Most observers agree that the rapper Kanye West, who recently changed his name to Ye, is never coming back from the disgrace of the antisemitic tirades that cost him a spectacular $1.5 billion in net worth over the span of four days. Everyone from Adidas to the Gap to Ice Cube has lined up to declare they now want nothing to do with the addled rapper, who has been a cash machine for his corporate partners despite repeated public meltdowns over the past decade. This saga isn’t over, though. Kanye still has $400 million and 50 million monthly Spotify listeners, and he can draw from a nostalgic if increasingly guilty culture-wide memory of a long epoch during which he was America’s most fecund culture-creator. It’s not like he has nothing to go on, comeback-wise.
The question of whether Ye can recover any of what he’s thrown away during his most recent career suicide is only our latest proxy for an uncomfortable and ever-urgent dilemma dwelling at the heart of American culture and character: Who among our disgraced heroes gets to come back, and who doesn’t? When does America forgive, and why?
Some of the new rules are easier to parse than others. Criminal conduct doesn’t automatically bar Americans from future respectability, perhaps because of our unresolvable question of whether we’re a society of sheriffs or outlaws, or both. Convicted stock cheat Martha Stewart and accused killer Snoop Dogg appear in TV ads together; Mike Tyson went from being a psychopathic convicted rapist to a kind of national crazy uncle figure without anyone raising much of a stink.
It’s said that Americans are obsessed with fairness and honesty. You would think a severe-enough lie could get you bounced from national life. And you’d be wrong: Bill Clinton became a multi-hundred millionaire only after lying about an affair with a young subordinate in a deposition for an unrelated sexual harassment lawsuit. The upper-levels of American business and politics are stocked with too many well-known cheats and thieves to list here.
Ruination is usually automatic these days whenever sexual or domestic impropriety is alleged, though: The Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Junot Diaz hasn’t been heard from ever since he was accused of aggressive kissing a few years ago; Louis CK skulks at the edges of mainstream comedy, but will never be a real star again; R. Kelly is unlikely to see the outside of a prison. Except no, it’s not automatic, depending perhaps on what province of pop culture you hail from: The rapper Kodak Black went on a blazing commercial hot-streak after pleading guilty to assaulting a high school-aged girl; Chris Brown nearly killed Rihanna in a vicious beating and is still treated more or less like a normal pop artist.
Political transgressions are sometimes enough to unperson someone—just ask the influential indie rocker Ariel Pink, who lost his record contract and seemingly his entire career after attending a single pro-Trump rally. Then again, dozens of pro-Trump athletes and musicians, mostly in country and, oddly enough, hip-hop, haven’t paid much of a price for their political heresies.
What about killing people? The taking of human life is the worst possible thing you can do in most moral and religious systems. Except not in America: Alec Baldwin, Ted Kennedy, Don King, William Burroughs, and of course OJ Simpson are just a few leading citizens who kept their seats at the American banquet amid claims of deadly neglect, manslaughter, or worse. Even worse than the aforementioned “worse” is racism, which is now widely taken to be a kind of spirit-murder, even in cases where its alleged expression would strike most fair-minded people as being hopelessly vague. The bizarre American metaphysics of racism frequently dooms figures like Donald McNeil, the star New York Times science reporter who thought he was on the right side of the use-mention distinction in repeating a racial slur in quotation marks during a private conversation, only to find his career ruined years later.
The moral is that Americans will forgive anything—without a criminal conviction, and even with one. And at the same time, Americans forgive nothing—lives and reputations have been gleefully and permanently detonated as a result of seemingly minor foot-faults.
Whether a fallen American notable is allowed back into polite society depends on such variable and unremarkable factors as the temperament of their fanbase, the degree of their own contrition, the severity of the alleged wrongdoing, and how the offense fits in with their former public image. Chris Brown was always a hothead; Junot Diaz was supposed to be a male feminist literary type; Ariel Pink was supposed to be a sensitive rocker; Don King was a famous blood-sport promoter; the Kennedy family brand was about personal tragedy and early death; and Bill Clinton was a good ol’ boy charmer who went into politics, a profession in which lying about everything, sex included, is a normal part of a day’s work, even and especially here.
The contradictions in our collective judgements are too deeply American to ever go away. Our culture admires the integrity of the lawman and the cool creative pluck of the lawbreaker; it celebrates predation but can have deep sympathy for the underdog, too. We love saving people and damning people, and also saving them through damning them. It is our inability and even our lack of interest in resolving these schisms that makes American culture so fertile, so frustrating, and so unpredictable. We are open-minded in a closed-minded way—it’s a big part of why our country does and doesn’t work.
Is there a way back for Kanye? Within a national life shaped by these kinds of inner schisms, there’s a way backwards and forwards for just about anyone.