Peak Cancel Culture? Don’t Bet on It

Here’s a question that I do not know the answer to: Is the current insanity of “cancel culture” cresting or just getting started? 

Last week in this space, I told you about how Amazon suddenly and without any explanation decided to delist Ryan Anderson’s book When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment from all its emporia—audible.com and abebooks.com as well as Amazon itself. (The link I provide goes directly to the publisher). 

We published that book at Encounter some three years ago. Why did Amazon, the self-described “world’s largest book store,” finally get around to placing it on their unofficial but still very potent Index Librorum Prohibitorum? Since Amazon has thus far refused to enlighten us, I don’t know.

Yes, the retail giant flagged a new policy that permits it to refuse to sell works that are “inappropriate and offensive” or that trade in “hate speech.” But Anderson’s book is a serious, deeply researched, and humane investigation of a deeply controverted public issue. Some people might disagree with his analysis or his conclusions. Does that make it “inappropriate and offensive”? Does it render it an instance of “hate speech”?

Let’s pause here for a moment. “Inappropriate” and “offensive” describe a wide range of expressions. “Hate speech,” when you come down to it, is really just shorthand for “speech that I do not like.” A free society allows, indeed encourages, robust disagreement. Some may find your expression of certain opinions “inappropriate” and/or “offensive.” But a free society does not interdict in your expressing of them because, while it values comity and good manners, it also values free expression and open debate. 

The Way We Live Now

That said, almost everyone apart from extreme libertarians would admit that there are limits. The expression of some ideas is forbidden in almost all societies. Where are our limits? We know that Amazon thinks it is OK if people express certain kinds of inappropriate and offensive opinions because it cheerfully sells Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, anti-Semitic fantasia deriving from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and various writings by Louis Farrakhan and other anti-white writers. (This is not by any means a complete list of books that some or many consider inappropriate and/or offensive that Amazon sells.) 

Yet Anderson’s scholarly investigation of transgenderism doesn’t make the cut. What does that tell us about “the way we live now”? 

One thing it tells us is that this week’s favored variety of sexual exoticism is far dearer to the wardens of wokeness than fusty worries about anti-Semitism or protecting free speech. In a way, that is not surprising. Irving Kristol was right when he noted, back in the 1990s, “‘Sexual liberation’ is always near the top of a countercultural agenda—though just what form the liberation takes can and does vary, sometimes quite widely. Women’s liberation,” Kristol continued, 

likewise, is another consistent feature of all countercultural movements—liberation from husbands, liberation from children, liberation from family. Indeed, the real object of these various sexual heterodoxies is to disestablish the family as the central institution of human society, the citadel of orthodoxy.

In the case of Ryan Anderson’s subject, the so-called transgender movement, Kristol needs to be supplemented by the Frankfurt School Marxist Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), one of the central gurus of the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

At least two aspects of Marcuse’s teaching are critically important for understanding the current moment. One he expatiated on in his 1966 book Eros and Civilization, a strange goulash that endeavored to blend the fundamentally incompatible teachings of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx into a higher synthesis of radical exhortation. Conceptually, the book is a mess, since Marx and Freud view the world, and man’s place in it, in drastically opposed ways. 

But rhetorically, emotionally, Marcuse’s blandishments about the revolutionary potential of sexual liberation have been like catnip to aspiring radicals. Marcuse looked to sex as an engine of emancipation, but he saw that in order for this biological datum to be enlisted in the project of Marxist revolutionary sentiment it had to unlinked from its home in the family. Marcuse scolded his readers about “the repressive order of procreative sexuality,” urging upon them a return to “primary narcissism” and an embrace of “polymorphous perversity.” Only such a “change in the value and scope of libidinal relations,” he wrote, “would lead to a disintegration of the institutions in which the private interpersonal relations have been organized, particularly the monogamic and patriarchal family.” Herbert Marcuse would have liked the ideology of transgenderism. 

He also would have liked banning books that took issue with whatever orthodoxy the radical credo was peddling this week.

Marcuse’s great contribution to the new gospel of prohibition was his idea of “repressive tolerance.” Western democracies claim to be tolerant because they encourage freedom of expression. Moreover, their prosperity allows them to offer their citizens a wide variety of consumer choice. Such things may seem to the uninitiated to be tokens of tolerance. But Marcuse says that really, deep down where the Marxian dialectic takes hold, they are reactionary tools of social control.

According to Marcuse, genuine tolerance dictates “intolerance against movement from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left.” How does that differ from simple tyranny, which is power wielded arbitrarily? He doesn’t say. But it is clear that the deft application of the idea of “repressive tolerance” helps to explain the vertiginous and apparently arbitrary operation of our new censors. Mein Kampf escapes their obloquy while Ryan Anderson excites it because When Harry Became Sally challenges the next step in the progress of familial deconstruction in a way that the Führer’s exhortations do not. 

“America Uncanceled”? Not Quite

But back to my original question. Have we reached peak preposterousness, or is the tsunami still building? 

Elsewhere last week, I offered a few thoughts about how to cancel cancel culture, with specific reference to President Trump’s vigorous CPAC speech, which took place under the banner “America Uncanceled.” My basic idea was that to challenge cancel culture effectively, one had to have the temerity to stand up to it (“Just Say No,” as Nancy Reagan put it when faced with a different pathology). 

Since then, YouTube, a Google (“We Do Evil”) subsidiary upped the stakes a notch by refusing to carry President Trump’s speech because he called into question the fairness of the 2020 presidential election. I guess YouTube won’t be featuring me either, because I continue to believe that the election (as President Trump put it) was “rigged” (here’s how) and therefore illegitimate. Perhaps that belief, or at least my stating it outright, qualifies me as a potential Domestic Terrorist™ or Biden-My-Time Domestic Extremist™. We’ll see. I’ll let you know if Christopher Wray calls to chat about it. 

Just a few days ago, in what may seem to be a sillier expression of cancel culture, the world learned that Dr. Seuss Enterprises had decided to stop selling six beloved books by the author of The Cat In the Hat because they contain portrayals of various ethnic groups that are “hurtful and wrong.” This really is, as the Princeton linguist Joshua Katz put it, “beyond madness.” 

But the seeming arbitrariness of the interdiction is part of the point. It is, as they say, a feature, not a bug, for the aspiring totalitarians seeking to police what we can read and say and publish. Lenin once said that Communism meant “keeping track of everything.” We don’t call it “totalitarianism” for nothing. What they seek is total control of every aspect of our lives. Last week it was a book by Ryan Anderson and a speech by Donald Trump. This week it is some books by Dr. Seuss. 

Have we come, finally, to the end of the insanity? I wouldn’t count on it. As Meghan Cox Gurdon put it in a column about the canceling of those books by Dr. Seuss, “If you’re being chased by wolves, throwing out a few chunks of meat may slow their pursuit, but it won’t put them off. Why would it? You’ve shown that you’re willing to feed them.”

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