Monday, March 29, 2021

21st Century Cancel Culture: Robespierre Meets Mr. Potato Head

In high school I had a girlfriend whose parents were distributors for Amway, a multi level marketing company that sold lots of consumer products.  I don’t know if it was part of the company mission, but they wouldn’t sell Proctor & Gamble products.  Apparently her parents thought the company’s logo — a crescent man-in-moon and 13 stars — was a symbol of Satanism.  The “boycott” was toothless but the company eventually changed their logo to letters but later brought the moon back and won a lawsuit against some Amway distributors along the way.    

In college I met some demonstrators in the student union urging a boycott of Campbell’s Soup for the unfair treatment of farm workers in Central America.  After watching their movie I jumped onboard for a few weeks until I decided I probably wasn’t having much impact. 

Years later I remember reading about teachers down in Georgia wanting to ban Harry Potter from schools because of the witchcraft!

All of this came to mind recently after I read a few pieces suggesting that conservatives were hypocrites for decrying “cancel culture”.  They’re not entirely wrong.  Cancel culture is nothing new, and conservatives have engaged in it too…

But here’s the thing, it’s actually different now.  Much different.  For two reasons. 

The first reason today’s cancel culture is different is because with technology, nothing ever dies. When I was a young adult I did lots of things that were stupid, some of which I’m not proud of and others that simply demonstrated how it’s possible to have a brain without actually using it.  But none of those foibles or follies follows me around because there is no record of them other than in my head.  In earlier times people could learn from their own foolishness, learn from their mistakes and go on to be model citizens or at least strive to be, knowing that a broken promise here or an unkind word there wouldn’t haunt them forever.  Today that’s no longer true.  Today, because of the ubiquity of cell phones and the Internet, nothing stays hidden and nothing ever dies.

Today, there is no forgiveness nor forgetting.  From this day forward not only will every American have to live a pristine life, they will have to do so not only while navigating the rapidly changing currents of today’s mores, they will at the same time have to anticipate what will be acceptable in the future and live accordingly.  And it’s not just people.  It’s books, pancake syrup, children’s games, Halloween costumes and more.  Things that have been part of Americana for a century are now deemed racist, sexist or somehow otherwise unacceptable because they don’t comport with today’s values.  That’s simply an impossible standard for anyone to live up to whoever they are. 

The second reason cancel culture is different today is because of social media platforms. For good or (mostly) bad, social media is where a majority of Americans get their information.  Between YouTube, Facebook and Twitter Americans get far more of their information / news from social media sources than they do from traditional news sources.  The social media platforms have become America’s public square.  They grew and found extraordinary success and riches by pitching themselves as a place for Americans to express themselves, share ideas and communicated with one another. 

But once they vanquished all foes, once they became exactly what they purported to want to become, America’s public square, they started shutting down the speech of those with whom they disagreed.  So now that there are relatively few effective alternative communication vehicles available, Twitter, Facebook, Google and Amazon have decided that if you don’t agree with them, you’re off their platforms.  Sure, you still have free speech, but you have to wonder how many people you’ll be able to reach via skywriting, holding a cardboard on a streetcorner sign or shouting from your back porch.

Together, over the last decade and a half, these two developments have transformed the country, including the nature of the cancel culture.  They have turned what used to be largely ineffective fringe boycotts into extraordinarily effective main street shakedowns and takedowns… but with very selective enforcement. 

Dr. Seuss, whose books have brought joy to hundreds of millions of kids for decades are suddenly verboten but misogynistic and or vulgar rap videos are celebrated.  Gina Carano is fired for comparing the treatment of conservatives today to that of the Jews in 1930’s Germany while virulent anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan can be found in hundreds of videos on YouTube.  Donald Trump is kicked off Facebook and Twitter for the fiction of inciting a riot while Chuck Schumer, who threatened two Supreme Court justices, continues Tweeting unfettered. 

Comparing the boycotts of the past with the cancel culture of today is like equating your house cat with a lion in the Serengeti, both are cats, but the damage one does is largely limited to waking you up in the middle of the night by knocking makeup off your dresser while the other will stalk you night or day then rip you to shreds and eat you piece by piece once they catch you.

America’s founding fathers were indeed flawed men, but in the late 18th century they were at the bleeding edge of society.  They were forward thinking men and revolutionary in their pursuit of freedom.  It’s one thing to be righteous standing in a 21st century America built on the ideas that brought us here, but think back to 250 years ago and what the world looked like. Imagine standing in Independence Hall or Parliament or in front of the Russian Czar and making the argument that there are more than two genders, that gay marriage is normal, or that African civilizations are equal to European civilizations. Try convincing King Louis or Pope Pius that women are equal to men and that they should get equal treatment in the army.

Now do all of that in the middle of near constant war, not only between the European powers, but between the native tribes across Africa, the Middle East and The Americas, and all of the above as they encountered one another at the intersections of civilizations. They were flawed men, but if they are personae non gratae in American schools then no one is safe. 

Applying today’s mores to the actions or words or thoughts of people who lived 2,000 or 200 or even 20 years ago is absurd, and made more so when it’s done selectively.  At the same time, if a handful of private companies are allowed to manipulate the public square for their own purposes then no ideas are safe. 

Cancel culture is real and it is largely an animal of the left.  It is tyranny for the sake of power.  But the not so funny thing about tyrants is that they always need a new set of enemies.  Once everything conservative has been canceled, who do they expect will be the next targets?  Once America is fully mulatto or Hispanic or no longer pigment challenged, who will be the next group targeted?  Once Christianity has become fully neutered in America as it has been in most of Europe, which deities will be targeted next? 

Cancel culture in 21st century America very much resembles the late 18th century… in France.  The revolution started out targeting the monarchy and ended up eating its own. By the time Robespierre and his fellow agitators realized what they had unleashed, the Reign of Terror was in full swing and it was their own heads that were in the basket.  At least Mr. Potato Head will have company…