The cancel culture of the right

Stack of books, blurry background

If you were to ask me to name the most potent rhetorical weapon Republicans have against Democrats in the midterm elections, my answer would be “cancel culture.” 

Republicans have mastered buzzwords that turn voters out by activating inner fear. But the traditional sloganeering – “tax and spend,” for example – is pablum compared to the existentialism of “cancel culture.” It captures the lurking intuition haunting many voters that they are slowly disappearing from the American mainstream; pushed to the margins of American life and culture, they suspect, by new forces ranging from inexorable demographic change to insistent political correctness. It doesn’t matter whether you and I agree with their assessments; they vote the way they feel, and the term “cancel culture” toxically distills their feelings. 

But there’s an irony. If the “woke” left has amplified the cancel culture attack in recent years, the extreme right has weaponized it for decades. It has been far more prone to confine the First Amendment, limit free speech, ban and even burn books, squelch protest, cancel, censor and circumscribe what we read, watch and think. 

I am an eyewitness to that history. I grew up in Levittown, N.Y., long considered one of America’s first suburbs. I was in high school in 1975 when a group of school board members in an adjoining district attended a conservative conference, which posted a list of books with this headline: “DO NOT LET THIS MATERIAL FALL INTO THE HANDS OF OUR YOUNGSTERS.”

The list included “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; “The Best Short Stories of Negro Writers,” edited by Langston Hughes; “Go Ask Alice” by an anonymous author; “Black Boy” by Richard Wright; and “Soul on Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver. Several of the books were removed from the school library, litigation ensued and Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico worked its way to the Supreme Court. (For an interesting history of the case, I recommend “Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court, and the Battle for the American Mind” by Yale University law professor Justin Driver.)

Over 40 years have passed, and last fall, the American Library Association reported an “unprecedented” 330 cases of book challenges. Christopher M. Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, recently told the New York Times that “he has not seen this level of challenges since the 1980s, when a similarly energized conservative base embraced the issue.” 

That issue broke into the headlines last month, when the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee voted to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus” from eighth-grade instruction on the Holocaust because of nudity and curse words. (Opponents of school book bans may want to send flowers to the Board. After its highly publicized decision, print sales of the Maus series skyrocketed 753 percent in January, according to NPD Bookscan). 

But the far-right’s cancel culture extends far beyond school libraries. 

What more grotesque display of cancel culture is there than invading the U.S. Capitol in a violent attempt to cancel the constitutional tabulation of ballots in the 2020 presidential election? Or the Republican officials who even now seek to erase the past 13 months of Joe Biden’s presidency (not to mention 81,283,098 votes) by refusing to say that he was elected? Or demanding the cancellation of the television show “The View” because of the odious and uninformed opinions of Whoopi Goldberg? Or the calls for the removal of Colin Kaepernick from the NFL for legally protesting as part of the Black Lives Matter movement? Or, in 2003, the banning of “French fries” from the menus of congressional dining rooms because the government of France opposed the Iraq war? Or demanding that radio stations not play songs by the Dixie Chicks because of the group’s opposition to the same invasion? Or last year’s attempt by the Ohio secretary of state  to cancel a Jane Fonda speech because of her 50-year-old views on Vietnam?

I could go on. 

None of this excuses similar efforts from other quarters. “Of Mice and Men” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” were among the Library Association’s 10 most-challenged books in 2020 because of their treatment of race. In 2021, the Burbank, Calif., school district removed “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Of Mice and Men,” “The Cay” and “Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry,” after complaints by parents that the books used racist epithets. I understand their concerns, but our history is gory and glorious at the same time. And culture, properly used as a teaching tool, challenges us to recognize a society’s capacity to sink or soar.

I don’t minimize bans from the left. But the notion that cancel culture is the sole province of the so called “woke left” is flat out, undeniably, irrefutably wrong.  

Which, sadly, doesn’t matter. In any cancel culture, the first casualty is the truth.  

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags Attempts to overturn the 2020 United States presidential election Cancel culture Joe Biden Political correctness Steve Israel Whoopi Goldberg

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