Richard Wagner, Kanye West, and Stochastic Terrorism
by Mick McGrath
Richard Wagner, nineteenth-century German composer famous for his four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen.
I recently read Alex Ross's 2020 book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, about the nineteenth century German composer, Richard Wagner. I didn't know very much about Wagner previously, and the book turned out to be a timely read, given the Kanye West saga that unfolded in the news a few weeks ago. It just so happens Wagner and West have a lot in common -- both are brilliant artists, both are maximalists, and both are outspoken antisemites.
In Wagnerism, Ross writes about Wagner's antisemitic essay, "Jewishness in Music," which caused a lot of hubbub when it was published in 1869. Ross goes on to say that by the late nineteenth century, an antisemitic political movement had coalesced in Germany, with people like Adolf Stoecker calling Jews “our misfortune" and Wagnerites like Houston Stewart Chamberlain describing Jews as a plague -- Chamberlain would go on to work with Hitler, himself a passionate Wagnerite.
Readers of Alex Ross's book may connect the dots between Wagner’s widely read antisemitic essay and the Holocaust. They may then begin to re-evaluate our own time, more specifically the firings of recent years, a.k.a. Cancel Culture, saying in effect, "Maybe it's right to cancel people like Kanye West. If Wagner's antisemitism hadn't been indulged, the Holocaust might never have happened."
But historians like Peter Hayes make it clear that Wagner's writings, influential though they were, in no way led to the Holocaust. Alex Ross agrees, calling "the notion that Hitler received posthumous instruction from Wager" dubious. Wagner's writings may have caused individual acts of physical violence in nineteenth-century Germany, but they did not set the stage for the horrors inflicted on European Jews almost seven decades later.
If speech leads to violence, why is no one on the Left concerned when progressives talk about systemic racism? Is it a stretch to think these ideas could lead to anti-white violence? Why are Kanye West's antisemitic comments of last year considered “stochastic terrorism” while attacks against white America are not? Who is to say that claims of privilege, for instance, are not the rhetorical preparation for something much more terrifying down the road?
Yes, if wokesters like Nikole Hannah-Jones continue to harp on slavery, I won’t be shocked if there’s a hockey stick spike in black-on-white violence. Furthermore, if we continue to tell people that white America is responsible, directly or indirectly, for the plight of black people, we shouldn't be surprised if there’s more nationwide looting and rioting, the kind of thing we saw in the summer of 2020, after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. And why shouldn’t there be another round of melee? Some might argue, says Nikole Hannah-Jones, that this country was founded as a “Slavocracy.” Why wouldn't you burn down a Slavocracy?
If we accept the idea of stochastic terrorism, then doesn't Black Lives Matter bear at least some responsibility for the acts of Micah Xavier Johnson and Gavin Eugene Long? Shouldn’t anyone who tweets a BLM flag be suspended from Twitter, since BLM talking points have been linked to physical violence?
Sorry, but proponents of limiting free speech will always be beleaguered by such whataboutery. And they should be! You can hardly blame free speech absolutists for demanding consistency -- sure, ban Ye for his swastika tweet, just as long as you're also banning anyone who in one way or another promotes communism, since the communists of the twentieth century (e.g. Stalin, Mao) were much more destructive than the Nazis.
Theodore Dalrymple once said, "In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, not to inform, but to humiliate."
In accusing truthseekers of stochastic terrorism, progressives humiliate inquirers into acquiescence. This is nothing new. For decades, progressives have shamed and humiliated free thinkers into conformity, calling them racists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis.
But, again, humiliation also includes accusations of terrorism. If I say publicly that the Chinese, for instance, are responsible for a virus that has killed more than one-million Americans, I am guilty (the argument goes) of a kind of domestic terrorism -- I may as well be putting out a clarion call for frustrated grief-stricken people all over the country to scapegoat and physically attack Chinese Americans. My statements could stoke Sinophobic sentiment, leading to a spike in Sinophobic hate crimes. I am a stochastic terrorist!
Humiliating political opponents (by calling them racists or stochastic terrorists, etc.) is a weapon deployed in desperation by those who've run out of reasonable counter arguments. The truth is there is nothing shameful about asking uncomfortable questions about COVID's origins, just like there's nothing shameful about questioning America's founding. Nikole Hannah-Jones may be inaccurate, but she is not morally wrong for writing The 1619 Project, and she certainly isn't a stochastic terrorist -- even though her writings (and writings like it) could exacerbate black-on-white crime, or even inspire radical youth organizations to bomb the U.S. Capitol building in the line of M19 and the Weather Underground. Furthermore, while I vehemently disagree with them, Black Lives Matter activists are not morally wrong for speaking about systemic police racism, even though Micah Xavier Johnson and Gavin Eugene Long were inundated by such messages and they went on to murder a combined eight police officers in 2016. (Lawsuits against Black Lives Matter have been rightly dismissed. BLM talking points are a "no vio," to use the parlance of the Woke Inquisitors recently ousted at Twitter.) Ye's antisemitic comments in October did not, I assure you, cause the forty-five antisemitic hate crimes in New York City last November. Is Ye a Jedi Master? Did Ye Jedi Mind Trick these perpetrators into committing hate crimes against members of New York City's Jewish community?
Encouraging Cancel Culture for fear of stochastic terrorism will be a losing argument, since in the first place the term "stochastic terrorism" is too capacious -- just about anything, from Donald Trump's use of the phrase "Chinese virus" to university courses like "American Injustice," could meet the definition. Of course, there are stronger examples like Chairman Mao's call for loyalists to "Sweep away all monsters and demons" kickstarting the 1966 Cultural Revolution, but then there are tenuous ones, like Chris Rufo's recent condemnation of Drag Queen Story Hour, which Scientific American has suggested may be to blame for the home invasion and hammer assault at Nancy Pelosi's house back in October.
Shall we, perhaps, stop cancelling people (thereby exacerbating self-censorship) for a fear of an increase in hate crimes? True, people may commit acts of violence that can be traced explicitly to something they read on social media, but the reality is that just about anything has the potential to incite violence. (Do Richard Dawkins's attacks on Islam pose a "threat of persecution and violence" for Muslim people, as KPFA said back in 2017? Is Richard Dawkins another stochastic terrorist?)
The best we can do is have faith in the free marketplace of ideas, let go of the wheel and trust that good ideas will defeat bad ones.
Mick McGrath is one of the founding editors of Healthy Opposition. He has an MFA from the University of Tennessee. His writing has appeared in O:JA&L, Terror House Magazine, The Thieving Magpie, and elsewhere.
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