Chappelle Was Right

It really is getting harder to joke about anti-Semitism—just not for the reasons he thinks.

A GIF of sound waves radiating from a black-and-white microphone on a bright-red background.
Getty; The Atlantic

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.

That said, Chappelle is correct that it’s become more difficult to poke fun at anti-Semitism in front of an audience, but not because some censorious Jewish cabal is looking over the shoulder of Netflix’s multimillion-dollar man. The problem, I realized, is that as anti-Semitism and related conspiracy theories become more normalized in our discourse, laughing about them becomes harder, because you never know who might not get the joke.

From sources as varied as Tucker Carlson, Kyrie Irving, Elon Musk, and Kanye West, our culture faces a flood of conspiracism. And inevitably, with the rise of conspiratorial thinking comes a surge in anti-Semitism. As another comedian famously said, “That train is never late.”

The progression is as dependable as it is depressing. Conspiracy theorists begin by rejecting mainstream explanations for social and political events in favor of supposedly suppressed knowledge and hidden hands. These individuals may not start out as anti-Semites. But anti-Semitism has a multi-thousand-year head start on their crooked conception of the world, and has produced centuries of material casting the Jews as its chief culprit. Once a person has convinced themselves that an invisible hand is manipulating the masses, they are just a couple of Google searches away from discovering that it belongs to an invisible Jew.

Take Irving, the Brooklyn Nets basketball star who shared a cartoonishly anti-Jewish film with his social-media following. As the Yahoo Sports columnist Ben Rohrbach noted at the time, this was far from the first conspiracy theory that Irving had promoted. In the past, the point guard had suggested that the Earth was flat, that the CIA killed the musician Bob Marley, that the Federal Reserve helped assassinate President John F. Kennedy, and that 9/11 might have been an inside job. “People will be like, Who’s ‘they’?” Irving said in a 2018 podcast, before answering his own question: “Everyone who has basically controlled us.” Seen in this perspective, it’s less surprising that Irving landed on anti-Semitic ideas, and more surprising that it took him this long.

Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, the host of the most popular political show on television, has produced an entire propaganda series pushing the fevered fantasy that the U.S. government manufactured the January 6 insurrection in order to ensnare and persecute innocent patriots. Carlson has also celebrated Alex Jones, the far-right radio host recently hit with a $965 million libel judgment for repeatedly claiming that no children were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, and that their grieving parents were in fact paid actors.

It is no surprise, then, that Carlson has also taken to promoting a lightly sanitized version of the “Great Replacement” theory, which posits that shadowy elites are plotting to replace the country’s white majority with brown minorities—a claim that has motivated multiple anti-Semitic massacres on American soil. Carlson is careful never to explicitly implicate Jews in this supposed scheme, as white nationalists do, but the far-right members of his audience can fill in the blanks after he hits all their preferred beats.

The conveyor belt from all-purpose conspiracy to anti-Jewish specificity doesn’t stop there. It’s how Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene went from claiming that Democratic leaders were running a pedophile ring out of a pizza store and that no plane hit the Pentagon on 9/11 to fulminating about Jewish-run space lasers and seconding accusations that Israel’s Mossad killed JFK. This is how QAnon became JewAnon. And it’s why the rise of conspiracism should concern us all.

Earlier this month, the entrepreneur Elon Musk posted and then deleted a conspiracy theory on Twitter about the recent attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The site he linked to had previously claimed that Hillary Clinton had died during the 2016 presidential campaign and been replaced with a body double. This foray of the world’s richest man into casual conspiracism is frightening not because he is unique, but because he is entirely representative of our moment, a reflection of just how much erratic thinking has seeped into the mainstream. Indeed, Twitter, the platform Musk recently acquired, is filled with hoaxes and conspiracy theories, an accelerant of the breakdown of our society’s shared frame of reference.

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.