Yesterday John McDermott, a self-satisfied -sshat at The New York Times, took a turn at tackling cancel culture. His effort is everything one would expect: at once a justification of illiberal hate-mongering and mob assaults, but also a smarmy explanation of why such assaults backfire. In every respect, his effort is despicable. His basic premise seems to be, hey, this is making these horrible people stronger, but what he misses is the emotional toll on the targets.
Here is his third paragraph about one subject he clearly clearly disdains, who wrote a transgressive article about transgenderism. “Ms. Herzog lost ‘dozens’ of friends over the article, she said. She soon felt unwelcome at lesbian bars. She began to hesitate to give strangers her name. She felt like a ‘pariah’ in her hometown, she said, and eventually moved out of Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.”
This is Edgar Allen Poe-level scare quoting. Does he doubt she lost dozens of friends? Does he doubt she became a pariah? Or is he being willfully dismissive of a group of people he chose to interview in order to prop up his distorted notion of what cancel culture is? I’m guessing McDermott has no experience being cancelled, because he’s on the left and the right doesn’t play that game. I have some adjacent experience with it, and his take is abject garbage.
I worked in theater for almost 20 years in New York City. Along with my co-producers I produced more than 300 ten-minute plays. I acted off Broadway and was briefly and unsuccessfully the president of the Bat acting company at the esteemed Flea Theater. When, in or around 2010, I started publicly identifying as a conservative, in social situations and in the shows I produced, it was fine. In 2013 I wrote a well-received essay for Narratively.com about being a conservative in the New York theater scene.
I was everyone’s quirky conservative friend — until I started to show signs of influence. In 2013 I began writing for The Federalist. My first article was a screed about how the National Endowment for the Arts was hurting the art form I love. Not long after I appeared on CBS’s Sunday Morning program and on NPR defending my views. Suddenly I wasn’t just “Dave who is fun to disagree with,” I was a threat with a platform.
Hours after the CBS hit aired, a figure from New York Theater Workshop took to Facebook to complain that during the interview I and my interviewer had walked in front of their space and made it appear that I was affiliated with them. Now, first off, New York Theater Workshop is a clown car of a company I would never want anything to do with. Second, only about eight people even know who they are. Third, are they crazy? We were just walking down 4th Street at the behest of the producer. I was frankly happy to be able to smoke a cigarette.
The point here is that the moment I and my conservative views had any kind of significance I became a persona non grata. I saw the writing the wall, so I walked away. I love theater. I spent most of my adult life dedicated to it, to producing plays by as many artists as I could, to giving people shots. I knew that was over. Now I write articles, and I have no regrets. But I do have emotional damage, and this is why McDermott’s hit piece bothers me so much.
About a year after I started writing for The Federalist, I went to a play. I saw a guy there whose work I had produced. I went to shake his hand, and he demurred, claiming he had a cold. After the show, as we both greeted actors we knew in it, he was hugging them. My attitude then and now is Screw him and his pettiness. But it hurt. Being treated like such a pariah, a term McDermott dismisses with scare quotes, hurts. He doesn’t know what that is like because conservatives don’t treat progressives that way.
My entire social scene was erased and replaced, thankfully by people who aren’t afraid to shake hands with people they disagree with. And, yes, I now have more influence than this McDermott clown whose outlet I regret having run at. But his disregard for the emotional toll taken by those mobbed by the mob, those hated and ridiculed, those called bigots and worse betrays his disregard for basic decency.
Being cancelled isn’t a joke. It has serious emotional consequences. It stings like slings and arrows. But he is right about one thing. Those who endure it, those who take it, end up stronger. And in the end, that is what McDermott and The New York Times fear the most. People who will not be cowed will always win the day.