The Case against Dave Chappelle as Trailblazing Free Speech Hero

Dave Chappelle used to be funny.  He's not anymore.  I write this not to insult the guy, but such is the occasional trajectory among not just comedians, but all entertainers.  Think Oasis or Velvet Underground in the music industry, or Cameron Diaz or Shia LaBeouf in Hollywood.  Like blue stars, they briefly burn hotter and brighter than all the others, and then they promptly collapse into themselves.  But Chappelle's descent is noteworthy in that it was self-inflicted.

I recently watched Chappelle's latest Netflix specials, Sticks and Stones (2019) and The Closer (2021), because I heard they were "controversial" (i.e., they offended leftists), and I wanted to see what the kerfuffle was all about.  The only thing I found controversial was how boring these two supposed "comedy" specials were.  Chappelle doesn't tell jokes that are unfunny; he just doesn't tell very many jokes at all.  His routines consist of hour-long sermons in which the underlying theme consists of three points:

  1. I'm black and oppressed.
  2. White people are my oppressors.
  3. Any other group claiming oppression is unjustly diverting attention from point #1.

The perpetually oppressed Chapelle (worth $50 million) mistakenly assumed that, as a black person, his place at the top of the left's intersectional hierarchy was set in stone.  He didn't realize he'd been bumped off this perch years ago by the transgendered (who will in turn be bumped off by some other group once their political utility has been sapped).  He's upset about this, and his aforementioned Netflix specials are poorly camouflaged attempts to reclaim this lost status. 

He ends The Closer with a groveling apology to the transgender community for the jokes he made about them in Sticks and Stones, and he pledges not to make any further jokes at their expense.  The apology is laughably disingenuous, and its underlying message translates clearly:  Whoa, hey, wait a minute, take it easy transgendered community, I'll concede we're both victims in this irredeemably evil nation, so let's put our minor differences aside and re-focus our hate on America, where it belongs.

But Chappelle quickly learned that unconditional surrenders tend to embolden the enemy rather than placate them.  Like clockwork, leftists demanded that Netflix cancel Chappelle's special, with some Netflix employees staging a walk-out.  Mainstream media ran stories defending cancel culture and blaming Chappelle for violence against transgenders.  Chappelle belatedly attempted to dig in, stating, "I am not bending to anybody's demands."  Too late.  You already bent like wet paper when you made promises to ideological fanatics bent on destroying your career.  Did you think they were going to meet you halfway?

Comedians fancy themselves the vanguards not only of free speech, but of pushing envelopes, of breaking taboos, of walking up to the line and stepping over it, and of shoving in our faces all those uncomfortable topics we'd prefer just not to discuss in polite society.  To the extent that they're willing to stick it to racial, political, cultural, and religious groups deemed fair game by the paymasters and their social media thought police, they're correct.  Tear into those toothless white male, gun-carryin', snake-handlin', pickup truck–drivin', trailer park Alabamans all you want.  Because nothing broadcasts exhilarating courage more than rich comedians mocking, without fear of consequence, the same group of powerless lower classes attacked relentlessly by the mainstream media, Hollywood, late-night talk show hosts, and most every other comedian for the last half-century.

But these same daring, edgy comedians are now flabbergasted to learn that what they assumed were careers spent dishing their truth-to-power shtick to repressed audiences starving for it were actually careers spent parroting state-sanctioned propaganda to conditioned lemmings who dutifully applaud rather than laugh.  All went well until a few of these comedians meandered out past the borders of acceptable Party ideology.  Now, like Nikolai Antipov, Sergey Kirov, and Nikolai Shvernik before them, they're starting to disappear from official photographs.  The hosting invites are being rescinded; the film showings are being nixed. 

Admirable rearguard actions to defend free speech are attempted by comedians like John Cleese, Ricky Gervais, and even Bill Maher.  But it's too little, too late.  Too many of their comrades are, like Kevin Hart and Hank Azaria, meekly apologizing or, like Seth Rogen and Katt Williams, outright supporting cancel culture.  To paraphrase Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the conservative campus speakers, and you did not speak out — because you don't actually believe in free speech from which you don't directly profit.

Then they came for Christian bakers, and you did not speak out — because Christianity is the only religion you'll deride on stage.

Then they came for ordinary citizens in MAGA hats, and you did not speak out — because you're an overtly racist bigot whose "comedy" acts are dreary exercises in psychological projection. 

Then they came for you — and there was no one left to speak for you.  Nor will there be, because we have long memories.

Wit and wisdom are two different things, and they should not be mistaken for each other.  Comedians who thought they had their finger on the pulse of society should have seen this locomotive barreling down the tracks long before it plowed through them.  They must feel like those kapos who, after herding everyone else into the gas chambers, were apoplectic upon learning that they, too, were scheduled to be "disinfected."  How ironic that we tried to warn them...until we were shut down by the very mobs they helped incite, which have now turned on their enablers.   

Well, laugh it up, because now it's your turn.  Frankenstein's monster always comes home.

Image: John Bauld via Flickr, CC BY 2.0 (cropped).

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