As the comedian Jerry Seinfeld received an honorary degree at Duke University’s commencement, dozens of students walked out and chanted, “Free Palestine.” Some also chanted Mr. Seinfeld’s name during the walkout.
Bill Snead/Duke University, via Associated Press

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

It’s Tuesday, May 14, 2024.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Nihilism Hits a Wall: Jerry Seinfeld Gets Crossways with the Cultural Left

Well, if you were looking at the headlines over the course of the last weekend, you might be tempted to think that the most important news story was the walkout of students at Duke University’s commencement. And there are all kinds of issues here that we need to take a look at. But the most important thing is that the headlines told us that Jerry Seinfeld was the commencement speaker and the recipient of an honorary degree, and he who had represented a non-political form of humor, but is now public and his support for Israel, was such a divisive figure, that a sizable number of the graduates walked out of the facility there at Duke University in protest. This made news all over the world. Headlines, “Walk out at Jerry Seinfeld’s Appearance at Duke University Commencement.” And of course, this fit into the larger media narrative, which isn’t false by the way in this sense, that you have all kinds of chaos breaking out on America’s elite college and university campuses.

But before we even look at the substance of this story, we need to recognize that much in the story isn’t substantial at all. Because if you were looking at some of the photographs that were sent, if you were looking at some of the social media posts, if you were looking at the headlines, you would think that of the roughly 7,000 people who were in attendance at the commencement, there must have been a sizable walkout. But not only in isolated news stories, but in a source as authoritative as Politico, we’re told that it was about 30 students who walked out. So 30 in a crowd of 7,000 makes worldwide headlines, 30 out of 7,000. There were undoubtedly that many people who had to go to the bathroom at that moment.

But of course, these protesters made a lot of noise and they made their exit visible, and they played right into the media game. The media game is, make your protests look big, make your activism look massive, embarrass the institution, embarrass the speaker. In this case, not only a speaker, but an honorary degree recipient, and just embarrass the entire affair in order to make your political point.

The larger media game being played here is simply to take every opportunity to say there is this massive groundswell of support for the Palestinian cause at the expense of Israel, particularly among younger Americans, and more intense as you get to elite college campuses. Now, that’s not an entirely false narrative, sad to say, but it is nonetheless one that is gamed. It’s loaded. It’s as if this is a game being played with loaded dice. When you talk about 30 students walking out, in an occasion like this, out of a crowd of about 7,000 and this making headlines all over the world, let’s face it, in a fair world, your preschooler would have just about the same odds of making headline news globally.

The New York Times played into the narrative, headline, “As Seinfeld Gets a Degree, some Duke Students Leave Commencement in Protest.” Two reporters, Eduardo Medina, Emily Cataneo tell us, “Jerry Seinfeld knows his way around handling awkward moments on stage. Even so, the initial reception he faced at Duke University’s commencement on Sunday reflected a more complicated audience than usual.” Well, that’s just now to be taken as a matter of assumption these days on America’s elite college campuses. You have all of these protests, you have the encampments, you have all the political activism going on. You’ve got the faculty members who graduated in the ’60s and the ’70s joining in with the young people when it comes to their protests against Israel, and in particular Israel’s military action against Hamas in Gaza.

And that is a very difficult moral situation. You are talking about an immense amount of human suffering. You’re also looking at the fact that Hamas, the terrorist organization, bears the responsibility for embedding itself in a civilian population, and quite frankly is playing this game as skillfully as any terror organization might play it. It is as if they have a public relations staff that is perfectly attuned to figuring out how to play the western media.

So at one level, we’re just looking at this because it’s a story about a story. It’s the real story about this big news story. And at least the first thing we need to just mention, we need to think about, and then get out of the way is the fact that this was a very small group and a very large crowd who were playing the political game superbly, almost as if guided by experts to know how to get maximum press attention with minimal numbers.

But our interest from a Christian worldview in looking at the story is actually a lot more important than the numbers of people, or even the fact that the protests took place under this circumstance. It has to do actually with Jerry Seinfeld in a larger sense and what is making him now the subject of headline news, and what in the background that makes him famous really does play into this.

Now, what makes Jerry Seinfeld famous today is the fact that he had one of the most highly rated television programs of all time in this program just named for himself known as Seinfeld. Before that, he was well known on late night television programs on the stage all over the world, but particularly in the United States as the extension of a certain kind of humor tradition in the United States. Now, behind all of this is a certain vein of Jewish humor, indeed humor that was very much associated with resorts in the upstate region of New York, an entire vein of humor that broke into the American mainstream and quite frankly was extremely popular with headline comedians, especially in the middle of the second half of the 20th century.

Jerry Seinfeld is, in one sense, the near perfection of that tradition. He is the epitome of that tradition. But added to that particular tradition, sometimes known as the Borscht Belt, added to that is a certain philosophical worldview commitment, which means it’s a vital interest to us, and that is the fact that Jerry Seinfeld was the master at turning nihilism into comedy. Nihilism, which means nothingness. It means a commitment to no meaning. It means there is no truth, there are no transcendentals. It means there is nothing of eternal consequence. And that’s one of the reasons why Jerry Seinfeld is not known for vast narratives of some kind of literary force. He’s not known for, say, making a movie of a sustained comedic theme. He’s known for stand-up and situation comedy contexts in which he takes something, say as simple as a cookie, or as simple as a hangnail, and turns it into something of massive interest. But of course, it’s rather narcissistic and it doesn’t make any particular claim to universal meaning.

It’s not about right and wrong. It’s not about light and darkness. It’s not about good and evil. It’s about say, well, something as mundane as what became the focus of so much of Jerry Seinfeld’s career. And he has right now a new product out. It’s available on streaming video and it includes a focus on a pop tart. So we’re not talking about the great questions of life, about human existence. And quite honestly, we’re not talking about something which is universally funny. Jerry Seinfeld, in his known nihilistic way, attempts to find some humor or to invent some humor in the midst of this.

But that then takes us to the issue of the current controversy because Jerry Seinfeld is not in trouble culturally right now because of an assertion of nihilism. He’s in trouble because of his partisan stance, it is accused, in favor of Israel. It is because of his Zionism. It is because of the moral stance he has taken saying that Israel has a right to exist and Israel has the right to defend itself, and that’s why you had so many people responding in outrage at Jerry Seinfeld.

Now, one of the first things I want us to consider is that Seinfeld actually set himself up for this. And this is the same predicament that happened to the existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre in France in the 20th century. If you set yourself up as the exemplar and the thoughtful theorist of the fact, there is no meaning, there is no right and wrong, there is no good and evil, there is no question of ultimate philosophical significance, when you find one, no one takes you seriously. That’s what happened with Jean-Paul Sartre in terms of the Algerian Revolution. He stepped into it saying there was a right side and a wrong side. Well, guess what? If there’s a right side and a wrong side, so much for your nihilism.

Jerry Seinfeld was famous for creating one of the most popular television shows in history, which basically made the point that nothing really mattered, there were no great questions. We’re going to look more closely at that in just a moment. But now he’s saying there is a right and wrong. Israel is right. It is being besieged by terrorists. It has been attacked by its enemies. It has a right to exist. Seinfeld himself seems to have found the way to assert his Jewish identity in an absolutely important way, not just about a comedic tradition, but about something of far deeper moral significance. But he built his career denying that there is any deeper moral significance.

Now, I don’t say that in order to suggest that Seinfeld’s comments are now say insincere and not to be taken seriously. No, I think they are undoubtedly sincere because they’re costing him something. And I think we should take them seriously. I think in his concern, he is largely right. But the point is, in his actions, he’s refuting everything he built his reputation on, and that’s why so many of these young people on the left are angry at him. “We thought you stood for nihilism. Well, guess you didn’t actually.”

Now, just to be clear about why there are people who had this expectation, I want to turn to someone I think is particularly well-equipped to talk about this, and that will be Thomas S. Hibbs. He’s a distinguished professor of ethics and culture and Dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. He wrote a book years ago entitled “Shows about Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture.” Now, just to make the point, he defines nihilism as meaning basically, “It is the philosophy or state of life characterized by a lack of meaning or purpose.” Well, that’s absolutely true. That’s a short way to put it. Nihilism is basically nothing-ism. That’s what the word means. And it means that there is no truth, there is no reality, there is no great meaning to life, so just deal with it.

Now, Jerry Seinfeld turned that into a brand of humor. But as a way of life, let’s just say it is not only genuinely humorless, it is genuinely meaningless. Nihilism has to end in despair because life doesn’t have any meaning at all. There is no truth. That’s just a search for truth. It’s not about the difficulty of finding the truth and knowing the truth. It’s about the nonexistence of truth.

Now, in this book “Shows about Nothing,” Thomas Hibbs points to the fact that Jerry Seinfeld was making a decisive break, as Hibbs says, from nearly all the conventions of the classic American comedy. So the comedies that came before Seinfeld, there were situation comedies, there were narrative comedies, but they also tended to include a married couple, or they tended even to include a family. But when it came to the Seinfeld program, no, it was just about Jerry Seinfeld and an ensemble of similarly self-absorbed, indeed self-obsessed people. And the attraction of the show for many people was that it was reflective of a new way many Americans were living, or at least saw themselves as living.

Now, I’m not going to go into detail about episodes of Seinfeld. I simply want to make the point that most of those episodes weren’t about really anything of significance at all. They were about something of just absolute mundane obsession and preoccupation. There were no great moral crises that were honestly confronted by that program at all. As a matter of fact, Hibbs writes at one point, “There is no higher or lower pizza, abortion. It’s all the same.” So you see the point there, it just is a flattening of meaning into no meaning. You can talk about abortion, not really all that meaningful. You can talk about pizza, equally not all that meaningful. They’re simply put on the same level. No meaning means no meaning.

But the point I want to make today about Seinfeld is that he is, as a person, Jerry Seinfeld, actually now in the headlines, not because he says there’s no meaning, but because he says there is meaning. He’s in trouble right now because he took sides on a contentious issue. He’s in trouble right now because he’s making a serious moral point and he intends for it to be taken seriously by the way he’s joined by his wife in making this point. And we have to ask the question, “Why would this happen now?”

And I think the easy answer is because of what happened when Hamas attacked Israel in this absolutely murderous attack. I think all of a sudden there was an understanding among many Jewish people that the nation of Israel, and in fact the universal Jewish identity, is something that is endangered because it has enemies, it has violent enemies, it has deadly enemies. And so in a context like this, nihilism really doesn’t work anymore because nihilism says it doesn’t matter. I think Jerry Seinfeld’s comments, which he knew were going to be controversial by the way, he knew his appearance would be controversial, I have to say he is therefore refuting the worldview that made his comedic image famous.

Now, again, hear me. I’m not saying that in doing this, he’s wrong. I’m saying that in doing this, he’s right. It is nihilism that is the false worldview. It is the understanding of a moral universe that’s the right understanding. And Jerry Seinfeld has now arrived there and at some personal cost. But he has also arrived there in the midst of a political controversy that no one should expect will be discussed fairly.

I think it’s also fair to say that Jerry Seinfeld is likely to lose an awful lot of the friends he had when he was known as a nihilist. I think so long as he could get away with his humor the way he did it, the insinuation and claim of an absolutely meaningless universe, so long as he could obsess on little tiny things, he had an audience to obsess with him, and now that he’s taken sides in one of the most significant moral controversies of our time, well, he is to the one side, having joined the great effort. On the other side, he has become one of them, among the enemy.

But there’s another point before we leave Jerry Seinfeld that I think needs to be made here, and he has made this point. And by the way, not just recently. He made this point even say closer to the termination of the Seinfeld series and closer to some other controversies as well. Jerry Seinfeld has pointed out that humor has become a very difficult thing in our society because you have people who want all humor to be acceptable in ideological terms. And thus, a lot of what he built his career on now steps on toes in the day of identity politics and in the day of absolute political sensitivities. One of the reasons is that his particular humor is kind of out of step, especially with the young people these days on the campuses who evidently don’t have much of a sense of humor at all.

It’s going to be very interesting to see where this goes, but we need not to let this go without our comment because as it turns out, it is a very clear demonstration of the fact that nihilism is a worldview that gets you, unsurprisingly, nowhere. It is a refutation of the very existence of truth. The moment Jerry Seinfeld took sides in this controversy, guess what? He said, “This is true and that is false.” The moment he did that, he actually gains an intellectual credibility, gains a moral credibility, but he loses in terms of popularity and audience.

And it also comes down to something else we need to recognize, and that is at least when you look at all the confusion and the popular media and in popular culture and journalism and all the rest, once you become famous like this, folks can and will lie about you and they just move on to the next thing, which sometimes just means the next lie.

Part II

Where Does the U.S. Stand with Israel Now? Rafah, President Biden’s Comments, and the Intricacies of Israel’s Self-Defense Intermingled with U.S. Interests

But next, as we shift, just to look for a moment at the conflict there in Gaza right now with Israel pressing back against Hamas. And the big question nationally/internationally is, where is the United States in terms of support for Israel at this point? I think the easiest answer to that right now is that the support of the United States is unclear, but I want to clarify something that I think a lot of people are missing.

And so, as you look at the question of the Biden administration’s threats to Israel frankly about cutting off military support and indeed some specific weapons programs and deliveries, if Israel takes specific actions there in Gaza, in particular in the town of Rafah, even as that’s going on, there is behind the scenes something that we simply need to name. And that is the fact that as the United States looks at allies in that region, it’s not just the United States, but it’s our allies, say European allies and Southeast Asian allies, as we are looking at the situation there in the Middle East, we need to understand that there is a relationship between the United States and Israel that is not just about say, one presidential administration or one premiership, one prime minister’s term or numerous terms there in Israel. It has to do with the relationship that has built up between the United States and Israel over the course of decades since Israel was declared a nation in the late 1940s.

And you look at that and you recognize, “Okay, here’s something going on that many in the mainstream media aren’t acknowledging,” and that is that the United States and Israel are locked into a mutual defense system that is so thick, that is to say it is so substantial, that when you are looking right now the headline news, you are looking at political posing now undertaken by President Biden largely because so many on the left wing of his party have moved in antipathy to Israel. That’s the big game changer here. But still you have a situation right now in which this does create an enormous challenge for Israel, and frankly for others among America’s allies, but it also creates a situation in which, for example, just watch what’s happening.

The British Prime Minister, who is the former prime minister, David Cameron, the foreign minister, came out and said that stopping arms deliveries to Israel is not the way to handle this. You have other statements being made by Europeans. Now, supposedly, the Europeans were to be more concerned about America’s support for Israel than even some folks on the American left. It just doesn’t turn out that way. And it is because Israel is linked to the national defense of, say, the United Kingdom, of Britain in a way that no one really stops to think about as well as the United States.

When you look at that massive attack that was unleashed by Iran upon Israel just a few weeks ago, you’ll recall that a good deal of the defense of Israel undertaken at that time was in the control of the American military, not the Israeli military. And that is because of the embeddedness of the Israeli defense system within America’s larger responsibility, and frankly, self-interest, national interest there in the Middle East. And it is because when it comes to much of what goes on in the ground, in the air, on the seas, but in particular on the ground and in the air, you have an integration of Israeli and American interests in ways that go far beyond the headlines of any particular week or frankly, even the four-year term of any American presidential administration.

Now, that is not to say that President Biden doesn’t represent what is now a threat to Israel and its fight against Hamas. One of the things to point out is that when you have people talking about this long-term relationship, when they do understand it and try to explain it honestly, one of the problems is they don’t admit that this is not a normal time for Israel. Now, there’s one historical argument, which is to say that Israel’s never had a normal time because there never has been a moment when that remarkable nation has not been opposed by some of its nearest neighbors. Indeed, there have been those who have been pledged to the extermination of Israel ever since the nation was announced. And then you had Israel declare its own national identity, 1948, 1949, you are talking about the fact that from the beginning, Israel has had enemies, very deadly enemies.

Now, remember that the United States was the very first nation to recognize Israel as a nation that was President Harry S. Truman who did so, that was absolutely instrumental. But the relationship between the United States and Israel is not just one of say, historical and nostalgic significance. It is a very live issue. And indeed, the relationship between the United States and Israel right now and between the IDF, Israel’s Defense Forces, and the United States military, it’s a lot thicker than it’s ever been. It’s a lot more substantial than it’s ever been.

And remember, that Israel is the only democratic nation when it comes to constitutional self-government and the electoral system. And anything close to what we would know in the Western world as a democratic system of self-government, Israel’s basically all you’ve got. And Israel is located, yes, among its many, many enemies. But many of those enemies are enemies of the United States as well. In particular, just to name one, Iran. We could just mention Iran, and there you have it. And of course, you also have the fact that if you fast forward to say the early 1970s, say the Nixon administration too, today, one of the things that is more remarkable is the fact that there’s a common interest now on the part of many of the Arab nations with Israel. And it is not so much because of any cultural sharing with Israel. It’s because of economic relationships and a common economic relationship with the United States. And it’s not only a shared economic set of networks with the United States, it is also increasingly a shared defense network either acknowledged or not acknowledged as well.

Now, I don’t say these things in order to say that Joe Biden doesn’t bear responsibility for the actions he has taken, and I think they are very irresponsible actions. And I think frankly, and when you compare with many of America’s European allies, it’s clear that the United States is, at this point in the Biden administration, acting as something of an outlier. And I will go ahead and predict that this is going to have a material impact on the 2024 presidential election. And it should, because we’re talking about an issue of vast significance, not only about the survival of Israel, but quite frankly the defense posture and the interest of the United States of America as well.

Now, many of us as Americans and as American Christians have even deeper concerns for and ties to Israel, but I just want to state, as a matter of correcting so much of the conversation you’re likely to hear and so much of the chatter you see in the media, there are deeper issues here that are at stake. And many of them are actually reported on by the media, but they seem to forget them as soon as they report them. 

We’ll continue to track these issues with you.

Part III

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez Corruption Trial Begins with Huge Moral Significance — And His Defense Strategy Includes Blaming It on His Wife

Finally for today, just a quick mention about something that is happening this week, and that is the opening of the trial of United States Senator Bob Menendez on multiple counts of felony corruption. Very serious charges. And we’re dealing with the charges that you have sitting United States Senator who has had a high-ranking position in the Senate, Chairman of Committees, and all the rest, who has had privileged access to information and is basically according, at least to federal prosecutors, he has been taking bribes in order to serve the interests of other nations. That’s a very significant charge, to say the very least.

But I want to draw attention to the fact that he is being tried alone in the process that began there in that New York City federal courtroom yesterday. He is being tried alone. But he was charged along with his wife, his wife, whom he married in the midst of all of this and who was very deeply involved in the same activities. Remember that when federal authorities raided the house, they found gold bars, they found cash, they found cars. I mean, they just found all kinds of evidence. And the evidence led to the indictment of both Senator Menendez and Mrs. Menendez, but they’re being tried separately.

Now, that raises a very interesting question. Why are they being tried separately? Well, it’s the choice of these two defendants that they be tried separately because here’s what’s going to happen and the defense strategy has already been leaked. Each is going to blame the other. Now, remember, they’re married. They can’t even be compelled to testify against one another, but both of them are going to claim that the other one did it and the pleadings made by their own attorneys in court. The first trial to come up is the trial of the Senator. We’ll see if he gets away with making that defense. “I was innocent. I was simply confused. I didn’t know what she was up to.” And then regardless of how that trial turns out, Mrs. Menendez is going to go to court and say, “I had no idea he was doing this. I mean, I didn’t question where those gold bars came from. I mean, all that cash. Doesn’t everybody do that?”

It’s going to be a very interesting process, but I just want to note that this is something of deep moral significance, something that deserves our attention. A similar effort was undertaken in a recent trial, of course, of the parents of a school shooter. They also wanted separate trials. And separately both we need to note were found guilty.

But there are all kinds of things that are difficult to explain, but among those would have to be something that I dare say, no listener to The Briefing is likely ever to have experienced, and that is to have experienced a federal law enforcement raid when they find gold bars with serial numbers in your residence, serial numbers that belong to someone else with whom they were registered, who is now accused of trying to buy your favor.

Oh, and something else. It turns out that included in the evidence to be presented in trial is the fact that some of the funds were hidden in an article of clothing that the Senator had monogrammed with his name. 

No kidding.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter or X by going to For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, just go to

I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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