In the 2017 film Roman J. Israel, Esq., Denzel Washington plays a civil rights veteran, who, while giving a speech to a group of young progressive activists, sees two black women without seats. “I’m sorry, excuse me. I see two sisters standing,” Washington’s character Israel says. “Why are the sisters standing and the brothers sitting?”
“This ain’t 40 years ago,” spits back one woman.
“What is the statute of limitations on chivalry?” Israel asks.
“That’s gendered and sexist,” the other woman replies. The progressive Israel is bewildered. In his mind, he’s on these liberals’ side.
I recall this illuminating scene almost every time I listen to pro wrestling legend Jim Cornette’s popular weekly podcasts. “You know what somebody called me on Twitter?” posited Cornette in September. “A ‘cis gender white male.’”
“Now I don’t have a f***ing clue what that means,” Cornette admitted, “but it doesn’t sound complimentary.”
Cornette is arguably the greatest manager in the history of professional wrestling, becoming something close to a household name in the Southeast United States during the 1980s. He’s worked as a talent and producer for every major pro wrestling company over the last four decades, including Vince McMahon’s dominant World Wrestling Entertainment. Today, he’s a key personality on Viceland’s immensely popular Dark Side of the Ring series, currently shooting its second season.
Cornette’s claim to fame? Being an a**hole. No matter your race, gender, weight, or any other possible category, the tennis racquet-wielding mama’s boy will run you down and harshly. He’s called female valets “ugly.” He’s described wrestler’s fathers as alcoholics and their mothers as whores. When he hit a woman in the stomach with his tennis racket in 1986 (as part of a wrestling storyline), he bragged that she “may not be able to have kids.” He claims to have received more death threats for that episode than anything else in his career, letters that he proudly displays on his office wall today.
If this sounds offensive, good. He’s just doing his job.
But like Denzel Washington’s character, Cornette has always considered himself a liberal’s liberal. A healthy chunk of his podcasts are spent blasting Donald Trump and anyone who supports the president. The self-described “democratic socialist” considers Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren the best candidates in 2020. Cornette regularly lectures listeners, many of whom don’t agree with his politics, on why they should never vote Republican.
He does this all the time. He’s done it for a long time. He does not care if he chases away some of his audience. You would think any liberal this dedicated could join Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Squad.”
But they wouldn’t want him. The 58-year-old is “liberal” in the sense that most meant the term during the 1990s and aughts.
Many wrestling fans branded Cornette “homophobic” in May for saying of flamboyant gay wrestler Sonny Kiss, “Here comes Sonny Kiss who apparently got off his day job at the drag-show at the f**king Tropicana.” Kiss’s fiancé, a Cornette fan, was understandably hurt by the comment and tweeted a reply. That led to many more critical responses to Cornette’s alleged bigotry.
Cornette’s complaint was that a wrestler with an over-the-top gimmick wasn’t being explained properly to fans by the TV announcers. He contended, “I didn’t know the guy was gay in real life, or say that he was gay on my show, or insinuate that that is a bad thing….”
You can tell in Cornette’s longer explanation that the charge of bigotry caught him off guard. After all, not only is he a liberal who supports gay marriage and LGBT rights, he also managed a controversial androgynous wrestler during the ’80s, and worked alongside Pat Patterson in the WWE, who has been openly gay for years.
While Cornette is a fan of women’s wrestling and has been a champion of contemporary young performers like Tessa Blanchard among others, he’s been called “sexist” for suggesting that men and women are biologically different and therefore should perform differently in the ring.
Critiquing a women’s match in 2018, Cornette said, “The moonsault into the f***ing triangle was insane and the suplex off the apron to the floor, which was the second one of those I’d seen in two days, that was too much for the girls. I’m sorry. Yes, I’m gonna be sexist there. There’s no reason for a vertical suplex off the apron on the floor. Those girls don’t have any padding. They don’t have enough fat on them to f***ing do that and it’s too much.”
He admitted he knew his words would sound “sexist” to some, but as a wrestling purist, he proudly prioritized the quality of the match over political correctness. Of course, he was blasted for it.
When transgender wrestler Nyla Rose recently emerged as a player for the formidable, billionaire-backed upstart All Elite Wrestling, Cornette was immediately a fan due to her talent and large size. He also had an idea to make her famous—clobber every other woman in her division using the national debate over transgender athletes competing in women’s sports as the backdrop.
Turning national politics into wrestling storylines is as old as the business itself. Still, Cornette was taken to task for this suggestion too.
There are too many examples of these supposed transgressions to be listed here, but the dynamic is the same nearly every week: the liberal wrestling legend habitually offends many of his listeners, often the younger ones, by unintentionally challenging today’s identity politics orthodoxy.
Many of these young fans might not even be overtly political, but they’ve still absorbed this mindset from their peers. It’s a largely generational civil war that’s also applicable to some of the older 2020 Democratic candidates. For example, Joe Biden might defend LGBT issues, but he also calls women “sweetheart” while doing it—and hears about it.
But was Biden’s intent malicious? And if not, shouldn’t that be taken into account? Or is the sin of not being “woke” enough too great? Likewise, does Cornette have ill will towards women or gay Americans? A fair listener of his programs would conclude that he does not.
Does Cornette talk like he doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks? Yes, but he’s done that his entire career. Comedian Dave Chappelle’s style isn’t drastically different from the early 2000s, but today’s current illiberal environment makes him a villain to some. This ongoing totalitarian cultural shift has also affected the careers of other comedians of Chappelle’s generation.
As extreme as the woke Left can be, I have sympathy for those standing up for minorities or groups that have been historically oppressed. But as a lifelong Gen X wrestling fan stuck between the Millennials and Baby Boomers, I can also see where both groups, which often prioritize different values, talk past each other.
New York Times columnist David Brooks warns, “The greatest danger of extreme wokeness is that it makes it harder to practice the necessary skill of public life, the ability to see two contradictory truths at the same time.”
It can be true that Cornette uses words that offend, while also being true that he is not a hateful bigot in doing so.
Cornette’s woke critics will likely never be able to accept both, and the unrepentant rasslin’ villain will continue to dismiss them all as a bunch of “p*ssies.”
Bad guys and good guys. Heels and faces. Who is which depends on where you stand.
Maybe Jim Cornette is even more of a wrestling genius than his haters give him credit for.
Jack Hunter is the former political editor of Rare.us and co-authored the 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington with Senator Rand Paul.