Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The appropriate response to Kanye West’s latest intentional bigoted provocations – his antisemitic tweet, his “White Lives Matter” t-shirt – is fairly simple: Condemn the message, and encourage West, who reportedly struggles with mental health issues, to get help and get out of the public eye.
Instead, the latest West affair has turned into a bizarre way for people across the political spectrum to put on a performance, either as a highly moralistic progressive who paints the world in black and white and good people versus bad, or as a West sympathizer, sending a message (sometimes tacit, in other cases overt) to their followers that they perhaps share West’s hateful sentiments.
The first group is simplistic and annoying. The second response, though – the conservatives who are using this moment to amplify themselves because they realize that West’s bigotry may well resonate with their followers – is indecent and dangerous.
West has a long history of misogyny, bigotry and intentional provocation. Just a few days ago, he wore a White Lives Matter shirt at the Yeezy show at Paris Fashion Week, and had several models – plus right-wing commentator Candace Owens – do the same. For that public gesture to White supremacy, he was invited on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and roundly applauded by a number of Republicans, even after the interview predictably went off the rails.
During his interview with Carlson, West wore an ultrasound pendant to signal his anti-abortion views. He pointed to abortion and the singer Lizzo’s weight and blamed both for “the genocide of the Black race.” Republicans and conservative talking heads cheered West for “spitting facts” and declared him “a cultural icon.”
Just days later, West wrote on both Twitter and Instagram to say, “I’m a bit sleepy but when I wake up I’m going death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE. The funny thing is I actually can’t be Anti Semitic because black people are actually Jew also You guys have toyed with me and tried to black ball anyone whoever opposes your agenda.”
That got him restricted on both platforms, and that particular message was deleted. And while most Republicans and conservatives suddenly clammed up after their West lovefest, a few continued to signal their support – including via the GOP House Judiciary’s Twitter account, which had tweeted “Kanye. Elon. Trump” after West’s Fox News interview, and has still refused to delete the tweet despite many calls to do so.
Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, who catapulted to right-wing fame after he opened a criminal inquiry into a doctor who helped a pregnant 10-year-old rape victim who needed an abortion, tweeted that “The constant hypocrisy from the media is at an all-time high. They have now gone after Kanye for his new fashion line, his independent thinking, & for having opposing thoughts from the norm of Hollywood.” That was after West’s threat to go “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.”
Rokita later claimed that “My post was specifically and clearly aimed at the hypocrisy of the media and Hollywood elites, not anything to do with other comments. I have an obvious, clear and substantial Congressional and public record of being 100% supportive of the Jewish community and Israel.” But at the time he sent out his first tweet defending West on Sunday evening, West’s antisemitic tweet was the primary topic of conversation.
Candace Owens of the White Lives Matter T-shirt also joined in, saying, “If you are an honest person, you did not think this tweet was antisemitic. If you are an honest person you read this tweet you had no idea what the hell he was talking about.” I’m not sure what kind of “honest person” reads “death con 3 on Jewish people” and doesn’t understand that to be baldly, repulsively anti-Semitic, but Owens also lamented that “It’s like you cannot even say the word ‘Jewish’ without people getting upset.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz couldn’t be bothered to condemn West’s remarks, but did take the opportunity to attack New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez because she condemned West’s remarks.
The left-wing line on West, which amounts to “mental illness does not make you a bigot, only bigots are bigots” is too simplistic and dismissive. Mental illnesses are not all alike, and painting them with a broad brush is silly. No, your anxiety does not make you spout antisemitic conspiracy theories.
But a small number of serious mental illnesses can indeed make a person delusional, prone to conspiracy theories and extremely vulnerable to latching onto bigoted beliefs as a way of making sense of a world that, because of their mental state, has become unintelligible. Culture can impact those delusions and hallucinations, and it is entirely possible that a person who is not racist or misogynist or antisemitic while in their right mind might latch onto these noxious ideas when they aren’t.
It’s also possible that a person can be both a bigot and mentally ill.
West didn’t invent antisemitic conspiracy theories, nor the racist claim that Black women who end pregnancies are genocidaires, nor White supremacy. But West’s psychology is honestly the least important part of this story. His words are indefensible, and at this point, so is giving him a platform, money or the attention he craves. Those who know West personally and love him and have his best interests at heart should push him to hit pause, seek help and refrain from public provocations – and perhaps seek out a quiet life away from celebrity and out of the public eye.
For the rest of us, though, this is more than just a choice between ignoring or condemning. More interesting and important than West himself is how West’s reactionary bigotry has been embraced on the right – and how West has in turn also embraced the same kind of racism and conspiracy-mongering that is increasingly a fixture of today’s profoundly deranged Republican Party.
Why is it that key figures in the GOP world and their conservative supporters have embraced this grotesquely attention-seeking person spouting dangerous conspiracy theories? That is a question that could be asked in a column about West – but also one about former President Donald Trump, or Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene or Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, or frankly any smattering of Republican politicians, conservative commentators and right-wing celebrities. That is a much more serious and pervasive problem than how to respond to West’s tweets.
Some in the GOP may well be reticent to disown West, since GOP operatives sought to use him in 2020 to siphon voters away from Biden. But this ongoing right-wing embrace of West is a way to signal to Republican supporters that the now-dominant Trump wing of the GOP believes the outrageous claims that (or is willing to leave silently uncontested) West professes: That women’s bodies should be policed by men; that in response to White police officers killing unarmed Black men and women the appropriate thing to do is to disregard and devalue Black lives and emphasize the greater importance of White ones; and that there is indeed a secretive cabal of shady Jews (or perhaps in more coded terms, a “cosmopolitan elite” or “globalists”) controlling the world and ruining your life – and certainly rigging elections.
All of that is indefensible – and much more dangerous than a few tweets from a single musician. And the impulse among conservatives to use West’s comments as a way of hinting at their own bigotries should concern us much, much more than the question about what to do about West himself.