Dave Chappelle and the weaponization of culture for political gain
Last year, Dave Chappelle released a Netflix special—his third in as many years (I think)—that was alternately decried and championed. The response, as is so irritatingly often the case these days, appeared to be based upon how the responder aligned himself politically. Which is, of course, how you should interpret art.
Chappelle began that special by relaying a hypothetical scenario in which some unseen force had come a’ callin’ for a controversial comedian’s cancellation. The bit culminated with Chappelle informing the audience that this hypothetical force he was talking about was, in fact, them.
The joy that had once come with attending a comedy show—that roller coaster ride of ribaldry that so often ends with you nursing your ribs the next morning from having laughed so hard and so long—has been swept aside like a lockdown implementation by gatekeepers who would tell us what we are allowed to consume as entertainment.
Or, there are terrible problems in America: we shall address them by cancelling any comedy we consider controversial.
Of course, a critic craves recognition, a sense that he has contributed something to society other than slapping a grade onto a work of art. How else would these eternal embodiments of dashed artistic dreams, muttering that Death Cab lyric, Bop bah, bop bah, this is the sound of settling every time they slink into their work chair, vent their frustrations? They’ve been telling us what’s good and bad for years. The difference now, though, is that they appear adamant that the “bad stuff” not even be allowed to exist.
This impasse—what to do, now, with the arts—mirrors so much else in society. Normal folks still want to go to a comedy show to have a good time, blow off some steam. You know, rediscover what it was to enjoy a shared experience that used to make them feel good. Now, who knows when that might be possible anymore?
Now there are rapidly changing market forces and shifting cues about acceptable metrics in social interactions, not to mention a newly fortified bully pulpit these gatekeepers shout down from, carrying their message to the masses. Our outlook is affected accordingly. We are taught to feel shame for the fun we once had. The lesson is festering. It will soon become part of our makeup, expressed in our outlook as we leap out into the New Normal.
Which, enough with the “How will society look when we emerge from the pandemic”. It’s not as if we’ve ever gone through plague as a species, before. Not like once said plague was over, we got right back to doing things that make us feel good. Things that are inherently human. But no. Not now. Now there is no time. We must remake society in the image we—whoever that is—feels it should take. If our evolutionary adaptability lags behind by a few centuries, so be it! Modern society has no sense of sacrifice. Think what you can do for further generations! Full speed ahead!
It’s enough to make your head spin. Wasn’t it just earlier this year that corporations appeared dead-set upon doing everything in their power to make life mind-numbingly easy for us? Every commercial or online ad bombarded us with ways to facilitate our daily existence. I’d give anything to watch a couple huff and puff as their Uber driver pulls up a few feet past them and, instead of reversing, instead pulls into the nearest open space to get out of traffic, thus forcing this couple into inexcusable exertion. How dare he not stop right where they dropped their pin.
Take that mentality—everything made unthinkingly, unblinkingly easy, and throw in the monkey-wrench of a pandemic, and our authorities’ continual bafflement throughout it that we are unable, or unwilling, to cope with newfound restrictions to our previously untrammeled freedom.
But let’s focus on a subsection of art. Now, the guidelines have been set where appropriate reactions are concerned— just remember, they can shift from week to week — but the battles are fought most fiercely on social media, upon whose bloody fields millions of do-gooders have undertaken unpaid roles of censorship. Every day it seems there’s a new headline, or Twitter trend, about the next viable candidate for cancellation. It’s outsourcing at its finest. Who needs to instill a sweeping censorship program—well, apart from amassing all our data—when citizens will perform the dirty duty so enthusiastically?
It’s the latest manifestation of a particularly ugly accommodation of modern society; we so quickly devolve into the glutton in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, consuming without thought or care in search of a satiation that never arrives. Time was, that only applied to our material urges. Now, we crave it even in not-so-social interaction.
In that special I spoke of, Chappelle made fun of all the wrong things; he didn’t speak enough truth to power; he punched down, and thus alerted every sensor that’s been set up and elicited exactly the sort of critical reaction you’d expect.
Remember that interesting disparity between Rotten Tomatoes’ aggregated critical rating of Chappelle’s show, versus the audience vote? To my memory, audiences gifted it a near-perfect score. The five critics allowed on Rotten Tomatoes’ platform had it hovering around 5 percent, or some obscenely low number whose express intention was to showcase these critics’ dismay that a comedian with Chappelle’s clout didn’t tailor his comedy to the specifications they’ve set forth for society.
Which, brief sidenote: have you noticed how the frequency of celebrity messaging has ratcheted up during the COVID lockdown—cringe covers of that interminable song Imagine notwithstanding? Celebrities telling you this, that, disseminating whatever the latest message is in such a long line of contradictions. Putting it on you, the citizen, to DO YOUR DUTY.
If you sense a sort of cynicism here, it’s because I’m reminded of a Jack London short story in which the protagonist, who all his life has craved the acquisition of celebrity as some sort of answer to his inescapable emotional duress, finally achieves that notoriety only to realize he still feels empty inside.
This renown he’d thought would save him is nothing more than an aura glowing like an insect-attracting light. He is dispensable; the aura is what matters. The aura is clout. It can be weaponized to tell people what to do. How to think. What content to consume. The laundering of whatever message needs to reach the masses and force them back into line. Notice how quickly any celebrity who dares go off-script is banished from the proverbial pulpit.
The Rotten Tomatoes brouhaha is the sort of disconnect that in a better age—well, I don’t want to get in trouble here, so I’ll remain cautiously neutral and amend that with…a different age—might have prompted some serious bouts of introspection from those critics Rotten Tomatoes allowed to vent upon a work of art. Had they misread the room of everyday America? Were they the new pearl clutchers wringing their hands over controversy? Where would they have stood a few decades ago vis a vis Piss Christ, for example?
Or was this a similar situation to the incredulity wafting from big cities after the election of Donald Trump? I’m always forcibly reminded of comedians, who (used to) travel about the country—flyover states have great clubs!—talking on podcasts in the run-up to the election, and saying that from what they’d seen and heard from regular folks they’d meet, Trump was going to win. There is danger in living in a bubble, particularly one of ideological sheen. It can certainly blind you to reality.
There is obviously a huge need for critical reception of art; it’s a marker of the strength of culture in society. Art is not merely imbibed, shoveled down the gullet by unthinking masses. It is thought about, pored over, discussed. It can change minds, evoke opinion.
But that’s in a functioning society. When criticism is infected with unflinching bias in sole pursuit of some greater good, or spambotted through a deluge of tweets to pump up a show’s standing, well then, that begins to erode the foundation of art. When art is seen as just another tool in the politicization of everything, you’re well on the way to socialist realismus, art being co-opted for the sole purpose of pushing a certain narrative. Or consider movie studios making decisions about plot points based on test audience reactions.
But that’s difficult, and anyway there’s no time for introspection, anymore. It is ACTION that counts. By the time you’ve emerged from that chamber, refreshed after having reflected, and ready to approach your chosen profession with a greater sense of perspective, the news cycle has moved several clicks down the line. You’ll have to race to catch up to it. So certainly, any further introspection is off the table.
This is an age where every commemoration of antiquity, of the people that brought us to where we are today, is being torn down. All that matters is the opinion of the ones doing the destroying. We are informed of society’s new terms of service on a weekly basis. What was acceptable a month ago is no longer so. What does this do for the creator, walking on an ever-shifting tide of eggshells, uncertain of whether his creation will be cancelled in a month’s time?
You guessed it. It renders him paralyzed. There is no room for creation except of the safest, most anodyne variety. Capitalizing upon the latest trend that will be dated in a few months’ time. Take the film blockbuster that used to hog theater screens at the nearest cineplex. It is the soft reboot, taking an already-proven idea and tweaking it just enough to pique the public’s interest.
Is there any room left for the subversive? Well, for Chappelle’s last special, it moved him further along the line toward cancellation. Or perhaps he’s just regarded as the type of artist who’s grandfathered in. He is allowed to go about saying what he likes, because the powers that be know that the generations coming up behind him will not be allowed the same leash. No one will be allowed into that stratosphere unless they conform to the rules of the game.
How does this apply to art, you might ask? It doesn’t. There’s no point in reading this piece, because it doesn’t take a side. In fact, it makes the case that in an age of polarization that keeps ramping up, the truest course to take is to not pick a side at all. It is not enough for art to be experienced, anymore. In the age of social media, we must use it to push some kind of policy. If it doesn’t, then its creator should be cancelled.
That response is nothing new. One of the defining aspects of a great work of art is that it should stir something within you. Might be a film that sends you spilling out of the theater, happy to spend a long walk home reflecting upon what you’ve just seen. Same could be said of a concert, or a novel, or a painting. It stirs something within you and helps you calibrate your perception of the world. That is the great beauty of art—perhaps more than anything in life, it allows you to grow. There were moments of such power in the Netflix special Chappelle released to YouTube in which the comedian held court for around thirty minutes in Ohio about the Event that has seized the national consciousness.
He named it 8:46, after the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck on that Minneapolis street. The anger Chappelle expresses at this outrageous treatment, spilling out into the deaths of other African-Americans at the heads of the police in recent years, made for compelling viewing.
Comedy specials tend to be a way to celebrate years of material filling a sit they’ve worked for months or years. They’re air-tight at the time of filming. 8:46 was raw. Chappelle had a notebook, but he mostly appeared to shoot from the hip in a stream-of-consciousness setting. That helped make it cathartic. And that Chappelle released it two-and-a-half weeks after Floyd’s death made it an aberration.
It was something he alluded to in the act—that the likes of CNN’s Don Lemon had castigated Chappelle, on-air, for not speaking up about Floyd in the event’s immediate aftermath. Two-and-a-half weeks—well, let’s assume the special was filmed the weekend before—but anyway, any length of time longer than the immediacy we’re now accustomed to might as well be a lifetime. Say, politicians leaping to Twitter to virtue signal. There’s no time for contemplation, no patience left. What must happen must happen NOW NOW NOW.
Years from now, when social media companies are brought to task for their aid in the atomization of society, those who rushed to judgment may not be looked upon too kindly.
The response to the special is what you might expect. Art immediately incorporated into a pre-existing worldview. You’re either for it, or against it, in so far as it can be weaponized against your enemies. Because we are told, on a daily basis, that there is no time for these things. What’s interesting is how this is a stepping stone for totalitarianism, when everything is against politics, everything is political.
Is it overreach? Perhaps. But that seems to be the accepted approach, now, to any perceived slight. Drone warfare state of mind. Bombs dropped from thousands of feet above. You do not witness the fallout; you simply rest easy in the knowledge that you’ve achieved your mission.
It’s the woke crowd calling Black Panther the greatest film of all time, only to be met by the incels of 2019 hailing Joker as the new standard bearer of celluloid achievement. These were both decent films in the never-ending conveyer belt of superhero escapism. Disaster porn. The fact that they slid so easily into our pre-set ideological divide doesn’t increase their artistic worth.
My favorite experiences of art leave me utterly dumbfounded. You spend time thinking over it, going to see it again. You want to delve deeper to glean meaning. It might turn your preconceived notions on their head. You might find yourself better for having seen it.
Now, everything important has already been decided for you. You are told to conform to one or two sides, politically—and that is the end of the conversation. Everything now filters neatly into this stance. So tell me, how can you grow? How arrogant is it, how shortsighted, to think you’ve already solved everything? How pointless to not take the good from what you encounter.
Dave Chappelle should not be cancelled when he comes out with a special you disagree with. You can’t pick and choose when to invoke something as sacrosanct as freedom of expression when it suits your ideological bent. Let’s get back to trusting citizens with art. It need not be filtered, watered down, spelled out for us. It need not be a fucking Superhero movie.
You should reevaluate your worldview often. It’ll keep your mind fresh. In this never-ending pandemic, it might even keep you sane.