Recently, I’ve covered two stories in these pages that might seem completely unrelated: Kanye West’s anti-Semitism and Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter. But while these topics are distinct, they share an underlying theme: Though both stories are certainly newsworthy, the problems they reflect aren’t actually new.
In the case of the anti-Semitic outbursts from West (who now goes by Ye), I’ve pointed out that what he’s been saying is far more common than many wish to acknowledge, in both the music industry and the broader world:
Twitter locked Ye’s account after he declared that he would be going “death con 3” on “Jewish people.” But far more powerful anti-Semites with the real-world ability to deliver death, such as the Holocaust-denying supreme leader of Iran, remain on the platform unimpeded, sharing tweet after tweet of thinly veiled bigotry. Similarly, the rapper Jay Electronica, whose Twitter profile contains the words “I’m with Farrakhan”—a reference to Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Jewish Nation of Islam hate preacher—has used the site to attack Jews by, for example, dubbing a rabbi an “imposter and birthright stealer.” He also featured Farrakhan on his 2020 album A Written Testimony, including excerpts of speeches that echo the tropes expressed by Ye. One track even incorporates a reference to the “synagogue of Satan,” Farrakhan’s favored epithet for Jews. Most of this went unremarked on in the music press, and none of it prevented critics from adding the record and its songs—without disclaimer—to their best-of-the-year playlists. Pitchfork invited Electronica to its 2021 music festival. Oh, and the album was released by the label of the hip-hop impresario Jay-Z, who is featured on eight of its 10 tracks.
Indeed, a lot of what seems novel about Ye’s outbursts is actually not. Earlier this week, social media erupted in outrage over a photograph of neo-Nazis hoisting a Kanye is right about the Jews sign on a Los Angeles freeway. But this band of bigots has been hanging anti-Semitic banners at the site for years … In other words, Ye’s meltdown momentarily focused attention on anti-Semitism that society prefers not to notice.
The same is true for anti-Semitism in America writ large. Such prejudice in our country today should shock, but it should not surprise. Every single year since the FBI began recording hate-crime statistics, Jews have been the target of more anti-religious attacks in the U.S. than all other religious groups combined.
Murderous anti-Jewish violence is thankfully rarer, but it is also not new. When a white supremacist massacred 11 congregants at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in 2018, many Americans reacted in understandable horror. But some of this response reflected the assumption that “this doesn’t happen here.” In reality, however, as my colleague Isabel Fattal wrote at the time, the United States has a long history of anti-Jewish violence. Every few years, no matter which party is in power or what is happening in the country, someone tries to murder Jews over some ideological grievance.
So what does any of this have to do with Elon Musk? Well, since he took over Twitter, many prominent pundits and some news outlets have expressed horror at the bigotry and misinformation that circulates on the platform. But, as I wrote this week, none of this is new either:
According to popular posts made by users of the site, the Merriam-Webster-dictionary definition of anti-vaxxer was changed in 2021 to include those who oppose vaccine mandates. (It wasn’t; it had been that way for years.) In a parody of performative progressivism, President Joe Biden inaugurated a line of environmentally friendly bombs. (He didn’t; the story was from 2008.) And the United Kingdom banned Fox News. (It didn’t; the channel decided to stop broadcasting there, because of a lack of viewers.) Simply put, Twitter has been a firehose of ideologically motivated misinformation for years.
And yet, in the days since Elon Musk took control of the site, users have taken to blaming this problem and the platform’s other long-standing issues on him … “Hours into Twitter’s Elon Musk era, the company has apparently undone its ban on the term ‘groomer’ as a slur against LGBTQ+ people,” wrote The Advocate, when the term had never been banned in the first place. “Ye’s Twitter account appears to be no longer suspended as Elon Musk takes the helm of the company,” reported Bloomberg. But the rapper’s account had never been suspended; it was merely locked following his recent anti-Semitic outburst, which the corrected article now notes.
In other words, whether it’s conspiratorial anti-Semitism from Ye or mendacious misinformation on Musk’s Twitter, these problems are not novel, and they cannot simply be pinned on one unsavory individual, whether a rapper or a tech billionaire. These very real issues reflect much deeper dilemmas.
The distinction between what is newsworthy and what is new matters a lot, for a very simple reason: If we can’t understand the roots of a problem, we can’t begin to solve it. If we can’t tell the difference between something that is new and something that isn’t, we will be unable to address the true causes for concern.
Put more concretely: If anti-Semitism is characterized as a one-off aberration whenever it occurs, then society is effectively offloading the problem onto scapegoats like Ye, and avoiding reckoning with the underlying issues that lead to anti-Semitism like Ye’s. If Twitter’s morass of misinformation is conveniently blamed on Musk, we will never grapple with the site’s fundamental features that have long made it a breeding ground for hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and abuse.
The world is complicated, and it can often be difficult for the lay reader to make these sorts of distinctions. That’s why the job of a good journalist is not just to report the news, but to contextualize it. When choosing where to devote your limited attention, try to identify sources that don’t just tell you what happened, but also take the time to situate events in the proper perspective. And look for outlets that cover important issues like anti-Semitism even when the subject isn’t making headlines, and there isn’t a celebrity involved.
Many of you wrote to express appreciation for the recent lists of recommended reading and resources that I’ve included in this newsletter, so I’m going to try and make that a more regular feature. Here’s this week’s edition, with some pieces that inform or challenge the views I’ve outlined above …