Some Thoughts About What Has Come to Be Called Cancel Culture

Written by Carl Peterson   
Wednesday, 03 March 2021 06:34

Before this label “cancel culture” gets muddled further by the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Josh Hawley let’s see how it might be defined in accordance with the facts.  That is, what is cancel culture really, and how does it work?

First, what cancel culture isn’t.  It is not an activity of government.  If you are canceled by your government, as millions of people on planet Earth were in the 20th century and as many continue to be (e.g., George Floyd) in the 21st century, you have not been culture canceled.  Governmental cancellation, legal and extralegal, can take many forms including: intimidation into silence, loss of employment, suppression of voting rights, imprisonment, death by any of a number of means including starvation, torture and execution (also by any of a number of means.)

The label cancel culture implies that an element of society at large has harnessed enough of the communicative power of social media or other mass media to publicly express disapproval of a member of society sufficient to cause others to take actions that while not necessarily motivated by the desire to be punitive, are understandably experienced by the “cancelled” person (if not now an historical figure) as punishment for what others saw as unacceptable speech or behavior.  For example, a person engages in public conduct or speech that arouses a large response of public condemnation, often on social media.  For public relations reasons the person’s employer wishes to disassociate itself from the person’s perceived misbehavior and takes the expedient but not necessarily just action of firing the employee.  Or, another example, but less common, the large public response of moral condemnation induces a corporate media outlet, for example HBO, to respond with a televised case for the prosecution against the person never convicted of the crime in a court of law, but nevertheless condemned by mass opinion.  This second type could be termed “cancel culture vigilanteism.”

What do we have here?  In the first case, free expression of disapproving mass opinion causes those with some association and form of power over the disapproved person to seek to escape penalty themselves by taking action disassociating themselves from the disapproved person.  Or, in the case of cancel culture vigilanteism, free expression of disapproving mass opinion induces a corporate mass media outlet to draw approbation to itself by catering to what it believes to be its customer base.  In the immediate case, the corporate entity HBO probably considered the possible fall-out and decided that there is little commercial danger to HBO for going on the attack against an accused child molester; the upside is that it has pleased many of its customers and displeased few of them.

In both cases, free expression of opinion by a large number of people contains an element of cultural democracy, which, like governmental democracy, includes the possibility of a tyranny of the many. The second stage of the mechanism--imposition of some sort of penalty as a result of publicly expressed opinion of disapproval, is certainly nothing new to human society as a means to enforce conformity, but is without the means to rationally ensure justice.  That is, it lacks due process: a lawful, formal, rules-bound consideration of whether the accused has committed the alleged deed, and of what punishment, if any, is appropriate. In the instant case, the televised case for the prosecution is the punishment.

Jonathan Chait’s Criticism of Cancel Culture

Jonathan Chait, in his recent article, Firing Actors for Being Conservative Is Another Hollywood Blacklist, finds that cancel culture (although he does not use that term) is analogous to the Hollywood blacklisting of the 40s and 50s.  Chait discusses the case of Gina Carano; (whom he identifies as conservative, without any indication of how he arrived at this conclusion.  A finding that Carano is conservative is not supported by Chait’s discussion of the evidence in the case: Carano’s online posts) Carao lost her job as an actor in The Mandalorian and her relationship to the United Talented Agency after some of her social media posts offended enough people that her employer and talent agency took note and severed their professional connections to her.  Chait looks at the posts that got Carano fired and finds them generally innocuous, but near the end of the article makes a larger point, which is that “... a fairer and more liberal society is able to create some space between an individual’s political views and the position of their employer.”  Chait cites no remedy for the problem he sees, probably because he realizes that preventing alleged culture cancellations such as Carano’s would require infringement of the free speech rights of those who objected to Carano’s posts, and/or restriction of the rights of her employer and talent agency to break ties with her.  Chait never discusses why we have a new label “cancel culture” for a phenomenon that probably first expressed itself in prototypical form at about the same time humans began living together in numbers greater than two.   

The main problem with Chait’s article, however, is his equation of the process that resulted in Carano’s firing with the Hollywood blacklisting of the 40s and 50s.  Chait’s claim--presented without serious discussion of evidence to support it: that culture cancellation of “conservative” Hollywood actors is equivalent to the infamous Hollywood blacklisting, is summarized in the following two sentences:

A Dalton Trumbo ought to have been able to hold onto his screenwriting job even though he supported a murderous dictator like Stalin. And actors ought to be able to work even if they support an authoritarian bigot like Donald Trump.

In fact, those two sentences state the true thesis of Chait’s article much more aptly than the thesis contained in the article title.  Carano was not subjected to anything like the sharp teeth and hot, foul breath of the government’s House Un-American Activities Committee, and is unlikely to be cancelled by jail as were some of the Hollywood blacklisted, or to be the subject of an FBI dossier as were probably all of the Hollywood blacklisted.  Carano’s culture cancellation was a much gentler event than the destruction of lives and long term human damage caused in many cases by the Hollywood blacklist, and it was not initiated by the United States government, which purports to act on behalf of all of the American people.  Carano, unlike those on the Hollywood blacklist, is unlikely to be hurt for long by her recent shunning.  News reports already show that she has found new employment and support from those who perceive her to be on their side of the culture cancellation wars.  Carano herself says that she now feels “freer than ever.”

National Review’s Defense of Jonathan Chait’s Likening of Culture Cancellation to the Hollywood Blacklisting

In his recent article, It’s a Blacklist, Pure and Simple, in the National Review (NR), the magazine’s editor Rich Lowry seeks to give support to Jonathan Chait’s claim that culture cancellation of Hollywood actors is equivalent to the Hollywood blacklisting of the 40s and 50s.  Lowry allows, “We haven’t seen anything remotely like [the House Un-American Activities Committee’s (HUAC) issuance of subpoenas and jailing of uncooperative members of the Hollywood film industry] in this era (yet).”  But Lowry immediately follows this admission with the implausible and misleading statement that, like culture cancellation, the Hollywood blacklist was “in significant respects a private initiative.”  He cites a meeting of Hollywood studio executives where, Lowry says, film industry leaders worried about “fallout at the box office,” and decided on their own initiative not to employ communists or “other subversives.”  

In reality, if it was a “private initiative,” it was one that the film industry would probably not have undertaken had HUAC not already begun its public inquisition of alleged communists in Hollywood.  If the Hollywood blacklist was a “private” initiative, it was one encouraged by the HUAC’s unassailable powers of coercion and intimidation.

What Are National Review’s Real Feelings About Cancel Culture?

Below is discussion of some NR articles on Colin Kaepernick published since he provoked outrage in a certain cohort of Americans by not standing during the playing of the national anthem at NFL football games:

Article headline: Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem Protest Was Cowardly (Colin Kaepernick, Meet Henry Johnson)
Article date: August 29, 2016

Article summary: NR briefly tells the story of an African-American, Henry Johnson, who performed heroically in WWI, receiving from the French Army their second highest combat honor, but never a Purple Heart from his own country until 73 years after his death, even though he suffered 21 injuries in WWI combat.  Johnson was never properly acknowledged for his valor by his own country, America, until long after his death, when the belated acknowledgment of his war injuries and the memory of his bravery eventually earned a Purple Heart, a Distinguished Service Cross, and the Medal of Honor.

Key excerpt: “More than just time separates Johnson from Kaepernick. There is a vast gulf of character. Despite experiencing oppression that Kaepernick couldn’t imagine, Johnson enlisted to fight during his generation’s war. Despite his incredible physical prowess and our enemy’s direct attack on home soil, Kaepernick has chosen to sit out his generation’s conflict. He plays football instead.”

Analysis: Now that the African-American Henry Johnson is long dead, NR is using his example to claim that a living African-American, Colin Kaepernick, is a coward for not enlisting in the military to fight “his generation’s conflict,” but instead played professional football in the NFL.  (Does NR have sufficient self-awareness to realize that it is suggesting that millions of Americans, and most NFL players of whatever color lack character and are cowards because they did not enlist in the military to fight the so-called “war on terror”?)  The main implication of the article is that Kaepernick should not have remained seated or taken a knee to call attention to injustices that have prevailed for centuries--because to refuse to stand for the national anthem at an NFL football game is unpatriotic and disrespectful to America.  

Article headline: Colin Kaepernick–National Anthem Free Speech (Kaepernick Has a Right to Free Expression, and So Does Everyone Else)
Date: September 2, 2016

Key excerpt: “Then again, sometimes I wonder if people who defend the likes of Kaepernick on free-speech grounds understand that private organizations have a right to fire people who embarrass them or hurt their franchise. While Kaepernick has a right to tell us what’s on his mind, he has no inherent right to be a backup QB making over $100 million in the NFL.”

Analysis: Replacing Kaepernick’s name in the excerpt above with Gina Carano’s name highlights the hypocrisy of NR’s claim that it was a “blacklist, pure and simple,” that got Carano fired:

“Then again, sometimes I wonder if people who defend the likes of Gina Carano on free-speech grounds understand that private organizations have a right to fire people who embarrass them or hurt their franchise.  While Carano has a right to tell us what’s on her mind, she has no inherent right to be employed by Lucasfilm as an actor or to represented by the United Talent Agency.”

Article headline: Colin Kaepernick Nike Ad: Democrats Walk into Political Trap (The Party of Kaepernick)
Date: September 10, 2018

Key excerpts: “[Kaepernick believes] the misbehavior of a few police officers means the police in general should be reviled. And if we revile the police the entire American project is to be rebuked by protesting the anthem.”

“That Nike rolled out Colin Kaepernick as its new spokesman not only knocked a couple of billion dollars off the value of the company, it also amounts to an in-kind campaign contribution to the Republican party.”

“Keeping Kaepernick front and center in the national discourse is a bad move for a sneaker company, a bad move for the pundits and activists who cheered it, and a bad move for any Democratic office-seeker.”

Analysis: NR displaces Kaepernick’s public statements about his reason for not standing during the anthem with its own factually unsupported assessment that Kaepernick’s taking of a knee during the national anthem was for the purpose of promoting revilement of the police and rebuke of the entire American project.  On August 26, 2016, Kaepernick explained why he had recently begun sitting during the singing of the national anthem at his NFL games.  “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Article headline: Colin Kaepernick Culture Wars: Nike is Winning (Nike is Winning the Colin Kaepernick Wars)
Date: September 15, 2018

Key excerpts: “In our present, politicized age, we’re seeing two things happen at once. First, multiple major corporations have stripped away any pretense of neutrality and are now openly on the progressive side of American political debates. Second, the vast majority of those corporations have paid no meaningful price for their progressive activism. [Here, NR laments that major corporations have “paid no meaningful price for their progressive activism,” but did not lament that the NFL paid no meaningful price for white supremacist activism in its disposal of Colin Kaepernick, and its support of the largely white American antagonism toward Kaepernick’s taking of a knee during the anthem.  As noted above, just two years earlier NR had justified the NFL’s shunning response to Kaepernick’s knee-taking:  “Private organizations have a right to fire people who embarrass them or hurt their franchise.”]   

“Days after it announced a multi-million-dollar deal with Colin Kaepernick, prompting a minor stock dip and a torrent of stories detailing how foolish the company was to “alienate half its customer base,” its stock gained back all the losses and it was reported that its sales had actually “skyrocketed” in the days after it launched its campaign.”

Comment: Five days after claiming Nike and Democrats would pay a high price for supporting Colin Kaepernick, the NR publishes another article drawing a conclusion 180 degrees in opposition to the first article’s main findings.  

Article headline: Colin Kaepernick’s Stupid Lie About America
Article date: January 7, 2020

Key excerpts: “Obviously, no one will mistake Colin Kaepernick for an original thinker; he’s only repeating things he’s read or been told, in a slightly more lurid form.”

Kaepernick’s statement quoted in the article: “There is nothing new about American terrorist attacks against Black and Brown people for the expansion of American imperialism.”

Analysis: NR criticizes Kaepernick for the above-cited statement about the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, calling Kaepernick both stupid and a liar, but never makes a credible case to support its conclusory statement that Kaepernick is stupid and that the quoted Kaepernick statement is a lie.  

Article title: Colin Kaepernick and Madden NFL 21–Video Game Celebrates Controversial Athlete (Madden 21's Creepy Colin Kaepernick Coercion)
Article date: October 31, 2020

Key excerpts: “With its Kaepernick-specific grade inflation and ‘Who’s a good boy?’ pat on the head should you decide to bring him onto your squad, the game is not only failing in its most basic duty, which is to accurately update the league’s roster. It is also putting a thumb on the scale, not only for questions of silly in-game roster management, but for moral ones as well.”

“Madden’s developers would be wise to spend the next year putting together a quality product instead of overstating the abilities and virtue of Colin Kaepernick.”

This article, believe it or not, is a complaint that the makers of the world’s most popular NFL football video game have ruined the escapist fun and integrity of the Madden NFL video game by including Colin Kaepernick in their most recent version of the game.  Also, according to the author of this article, this inclusion of Kaepernick is “downright creepy” because the gamemakers have inflated Kaepernick’s football ability in their video version of NFL football.

Analysis: NR’s underlying motivation for this article appears to be outrage that Kaepernick was not sufficiently cancelled by the abrupt termination of his NFL career, because now Kaepernick’s football career has been resurrected in the most recent version of the most popular video version of the NFL game.

Summary: NR’s articles about Colin Kaepernick are often characterized by conclusory, ad hominem attacks and insinuations against Kaepernick.  Further, NR’s arguments in support of its hostility and obsession with Kaepernick are often inconsistent, sometimes contradictory and hypocritical, and often prominently feature appeals to emotion.  

Conclusion: NR’s pose that it is taking a principled stand against “cancel culture,” is not credible given its avid, years-long support of one of America’s best-known culture cancellations: Colin Kaepernick’s.

Josh Hawley’s Definition of Cancel Culture

According to Josh Hawley’s definition, cancel culture in action is for example when a politician has engaged in public political activity that many people on social media, in the mainstream media and on newspaper editorial boards in the politician’s home state publicly find egregious, and as a result of this public reaction the politician loses his book deal with Simon and Schuster.  In his January 24, 2021 op-ed in the New York Post, Hawley identifies cancel culture as the insidious project of an “alliance of leftists and woke capitalists [hoping] to regulate the innermost thoughts of every American, from school age to retirement.”  

Let’s look at Hawley’s claim.   Was Hawley’s claimed cancellation the result of leftists  and “woke capitalists” working together?  First, who are these leftists?  Is one of them John Danforth, former Republican US senator from Missouri who now laments that supporting Hawley’s 2018 run for the senate “was the worst mistake I ever made in my life.”?  Was it the editorial board of the Kansas City Star in Hawley’s red home state of Missouri, who said Hawley has “blood on his hands” for his role in the January 6, 2021 violence at the Capitol?  Is one of them Liz Cheney, third in the House Republican hierarchy, who said that Hawley’s plan to challenge the electoral college results would “set an exceptionally dangerous precedent”?  Is one of them former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan who said, “efforts to sow doubt about Joe Biden’s victory strike at the foundation of our republic”?  Is one of them Ben Sasse, Republican senator from Nebraska, who euphemistically dubbed Hawley’s actions “dumbass”?  

It seems that even if “leftists,” whomever Hawley thinks they are, are working in concert with “woke capitalists” to regulate his innermost thoughts, they were accompanied by prominent members of Hawley’s own party.  What about “woke capitalists”?  Was Simon and Schuster motivated by a woke desire to suppress Hawley’s politically incorrect thoughts, speech and actions?  The truth does not seem to be that, but instead a capitalist desire by Simon and Schuster to protect its bottom line.  According to the New York Times, Simon and Schuster’s contract with Hawley contained a “morals clause” (common in the publishing industry) which allows the publisher to back out of a contract when “the author does something that is likely to seriously damage sales.”  If Simon and Schuster is guilty of being woke, it is wokeness to the need to remain profitable.  And so it goes with most other cases of culture cancellation: the public complains, and profit-prioritizing corporations (e.g., Fox Corporation) respond expeditiously via cancellation to this endangerment of their profits.

Hawley’s definition of cancel culture does not withstand even brief analysis, which is not surprising given the exigent circumstances of the political emergency Hawley has placed himself in, and given the aversion to reason and science professional Republicans have acquired in the decades since Reagan, increasing over time and in direct proportion to the alienation from empirical political reality suffered by rank and file Republican voters.  The anti-intellectualism of professional Republicans and delusional political reality inhabited by the mass of Republican voters are causally related to each other in a positive feedback loop.  Professional Republicans had been pushing the hot buttons located in the ids of their voters--and successfully, profoundly deceiving their voters (and to an as yet undeterminable degree, themselves) for so long that Republican politicians have come to see cogent, coherent, intelligible, reasoned and persuasive argument as anathema to the monopoly on manipulative control they had come to enjoy over their own voters (until the advent of Trumpism, which is their own inadvertent Frankenstein creation.)  Alienated from political reality by this long period of uninterrupted conscienceless manipulation by the people they elected to public office (and by propagandists like Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.) Republican voters no longer even cock an ear for reasoned argument, but ask only to be told which news is fake and which real.

So, in a way, was Josh Hawley precluded from following a reasonable road to the presidency that will culminate in November 2024.  The lingua franca of the Republican party has become the extreme language of lies and propaganda.  What could an inexperienced but extremely ambitious young man like Hawley do in a situation like this except lie and propagandize in attempted imitation of the party’s idol, Donald J. Trump, and assume, reasonably, that the mass of Republican voters would not perceive that he was manipulating them for his own political advancement but to the detriment of the country he hopes one day to lead?  What better way to defend himself than by means of a claim that he is being persecuted by culture cancellation, even though he himself has just given moral support to the attempted cancellation of the results of a lawfully conducted presidential election, which, if it had been successful, would have cancelled the political and electoral participation of 80 million Americans. [Note to American “conservatives:”  Seeking to overturn presidential election results by means of mob action does not comport with conservative principles.]

Rupert Murdoch’s Recent Complaints About Cancel Culture

Rupert Murdoch, the man most responsible for Fox News’ 24/365 policy of lie-promotion and selective repugnance for the truth, publicly complained in January 2021 that cancel culture, “an awful woke orthodoxy,” constitutes  “a wave of censorship that seeks to silence conversation, to stifle debate, and ultimately stop individuals and societies from realizing their potential.”  (This sudden publicly expressed concern about people realizing their potential echoes the recently initiated public campaign by Charles Koch to explain that he is not an ogre but a nice man mostly concerned about people realizing their full potential.)  Rupert Murdoch, naturalized American citizen, and among those most responsible for the overhaul of America’s previous means of determining its public truths--is the bird flown from the Australian nest, where the bird had crapped, to the United Kingdom nest, where the bird had crapped, and lately alighted in the American nest, where the bird crapped all over everything and now has the audacity to complain to the birds who built the nest, “This mess is awful!  You should be ashamed of yourselves!”  

Why Don’t the Results of the Cancel Culture War Favor Professional Republicans?

If cancel culture’s results currently favored Murdoch’s side in the power struggle to determine America’s political future, there would be no acknowledgment from him that there was even such a thing as “cancel culture.”  Now, he is among those attempting to neutralize the other side in the cancel culture wars, echoing the chorus of the likes of Josh Hawley, with self-serving but obviously disingenuous complaints that the “Left” and “Wokeness” is the only home of cancel culture.  Clearly, as the discussion above has shown, this is false.  Hawley, NR, and Murdoch would love to culture cancel those they consider to be their enemies in the on-going power struggle to determine America’s future, but the current terms of cancel culture both Left and Right are not favorable to that endeavor.  

The “Left’s” cancel culture has adopted certain traditional American values, (traditional in the sense that these values have long been publicly proclaimed, not in the sense that these values are actually honored,) --e.g., tolerance, equal treatment under the law, and government as the servant of all the people, not just white people or rich people--that it feels comfortable proclaiming self-righteously because these values have long been honored as ideals in the American ethos, and are embodied in the Constitution.  Advocating for the transgendered, for example, while relatively new on the American political scene, is not conceptually new, since it readily falls into categorization under the American self-proclaimed value of equal treatment under the law, and government as servant of all the people.  The “woke Left”  has taken these constitutional, traditional values, applied them to new categories, that--being new and frightening signs to white evangelicals, white nationalists and white supremacists that the Christian white race’s cultural dominance is waning–are not congenial to the “unwoke Right.”

Kaepernick was culture cancelled under the guise of a concern about patriotism, and so his cancellation was effective, at least temporarily, but his cancellation for refusing to stand while the anthem was played would never have been successful if its true motivation had been forthrightly proclaimed: white outrage that a man of color had challenged white supremacist notions of America in what they feel to be their own cultural cathedrals: NFL stadiums.

There is a reason why for the last 40 years or so Republican politicians have had to use dog whistles when communicating to their voters about race and other issues related to tolerance and equality: The cultural tides had shifted such that no one, not even Republicans, believed it was possible to self-righteously proclaim the values of racism, intolerance and white supremacy.  Once, the dog whistles were not necessary because the values of white supremacy had so thoroughly suffused American culture, both North and South– that in general white Americans did not even notice it, and saw no call to proclaim it.  After the civil rights movement had successfully called the values of white supremacy into question, these values went underground.  The dog whistles came out, because although not something you could be publicly proud of, white supremacy remained a potent political power, eagerly exploited by professional Republicans, but it had to be done on the down low.

Now, the powerful, not entirely successfully concealed motor of the Republican party is constituted by values of intolerance toward anything that challenges the notions of white and Christian supremacy.  White supremacism is still not something to be publicly proud of in America, probably to the degree that it remains unconscious in many Republican voters, who for that reason still don’t understand the source of their own aggrievement.  That also explains why in general Republican voters are unable to persuasively articulate exactly why they view Donald Trump so favorably.  It also explains why in the cancel culture wars the “unwoke Right” is at a disadvantage.  They are unable to self-righteously proclaim their real cultural values.

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