In defending himself from criticism of over incendiary and sometimes false statements, musician Kanye West often resorts to some variation of the idea that he’s a “free thinker.” On April 21, shortly after posting the tweet that kicked off this interminable news cycle—“I love the way Candace Owens thinks,” he wrote, referring to a conservative black activist who believes President Donald Trump is America’s “savior”—he followed up with this:
Several days later, not long before posting a selfie in a “Make America Great Again” hat, he wrote:
And on Tuesday, after telling the celebrity news site TMZ that slavery was a “choice,” he responded as if he were a dissenting intellectual who was being punished for challenging the status quo. (He later deleted the tweet.)
TMZ, to its credit, challenged West’s defense. “Do you feel that I’m being free and and I’m thinking free?” West asked. Van Lathan, a senior producer TMZ, replied, “I actually don’t think you are thinking anything. While you are making music and being an artist and living the life that you’ve earned by being a genius, the rest of us in society have to deal with these threats to our lives. We have to deal with the marginalization that has come from the 400 years of slavery that you said for our people was a choice.” Writer Roxane Gay was even more blunt:
Kanye, despite voicing right-wing ideas, has eschewed the label of “conservative” in favor of “free thinker.” This is a common trope in certain circles on the right, where reactionary ideas are recast as radical inquiry—and those who dare criticize such inquiry are accused of silencing free speech. Kim Kardashian, West’s wife, implicitly made this argument by tweeting that West is “a free thinker, is that not allowed in America?”
“It is so perfect that [Kanye West] would become right-wing now,” Will Menaker said on the podcast Chapo Trap House, “because [right-wingers] are the group in our society that really, really loves the idea of being a free thinker—if, by being a free thinker, means you are unaware of basic American history as an adult.”
Many people who claim to be “free thinkers” today are, in other words, just ignorant right-wing trolls. That’s a shame, because the term “free thinker” has a long history, dating back centuries, and refers to a noble tradition that’s worth recovering.
The term “freethought,” according to Susan Jacoby’s 2004 book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, “first appeared in the late 1600s and flowered into a genuine social and philosophical movement during the next two centuries.” Freethinkers played an especially important role during the American Revolution and the early days of the republic, when they were key in securing the idea of a separation of church and state.
As Jacoby notes, freethinkers ranged from deists to outright atheists, but what they shared, “regardless of their views on the existence or nonexistence of a divinity, was a rationalist approach to fundamental questions of earth existence—a conviction that the affairs of human beings should be governed not by faith in the supernatural but by a reliance on reason and evidence adduced from the natural world. It was this conviction, rooted in Enlightenment philosophy, that carried the day when the former revolutionaries gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to write the Constitution.”
Freethinkers didn’t just challenge religious authority, but other sources of entrenched and unearned power. Nineteenth-century freethinkers, such as Susan B. Anthony, were leading advocates of abolitionism and feminism. Many of the major American writers of the Victorian era, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman to Mark Twain, were shaped by the freethought tradition.
By the late 19th century, freethought became more politically diverse, including proto-libertarians as well as liberals and radicals. While “freethinkers did not have a political platform,” Jacoby wrote, “they nevertheless agreed on a wide range of social, cultural, and artistic concerns, which generated such fierce debate in the decades after the Civil War that they would form a template for the nation’s ‘culture wars’ a century later. These included free political speech; freedom of artistic expression; expanded legal and economic rights for women that went well beyond the narrow political goal of suffrage; the necessity of ending domestic violence against women and children; dissemination of birth control information...; opposition to capital punishment and to inhumane conditions in prisons and insane asylums; and, above all, the expansion of public education.”
In other words, “freethought” traditionally has been associated with progressive movements for social change, not individualistic provocateurs like West, whose understanding of “freethought” seems to be that he’s unafraid to voice whatever passes through his mind. The problem is that, at least publicly, he doesn’t interrogate these thoughts; he merely spouts them, regardless of their merit. Geniuses don’t need to explain themselves, apparently.
“I don’t think any single political opinion or public stand matters as much to Kanye as our continued perception of him as a contrarian thinker, as a doer of things we think he can’t do and a thinker of things we assume he doesn’t really think,” Rob Harvilla wrote at The Ringer. “He insists that we regard him as a genius in the realms of fashion, furniture design, and hotel management; he is hell-bent on presenting his every thought as a galaxy-brain act of iconoclastic triumph.”
The historical freethinkers championed individual liberty but they did so as part of collective social movements, where freewheeling arguments took place among people who respected each other and listened to rebuke. But West is strikingly alone, isolated from any group solidarity. Insulated by fame and wealth, he spouts nonsense and disregards anyone, like his friend and fellow musician John Legend, who challenges his beliefs (such as they are).
West’s hijacking of the term “freethinker” is reflective of the political state of affairs in America. Though the Trumpian right is dominant, enjoying unified control of the government, it presents itself as a fearless insurgent force against an elite establishment plagued by groupthink. In fending off Trumpism, political liberals often use the conservative language of defending norms and civility. Thus the rich and powerful become seen as rebels while the opposition is cast as stodgy protectors of the status quo. It’s this larger political dynamic that allows West to dabble in reactionary politics while calling himself a “free thinker.”
West may be a musical genius, but he’s no freethinker. And while his lyrics may contain wisdom, his tweets do not. He’s just another right-wing troll in a MAGA hat—an insanely rich one with tens of millions of Twitter followers, but a troll nonetheless.