It is a depressing but inevitable contemporary ritual: A person achieves some new level of success and visibility, and their Twitter feed is immediately picked over for discrediting morsels. Yesterday came the surprise announcement that the mixed-race South African comedian Trevor Noah would succeed Jon Stewart as host of “The Daily Show.” Naturally, then, today he’s facing a backlash over his terrible tweets.
His tweets, it should be said, are indeed pretty bad. At first, I rolled my eyes to see that he was being accused of anti-Semitism for tweeting, “South Africans know how to recycle like israel knows how to be peaceful.” (This might be unfair to South Africans.) Others seem, at first, to be legitimately anti-Jewish: “Behind every successful Rap Billionaire is a double as rich Jewish man. #BeatsByDreidel.” It turns out, though, that Noah’s mother is half-Jewish, which puts the jokes in a different light, since everyone knows that you can say things about your own people that you can’t say about others. (That, after all, is the reason he mostly gets away with his jokes about black Americans.)
Noah’s sexist squibs, though, are harder to dismiss. “’Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I’m sexy!’ – fat chicks everywhere,” said one. “Originally when men proposed they went down on one knee so if the woman said no they were in the perfect uppercut position,” said another. “In Thailand hookers are so cheap, even cheaper than food. Tough choice between Big Mac and Quarter Pounder Deluxe,” said a third. There is a particular sting in seeing Stewart being replaced by a misogynist when so many hoped his job would go to a woman.
Still, I find myself hoping that Comedy Central doesn’t get scared and ditch Noah. Partly, this is because he’s often really funny, with an international perspective that might make “The Daily Show” a little less provincial. At a time when many of us are getting weary of the bullshit minutia of American politics—Stewart’s basic fodder—widening the lens to the rest of the world can make the satirical news format feel fresh again, as John Oliver is demonstrating at HBO.
More than that, though, these Twitter trials have a chilling effect on creativity. At the end of his new book about social media witch-hunts, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” Jon Ronson quotes a journalist friend who says he’s stopped posting anything potentially controversial online. “I suddenly feel with social media like I’m tiptoeing around an unpredictable, angry, unbalanced parent who might strike out at any moment,” he says. “It’s horrible.” It really is—more horrible than Noah’s tweets. We desperately need a new set of social norms in which people aren’t defined by their dumbest tossed-off remarks, frozen in amber as their very worst selves.
That said, Comedy Central should respond to all “The Daily Show” fans who are disappointed by Noah’s retrograde attitude towards women. The single best way to do that would be to get a lot more women into the writers’ room, where much of the show is shaped. In the upcoming presidential campaign, the presence of Hillary Clinton will almost certainly lead to a new explosion of misogyny in our politics, just as Barack Obama’s presidency made the right more shameless in its racism. We’re going to need women there to make sure that “The Daily Show” pillories sexism rather than participates in it.