How many times have you heard the bleach-blonde Fox News pundit on your grandmother’s TV screen tout the right for being the real champions of free speech? I bet the contemptible trust-fund airhead (the pundit, not your grandmother) also proceeded to broadly paint the left as being totally hell-bent on canceling anyone who doesn’t follow the “woke marching orders.”
But the hard reality that our Fox and Friends propagandists always fail to acknowledge is that long before damning hashtags and Twitter mobs were even a thought, the right-wing had its own tricks for shutting down dissent.
I’ve written on this issue once before. The first time was in an op-ed piece for the Ring Tum Phi called “Cancel Culture for Dummies.” I’m no longer much of a fan of that job.
Other than bemoaning the sloppy writing (I wasn’t exactly covering all my bases freshman year, carving up my time between the nightlife, rush activities and academics, and then dedicating any remaining minutes of the day to article-writing), I look back on that piece now and cringe a little bit when I plainly see what I failed to recognize then: cancel culture wasn’t just invented by aggrieved liberals within the past election cycle. It’s not nearly as bad as it’s ever been, and it has much less to do with the internet than most of us have been led to believe.
Today, what we call “cancel culture” pales in comparison to the vast network of social and legal structures that once functioned only to block out perspectives and shut down dissent (primarily from any voice that wasn’t straight, white, male and capitalist).
There was a time when Norman Mailer couldn’t publish The Naked and the Dead unless he changed the f-word to “fug” (I happen to own one of those original British printings containing the famous edit, which I regard as a prized possession), a Black person couldn’t even be in a Hollywood writer’s room unless they were tending refreshments and, in 1954, the U.S. Senate held trials to decide whether or not violent horror comics were suitable for publication.
Ever wonder why you don’t see any cursing, sex, nudity or drug use (in other words, all the greatest things) in old movies ? Because up until the 1960s, Hollywood enforced a strict code banning anything edgy from appearing on screen — the original template for what we now call political correctness.
And even if you could manage to write within the margins of what the establishment deemed favorable, you might still lose your career — as screenwriter Dalton Trumbo discovered when he was blacklisted and called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee for being a communist.
Even the most rabid blue-haired feminist (the embodiment of living, breathing evil for many of you on the right) could hardly dream of any system more adeptly equipped for exiling her political foes.
On the other hand, most modern censorship — while I still believe it is never a good thing — is dictated by the free market. For example, if people make enough noise on Twitter about a joke a comedian made, then that comedian might get fired from their corporate job.
As I see it, the most tangible threat of censorship comes from the policies of higher ups at the social media companies themselves. Facebook and Twitter are the two obvious examples of such monopolies. But that’s rather different from the spontaneous cancellation campaigns, which have always existed in one form or another.
In my original piece, I touched upon the gutlessness of anonymous trolls who weaponized online outrage to deplatform a comedian who expressed himself in a way that some people found distasteful. Since then, that comedian, Shane Gillis, has made plenty of money through podcasting and Patreon. Spilt milk in comparison to the typical treatment of artists throughout most of this country’s history.
For the majority of that time, an artist could face legal consequences for publishing a work or saying something on stage that went against the political, philosophical or sexual mores of the right-wing. After all, Allen Ginsberg was never formally cancelled on Twitter, but he did have to plead his case in court after he published Howl.
It’s an issue of perspective. What happened to Louis C.K. was pretty harsh, but hardly comparable to what Lenny Bruce was subjected to courtesy of his own government. The former became a pariah in the media before companies decided they didn’t want his name to be associated with their advertising anymore and the latter was pulled off stage and tossed in a jail cell for telling jokes.
Within our own lifetimes, conservative legislation was passed under the Bush administration to raise FCC “indecency” fines to $500,000. And in 2005, Bush and the head of the Senate Commerce Committee, Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska, tried to foist “indecency” standards upon cable, satellite and the Internet.
All I’m trying to say to my conservative readers is this: when you’ve tried to ban everything from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer to N.W.A., it makes it hard to take you seriously when you cry censorship the moment the left goes after one of your treasures — which apparently include Aunt Jemima and Land O’Lakes butter. It’s like beating a kid to a bloody pulp for all his life and then acting surprised when he grows up one day and throws a punch in your direction; the left clearly learned from the best!
Especially when older conservative figures — like the late Rush Limbaugh, who was recently cancelled by God — speak out against cancel culture, I can’t help but think about Dr. Frankenstein learning to fear and loath his own creation when it started destroying the things he loved.
To depart from a point I made in my original piece covering this subject (and I swear this one will be my last), we don’t appear to be spiraling deeper into an abyss of social darkness where everyone’s afraid to speak their minds. But we do need to remain consistent and honest across the board when we condemn censorship. Sadly, the right was only willing to call out censorship when it was flipped around themselves.
Not all conservatives are responsible for their movement’s past (or even the more recent examples of right-wing censorship, for that matter), but they’d be wise to step down from their righteous thrones and lay off from exclusively accusing the left of curtailing the First Amendment.
Note: To those interested in further reading about the historical context of this issue, I would suggest this 2005 op-ed written by a Vermont senator called No More Sopranos, No More Chris Rock which can be found on the Village Voice website.