Not very long ago, you couldn’t produce a film, TV show, album, book or magazine in this country if it contained content that upset white prudes. TV spouses slept in separate twin beds to avoid the suggestion that sex exists. There was no such thing as homosexuality in American mass culture. Hearing Republicans unironically moan about “free speech” is galling. As in some backwater Islamic Caliphate, mass artistic content in the US had to pass the wary eye America’s religious mullahs until just a few years ago and Republicans loved it.
Violators of America’s speech rules didn’t just lose their platforms. Lenny Bruce was repeatedly arrested for nothing more serious than speaking unapproved words. The Reagan Administration assembled an entire unit at the US Justice Department to harass the makers of “sexually explicit” content. As recently as 2005, Walmart had to issue a settlement in a lawsuit filed by religious prudes who claimed that an album their teenager purchased there included an unapproved word.
Speech guardians coerced record labels to censor music they disliked and produce alternative versions of songs to meet their content requirements. Evangelicals began forcing merchants to put warning labels on music starting with Prince’s Purple Rain. In 1986, white evangelicals forced 7/11 to cancel an entire, very lucrative genre of magazines because those magazines didn’t comport with their religious preferences. At the peak of white evangelical power there were armies of bored prudes scouring every minute of American mass entertainment for expressions that challenged Christian Nationalism.
Then something changed.
In 1997, the Southern Baptist Convention went to war with Disney over gay rights and lost. Badly. Decisively.
If you want to know how admirable citizen advocacy became the dangerous censorship of “cancel culture,” white Republicans’ failed Disney boycott is a good start. What right-wing religious nuts discovered in their fight with Disney was that they no longer mattered, and that was terrifying. Decades into the emergence of knowledge capitalism, there was more money to be made in America mocking Republicans than courting them. Just a decade and a half later, a proposed Southern Baptist boycott of Starbucks over health care for same sex couples was a tempest in a latte, a joke to the wider culture.
Republicans are screaming about cancel culture because in a free marketplace of ideas, their ideas aren’t selling. Mythologies follow power. In knowledge capitalism, insular ideologies are a recipe for economic decline. Science, inquiry, skepticism and unbounded imagination are a path to innovation, which is now a path to wealth. None of those values can be tolerated inside white evangelicalism, the official religion of white supremacy. Americans with the strongest emotional attachment to America’s white supremacist mythology have sunk into market irrelevance.
What Americans consider “funny” or “entertaining” or “admirable,” the palette of expression that reflects their values, has changed. This is not because Americans have changed. Our ecosystem of cultural reward and rejection has shifted because wealth and power have shifted. Diverse cities are rising while the white countryside is literally dying. College educated families have seen their wealth explode while the fortunes of the less educated have lagged. White evangelical Protestants are a shrinking share of the population, and a much more rapidly shrinking share of the nation’s new money. Aging Protestant white men no longer hold a financial veto power over cultural content. Values now testing their muscle are not new, they were merely marginalized in the past.
Interestingly, Republicans aren’t the only ones complaining about an imaginary “cancel culture.” Almost anyone who has accumulated capital in a mass publishing or entertainment setting has some reason to be unnerved when the landscape of the marketplace shifts. Forms of cultural expression that would have gone unremarked on, or even lavished with reward a few years ago can now sink a career. These changes are happening fast enough to make it difficult for these platform investors to keep pace. Anyone holding incumbent capital in this marketplace has some reason to resist changes that might undermine the value of their investments. That’s no good reason to block the emergence of new market preferences. Fight the emergence of this new, more diverse and inclusive American cultural mythology, and you will get rolled.
Complaints about the excesses of “cancel culture” are studded with sloppy anecdotes of innocent students who said the wrong thing or employees who lost a job over an ill-formed joke. Large scale change, like earthquakes, can cause damage, but in almost every instance these cancel culture casualties are overblown, hyped to provide some cushion of latitude for major platform holders scrambling to preserve their hard-won capital. Until the Supreme Court outlawed the practice in 2020, people were still losing their jobs just for being gay. Not one of the Republicans hoarding Dr. Seuss books this weekend gave a damn when Colin Kaepernick was banned from an entire industry. Virtually none of the people screeching about cancel culture have an ounce of concern for freedom of speech. They are scrambling to insulate themselves, and their investments, from change.
We’re not hearing about cancel culture because it’s an authentic social issue with genuine negative implications for the public. We’re hearing about cancel culture because it reflects a shift in market tastes that threatens the accumulated capital of some influential people. It’s a phony problem.