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It’s Never ‘Just a Joke’
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It’s Never ‘Just a Joke’

And Social Darwinism is just plain ugly.

Iliza Shlesinger. (Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/WireImage/Getty Images.)

Iliza Shlesinger’s latest Netflix comedy special contains much that will be familiar—tediously familiar, in fact—and something surprising, too: a long, sincere, heartfelt ode to … Social Darwinism. 

The comedian directly addresses so-called incels, or “involuntarily celibates.” She notes that a few of those unhappy and sexless men have carried out mass shootings—and insists that their inability to find mates is nature’s way of saying “there should be no more people like you.” 

Just so. 

“You didn’t adapt,” she sneers. 

It is a strange and queasy thing to hear a Jewish woman make such an impassioned invocation of a cornerstone of Nazi racial “science,” but it may be a mistake to think of Shlesinger as the daughter of an affluent Jewish family from New York City. Better, perhaps, to think of how she spent her childhood: as a suburban rich kid attending the tony Greenhill School in Addison, Texas, near Dallas. Democrats and progressives once thought of themselves as the champions of the marginalized and the powerless, but they have increasingly come to be the party and the ideology of the ruling class, rooted not in blue-collar immigrant neighborhoods in Philadelphia or Milwaukee but in the Ivy League, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, private schools and the neighborhoods where private-school students live, the clubs their parents belong to, etc. Power hunger is difficult to satisfy—l’appétit vient en mangeant.

Shlesinger’s remarks come in the context of comedy, rather than in a political speech per se, but it is in such contexts that political thinking can show itself without camouflage. Shlesinger is not running for office, and she takes no risk at all making such remarks about people she hates in front of an audience of people who also hate them. She is also being paid, handsomely, to inflame that hatred by people who share the same hatred. We can do her the courtesy of assuming that she says what she thinks. 

It is probably unnecessary to note at this late date that in spite of Shlesinger’s name-dropping Charles Darwin, Social Darwinism is not and never has been an idea with any real scientific merit. That it is morally indefensible as well as intellectually indefensible is relatively easy to understand if you direct the concept at some population you do not hate: There was a time when slavers argued that the fact that Africans were so easily reduced to slavery was nature’s way of saying they should be slaves; there was a time when European imperial powers argued that the ease with which indigenous American populations were annihilated was nature’s say of saying their time was up; there was a time when the marginalization of European Jews was taken as an argument for marginalizing European Jews. Etc. 

“Oh, lighten up!” you will respond. “It’s just a joke.” Of course it’s just a joke. In 1990, Texas businessman Clayton Williams was running for governor, and he derailed his campaign with a joke: that enduring the weather in Texas is like being raped—“if it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.” Texans were so appalled by the joke that they elected Ann Richards governor, which surely was an overcorrection. Was it just a joke? It was a joke, but—just? Gay jokes, black jokes, Polish jokes: Jokes tell us a great deal about what people think, about what societies assume about the good and the forbidden, the nature of community life, the characters of particular people and groups of people. 

Shlesinger is not alone in this. B.J. Novak’s new movie, Vengeance, is about a New York City journalist (a recurring joke is his having to irritatedly explain to people that he writes for The New Yorker and not New York Magazine) who goes to West Texas on a lark in the hopes of launching a hit podcast about the murder of a woman with whom he was so briefly and reservedly involved that he is unclear on her actual name. (It is “Abilene,” because all the hands at work in this film are a little heavy.) When the time comes for the inevitable cultural confrontation between the fashionable young man from Brooklyn and the Whataburger-loving family of his sad dead fling, he rages that the world he comes from is rich and fun, the people smart and interesting, and then he gestures around at the blasted New Mexico landscape that for tax-subsidy reasons so often stands in for Texas, “And your world looks like—this!”

Vengeance is smarter, funnier, and more knowing than Shlesinger’s boorish act, with a gleefully nihilistic spirit that spares neither town nor country. But the attitude it speaks to—coastal Eloi lording it over hinterland Morlocks—is a real one. You can get a big dose of it in Brooklyn or Palo Alto or Echo Park—or, if you don’t want to travel that far, in Austin or some other island of urban progressivism. 

But don’t mistake it for a dose of something new. This is a very old idea, and a very ugly one.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.