Cancel Culture Isn’t So New

When Major League Baseball pulled the All-Star Game out of Atlanta this year because of Georgia’s election reform law, it wasn’t the first time a national organization penalized a locality with a boycott. You may remember as well when in March 2015 Governor Dan Malloy of Connecticut signed an executive order barring any state spending on travel to the State of Indiana by employees or contractors. The order was issued because the Indiana legislature had passed a religious freedom bill giving businesses room to deny services that violated their religious beliefs (for instance, a devout Catholic not having to design a cake for a same-sex wedding). 

But that’s not the precedent I mean. 

If you go way back to 1977, the same thing happened with the Equal Rights Amendment, which was one of the biggest political controversies that year. The amendment would alter the U.S. Constitution by adding, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The proposal had been around since the 1920s but never had enough support until the 1960s when women’s liberation became a cultural force, the National Organization of Women (NOW) was formed, and more members of Congress publicly came on board. The House voted overwhelmingly to adopt the resolution in October 1971; the Senate, with 84 yea votes, followed in March 1972. President Richard Nixon endorsed the move. 

That sent the proposal to the states for ratification, which would succeed only if two-thirds of the states (38 of them) voted in favor. Given the enormous approval in the House and Senate, passage appeared inevitable. Congress set a date in 1979 as the deadline for ratification. 

By 1977, however, the amendment had passed in only 35 states, and feminists were getting nervous. Phyllis Schlafly and other opponents had mobilized conservative voters with warnings that the amendment would rob women of deserved privileges such as exemption from the military draft. 

The elites couldn’t believe it. This was one of the noble causes of the ’60s, the empowerment of women, and History and Justice demanded the nation move forward. After watching the sweeping liberalizations of the Sexual Revolution affect every inch of American society from clothes and hair to television shows and public deportment to revisionist history and women in the professions, liberals in high places assumed the entire country was theirs to ameliorate, to reform, to educate. Now, the reactionaries seemed to be winning—five of the ratifying states had rescinded their votes—and that went against the righteous and necessary escape from the bad old 1950s world of Donna Reed and Ozzie and Harriet. The forces of progress had to work harder. 

Which brings us to an elite boycott much older than the ones in recent years. 

Faced with a steadily rising loss of millions of dollars in visitor spending, officials and business people in such cities as Chicago, Miami Beach, Atlanta, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Phoenix, St. Louis, and Kansas City are expressing increasing concern as more and more national organizations join the boycott.

So reported the New York Times on its front page on November 12, 1977, in a story headlined, “Boycott by Equal Rights Backers Puts Squeeze on Convention Cities.” More than 50 groups that hold annual conventions, the story stated, had pledged not to meet in any states that had failed to pass the ERA.

The story singled out three professional and academic groups that were, by virtue of their size, particularly potent protesters: the National Education Association, the American Psychological Association, and the Modern Language Association (to which I belonged for 20 years). They were open about their aims: to press local convention players (hotels, restaurants, etc.) to influence legislators to hurry up and vote “Yes.”

The Times also pointed to a decision by a public entity, the District of Columbia City Council, which anticipated what Governor Malloy would do 38 years later. According to the vice president of NOW, interviewed for the story, the council had resolved: “No District of Columbia government money shall be spent on out-of-city travel expenses of District of Columbia government employees who attend conventions in states which have not ratified the ERA” 

In the story, a figure in Chicago’s tourism office put the cost of the boycott to the city at close to $30 million, while a Miami official said cancellations by the National Education Association and the American Library Association amounted to a $9 million loss.

That’s the upshot of the account. It didn’t track who exactly would suffer the loss, only the “city.” Two NOW officials quoted in the piece didn’t get specific, either. They didn’t identify any particular individuals who would suffer; they merely tallied the amount of financial pain they believed they could inflict. NOW’s vice president noted the group’s desire to shut down the International Women’s Year conference in Houston that very week, telling the 20,000 attendees to turn around and go home.

The other NOW official headed the chapter in Atlanta, and she raised a complication regarding the boycott. Although the Atlanta leadership supported the ERA 100 percent, she explained, “It’s the rural reps who control the Legislature who are against the ERA” In other words, boycotting Atlanta would punish allies in the city for what politicians far from the city have done. No matter, NOW would carry on: “But we’ll grit our teeth and do it.” 

That remark perfectly illustrates the progressive attitude, does it not? As certain commentators pointed out when MLB pulled out of Atlanta, the ones who suffer such boycotts the most are not politicians or corporate CEOs. They are the maids, taxi drivers, street vendors, waiters, bellhops, and various other service providers, most of whom prefer not to mix business with politics. Those unnoticed persons are vulnerable to the consequences of ideological conflicts of the elite to a much greater degree than are the elite themselves—and the elite barely notices their pain. 

In the last few years, the populist versus elite tension has become a central civic topic, but as the ERA episode from 1977 shows, the one’s carelessness of the other goes back a lot further. 

What happened first with the Tea Party and, then, the rise of Donald Trump was the expression of a class consciousness that was imposed upon the lesser orders by the elite themselves, and took decades to materialize. In my many years working in academia, the federal government, and journalism, I can’t remember a single instance when a comfortable occupier of those enviable stations ever spoke of the noble spirit of the working class, nothing on the merits of the Common Man or Main Street—in short, none of the old left-wing social sense. There was always a different attitude, suspicious and contemptuous.

By the 1970s, New Left progressivism had triumphed, all the identities except class identities were now dominant. Indeed, it was now the hoi polloi, the great unwashed, those who were not “college-educated” who stood in the way of progress. Why respect those people who voted for the cretins in the Georgia legislature from rural districts; who attended backward churches with their Bibles in hand; who didn’t care to keep up with bien-pensant opinion? If many of those individuals of false consciousness ended up as casualties of progressivist agitation, well, they kinda deserved it. 

As in so many cases today, academics in 1977 were the pioneers of this sort of cancellation. We have gone from English and psychology professors punishing their intractable inferiors to commissioners of professional sports and governors of liberal states punishing them.

When I joined the professoriate in 1990, I came across a few of these vindictive and merciless creatures of the post-’60s Left, and though I was a liberal at the time they were a bit frightening. (Only after a decade in academia and a turn to the Right did I learn to shrug them off or openly oppose them, realizing that nothing was to be gained by being conciliatory.) Still, I assumed that they were a minor and transient phenomenon. I never dreamed that their bilious politics would end up directing aspects of Democratic Party policy, turning wealthy heads of corporations to their will, and making sports into a political arena. Oh, how clueless that was. As Andrew Sullivan once put it, we all live on campus now. 


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