Preface to a 20-volume Dave Chappelle Review

Personal Notes on a Culture in Transformation

I never watched Chappelle's TV show nor any stand up routine by him prior to his first Netflix special. I was never that into comedy, though of course I watched it during my formative years — Eddie Murphy in the 1980’s when I was in elementary school; Andrew Dice Clay in the 1990’s, when I was in high school — which coincided with an intense backlash against the political correctness of the time that occurred in popular culture, even as the institutional capture by politically correct forces then ongoing within academia proceeded apace. I surely imbibed some of the ambient attitudes regarding comedy of that time, which held that rough banter between men that violated schoolmarmish protocols of decency was a powerful form of truth-telling, and that being able to both give and take rough banter was a mark of proper social integration into the fraternity of men, even if I have never myself been an enthusiastic practitioner of it or even especially comfortable in its presence.

I was asthmatic as a child and the son of two Korean immigrants, who were in turn both descended from many generations of Confucian gentleman scholars who advised the provincial gentry on right conduct. I have never been quite cut out for the brash masculinity that was then celebrated ("centered", in today's jargon) in the America of the 1980's, growing up as I did in a small suburban New Jersey suburb where the hub of social life was a football team helmed by a much beloved coach legendary for a winning record sustained over the decades, and for the physical punishments he was rumored to mete out to those who challenged his authority.

Even today, three-year old boys that I encounter at my daughter’s preschool can make me tense up in their presence if they are fueled by a certain species of male energy legible even in bodies that small. But simply through osmosis, many of the values of that time (which are in turn linked to the deeper history of the culture — perhaps even to the species) are a reflexive part of my baseline expectations of the world. No amount of effort at revising my attitudes (not that I’m especially inclined to try, sorry) would do much to change the fact that however effete and aloof and sensitive I may be, (and I am surely in the 95th percentile among men along both of these dimensions), I am nonetheless, for better or worse, unambiguously a cisgendered, (a term that the late comedian Norm MacDonald characterized “a way of marginalizing a normal person), heterosexual man, and all that entails.

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Charles Barkley recently made fond reference to this ethos on air, reminiscing about the racism, sexism, and homophobia endemic to the NBA locker room and implying, as it was common to do at the time, that the free exchange of unbridled, uncivil speech functioned as a form of aversion therapy that paradoxically helped bridge divides and accommodate diversity.

This was a key premise of the “anti-PC” culture of the time; that we could both signal and enact our liberation from the racism of the past precisely through a parodic repetition of it. It was in retrospect a heavily gendered approach to speech, governed by a distinctively masculine ethos. Each man endures a hazing by his pals, at the end of which — assuming he has survived intact — he has earned his bona fides as a man among men, though any day might call on him to prove himself once again himself to be strong enough to both take it and dish it out, thus separating himself from those lesser, weaker beings unable to take or dish out the psychic and physical punishment endemic to life as a man in a competitive, agonistic society. Those too weak to earn respect by taking it with equanimity, and dishing it out with flair in return, were rightly the quarry of all those who had earned their standing by proving that they could do both. We did not “give a fuck about race” (our latter day version of the Boomer-themed “I don’t care if the guy’s purple if he can kick the football!”) if you could prove yourself to a be a man, and we proved this by calling one another slurs. (I did not myself do this, but I recall distinctly the way the Bro-ish Asian kids at Rutgers that lived on my floor when I left honors housing after my freshman year to live in the river dorms, would declare they were ordering ‘Chink Food”, with great jocular guffaws implied.)

This was a statement of one iteration of the ethos of homosocial spaces — of the barracks, the fraternity, the oil rig, the street gang, and the sailing ship -- professional sports being a residual setting, enclosed within a broader neoliberal, post-industrial political economy then rapidly transforming under the growing influence of women, that remained entirely homosocial. Professional athletics thus shared in the peculiar character of the spaces on the edge of civilization where value is extracted directly from nature, or within states of exceptions, such as wars or natural disasters, where the power and authority of men is at its zenith, and where the distinctively masculine patterns of social organization predominate. All of this was further exacerbated of course by wealth and celebrity and the peculiar path to overcoming adversity that took so many men from poverty to stardom on the basis of exceptional talent. It was a place where the social dynamics of the homosocial world are allowed their full scope — competition, hierarchy, dominance displays — for our collective entertainment, but also a venue where the culture continued to commit itself each weekend to a package of distinctively masculine values.

The anti-pc culture of the time eventually culminated in an openly pornographic sensibility being placed on the air — I still recall hearing the daytime talk show Opie and Anthony hosting a segment in which they invited male stepfathers to call in the sexual fantasies they were having about their female stepdaughters in the early 2000’s — that was ripe for a rebalancing. Right around this time one began to hear both of “toxic masculinity” and of a “war on boys” as schools increasingly sought to reverse the patterns of rough male socialization once treated indulgently by school administrators and replace them with anti-bullying initiatives and other measures meant not just to constrain them within reasonable limits but to eradicate the pattern entirely. The argument that one began to hear at the time was that female teachers influenced by the feminism of the day were imposing a female-normed standard of conduct onto boys, who were increasingly being placed on Ritalin and Adderall to make them conform to those new behaviorial standards, to the ultimate detriment of their (and here is the irony) sense of belonging and ability to thrive in the scholastic setting. We will return to this dynamic in subsequent posts.

Though I was not a viewer of Chappelle’s show and took little note of his abrupt self-cancellation at the time, his act was an important one. It was the sudden defection by one of its most cherished practitioners from that masculine anti-PC culture. Chappelle was rejecting one of the foundational tenets of that culture: that the indulgence in comedic racism was merely an ironic way to re-enact and celebrate our collective transcendence of the past, ritually drowning its remnants in manly bonhomie. Chappelle suddenly succumbed to the anxiety that many black comedians perhaps have felt at one time or other — that maybe they were not in fact and had never been on equal footing with the tough white guys when they brought their frenetic act of racial self-caricature to the locker room and the beer bash to the joyous acclaim of all. Perhaps they had been the clowns and marionettes of the tough white guys all along. And perhaps it would be wrong to continue.

(First in a series…)