Kanye West Finally Says What He Means

The swastika that the rapper tweeted ties a nasty little bow on his ever-expanding collection of disturbing ideas.

black and white close-up of kanye west's face
Ronald Martinez / Getty

What was your line with Kanye West? If you never listened to what he had to say in the first place, you don’t get a medal: The rapper now known as Ye really did, at one time, merit attention for making some of the most forward-thinking art of this century. (Plus he was funny, in an actually-trying-to-be way.)

But over the years he’s done plenty of things that indicate he is a fundamentally bad dude, like when he went on the radio to slut-shame his ex, or when he told Black people that they’d chosen to be enslaved. Of course, he’s faced accusations of reckless arrogance all along, but discerning whether those reflected a racist double standard—isn’t bragging American?—was never simple. For me the exit point came late and oddly. Earlier this year, Ye started publicly lambasting his ex-wife and making violent art about her new boyfriend. Actions that might have been written off as tabloid-baiting theatrics were, in the totality of Ye’s life, getting scary: He seemed to be trying to hurt others both for his own gain and for larger, almost metaphysical reasons, perhaps best described as evil.

For Elon Musk, the Ye cancellation line is actually two crooked and interlocking lines connoting genocide. Last night, Ye tweeted a swastika (overlaid on a Star of David) and got kicked off the social-media platform that Musk has, with great commotion, declared to be a haven of free speech. Not even two weeks ago, Ye was reinstated to Twitter along with Donald Trump and Kathy Griffin and various other exiles. Broadly, the use of hate speech on the platform has begun to rise. Ye found the limits of this new Twitter’s tolerance, though. “I tried my best,” Musk tweeted. “Despite that, he again violated our rule against incitement to violence.”

What exactly Ye meant by posting a Nazi symbol will only ever be known inside his head, but what he generally means is clear: “I like Hitler,” as he told the conspiracy kingpin Alex Jones on Jones’s show yesterday. Or as he put it in the tweet that got him suspended last time, in October, he wants to go “death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE.”

The psychology that may have led Ye here—whether or not related to his much-publicized mental-health issues—is easy to guess. “Unable to address his problems rationally, he resorted to the age-old avoidance strategy of pinning them on the Jews,” Yair Rosenberg wrote in The Atlantic. The mealymouthed Dave Chappelle has even suggested that Ye’s turn to conspiracy thinking is an understandable reaction to Jewish prominence in Hollywood. But any excuse-making for Ye is, at this point, also a defense of dangerous ignorance. Anti-Semitism perpetuates itself with easily debunked lies (such as the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion), and Ye has dissed the idea of reading books.

Besides, Ye’s foray into Nazism isn’t just some oopsie. Sources told CNN that he, for years, praised Hitler to employees and associates. That revelation is only so surprising once you consider Ye’s long-stated interests in reprogramming society, attaining unquestioned power, and using austere aesthetics for spiritual and social cleansing. He’s now just making the subtext—that Jewish influence is what needs be cleansed—clear, so clear that Trump had to do damage control after a lunch with Ye and the Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes.

As for Musk, his rationale for banning Ye—“incitement to violence”—has a deceptively cut-and-dried ring to it. What are the platform’s everyday slur-slingers doing if not inciting violence? History keeps demonstrating that nicknames for immigrants or degrading messages about women often are catalysts to bloodshed. Terms such as cancel culture and political correctness muddle the matter by rerouting discussions of impact and danger to norms and decorum. When Ye started hanging out with Trump in 2016, the rapper’s stated desire was to disrupt the idea of what a Black celebrity is supposed to do. Yet what really concerned onlookers was his alliance with ideologies that make state and civilian violence against Black people—not to mention other people of color, immigrants, Jews, women, and queer people—more common.

A swastika puts a nasty little bow on the jumble of ideas that Ye has been indulging in: sexism, fascism, egoism, Trumpism. It all leads back to the same pathetic belief that abstract prejudices (usually rooted in personal grudges) are righteous and deserve to be enforced. A civilized society minimizes such ideas not just because they are displeasing but because they get people killed. I’m struck by what the rock singer Max Collins tweeted with a picture of Ye and a group of reactionary commentators, including Fuentes: “The most chilling fall from grace in modern history brought to you by divorce, youtube algorithms and zero books. Put a biohazard sign on this cautionary tale.” Let’s hope a cautionary tale is all it ends up being.