James Baldwin once described American society as “much given to smashing taboos without thereby managing to be liberated from them,”¹ or more precisely, liberated from the need for them. It might be said about America today that we gleefully smash taboos while energetically creating new ones which, one supposes, are improvements over the ones we overthrew. For those who are glibly identified as “Woke,” the taboos of the past were meant to oppress the powerless and those who differed from the White, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, and able-minded norms of the dominant class. To overthrow, disrupt, subvert, undermine, deconstruct, discredit, decenter, de-legitimate (pick your favorite “Woke” verb) is a vital form of emancipation, as we live in the Age of Emancipation. The new taboos, generated by a visceral hatred of capitalism and all its works, most saliently arises from the movement to end or marginalize “hate speech” or the idea of “free speech” is meant to protect the very people who had been victimized by the old taboos, the mass-oriented ideological and behavioral relics of a morally bankrupt society. There is nothing wrong with this if one, indeed, hates capitalism and is thoroughly undone (“traumatized” I believe is the pop-psychology verb of the moment here) by the swaths of unattractive, downright grotesque, history that shaped this country. “We can do better,” so the liberals tell us, as if the national exceptionalism they claim does not exist mysteriously compels us to live up to some special standard because, of course, we are Americans and while that may mean different things to different people, it, nonetheless, still means something to everyone.
Dave Chappelle is a stand-up comedian. A few nights ago, during a performance at the Hollywood Bowl, Chappelle was attacked by an audience member identified as Isaiah Lee. Chappelle joked that his attacker was a trans man. There is no evidence at the moment that this is so. But he made the joke because he has been at loggerheads with the trans community for the past few years because, like J. K. Rowling, he does not believe in gender fluidity or that people can switch their sex, at least not in a way that would truly make them a member of the other sex. From the trans community’s view of reality, they rightly consider Chapelle to be anti-trans or transphobic. Chappelle, for his part, considers himself deeply sympathetic to the trans person’s dilemma and feels that in the pursuit of his art he is compelled to humorously examine the dilemmas of human life. That, he feels, is his charge as a comedian. For the trans community, his art has limits and he has a moral responsibility in the expression of his art and how it may affect various members of the public. The difference here, clearly, is that Chappelle and the trans community have different views of reality and different views about the limits of art.
It is unclear why Lee attacked Chappelle. Lee certainly did not get the best of it, whatever his intentions were. Chappelle, who has hired extra security for his performances, was unscathed; his assailant wound up with a broken arm as a result of being manhandled while being subdued. The immediate response is that this attack was inspired by Will Smith’s attack against Chris Rock at the Academy Awards ceremony back in March, instigated by a joke Rock made about Smith’s wife, actress Jada Pinkett, sporting a bald head. Assault is fair if someone says something on a public platform that we dislike. (Shades of South Carolina representative Preston Brooks’s caning of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner in the senate chamber after Sumner delivered a fiery denunciation of slavery. Are we all hot-bloodied Southerners now?)
I found two Black male (cis-gendered, I think) responses to the Chappelle incident to be interesting. Conservative Jason Whitlock writes that Will Smith was not the source of the Chappelle incident but rather Black Lives Matter.
“No, Lee’s role models are the entitled, angry, and identity-confused victims who fashion themselves as social justice warriors under the names Black Lives Matter and Antifa, the enforcement arms of the Democratic Party and the LGBTQIA+ Alphabet Mafia.”
His argument, rather typical fare for conservatives, is that the rise of the social justice movement in its various guises of identity politics is nothing more than a kind of decadence, the declension of the United States, as the privileged brats take over with their tantrums for equity. Bratism run wild! These radicals—BLM and the LGBTQIA movement—want to destroy the traditional family, which, for Whitlock, has been the undoing of the Black community and Black culture, the rot of White radicalism that certain Blacks have come to embrace. Not that this particular brand of conservatism being espoused by a Black person is at all new. I heard similar things as a teenager in Black Muslim (Nation of Islam) Mosque meetings and even among relatives who had become Yoruba, renouncing the White devils’ Christianity and all its works. It is striking to note that in some respects Black radical thought is divided over whether White radicalism is a partner in the assault on the White ramparts, or a decadent expression of White privilege masked as solidarity.
The other interesting response was from the former rapper, now producer 50 Cent who was outraged that the Los Angeles district attorney was not charging Chappelle’s attacker with a felony instead of a series of misdemeanors. His attacker had a deadly weapon, so a felony charge would not have been out of order or unjustifiably excessive.
“Oh Shit, is the LGBTQ gonna kill Dave right in front of us?” 50 Cent wrote. “He had a weapon a gun, knife how he or she don’t get charged? ????????♂️The world is over, Fvck this,” 50 Cent posted on Instagram.
The article went to quote 50 Cent’s approval of Dave Chappelle’s bit about rapper DaBaby’s homophobic remarks in performance and the LGBTQ’s harsh reaction to them and how that reaction has nearly upended DaBaby’s career. Chappelle concluded his bit on DaBaby:
“[DaBaby] once shot a n***a and killed him in Walmart. Nothing bad happened to his career. Do you see where I’m going with this? In our country, you can shoot and kill a n***a but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.”
50 Cent quoted this in his Instagram post about Chappelle’s attacker not being charged with a felony with great approval as if it proved a point about the power of the LGBTQ movement to punish its enemies and protect its defenders (in this case, Chappelle’s attacker, although it is not clear yet why Chappelle was attacked). This too is an old complaint: nobody cares if Black people kill other Black people but bother White people and it is a different story. And it is clear that both 50 Cent and Whitlock see the LGBTQ movement as, basically, something White, although there are any number of queer and trans-Black people. Indeed, the person I quoted at the beginning of this post was such a person, although he was chary about being identified that way.
I bring all of this up only to note that taboo-slaying is a bit more complicated process in this country than some might think and who is on whose side might be murkier than some had hoped.
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¹ James Baldwin, “The Discovery of What It Means to be an American” in Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son, (New York: Vintage Books, Vintage International Edition, 1993), 11.