Editor’s Note: Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN, covered the television industry for The New York Times for 25 years, and has written four books on TV, including The Late Shift and The War for Late Night. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The toxic infection from Kanye West’s antisemitic comments is spreading.
On Saturday, an antisemitic message scrolled across the outside of TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida during a college football game. The message read: “Kanye is right about the jews.” The same message was later flashed on a building in Jacksonville Saturday night.
And that same weekend, drivers in Jacksonville were treated to ugly antisemitic signs on a highway overpass – similar to what happened in Los Angeles a week before.
Antisemitism is endemic, and it’s being inflamed by a wide range of hate sites online. But there’s no question that West, a figure with a massive cultural footprint, has stoked the never fully extinguished flames of hate directed at Jewish people.
Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, has said Jewish people have too much control over the business world. He threatened in a Twitter post to “Go death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.” He ranted in an Instagram post about Ari Emanuel, CEO of the talent agency Endeavor, referencing “business” people when he clearly meant Jews.
West is an intelligent guy; he knows what he’s doing. That’s what makes all of this so awful, and so dangerous. Dismissing him as a self-important gadfly, or a creature of the tabloids associated with Kardashian nonsense, severely underestimates who Kanye West is.
He has sold well over 100 million records; he has won 24 Grammy Awards; and he has been taken seriously in a range of businesses, including music production, talent management and especially fashion design. His successes in those areas have afforded him prodigious reach among younger consumers of music and clothes.
Certainly his inflammatory rhetoric has ignited a substantial backlash from people horrified by West’s bigotry, which has been directed at others along with Jews. (He has also said slavery is a choice and wore a “White Lives Matter” t-shirt.)
But there is an undercurrent to the reaction to West – a dismissive one that seems to find his views unserious in some way, because West is an “entertainer,” a guy who used to be married to a Kardashian; or because he may have genuine mental health issues.
And then there is West’s position within the cocoon of conservative media: a Hollywood figure who wears MAGA hats and frequently shares views with the right-wing base.
Donald Trump still hasn’t publicly disavowed West. The most he’s added about the anti-Semitic comments is a weirdly phrased, “He’s made some … rough statements on Jewish.”
Fox News aired an interview between West and its highly controversial host, Tucker Carlson, where West said that Jared Kushner, who is Jewish, only tried to negotiate peace in the Middle East “to make money.” The network edited out West’s most antisemitic attacks. Those comments only became public because someone of conscience inside Fox decided to leak them.
For all those reasons, the chorus of outrage about West’s disgusting attack on Jews was for many days muted – even factoring in the businesses that severed relationships with him. Some underplayed the impact of someone as big and famous as Kanye West diving into the ugliness of bias, despite the fact that there already has been a sustained surge of antisemitic comments in alt-right online communities.
All this has made West’s almost casual slurring of Jews all the more appalling. There is a scary electrical charge of intolerance in the air, and a cultural icon has decided not only to touch the live wire, but to hang it around his neck, wave it around, and run it up the flagpole of his fame.
The brands that have abandoned him are saying this kind of intolerance is unacceptable. That’s the right response.
But the message West has been spouting is still resonating in dark and nasty places, including with those who decided to celebrate West’s validating their pathetic prejudices by displaying support for him at football stadiums and highway overpasses.
Some of those guys may have no clue about the desecration of humanity they are celebrating – and looking to bring back.
West almost surely does. He may only care about the damage his continuing disinclination to acknowledge he’s a bigot is doing to his once-bulging bankroll. The cost to the people he’s denigrating may be much more harmful.