For the past several years, “cancel culture” has been held out, mostly on the political Right, as a terrible thing that must be stopped. Personally, I regard “cancel culture” as an instance of what Ayn Rand called an “anti-concept,”
an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept.
The legitimate concept is a principled commitment to non-legalized moral accountability, which “cancel culture” equates, tendentiously, with mob rule and mass hysteria. For those wedded to the term, a principled commitment to moral accountability, outside of legalized officialdom, just is mob rule and mass hysteria. What else could moral accountability be?
The result is a blanket condemnation of political activism as such. Since the relevant sort of activism is reflexively associated with “the Left,” the result is a blanket condemnation of specifically left-wing political activism. All left-wing activism, as far as anti-woke warriors are concerned, marks a descent into mob rule.
With a bit of ingenuity, and a bit of social media savvy, any informed, intelligent person can make a career out of anti-woke polemics, and many have. All you have to do is tap into the widespread outrage about “cancel culture,” find a monetizable way of putting that outrage into words, and follow through on social media. The greater your stamina for exploiting that outrage, and the more attuned you are to demand within your consumer base, the better you’ll do.
One thing lost here is any sense of perspective, above all, historical perspective. Critics of cancel culture like to suggest that cancel culture is somehow a new and fundamentally unprecedented thing–an artifact, presumably, of the social media platforms that have come out in the last decade or so. Social media, on this view, is what makes it possible to generate “woke mobs” that present the novel threat represented by cancel culture. Given the violent and hysterical proclivities of the Left, and the magic of social media, we’re all just a few clicks away from the next left-wing lynch mob.
I find this an enormously opportunistic, hypocritical, tendentious, hand-waving set of claims. But set that aside for the moment. For argument’s sake, let’s give these anti-woke critics just about everything they want to say. Let’s concede that “cancel culture,” exists, bracketing the fact that few seem able to define it with precision, or identify its empirical bona fides as a “culture.” Let’s concede that it’s just the threat they say it is, despite the exiguousness of the evidence for that claim. Let’s concede that it demands the response they say it needs, though the response they want arguably looks exactly like the threat they say they fear. But unlike them, let’s take seriously their pretensions to a “conservative” respect for the past, and extend our reflections to historical contexts beyond the immediate present. Have injustices ever arisen in human history that have legitimately called for cancellation? If so, what can be learned from them?
To that end, consider an episode of early twentieth century history, the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. Here’s a long passage from Hugh Thomas’s classic history of that war, describing the specifically American contribution to the fascist rebellion against the Spanish Republic:
In a long war in the age of industry, supplies of energy are as important as arms. The Texas Oil Company and, to a lesser extent, Standard Oil of New Jersey, gave much help to [General Francisco] Franco by their substantial supplies on credit. Nearly 3.5 million tons of oil were delivered by these companies to the [fascist] rebels during the civil war; while the [non-fascist] republic imported 1.5 million tons, mostly from Russia. The US also sent some lorries [trucks], at prices lower than were available from [fascist] Germany or Italy: 12,000 from Ford, Studebaker, and General Motors, while 3,000 came from Germany and Italy. The oil compensated for the lack of coal in the nationalist [fascist] zone until the conquest of the Asturias in late 1937. (The war stimulated a drive towards the use of oil in industry, on the railways, and in shipping, which continued afterwards.) Nationalist commerce, meantime, was intelligently, if piratically undertaken, with Franco able to sell where he wanted, without worrying about pre-war arrangements. Had the republic been able to purchase arms from, say, Britain, the US, and France then the war would have taken a different course, though it is fair to question whether the equipment from France would have been as good as that from Russia. The I-15 fighter was better then the Breguet, the Degtyareva than the Hotchkiss machine-gun and the T-26 and BT-5 tanks more powerful if more clumsy than the French equivalents (Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, revised edition, p. 916).
Franco was an ally of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s, and his victory was a victory for them, and for fascism generally. As we all know, the Spanish fascists won the Spanish Civil War, and–as the preceding passage indicates–did so with the active assistance of American business. It’s beside the point whether or not American support was pivotal in producing Franco’s victory; that’s unclear. The point, as Thomas stresses above, is that it was causally significant: American assistance helped Franco in ways that helped him win the war, and helped Spain go fascist. For that reason, the assistance was morally significant: it was an active contribution to fascism by the giants of American industry, whether because American industry actively supported fascism itself, or because it was simply indifferent to the conflict between fascism and its adversaries.
Let’s stipulate that it was both morally wrong and politically inadvisable for American business to be supporting the fascist cause in Spain, whether out of active ideological sympathy, or ideologically neutral greed. Let’s stipulate as well that while such support for Franco may have been a legitimate subject of official government response, it was nonetheless also a legitimate subject of non-official response by private individuals. For one thing, the American government, being responsive to popular opinion, would more likely have restrained the oil companies if the American people had insisted loudly enough that it do so. Beyond this, it’s plausible to think that American business might well have thought twice about supporting Franco if doing so had significantly hurt its bottom line, whether through widespread condemnation, or a full-scale boycott, or both.
There was, alas, no social media in 1937, and no live question of assembling a woke mob of cancel culture warriors on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to target Texas Oil or Standard Oil. But let’s run with the thought-experiment for a moment. Imagine that there had been social media back then, or alternatively, that some equivalent of Texas and Standard Oil were selling oil to some equivalent of Francisco Franco today. Would it have been morally legitimate to cancel these companies if the opportunity had presented itself? Should the executives in question have been called out, doxxed, and shamed, and the companies themselves boycotted? Or would that have been an objectionable form of cancel culture, mass hysteria, and mob rule?
Suppose the oil companies of 1937 should have been canceled. If so, it seems a fair inference that their analogues ought to be canceled today. A critic might of course respond that the pro-Franco businessmen of 1937 have no analogues today. I find that disputable on purely factual grounds, but let’s treat that as an argument for another day. Grant the objection for now. Suppose that there are no present-day analogues to the oil companies or dictators of 1937. It doesn’t follow that such analogues can never arise in the future. Things change. Indeed, the objection itself presupposes that things can change: once upon a time, it implies, evil businessmen like the Texas/Standard Oil executives supported evil dictators like Franco; now, they no longer do. Presumably, this is because business executives are now an enlightened breed that they weren’t in the past, as likewise are today’s politicians.
Fine. But if the world can change in this fairy tale fashion from evil to good, it can also change by the same mechanism from good to evil. So the critic of cancel culture who accepts historical instances of cancellation has to admit that cancellation, though flawed in the present milieu, is not in principle an objectionable thing. It has its uses. It had its uses. It just doesn’t have them now. But if it once had its uses, then, by the principle of universalizability, cancellation has legitimate application in any context relevantly similar to the ones in which it was once justified. So it’s safe to infer that if and when cancel culture is directed in the right way at the right malfeasances, it can be a force for good. Since no one can categorically deny the possibility that such malfeasances might ever arise, no one can dogmatically assert that “cancel culture”–mass support for cancellation–is necessarily a bad thing. In its place, it seems like a good and necessary thing. Absent mass effort, no one could have convinced the oil companies of 1937 to stop selling Franco oil, and forego the millions they made as a result.
Suppose, however, that someone thinks that not even the oil companies of 1937 ought to have been on the receiving end of a campaign of cancellation. Business is business, whether it promotes fascism or freedom. If businessmen want to sell oil to fascists, that’s literally their business. No one has the right to deny them that business opportunity, and rights aside, no one ought to make a big moralistic deal out of it. What matters, or ought to matter, to the consumer is not whether oil companies are selling oil to fascists, but the quality and price of oil to consumers. If the quality and price are right, everything else becomes irrelevant. And since quality and price are not primarily moral considerations, it follows that morality is fundamentally irrelevant. It’s not from the benevolence or justice of the oil executive that our cars run as well as they do, but from their amoral business acumen, acumen that seeks revenue wherever it can be found, even if doing so means the installation of a fascist dictator from 1939 to 1975, and indirect support for Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, Salazar, and the like.
This view holds, in short, that support for and complicity in fascism is unobjectionable, at least if it’s lucrative enough to justify the investment. For those of us who regard fascism as a great evil, this answer is problematically revealing: it suggests that hostility to cancel culture might well be a form of sympathy, whether active or passive, for fascism.
In its passive form, the view professes relative indifference to the requirements of a concerted campaign against fascism. Yes, it admits, fascism may be a bad thing, but so is a bad climate for business. In fact, a business-friendly socio-political environment is, all things considered, slightly more important than the ideological imperatives of anti-fascism. You can’t eat anti-fascism, after all. Faced with a trade-off between the two things, a rational person chooses the former–commodities, not ideology. Better cheap gas than anti-fascist activism that casts moral doubt on the bona fides of business.
In its active form, the “anti-cancel” view might well amount to covert support for Franco. Franco was, after all, facing the Left in some of its most retrograde and problematic forms. Fascism is bad, but perhaps the Left–that Left–is worse? In other words, faced with a choice of evils, perhaps fascism is the lesser of evils. If so, why not support it? And if so, what better way to support it than to sell it a bit of oil (but not too much), make a bit of a profit (but not a gigantic one), operate under the radar screen (rather than come out in favor of fascism), and then accuse critics of such maneuevers of having sympathy with the worst parts of the Left?
In other words, those who oppose cancellation in the past are either amoral supporters of fascism who’ll support fascism for the right price, or are themselves fascists or proto-fascists who sympathize (however quietly) with fascism on ideological grounds. In either case, the critique of cancel culture turns out to be a fig leaf for complicity with fascism, concealing the fact that such people have, whether for money or dogma, made common cause with fascism itself. Their elaborate, often overwrought fixation on the Left is a form of projection or diversion, intended to deflect attention away from their quiet sympathy for anyone capable of functioning as an efficacious Anti-Left.
So here is my challenge for the anti-woke warriors of the present. Maybe it’s about time for anti-woke warriors to set their presentist biases to one side and face some anti-fascist questions of a historical nature. What do they think about the sustained cancellation campaigns of the past? Were they justified, or were they not? Can they be justified if the same threats arise today, or not?
And now, prepare for a news flash: Arguably, fascism from the political Right is a real danger today. What we confront is not just the possibility of some fascist dictator abroad, but of fascism right here. Dealing with it is not a game or a thought-experiment. Right now, anti-fascist resistance to American proto-fascism has mostly been non-violent. What the Right calls “woke mobs” and “cancel culture” might also be interpreted more charitably as confused masses of anti-fascists unclear about the best way to combat the approach of fascism. It’s lamentable that they’re as clumsy and confused as they are. But the bigger problem we face is that it’s not clear how long non-violence can last.
Critics of cancel culture often sound as though they’d like to disarm us even of our non-violent instruments of resistance in advance of any need for recourse to violence. We shouldn’t be shy about asking them why. If fascism were to come to this country, something like “cancel culture” would be a crucial means of resistance to it, at least before the outbreak of overt violence on a mass scale. If contemporary “cancel culture” is as defective as its critics claim, perhaps it needs–like so many defective things–to be reformed. But the critics of cancel culture don’t seem interested in reform. They seem to want abolition in advance of having a replacement. Is that because they’re misreading history? Or is it because they’re reading history in a fascist way? They need to start answering those questions. And the rest of us need to keep posing them until they do.