April 15, 2022
What’s new about cancel culture?
Not as much as it might appear; but not so little either. Cancel culture is as old as culture itself. Every society establishes boundaries of what’s acceptable. If one finds, or places, oneself on the wrong side of them, one gets canceled. The mechanisms can be subtle—a polite rejection letter after submitting a “controversial” article to a scholarly publication—or quite brutal—a stint in a re-education camp or an assassination. Julien Benda, in La Trahison des Clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals), posited that, if you’re faithful to the values of Truth and Justice, it must inevitably come to pass that you’ll be ostracized—or, in the current idiom, “cancelled”—by society: “A clerk who is popular with the laymen is a traitor to his office.” He gestured to Socrates and Christ. A true clerk, according to Benda, accepts Christ’s dictum that “My kingdom is not of this world.” Had Benda lived longer, he could have added to this martyrs’ pantheon Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, both of whom, it is now forgotten, were reviled at the time of their respective assassinations. Right after Malcolm X’s death, The New York Times editorialized that “The world he saw through those horn-rimmed glasses of his was distorted and dark. But he made it darker still with his exaltation of fanaticism.
Yesterday someone came out of that darkness that he spawned, and killed him.” Who would’ve thunk the outré woke Times cancelled Malcolm X on his deathbed? When Martin Luther King spoke out against the War in Vietnam, fellow Civil Rights leaders denounced him for jeopardizing federal funding of the domestic War on Poverty. “What you’re saying may get you a foundation grant,” he retorted to one, “but it won’t get you into the Kingdom of Truth.” On the night before his assassination, as if he had a premonition that the next day would be his last, King eerily delivered what turned out to be his own eulogy. It was perhaps the greatest political speech in recorded history, arguably surpassing in poignancy Pericles’ oration as immortalized by Thucydides. The only possible rival to him is Frederick Douglass, the pages of whose speeches to this day throb from his spoken words. But King’s biographers report that, in the last year before his assassination, even King’s closest collaborators deserted him politically as they mocked his morbidity.