Will Smith, Vladimir Putin, and the Necessity of the Modern Jester
In the days of kings and queens, when the fleeting mood of one man could mean death for any sin, real or imagined, only one person was able to tell truth to power: the jester. The veil of humor let the jester get away with saying things others were, rightly, too afraid to say about the king: that he was fat, maybe, or that he had mistresses and bastards… or that the people outside the gates were starving and unhappy and that he was losing the war up north in pursuit of vanity. We may not have kings and queens anymore — the ones who exist are but figureheads — but the need for someone to speak truth to power has perhaps never been greater. Last night, Will Smith showed the whole world why.
Smith is as close as it gets to being royalty in America, beloved Hollywood icon who is married to another Hollywood icon and now has multi-hyphenate heirs to his throne who have grown up only knowing what it’s like to be royalty. Smith has also, famously, carefully chosen his roles such that last night‘s slap of Chris Rock was really his first foray into the territory of being “the bad guy.” But when Rock went, in Smith’s opinion, a bit too far with his joke about wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s bald head look, Smith did not react with laughter, like the king’s of yore; he reacted with sudden, shocking violence (whatever happened to “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me?”). He reacted like another great actor, one whose stage is world politics rather than film. He reacted like Vladimir Putin.
Like Putin, Smith’s violence against a weaker foe was “provoked” by wounded pride. Both also had a build-up few thought could lead to anything as sudden and shocking as what has actually transpired. For Smith, it includes Pinkett extramarital romantic entanglement with singer August Alsina and a prior barb from Rock about Pinkett Smith’s #OscarsSoWhite boycott in 2015; for Putin, the loss of power and prestige for Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union and the eastward creep of NATO. In both cases, even as the assault was being mounted, many didn’t believe what their eyes were telling them — many thought Smith’s slap was scripted, while Russia’s invasion was viewed as such a strategic misstep that they simply could not, as a rational actor, move forward with it.
What Smith and Putin have most in common, though, is their horrifying abuse of power in suppressing of free speech. Putin is an autocrat who is allowed to thrive within his own borders due to state-run media and censorship, which is allowed outside his borders due to Europe’s reliance on Russia’s oil and natural gas. Smith’s status as a Tinseltown legend and family man seems to be what’s protecting his reputation even after the whole world watched him brutally assault and unarmed man live on television; we’ve yet to see whether that will persist.
Ask yourself this question: if Will Smith had been Vladimir Putin, and Chris Rock had been Volodymyr Zelenskyy or Alexei Navalny, and instead of an insensitive crack about alopecia he had said that Putin was gay for Ukraine and government censorship, how would the interaction have ended? That’s right: with violence. That the inputs in the equation differ slightly doesn’t matter: Smith reacted with violence to words he didn’t like. That he later won an Oscar for a movie in which his character is referred to as a “king” is as emblematic of America’s relationship to free speech as it is ironic.
If Hollywood stars are as close as it gets to royalty in America, then stand up comedians and YouTubers are as close as it gets to the jester from the age of heroes. If these figures are now fair game for violence from the ruling class, without any reaction from the crowds for whose benefit they jest, then who is left to speak truth to power? If our comedians are not safe, we may be embarking on a new Dark Age, and we may look back to the Tyranny of King Richard as its official beginning.