Saturday, July 18, 2020

On "Cancel Culture"


I just listened to a long podcast by smart people on “cancel culture” (or its doppelganger, “free speech” or being “politically incorrect”) and as so often, I felt like they missed the point. To me this seems really clear, so I thought I’d jot down some thoughts. (And sorry, they’re not brief.)

The discussion is, at its root, one of power. “Cancel culture” is the idea that if someone holds an unpopular view, they can now be “canceled” by angry mobs. What they’re really saying is that they’re uncomfortable with the shift in power; once certain people were allowed to say anything without consequence, and now they can be held to account. This is no doubt very unnerving for people who are used to speaking without seeing the consequence of their language.

Three thoughts on all of this:

One: All speech has consequences. In many cases, the consequence lands on someone other than the speaker. Very often we aren’t aware of the effect. We may say something very kind and gentle or rude and mean and go about our day, not realizing that the speech affected someone. Sometimes the language does real damage.

It used to be common for white people to joke publicly about races and their supposed negative qualities. We don’t need to go into the examples—you know them well. There are even phrases in our language like “Jew him down” that were so common they became euphemisms. For decades, a white protestant could use that phrase without suffering even the indignity of a raised eyebrow. That didn’t mean the speech didn’t have a consequence—just that it landed entirely on the target, not the speaker. A public figure using such a phrase in 2020 would spark enormous blowback. An on-air personality using it would probably be fired.

The shift between the two eras is the shift in societal power. In the first case, the bigot inhabited a world in which such violence could never be met with a response. In the second, they are made aware of the consequence of their words and made to account for it. For people newly alive to the latent violence in their speech, this feels like an assault on their liberty. “We used to be able to say this, but now the social justice warriors won’t let us.” But what’s really happened is that society now recognizes the equality and humanity of its members and naked displays of bigotry are offensive.

People who argue for “free speech” when they want to convey bigotry do so in bad faith: the very deployment of speech is intended to have an effect. Bigots intend to harm. They bring up “free speech” as a way of inoculating themselves from consequence. The debate around cancel culture is in most cases one of whether racist speech will be accepted or punished. For people long used to acceptance, this new punishment feels like a “canceling.” But let’s examine that more closely.

Two: Some speech is always censored. The anti-Semite who wishes to use the phrase “Jew you down” may complain that their speech is being inhibited. They’re right! This happens not by government fiat, but societal agreement. We are not emerging into a time of repressed speech, however, just into a time when different speech is repressed. For 400 years, white people have policed what BIPOC people could say. It takes very little imagination to understand this if you transport yourself back to a 1950 diner in Alabama. A Black couple even trying to enter the building would have faced the force of law—never mind if they’d started speaking harshly of the white clientele. When certain people are not allowed in the presence of others, that’s real, tangible cancelation, not merely the burn of shame.

The privilege to speak has always been reserved for a small, elite group. In 1950, everyone on a TV newscast or writing in the op-ed pages of the local paper was a white man. To the extent diversity ever appeared, it might have been in the form of a white woman. Giant segments of the population have for centuries always been canceled.

Recently, two high-profile writers resigned from their posts at the New York Times and New York Magazine. Citing blowback they received on social media for their words, they invoked cancel culture. The right wing media went into fits of hysteria, claiming this as evidence of illiberalism so profound it stamped out their voices. But we’re talking about resignations by two people with the most powerful platforms in the country. They weren’t jailed or lynched or evicted or stripped of their livelihood (indeed, both will just retreat to safer domains where their articles won’t be scrutinized by ideological foes) like actually-canceled people routinely are. And of course, the system they decry as impossibly unfair was the one that installed them in these positions to begin with. Andrew Sullivan, the New York writer, posted his final column, a jeremiad describing his supposed oppression, on the very platform he claimed was silencing him. (The irony characteristically eluded him.)

The tumult of the moment is scrambling what we consider acceptable and unacceptable speech. The important thing for those who feel put out that they have to watch what they say is this: people have always had to watch what they say. Now you do, too.

Three: Being embarrassed is not being canceled. We are having a debate in the US right now about what speech will be censored, and it is deeply disorienting for those who thought they understood the rules. One day it’s okay to exalt Jefferson Davis and the Washington Redskins, and the next day people tell you you’re a racist for doing so. It surely feels unfair. For people used to thinking they weren’t doing anything wrong, it stings to learn of the harm they’ve caused. No one wants to feel that.

But shame and embarrassment aren’t cancellation. Even losing a job is for most people not true cancellation, because given the structural realities of society, it is not disqualifying. They will land in another job. (In the vast majority of cases, of course, there’s no consequence beyond loss of status, of being forced to feel shame.) Before the Black Lives Matter protests, the phrase “cancel culture” applied to sexual harassment more than race. Here, too, the actual consequences experienced by the offender (sexist, assaulter, rapist) we’re almost always far smaller than the victim who brought the charge. When cases like Matt Lauer’s came up, people were laser-focused on his losses rather than those of the women over whose jobs he had control. Republicans are still apoplectic about Brett Kavanagh, despite the fact that he now sits on the Supreme Court.

I get how hard this is for people. As a middle-aged white guy, I am privy to a lot of the anxiety other whites are feeling about the possibility of being canceled. I do understand it. I also know that since whites do have social power, when that shame curdles into victimhood and grievance, we end up with far more sinister problems like the one we elected President. And I get how even people of good will feel that this is such a fraught moment they’re worried about causing offense even when they don’t mean to. There’s a very real risk we will, as a consequence of the ambient and structural racism we’ve all imbibed, say something racist and feel the shame of having to see it. That’s scary, and this will be a painful transition.

I do hope, however, we can at least begin to tease these issues apart in good faith. Much of the "cancel culture" discussion isn't good faith--it is an effort by some to try to police speech and herd it back to the comfort zone they always inhabited. And that muddies the water for those actually engaged in a good-faith effort to understand these things.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Random Thoughts Four Months Out

Scattered thoughts accumulating amid the torrent of news.

1. I keep reading the hot take that the veep selection “doesn’t matter.” This is an over-reading of historical data. We have never had a candidate a third of the electorate sees as having cognitive decline, who will be 78 years old when he takes office, and who is almost certainly not going to be able to serve 2 terms. He is very likely hiring his replacement, someone who will take over in his first term or run in 2024. Sarah Palin mattered a great deal. This pick is not nuthin.

2. Trump is in massive trouble. We’re seeing the convergence of several trends that are likely to worsen, not improve, before Election Day: the coronavirus and his handling of it; the long-term effects of the economic collapse (all of the govt support will end before the election); elite GOP support; Trump’s own personal behavior. For example, in the past week he’s retweeted white supremacists, said things are “very good with the coronavirus,” twice failed to say what he’ll do in a second term, and is almost certainly lying about the Russian bounties. He’s running in a nakedly white supremacist ticket in a year when Americans are shocked by structural racism, and is beset by corruption, incompetence, and miscues at every step.

I know people are thinking he has some magic dust (and the electoral college does legitimately favor him), but the window has shifted in the past four months. Then the range of possibilities was a modest Biden win on one side to a modest Trump win on the other. Now Trump has to hope for the barest of EC wins (he’ll certainly lose the popular vote)—and the chance of a Biden landslide (400+ EV) grows. When the battleground moves to TX, Trump is screwed.

3. I have long assumed this election would be marred by widespread GOP efforts to repress the vote. Republicans knee coming in that Trump’s margin was thin, and they’d want to give him every chance to eke out a win. If he enters the fall down a dozen points, trailing in FL, OH, AZ, NC, GA, and TX, I wonder. Every state has its own local calculations, and the worst offenders will continue to pursue efforts to suppress the vote. But nationally, the GOP may see that rigging an election they’re about to lose badly would only compound the disaster.

4. The chance that Trump bails before the election is not identical to zero. He’s a quitter. As a conman and grifter, he knows that there comes a time to pack up the snake oil and get out of town. His mental health is fragile, and I wonder whether his ego can handle getting crushed in an election. Isn’t it at least plausible that he might declare America already great, claim the deep state and media are rigged against him, and decline to run?

5. I have been so energized and excited by the activists protesting structural racism in the United States. This has been such a terrible stain on our body politic, a darkness we carried into everything we did. The currents of the modern Republican Party, from John Birch to Goldwater to Reagan, have all been shot-through with a kind of racial revanchism that sought to launder hate into heritage. It’s so long past due that we owned up to our history, made restitution, and abandoned the legacy of white supremacy. That a Trump administration would end in mass protests for racial justice and polling showing large majorities supporting them—it fills me with joy. So much work left to do, but this moment is so important, so powerful.

Saturday, June 20, 2020


Imagine a foreign leader with a growing reputation for corruption facing unrest at home amid a constant series of scandals. His own government attempted to remove him, and he is facing a number of damaging lawsuits. In order to quash them, he directs his government to fire the attorney leading these investigations. How would the media report this blatant corruption? How would our government respond? What conclusions would people draw about the government?

That is of course the situation we confronted last night when AG Barr attempted to remove the Attorney in NY last night. It’s wildly corrupt. (To his enormous credit, Geoffrey Berman refused to leave.) It’s far more dangerous than the lurid spectacle of a rally amid a pandemic or any tweet. It is a clear case of authoritarianism and an effort to undermine the function of democracy. And it’s happening four months before an election. If this isn’t telegraphing what kind of corruption we can expect if Trump is re-elected, I don’t know what it would look like.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Juneteenth

Adam Serwer, the excellent Atlantic magazine writer, spoke today on WNYC and offered what counts basically as a rosetta stone for American politics--so important on this Juneteenth.

"Race is the historically important political dividing line in American politics. When you have a party that becomes ethnically homogeneous, they begin to see nonwhite constituencies as a threat to their control of the political system. This happens regardless of which party we’re talking about. We’ve seen it happen with the Democratic Party and we’ve seen it happen with the Republican Party. They become more hostile to democracy because they don’t want to share power with people who are unlike them. That’s in contrast to a more diverse party. Having to share power with a diverse constituency that is unlike you breeds a kind of tolerance that is necessary for civic participation and multiracial democracy."

In commenting on the current politics, he added, "Donald Trump is not the cause of prejudice in the Republican Party; he is the manifestation of the fact that the Republican Party has become an almost entirely white, Christian party."

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Summer Doldrums for Trump

A quick check-in on the state of the presidential election as the days of summer heat up. Any election with an incumbent becomes a referendum election—will the country extend the contract of the guy (so far, always a guy) in office? That is all the more true this year, with Trump’s uniquely polarizing status. Biden is functioning basically as a generic Dem. So long as he doesn’t do anything especially noteworthy, voters will be thinking entirely of the incumbent when they cast ballots. 

Trump’s approval has fallen within a fairly narrow range of 37% at the low (Dec 2018, just after the election) to 46% in April this year. He’s currently at 41%, albeit with a disapproval at near all-time highs (55%). While that approval is contained within a historically tight band, there’s clearly a big difference between 46% and 37%. He “won” the election in 2016 by cobbling together that 46% in all the right places. In polling aggregate (all these numbers are from 538), Biden leads at the moment 50.5% to 43.1%. (Elections differ from polling in that they’re binary; one can’t vote for “not sure.”)

When we look at the electoral college, polling is just as bad. Attached is a table showing state polling aggregates in 17 the states that may be competitive in 2020. Biden leads in fifteen, trailing Trump by less than a point in TX and IA. There are a couple ways to think about these. State polls are often less accurate than national polls, so maybe they’re not reliable. Let’s imagine that there’s a 6% polling error—how would that affect the election? Well, if it went in Trump’s favor, it would still result in a Biden win, 288-250. But errors can go in both directions. If it went in Biden’s favor, he’d win by (at least) a 412-126 margin. (A six percent polling error is a big one, too.)

Polls are snapshots in time. They’re predictive capacity is lower the further out from an election we are, and 4+ months is a long time. But it’s not *that* long. Given Trump’s disregard for democracy and the dangers of election funny business, Dems will remain scared and morose until Biden is sworn in. I feel them! But imagine how morose we’d be if the tables were turned? These are Mondale/Dukakis numbers. It’s a moment of huge turmoil and volatility, but it’s safe to say that Donald Trump approaches the election facing massive headwinds.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Headlines

Checking the news tonight and--GOOD LORD.

“Trump campaign demands CNN apologize for poll that shows Biden leading”

“Fired inspector general says he told aides about Pompeo probe so that they 'wouldn't be surprised'”

“As Trump struggles to respond to crises, internal polling instills fear in advisers”

“Coronavirus infections appear to spike in U.S. even as they decline elsewhere”

“Britain briefly suspends sending evidence to U.S. law enforcement, in move some see as a sign of fraying relationship”

“More than 1,250 former Justice Dept. workers call for internal watchdog to probe AG Barr”

“The Army Was Open to Replacing Confederate Base Names. Then Trump Said No.”

“Trump to resume campaign rallies with June 19 event in Tulsa”

“'I can't breathe,' Oklahoma man tells police before dying. 'I don't care,' officer responds.”

“Portsmouth Confederate statues beheaded, partially pulled down by protesters”

“Aggressive Tactics by National Guard, Ordered to Appease Trump, Wounded the Military, Too”

“How to stop Trump from delegitimizing the 2020 decision: election law expert explains”

“Fired inspector general says he told aides about Pompeo probe so that they 'wouldn't be surprised'”

Thursday, June 04, 2020

The Hopefulness of the BLM Protests

For literally years now I have felt destabilized, low, depressed. I'm a natural optimist, but my thoughts have not been easily turned from darkness. I noticed over the weekend that something new had dawned--hope. Seeing people of all stripes taking to the streets--in places like Medford and Pendleton; everywhere, really--is enormously healing. I've realized that this depressive state has been born from powerlessness. For the first time in a long time, I feel some strength coming back, some hope. 

It was interesting to listen to Ta-Nehisi Coates talk about this moment with Ezra Klein and hear him express hopefulness as well. Of course, white folks aren't used to powerlessness; we don't have a lot of experience with its force. Ta-Nehisi is therefore more eloquent and insightful about this than I ever will be. I encourage you to give it a listen. Meanwhile, a short excerpt.
"That illegitimacy that black folks have always felt about police in their communities I would now argue has been nationalized. Large swaths of [white] Americans now feel--not even necessarily that the police are illegitimate, but that Trump is the police. And they feel about Trump the way we feel about cops. This is somebody that rules basically by power."

"I would prefer that situation to 1968, where we were alone and we were in our little ghettos and in our neighborhoods, and we know something about the world and we know what the police do, but other folks can't really see it."

Know hope.