Culture versus Cancel Culture?

I’ve been asked a number of times now to write something about the cancel culture, that Harper’s letter (do I need to say more?), and what it all means by certain left wing(ish) publications. People ask me, is it McCarthyism? Or, are the people who are criticizing cancel culture just protecting an unregulated marketplace of ideas in which they’re the deciders when it comes to what can and can’t be said in certain venues by trying to cancel those who might cancel them?

I’ve remained silent basically because the debate seems to hinge on ideas that I think are far from central in terms of what’s really at stake in our culture and in our politics at this time. Moreover, the language, the accusations, the ad hominem attacks are just so over the top, so inflammatory. I just don’t roll that way. To me, the problems we are facing are first and foremost historical problems and only secondarily people problems. The debate focuses too much on the people at the expense of critically teasing out this moment in history.

So, short of writing a full-blown essay on this subject for publication in a more public venue, this is what I have to say for now. First of all, the signers of that letter include friends of mine who I greatly admire. It also includes people whose intellectual labor I’ve benefited from. And it includes people I am somewhat cynical about. They are gatekeepers of an elite world of publishing that regularly cancels forms of expression that can’t easily be monetized because they don’t drive sales or page views. For instance, I’ve been told more than once by publishers that titles by Asian male authors don’t sell. There’s no real evidence for this, but based on a few examples, an idea has gained a foothold in the publishing world that makes it more difficult for Asian men to have their writings published. It’s arbitrary, racial, and, de facto, censorious.

About 7 or 8 years ago, ChangeLab did a survey of cable news outlets and the major network news programs to test our hypothesis that Asian Americans are largely ignored in the media. We expected to find that there were fewer stories about Asian America in the news than there are about other groups. What we found instead was that there was almost no mention of Asian Americans ever, and to the extent we were mentioned we were miscast as model minorities or conservative voters. And Native Americans had it worse. There were no mentions of Native Americans in the period we studied except in relation to the Violence Against Women Act, and those stories were mainly framed in a way that vilified Republicans. So Native Americans were objectified and turned into clubs with which to beat up conservatives.

These absences are based on editorial decisions most viewers never notice. Why? When you’re in power, you don’t need to make a public fuss for your opinions to shape the cultural landscape. You just decide, quietly and privately, to exclude certain views in compliance with your personal opinions or financial pressures. So maybe people with real influence don’t appear to be wagging their fingers at others in public, but they are having an even more powerful effect in deciding who gets hired, why, and what they will report on in the news or what will be published and sold in bookstores and offered for loan in libraries.

Damn, right!?

But that doesn’t mean that calling for academic freedom and freedom of the press isn’t a good thing. When people we disagree with do good things, we might now and then consider applauding them for it. You know, a little carrot to go with the stick? Even if it may not do much in the world, it’s good for the soul to acknowledge common cause and the humanity of those with whom we often disagree, not to mention good for history, keeping in mind that this problem of who gets heard and who doesn’t is more a historical problem than a people problem. Anyway, I can say for myself that I’ve been on the wrong side of so many issues over the years that my survival as an activist has required me to learn to forgive myself and mean it. If I can forgive myself, who am I to withhold the possibility of redemption to others?

But, there’s more. There’s the accusation that the cancel culture is McCarthyism. Sigh. That’s just a failure to understand McCarthyism. McCarthy wasn’t just some guy with a bunch of nasty opinions about people sitting behind a home computer lashing out. The cancel culture warriors have nothing on McCarthy whose anti-communist populism resulted in the deaths of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and the ruination of countless careers and lives of his perceived enemies. To compare the cancel culture to McCarthy is inflammatory and distorts history. McCarthy got thousands of people fired or blackballed in their professions.

But, here’s the thing that keeps me coming back to this subject. It’s my concern about authoritarianism. I think that authoritarianism is an impulse that’s supercharged by anxiety, and we live in anxious times making vigilance against authoritarian impulses super important. But authoritarianism doesn’t just arbitrarily take whatever form is popular at any given moment. It is historically informed and socially constructed.

To me, the particular piece of history that most informs the authoritarian impulses that are afoot right now on the left and right is that of the campaigns of vilification and fear mongering that led to mass incarceration. The tough on crime campaigns of Richard Nixon, Reagan’s drug war, Clinton’s battle against super-predators, and all that was made legible in the spaces between – welfare queens gaming the system and stealing our posterity, sexual predators preying on children via Satanic cults, gay males who build the gay community by recruiting kids via sexual molestation, and so on – all rely on one thing. They all rely on demonization, which we are very prone to because of nationalism which is, itself, always fundamentally xenophobic, whether or not xenophobia is what most characterizes the geopolitical posture of any given nation at any given time, making some of what we’re witnessing as people are reduced to what might well be the worst thing they’ve ever done really an articulation of a xenophobic impulse, making it also kinda racist, you get me? I don’t mean racist like hurt your feelings racist b.s. I mean that it fits very nicely in the racial worldview, which in turn makes thinking in those terms seem natural.

We have internalized the idea that predators are all around us, that the best way to protect ourselves against them is to demonize them because demons are not human and therefore require no human consideration, deserve no due process, should, in fact, not be protected by the law. In fact, we seem to have convinced ourselves that when a demon is in front of us, laws that protect people should be ignored, compassion is a weakness, care and consideration are a waste of time.

So instead we reach for retributive rather than restorative justice, in fact reify justice as retribution toward individuals and as a magical salve that can heal all wounds. And we lash out. That’s what I don’t like about the cancel culture. It suggests that some of us are in a position to be judges because of our victimization, which in turn suggests that one is either a victim or a perpetrator. That is almost never true, and legitimates a way of dealing with wrong doing that makes retribution the only logical path to resolution.

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