So their idea of what Black people do think, say, comes from what is available to them in the culture. That also speaks to like, we need a different set of relations, we need to know each other as people and not just cultural symbols. Jews are more than a story that we’ve been told through the Bible. Black people are more than what you see on MTV. In order to really know that, though, you need to go out and get to know your neighbor and not be insular. And because of the history of segregation, it’s easier said than done, right? But we have to be intentional and resisting always consuming stereotypes about each other through culture and having that be our only point of contact.
AS: I’m looking at this sort of “come get your boy” aspect to this, because if some Jewish person said something horrendously racist, as a Jewish person, you would not be like, “Oh, well, he speaks for me, because he’s also Jewish.” No one would think that way.
AA: Yeah, I think where we need to be worried, from the perspective of Jewish communal politics, is the ways in which even liberal, Jewish organizations, who consider themselves liberal or even progressive, will play right into the hands of the right on this, in terms of making this representative of something. I guess, I’m still frustrated with the like antisemitism industrial complex and the way that this becomes a thing where every Jewish organization has to put out a statement, where it’s like “Rising antisemitism in this country, and this is how it looks.”
AS: I think, as you point out, there’s a lot of things you might be able to point to as an example of rising antisemitism the United States, but Kanye is, in some ways, not that because he’s such a sui generis example.
AA: Totally. That’s what I’m saying.
AS: A Black, right-wing validator who is spouting a kind of antisemitism that typically gets attributed—I would not attribute it myself—but it typically it’s attributed to the left. In some ways, it’s such a weird, one-off type of situation that it’s not really connected to valid concerns people have about antisemitism, which I think is really connected to this conspiratorialism.
RP: I want to be clear: I’m not an endorser of the idea of horseshoe theory. But there is an interesting thing where when you look at Black Hebrew Israelite ideology—and I’m talking about the more extreme versions that are anti-Jewish—I’ve seen attempts in the past—and something I’ve written about for Currents—where people are like, “Oh, this is left wing antisemitism.” When you look at what these groups are saying, it’s actually not particularly left wing. Like they’re homophobic, they’re patriarchal, they have ideas about Jews that are really rooted in Christian fundamentalism, and at the same time they’ll be spouting some sort of Pan-Africanist ideas, and it doesn’t always map onto politics as simply as people want it to. I think Farrakhan is another example of this, where he’s actually very conservative in a lot of his ideas.
AS: He’s just Black and has a critique of white supremacy, and that gets perceived as left. Even if, ideologically, it is not left wing in the way that you think of traditional, left-wing thought being.
RP: At the same time, I’ve seen people I know on the left, who were very critical thinkers, in the times of COVID descend into this anti-vax stuff, where they are like all of a sudden, really pro-Tulsi Gabbard, who is leaving Democratic Party because she thinks it’s too woke. So there are ways that all of these politics and that conspiratorial bent that you’re talking about, they’re involved in the sort of left/right spectrum, but they’re also beyond it. And there’s something that is deeper there to think about. What concerns me, though, is the way that it gets utilized by people who have a really particular goal and a political bent that they’re trying to promote. And they’ll take this and map it on to whatever they want you to be afraid of. I think we have to be more deeply engaged than to fall for that, which is a big ask when Twitter is serving up to you information 280 characters at a time,
AA: I don’t know. I guess I just feel unconvinced that this poses a real danger on a certain level, because of the reasons that you’re talking about, because it’s such a singular kind of situation. I just wonder about if there’s ever a way to stop it from getting fed into the machine. I mean, this is obviously purely theoretical—I don’t anticipate a world where there isn’t a huge response and where people aren’t fighting about this on Twitter or whatever. Like, it’s not possible. He’s one of the biggest stars in the world. But is there a way to turn down the temperature and also the volume on some of this?
AS: Well, I think to some extent, advocacy organizations want to remind you that they exist for a reason and that you need them, and they’re always gonna do that. Personally, I didn’t want to write about it because I’m sick of this shit. But you know, like I said, John Ganz piece, Yair Rosenberg’s piece, I thought reacted to it the right way, which is to be like, “This is why this is fucked up.” But not being like, “The sky is falling.” And I think that is the appropriate reaction, not to throw up your hands and just be like, “We’re doomed,” but to say, “You know, it’s bad that this person who has a large platform is validating these particular ideas, which are bad for this reason.” And I think most people actually did have that reaction. Again, social media amplifies the most extreme interpretation of whatever, but I think most people do react proportionately in the way that you describe. At least I would like to think so. But I don’t know that my experience was representative,
AA: I just get a lot of these press releases from all the Jewish organizations. So it’s just a day where like, my whole inbox was people basically talking about how the sky is falling for Jews.
RP: It’s the intersection of race, politics, pop culture—it’s gonna be hot goss for people, it’s gonna be something that people want to engage with. And I think the question is just like: How do we regulate our own engagement? And I think just saying, “That’s a mess. I’m not gonna endorse that or take it on, but also I know where I’m at, which is that we’re stronger together if we’re fighting against racism and antisemitism side by side and just not getting drawn into the hype.”
AS: I just think it’s also not taking the bait to where Kanye becomes all Black people, and someone else becomes all Jews, and then now we have to fight each other. It is so unproductive, and it just doesn’t lead anywhere good except for people hurting each other’s feelings and making each other mad.
AA: So be nice to each other, people. As Bill and Ted said, “Be excellent to each other,” on the internet and in real life.
RP: In the days since we first recorded this podcast, it’s been announced that Kanye West is in talks to buy the far-right social media app, Parler. Launched in 2018, Parler was created to circumvent content limits on Facebook and Twitter and played a key role in disseminating information during the January 6th attack on the Capitol. It only recently returned to Google and Apple’s app stores after being banned for its lack of moderation. And this news raises the stakes of the story significantly. So we wanted to take a few minutes to just reflect on that. Arielle, how has this changed your perspective on Kanye West’s comments?
AA: Oh, man. I mean, I really called out the AJC’s “clear and present danger” comment, and I do think that was intense and a little premature, but in light of Kanye making a move to buy a far-right speech platform—the way that speech platforms are incubators for white supremacist violence—suddenly, things look a little bit different. For me, what I keep going back to at the end of the day is this internal questioning that I have about: Where’s the line between antisemitism alarmism and really recognizing the threats and being able to take them seriously? I’m interested in the way that I immediately wanted to minimize that risk. I’m just kind of interrogating myself a little bit. I’m the Editor in Chief of Jewish Currents, like I know that we get criticism for exactly that: downplaying certain things. And I think in this case, yeah, it’s really something I’m sitting with.
RP: Yeah, this, for me really raises the stakes, not only on his antisemitic comments, but also his anti-Black posturing, which has been something that we’ve been discussing the Black community for a long time. You know, he had his comments about slavery being a choice. He said, “That sounds like choice to me.” He had his white lives matter shirts, and now he’s buying a literal platform for white supremacist discourse, where he won’t be restricted in these ways. And it goes back to that issue of impunity. He’s reacting to the idea that there’s ever consequences for him. And I think that what we said earlier about strengthening our coalitions and our relationships with each other becomes even more important in moments like this. I would really love for the Jewish community to look more at the discussions that the Black community has been having around Kanye for a really long time.
AA: Yeah. I’ll just note that something that happened in the last couple days is that Elon Musk tweeted a meme of him and Kanye reaching towards each other—I think it was like a Dragonball Z image—where Kanye is wearing a Parler shirt, and Elon Musk is wearing a Twitter shirt. And then as soon as there was backlash to it, he deleted it but then also tweeted a photo of him, Kanye, and Trump as the three musketeers or something. And it does start to feel a lot more scary in that context, to think about a bunch of people, who I think none of us would trust on any level, controlling the levers of speech in a few different areas.
RP: As someone who’s been Black, Jewish, and a woman on Twitter for over 10 years, you know, I’ve gotten threats of sexual violence, all kinds of racial attacks, and antisemitic attacks, including when I wrote about Randy Halprin’s case, the Jewish man on death row. All of these neo-Nazis were sending me images of Leo Frank’s lynched body, like there’s an incredible level of violence that’s already happening in a very unchecked manner. So what’s gonna happen when someone like Elon Musk—who is in this moment cozying up to Kanye as he’s under fire for antisemitic and white supremacist overall politics and commentary—what’s going to happen when that’s the person who’s in charge?
AA: I think like my orientation to treat him as a clown—to treat Kanye as a clown—I see that in a much different light when I’m looking at the three musketeers of Trump, Elon Musk, and Kanye. I mean, that was the orientation to Trump initially, that he was a clown. Clearly, this country loves a clown. People will platform that over and over and over again,
RP: We do have a tendency on the left, I think, to sort of make fun of our political opponents. It takes the power away from them in a certain light, but it also runs the risk of us minimizing or not fully seeing the threat that a person can potentially pose. This is, I think, a chance for a wakeup call about how speech in general is conducted in the US. Twitter and Facebook are places where people come together for conversations that can be really powerful and generative, like things like Black Lives Matter or uprisings can be covered. People can connect to their community when they haven’t had one in the past. I know for Jews of color, these spaces for a long time, until they became too toxic, were places where we connected. And so what does it mean to have this public sphere controlled in private hands, that can transfer it at any time to someone who you would not trust to oversee your conversations? And I think that this is really the crux of this issue, that we’re living in a time where capitalism defines our speech.
It’s in the interest of the people who have the capital right now to allow hate speech, and what are we going to do about that? And there’s also, of course, the other issue of censorship under the guise of fighting hate speech. And we find that in the Jewish community, we have a lot of conversations about this as well. So it’s not like there’s an easy rubric to impose on all of this. But I think part of being engaged means thinking: What are the terms that our national conversations are happening on? And what are the platforms for that? I don’t see us like nationalizing Twitter at any point, but like, what’s the library equivalent of a Twitter where it’s in public hands, and it’s really a public forum, versus these private things where we’re all being data mined and used to make money as we’re sharing our political ideas, connecting through community.
AA: Yeah. I think the thing that feels scary about Kanye, particularly, is that it just doesn’t seem like he has a lot of levers of pressure. It seems like he’s really off on his own: He has his own wealth, he has his own world, frankly, of his own making. And I imagine that that’s true of a lot of people who do this work in tech, but I think we have more familiarity with the way that it’s true in Kanye’s case than whoever owns Parler now. So, yeah, I guess we’ll just see what happens.
RP: Well, thanks so much for joining us for this episode of On the Nose. Please hit subscribe, and we’ll see you during our next episode.