On Contact: Cancel culture
On the show this week, Chris Hedges discusses cancel culture with Dan Kovalik, author and associate professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh.
Dan Kovalik is the author of ‘Cancel This Book: The Progressive Case Against Cancel Culture’.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today we discuss cancel culture with Dan Kovalik.
Dan Kovalik: It's not about, you know, fighting for particular reforms to combat racism. It's about how I, as an individual, can struggle to become somehow less racist. There's this like 12 steps you can go through every day to do that. It's all about an individual thing. It's--again, it's this individual thing, like a Christian between him or herself and God. It's not about joining to create something to attack the one percent who have gained billions during the pandemic while most of America has suffered. And very few people were out speaking against this, right? You know, you have people living in tents in major cities. And, you know, we're worried about how, again to purify ourselves on an individual basis.
CH: The cancel culture, a witch hunt by self-appointed moral arbiters of speech has become the boutique activism of a liberal class that lacks the courage and the organizational skills to challenge the actual centers of power. The military industrial complex, lethal militarized police violence, the prison, industrial complex, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the intelligence agencies that make us the most spied upon, watched, photographed, and monitored population in human history, the fossil fuel industry, and a political and economic system captured by oligarchic and corporate power. It is much easier to turn from these overwhelming battles to take down hapless figures who make verbal gaffes, those who fail to speak in the approved language or embrace the approved attitudes of the liberal elites. These parity tests have reached absurd and self-defeating levels. The irony, of course, is that the cancel culture was pioneered by the redbaiting of the capitalist class and their shock troops in agencies such as the FBI to break radical movements and labor unions. Tens of thousands of people in the name of anti-communism were canceled out of the culture. The well-financed Israel lobby shutting down critics of the Israeli apartheid state, and those of us who support the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement as anti-Semites is a classic example of how cancel culture is used to destroy free speech. Joining me to discuss the cancel culture is Dan Kovalik, the author of "Cancel This Book: The Progressive Case against Culture." So, Dan, let's begin because the cancel culture has been picked up by the right wing. That's not where you come from, it's not where I come from. And I think that you would argue that, you know, in many cases they have a point. Let's explain what the cancel culture is first and then perhaps you can talk a little bit about its roots because traditionally, it's been the left and the liberal class through certainly the red scares, redbaiting, that have been the victims, but not anymore.
DK: Yes, correct. First of all, thanks for having me on, Chris, really appreciate it. So I think the type of cancel culture, I think there's a few types that I focus on are cases where someone, a well-intentioned person, says something that others deem offensive. It may be offensive or it may, again, be construed as offensive. People then mob that person on social media perhaps. And in extreme cases, they call for that person to lose their job, to lose their position, to be deplatformed, and we see this over and over again. The most recent case I saw was from, I think, this week, the CUNY Law Dean has resigned because she said at a board meeting that people were treating her as if she were a slaveholder which, to me, is a fairly innocuous statement. But that's the level we're at, that any misstatement can lead to this type of cancellation.
CH: So talk about its origins. How did it arise within the culture?
DK: Yes. Well, I agree with you that we can trace it back certainly as far as McCarthyism, maybe farther than that. I mean, we have an interesting culture and society where we have a very brisk First Amendment and Free Speech rights. But always along with that, side-by-side with that, we've had periods where people were persecuted for certain things, whether for being a witch for example or an alleged witch, or for being a communist. But the current cancel culture, I believe, emanates from the post-modernist movement in the '60s and '70s, from the new left which, I think, has its roots in post-modernism. And this all comes again from the academy that I think largely, at one point, had a large base in Marxism. But then through the McCarthy witch hunts, the Marxists tended to be purged and you had this new movement, which essentially abandoned class and class struggle for more, let's say, identity politics. And also frankly abandon reality for some notion that there may be no objective reality, and that what is more important is how people feel about reality. And, of course, once social media, the internet has created, social media has created, you have this ability to attack people in a very quick, easy way in which you have no--the attacker has virtually no accountability because they can do it anonymously, right? If they wish, and in which they can attack people, again, not necessary for the things they do, but the things they say and the things they think because, again, we live in this world where reality is not as important as the perceived world and one's thoughts. And so I think things really accelerated with social media. But, again, I think we have to go back to the post-modernist movement, and, again, really the attack on communism and Marxism in the, well, really, since the Russian Revolution, but certainly since the McCarthy period of the 1950s.
CH: You write in your book "in the spirit of cancel culture, many on the left of the political spectrum are excited about the new round of censorship being imposed by corporate giants such as Facebook and Twitter which have now banned Donald Trump, and Google, and Apple which have kicked Parler off of their app platforms, making it nearly impossible to download that app. All of a sudden, these corporate behemoths, the ones who have truly been engaged in the looting of America, are now the liberals, saviors, or so they may think." Can you talk about that alliance?
DK: Yeah. Well, it's a--it's a--it's a bizarre alliance, but as you say, there is now this notion amongst many liberals and self-proclaimed leftists that somehow, you know, the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, and the Twitters are on our side, and that they will and should engage in censorship of the right and of people who propound theories that we don't like with the belief that that won't come back on us on the left. When in fact, you know, every study I've seen shows that the left tends to be more censored by these groups than the right. But there is this belief that somehow these companies are on our side and, of course, we see this, too, with how big companies like Amazon and again, Facebook and the Trader Joe's, and Target, and others have supported even, you know, left wing protests, the BLM protests of the summer, giving millions of dollars to foundations linked to--somehow to those protests. And so there is this bizarre kind of alliance between, again, what calls itself the left and the corporate world.
CH: Right. The fact is those digital platforms very quietly have already begun censoring the left. They took down WikiLeaks, they destroyed its funding mechanism, they used electronic interference to block people from going into its events. And then they've used algorithms for several years. I've been a victim of that to marginalize critics of capitalism on the left. And so it's not even hypothetical. This process has already begun. I want you--I want to--you make a very important point, again it's at the beginning of your book, you say, "The left's obsessive concentration on purely symbolic struggle, for example I'm removing statues even of abolitionists and of trying to cancel works of art and books that, though flawed in some ways, have tremendous historic and other value. These symbolic acts, while having some importance, take energy and effort away from the fight for things such as healthcare and income support that will actually help people, and that a greater proportion of people in this country would be willing to get behind such acts tend quite unnecessarily to alienate many people who might otherwise join the struggle for progressive reform." I think you're making the argument that the whole cancel culture is only widening the social and political divide.
DK: Yes. And I think it's meant to. And what it is doing, again, is I think alienating people who could be the allies of the left, who frankly could be won over by the left. You know, poll after poll shows, for example, that huge majorities of the American public like 67% the last I saw, support Medicare for All. The majority of the public supports, police reform supports criminal justice reform. On every poll, Americans tend to be pretty good on these issues, but instead of focusing on those issues which are winnable if, you know, we have a broad enough base, you know, agitating for those things. We tend to, in fact, look down upon many of the people who would otherwise support those things. We look down on Middle America, on people in the rural areas, even people, for example, who voted for Trump even though there was nearly 75 million of those people, right? And instead of trying to win them over, we simply vilify them, right? And we cancel a whole group of people. They're the deplorables, as Hillary Clinton said famously, and that term has been adopted by many other liberals who have embraced it. Meanwhile, what you saw this summer, and I--as I point out in the book, incredible things you had people in Hazard, Kentucky protesting for Black Lives. You had people in Nebraska doing that. You had people in the most un, you know, conventional places, you know. You had the deplorables out protesting for Black Lives. So what does that tell you? Those people are not all racists, and backward, and fascists like a lot of people say. They're reachable, but what--because of the focus of cancer culture, we turn those people away. And we turn them off and that is what happened, by the way, by the end of the summer. You know, while the BLM movement had gained support after the murder of George Floyd. By the end of this summer, less people supported the BLM movement than before the George Floyd murders because they were turned off by a lot of this stuff. And then we have to acknowledge it, we have to. If we want to move forward we have to acknowledge our mistakes as a movement.
CH: When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about cancel culture with author Dan Kovalik. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about cancel culture with the author Dan Kovalik. So let's talk about speech. You write, "Speech that offends but does not interfere with another's right of participation should not be banned or otherwise suppressed. Rather such speech…" As I took for when you're talking about Professor [INDISTINCT] you add, "…should be met with speech, with argument and dialogue as a means to advance both free speech and hopefully equality as well." But those people who propagate cancel culture have a different notion of the boundaries for speech. So can you speak about that issue?
DK: Yes. So now while the left and liberals tended to embrace the idea I was saying, that we need a free market place of ideas, and would defend free speech to the wall, now many on the left and liberals believe that certain speech needs to be suppressed. And, again, it could be in many times merely offensive speech that really doesn't harm anyone or just perceived to be offensive speech. Again, maybe no one's actually offended by it. But it's perceived to be offensive to others. And so, again, instead of engaging with that speech and hearing someone and then trying to counter what that person said with facts and with figures, the goal is simply to silence those people. And by the way, a lot of times that's because there aren't good arguments against what certain people said. And there's an example of this, again, from the summer. There was a gentleman, I'm forgetting his name, but on Twitter who tweeted out this study, I think it was a Harvard study that showed that nonviolent protests are more effective at winning people over than violent protests. And this was actually a study conducted by an African-American professor. And this guy was mobbed on Twitter and they called for him to be fired. I think he was, in fact. Because he produced a report that people found inconvenient and they couldn't disagree with it on the merits. But they somehow found it, again, impolite in the context of the day where people were engaged to some extent in violent protests. And so they just certainly--simply called for him to be silenced. And that is not…
CH: Well, Lee Fang endured this at The Intercept when he quoted someone who talked about black-on-black violence. It was a quote, "that's his job." And he was attacked by people within his own organization.
DK: And he's an African-American. Yes.
CH: You said that these kinds of attacks--yeah.
DK: Yeah, he quote was African…
CH: Saying that these kinds of attacks, you write--yeah, resulting--you write, "And racists simply doubling down on their bigotry." Why?
DK: Because I think that, first of all, people feel offended when they see someone cancelled for what they deem to be a minor infraction. I think, too, when you overly--over-broadly characterize people as racists when they're not, or they at least don't want to be and don't believe themselves to be. They may respond to that with a certain fatalism and say, "Well, I guess there's nothing I can do not to be racist." So, you know, these things tend to backfire. Again, because you're not trying to engage people, you're simply trying to vilify them and marginalize them. And so how are those people going to react? Are they going to try to embrace your views? No, they're probably going to reject them and retreat into their own, you know, subculture which may be, you know, right wing or whatever.
CH: You write, "BLM protests, at least the ones I witnessed, were indeed more religious in nature than they were political. They seemed more about white protesters going to somewhere--to somehow purify themselves than about achieving any particular political ends. And that's quite possibly why they didn't really achieve any such ends." I think that point of moral purity is key.
DK: Yes. Yeah, I think that what you see, again, in a country that is very religious in many ways, even if not traditional ways, you see people engaging in these movements in a religious way where, again, the way they speak is scripted as a religious group might in which, you know, they're asked of course repeat chants, as you would in church. Literally kneel as they would in church. And also to, you know, like the old monks who used to flagellate themselves kind of engage in this trial, self-trial by fire where they confess to being whatever, racists or whatever they are, and seeking some sort of redemption but, of course, as I note in the book, this particular religion offers no redemption, that you will always be somehow flawed. There is no heaven awaiting you. Which, again, seems to me like, well, why would you join that religion? I mean, that's the only reason you might, you know?
CH: You write--you write in the book, "The goal of cancelling, it seems to me, is not to educate or to advance the cause of social justice but to punish and ostracize. It is not a means to an end, it is the end."
DK: Yeah, well, you saw this--again, you saw these strange scenes over the summer where people would go and shout at people while they're dining and telling them to lift their arms up in protest or chant something. Again, is that calculated to win those people over? I mean, if it is, it's a total miscalculation. You're never going to do that. You will turn those people off. So again, the goal is not necessarily to win people over, it's to show your own moral superiority to them and to yourself and to your friends. And again, by outing other people, by casting others out and shunning other people, this is again a classic religious thing. It's like the Amish and their shunning. I mean, it's the same thing.
CH: You argue that these people don't want, you write, "Real social change. They wanted best to settle scores, to advance their own careers and their own reputations." Is this a movement that, at its core, is about narcissism?
DK: Well, I do think--I think that individualism which, again this country has been infected with from its origins and the natural outgrowth of that narcissism are very much a part of this. It is about--and again, the whole struggle against racism has become this individualistic struggle. It's not about, you know, fighting for particular reforms to combat racism, it's about how I, as an individual, can struggle to become somehow less racist, there's these like 12 steps you can go through every day to do that. It's all about an individual thing. It's--again, it's this individual thing like a Christian between him or herself and God. It's not about joining to create something to attack the one percent who have gained billions during the pandemic while most of America has suffered. And very few people were out speaking against, right? Again, you have people living in tents in major cities. And, you know, we're worried about how, again, to purify ourselves on an individual basis.
CH: I want to ask, you write about the authoritarian right. And you use the term authoritarian left. Is this ideology the foundation for an authoritarian left?
DK: Well, I think so. You know, and some people like Matt Taibbi, he wrote a piece comparing it to the Maoist Cultural Revolution. I think there's apt comparisons there, you know? Because the idea is that you can be with me, you can be a comrade. But if you don't think the way I think you should a hundred percent--a hundred percent of the issues, or you don't speak in the jargon I think you should, even though that jargon changes by the month, right? Then I am going to cast you out. We're only going to draw in the ranks of people who agree and speak a hundred percent of what we approve of. That is an authoritarian way of acting. And we're going to get you fired by the way if you don't toe the line. I mean, I think that has to be viewed as authoritarian. And I note in the book, of course, that psychological studies say in terms of the psychological makeup of the authoritarian right and authoritarian left, there's not much of a difference. They're authoritarians, they just have a different political outlet, you know?
CH: Well, that--that's why Hitler would only recruit from the Communist Party. You quote Professor Adolph Reed who himself is black that the view that anti-racism in the 21st century may end up being used for the same purposes as racism was in the 20th century, to divide the working class in ways that undermine its ability to fight corporate and state power. Is that what's happening?
DK: I think so. I think you're seeing that. Again, what you're seeing is that you have this real urban and rural divide, first of all, where most of these movements we're talking about are based in the cities, which tend to look down upon those in rural areas in Appalachia, who tend to look down on the working class who they view to be basically white, by the way. You don't hear about the black working class, you hear about the white working class. And so what has happened is the class that we thought might be the mover of history and might be the vehicle towards changing our very exploitative economic system is being rejected and people within that class are being rejected by this cancel culture movement. And I think much to the delight of the ruling class, I think they're laughing at all this. I mean, you have working class people fighting each other in the streets. It's the best thing could ever happen to the one percent and they're making out like bandits.
CH: Great. That was author Dan Kovalik on his new book, "Cancel This Book: The Progressive Case Against Cancel Culture."