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Sunday, October 3, 2021

How Seinfeld (Hilariously) Exposed the Creepy Authoritarianism of Aggressive Do-Gooders

The writers of Seinfeld saw how the human instinct to do good can breed a fanaticism that is anything but funny.

Image Credit: NBC (via YouTube)

If you asked me what my favorite Seinfeld episode is, I’d have a hard time answering. There are just too many winners.

Many would say the best ever is “The Contest,” the Emmy Award-winning episode where Jerry and company compete to see who is “master of their domain.” And who can forget “The Soup Nazi” or “The Merv Griffin Show” or Kenny Rogers chicken (“The Chicken Roaster”)?

Personally, I’ve always been a fan of “The Race,” the one where Elaine is dating a communist—Ned Isakoff—who feeds Kramer a bunch of socialist propaganda that ends up getting Kramer and his side-kick Mickey fired from their Santa/Elf gig at Coleman’s department store.

All of these are worthy of discussion for belonging in the Seinfeld pantheon; I bust a gut laughing at each one. But one of the most instructive scenes—one fitting for our times—comes in “The Sponge,” when Kramer decides to participate in an AIDS walk to support charity.

‘You Have to Wear an AIDS Ribbon’

Like a good Samaritan, Kramer shows up to walk to support the cause: AIDS awareness. Things take a turn, however, when he declines to wear an AIDS ribbon.

VOLUNTEER: You’re checked in. Here’s your AIDS ribbon.

KRAMER: Ah, no thanks.

VOLUNTEER: You don’t want to wear an AIDS ribbon?

KRAMER: No, no.

VOLUNTEER: But you have to wear an AIDS ribbon.

KRAMER: I have to?


KRAMER: Yeah, see, that’s why I don’t want to.

VOLUNTEER: But everyone wears the ribbon. You must wear the ribbon!

KRAMER: You know what you are? You’re a ribbon bully (walks away).

VOLUNTEER: Hey! Hey you! Come back here! Come back here and put this on!

The peer pressure Kramer receives is funny because it’s strange but also relatable. You don’t have to be a hard-nosed libertarian immersed in Rothbard and Mises to see there is a human tendency to fanatically push conformity, even in matters of symbolism (perhaps especially so).

The story doesn’t end there, however. The writers explore just how intense the impulse to make others conform can be as Kramer begins his charity walk in a scene that is simultaneously dark and hilarious.

WALKER 1: Hey, where’s your ribbon?

KRAMER: I don’t wear one.

WALKER 2: You don’t wear the ribbon? Aren’t you against AIDS?

KRAMER: Yeah, I’m against AIDS. I’m walking, aren’t I? I just don’t wear the ribbon.

WALKER 3: Who do you think you are?

WALKER 4: Put the ribbon on!

WALKER 2: Hey, Cedric, Bob. This guy won’t wear a ribbon.

BOB: Who? Who will not wear the ribbon?

The scene is a great example of mob mentality. Kramer, who is walking in support of AIDS awareness, is browbeaten by his peers despite his support of the cause. The ribbon bullies don’t care Kramer is walking in support of the same cause they are; all they can see is he’s not wearing the ribbon.

The scene ends with the ribbon-wearing walkers beating Kramer up in an alley.

The Pandemic and Stone Throwers

Watching Kramer get beaten up in an alley for not wearing a ribbon is funny because it’s Seinfeld. But the writers of the show are also revealing a dark side of human nature that is very real.

The great American individualist Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed how humanity treats those who don’t conform to the collective.

“For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure,” Emerson wrote.

Emerson may have been echoing Voltaire, who saw “our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road.”

This is true even in the best of times, but in the worst of times the behavior gets even uglier.

Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that the pandemic has unleashed a level of anger and hostility against those who choose to follow his or her own conscience instead of the decrees of the collective.

The healthy person who declines to wear a mask in a grocery store is treated much like Cosmo Kramer.

“You don’t want to wear a mask?

“But you have to wear a mask!”

“Who do you think you are?”

“Put the mask on!”

Interestingly, not wearing a mask is not an actual sin. We saw celebrities and politicians galore flout this supposedly necessary medical precaution, with nary a peep from the mask police who insist children must wear them in schools. And we routinely see our leaders remove them when they believe the cameras have stopped. Saying masks are not necessary or suggesting healthy individuals should decide for themselves whether to wear one is the true heresy, which invites shame and ridicule.

Choosing to not get vaccinated carries an even greater risk of social stigma and shame. Kramer received a beating for not wearing the AIDS ribbon, but many have suggested the unvaccinated deserve much worse.

TV host Jimmy Kimmel recently said unvaccinated patients should not be treated if they fall ill, while a Florida doctor recently came right out and said she won’t treat unvaccinated patients, as did a physician in Alabama.

The reasons a person chooses to not get vaccinated—perhaps she already had COVID, or is trying to get pregnant, or is a young, healthy person with little to fear from COVID—don’t really seem to matter. Like the AIDS walkers who attack Kramer because all they can see is he’s not wearing a ribbon, many see one thing alone: an unvaccinated person, a threat.

The pandemic may have fueled our tribal instincts that seek to browbeat those who stray into conformity, but it’s important to understand it existed beforehand and infects people of all parties, ideologies, and persuasions. (Conservatives who doubt this need only look back at the fury presidential candidate Barack Obama caused when he stopped wearing an American flag pin.)

Extremism can take many forms, but it’s important to understand that Seinfeld’s ribbon enforcers and the COVID bullies share a common trait. Both groups are absolutely convinced that what they are doing is good.

The problem is, good intentions mean very little. The 20th century was the bloodiest century in human history, largely because many humans sought to create a better world by instituting an economic system they believed would solve human problems: socialism.

The allure to enforce that which is seen as good is a powerful one, but an evil one; and it’s why the French philosopher Bertrand De Jouvenel said tyranny lurks in the womb of every Utopia.

The great economist, philosopher, and FEE founder Leonard Read understood this, which is why he believed “a hard look” at ends and means was necessary to determine whether any action was right or wrong.

“Ends, goals, aims are but the hope for things to come,” Read observed. “Many of the most monstrous deeds in human history have been perpetrated in the name of doing good—in pursuit of some ‘noble’ goal. They illustrate the fallacy that the end justifies the means. Examine carefully the means employed, judging them in terms of right and wrong, and the end will take care of itself.”

Wanting to do good—through a charity walk or encouraging people to take medical precautions—is a noble human instinct. But the instinct ceases to be noble and good when we begin to use aggression and coercion to make others do what we think is right.

The writers of Seinfeld saw how the line between the two could be blurred, and how the human instinct to do good can breed a fanaticism that is anything but funny.

  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of at the Foundation for Economic Education.