When the news first hit that Kanye West, or Ye—or the ex-Mr. Kim Kardashian—had gone and had an antisemitic-flavoured meltdown, complete with plans to “Go death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE,” I didn’t see this as a particularly important thing to opine on. If it seemed a bit déjà vu it could be because I’d recently been listening to a BBC Desert Island Discs episode with supermodel Kate Moss, where she was talking about fashion designer John Galliano’s anti-Jewish spiral of 2011.
Then as now, it’s like, yes, this is a hatred that’s in the air, and that unwell people, when finding things to latch onto, sometimes wind up with. It doesn’t signal a resurgence of antisemitism, and indeed if it’s generally received as the ravings of a madman (and more on the ableism angle in a moment), maybe that’s a good sign about where mainstream society stands.
And yet here we are, at least a few news cycles later, and it’s still all about Ye.
It has served as a prompt for long analyses of antisemitism. And posting. So much posting.
Thank you, Mossad, for allowing me to keep my collection of admittedly worn-out Adidas Originals.
There have been so, so many takes, but the one I keep gravitating to is from British writer Hadley Freeman, who argues that West’s breakdown is the stark reality of what mental health crises can actually look like:
“I’m Jewish, but when I read West’s posts I didn’t feel offended. I just felt sad that an artist so talented is now so clearly out of his tree… Poor mental health makes you say a lot of crazy stuff, because it’s not about being sexily impetuous or soulfully sensitive.”
And yet the mental health episode has become the modern-day face of bigotry, including but not limited to antisemitism. A wild-eyed public rant about those people translates easily to a viral video clip. It’s overt, and as such, easily understood and condemned. It allows onlookers to smugly reassure themselves that they would never go into a shopping mall and hold forth about how much they hate lesbians. They would never even consider visiting a museum to announce, into a loudspeaker, their antipathy towards Mexicans. The real racism is more subtle but nefarious. It’s systemic. It’s all dog-whistles and plausible deniability.
And yet, and yet: It also doesn’t quite work to say that, if there’s a mental health issue at play, incidents of hate speech or even physical violence don’t count as real bigotry. That people suffering from mental illness are more likely to be crime victims than violent criminals is of little comfort to someone (with or without their own such struggles) who’s just been attacked for wearing a yarmulke.
Because it’s both. It’s both! The ambient bigotries of society find expression in policies as well as in outbursts, both of which cause harm. No, a mid-breakdown individual, famous or otherwise, should not be scapegoated as the cause of societal ills. But nor does it work to keep kicking the can back and forth in both directions, such that bigotry only counts if unambiguous and overt, but also only if done by someone definitively in sound mind and in a position of power. It’s not neither. It’s both.
Now you can tell Phoebe what you think: pbovy[@]thecjn.ca
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