Bill Maher made an interesting point on his show last Friday, arguing that America’s obsession with political correctness is crippling its institutions, leaving the country hobbled in the geopolitical race with China. That’s an accurate assessment, one that also tasks the defenders of cultural sanity with resisting wokeness while not getting bogged down by trivialities at the cost of basic efficiency.
That’s an impossible balance to strike. Despite the left’s false but emergent narrative that conservatives are foolishly and disproportionately obsessed with the culture war, I’d contend the response is largely proportionate. That isn’t to say flashpoints like the fight over Dr. Seuss are never milked or depicted inaccurately by some. Of course they are.
But it’s clear that ignoring and conceding perceivably small battles like, for instance, six Dr. Seuss books or Mr. Potato Head is what empowers the left’s culture warriors to take control of everything. By dismissing flare-ups of insanity on college campuses or in the legacy media, leftists normalized their radical new standards before the public even saw it coming. It’s like the metaphor of the boiling frog. Death by a thousand cuts.
Standards are set in the small dust-ups. The legacy press covers them from the left, then corporations and government institutions respond to the pressure, sometimes convinced the cost-benefit analysis suggests it’s easier to roll over. But rolling over sets the standards, and the standards are unjust.
But those standards are also now the ones by which we’re forced to live, lest we face social and professional consequences for alleged bigotry. Bear in mind that workers without the financial means of a canceled celebrity or journalist are hurt most by those rigid strictures of cancel culture, forced to violate their consciences or suffer financial consequences for perceived transgressions.
What’s sad is that the glass was always half full. Before the acceleration of cancel culture, we’d spilled so much blood, sweat, and tears creating a system of equality under the law. Disparities, of course, remained. Equality under the law did not always ensure equality in practice. But measures like the Equality Act, which would create discrimination against women and people of faith, are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Women, for instance, worked hard to win victories like Title IX that will be undercut by the very bill being sold in the name of women’s equality.
I often think back to Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. Now known simply as Dolly Parton’s Stampede, the Medieval Times-like attraction was once advertised as an “extraordinary dinner show … pitting North against South in a friendly and fun rivalry.” After a viral Slate article questioned the wisdom of that framing, the show removed all references to the Civil War, including “Dixie” from its name. That was the right call. It’s probably for the best that a tourist attraction no longer treats a conflict that involved human bondage as a kitschy gimmick. The Confederate flag probably shouldn’t have been flown at the South Carolina statehouse.
These are just some examples of the bathwater that needs to be thrown out. There are certainly more. To deny their existence would be foolish — nobody should have a blanket opposition to cancellation as a concept. The right has learned not to treat political dissenters like The Dixie Chicks while the left has decided to treat everyone to the right of Noam Chomsky (including Noam Chomsky!) exactly like The Dixie Chicks.
Therein lies the problem, which is one of proportionality. This is not a perfect country. We still have work to do. But the left’s wildly disproportionate attacks on our culture have necessitated a strong defense of it, which means conservatives and others must spend adequate time pushing back, even when the target is deeply stupid and seemingly trivial.
This brings us back to Bill Maher. “You know who doesn’t care that there’s a stereotype of a Chinese man in a Dr. Seuss book? China,” he said last Friday. But the left cares very much. It’s another opportunity for performative outrage, which fuels the media business and another opportunity to construct the facile illusion of an irredeemably bigoted country in need of total scrubbing. It’s hardly the end of the world, but ceding the left’s argument that several Dr. Seuss books are so racist they should no longer be printed sets a standard.
We’ve clearly learned it’s dangerous to keep ceding those arguments because they rapidly amount to a total cultural takeover that renders the values ungirding our shared consensus no longer really a consensus: basic values that were uncontroversial everywhere except the kookiest corners of academia just 10 years ago, like free expression, the Constitution, religious freedom, equality. The cultural left is deliberately and openly engaged in a scorched-earth campaign to replace those basic values with their own.
Sadly that means we must fight these battles as they arise. It’s not a good thing. Nor is it pleasant to think of all the time, money, and other resources our institutions waste on layers of bureaucracy added to protect from and appease the radical ideological minority that has seized control over the culture. When it comes to fighting this cultural revolution, we’re damned if we do but especially damned if we don’t.