I miss the 80’s. Not all of the 80’s of course. I don’t miss the homelessness (on the rise again), or the rampant greed (which never left). I don’t miss uncle Ronnie (because we’re stuck with his petulant child Donnie), or the cold war, or propping up brutal dictators around the world because “communism bad, mass murdering tyrants who let us sell our products and weapons to them good!” We’re still doing that, too, apparently.
But I do miss the music. Some of it anyway. And as I started this article I began thinking of the Culture Club and what a radical breath of fresh air Boy George brought to society. Okay, maybe not so radical. After all, Bowie had already mainstreamed the concept of sexual androgyny, and the gay rights movement had been gaining steam for over a decade. But for much of the country, Boy George was their first introduction into a culture that had been heretofore been hidden from them, and often ridiculed. The press passed it off as more “androgyny,” but everyone knew he was gay and celebrating who he was, not hiding it. And for lots of sheltered young people, that was new and different. Maybe even a little scary. At least that’s how I see it, reflecting back on that time period from my obviously biased view, rose-colored and cis-gen glasses firmly in place.
Let’s face it, though. In reality then, and even recently, being gay – being DIFFERENT – meant your options were limited. You either hid who you were, firmly hiding yourself in the closet, or you suffered the consequences of being othered by a society unwilling to accept anything outside of their mainstream views. Being too out, too open, could mean being fired from your job, denied admittance to colleges. Even murdered. And don’t ever be born with black or brown skin, because then you can’t even hide it.
Talk about being canceled.
In the 1980’s, we had our first taste of the modern conservative culture wars with their creation of the term “politically correct.” PC was used to describe any attempt by people to suggest that perhaps it wasn’t polite to use racial epithets or stereotypes in our common language. That maybe those were bad things. That perhaps we should not be celebrating racism, sexism, and violence as positives. No one was arrested or jailed for doing so, but society began to reflect on how we spoke about one another. Of course, that REALLY pissed some folks off. “What do you mean I can’t call someone of asian descent <insert insulting term of your choice>? That’s not fair! It’s censorship!” (note: it’s not). People wrote entire books mocking PC culture, sang songs about it, made sure it was repeated on the news because all propaganda is good propaganda.
Those folks never went away. When their efforts failed over time, they simply did what rich people with powerful platforms did: they rebranded. And so, today, we have Cancel Culture. Cancel culture is a gussied up and prettified form of PC insults. It suggests that free speech is unlimited, and that people should NEVER be held responsible for the content of their speech. Or even their actions, to be clear, given that some of this angst is in support of people accused of sexual assault or worse.
Take for example Bari Weiss. The now former editorial writer for the New York Times (she resigned on her own and wasn’t “canceled”) was early in the game in describing cancel culture, or what she thought was a society that forced certain patterns of intellectual thought into the dark margins of the internet, never to be heard from again. In her 2018 article, Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web, she highlighted several prominent people who had been ostracized and marginalized by their desires to merely “have a conversation.” They believe free speech is under assault and the people are starved for “controversial opinions.”
But, as we learn while we read on, nothing could be further from the truth. These are rich, powerful, well platformed folks who have millions of followers. Far from being out of the limelight, their voices have been promoted endlessly by the media precisely BECAUSE they are controversial. They appear in the New York Times (waving at Bari), Fox entertainment “news”, the Sunday morning political shows. Some have held powerful positions in business or government, and are on the boards of various organizations. Some are relatives of powerful voices within various political parties.
The most outsider of the bunch Bari profiled is Bret Weinstein. A professor of evolutionary biology, he once wrote a paper while still a student in support of strippers, condemning sexual harassment by a fraternity. For that, he was insulted and ostracized and had to transfer colleges (this, by the way is ACTUAL cancel culture at work… sexual harassment is illegal and vile and being forced to leave your school because you spoke out against it is deplorable). By 2017, though, he’d clearly changed his mind about the way the world worked. When racial equality protests erupted at Evergreen University, and the college attempted to mitigate the protests by changing a long-standing traditional “day of absence” – when minorities left the campus for a day and attended seminars on racism and equality – into a day of absence for white students, he objected. He claimed this was, in fact, another form of oppression. Never mind that the day of absence has always been a voluntary experience that you can attend if you wish. No white student was being forced to go, it was optional. For him, asking the white students to do voluntarily what black students had been doing voluntarily in previous years was a bridge too far.
After students protested his class and confronted him, what did he do? Was he “canceled?” No, of course not. He did what any red blooded, racist white American would do. He whined and went on Fox to make sure HIS voice was heard. Fox entertainment news is of course more than happy to provide a platform that reaches millions to anyone who thinks whites got it too hard when they are being asked politely to consider others. Far from being “canceled”, his voice was amplified, electrified, televised. His appearance on Fox set off a chain of attacks by the alt-right on the campus and the students that sent the situation spiraling out of control. GOP politicians announced they would try to privatize the school for “civil rights violations,” death threats were sent, a massacre promised.
Weinstein was never removed from his position, even after he sparked the massive problems that occurred. In fact, he and his wife SUED THE SCHOOL for the threats THEY received, and the supposed lack of support from other professors. They walked away with nearly a half million dollars and resigned their positions. Voluntarily. He was not canceled.
What Bari Weiss and Bret Weinstein and the others tell us they want is “conversation.” That is, however, clearly a lie. Bret had a chance to have those conversations with students who were protesting his actions. He could have arranged public forums and discussions with them, and let both sides have their say. Instead, he went straight to Fox entertainment news so that HIS voice would be amplified above all others. On Fox, there would be no dialogue, no back and forth, no chance for every position to be openly discussed and weighed. No, on Fox he would get his chance to make his case WITHOUT any push back. The students did not have this luxury to have their opinions elevated.
That is the point of Cancel Culture. It does not seek true equity of discussion, or actual free speech, which means others get their speech elevated as well. What it seeks is the right for one side to say and do whatever they want WITHOUT push back. The current crop of “free speech” proponents are not, actually, fighting for free speech. They’re fighting for their right to speech and the right to deny others speech in return. “You don’t have the right to tell me I’m wrong,” says the racist whose views have been widely rejected by society over the last century because of the endless violence against minorities such views spawn.
In almost every case, the views being espoused have long been argued, fought over, and even led to wars. We have had these discussions, literally for centuries. We have as a society finally decided that equality of ALL PEOPLE is the true ideal we strive for. We are tired of the endless cycles of hate and violence spawned by these debates. So yes, we are done talking with racists about their bigotry. We assume they are smart enough to examine history and understand why. When your position has dominated the continent for most of 400 years and led to countless misery, enslavement and death for millions, and the alternative view only the last couple of decades and the world seems to have been improving, maybe you need to sit down and shut up for a while and see how it works out.
These people decry boycotts of advertisers for shows like Tucker Carlson. They call it censorship if people let advertisers know they won’t buy their products if they fund the types of commentary (lies, distortions and propaganda in service of systemic racist views) that those consumers find abhorrent. Yet these same people are blissfully quiet when the right wing boycotts the Dixie Chicks, or calls for a (rather spectacularly unsuccessful) boycott of Nike. They didn’t stand up for Colin Kaepernick when he was ostracized, fired, and unable to find work due to his national anthem kneeling protests. They are hypocrites who often wrap themselves in a flag and feel only their views have worth, and any other views can be ignored, especially if conservatives don’t like what they are hearing. Kaepernick’s protest – one he carefully chose after discussions with veterans who were upset that he sat during the anthem – upset them because they worship the flag as much as god. As a veteran myself, I’m not offended by flag protests. I encourage them in fact. The flag does not represent me OR my country, it’s just a piece of cloth. The Constitution does.
But more than that hypocritical failing, they’re also denigrating consumers for expressing their free speech rights. These people are often proponents of the “Free market” (note: it was never free, it was always heavily monitored and regulated to help some people and not others). Money talks, and that’s really what’s at stake here. Many of these people want to keep spewing their bullshit without having to be taken to task for it. They think that, once you’ve become wealthy by being a mouthpiece for racism or sexism or jingoistic patriotism, the gravy train should keep flowing. Cutting off the spout of advertising dollars means they’re likely to lose their jobs and have to go work for a living. And boy, does that piss them off. So, they scream and whine that they are being “canceled” and “censored.” That the lefties are out to get them.
Yeah, well maybe we are. Lord knows we’ve put up with your toxic bullshit long enough. Your propaganda fills our airwaves and the textbook in our schools. My kids were forced to recite your disgusting pledge of allegiance every day, a fascist indoctrination screed that promotes flag worship and God over the Constitution, and yet somehow is part of our schools. We listen to your jingoistic and militaristic national anthem, with its racist third verse, and not one of you cares at all except to make sure it’s considered the height of offense if people don’t sing it blindly. You hold up toxic masculinity as a noble goal, and blow racist dog whistles all the live long day on your shows.
We’re done with it. We’re going to use our speech – which, as the conservatives on the Supreme Court have acknowledged, means our DOLLARS – to put an end to it. You built the system the way it is, and now we’re going to take advantage of it. Don’t like it? Well, kiddo’s, you best unravel the mess you’ve made of things if you want to get us to stop. But that would mean undoing all the work you did to make things the way they are… which is what we wanted in the first place. Either the free market rules, or you dismantle the entire fucked up system, admit that markets need regulating, and let us get back to the work of protecting workers and consumers, which is the purpose of government.
Rock, meet hard place.
Cancel culture doesn’t exist because the system is running exactly as right wingers intended it. The system was designed to ensure the wealthy had control, and no one else really mattered. We figured out we could join forces and our combined monetary efforts would be enough to knock back some of this bloviating bullshit. They’re just mad it’s running against them now, because society is tired of sexism and racism and bad faith arguments designed to rehash old values that we’ve long rejected. And we’re going to use our free speech and our ability to join forces with one another – unionized, and socialized, no longer terrorized – to make sure that our money isn’t being spent supporting the voices of bigotry and hatred.
Don’t like it? Suck it up, buttercup, because your only option is to do what we ask or watch the gravy train you made dry the fuck up. For 400 years, you canceled the voices you disagreed with, and you did it through terrorism and murder. You hung black men from trees, blew up their churches. You sent in the FBI to murder their leaders in their sleep. You outlawed union organizing and jailed their leaders, shot fleeing protestors in the back. You ran campaigns to incite fear in the populace against those you despised, the folks agitating for equity and justice, fair work and fair wages and a piece of the fucking wealth pie. And when we rose up in protest of your actions, you sent in the jack booted thugs again and again to kill folks fighting for their rights. Well, we’re using our free speech and our money to end you now, and its glorious.
We’re not canceling you. We’re just not paying you for the right to cancel us anymore. We’re not paying you for the right to feed propaganda and lies, to sexually harass other people, to be shitty, nasty, vile individuals in service of the all mighty dollar. And we’re doing it with the very money you worship.
We’re doing it for all the voices you canceled in the past four hundred years with your fists and your guns and your brutal reigns of terror.
Karma… she is a bitch, my chameleon. And glorious.