Another week has gone by and another scandal has rocked a public figure. And like all scandals revolving around public figures seem to be these days, this one is not a current event, rather something dug up from one’s past. This time it was revealed that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had worn black or brown face to imitate minorities on at least two occasions. This incident is extremely eye-opening, as Trudeau constantly pats himself on his back for his “wokeness.”
This controversy was met with two competing narratives, depending on which side of the aisle you find yourself. The right chose to use this as a finger-wagging moment. Conservatives everywhere pointed out that every time left-leaning politicians are caught in a racist controversy, they somehow get away with it, pointing directly to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who, back in 2018 was revealed to either be wearing a KKK outfit or blackface in a yearbook photo. Somehow, Northam is still the governor of Virginia, and conservatives can’t understand how that is possible, and how Trudeau will inevitably be unharmed from this.
The left, on the other hand, chose a different course of action: deflection. The Atlantic ran with the headline “Canada’s Surprising History of Blackface.” Vogue wrote about how the pictures of Trudeau were “shocking but not surprising,” all of them basically blaming the apparent history of racism in Canada instead of the man himself. You see, it’s not his fault per se, rather the historical climate of the nation, a historical climate, by the way, that we don’t really ever hear about.
Now, my goal here is not to chastise the various players in this public persona game. I’m not going knock the right for taking this opportunity to point out hypocrisy instead of doing anything to combat racism. I’m not going to castigate the left for their obvious double-standards. I’m not even going to rip on Justin Trudeau for these 17+-year-old pictures that all of a sudden surfaced magically right before the Canadian election (an obvious coincidence). Instead, I’d like to focus on the types of people who are targeted by these campaigns of so-called “cancel culture.” For those unfamiliar, “cancel culture” is a type of boycott leveled against an individual (usually with some notoriety) for having an unacceptable opinion or committed some sort of negative behavior. Once these opinions or behaviors come into public eye, social media users, pundits, and employers debate whether this person has lost the right to continue in the role in which they currently hold.
The first widely publicized instance of this was probably way back in 2013, and actually did not include a celebrity. A PR executive named Justine Sacco tweeted what she thought was a joke, but ended very badly for her. The tweet read: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She then got on an 11-hour flight where she lost her Internet connection, and eventually her whole life. I believe that it was this incident that began cancel culture (a term that hadn’t been invented at that point). The Internet discovered a power that it had – a power to destroy the life of someone, someone the members of the Internet mob doesn’t know personally, just by sheer numbers alone.
Since then, this Twitter mob of social justice warriors have used their power successfully to negatively impact many celebrities and politicians. However, it is odd to me that the most common type of celebrity targeted by the masses are comedians. Kevin Hart, Norm MacDonald, Roseanne Barr, Louis CK, Michael Richards, Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, and most recently Shane Gillis, who was fired before being able to appear this season on Saturday Night Live. It’s interesting that an industry that has historically been allowed to exist under the protection of “it’s just a joke” is being so heavily attacked for saying words these days. How long has it been since Lenny Bruce was being hauled off to jail for being too provocative in his sets? What changed since Joan Rivers or Don Rickles were allowed to get away with the things they said and chastised you for being too meek if you were offended? In medieval times, court jesters were the only ones allowed to mock the king because all understood that it was in jest. Today, comedians are judged, not by the quality of their joke but by whether or not the joke was sufficiently woke.
And I do believe that this scrutiny on comedians is wildly unfair. You see, if a comedian tells a questionable joke on stage, all of the blame can be laid solely on the shoulders of the comedian. He or she wrote it, crafted it, and performed it. All of the work is one person. However, if the offensive line is said in a TV show or a movie, the blame can be shared, and nobody really gets into trouble. There is the writing staff, the editing staff, the actor, director, producer, etc. Because there would be so many people involved, an offensive character or line does not draw as much attention as if it were one person behind the whole thing. For example, the iconic and controversial character Mr. Yunioshi, played by Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is widely considered extremely offensive and racist today. But few people if any consider that to be the fault of the actor. The same can be held true of the Archie Bunker character. Carroll O’Connor isn’t considered to be a racist for portraying the character, and the writers aren’t blamed for promoting Bunker’s stances, and CBS isn’t blamed for allowing those views on their airwaves. It’s widely considered artistic expression. It seems like a mob only exists when it’s against one individual who is responsible for the whole thing.
The one exception to this is Jimmy Kimmel. In 1999, Kimmel appeared on The Man Show, a show that he created, hosted, and wrote for, in black face doing a Karl Malone impression. I’m still not sure how Kimmel has never had to answer for this, but I have a suspicion that it has to do with his political alignment. The point is that unless you’re Jimmy Kimmel, an act deemed to be carried out entirely by one person is a lot easier to assess blame than one committed by a group, and comedians are feeling the outrage more than anyone else.
All of this is actually a nice metaphor for where we are this time of year. Leading up to the holiest days in our calendar, it’s easy to see why we pray in a group instead of individually. As part of a congregation, our flaws are minimized, our transgressions can be hidden, and our sins can be forgiven. In this age of mob rule, it’s important to understand that we are stronger as a group, a community, a nation, and when I will be in shul this year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, among many other things I will be praying for protection from my community if I ever get to the point of being important enough for the woke mob to come after me.
Have a k’sivah vachasimah tovah.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.