It is extraordinary that six months after the election there are still people who think we can defeat white supremacy simply by hearing it out. Practically every day some other centrist mouthpiece descends from some other rarified stratum to share the good word that if we talk to the racists then the racists will lose, as if the racists had not already won, as if the racists were not already moving swiftly to consolidate the power they seized while we were in the corner, politely explaining why they really ought not to have it. On Sunday night that mouthpiece was comedian W. Kamau Bell, though I am sure that tomorrow it will be someone else, and on and on until Trump wins reelection.
Bell, whose CNN documentary series United Shades of America “explores the far corners of our country and its various groups and subcultures,” devoted his second season premiere to the subject of immigration. Through a series of interviews with immigrants and refugees he ultimately comes to the conclusion that they contribute to the economy, and also, literally as an afterthought, that they are humans whose demonization is immoral. The whole 60-minute episode has roughly the tone of a high schooler’s class project—“An immigrant is when you move out of your apartment at noon, and a refugee is when you move at two in the morning”—and seems mostly to serve as a flimsy pretext for its grand finale, Bell’s interview with noted suit-wearer and Nazi Richard Spencer, an interview that addresses such important questions as “Where the ladies at?” and “What do you love about white privilege?” (Spencer likes the suits and how white people look good.) Although CNN promoted the stunt as some sort of tête-à-tête, it’s a largely substance-free dialogue in which Bell laughs uproariously at Spencer’s jokes and offers little in the way of a counterpoint beyond that immigrants make good food. The whole thing is an obvious ratings grab centered around the image of a black comic facing off against a white supremacist. Far be it from me to begrudge a network its ratings, but I do wonder: Why didn’t Bell just punch Richard Spencer in the face?
Though I may not be a TV writer or producer, I do watch TV both professionally and as a hobby. I’ve seen all the great TV events of our time, from “We have to go back, Kate” to Hairspray Live! If you asked me what’s the one thing missing from contemporary television, I would say this: fascists getting punched. Despite the genre’s wild success online, major networks have yet to embrace what seems like obvious untapped potential. Consider that the first presidential debate was the second-most-watched broadcast of 2016, after the Super Bowl, with 84 million viewers. Now imagine if, instead of debating Trump, Hillary had just walloped him in his dumb ugly fascist old face. Baby, that’s how you get Super Bowl numbers without dropping Super Bowl dough.
I will grant that you cannot make a 60-minute TV episode out of one guy punching one Nazi. But I think Bell easily could have kept his interview segments with some minor tweaks. For instance, instead of asking immigrant entrepreneurs what they’ve built since coming to America, as though one’s worth is measured in economic output, he could ask if they have any ideas for apps that streamline the process of identifying and punching Nazis. Instead of asking the mayor of America’s most diverse city to extol the benefits of diversity, as if that’s a case that legitimately needs to be made to cable audiences, he could perhaps suggest some sort of local holiday where everybody takes off work to identify and punch Nazis. And instead of giving Richard Spencer a platform to spread hate speech, Bell could have just clocked him right in the jaw.
The interview itself is an embarrassment. Bell is either unwilling or unfit to engage with Spencer on the merits of his arguments—ostensibly the purpose of this charade—and instead lobs friendly softballs, laughing at almost everything that dribbles out of his puckered little Nazi mouth. Spencer says he wants to bathe in white privilege; Bell laughs. Spencer says a black James Bond would be “too much”; Bell laughs. What the fuck! Given that United Shades is billed as a documentary series on a news network, and given that this episode theoretically aims to reach some deeper understanding of xenophobia in America, I think it is fair to expect that Bell might ask for more than the basics of white supremacy. But there is no more depth to his questions than there is to Spencer’s ideology. The strongest pushback he offers is, “Isn’t the food great because there’s so many different people?” To which Spencer responds, now that we have the recipes we don’t need the people, to which Bell gives a burst of laughter. Hell, he doesn’t even ask why a black James Bond would be too much—a pretty easy follow-up, if you ask me! You don’t have to be an expert in race theory or any other theory to say, “Wait, what? Why? Can you unpack that?”
It’s not that I care about Spencer’s answers. Guys like him use logic when it suits them and toss it to the side when it doesn’t, which is why it’s so gross that this entire episode attempts to reason with a worldview that treats reason as one weapon in an arsenal that also includes literal weapons. What I want is to see Spencer receive some semblance of scrutiny. If you’re going to bring a racist on your show for an interview about why he’s a racist, put him through the goddamn ringer. Don’t make stupid jokes (“There are a lot of people who say they come here for opportunity—they don’t say whiteportunity”), make him defend every little indefensible thing he says. If you’re acting friendly to coax him into saying shit, actually coax him to say shit. If you can’t or don’t want to do that, then you’re just giving him free airtime. If you’re gonna give a Nazi free airtime, then you might as well balance it out with a fuckin punch to his dapper-ass face.
In an op-ed responding to criticism that he should not have given Spencer a platform, Bell argues that his critics don’t know what they’re talking about. “Platforms are amazing things,” he explains. “Despite how it seems, platforms don’t have a stake in who is standing on them. Just watch Olympic diving some time to see that everybody doesn’t dive off the platform and get a perfect score. Just because you put someone on TV, you aren’t necessarily cosigning everything (or anything) they do.” He goes on to write that he framed Spencer’s story within the stories of immigrants “to prove how tenuous their safety and peace of mind is,” and that “if you are afraid that just having Spencer on TV and talking is going to help him recruit more people to his side, then what you are really saying is that you think his ideas are better than your ideas.” Having sufficiently insulted his fans, he concludes: “I’m not afraid of these people or Richard Spencer’s ideas, because I know my ideas will win. My ideas are better.”
Again, it’s extraordinary to see this argument in May 2017. Richard Spencer’s ideas have already won. They are in the White House. They are crafting policy. They are cracking down on undocumented immigrants who have committed no crimes. They have tried and will try again to forbid Muslims from entering this country. They have tried and will try again to punish cities that protect undocumented immigrants. They are already responsible for a spate of racial violence and they promise much more. They once subsisted in the fringes of online message-boards, far outside the limelight. Then they got airtime. Now they’re on CNN’s Sunday night lineup. “Circulation, discussion, and debate are oxygen to political ideas,” Max Read wrote in an essay tracking the slow creep of the alt-right from 4chan to primetime. “As the mainstream media increasingly takes its coverage cues (and its revenue sources) from a small handful of powerful social networks, the news becomes easier and easier for them to influence.” The prophesy is self-fulfilling, the effect radicalizing for hordes of disaffected young men: Influence begets attention begets more influence begets yet more attention. It’s not as though there has ever been some shortage of competing ideas in the idea marketplace, either before or after the election. The better ideas were always there. They got creamed. Perhaps, just perhaps, racism and xenophobia aren’t a matter of logic after all.
For networks like CNN it’s never about the marketplace of ideas, just the marketplace of money. Now that white nationalists are running the country, networks are adjusting their programming to account for the possibility that they can make more of it by indulging hitherto untouchable points of view. Every couple weeks I get some new press release in my inbox about some new show that will find comedy in difficult conversations between people on opposing ends of the political spectrum. This trend doesn’t serve people who know racism is bad and just want some help understanding the racists. I learned about Nazis well and good in high school without ever watching one on TV. No, it’s for the untapped masses who until now have not seen themselves reflected in the mainstream. It’s textbook normalization, and this week W. Kamau Bell contributed to it in a big way.
Whether he likes it or not, platforms grant legitimacy to those who get them, especially platforms as big as CNN. And they in fact have a very literal stake in who’s standing on them: If that person brings more eyeballs, the platform gets more money. Bell is right that “more people need to be aware” of Richard Spencer and the alt-right. He is insultingly wrong to suggest the best way to spread that awareness is by having them on your show, or by placing ideas like “people of color are less human” and “people of color are actually not less human” on equal footing, which is exactly what he’s done. This episode is structured as an argument for the worth of immigrants and refugees. It makes that argument by demonstrating that they run profitable businesses and make good food. This is incredibly fucked up! What about, “Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh, they’re humans????” Ah, right: That would get bad ratings.
Fortunately I have a solution that will benefit everyone. It allows networks to get their ratings, comedians to find humor in political disagreements and white supremacists to see themselves represented on TV. The solution is this: Put Nazis on your shows and punch them until they don’t want to go on your shows anymore. Okay? Great, thanks.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.