At this point you are no doubt asking yourself some version of the following set of hideously nested bad questions: How much attention am I meant to be paying to what is currently happening on Twitter, where Elon Musk is now tasked with de-platforming the artist formerly known as Kanye West, who is now known as Ye?
This is a somewhat ridiculous word salad to be forced to utter, and frankly it is an impossible question to answer without also knowing how much attention you are meant to be paying to the horrifying antisemitism expressed by Ye—which is both bad enough to seem worth tracking and also absurd and destructive enough to be tempted to ignore? And if you’re going to pay attention to all that mess, do you further have to continue to pay attention to Donald Trump’s refusal to denounce Nick Fuentes and Ye, who are both rabid fascists and Holocaust deniers? Oh. And finally, what does it all mean when Alex freaking Jones is the severely impaired fascist who suddenly appears rational in comparison to all of the above? Are we all meant to start mainlining InfoWars?
In short, the defining questions of this political era continues to be about how much attention the seemingly endless series of Matryoshka dolls of damaged celebrity narcissists currently running the world must be granted, and how much of our attention do they deserve, given that they feed off it, and also, what do we do about the fact that they never ever do anything actually worthy of any of it?
It is impossible to avoid Elon Musk on Twitter because Elon Musk has made Twitter about Elon Musk. It is similarly impossible to avoid Donald Trump in politics because politics has made itself all about Donald Trump. It is impossible to avoid Ye and Fuentes because the GOP has ensured that the frothing anti-semitism and white supremacy they spout is the beating heart of their politics for the second week in a row (though this week—they’re seemingly getting freaked out by how blatantly obvious this is becoming, which is one reason we feel we have to stay tuned to the utterances from the swamp). So, for the millionth time, the animating problem for those of us who don’t care about mediocre malignant men and their intramural authoritarian Olympic games, is the question of: where are we to put our faces, if we don’t want to watch or listen to them anymore? And is it OK to look away?
We are all buyers and sellers in an attention economy, and without our attention, maybe the Musks and the Trumps and the Yes would just… stop. But until the wealthiest and most famous among us no longer have a pipeline to the attention that comes with celebrity, money, and the seemingly boundless power conferred upon those among us who design sneakers, we will dance with the Matryoshka dolls that brung us.
I was struck by one line in President Biden’s heartbreakingly necessary tweet about these matters this afternoon, when it became plain that the president of the United States would have to state several obvious things for the record:
What stopped me in my tracks was his obviously correct acknowledgment that “silence is complicity”—as a means of calling out the many Republicans who have refused to distance themselves from a former president who casually dines with Nazi enthusiasts. But the corollary, of course, is that the rest of us should not be silent, and yet I confess that if ever I have to say one more single word about Ye, Trump, Jones, Tucker Carlson, or any other racist oxygen-hogs, I will catch fire like a former drummer from Spinal Tap. My silence is not complicity, it is some combination of exhaustion, boredom, and a line-in-the-sand refusal to engage with idiots.
Maybe this Biden formula—of repeating the truths, without naming the purveyors of the lies—is part of the way out of this fairytale thicket of mediocre fabulists stacked one atop the other. Maybe it’s significant that after two months the Twitter account of the House Judiciary Committee’s Republican caucus silently deleted their grotesque “Kanye. Elon. Trump,” tweet from last October. Just watch quietly as the GOP disappears its worst acts of ugliness, just as Tucker Carlson edited out the glaring anti-semitism spewed by Ye in their landmark interview. Maybe our job in the press is not to amplify or comment or even watch all this nihilism and mediocrity, on a mobius strip of misery, but just to quietly hold up a mirror to it and hope it shatters of its own accord.
I can’t watch or listen anymore because every time I do, it steals a part of my soul and giving these monsters even the tiniest corner of our souls is its own violence. But maybe, in lieu of silence, we just keep proclaiming the truth: The Holocaust happened, Hitler was an atrocity, racism is real, the law matters, the former president should probably be in jail, and the fact that we spend vast swaths of our lives saying these things over and over is a tragedy.
Here is the thing about Matryoshka dolls: At some point, you finally do get to the one that does not open. At some point, after doing the infinite mindless repetitions, you do get to the something solid that leads nowhere. Maybe Ye finally saying “I like Hitler” out loud is solid enough to stop the endless cycle. Maybe we just need to see just enough “I like Hitler” to bear witness to what may just be the end of the line.