Apologies for a rambling post that doesn’t reach any firm conclusions.
The other day Ye, aka Kanye West, appeared on InfoWars, the show of the malicious conspiracy monger Alex Jones. With Ye was Nick Fuentes, who, along with Milo Yianpolous, has been accompanying Ye in recent weeks. A few days earlier Ye had appeared on the youtube show of far-right bore Tim Pool. In both cases, Ye’s statements were not just politically extreme (anti-semitic conspiracy theories and praising Hitler) they were visibly shocking even by the appalling standards of Alex Jones or Tim Pool.
Ye’s spiral into political extremism has not been sudden and has taken place very publicly over several years. Even so, many people have speculated that recent events point to some kind of mental breakdown. There are two obvious issues with such speculation:
- Diagnosing mental illness based on media coverage of somebody you don’t know personally is unlikely to be correct, even if you were a qualified psychiatrist.
- Advocates for the rights of people with mental illness quite reasonably object to the idea of associating Ye praising Hitler with mental illness. Mentally ill people have to deal with enough blame and stigma already without adding “potential Nazi sympathiser” to the list.
Yet, it really is hard to watch that Alex Jones interview without being struck by the qualitative difference between Ye on the one hand and Jones and Fuentes on the other. Alex Jones is a guy with a lot of past issues: political extremism, malicious bullying of victims of violence, purple-faced rants to the camera and some apparently self-destructive courtroom shenanigans. If you are in a room with Alex Jones and by comparison, he looks more in touch with reality and social norms than you, then you clearly have some kind of problem.
Maybe our perception is skewed. Perhaps we have become so habituated to racist youtube guys that we now only see how frightening it is when the person being politically extreme departs from our stereotype of what a racist looks like? Maybe, but I don’t think that is all there is to it.
A more reasonable comparison has been made with the contemporaneous behaviour of billionaire Elon Musk. As with Ye, I actually have no idea what Musk’s mental state is. He might be very happy and very much in control. However, publicly he appears to be burning through money and undermining his own reputation just to work out his frustrations with social media. In Musk’s case, the situation feels simpler. We have a very wealthy middle-aged man who has built up a fog of lies around his own reputation that cast him as a brilliant engineer and financial wizard when he is, in fact, a man who inherited a lot of money, was very lucky with a failed start-up that was bought out by Pay-Pal and has since spent his time using his money to prop up his image. That is a flawed personality but it isn’t a mental illness. Being rich and in the public eye and being surrounded by sycophants may give you a very misguided sense of how others perceive you. Ye is also very rich and surrounded by sycophants but unlike Musk he was a man of genuine talent.
Is it then the crisis of the creative genius who has lost his spark? The music industry has no shortage of talented people who have a long phase of critical acclaim and then simply seem to run out of ideas. Much of that is an illusion. I don’t mean that they weren’t creative geniuses just that there is still a degree of luck in that creative genius also hitting the public and critical mood in the right way at the right time. Even so, for the artist it must feel like suddenly they lost their magic power. There’s a middle path of stoic acceptance to the nature of popular culture but there are unhealthy directions that can lead to either debilitating self-doubt or conspiracy theories. In the latter case, the artist (not unreasonably) assumes they are still the creative genius that they were but then concludes that somebody is acting against them.
And sometimes that is true! Many women (and some men) in the creative arts have found their careers stymied because they spoke up about sexual harassment and abuse in the industry. However, in Ye’s case the conspiracies he is pointing to are the more vague, paranoid and toxic variety — the kind that in our culture inevitably spiral into antisemitism and far-right politics.
Creative brain-worms do seem to be a thing. I say “brain-worms” a lot here because of this tension between not wanting to diagnose a mental illness beyond my capacity to do so (and not wanting to stigmatise actual mental health conditions) with the very overt and public self-destructive or toxic behaviour of some creative people. Among writers I can think of a number of people we’ve encountered who:
- enjoyed some early initial validating success (an award, a mentorship, recognition in some high profile way in the community)
- which was followed by a return to the lowly status of the aspiring author who is struggling to get noticed
That particular combination would inevitably mess with your head. Wow! I’ve made it and so early! Ooops, no I’m with all these other loser writer wannabes. I can see how that might make somebody believe that the game must have been rigged against them. It is the Scylla of thinking that you must be a talentless loser versus the Charybdis of thinking that a cabal in publishing is out to get you.
I’m stuck with “brain worms” as a silly term for a vague but apparent health issue.
Is not just political extremism? Maybe? I mean, I don’t think, say Larry Correia is an example of the brain worms I’m discussing. That’s just who Correia is and while he is both publicly obnoxious online and politically extreme, it isn’t self-sabotaging or uncalculated nor has it shifted a great deal over time.
Yet a descent in extremism is part of the picture. Consider sit-com writer Graham Linehan, famous for his work on Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd. Linehan’s political journey into transphobia has not only undermined his career and reputation but (according to him) destroyed his marriage. That journey has also made him more politically extreme in general and made his more receptive to a conspiratorial ideation:
“No one knows! We don’t know! I don’t even know, I’m not even sure I’m 100 per cent on climate change anymore because I’ve been lied to so conclusively by all the people I used to trust.”https://www.thepinknews.com/2022/10/01/graham-linehan-covid-transphobia-climate-change/
In that example, Linehan was linking his growing anti-COVID vaccination stance to his growing disbelief in global warming. He’s maybe still a couple of anti-George Soros memes away from praising Hitler on InfoWars but the trajectory appears to be confirmed. I guess Linehan must have done quite well financially out of his sit-com success but he surely wasn’t at the level of J.K.Rowling. It wasn’t a bubble of massive wealth that set Linehan on that path.
If Linehan’s journey into alienating his own audience (and hence own livelihood and critical acclaim) resembles anybody then it is Dave Sim, the comic book author famous for his subversion of heroic fantasy trope in the phone-book-sized volumes of Cerebus the Aardvark. Over time but particularly from the 1990s onward, Sim used his independently published comic to express his own misogynistic theories that often echoed the developing Men’s Rights Activist internet subculture. Sim though, was probably a misogynist well before that though and (to complicate matters further) had genuine mental health issues. While his actual mental health problems were not the cause of his misogyny, it is hard to imagine that they didn’t impact his expression of his views or how they impacted his other life choices. From being a critical success in the 1990s by 2018 he was involved in Comicsgate and, in a further humiliation, was sacked as a writer by Comicsgate supremo Ethan Van Sciver after allegations of child grooming came to light [see here for an account https://web.archive.org/web/20200425042716/https://bleedingcool.com/comics/a-new-years-ballad-of-dave-sim-and-ethan-van-sciver/ ]
I warned you that I don’t have a conclusion. We can’t remote-diagnose people in the public eye, we shouldn’t blame misbehaviour or toxic views on mental illness but I think we can recognise that among people in artistic professions there is a cycle of self-sabotaging behaviour which has a tendency to externalise the inherent self-soubt of such professions onto broader demographic groups, typically groups that are either historically oppressed but which might be vaguer (e.g. the “left” or “cancel culture”) but to which the person impacted ascribes an outsized degree of power over their career. In so far as actual diagnosable mental illnesses are involved, they are not a direct cause of misogyny, racism, transphobia, homophobia or political extremism. However, stressful life events themselves do impact both physical and mental health [with physical health not always negatively https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3341916/ ] A cycle of high profile media coverage because of very public expressions of surprising extremism will be stressful and career damaging perhaps leading to more extreme behaviour? (e.g. Ye’s journey into extremism isn’t new but it is still surprising in a way that Alex Jones is not because Jones is only famous BECAUSE of that extremism). I don’t know.