This column is the second in a two-part series. Read “’Cancel culture’ apologists have it all backward, Part I” here.
As I’ve written previously, cancel culture is not neutral or innocuous or inevitable; it is political, rightfully seen as dangerous by many people and potentially reversible, but its apologists are desperate that this not come to pass. The justification for it is the same forwarded by the defenders of every revolution: that you need to crack a few eggs to make an omelette, the end justifies the means, and so on.
But what of those few unfortunate eggs? Writes Osita Nwanevu for the New Republic:
Social media activism and commentary occasionally tips into overzealotry. But stray instances of identity political criticisms going overboard are not evidence that the culture as a whole has or that those who dissent from progressive consensus will soon find themselves sent to the gulag. By any reasonable standard, this is the greatest period for free expression in the history of mankind. Ours is a golden age—by comparison to an era, within living memory, that saw intense legal and political battles over censorship—of the American public not being offended by things.
Is that so? That era was working to remove legal and political barriers to liberal expression. Its products are everywhere in our thoroughly desacralized, vulgarized culture. It is true that Americans today are not as uptight as they might once have been, but it’s not about what they think, is it?
That America no longer lives with oppressive obscenity laws does not entail that we are living in some “golden age” of free speech. The equivalent of the people whose morals entrapped Lenny Bruce are the kinds of people who staff our Big Tech corporations, our universities, the casts of painfully unfunny comedy shows, and the nation’s most prestigious newspapers.
Though these elites lack the power — at least now — to throw dissenters in prison, much of their morality is already enshrined in positive law — no-fault divorce, abortion, gay marriage, affirmative action, etc. — and that which is not is enforced, constantly, as the new norm that all must follow in polite society. Not to obey their social scripts can come with ruinous consequences.
That millions of people don’t like this state of affairs doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The true effects of cancel culture cannot be fully known, because cancel culture works by getting people to cancel their own thoughts.
How many people would lose jobs, friends, connections, if they said things that they really felt, but which are now considered taboo by the brahmins of liberalism? Of course, we can only work with what we know. But we do know that millions of people in this country find liberalism to be suffocating.
There is a reason why cancel culture is so contentious, and it’s eminently simple: it is not the product of a consensus. Cancel culture rests on a mystique that all decent people now agree that “X” is offensive. This mystique gives cancel culture a moral authority and sense of inevitability: the canceled are just late-comers to moral lessons that everyone should have learned by now.
It is a testament to the power of the elites that their targets, when identified, know exactly what script to follow. Like the victims of Soviet show trials, the target usually offers some ritual contrition in the sense that they didn’t realize that X was a sin, but they do now, and they’re deeply sorry.
To contend that Dave Chappelle is not, as Lenny Bruce once did, now rustling the complacencies of our time is absolutely ludicrous. If it is familiar, it is not safe to make jokes about transgender, gay, or Chinese people. Neither is Chappelle’s joke about being born in a Chinese man’s body banal; it’s the kind of thing that’s always funny because it is a delightfully absurd situation.
All great comedians have the talent, the need of exposing absurdity. One must ask how Chappelle could be asked not to attack the fatuous pretenses of our liberal elites, who demand that people embrace plain absurdities that multiply from day to day. Their self-seriousness practically demands mockery.
But as the apologists see it, this state of affairs is precisely backward; America is still in the grip of a dangerously reactionary culture. The repressive Christian society that persecuted Lenny Bruce still has power, “homophobia” is a rampant problem, and other “marginalized” groups do not receive enough representation.
But is this really the case? We live in a time when mass media, Fortune 500 companies, universities, and public education have whole-heartedly embraced feminism, racial justice, LGBT rights, and the whole spectrum of diversity politics. Is it really true that we do not hear enough about these causes? And what happens to those who do not celebrate them?
LGBT people now have an entire month dedicated to ecstatic, compulsory observance of their movement. The breathless advance of acceptance of gay marriage and LGBT rights over the last decade is somehow dismissed, and bigotry against LGBT people is imagined to still be an epidemic problem in America. This is a common thread in all of progressive politics: the left’s grievances are belied by their absolute cultural hegemony.
The elites who craft the norms and moral sensibilities that all people must follow invariably privilege the erstwhile “oppressed,” to the disfavor of the erstwhile hegemons. Still, they insist on chasing phantoms of bourgeois oppression, as Christopher Lasch put it in his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism:
Many radicals still direct their indignation against the authoritarian family, repressive sexual morality, literary censorship, the work ethic, and other foundations of bourgeois order that have been weakened or destroyed by advanced capitalism itself.
What’s left of the old order? For the left, it’s a problem of too much that has not yet been destroyed. They are anxious about that which is not presently under their control. Therefore, there is large public resistance to political correctness that somehow evinces a lack of power on the part of cancel culture.
Never mind that a large swathe of the public is enjoined, against its will, to shut up. That the right is feebly attempting to reverse this state of affairs somehow proves that cancel culture is no threat, Nwanevu seems to think:
The critics of cancel culture are plainly threatened not by a new and uniquely powerful kind of public criticism but by a new set of critics: young progressives, including many minorities and women who, largely through social media, have obtained a seat at the table where matters of justice and etiquette are debated and are banging it loudly to make up for lost time. The fact that jabs against cancel culture are typically jabs leftward, even as conservatives work diligently to cancel academics, activists, and companies they disfavor in both tweets and legislation, underscores this.
By the same token, opposition to identity politics is popular and has the sanction of “a broad constellation of publications and outlets, and political figures—including the sitting president of the United States—who happen to hold most of the political power in this country.”
Political power, yes. But what about culture power? Morality in our time is mere fashion, and these fashions come from the secular clergy that controls late-night entertainment, academia, and the mass media. Their ideas may be unpopular, but people still risk pariah-hood when they run afoul of their rules.
The efforts of the right to fight Big Tech and “PC” censorship have, so far, been largely fruitless because the right has virtually no cultural authority. If America was once dominated by Christian morals, it has since veered so far in the other direction that liberalism has become equally uptight, and just as boring.
We now live in a thoroughly pornified world. Everything that used to be edgy is safe and lame: somehow, joking about Jesus, sex, bodily fluids, and patriotism is still common fare, but such topics have lost their bite.
Liberalism has lost much of its creativity, and has grown ossified, dull, authoritarian, and finally, boring. In the creative world, liberalism largely manifests in finding new rules to punish people and new ways to express historical resentments. The liberalism that railed against the old Christian morality has become a new moralism, with its own priggish, illiberal conscience.
What is this “fresh material” we are being deprived of, anyway? Certainly not the kind being provided by today’s progressive comedians? If comics like Dave Chappelle are not the heirs of Lenny Bruce, then who could they possibly be — the woke moralists wagging their fingers at the audience? Liberal comedy has become a kind of progressive Sunday School where anger, not levity, is the prevailing emotion.
NBC has a new late-night show, A Little Late with Lily Singh, that is already being hailed by critics as groundbreaking. Not, mind, because it is funny, but because the host happens to be the first bisexual woman of color to host a late-night show. Notice how the audience applauds, rather than laughs, at the mean-spirited, tiresome jabs at the usual villains of progressivism.
The awful tedium of woke comedy is by design. Comedy, as the cancelers see it, is primarily about moral indoctrination. Whether it’s actually funny is secondary. There is pretty much one joke: X thing or person is racist or, for some other reason, bad. The audience is then invited to laugh and make fun of X, and everyone gets their jollies, mindful of their moral superiority to poor, ignorant X. More importantly, everyone is reminded to never, ever, under any circumstances, end up like X.
The comparisons to the Soviets are warranted. Let’s not kid ourselves: there’s nothing remotely rebellious about journalists harassing random people over racist tweets or comedians bashing white people from inside of a studio. It’s tiresome, safe, and completely supported by the status quo.
But what makes cancel culture apologists so certain that they won’t be canceled? What’s stopping them from thinking that one day, they might wake up and find the mob coming for them? It must be the reassurance that their progressive values mark them as safe. Their demonstrations of loyalty to the party will protect them. But is this not a tacit recognition that leftism is dominant, and that defending cancel culture is siding with power, rather than an act of rebellion?
So is cancel culture real, or fake? The best evidence for its existence might be that even cancel culture’s defenders are being canceled — at least, in those rare occasions when justice (the real thing, not the witch mob bloodlust of cancel culture) takes over. As it turns out, the Des Moines Register fired Aaron Calvin.
Calvin, it turns out, had a history of racist tweets himself. And — irony of ironies! — he retweeted Nwanevu’s article about how cancel culture isn’t real beforehand. Does he believe it now?