More and more, I believe I see two distinct paths through the jungle of American celebrity. You can be a privately awful person eventually exposed for your behavior, or you can risk a decent reputation by stepping into the breach and using your platform to say something unpopular.
Ten years ago, you would not have expected actor and comedian Seth Rogen — of the bro-ish hit comedies The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad and Pineapple Express — to become one of the latter. (His friend and frequent collaborator James Franco, meanwhile, is facing a sexual misconduct lawsuit from two of his former acting students.) Something about his affable slacker persona just preempted any thought of his political opinions one way or the other. If anything, you might have assumed he was in line with mainstream Hollywood liberalism, a not-so-religious Jewish-Canadian man openly in favor of legalizing cannabis.
But as early as 2007, he gave hints of a stronger leftist perspective, saying that his mom and dad, a social worker and a non-profit organizer, respectively, “seem very radical in American terms, embracing a form of socialism that really doesn’t even exist here. I mean, where I come from, communism is not a terrible word.” After Trump’s election, Rogen became vocal — along with many in his industry — about the creeping threat of fascism and white supremacy, lashing out at the likes of Steve Bannon, Breitbart and the “nazi motherfuckers” of 2017’s infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The condemnations were welcome, although nothing out of the ordinary for someone of Rogen’s position.
It was the following year, though, that he identified a different angle on the problem that other celebrities have mostly ignored: big tech.
Rogen currently reaches 8.6 million followers on Twitter (and almost as many on Instagram). It is no small thing to use this clout to argue with a billionaire Silicon Valley CEO about the gravest failures of his company, and it is another significant leap forward to announce, after months of dialogue, that the guy is complicit in far-right extremism through his utter indifference to it.
Rogen reaffirmed the extent of his convictions this year, as mass demonstrations against police violence broke out around the country, when he posted in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Plenty of brands and entertainment figures announced nominal solidarity with BLM in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis cops, but Rogen went further, inviting anyone who disagreed with the slogan to unfollow him — then telling individual commenters who replied with “All Lives Matter” exactly what he thought of them: “fuck off,” he wrote to one such person. “You don’t deserve my movies anymore. Stop watching my shit.”
It’s impossible to measure the outcomes of this engagement (aside from how many followers he loses in the fight, though that number is probably negligible). Yet Rogen’s style of sustained confrontation with his own fans — he won’t simply post a slogan and log off, leaving trolls and racists to shit all over it — is galvanizing because it means he’ll sacrifice status to make bigots uncomfortable. A superstar directly calling you an asshole in front of an audience of millions may be the jolt to the system that some people need to start reevaluating what they’re saying.
Now comes Rogen’s greatest test, the one he was all but destined for when he started telling interviewers how his socialist parents met on a kibbutz: the Israel conversation. This week, on comedian Marc Maron’s podcast, known for its thorny topics and at times painful honesty, Rogen gave a sense of the Zionist worldview pressed on kids growing up in Judaism, noting that the state of Israel is never portrayed as the occupying force it is.
Even for a Jewish man, promoting a movie about the Jewish experience, this is a controversial statement — and his identity means it’s all the more essential that he offer it for public consumption. As the anti-Zionist news site Mondoweiss reports, it was only back in 2014 that Rogen “signed a statement standing by Israel as it massacred hundreds in Gaza.” If that endorsement, among hundreds of other Hollywood names, signaled a compliance with prevailing attitudes, his remarks on Maron’s show reveal a break with that practice, and from an unyielding doctrine.
Although Israel’s defenders are furious, for some of its fiercest critics, Rogen still hasn’t gone far enough — such is the discourse on any subject so polarizing. Nevertheless, he has charted a steady leftward drift, and what he’s saying now could represent a tiny leak in the dam that holds back a flood of unspoken outrage. Realizing the cultural consensus is not what it appears to be, and that there is danger in questioning it, makes for thoughtful, independent analysis. What Rogen expressed, beyond any dissatisfaction with Israel as a concept, was the need to gain a perspective outside the one you are given. Of course, when we start down that path, it’s only a matter of time before we start pointing out the crimes and atrocities carried out by the U.S.
Which is, I suppose, a way of saying: Can’t wait for the next podcast.