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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The International Phenomenon of ‘Cancel Culture’

The West’s staunchest defenders of viewpoint diversity are curiously silent about the most pressing threats to free speech.

The year is 2020. A new regime commits itself to fighting “dangerous ideologies” that subvert the status quo. Whole regions have been placed under lockdown for politically suspect reasons. Academic freedom slowly erodes as new research is increasingly censored for holding “incorrect” beliefs. Demonstrators flood the streets to protest unpopular policies as well as long-standing grievances. The economy crashes while a viral pandemic spreads uncontrollably like wildfire. If you’re a conservative,  the saga sounds all too familiar.

But this is not a story about SJWs ruining America. This is not a tale of race riots or “COVID alarmism” or political correctness run amok. No, this is a story about real repression and real dictatorships squelching freedom all around the world. This is the cancerous rise of “nationalist populism” as it spreads across the globe, with “cancel culture” serving as an excuse for growing right-wing authoritarianism.

The Bête Noire of the Right

Cancel culture has become the topic du jour among the chattering classes, as disgruntled  academics and pseudo-intellectuals lament the resurgence of political correctness in Western countries. As the world languishes under the coronavirus pandemic and an economic depression to boot, opportunistic grifters and propagandists are collaborating to fuel the flames of an apocalyptic culture war to their far-right audiences. Around the world, authoritarian leaders are using these fears to maintain power amid a tottering global order. Simultaneously, a ramshackle collection of pundits and thinkers known as the “Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW) has emerged to provide a veneer of intellectual credibility to this reactionary upsurge, replete with strawman arguments and gotcha-statements cloaked in a tantalizing veil of countercultural notoriety. The intensity of their passion and ferocity causes one to ask: what is this “cancel culture” and why has it caused so much trouble?

The answer, as it turns out, is fairly straightforward. “Cancel culture,” as normally understood, refers to the practice of blacklisting individuals (or groups) in academia, the press, and even the government itself for holding “incorrect” opinions. The practitioners of “cancel culture” are myriad, from protesters and censorious college students to mainstream media publications filtering out “fake news” in their reporting. It has been exercised by both the left and the right. But in this political moment, “cancel culture” is what Soviet communism was during the Cold War and what Islamic terrorism was after 9/11—a right-wing bogeyman that rallies the base and puts the left on the defensive.

Now much has been said, and much more electronic ink has been spilled, over the admittedly concerning tactics employed by young activists around the world. Zealous, prudish, and often short-sighted, these activists have rankled their elders’ feathers with their outspoken thirst for social justice. The marvelous new militancy of Millennials and Gen Z has been met with shallow arguments about identity politics and the generic youth-bashing that pseudo-intellectual conservatism thrives on. Whole industries have succumbed to activist pressure, and whole subcultures have emerged in reaction to this puritanical witch-hunting, while the mainstream political system deteriorates ever-more amid the increasingly authoritarian impulses of the Republican Party and the fecklessness of centrist Democrats. 

Many prominent intellectuals have understandably pushed back against cancel culture, both for pragmatic and ideological reasons. Demanding “ideological purity” is, after all, “problematic” as the left tries to expand its appeal following the relative success of popular candidates like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. And it remains unclear as to how blacklisting celebrities and heckling speakers offers meaningful resistance to systemic racism and neoliberal capitalism. Flexing one’s digital muscles through hashtag activism may be emotionally satisfying on an individual level, which does explain the commanding presence of social media in modern protest movements. But the left is not a group therapy session; it is a political movement that stands for the abolition of injustice and the emancipation of the human race, or it stands for nothing at all. 

That being said, the victims of “cancel culture” as commonly described are relatively few in number, and the damage has been largely restricted to tarnished reputations and ideological conformity in civil institutions like academia and the press. Troubling developments to be sure, but a far cry from an incipient Maoist cultural revolution, as the IDW would have you believe. Nobody has died from being “cancelled;” in contrast, many protesters have been beaten, harassed, and even murdered by right-wing goons supposedly organizing against “cancel culture.” Many IDWers and anti-woke scolds continue to leverage their platforms with mainstream institutions for financial gain, or through new “alternative” institutions that specifically cater to their audiences. This is particularly true for centrist “thinkers” like David Brooks, whose blood-stained record of war boosterism and false equivalences makes one wonder if karma is just a myth for the rubes. It is even more true for social conservatives, many of whom made a pretty penny off of spreading intolerance and indoctrination over the years. Indeed, the crude hypocrisy of these critics is enough to make you wonder whether Chairman Mao had a point. 

Cancel Culture International

The shrill drumbeats of the IDW notwithstanding, “cancel culture” as practiced by progressive activists is not the primary political threat to freedom around the world. The truly dangerous examples of “cancel culture” come not from unemployed college kids in the streets, but shadowy reactionary figures and the moneyed interests behind them haunting the halls of power. The rise of “illiberal” politicians under the banner of what has been called “national populism” pose a real threat to human liberty and welfare. 

Take India’s Narendra Modi, for example. Elected in 2014 on a broadly populist platform, Modi promised to modernize the Indian economy and “drain the swamp” in the Indian government. Modi’s political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is a part of the far-right Hindu nationalist movement, and explicitly calls for replacing India’s secular constitution with one that favors higher castes of Hindus. After six years of failed free market initiatives, Modi’s regime has shifted gears and has quietly stoked a sectarian culture war, picking fights with leftist college activists and declaring martial law in the (disputed) Muslim-majority states of Kashmir and Jammu. Meanwhile, more radical Hindu nationalists in right-wing militias and even the police have been harassing Muslims all across the country, emboldened by Modi’s political success. More recently, Modi’s regime has tried to “modernize” Indian agriculture on the back of poor farmers and has cracked down on the ensuing protests, a curious reminder of how free markets and authoritarianism often go hand in hand.  

Next we have Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, another populist politician using nationalism to erode democratic norms and institutions. Elected after conservative judges fraudulently arrested the popular leftist candidate, Bolsonaro represents a right-wing backlash against the meager progressive gains achieved in Brazil under the so-called “Pink Tide” governments. This ex-army officer proudly thumps his martial credentials and promotes a stern “law and order” platform to stem the high rates of crime and poverty afflicting Brazil. Curiously enough, many of Brazil’s crime victims are leftist journalists and activists, who are often targeted for highlighting political corruption or environmental devastation. While he’s not apologizing for the old U.S.-backed military dictatorship or parroting anti-communist and anti-LGBT propaganda, Bolsonaro can be found mismanaging the COVID-19 pandemic, which has badly hit Brazil due to his Trump-like promotion of false information and conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, his supporters can be seen at book burnings targeted against leftist authors, a fairly effective (if not entirely original) way to fight “cultural Marxism.”  

And then there is the Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán, who helped popularize “illiberal democracy” as a viable political model. A former neoliberal, Orbán’s regime has dedicated total war against the supposed remnants of communism in modern Hungary, even demolishing a popular statue of folk hero Imre Nagy despite his role in the democratic Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Orbán has assumed the mantle in the global fight against “cultural Marxism,” giving him folk hero status among the alt-right and conservative intellectuals eager to re-litigate the culture wars. Orbán’s main platform of turning away refugees and furthering the Fidesz Party’s control over the Hungarian political system has done much to energize the quasi-fascist elements of the American right, particularly in stoking grossly anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros and the “globalist” elite. This struggle against the globalists has come to a head in recent years, as Orbán’s regime has effectively shut down an American-accredited university funded (in part) by Soros’s philanthropic ventures, perhaps the most literal illustration of “cancel culture” existing on record. If fascism does eventually come to America, expect it to resemble a gross hybrid of Trump’s bellicosity and Orbán’s deft statesmanship.  

And last, but definitely not least, the unforgettable Vladimir Putin, the darling strongman of American conservatives and the bugaboo of the Beltway press. The antagonist in many neoliberal nightmares, this conservative nationalist is ironically the best chance at uniting IDW scolds and leftist agitators, given his regime’s harsh controls on Internet access and its bad habit of killing opposition journalists. While our centrist apparatchiks are obsessed with connecting Putin with Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, the left should recognize the real dangers in Putin’s peculiar combination of authoritarian nationalism, one with roots in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing political and economic catastrophe. A catastrophe, mind you, created by the very centrist pundits who now denounce Putin as an omnipotent supervillain willfully subverting democracy across the Western world.  Geopolitical ironies notwithstanding, Putin’s autocratic rule and his cult of personality among right-wing intellectuals represents a real threat to human freedom, both in Eastern Europe and around the world.  

The Silence That Speaks Volumes

The IDW ferociously defends itself as an embattled bastion of “contrarian” thinking, leveraging the public’s general support for underdogs while maintaining its “countercultural” credibility. Steadfast defenders of academic freedom and free speech, one would think these self-proclaimed “truth tellers” would be on the front lines defending endangered civil liberties in countries like Brazil and India, where right-wing populists actively harass their opponents and erode democratic norms and institutions. One would think. But in reality, the IDW’s dedication to liberalism and free expression is tenuous and selective, mostly in favor of centrist and right-wing institutions. Like a desperate student on the night before finals, conservatives are now copying the left’s old critiques of corporate practices and calling it their own, conveniently editing out the parts about capitalism and unions and replacing them with hysterical rants about “cultural Marxism” and “viewpoint diversity.” 

Still, why the silence? Some might argue this is purely pragmatic: the IDW is primarily organized in Western nations, so they can’t go gallivanting around the world fighting every two-bit despot. But there have been instances where IDWers have made bold and provocative statements about international affairs, from Ben Shapiro’s rants about Venezuela to Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s statements on Islam and the West. There have also been cases of right-wing “cancel culture” here at home, such as the IDW’s tepid response to the NFL blacklisting the outspoken ex-quarterback Colin Kaepernick or Congress’ repeated attempts to criminalize the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which got a Texas school teacher fired for refusing to sign an oath pledging support for Israel.

Others would (more accurately) argue that the IDW is explicitly organized against the excesses of the social justice left, leaving right-wing authoritarianism beyond their purview. This would explain their dry apologetics on racial disparity and global populism, framing them as backlashes against “political correctness” as opposed to popular reactions to deindustrialization, racial inequality, and capitalist excess. Of course, the latter critique would be too hospitable to left-wing interpretations, which are not generally included in the IDW’s definition of “viewpoint diversity.” 

I personally find the latter explanation to be more credible, especially given the general theme of IDW arguments and their lackadaisical response to troubling right-wing developments such as the QAnon or George Soros conspiracy theories. At the risk of making yet-another grand historical analogy, I would argue that the IDW most resembles the neoconservative movement of the 1960s and ’70s, where liberals who were “mugged by reality” refashioned themselves as conservative critics of the New Left. In any case, both the neoconservatives and the IDW officially adhere to a vaguely-defined liberalism and bewail the radical left’s infiltration of academia and the press. And just like the neoconservatives of old, the IDWers have a rather blatant soft spot for foreign dictators, so long as they share the same goal of fighting the left.

Why Should I Care?

After reading all this, you might be thinking, “So what?” Yes, right-wing populism is dangerous and oppressive, and yes the hypocrisy of the IDW is somewhat delicious, but what does this have to do with me? How does knowing all this help end the pandemic, fight climate change, or revitalize the labor movement? How does this help the left? 

There are two reasons why all this is relevant for the left as it moves forward in the next decade. The first is purely strategic: the IDW’s focus on “cancel culture” and identity politics consumes a decent part of the public spotlight which could otherwise be used for more pressing issues (note the irony of stating this in an article for a left-wing publication). Every time the IDW highlights this or that scandal, it puts the Left on the defensive and keeps us from arguing about the problems facing the world, like climate change or inequality. Worthy causes like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and anti-racism grow further and further out of reach as we relitigate the culture wars over this problematic tweet or that protested statue.

That being said, the rise of right-wing populism and the IDW is important because it has a real effect on all of us. The return of reactionary nationalism threatens to plunge the world into a postmodern version of the 1920s, where authoritarianism is on the rise and progressive movements are in retreat. Reactionary movements cannot address concrete problems like economic inequality or global instability, as many misguided-but-well-meaning voters believe, but they can distract the public as the ruling class continues to solidify its power. The promise of a revitalized labor movement grows ever dimmer as right-wing regimes channel working-class frustration away from the class struggle and toward immigrants and racial minorities. The fight against climate change becomes ever-more difficult as reactionary regimes either dismiss it outright or leverage it to make sweetheart deals with Big Business with working people paying the tab. And the ability to mobilize people for the fight to create a better world would be redirected towards the petty projects of national glory and the personal aggrandizement of our megalomaniacal overlords.

The IDW frames itself as a countercultural band of iconoclasts promoting free inquiry and freedom of expression. They claim to stand for liberty and political pluralism against ideological homogeneity and “cancel culture.” But their reluctance to speak out against actual tyrants speaks volumes about where their priorities really lie, even as it obscures who is truly threatened by “cancellation.” 

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