For better or worse, the rapper, producer and sneaker salesman Kanye West is almost certainly not running for president, as he has claimed. He is instead sidling into the mainstream consciousness just before he drops his latest album.
Kanye has had an odd few years. He’s come out in support of Donald Trump, made an impassioned religious album, and failed to build a complex of Star Wars-inspired domes for the homeless. A presidential run, then, feels like a natural next move. Ultimately, though, he does not seem to have even filed the necessary paperwork.
This has not prevented progressives from being outraged by what they believe is an attempt to split the liberal vote and hand Trump another victory. One musician, Courtney Jaye, released an acoustic song inviting West to ‘get fucked’ and to ‘suck [her] dick’. As I watched Ms Jaye strumming and warbling her almost tuneless, entirely humorless song, I thought about how ‘f-you money’ and ‘f-you status’ are slightly different things.
Kanye West belongs to a group of people who somehow transcend cancellation. He can praise Donald Trump, praise Candace Owens, suggest that black people are ‘mentally imprisoned’ by the legacy of slavery, and people will still buy his albums because, well, he’s Kanye West.
He is not the only one. Elon Musk, for example, can weather well-deserved disgrace for throwing out unsubstantiated charges of pedophilia, heavily understate the dangers of COVID-19, and make an amusing habit of publicly trashing journalists, and people still admire him because, well, he’s Elon Musk. Finally, a first time novelist would be in danger of losing and publishers and agents for arguing that biology determines womanhood and that women’s spaces should be reserved for biological females but J.K. Rowling will publish for as long as she likes because, well, she’s J.K. Rowling.
Now, the last thing I am recommending is hero worship of these people, even if their achievements are impressive. Kanye is a stonking egotist with appalling taste. Musk can be recklessly immature. Rowling agrees with progressives on almost everything except trans issues.
Yet, from Donald Trump to Dave Chappelle, elements of the right have a bad habit of idealizing anyone who agrees with them on anything. Kanye has already been the subject of opportunistic right-wing adulation when his support for Trump and Owens led to Owens and her boss, Charlie Kirk of Turning Point, latching on to his trouser legs like excitable puppies. A baffled West was forced to disassociate himself from them and retreat from politics.
Still, there are positive aspects to these uncancelables. First, even if I do not agree with or approve of all the provocative things these individuals have done, I have to respect someone who gets rich and starts to say whatever they want. What is the point of f-you money if you never say f-you?
Second, it is good that there are prominent and well-respected people taking heat without apology or ruin. It exposes the pack dogs of political correctness as being something less formidable than you might have imagined. Had a less successful and renowned author than Rowling faced a boycott, for example, their publishers might have folded, but as it was Rowling they stood firm. This is at least a moral victory for the rest of us.
If nothing else, it makes the stink of cancellation seem less inherently malodorous than it might have done. When random journalists, YouTubers and programmers are being written off as awful bigots it is easy for the average person to assume they are. When their kids’ favorite author, or their favorite rapper, is in the crosshairs, however, a lot of people are more willing ask questions.
I also think we can learn from these ‘uncancelables’. Some of their advantages — millions of dollars and fans — are beyond most of us. But I do think there is something to be gained from the distinction between ‘f-you money’ and ‘f-you status’. Rowling, Musk and West are hard to hit because of their tremendous fame and fortune, of course, but also because their talents make them so hard to demean.
‘Canceling’ someone depends to a large extent on making them seem not just bad but pathetic. To have maximal punch, the charge of being a bigot bears the implication the target is also a loser. That is impossible when you are an ear-grating acoustic singer-songwriter trying to make fun of perhaps the most talented producer of the modern age, or a barely literate journalist trying to make fun of the most successful children’s author of any age.
Too often, we see comedians who make a few un-PC jokes becoming The Un-PC Comedian, or writers who oppose social justice becoming The Anti-SJW Writer. This can be an effective brand in the beginning but it has a short shelf-life and diminishing returns. That does not mean passion and consistency are vices. It just means you should be something else besides that. Far better to be a comedian or writer who is also un-PC than to be monomaniacal. (For a cautionary tale I offer up the brave but rather sad case of Graham Linehan.)
Happily, it’s also good for you. Didactic obsession is one of the most destructive features of politics, not just for society but for the inner life. It is the kind of attitude which leads you to believe a middle-aged children’s author is an evil villain, or that a mischievous rapper is a threat to the Republic. That could be true, I suppose. But the chances are it isn’t.