the national interest

Stop Treating Celebrities Like Politicians (and Vice Versa)

Photo: Kelsey McNeal/ABC via Getty Images

Last weekend, Chris Harrison, host of The Bachelor, announced he was “stepping aside for a period of time” after a social-media firestorm. Harrison’s offense, for which he has confessed and apologized as part of his punishment, was to refuse to condemn Rachael Kirkconnell, one of the contestants on his show.

Kirkconnell’s offense itself is a few years old. As a college student, in 2018, she attended an “Old South”–themed dance, evidence of which resurfaced on (naturally) social media.

The outrage immediately centered on Kirkconnell, but her guilt spread to the host of the show, who gave an interview in which he withheld judgment. Harrison did not make any positive defense of Kirkconnell having attended the dance (“I’m not defending it, I didn’t go to it”), but merely insisted she deserved leniency. “We all need to have a little grace, a little understanding, a little compassion,” he said. At one point, explaining his hesitation to fully denounce the contestant, he uttered the line, “I am not the woke police, there’s plenty of people that will do that for us right now.”

Many headlines connected Harrison to the word “racist” — i.e., Variety: “Chris Harrison Briefly ‘Stepping Aside’ From ‘The Bachelor’ in Wake of Racist Controversy” — but Harrison is not accused of having done anything racist. The controversy isn’t even over the propriety of attending a dance with an Old South theme. (Personally, I find the notion repulsive.) And it’s not even over whether a contestant on his show should be sanctioned for having participated in an event like this previously, though that merits some serious debate. (Just how much political sophistication are we entitled to demand of a contestant on a reality show about extremely hot people deciding on television who to sleep with?)

No, Harrison’s crime is that he objected to the punishment of another person for having failed to boycott an Old South dance when she was in college. Harrison’s language — “I’m not the woke police” — made his point sound more controversial. But if you listen to the interview, he was using “woke” as an implicit compliment, placing the point of disagreement on police. Woke was a virtue he couldn’t bring himself to police in a younger and less established colleague. He asked her youthful ignorance be treated with grace and compassion.

This is not even guilt by association. It is guilt by refusal to join in condemnation. That a person who objects to the fairness of the proceedings themselves becomes the target of suspicion is a dynamic straight out of The Crucible.

Last week, I likened the treatment of actor Gina Carano — who was fired from a starring role in a Star Wars feature and then disavowed by her own agency over a supposedly anti-Semitic social-media post — to the postwar Hollywood blacklist. It is different, of course, in a couple important respects. For one, communists were barred even if they had kept their views secret, whereas conservatives have little to fear if they keep their beliefs to themselves. Second, the blacklist pressure came in part from the federal government, whereas the modern impetus to punish conservatives is generated by a combination of internal cultural norms and market pressure.

But the dynamics share some eerie similarities. Washington was not the only force behind the blacklist; right-wing activist groups like the American Legion convinced studios they would be punished at the box office if they could be connected to communism. The social-media dynamics that produce panicky firings or groveling apologies follow the same logic: No film or show wants to be linked, however tangentially, to “racism” or “anti-Semitism,” either real or imagined.

I would concede that private employers aren’t bound by the First Amendment, and not only can but should separate themselves from clear-cut expressions of outright racism and misogyny. But, as with the blacklist, the process of determining who is guilty of these sins is distorted by an atmosphere that has disabled the braking mechanism.

Current political demography currently works as an accelerant to the dynamic. The demographic groups most valuable to advertisers tend to have much more liberal social views than the general public, a dynamic that gives not only Hollywood but any public-facing corporation an incentive to placate any social-media uproar, fair or otherwise.

We could imagine an alternate world in which conservatives enjoyed more market power. Perhaps studios would be ruthlessly policing the social-media accounts of their employees for any post that even hinted at disrespect for police, the troops, Christianity, or the two-parent family. Imagine the tactics Donald Trump successfully used to blacklist Colin Kaepernick from the NFL were copied and used more widely. The progressives cheering on Carano’s firing would have no principled objection, other than their belief that left views are Good and deserve protection while right-wing views are Bad and should be interpreted and require policing.

Every story reporting on Carano’s defenestration cited her post comparing modern partisan hatred to the early days of Nazi Germany. Most of those stories credulously repeated the charge that her post was anti-Semitic, even though it plainly was not.

In retrospect, the absence of actual anti-Semitism was so obvious that it became impossible to defend her firing on its actual basis. Many left-wingers began to circulate a previous post she made, suggesting it supplies the evidence of her anti-Semitism that justifies her subsequent firing on spurious grounds:

Is this image anti-Semitic? On the one hand, it suggests certain populist conspiratorial themes that are consistent with anti-Semitism. On the other, it lacks any identifiable Jewish features. I didn’t immediately recognize any of the men it depicts. A well-trained analyst would recognize how easily its theme of a sinister global elite maps onto anti-Semitism. But is that a fair expectation of somebody who doesn’t work in politics?

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Jeet Heer’s argument — other than his insinuation that I would never forgive an allegedly bigoted comment by Omar, which is simply false — is his implicit equation between an actor and an elected official, as if we should expect Gina Carona to analyze her social-media posts for their historical undertones with the same level of intellectual sophistication as we would expect from a member of the United States Congress.

Of course the right doesn’t actually value free speech. The conservative movement vigorously defended Joe McCarthy in his time, and has either ignored or actively participated in Donald Trump’s efforts to boycott or bully various targets. Conservatives don’t care about liberalism (duh), except as a cudgel.

Trump has attempted to harness the backlash against cancel culture to justify not only his own censorious impulses, but to excuse his crimes as merely a form of personal expression. His ridiculous First Amendment defense against impeachment implicitly asked that he be judged by the standards of a regular person, not an elected official. Whipping up a mob to storm the Capitol and help steal an election was just Donald Trump, Florida resident and avid cable-news watcher, exercising his free speech.

There are two fallacies here — parallel in form, if not in magnitude. Trump has been asking that his rhetoric as an elected leader be held to the standard of a regular person spouting off at the corner bar. The left is demanding celebrities or even ordinary people be scrutinized for their beliefs as though they’re politicians.

I prefer to live in a world where a person can have a job vamping on a reality show or dressing up in a silly costume and pretending to chase around Baby Yoda in a spaceship without possessing a fine-tuned antenna for decoding political symbolism. I would never vote for Gina Carona for anything. So what?

Stop Treating Celebrities Like Politicians (and Vice Versa)