Yair Rosenberg is one of my favorite writers of today. He is a contributing writer at The Atlantic magazine, which describes his specialty as examining “the intersection of politics, culture, and religion.”
He is most prescient when he writes about anti-Semitism which is, sadly and scarily, having a comeback around the world, but particularly from American MAGA politics, QAnon-fueled conspiracies, and certain Black television music and sports stars.
In a piece this week, Rosenberg takes up the appearance of Dave Chappelle on Saturday Night Live, during which the multimillionaire comedian, who styles himself as oppressed by wokeness, managed to both make fun of anti-Semitism and excuse it in the name of free speech.
As I watched Dave Chappelle’s much-discussed Saturday Night Live monologue poking fun at recent anti-Semitic incidents involving Black celebrities, I finally figured out why I no longer felt comfortable cracking jokes about anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
In his 15-minute appearance, Chappelle, a habitual line-stepper, deliberately mocked the presumptions of both anti-Semites and their critics, with little concern for where the chips fell. He closed his potent performance with a pronouncement: “It shouldn’t be this scary to talk about anything. It’s making my job incredibly difficult, and to be honest with you, I’m getting sick of talking to a crowd like this. I love you to death, and I thank you for your support, and I hope they don’t take anything away from me—whoever they are.” In context, this felt like a cheap but clever attempt to immunize himself against criticism—say nothing, and his comedic choices go unchallenged; say something, and you’ve proved him right.
Rosenberg goes on to say:
And this is what I realized as I watched Chappelle’s monologue: When so many people have proved so susceptible to the conspiracism that animates anti-Semitism, it becomes harder and harder to laugh about it. Comedy cannot be divorced from its context. Jokes assume a shared set of presuppositions between the comedian and the audience, which are subverted for ironic effect. But when that collective context is called into question, and one no longer knows whether everyone in the room is operating from the same premises, what was once satire becomes suspect. After all, the best parody is often indistinguishable from the thing itself—the perfect impressionist is the one who sounds exactly like Donald Trump. But when the performance is anti-Semitism, and so much of society seems in thrall to its essential elements, it’s not clear whether the bit is setting up a punch line—or just a punch.
There’s a lot of good stuff in the rest of the piece. It’s worth your time to read it.