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“Cancel Culture” Panic Is Hilarious

“Cancel Culture” Panic Is Hilarious

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.


  1. On a slight tangent, but about a previous topic:
    Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, AL are attempting to unionize. One of their supporters: Marco Rubio.

    Sure, part of why he’s doing it is because Amazon is a blue company and it’s a nice way of sticking it to the owner of WaPo who keeps running bad stories about him and his party. But part is Rubio trying to refashion himself a conservative populist. Bernie’s economic platform with Trump’s social platform. And around the world today, the most explosive platform is just that: economic populism combined with racism. The idea is, you can’t have a welfare state with open borders. The benefits of populism have to be limited to some group of people or the system goes bankrupt. So keep the Blacks / Muslims / gays / women out of it, and it means more money available to be spent on “us”.

  2. Is anyone else feeling a little slack-jawed at how our politics have done a full 180 virtually overnight? Seriously, it hasn’t even been 2 months since That Orange Guy was trying to overturn the Republic, and now Democrats are a model of political competence that just passed a premier anti-poverty program with a basic income for parents with children (with literally not a single vote’s worth of error to spare in the Senate).

    That’d be enough for any administration, but not only are Dems moving forward with a massive infrastructure package next, they look to be on the cusp of nuking the filibuster (or close enough, anyways) and passing a *truly* transformative agenda the likes of which we haven’t seen since FDR; and Republicans are responding with… Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head? Are they not even going to put up the pretense of a fight here? Really?

    Perhaps they get their act together and start acting like their brains haven’t turned completely into slop, but on the other hand… maybe this time really is different. Without the Dear Leader as a unifying force, every underlying fault in Republican politics is threatening an earthquake: disparate factions without any guiding light save for crass, self-serving political survival at any cost; self-interested asshats like Cruz, Hawley, Cotton and others trying to stake out a spot as heir apparent to Trumpism; increasingly influential conspiracy nutjobs like MTG and Boebert sucking the oxygen out of the room at any given moment, etc, etc.

    Just astounding how much things have changed so quickly. Like we’re living in an entirely different world.

    1. I am absolutely delighted to see maturity and competence. But my delight is tempered by remembering how razor thin the Dem’s margin is, and that a lot of people don’t seem to care that the GOP offers no valid opposing views, only culture war caterwauling and childish theatrics.

      Take what happened last month in TX. Rick Perry blurted out the GOP’s true priorities- that keeping filthy regulations away from TX’s wonderful independent power grid is what matters, and they are quite willing to risk their constituents suffering, taking major losses in property damage, and even dying if that’s what it takes.

      I have zero confidence in the current TX government reforming the grid to remove the disincentives to weatherize and have reserve generating capacity for emergencies. I do expect they’ll throw the masses a bone in forbidding the worst of the price gouging. Not that I am against that, but rather I think doing just that kicks the can down the road until the next emergency, which will happen, and probably sooner than 10 years from now. They are welcome to prove me wrong, but the fact that one of Greg Abbott’s first responses was to go on Fox News and falsely lay the bulk of the blame on wind generation does not inspire my confidence.

      Once upon a time I would have been confident that a purge of failed politicians was coming in the next election. But in recent times I’ve seen too many examples of people choosing tribalism over their own well being. So unfortunately the TX GOP has a chance to escape the consequences they deserve.

      1. Fly, I share your concern that GOP officials will escape the consequences of their bad decisions.

        In my minuscule patch of the D party, there is ongoing training, organizational zoom meetings, social media posts to other Ds, etc — a fair level of activity considering we’re not in active campaign mode at the moment.

        What I don’t see happening is communications strategies, turning the really bad impacts of R decision-making into relatable, repeatable stories that can be told when going door to door.

        In Texas, R decisions led to the death of Texans. We should have a thought-out way to deal with that, to communicate that.

    2. I think we shouldn’t relax yet or take it for granted. It’s a tiny margin. I reckon county and state government all over the country welcome the $s while continuing to beat their red drums. It’s true in Texas.

      R friends are moving from the city’s hipster heights to a tony suburb because it will be safer there when the civil unrest gets going.

      The pandemic has made many of the formerly indifferent to the plight of others actually into “others” — those who need some help from the big, bad government. When their fortunes recover, will they still feel the same?

      Everything feels weird and unpredictable.

    3. Ryan, the Dem’s aka the loser party, are dancing the boogie-woogie over all these changes (for the good, mind you) while the fascists grin and say “morons…”. The fascists are playing the long game. They know in 2 years, with all the new voter suppression laws at the STATE level, they will take back the House and Senate. Then they will impeach Biden, just because they can, while stymieing anything else that the Dem’s have planned.

      Then they take the presidency back in 2024, and it is lights out democracy. I had hoped, like Chris had suggested, that the fascists would continue the attacks post Jan 6th. Maybe then Biden would have brought the hammer down, arresting 10’s of thousands of the fascist leadership, executing as many as possible. That might have tamped down the madness for another generation. Sound horrible, and the very thing that democracy does not do? Yup. But it is the only way to preserve it.

      Biden won because of 2 things: A more open voting system than one that exists a scant 4 months later, and a death cult leader that ignored a virus that terrified most people. (I have stated before where I stand on that hysteria). The death cult leader will likely be back, the voting system will be more restrictive, and voters are sheep with a very short memory. Of the 81 million that voted Blue, how many won’t bother to vote, or be disallowed to vote, compared to the 75 million in the death cult?

      The loser party does not have the guts to do what is necessary. Not a single leader in the House, Senate, or Oval Office has been arrested for sedition. You think that is going to change when Garland gets up to speed?

      1. If Dems hadn’t taken the Senate and Republicans had free reign to do whatever they wanted in advance of ’22, I might be of a similar mind. In all honesty, I was pretty down in the dumps immediately after Election Night; Biden was clearly going to win, but it looked like McConnell had won too – but the splendid people of Georgia gave reason for hope again.

        Democrats, much to the consternation of the media, aren’t being naïve about this. They know the fight for the filibuster’s coming as soon as HR1 and the John Lewis Act get blocked in the Senate – and they know just how important passing both of them is. And to anyone who thinks Manchin and/or Sinema is an implacable NO on effectively nuking the filibuster, this thread gives a robust argument why that isn’t true:

        So let’s save the pessimism for if and/or when Dems fail to pass these measures.

        Also, for argument’s sake, if anyone’s thinking “wElL eVeN iF tHeY pAsS tHeM sCoTuS wIll JuSt tOsS iT aLl OuT sO wHaT’s ThE pOiNt?”, the Constitution is not ambiguous as to Congress’ authority on the matter:

        “The times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations, except as to the places of choosing Senators.” [Article I, section 4]

  3. Relevant to this post is the recent departure of Beth Moore from the Southern Baptist Association. Turns out Beth could accept subjugating her fame, sharing her copious book royalties, and even toe the line with the SB male leadership about women’s role in the SB world. What she could not do was accept or laud one DJT, as demanded. She called “BS” and walked away. Bravo. She dared to tell the truth in an organization that was built upon lies.

  4. First, I seriously doubt most people understand (or agree) on “what” cancel culture means.

    I have to agree with Aaron about “intent”. Those Capitol insurrectionists who took selfies while breaking and entering the Capitol violated their right for free speech protection by virtue of the choice they willingly made when they stepped into the building. If the debate is whether an individual should be castigated or charged for photos and verbiage voluntarily posted on websites of their participation in insurrection, I believe they should be held accountable.

    To wit, I find it very difficult to assign any legitimacy to the continual talking points spewing from the mouths of republicans. Words are props. Insults. And, I am convinced that very few of them could provide a coherent definition for “cancel culture “ if pressed to do so.

  5. The LWNJs must be feeling neglected, because they’ve started their own little tempest in a teapot over Pepe Le Pew:

    (Dave Chappell clip lol funny of course but also NSFW).

    I figure if anyone has the right to be offended, it’s French people who are first in line.

    I watched one of the newly controversial Muppet Show episodes last week. It had a throwaway line about the Chinese language sounding like gibberish, and an Italian human cannonball act sketch that exaggerated the accents in the manner of the aforementioned skunk cartoons. If I had written the disclaimer it would have said “This show is from the 70s. Some of the jokes have aged poorly. See if you can spot them all!”

    1. As per my comment below:

      If there was justice in our system such that people like Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump were dependably imprisoned for gross sexual assault, we could then lean on a sense of logical justice to say, “Pepe Le Pew is a cartoon. Of course in real life that behavior would result in him being jailed for sexual assault, the same way an ACME product blowing up in Wile E. Coyote’s face would actually kill him rather than ash up his face.”

      But they don’t. And so the moonbats target the _culture of rape_ rather than the committing of it, because one reason why these guys get let free is because they can point to characters like Pepe Le Pew and say, despite it being a cartoon about a skunk mistaking a cat for a mate, “See it’s what guys do, it’s all in good fun.”

      Pepe Le Pew is my sister’s favorite cartoon character and I’d love to save him from the cutting room floor of animation history. I don’t think the way to do that is to fight the people calling for his cancelling, but to make sure people like Weinstein, Trump, and Cuomo are on the cutting room floor of political history instead.

      Pick your battles. In the end it’s just a cartoon skunk.

      1. I find the objections based in protesting “rape culture” to be odd because:

        1) It’s quite obvious that the lady cat is rejecting Pepe’s advances and there’s no insinuating that she was “asking for it”.

        2) Pepe is very much the butt of all the jokes.

        3) Pepe is technically the villain, and villains do bad things. This being a children’s cartoon, we’re not talking Game of Thrones level villainy, but he’s going to act bad. Now in this case Pepe always loses in the end. So the most likely lesson that someone would get from that is that you won’t be a hit with the ladies acting like that.

        There’s also been a little side pearl clutching over Speedy Gonzalez, but as far as I can tell, not from any people who are Mexican. But unlike Pepe, Speedy is the hero and he always wins.

        Bobo, “Hypocrisy Olympics” is a perfect phrase. Seems to be the most popular sport these days.

      2. Well, lets see:

        Chuck Lorre should be erased from history as well as all the monster hit shows he created. How many times did Charlie Sheen’s character act horribly towards women?

        And who can forget the horrifying moment when drunk Penny came over from her Halloween party and sexually assaulted Leonard? Big Bang Theory should be stricken from all history.

        Naturally, the entire House series must be removed given how many times Hugh Laurie’s char made sexually harassing remarks to Jennifer Morrison and the smoking hot Lisa Edelstein’s character? I believe House in at least one episode grabbed her glorious buttocks without her permission. And the dream sequence when she dressed up as a school girl stripper. On the levels of snuff films……

        I cannot even begin to fathom how many classic movies from the 1930’s to the 2000’s depicted some form of sexual contact deemed life-cancelling today.

        This is a slippery slope, gaining momentum.

        Don’t even get me started on Tropic Thunder. ‘Never go full retard”, you woke idiots.

  6. Chris, you are completely, utterly wrong on this. Cancel culture does exist. It has had massive impact. Extremists at both ends of the spectrum are more than happy to use it. The racists used it for decades or centuries. The only difference is much of the mainstream somehow buys into the notion that when a bunch of teens and twenty-something brats do it via Twitter, it is somehow OK.

    Mao and Stalin would be quite proud of these kids who have zero sense of history. But I guess it racist to teach about China’s cultural revolution and Stalin’s efforts in school now.

  7. You’re one of the only people who’s pointing out the “default” cancel culture we’ve always had. And I agree that right-wing panic over cancel culture is pretty hypocritical. But that doesn’t make it wrong.

    It was wrong for the Moral Majority to attack and seek to cancel black rappers, depictions of gay people as anything besides sexual deviants, and so on. It’s equally wrong when the previously cancelled cultures now seek to cancel a culture they don’t like.

    Yes, I find the whole pearl clutching over Dr. Seuss amusing: if the Dr. Seuss Foundation has decided that those 6 books no longer reflect their values and willingly decide to stop publishing them, then that’s fine. That’s their right. Even if they were convinced to do so due to threats of boycotts and protests, then, well, that’s political engagement in action, changing the calculus of their decisionmaking.

    But if someone is actively silenced as a result of their views, that’s a different matter. FWIW, I’ve been vehemently against firing people because they participated in white supremacist rallies. Or firing people based on problematic facebook postings. Unless they’re expressing those views to the company’s customers, or creating a hostile work environment in the office, then a company should not police what people do outside of work. Just because companies did it in the past doesn’t mean it’s okay to do it now, just because the values they’re promoting happen to be ones we agree with. I understand it’s legal, that the constitution doesn’t guarantee you anything from your employer. But it’s not right, and frankly, we should change those laws just like we did to outlaw discrimination based on other aspects of a person’s life.

    If a person can be fired because they post an instagram picture of them participating in a Proud Boys rally, then don’t be surprised when a woman is fired for posting a risque picture from spring break.

    1. “FWIW, I’ve been vehemently against firing people because they participated in white supremacist rallies. […] Unless they’re expressing those views to the company’s customers, or creating a hostile work environment in the office, then a company should not police what people do outside of work.”

      The argument from the other side is that white supremicism IS a hostile work environment.

      I don’t know where I stand on this. Should a person get fired for expressing communist views outside of work, esp. since communism calls for the end of ownership by the managers?

      I would generally be of the belief that conflict arises at work between people’s beliefs and intentions, then you should better hire a quality HR department to mediate the conflict and draw boundaries between what can and cannot be expressed in the work environment. The argument I’m seeing from the left that’s making me reconsider, is the fact that historically even the best attempts to mediate in that sort of fashion seems to magically result in the communists getting fired, but rarely the white supremacists. It seems to magically find a gay man expressing his viewpoints to be breaking agreed boundaries, but not straight men expressing their discomfort about the gay man.

      If our system was set up to appropriately bring people to equal levels of engagement, then I’d be a strong voice against cancelling of any type. But the magical ability of ‘justice’ to somehow continually cancel black lives and never the careers of the extrajudicial executors that slayed them indicates that we’ve never really not had a cancel culture, and really only the reins are shifting.

      1. “The argument from the other side is that white supremicism IS a hostile work environment.”

        But that argument is false. We don’t have a thought police. What you think in your head is completely your own domain *unless* it gets turned into outward action. You might want to murder your boss, and consider him an idiot. But as long as you say “Yes sir” and do what he asks of you, he can’t fire you for not doing your job.

        If a white supremacist has a noose at his desk next to pictures of his kids, then yes, that creates a hostile work environment. If he uses offensive terms to refer to minority customers, then that’s grounds for firing. Or if he’s found to not promote competent underlings due to their religion, then that’s grounds for firing. But if that white supremacist treats his co-workers and customers respectfully, follows proper HR guidelines in terms of hiring / firing / personnel evaluations / etc, and does his work competently, then his employer shouldn’t care if he wears white sheets with his buddies on the weekend. No one has to be friends with him or invite him over for beers after work. But they shouldn’t fire him.

        This wasn’t such a big issue in the age before social media when your employer simply had no way of knowing what you did outside of work. And certainly didn’t know what you did 5 years ago during your drunken college days. But now that the internet preserves every moment of your life from the time your mother posts a picture of you an hour after being born, this has become a big issue.

        I get what you’re saying, that the ways to judge “appropriate” behavior always seemed stacked against minority opinions. It’s true that, for example, a bunch of guys at the water cooler talking about getting drunk and hooking up with chicks over the weekend is usually deemed fine, while gay men talking about getting drunk and hooking up with dudes can be considered “making other people feel uncomfortable”.

        But this is changing. Almost to the point of extremes, HR does not take kindly to anyone talking about *anything* they did over the weekend. And I would agree with that. The best way to not pick sides is to banish it all. That might make the workplace a little less friendly, but we’re in a transition, and until we settle on agreed-upon standards (which may never happen), it’s probably the best option. And people these days *are* more mindful, at least to avoid saying things that might upset or distress their co-workers. Sure, they might still think those thoughts, but they know to keep their mouth shut and just do their work.

        So where you see nothing changing, I see at least some progress (maybe I’m blinkered :-). I watched Coming To America the sequel the other day, and it struck me that the first movie could probably not have been made today. Sure, Eddie Murphy’s humor has always been offensive, but it was allowed. The second movie is almost a satire about how out-of-date the first movie was. I’ve had this feeling watching a lot of old movies. Even not-that-old TV shows like Friends seem jarringly out of date, with their casual homophobia and Joey’s blatant denigrating of women. I’m not offended, and I’m not seeking to cancel Friends. But it does indicate to me how much the culture is shifting, in a good way.

        This hasn’t yet changed all of the power structures, true. But the ground is shifting. Cultural changes usually predate changes to the powers that be, and these days, the power structures are feeling it. Now that Biden is in power, I expect he will do something about police departments. One of Obama’s quiet accomplishments was police reforms, sometimes under the gun of Justice dept. investigations and Federal consent decrees. It wasn’t finished, and unfortunately, Trump turned a lot of back. But I expect that to change. Even many mayors are tiring of paying out millions for misbehaving and criminal cops, and are calling them out with language and actions that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. It’s not fast enough, but there has been progress.

      2. “But if that white supremacist treats his co-workers and customers respectfully, follows proper HR guidelines in terms of hiring / firing / personnel evaluations / etc, and does his work competently, then his employer shouldn’t care if he wears white sheets with his buddies on the weekend. No one has to be friends with him or invite him over for beers after work. But they shouldn’t fire him.”

        I disagree. If someone puts on an act during business hours but when they get off work they’re a white supremacist, and people know about that either due to their social media postings or whatever, then they don’t deserve to have that job. There’s no outward action in the workplace, but there’s outward action outside the workplace, and I’d argue that it’s a good thing when white supremacists don’t get paychecks that get them money and resources that let them harass and hurt people with their buddies on the weekends.

  8. “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.”

    I doubt there are many instances where a pretty kind individual made a bad joke and lost their career. There’s probably other habits or behaviors that lead to the bad joke losing them their career.

    1. This tear-jerking story of cancel-culture run amok, churned out by cancel culture fetishist Yascha Mounk, remains my all-time favorite.

      He spins out this whole story about an earnest working man fired over a misunderstanding without talking to a single witness, reviewing the company’s extensive investigation of the matter, or wasting a single digital character of critical assessment. He buries the lede at the end of the piece, where the company explains to him, “Multiple factors led to the decision to terminate.” In other words, it wasn’t about this “misunderstanding.” What effort did he make to discover these other reasons? Zero. That would have ruined a fine narrative.

  9. Good essay. I am have libertarian tendencies in regard to social issues. You are right about knowledge workers. I know my employers bent backwards to keep me happy. Most of us will not work willingly for a company with regressive policies.

    We are in for major technological disruptions. If you cannot adapt and create you will be left behind. The path to politically isolate the regressive politics of the current GOP is plain to me. Bring in D.C. an Puerto Rico into statehood and get the interstate compact done. That will happen I think eventually.

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