Cancel Cancel Culture

·6 min read

The vanguard of the revolution has set its beady-eyed gaze on . . . Paw Patrol.

Paw Patrol, a children’s cartoon about doggie do-gooders, has as one of its principal characters a German shepherd called Chase, who is a police officer. (A police officer in an imaginary universe in which dogs have full-time jobs, drive cars, and wear jaunty caps.) According to the New York Times, which just fired its opinion editor for publishing opinions, Paw Patrol has run afoul of the new commandment: Thou shalt not make sympathetic depictions of police officers, including police officers whose beat is an imaginary universe in which dogs have full-time jobs, drive cars, and wear jaunty caps.

Paw Patrol seems harmless enough,” writes Amanda Hess, “and that’s the point.” Oh, is that the point? “The movement rests on understanding that cops do plenty of harm.”

Somehow, this all really began with Huckleberry Finn.

Banning Mark Twain’s anti-racism and anti-slavery novel has been a project of the Left for years, and one that is not letting up: Just last year, Democrats in the New Jersey legislature, that august assemblage, tried to censor the book and order its removal from school curricula. The objection is that a novel about racism, set along the banks of the Mississippi in the 19th century, and having an escaped slave as one of its principal characters, includes racial slurs. The anti-Huck jihad was and is preposterous, but l’appétit vient en mangeant, and once progressives got a taste of vandalism, they wanted more. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were to be unpersoned and detested, as though owning slaves had been the beginning and end of those Virginians’ careers. The Kansas City Chiefs’ mascot was a crime against humanity. An aide to the mayor of Washington was chased out of his job for describing a budget as “niggardly,” which one of the great intellects in Washington city government took to be a racial slur. (It isn’t.) Princeton subjected a professor to a hate-speech inquisition for using the word “spooks” to refer to ghosts. (The incident inspired Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain.) And on and on it went.

The emergence of social media and a Millennial subculture built on asinine coddling and infantile entitlement turbocharged that censorious energy, creating what we now call “cancel culture.” In the earlier period, “canceling” was focused mainly on celebrities or high-profile public figures, and the criteria for canceling mostly had to do with real or perceived bigotry (Roseanne Barr and her Planet of the Apes tweet, Justin Trudeau and his blackface) or for acts of victimization à la Harvey Weinstein. But now the scalp-hunting has started to target ordinary and often obscure people, and the offenses in question have nothing to do with bigotry — it is simply having the unfashionable view of a public controversy, or being somehow associated, however lightly — Paw Patrol did not kill George Floyd — with that controversy. Fender, the guitar company, fired a luthier after he retweeted a (tasteless) joke about running over protesters blocking the freeways. The editors of Variety and Bon Appétit both lost their jobs after writing pieces in support of the recent protests and having their efforts judged insufficiently committed, i.e., for being the first people to stop clapping after Stalin’s speech. The Bon Appétit editor also was photographed dressed as a Puerto Rican caricature at a Halloween party 16 years ago; every bank manager in Tulsa who ever wore a sombrero to a Cinco de Mayo party in the 1990s is terrified that a photograph of it will turn up.

There is a discussion to be had about the ten U.S. military facilities named after Confederate generals, and about the Confederate monuments, especially those that were put up long after the war as explicitly racist protests against desegregation efforts, though there is no case for the lawless vandalism that has been directed at them. Of course the fullness of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy should be acknowledged, but he did a bit more with his life than own slaves, just as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. did more with his time on earth than cheat on his wife and Mohandas Gandhi did more than write racist tracts about black Africans. (A statue of Gandhi was removed from the campus of the University of Ghana.) We remember those men, and celebrate them, for other things.

Every American should read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

There are a few different things at play here. One is the free-floating desire to punish, the glee that certain awful people get from simply taking the opportunity to hurt someone, even an obscure and basically inoffensive someone. (Remember “Has Justine Landed?”) Some of this is cynical young staffers at prestigious institutions such as the New York Times who believe that they can clear room for their own advancement by chasing unhip elders out of the corner offices. Some of this is programmatic and political: There is no aspect of culture that is not to be commandeered by the rioting black-masked socialists — they have attempted to commandeer the protests against police brutality for their own ends, and they will commandeer Paw Patrol, too, if they can. They are vicious totalitarians who will use any means at their disposal, from ruining the lives of obscure fast-food managers to engaging in organized political violence.

It is particularly depressing that institutions ranging from the New York Times to the universities to Franklin Templeton have refused to stand up for themselves, for their employees, and, in the case of the Times and other media, for the principles of free expression and open dialogue that they purport to serve. They believe that they can pacify the mob by throwing it a sacrificial lamb or two. In that, they are mistaken. We hope that Corporate America is neither too stupid to understand that nor too cowardly to act accordingly, but, at the moment, we see little cause for encouragement. We are recreating East Germany’s culture of informers without even having a Soviet-backed dictatorship to blame it on.

We would prefer that people be treated with grace rather than opportunistic cruelty and with charity rather than pettiness. We would prefer that employers not appoint themselves the moral guardians of every employee and the censor of every employee’s every utterance in his private life. And here is something close to the fundamental issue: We believe in private life, that people are entitled to their own associations and opinions (even bad ones!), and entitled make their own mistakes, too — and that, barring some direct connection to work life or extraordinary circumstance, that none of this is the concern of the little platoons of finks lurking down in human resources.

We worry about the consequences of cancel culture. But we are much more intensely ashamed of it and what it says about the current state of the American heart.

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