Chris Rock is America.
And Will Smith is Russia. Discuss.
I realize it’s too late for me to be the first person to compare the most famous recent event in entertainment and the most famous recent event in geopolitics. (See, for example, a piece posted this morning called “The Will Smith Doctrine has no place in Ukraine”—which argues that “acts of aggression should not be rewarded.”)
I also realize it’s too late for me to be the first person to use the Will Smith/Chris Rock dustup as a vehicle for justifying my pre-existing views on the Ukraine war. (See above piece again.)
So I’ll try to become the first person to use the Smith/Rock dustup as an occasion for a searching meditation on the three different meanings of “culpability” and the two different meanings of “law”—and, while I’m at it, I’ll use the dustup as a vehicle for justifying my pre-existing views on the Ukraine war.
Compare these two takes:
Take #1: Will Smith’s assault on Chris Rock violated the law—so if Rock wants to press charges against Smith, Smith should face punishment. But Rock provoked Smith with a cruel joke about his wife, and he shouldn’t have made the joke.
Take #2: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine violated international law—so Ukraine’s armed resistance to it is justifiable, as are sanctions and other forms of punishment. But America provoked Russia with NATO expansion and various other policies that America, if in Russia’s shoes, would have found unacceptable—and America shouldn’t have done that.
I don’t have any polling data to back this up, but my sense is that if you espouse the first of those two takes you won’t get much blowback. In fact, you may be credited with unusual balance, prudence, even Solomonic wisdom.
But if you espouse the second take—and here, though I have no polling data, I do have relevant personal experience, since I’ve been espousing a version of it for weeks—you do get a fair amount of blowback.
Some of the difference in the quantity of blowback engendered by these two takes has to do with differences in their implicit claims about causality. You can’t seriously argue that if Chris Rock had never mentioned Will Smith’s wife, Smith would have walked up and slapped him anyway. (Smith is intense, but he’s not that intense.) In contrast, you can seriously argue that even if America hadn’t (1) kept expanding NATO, (2) played a role in the 2014 overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, and (3) armed Ukraine and trained its army, turning the country into a de facto NATO outpost, Russia would have invaded Ukraine anyway.
I think that argument about Ukraine is wrong, but it’s not crazy, and it motivates some of the blowback that Take #2 gets: I and other subscribers to Take #2 are told that if only we had a less naive view of Vladimir Putin, we’d realize that he didn’t need any provoking to invade Ukraine.