After months spent denying and trying to overturn the results of an election that went quite smoothly considering the ongoing pandemic, many on the American right have now turned their attention back to the culture war messaging that’s substituted for non-existent conservative policy ideas on both sides of the Atlantic for many years. Talking about tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy just doesn’t work up the base in quite the same way as condemning slow moving social progress.
While the United States has been making great strides in terms of Covid 19 vaccinations and Democrats in the country’s Congress passed a stimulus bill with no help from the opposition, pundits who portray themselves as populists like Fox News host Tucker Carlson and his online imitators are focused on defending such cherished institutions as plastic toys based on sentient potatoes and an animated skunk whose antics were seen as unacceptable 20+ years ago.
“The cultural vandals in charge of our own cultural revolution have censored everything from cartoon skunks to Peter Pan and Dumbo,” the opinion host said just this week prior to a segment criticizing the Grammy awards for ‘vulgarity’. Just prior to this, another bout of rightwing hysteria followed the announcement on March 2nd by the estate of Theodor Geisel that it had decided to stop publishing 6 titles he wrote under his Dr. Seuss pseudonym because these works contained illustrations that depict racial stereotypes.
As explained by some of those who knew him, Geisel came to regret this early work later in life and is mostly remembered for the progressive he became, overcoming the prejudices that were widely accepted during his youth. It’s been reported that he wrote and illustrated a later children’s book “Horton Hears a Who”, as an apology for the early works that have now been pulled from his catalogue.
From at least Gamergate in 2014 until the present, the populist right has been quite successful in bringing their reactionary politics into the arena of pop culture. While the right in the past attacked popular films and other media for portrayals of sex and violence, the contemporary approach is to castigate media conglomerates for films like Black Panther and the all female version of Ghostbusters for trying to broaden their appeal to different or wider audiences.
Not to be outdone by rightwing media or online culture critics, Republican politicians who embraced the last president’s ‘populism’ have picked up the cancel culture message and turned it to their own cynical ends.
Demonstrating the absurdity of these overblown fears was Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who claimed that he was an innocent victim of ‘cancel culture’ after seeming to show support for the mob that breached the Capitol building on January 6th. As a small consequence of this, Hawley lost a book deal with Simon & Schuster but almost immediately inked a deal to release it through another publisher.
Nonetheless, he went on to pen an oped titled “The muzzling of America’ that appeared on the front page of his country’s most widely read tabloid, the New York Post, and was interviewed about it by Fox News and other outlets that reach millions of people.
After claiming in his editorial that ‘social credit scores’ were being introduced to weed out conservative Americans from polite society and that the rightwing is now the ‘counter culture’, the Missouri Senator ended his widely circulated screed on this note, “The powerful see in the present moment an opportunity to consolidate their control over society and to squelch dissent. That means those who believe in the First Amendment and the fundamental principles of American liberty must now take a stand, while we still can.”
As Hawley, a graduate of Yale Law School surely knows, the free speech provisions of the United States constitution remain the benchmark for these protections throughout the world. While there are numerous examples throughout the country’s history of government’s finding ways to censor art and punish whistle-blowers who embarrass the powerful, barring incitement, the 1st amendment protects all speech from censure or interference by government (as opposed to private enterprises like the social media companies that are a main target of Hawley’s arguments about speech).
It’s interesting that certain fundamental aspects of the protections guaranteed to all Americans under the 1st Amendment like the right to gather and protest say, the killing by police of an innocent African American woman, Breonna Taylor as she lay in her bed in Louisville, Kentucky, are not supported by the right wing that is increasingly trying to criminalize them.
As many who have studied the history of the left have learned, it was our failure to include marginalized communities and women in the work of building movements and developing strategy that led to most of our greatest failures and setbacks. The current arguments about trans rights, which often draw from earlier arguments made about homosexuality, can’t help but remind us of the struggles that gay people had to mostly undertake on their own after the Stonewall uprising to establish basic rights for themselves, a struggle later reinforced by the unwillingness of governments take the last pandemic, AIDS, seriously as it ripped through their communities.
What’s most irritating about the cancel culture debate is that so many people who call themselves liberals are all too eager to fuel the idea that what is at most a marginal online phenomenon is a bipartisan issue.
Many commentators, including this one, were swayed by former Representative Tulsi Gabbard’s outspoken anti-interventionism while she was campaigning in the Democratic primaries in 2019 and tried to give her the benefit of the doubt in terms of the awful anti-LGBTQ rhetoric she used in her youth and later apologized for, taking her at her word that this thinking was influenced by her father, the director of an outfit called Stop Promoting Homosexuality.
Since leaving office the former representative for Hawaii’s 2nd district seems to be angling for fame and post-politics relevance by playing to a right wing audience eager to see someone on the ‘other side’ acknowledge their worst fears about liberals and the left.
Gabbard revealed her cynicism in attacking the people most vulnerable to violence and even murder in her country, arguing that the participation of trans people in women’s sports is an existential issue, introducing a bill to ban them from any participation in one of her last acts as a congressperson.
But the former congressperson isn’t finished in her turn to the far right, arguing on, you guessed it, Fox News, that ‘cancel culture’ is the spark that creates reactionary extremist groups like al Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State.
“Let’s look down the path and say where does this cancel culture lead us?”, Gabbard explained to host Trey Gowdy, “You see the final expression of cancel culture in Islamist terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda who basically go and behead those who they deem to be infidels or heretics in order to silence them, in order to protect others from being misled by those heretical ideas in the eyes of ISIS or Al Qaeda.”
Even journalists who many of us respect like Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi seem so caught up in their privileged bubbles that they’ve added their voices to those of the culture warriors.
Just as in the first panic about so-called ‘political correctness’ in the 1990s, academia, one of the last places where leftist thinkers are nominally able to find a platform is a main target of the rightwing culture warriors who have used the vast resources available to them from donors like the Mercer family to much more successfully ‘cancel’ dissident voices.
If they can find the will, the American progressive left can fight these culture war arguments with one of their own: it isn’t the cancellation of those they have political disagreements with that they are asking for but rather a culture of consequences. While it’s important to acknowledge that people can grow and opinions can change, it shouldn’t be so difficult to ask that individuals don’t intentionally try to hurt others based on their identities and then complain rather than learn when they’re criticized for it. It’s simple common sense.