In an age of cancel culture, it's perhaps fitting that the death of a free speech hero would receive little fanfare. So when the poet, publisher, and provocateur Lawrence Ferlinghetti shuffled off this mortal coil in February at the grand old age of 101, there were dutiful obituaries in The New York Times and elsewhere but the respects were hardly commensurate with the debt owed the man. By publishing Allen Ginsberg's fuck-filled poem Howl in 1956, Ferlinghetti risked jail and financial ruin—and did as much as any single individual to end not just government censorship but a stultifyingly repressive American intellectual culture. When Ferlinghetti was hauled into court, legitimate U.S. publishers wouldn't touch books such as Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer for fear of being charged with obscenity. He helped create the period of increasingly free and open expression that moral scolds, increasingly in the name of progressive visions of "anti-racism," are challenging today.
The obits reported that Ferlinghetti, who skippered a submarine chaser during World War II and returned from service an ardent pacifist, died of interstitial lung disease. But on a mythopoetic level, I prefer to think that he gave up the ghost because he knew his brand of free expression was no longer welcome in the country for which he fought so bravely in wartime and peacetime. "I am signaling you through the flames," he wrote in "Poetry as Insurgent Art," one of his later works. "You can conquer the conquerors with words." Not if words themselves are the problem.
How should defenders of free speech think about "cancel culture," that hotly contested yet vague concept that defines the current moment like flappers and bathtub gin defined the 1920s, communist scares and juvenile delinquency defined the 1950s, and leisure suits and encounter groups defined the 1970s? Author Jonathan Rauch distinguishes canceling from mere criticism in that its practitioners seek "to organize and manipulate the social or media environment in order to isolate, deplatform or intimidate ideological opponents." Cancel culture isn't about seeking truth, he writes; it's "about shaping the information battlefield" in order to "coerce conformity and reduce the scope for forms of criticism that are not sanctioned by the prevailing consensus of some local majority."
Somebody calling you a jackass on Twitter is criticism. Somebody organizing a mob to get you kicked off of Twitter, fired from your job, and put out on a figurative ice floe is cancel culture. Former President Donald Trump, himself a target of social media cancellation, exemplified cancel culture in 2018 when he called on the NFL to fire players who took a knee during the playing of the national anthem and mused aloud about deporting truculent athletes too. "You have to stand proudly for the national anthem, or you shouldn't be playing, you shouldn't be there," he told Fox & Friends. "Maybe you shouldn't be in the country." At a 2017 rally, he told a crowd that he'd "love to see one of these NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag to say, 'get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He's fired. He's fired.'"
Cancel culture operates on at least three different levels: the personal, the corporate, and the political. Each is more troubling than the next, because each casts a broader net and eliminates more and more options. It's one thing for me to cancel my Twitter account after being attacked as morally obtuse, worse to be permanently kicked off the site because its moderators have decided I am beyond redemption, and more troubling still to have the government shut down Twitter because it allowed my awful speech.
It's tempting to single out that last level because the other two involve individuals or private entities who ultimately should be free to do whatever they want. Only the government can engage in true censorship, surely. But the three layers work synergistically to increase the cultural and political regulation of thought and expression. To build as free and open a society as possible, we need to challenge the precepts of cancel culture at all levels.
Self-cancellations, in which individuals take the initiative to put themselves out of the public's misery, are in many ways the purest manifestation of cancel culture, because they reveal the religious-cum-totalitarian sensibility undergirding the process. From the Spanish Inquisition through Mao's struggle sessions, it wasn't enough simply to damn the accused. The goal was to make them testify to their moral and ideological failings, to show they were "doing the work" and owning their sins.
This move was on display when the banjoist for the fading hipster-retro band Mumford & Sons announced in March that he "was taking time away from the band to examine [his] blindspots" after he unforgivably endorsed a book that purports to unmask "antifa's radical plan to destroy democracy." Winston Marshall's crime was to tweet "Finally had the time to read your important book. You're a brave man" at the controversial journalist Andy Ngo, whose Unmasked spent time on the New York Times bestseller list and is still available for purchase at Amazon, the new arbiter of what is and isn't hate speech. "I have offended not only a lot of people I don't know," wrote Marshall, "but also those closest to me, including my bandmates and for that I am truly sorry." I'll come back to Marshall, who announced in June that he was leaving Mumford & Sons for good. For now, let's just note that when he apologized for his wrongthink, he felt a need to insist he was not just sorry, but truly sorry.
Around the same time as Marshall was doing the work of owning his sins, the estate of Dr. Seuss announced it was ceasing publication of a half-dozen of the author's lesser-known works because they "portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong." For the first time since 1937, when Seuss first published And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, with its depiction of a yellow-skinned, pigtail-wearing "Chinaman who eats with sticks," we could all sleep better knowing that McElligot's Pool, The Cat's Quizzer, and other titles so obscure they "haven't sold in years through the retailers BookScan tracks," according to The New York Times, would be even more completely ignored. And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, the canceled volume people are most likely to have heard of, sold about 5,000 copies last year, compared to 513,000 for Seuss' better-known Oh, The Places You'll Go!
Then there was the case of The Test Kitchen, a Gimlet Media podcast that self-exploded faster than a SpaceX rocket while aiming to expose a grotesquely racially toxic workplace at the Condé Nast magazine Bon Appétit. The series was so woke that its host, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, explained to listeners that while she had talked with white supervisors at Bon Appétit while reporting the story, she wouldn't deign to air their privileged voices. But the podcasters themselves were canceled just two episodes in for supposedly creating a "toxic dynamic" at their own workplace—one that a former employee said was "near identical" to the reportedly white supremacist one they were exposing at Condé Nast. Pinnamaneni's white boss, the studiously politically correct A.J. Vogt, copped to failing to sufficiently support a unionization effort "largely led by young producers of color" and "asked for the team's permission to step away." (It was graciously granted and he departed.) Though herself an ethnic minority, Pinnamaneni resigned after confessing publicly she "did not pay enough attention to the people of color at Gimlet with less power and I should have used my power to support and elevate them further."
And then there was the curious case of Captain Underpants, the popular gross-out series for kids, which topped the American Library Association's annual list of "most challenged" titles in 2012 and 2013 and still regularly makes the top 10 for "offensive language" and "violence." The publisher and author abjectly apologized for a different book, called The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future, because it "perpetuates passive racism." "We are deeply sorry for this serious mistake," read the joint statement from Scholastic Books and Dav Pilkey, who further begged his readers, like a repentant, drunken murderer issuing his last words on the gallows, to "forgive me, and learn from my mistake that even unintentional and passive stereotypes and racism is [sic] harmful to everyone."
This is life today in these United States, where a seemingly infinite supply of such incidents appears on a seemingly hourly basis, like automated bursts of super-concentrated air freshener in airport bathrooms. They are furiously discussed and disputed on MSNBC and Fox News and even in the halls of Congress, and then are forgotten as promptly and completely as the Great Murder Hornet Scare of 10 minutes ago. It's cancel culture as Doritos, junk-food snacks we wolf down even as they make us feel guilty, a little queasy, and still hungry. As Jay Leno once counseled, "Crunch all you want, we'll make more."
Such self-cancellation episodes are often funny. Not always, of course, as in the case of Neil Golightly, a communications executive at Boeing who resigned his position after his 1987 article opposed to letting women fight in combat reappeared like a deadly old girlfriend in a Robert Mitchum film noir. He was 29 years old when the offending article was published, and he had reversed his position decades before he joined Boeing. That's not in the least funny, but only someone with a heart of stone could fail to laugh when the people responsible for the Test Kitchen podcast were hoisted on their own petard. The good news is that these things are usually more The Chocolate War than Lord of the Flies. No literal blood is spilled when Teen Vogue, a hyper-woke publication that toggles between gushing profiles of Karl Marx and guides to anal sex, fires its incoming editor in chief, a 27-year-old African American, for having made insensitive tweets about Asian Americans and gay people when she was herself a teen.
Yet these cancellations reveal something profoundly depressing about the state of discourse in our society. It's one thing to cop to mistakes in judgment, behavior, and belief, take your lumps, and disappear for at least a long weekend (as did social media celebrity Chrissy Teigen after being revealed as an online troll who at one point urged a 16-year-old girl to commit suicide). It's another to figuratively don a dunce cap like a victim in China's Cultural Revolution, get pushed down the virtual street by an online throng, and beg forgiveness from total strangers (a lot of people I don't know) while employing intensifier words (to be deeply sorry for serious mistakes) that work only to call into question the speaker's integrity. If you're truly sorry this time around, it suggests you were faking it all those other times you said it before. Such rhetoric smacks of a hostage who will tell captors anything to avoid torture or be set free, of a schoolkid in detention running through every act of contrition he can recall, of a Manson Family member trying to hit the right combination of verbiage and sad-sack visage in front of the parole board.
If the stakes in any given self-cancellation episode are vanishingly small in the grand scheme of things, the overall effect is not. Each new case drains another drop of blood from a body politic that's already bone-dry from a thousand cuts.