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The Problem With Dave Chappelle
The political implications of "LOL nothing matters"
Dave Chappelle is right about transgender ideology. He’s right about the disproportionate control that gender ideologues wield over pop culture and public discourse. And he’s also right that most of the people greatly upset by his jokes are white liberals who are more than happy to drop their racial consciousness at the sign of any conflict between minorities and LGBTQ activism.
But this doesn’t, or shouldn’t, add up to conservative sympathy for him. Chappelle is not a hapless victim of a crushing ideological agenda; he’s not Barronelle Stutzman or James Eich. Chappelle is, like many before and many after him, a Robespierre of the very revolution that’s after him now. His fortune was made inside the same progressive sensibility that threatens him, and it is precisely Chappelle’s (and many other comedians) skill with which he dismissed any notion of the sacred that has taken root in the people who are walking out on his un-PC act.
Chappelle is a supremely talented comic. His timing is often sublime, and his blending of absurdism with biting observational humor is dazzling to watch. But Chappelle’s comedy, like so many others, depends critically on an “lol nothing matters” mentality. There’s an undercurrent of nihilism to his routine, a low-level hopelessness about daily life that comes through especially when he takes on those “edgy” topics like male rape or pedophilia. Chappelle has a point when he observes that nobody boycotted him for these jokes until he started saying that men are not women, but one major reason no one boycotted for those jokes was the delivery. Chappelle is a master at eliciting laughter in the face of meaninglessness.
But no comedian can make transgender ideology meaningless. This is why Chappelle’s critics are also correct that he’s not laughing with the transgender community, he is indeed laughing at them. Why? Because the “lol nothing matters” schtick works only among those who share the same expectations from life and the same exhaustion at finding any meaning in the morass of modern political hypocrisy. In other words, it only works if you’re talking to religiously burnt out Gen Xers or embarrassed Silent Generation types. Millennials, rendered unable to exorcise the ghost of Protestantism by years of positivity and inclusion training, have a much different sensibility. Chappelle ridiculed the mores and beliefs of Y2K America because he doesn’t think (and his audience didn’t think) that anyone actually believed in them. Now he’s met a generation that actually does….and not least because icons like Chappelle showed them how absurd it is to not believe in them.
The revolt within liberalism against progressive gender ideology is a comeuppance. A few years ago I wrote about Andrew Sullivan’s transformation from gay marriage warrior to LGBTQ dissenter-in-chief. Sullivan bemoans the authoritarian swagger of the transgender movement and the way that politics have usurped religion in modern people’s souls. But he does so without the slightest hint of self-awareness. Here’s what I wrote about Sullivan:
Sullivan doesn’t appear to consider whether the neutered Christianity that bows to politics might bear any genetic resemblance to the doctrinally plastic faith that frames his celebration of Obergefell. Indeed, it is extraordinarily telling that Sullivan thirsts for a Christianity that transcends politics, only three years after using “It is accomplished”—the Greek τετέλεσται uttered by Christ on the Cross in John 19:30—as the title of his blog announcing SCOTUS’s decision. Does Sullivan truly want a Christianity that talks down to politics? It’s difficult to know, only because there seems to be a lot of confusion in his own mind over which political issues deserve equivalency with the Atonement, and which don’t.
Brick by brick, layer by layer, Sullivan and his colleagues laid a painstakingly constructed foundation for the transgender revolution. By couching their arguments in the language of a religious revolution—one that would be necessary to keep modern people in church—Sullivan paired sexual behavior with transcendental worldview in a way that weaponized the former by feeding it the latter. By using words like “Christianist” to describe those who opposed gay marriage on religious grounds, Sullivan wrote the playbook on how to use the language of terrorism and trauma to associate dissenters with menace. The revolution that has come for Sullivan is the one he organized.
Dave Chappelle is not as philosophically upstream from this ideological cancel culture as Sullivan, but what is happening to him is the same thing. The vulgarity and nihilism of Chappelle’s comedy spoke of a despair woven deeply into modern life. In resistance to the despair, and armed with the unassailable belief that sexual desire is neither sacred nor meaningful, a new Moral Revolution emerged to find victimhood and resurrection among the socially marginalized. Walking out of your job because you are upset at Dave Chappelle is not just a way of saying “That’s not funny,” it’s a way of saying, “Lol, nothing matters…except this.”
I understand why conservatives feel solidarity with Chappelle. He is hounded by the same people that hound us. He is a rare public figure willing to risk the ire of elites simply to observe what everyone can see. That’s admirable. But it’s also inevitable. And we ought not baptize the Chappelles or Sullivans of the world, lest “triggering the libs” becomes the controlling value of conservatism and we follow dutifully as the goalposts move further and further away from sanity, merely content to agitate but not transform.