If it’s Not “Cancel Culture,” What Kind of Culture is it?
Another long week in the all-stick, no-carrot revolution
This is an excerpt of a longer article about the Harper’s letter, the attempted cancelation of Steven Pinker, and other events of the last week:
The intellectuals whose ouster is being called for by the new revolution were themselves products of the last cultural revolution. People like Chomsky, Steinem, and even Pinker came of age during the sixties liberation movements, which shaped academia and popular culture for generations. These were people raised on beat poetry, antiwar marches, Jimi Hendrix and movies like The Graduate, whose one-word summary of the aspirations of their parents’ generation – “Plastics” – represented everything these new educators didn’t want for their students.
This new intellectual class had grown up in a time of empowerment for women, for gays and lesbians, and for black and brown people, but also of the human spirit generally. Long before the term “intersectionality” was coined in 1989, post-sixties liberals understood the interlocking nature of political and intellectual repression.
The tumult of the sixties revealed the clear relationship between the ignorant conventions that kept women at home and gays in the closet, and the academic orthodoxies suppressing the research of people like Alfred Kinsey, whose work would lift everything from the female orgasm to bisexuality out of the dungeon. Dr. Benjamin Spock became famous for telling “good mothers and fathers” that what they “instinctively feel like doing for their children” was better than a century of ignorant child-rearing books (written by highly-credentialed men, mainly) that told them not to kiss or hold their kids.
So many things that were banned, from Where the Wild Things Are to The Catcher in the Rye to Billie Holliday’s Strange Fruit, turned out to be revelatory. The animating principle of the revolution that swept through America back then was that once ignorance was conquered, we would be free to celebrate our common humanity.
It’s no accident this message made great art. The power of everything from jazz and rock to abstract painting and Gonzo journalism derived from exploding conventions. There was symbolism in the way people of all backgrounds felt like dancing to the new music or laughing at Richard Pryor’s forbidden comedy (similarly, cracks formed in the Soviet state when dissidents overseas chuckled over samizdat copies of The Master and Margarita). There was a universal urge toward peace, love, forgiveness and humor that brought people together. No one needed to be driven by whip toward this message. People were born with a hunger for it, which is why it became culturally hegemonic for half a century after Vietnam and Woodstock.
Contrast that with today. If sixties liberals were able to sell their message to the rest of the country by making music even squares and reactionaries couldn’t resist, the woke revolution does the opposite. It spends most of its time constructing an impenetrable vocabulary of oppression and seething at the lumpen proles who either don’t get it or don’t like it.
Its other chief characteristics seem to be a total lack of humor, an endless, crotch-sniffing enthusiasm for hunting skeletons in closets, a love of snitching and decency committees, a fear of metaphor (woke culture is 100% literal), a mania for collectivist scolding (“Read the room” is this week’s “Destroy the four olds!”), and a puritanical mistrust of humping in the apolitical context. The woke version of erotica is writing an article for the Guardian about how “ejaculating” skyscrapers are symbols of cisnormative dominance. They make the Junior Anti-Sex League seem like Led Zeppelin.
The question isn’t whether or not “cancel culture” exists. The question is, without canceling, what would this culture be?
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