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Dangerous Ideas and our Cancel Culture

Should companies should be free to cancel whatever they want?

HBO Max drops Gone with the Wind from its archive because to keep the title available “without an explanation and a denouncement of [its racist] depictions would be irresponsible.” Ah, yes, let’s avoid “irresponsibility.”

I’ve never seen the film and have no desire to see it, but it’s now the number 1 film at Amazon and number 5 at Apple. Pamela K. Johnson reminds us that Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, became the first African American to win an Academy Award. “I’ve sat through GWTW exactly once as research for a historical novel in which McDaniel is a character. I don’t like the film either. At the same time, it is sad to see the actress get canceled along with the movie. She endured so many trials to stand, briefly, in the spotlight.”

In other cancel news, an episode of Fawlty Towers is pulled because of racial slurs. Little Britain was removed from Netflix and the BBC because of blackface. Of course you know that Cops was cancelled a few days ago. LivePD has also now been cancelled.

The editors at National Review take the fad for canceling culture to task:

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.

I, too, think it is dumb for corporations to cave to pressure like this, but I also think that they should have the freedom to make dumb decisions, and when those decisions wrongly discriminate against employees, they can be sued for them.

In New York magazine, Jonathan Chait writes briefly about how the impetus to cancel each other is bad for democracy. It’s not an amazing column, but he notes in particular how the idea of “dangerous ideas” is used selectively to cancel stuff people don’t like. Many ideas are dangerous, Chait says, and he’s right:

The most concerning thing about the Cotton episode is the logic that was given to pull the column in the first place: ‘Running this puts Black people, including Black @nytimes staff, in danger,’ a phrase repeated thousands of times on social media.

The line of reasoning here is perfectly coherent. We can easily imagine a world where Cotton’s op-ed persuades Trump to deploy troops, who then kill protesters and reporters, many of them black. But we could envision a similar sequence resulting from any number of op-eds. Suppose the Times had given an op-ed to an advocate of repealing Obamacare at the crucial moment, persuading John McCain to supply the deciding vote to eliminate it. Millions of people would have lost insurance, and as a direct result, tens of thousands of them would have died.

Many other policy debates have life-and-death consequences: the environment, unemployment, and so on. On nearly all these issues, the brunt of policy failure falls disproportionately on black Americans, who are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, losing their insurance, being harmed by pollution, and other threats.

Politics is a matter of life and death. If you start with the premise that one side has a monopoly on truth, you inevitably land on the conclusion that questioning its ideas is dangerous.

The question isn’t whether the Times should apply any ideological standard to its columns; it always has. The question is whether the appropriate standard is one that lends itself so readily to abuse. The norm of suppressing a belief because somebody saying it makes them or others unsafe has left a trail of absurd or horrifying episodes in academia and elsewhere that many progressives insisted didn’t matter because It Wouldn’t Happen Here. And yet as this norm spreads, its central flaw has never been resolved: Any definition of ‘unsafe’ that aims for a Tom Cotton will hit a David Shor or a Lee Fang.

In other news: The writers and editors of Dissent remember Howe at 100. “When intellectuals can do nothing else they start a magazine,” Irving Howe wrote about founding of Dissent. “The remark came to be viewed by his critics as an admission of futility, but the opposite was the case.”

Is tennis progressive? A new book attempts to argue it is: “David Berry’s engaging and thoughtful book sets out to show that tennis doesn’t deserve its elitist reputation. ‘Underneath its establishment image,’ he writes, ‘tennis is a surprisingly radical game.’ He isn’t the first author to make such a claim. In her quirky 2014 book Love Game, the cultural historian Elizabeth Wilson attempted to prove that tennis is inherently subversive and ‘romantic’. Hers was an argument rooted in aesthetics: she stressed the sport’s visual similarity to dance . . . Berry, a former TV producer, adopts a different approach. For him, the radicalism of tennis has less to do with the feelings it inspires than with the ways in which it has functioned, over the years, as a fulcrum for various social forces, quite a few of which have been progressive.”

A. E. Stallings writes about the sculptures of the First Cemetery of Athens: “We’re lucky to be close to the First Cemetery of Athens, which remained open while museums and archaeological sites were closed. (Archaeological sites have now reopened, but are eerily empty of tourists.) A working cemetery, it is also essentially a statue garden, including works by famous Greek sculptors from 19th-century neoclassicism to the present. Not only human and angelic figures in the round and in bas-relief, in marble and bronze, but owls and lions, Greek and Egyptian sphinges. My favorite sphinx is a brazen one perched like an umlaut atop Adolf Furtwängler’s grave-plinth. She’s about the size of a lynx. Her muscular haunches, her coiled tail, make her look ready to pounce, while her verdigris camouflages her among cypress boughs.”

The Internet Archive to end its National Emergency Library program: “The nonprofit has said its National Emergency Library was a public service to people unable to access libraries during the pandemic, but publishers and authors accused it of theft.”

The power of art on paper: “For most of its history, paper was a disobedient medium. It was made from discarded scraps of hemp, cotton, flax, and bark—in a word, garbage—that had to be boiled into pulp and bullied flat by heavy stones. Different kinds of fiber would harden at different speeds, creating hills and valleys, dark patches, and shriveled corners, so that each piece, in its own unique way, refused to be perfectly straight or pale or smooth. Paper wasn’t a neutral host for art but a stubborn work of art in its own right. At a glance, the theme of Michael Rosenfeld’s current exhibition can seem like a hazy curatorial gimmick. The sixty-three artists, represented here by ninety-seven works, have two and only two things in common: they lived in the twentieth century, and they used paper. By surrendering to the medium’s primordial powers, however, the show—which can be seen by appointment—ends up feeling surprisingly cohesive.”

Photos: Alabama

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