EMINA MELONIC: A black puppeteer is finally striking back after being canceled for basing a puppet on himself

For too long, calling out “systemic racism” in various spheres of culture has been viewed as the activity du jour for those of a leftist ideological bent, always with the implicit assumption that those so “called out” will not strike back. Thankfully, that has begun to change, with the most recent example of pushabck being Canadian performer and puppeteer, Franck Sylvestre.

As reported by National Post, Sylvestre was accused of racism for an allegedly offensive depiction of black people, despite the fact that Sylvestre himself happens to be a black man. Why? Because Sylvestre created a puppet he calls Max, which resembles an exaggerated portrayal of a black man, and which he uses in his performances of a children’s show he himself created. And yes, to a layman, Max’s exaggerated features could look racially insensitive. There’s just one problem: Max, according to Sylvestre, isn’t just a portrayal of a black man; it’s based on himself.

But that didn’t stop the scolds from coming for him. Specifically, Alain Babineau, “a racial profiling and public safety director at civil rights group The Red Coalition,” has spoken out against Sylvestre (again, for creating a puppet) because his performance is allegedly part of “systemic racism.” As if to pile on, The Red Coalition itself made a statement against Sylvestre: “Anti-Black imageries [sic] have historically stereotyped Black people as grotesque, dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, cowardly, superstitious, and overly cheerful.”

Sylvestre, of course, intended none of this. He was just laughing at himself via his chosen artistic medium; yet as we all know, humor and self-awareness are both things the woke will not stand for. So while the accusation against Sylvestre is absurd, the consequences were very real. After Babineau and the civil rights group attacked Sylvestre’s show, his career was damaged. Theaters began to cancel already booked performances. According to Sylvestre, Babineau’s attack has caused both emotional distress and monetary loss. But he didn’t just complain; he’s actually doing something about it and suing Babineau.

Sylvestre’s lawyer, Guillaume Rousseau, characterizes the case this way: “It’s an issue of freedom of artistic expression. If every representation of a Black person that doesn’t please Mr. Babineau and others becomes blackface, [and] becomes the subject of calls for censorship, that limits my client’s freedom of artistic expression and, potentially, that of other artists.”

Hear, hear. Because here’s the hard truth: whether you think Sylvestre’s mocking self-portrait feeds into some mystical form of “systemic racism” is irrelevant. That’s an aesthetic judgment for his audience to make, not self-appointed moral guardians like Babineau, who think their negative emotional reactions should give them the right to silence artists.

Is Sylvestre’s performance good or bad? I have no idea. Is the puppet he has created creepy, racially insensitive, or simply fun? I wouldn’t know without seeing the show. What I do know is that his artistry should be judged based on its quality as artistry, by the individuals who choose to view his show. If enough of those individuals like his show, it will continue to sell tickets; if not, it won’t. But for a “civil rights group” to grant itself the right to interfere with his ability to attract an audience through moral blackmail is arrogant beyond belief.

It's almost redundant to say this at this point, but the idea of “canceling” someone for their position, behavior, or artistic expression is just another form of censorship. You can observe the very same thing in countless totalitarian regimes. Except our particular form of cultural totalitarianism might be worse than those regimes, because ours doesn’t just flow from an overzealous state, but from the culture itself: a toxic, pervasive culture of grievance and joylessness.

Which raises another question: do people like Babineau truly believe their own claims of racism, or are they just making allegations because they have nothing better to do than to be 24/7 activists? It’s an important question, because only by knowing the answer can we distinguish between genuine moral outrage (something to which Babineau is entitled, like everyone else), and a cynical play for power. Again, what business is it of a civil rights watchdog what puppets people put in their shows? Who died and gave them the kingly power to decide what art we are allowed to consume? Who said their moral judgments got to take precedence over ours?

And as we all know, it’s not just random puppeteers who suffer under the baleful eye of this new, totalitarian morality police. Like Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, the new totalitarians will often attempt to destroy the circulation even of the works of dead masters. Recall the brouhaha over Dr. Seuss’ 1937 book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.” According to an NBC News article, dated March 12, 2021, “The author [Dr. Seuss] drew racist stereotypes in children’s books and political cartoons–but reckoning has been delayed because of historically ingrained anti-Asian racism.”

Now, was the book insensitive? Sure, by today’s standards, the fact that it reduced a “Chinaman” to someone who eats rice was offensive, though I honestly find it more ludicrous than malicious. But it also wasn’t particularly popular, unlike, say, The Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham. You know how I know? Because after the cancellation fervor, many people scrambled to buy the copies of “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” as quickly as possible. Which, in turn, made the demand for the book soar, even though there was barely any supply still available, which turned it into a prized collectors’ item on sites like eBay. Whereas prior to the news’s freakout, the book was still in print, but barely. It had clearly not been popular for some time, and certainly not in 2021. So, again, why do our Leftist overlords insist on drawing attention to things that have left the public consciousness? Was someone simply trying to create more news and “doom scrolling” fodder for everyone? Or was it a warning that even when you’re dead and revered, like Dr. Seuss, they can still cancel you?

Well, enough. Sylvestre has sued, Dr. Seuss is still read in schools, and we seem to finally be realizing that we live in a far better world when we let art be art, and let one person’s opinion just be one person’s opinion rather than a pseudo-moral power grab. The Left’s drive to “defund the police” was, of course, ludicrous, but personally, I hope that Franck Sylvestre gets a large enough settlement that he can strike a blow to defund our self-appointed morality police.  

Image: Title: franck sylvestre