Celebrities, politicians, and almost anyone of influence and wealth are always an incorrect or insensitive word away from the contemporary electronic guillotine. Regardless of the circumstances of their dilemmas, the beheaded rarely win sympathy from the mob. Coliseum-like roars of approval greet their abrupt change of fortune from their past exalted status.
So, for example, perhaps few feel sorry for anchor Megyn Kelly, recently all but fired by NBC and now walking away with most of her $69 million salary package as a severance payout.
Kelly was let go ostensibly for making a sloppy but not malicious morally equivalent comparison between whites at Halloween dressing up in costumes as blacks, and blacks likewise appearing as whites. But she sealed her fate by uttering the historically disparaging word “black face” as some sort of neutral bookend to her use of “white face.” Her fatal crime, then, was insensitive thought and speech and historical ignorance.
For someone so familiar with the rules of our electronic French Revolution and the felonies of speech and thought, Kelly proved surprisingly naïve in a variety of ways.
First, she should have known that there are revolutionary canons surrounding victimization indemnities. And for all her success, she is actually protected by few of them, given that she is fabulously well paid, attractive, still young, white — and at one time conservative and a former Fox News anchor person.
So when Kelly said something historically dense and insensitive, she should have grasped that she, despite being an emancipated coastal female, was immediately (and ratings-wise) expendable, even if expensively expendable.
Had Kelly been unapologetically progressive (especially one deemed vital to the cause), like Elizabeth Warren, who fabricated and profited from an entire minority identity, then she might well have survived the incident. Perhaps had she been a minority, such as Sarah Jeong, and written (rather than spoken off the cuff) far more racially offensive things about whites, she would have kept her job — as did Jeong on the New York Times editorial board after her racist tweets surfaced, such as this, from 2014: “Dumbass f****** white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants.”
Instead, Kelly was hauled to the electronic guillotine in a now familiar routine. An elite luminary (the mob has little concern with the thoughtcrimes of hoi polloi), sometimes even in sloppy and inadvertent rather than mean-spirited fashion, says something deemed illiberal or insensitive or even ideologically incorrect. Other elites in journalism, politics, and academia pounce and rush to social media to post their outrage in an endless internecine battle among (mostly white) virtue-signalers.
A competition ensues to prove who can play Robespierre best, by being either the most cleverly outraged or sincerely aggrieved, or the most vicariously victimized, or the most conniving to find advantage in the denunciation. A brief investigatory lull of a few minutes is often needed to sort out relative exemptions, much as Hébert and Danton, before heading to the guillotine, had their earlier revolutionary credentials nullified or recalibrated.
Millions of Internet sleuth volunteers play the 18th-century role of the shouting mob in the street, as they google the condemned person’s name in search of a prior quote from YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or any random outlet that can prove a “pattern” of incorrect expression or counterrevolutionary behavior.
Within minutes, all sorts of earlier evidence of Kelly’s alleged illiberal or incorrect thought reappeared. In Kelly’s brief electronic trial, we were told in a nanosecond that she had once claimed that the Jewish Jesus was white and that St. Nicholas (the precursor to our cherubic Germanic Santa Claus) was as well — a mortal sin given that later Western representations of both as northern Europeans were cultural misappropriations of their Mediterranean Jewish and likely Greek identities. Thus, within an hour or so, a telltale fingerprint of Kelly’s supposedly longtime racism was discovered by the collective crime lab. At that point, the only suspense left was her small odds of escaping to some sort of victim refuge — at least beyond being a wealthy privileged white female in a wealthy white privileged male world of network news.
After the doomed wrongdoer is formally rounded up on the Internet, charged, and condemned, he or she begs the inquisitors for forgiveness. Tears and physical signs of real regret occasionally attest to weakness and are further proof of crimes to be punished; the contrition is never enough to earn forgiveness or magnanimity.
So Megyn Kelly confessed: “I realize now that such behavior is indeed wrong, and I am sorry. The history of blackface in our culture is abhorrent, the wounds too deep.”
A final reprieve is sometimes found in expressing a desire to enter revolutionary reeducation camp or at least correct-thought remediation. Next, Kelly threw herself on the mercy of her accusers by confessing her ignorance of the history of minstrel stereotyping: “I learned that, given the history of blackface being used in awful ways by racists in this country, it is not okay for that to be part of any costume, Halloween or otherwise.”
By contrast, recall the recent case of former astronaut Scott Kelly. When he tweeted admiration for Winston Churchill, exposing his felonious ignorance of Churchill’s crimes, he was almost virtually guillotined. He escaped the wrath of the Internet mob by swearing that he would reexamine the hitherto unknown dark side of Winston Churchill and thereby reeducate himself about Churchill’s mortal sins of colonialism and imperialism: “My apologies. I will go and educate myself further on his atrocities, racist views which I do not support.” And so he escaped the “national razor.” No doubt the twitter and Facebook mob posed a greater peril to Kelly’s well-being than having been strapped to a volatile, fuel-laden rocket and blasted into outer space.
At some point, an employer or high official, then, like a French revolutionary judge, weighs in with the condemnatory sentence, most fearful that ordering anything less than a trip to the ultimate barber is a window into his own dark and counterrevolutionary soul.
So the trick is for the boss or the corporation — in this case NBC chairman Andy Lack —to voice “shock” and “dismay” and to do so in such terms as to ensure to the revolutionary mob that the miscreant most certainly did not learn such racist, insensitive, sexist, or subversive views from his or her superiors. Often the key is to denounce the accused in even stronger terms than the initial accusers’ and thereby not be the next head to drop in the basket. Lack proved equal to the challenge, intoning: “There is no other way to put this, but I condemn those remarks. There is no place on our air or in this workplace for them. Very unfortunate.”
Once fired and humiliated, the person is erased for a time from our revolutionary memories (we suddenly could not easily buy Garrison Keillor’s books, and Paula Deen seemed to vanish from television). Megyn Kelly will probably go into opulent seclusion and find herself disinvited from ceremonial appearances and speaking events, guillotined as a racist, with no more sympathy than a once privileged, beheaded Bourbon.
We now fear the lethal wrath of the Internet’s Committee of Public Safety. But beware of fickle revolutionary temperament. Soon our 21st-century Robespierres may become so promiscuous and obnoxious in their beheading that they wear out even the mob — and find themselves next in line on a counterrevolutionary chopping block.