The Slap Heard Round the World

Random musings on the piddling celebrity ugliness of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock during the Academy Awards show:

What a wonderful distraction this has made for people who thought the invasion of Ukraine was great fun until it started to look like an actual war, rather than one of those tasty crisis-of-the-week things that, when the dust settles, dutifully leaves everything that matters (i.e., your immediate comfort) exactly as it was.

The basic defense of Will Smith’s action: He felt understandably angry about Rock’s joke mocking his wife; after all, what real man wouldn’t feel angry in that situation?

This defense makes sense to a lot of people in our time, because a lot of people in our time — okay, let’s say most people in our time — lack the mental capacity or the moral education to understand that if we all acted on every “understandable” feeling we had at any given moment, civil society would immediately collapse into a free-for-all of random violence and constant fear. Or to understand that feelings are not actions, and specifically that the mediating buffer between a feeling and an action, namely rational consideration — the ability to “count to ten,” as parents used to tell their children — is almost the defining feature of the human species as such.

Smith’s performance that night, striding onto a stage on live television and slapping another man hard across the face, and then returning to his seat to shout expletives while his assault victim showed all the self-control and sense of place that Smith obviously lacks — how many of us could have resisted the urge to hit back at the idiot or tear a strip off him on live television? — seemed to establish a new low in our basement world of “cancel culture” and “triggered” behavior. With that outburst, Smith declared it acceptable, when one is offended or angered by another man’s joke — not a criminal act, not a personal threat, not a theft or act of oppression, but a single, lame, off-the-cuff joke — to feel free to violate the tacit wall of civility separating a performer on stage from his audience and physically attack the performer. Yes, this was Smith behaving like an entitled bigshot, assuming that the normal rules of peaceful coexistence do not apply to millionaire movie stars; but it also threatens to become a kind of cultural precedent, a watershed moment that will subtly loosen the tethers on other people, famous or otherwise, who in a moment of animalistic irrationality find themselves similarly “offended” by someone’s words, and experience an “uncontrollable urge” to express their anger in inarticulate forms.

Judging from the perspective of one who only saw clips of the event after the fact, because he would never be caught dead watching one minute of the political outrage and artistic travesty that the modern Oscars show has become for any reason other than headline curiosity, I would say that Smith’s physical attack on Rock — who, if he hadn’t been traumatized by almost killing a bully in anger as a boy, might have ended Smith’s self-importance fest right quick — was not actually the ugliest violence against civility and morality at that shindig of the shams. After all, Smith can be somewhat granted the “moment of anger” excuse — not defense, but explanation — that makes his action relatively insignificant and forgivable in itself, though stupid and potentially damaging to public life due to his prominence. No, the real slap in the face to Chris Rock, stand-up comedians, entertainers in general, and above all the public decorum and decency that are now so blithely belittled as “traditional morality” or “old-fashioned reserve” — the slap that actually leaves a mark — is the standing ovation Smith received from the audience upon receiving the Best Actor award, the same audience that had just watched him shame himself and destroy other people’s big night of achievement by physically attacking another man over a meaningless joke. (Does anyone remember who won the documentary award Rock was there to present, or feel sorry for the winner’s once-in-a-career accomplishment being sullied by a trashy gossip show created by a smug zillionaire who just wanted to show off his fake manliness?)

With that boisterous ovation, accompanied by their professionally trained, professionally posed, “ready-for-my-close-up” tears of empathy in response to Smith’s crocodile tears of remorse during his acceptance speech — the often respectable Denzel Washington being particularly revolting in this maudlin moment of mass showmanship — the entire audience responded to Smith’s attempt to demean and humiliate Chris Rock before the world by spitting on Rock and kicking him in the backside as he left the building. If one did not already know that Hollywood was a cesspool of immorality, stupidity, self-indulgence, and tastelessness, the moment would have been quite shocking, as “the academy” gave its collective thumbs up to the cool, dashing, world-at-his-feet superstar thug, thus implicitly mocking and laughing at the small kid, the non-leading-man-type, the typical class clown trying to fend off the demons and humiliations of an unhappy youth by making people laugh. Given what one actually knows about Hollywood, however, one can only observe, “That’s what they really think about you, all the millions of ‘little people’ who continue to watch them, to pay homage to them, to treat them as important or special people, and to give a damn what they do or say about anything.”

Stop watching them, stop caring about them, stop giving credence to them, stop telling yourself, “But my favorite stars are not like that.” Let the ones who are “not like that” speak up for themselves right now. If they don’t, assume they belong in the other pile, the one that stinks — and forget about them forever, as they deserve. You can survive very well — better than before, in fact — without another infantile superhero movie, another sentimental celebrity bio-pic, another Marxist revisionist historical epic, another nihilistic and amoral cartoon pumping feminist, socialist, or environmentalist talking points, another mindless shoot-out or mass murder blood fest from the “peace and love” industry, another wasteful gouge out of your bank account, your moral substance, your thinking life. 

I am not a Chris Rock fan. I find his kind of post-Eddie Murphy “black comic” humor tedious and predictable. Like any comic with longevity, he obviously has the talent to deliver a joke well when he has one worth telling, but like most comics with a large reputation today, his act depends far too much on the easy money of vulgar language and “black man, white man” emptiness. Having said that, compared to Will Smith, Rock is Laurence Olivier and Charlie Chaplin combined.

And I might note, somewhat apropos of today’s topic, that the last extended clip of him that I ever heard, which is also one of the very few extended clips of him that I have heard, was a discussion of his old Saturday Night Live cohort Chris Farley, who died young due to substance abuse. In that interview clip on Howard Stern’s radio show (embedded below), Rock expressed disgust at the way Farley was treated by many around him who callously exploited his insecurities and weaknesses in ways that, in Rock’s opinion, might have precipitated his early death. The discussion, laced with Rock’s rough language, and continually interrupted by the idiot Stern and his stupid female sidekick, reveals a man with genuine human empathy, presumably the product of the aforementioned painful youth that serves as a major source of certain types of comic presence, including both Rock’s and Farley’s. Will Smith, by contrast, has been a pampered and heavily-promoted no-talent since he was a kid. At the Academy Awards this year, even more brazenly than in most years, Hollywood officially chose the pampered and heavily-promoted nothing over the empathetic human being. True to form on every level, I would say.

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