Has there ever been a combination of words quite like “cancel culture”? The term is so noxious, annoying, and insufferable that it makes you pine for Nazi Reich Marshal Hermann Göring’s famous revolver. [Editorial note: It turns out that the famous phrase, ”Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver,” was falsely attributed to Göring so the analogy isn’t right. Andrew, you’re cancelled. -KS]
I don’t know what’s more stupefying: the existence of cancel culture in the first place or the fact that it has become the new Rush Limbaugh-level stalking horse for the same knuckle-draggers that used to gripe about “political correctness” and other Culture Warrior buzz words.
In radical activism circles, “canceling” is the latest trendy name for a rather old set of toxic social practices. The Quakers shunned people during the Abolitionist days, Socialists splintered in the era of Eugene Debs, and Communists brought things to a whole new level with purges, show trials, and re-education camps.
In 1950, when Joseph McCarthy was literally canceling an entire generation of activists and organizers, there occurred a truly depressing spectacle: a debate about the nature of the Soviet Union, moderated by sociologist C. Wright Mills and featuring Max Shachtman and Earl Browder. The two both had been (you guessed it) cancelled by the Communist Party USA for having “politically incorrect” opinions.
Both were jilted at the altar by Uncle Joe Stalin and manifested the standard pathetic behavioral responses, with Shachtman obsessively plotting revenge and Browder obsessively fantasizing about being taken back into the Party bosom. At one point Shachtman proclaimed with all the bravado of a delusional Trot, “When I saw him standing there at the podium, I said to myself: Rajk was the general secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party, and was shot, or hanged, or garroted. Kostov was the general secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party. And when I thought of what happened to them, I thought of the former secretary of the American Communist Party, and I said to myself: There-there but for an accident of geography, stands a corpse!”
The Browder-Shachtman juxtaposition demonstrated the two most common neurotic responses to “cancellation” that should be further scrutinized. Rejection hurts. But when one behaves in such a manner towards a former romantic partner or employer, one very quickly winds up with a restraining order. The antisocial implications of this bruh-ha can and does become disturbing (if not downright dangerous) when a maladjusted personality turns their ostracism into a hysterical tornado.
The ironic part is that, ever since prison abolitionist politics became a mode of mass mobilization (thanks in no small part to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow), radicals have been trying to eliminate carceral tendencies from the body politic and replace them with restorative accountability processes. For over a decade, anarchists, Occupy activists, Black Lives Matter organizations, and even DSA/Bernie-crats have “cancelled” purging and instead used methods that “Call People In Rather Than Calling Them Out.” (That includes the activist collective I hang my political hat at in the Greater Providence, Rhode Island area.)
There still are instances when predominantly white, middle class (and unbearably self-righteous) personalities are politely asked to step back from their engagement, something that I have witnessed firsthand. But you really have to be foolish to go that far down the rabbit hole. For all intents and purposes, cancel culture became taboo around the same time as The Backstreet Boys (and interestingly among the exact same age demographic).
It’s also impossible to ignore the debate’s constituent moment in the space-time continuum. Everyone is miserable, edgy, and looking constantly at their own belly buttons after a year of COVID-catalyzed lock-downs, distance learning, working remotely, and streaming absolutely every video possible on YouTube, Netflix, HBO Max, Disney+, and those other pinnacles of civilization’s great artworks.
When your notion of not just political but social engagement begins and ends on social media, the least nuanced communication system in human history, people mutate into the worst creature possible. We are social animals who have been shown by medical studies to die after prolonged isolation, hence why Amnesty International calls solitary confinement a form of torture, and the best thing that could happen right now would be if there were a third stimulus bill that showered the public with gobs of psychotropics, just so everyone can chill out.
There is, of course, the other Cancel Culture. Scribes like Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald and Michael Tracey moan about the alleged threat posed by Cancel Culture and/or Identity Politics, all while making a small mint from Substack fans who, like Pavlovian dogs, reflexively promote their cynical posts. It’s ironic that Greenwald and Taibbi — a great reporter with an incredible history who unfortunately, with middle age, appears to be transfiguring into Archie Bunker before our very eyes — pose as being oppressed by Cancel Culture while their huge platforms abet their growing bank accounts.
Could their growing wealth explain why they protest so much about a banal, overblown topic like Identity Politics while writing less and less about poverty and social inequality? How, during one of the largest mass-mobilizations around Black police murder in American history, did the author of a terrific book on Eric Garner’s death have determined that the most pressing issues of the day were the long forgotten Herbert Marcuse or the admittedly idiotic if ultimately irrelevant writings of Robin DiAngelo? (Heard much about her lately?)
This is all a predictable outcome of the ugly divorce that happened at the end of the Obama years. Libertarians like Greenwald and libs like Taibbi had been misconstrued for the prior 9 to 14 years as radicals, with Greenwald even making appearances (probably in exchange for sweet speaking fees) at various Trotskyist conventions.
But now these two are apologizing and promoting (Greenwald) or largely ignoring (Taibbi) the racist behavior from President Trump and the MAGA crowd. Meanwhile, they’re simultaneously attacking Identity Politics, which admittedly can be grating but which is not a threat to the country or to free speech, as the two allege. Whether their crass recriminations and conspiracy theories will cost them audience numbers and (more importantly) paying subscribers remains to be seen, but their respective bases surely overlap more and more with that of the vile Tucker Carlson.
Mouth-breathers like Tracey have jumped on the bandwagon — with Greenwald’s active support and promotion — and added to this toxic mix his creepy fetish for Tulsi Gabbard. Yet it was only a matter of time — and that time is now here — before “Cancel Culture” was taken over by Republicans and turned into the latest entry, and line of attack on their enemies, in a long historical line of Whiny Whiteness.
Levar Burton, longtime host of Reading Rainbow (one of the greatest television shows in human history), recently offered a rather epic takedown of all this in an interview with the lugubrious Meghan McCain:
We don’t need to get rid of “Cancel Culture.” We need to eliminate something far more serious: whining culture.
In 2006, perpetual scumbag Tucker Carlson visited the Rhode Island College campus to debate the (equally sanctimonious) James Carville. Both were shamelessly championing the Iraq war, austerity measures, free trade, and the rest of the neoliberal agenda that their favorite Oval Office occupants, Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Dubya, seamlessly implemented without serious policy variation. I was in the auditorium and there were uniform hosannas from both sides of the aisle about messianic capitalist markets that were going to lead society victoriously to the End of History.
Anti-oppression politics used to be a radical union organizing skill, a talent that Reds of various creeds brought into the workplace so to allow all workers to gain more power. Now it is an alcove within corporate offices, weaponized in order to do the exact opposite of what those Old Left organizers hoped to achieve.
But after 30-plus years, neoliberalism has run out of steam. The gap between rich and poor is expanding exponentially and those who weaponize Cancel Culture are raking in money like human cash registers while most Americans are hurting. It’s a cynically transparent game that emboldens the very worst, i.e. Tucker “White Displacement” Carlson, the country has to offer.