In the wake of another millionaire comedian arguing on his massive media platform that society's embrace of radical ideology will send it down a slippery slope ending in the dissolution of civil liberties, I feel obliged to note that this slope exists, we're on it, and it's not slippery at all. It's just a regular slope. Uphill is transphobic speech; downhill is transphobic legislation. Uphill are media hacks whinging about critical race theory and the 1619 Project; downhill are laws banning the teaching of critical race theory and the 1619 Project. Uphill are media narratives that normalize Islamophobia and conflate Zionism with Judaism; downhill are laws banning BDS and institutions firing people who criticize the occupation. Uphill are racist jokes; downhill is racist violence.
Like all slopes, this one is full of twists and bumps. The standup set does not lead directly to the violence any more than the podcast segment inspires the law. It's probably a safe bet that the radical speech is itself downhill from the machinations of monied interest groups empowered by corporate-friendly policy: people like Joe Rogan and Tim Dillon are clearly regurgitating what they've heard from the likes of Candace Owens, Ben Shapiro, The Federalist, Reason, and Fox News. The point is that one lays groundwork for the other. You don't get to the transphobic laws without first passing the transphobia; you can't fight off the legislative efforts without harshly rejecting their pretexts. As Comedy Cellar owner Noam Dworman says in Andrew Hankinson's book about the club (in a passage criticizing what he sees as callous attitudes about Louis CK), "dehumanization is the first step to bigotry."
The other point is that all these Rogan types already understand that speech leads to action. Why are they so unwilling to accept this for their own speech? Their own jokes? There are surely many reasons having nothing to do with comedy, but I think one thing we're seeing is the product of an industry that at every level discourages compassion. When success requires ruthless determination and self-belief—and when success means the uncritical adulation of fans who support everything you do because you did it—the ranks of the successful will disproportionately favor a deep-seated conviction in the individual's primacy over the collective.
These are the people who over time set cultural norms for the entire industry. It's practically gospel in comedy that workers must sacrifice their time and labor and money and dignity to advance their careers. There's virtually no culture of sacrifice for the sake of others, no culture of mutual care or accountability. Right and wrong are defined by whether they serve the individual's interests; if you don't like it, you don't have to participate. These are all American philosophies with centuries-old roots, but comedy's turbocharged version of them strips bare their true function: to construct and justify a profoundly unequal society. As usual, the only reasonable takeaway from the latest Rogan rant is that the whole business needs tearing down.
-I very much enjoyed this short by Matt Porter and Max Azulay.
-Don't miss Vulture's great interview with Peng Dang last week.
-If you can, please support this fundraiser for the abolitionist group Jailhouse Lawyers Speak.
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