Why, Crispy, why? Why are you writing about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock? It's been over a week, I hear you, "the reader," muttering. Everyone else has already written about it. Do you have anything new to add, or do you just like to hear your own keyboard clicking?
But when something truly momentous happens, something triggering and traumatizing for me and of overwhelming cultural significance and symbolic weight, it takes a little while to process it. I need to retreat, adjust the psychopharmacology. It was that way in '63, when one of the Kennedys was shot. I was in kindergarten, and it took hours to figure out what it all meant. And you probably shouldn't read my column for the Philadelphia Inquirer from September 12, 2001. At that point I hadn't even realized that Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks. I needed to wait a week or two, listen to Dick Cheney. At history's pivotal moments, I've come to see, I need to "process."
After the slap I sobbed for awhile, felt so betrayed by Will Smith. Like you, I've modeled my life as strictly as possible after Smith's since the '96 film Independence Day, in which he failed to prevent aliens from immolating the White House, a bold omission which would’ve saved us all a lot of trouble. Admittedly, "The role was originally offered to Ethan Hawke, but he turned it down as he thought the script was terrible."
But that doesn't mean I haven't been trying to be Will Smith ever since, with what success I leave you to judge. That's why I've been thinking about little else for eight days but the slap heard round the internet, and reached the conclusion that if we want to understand the world today in its stunning complexities—if we want to get a handle on climate change, the war in Ukraine, the rise of right-wing populism, inflation, and (as everyone has pointed out) the very race of gender itself—we need to start right here.
Crispy, I hear you responding, this shit don't signify. No one really got hurt but Amy Schumer, so who the hell cares, I hear you saying. Chris Rock sort of seemed to enjoy it, apparently going with "I just got punched by Muhammed Ali!" and refusing to press charges. I hear you pointing out that when you talk like Rock, or for that matter like little Crispy on the playground—when, in short, you're known as "the mouth"—someone's liable to want to slap your taste out. And Will Smith has resigned from the human race, tying up the loose ends.
But for me, it was this close psychic connection, this identification with Rock (almost as intense as my feelings for Triumph, the insult comic dog) that filled the whole event and my whole head with a portentous significance that I’m still unable fully to express. Chris Rock is so relatable, so impactful, just so... whatever, for a wannabe insult comic such as myself. I bet that slap really stung. I bet he was all like, "Ouch! Dang, bro."
And as a white person, I want to express my solidarity with Washington Post columnist/editor/podcaster/Prince Jonathan Capehart, who argued in a truly remarkable column that Will Smith has embarrassed his race. "White people are looking at you!" he reminds Smith in a stunningly bold throwback approach to this unprecedented crisis.
I can confirm that white people were watching. (I wasn't watching, but I heard about the whole thing). I can also confirm that we white people think of Will Smith, as we think of Confucius, the Frito Bandito, and Dick Cheney as a representative of his race. It must be a hard burden to carry, of course, "representative of the race," but as Capehart argues, we might as well just keep loading Smith up, or else "we" will have to find some other sucker to be all of "you people," for us.
"Skip that bullshit," I hear you saying. "Jonathan Capehart might sound like a society matron in 1925 condemning black guys for being too loud. He might sound like he's saying that celebrity role models who have entirely internalized white bourgeois values are the key to racial equality. He might sound like he's asserting that each black person should be thinking all the time about what image he's creating in front of white people. But he can't possibly be saying any of that, because it would be obviously ridiculous and reprehensible, and grotesquely anti-black to boot."
But Capehart's bold, honest thinking is just what’s needed to break the racial logjam, and I will not permit this unhappy slap, this Cuban Missile Crisis of our time, to be trivialized. "Tonight on Celebrity Slapdown, everybody gets to smack Alec Baldwin. And now, here's your host, the corpse of Regis Philbin!" No, no, this is serious. This is real.
But I definitely do like to hear my own keyboard clicking.
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell