It’s a strange feeling to have to sit your kids down for a Very Important Talk™ about cutting off one of their favorite shows because the host “joked” about murdering them. Yet that was the position I found myself in earlier this week in the wake of the Wall Street Journal highlighting engagement in anti-Semitic behavior by YouTube’s biggest star, PewDiePie. It is the year 2017, yet somehow I had to utter the words, “Jokes about ethnic cleansing aren’t jokes, no matter who says them.”
If you have no idea who PewDiePie is, that’s not unusual. The YouTube sensation — real name Felix Kjellberg — might be one of the most famous people on the planet to teenagers but his brand of off-color video game “Let’s Play” streams haven’t exactly made him a household name. But within his niche, PewDiePie reigns supreme with over 53 million subscribers. In fact, Variety discovered Kjellberg is more recognizable to the 13-17 demographic than Jennifer Lawrence or even Katy Perry. But until this week, parents of those teens couldn’t pick PewDiePie out of a line-up. Then came the “Death to all Jews” scandal.
Back in January of 2017, PewDiePie used a service called Fiverr to hire two men who live in India to hold up the offensive sign. Fiverr is an app that connects “lean entrepreneurs” with those willing to do a job for a few bucks. The WSJ also found another incident where PewDiePie hired a man through Fiverr who looks like Jesus to say “Hitler did nothing wrong.” Those two incidents combined with PewDiePie dressed like Hitler in another video (to point out YouTube was acting Hitler-ish) began an exodus of both advertisers and subscribers. Disney dropped Kjellberg from their Maker Studios project, YouTube canceled the second season of Scare PewDiePie, and also dropped Kjellberg from Google Preferred advertising.
Of course, backlash like that sent PewDiePie and his following into crisis mode. Kjellberg put out a video response where he said the Fiverr incidents were jokes in poor taste and he never expected those men to actually hold up a “Death of All Jews” sign. But as a parent and an Ashkenazi Jew, such a lukewarm apology doesn’t track. Neither Fiverr video was live; Kjellberg taped his reaction to both incidents, edited them, and then put them out into the world. Hiding behind “It’s was just a joke. Don’t censor me, bro!” also falls short. Words matter, especially in a time when anti-Semitic rumblings are on the rise. When The Daily Stormer (a white nationalist hate group) thinks PewDiePie is dog-whistle signaling his allegiance to Naziism, only a strong rebuke by Kjellberg would even begin to make amends.
An abbreviated version of this saga was how I explained to my kids — ages 16 and 12 — why I was cutting off access to PewDiePie. And while I’d read the essay on how the “online alt-right is built on lulz, and on an insulated privilege enjoyed by people without any personal context for or historical understanding of the things their privilege lets them say” I was still blown away by the slight pushback I received from my 12-year-old. She tried to reason with me that they were just jokes. It was only after I reframed the argument to something more immediately within her sphere that the seriousness of Kjellberg’s actions dawned on her. With the upheaval by the current administration, my daughter has been very concerned about the safety of her Muslim and Hispanic friends. So I asked “What if the sign had said ‘Death to all Muslims’ instead?” The Holocaust is so far removed for her generation, it doesn’t resonate like current events. If my generation is the first where American Jews see themselves as part of the white monolith, of course my kids would think prejudice against them is part of a long-ago past.
But it’s not. 48 Jewish Community Centers in 17 states have received bomb threats since January. Swastika graffiti has been popping up across the country. So, as long as Kjellberg continues to see himself as the innocent victim of a media witch hunt — his latest shared video likens his plight to the Martin Niemöller quote ‘First they came for the socialists’ about those killed by the Nazi regime, which is not a good look when allegedly apologetic about anti-Semitic behavior — my kids will just have to watch someone else play Resident Evil 7. Because “jokes” about ethnic cleansing aren’t jokes.