Vladimir Putin had a very pointed way of summing up the international efforts to sanction his country for its invasion of Ukraine. It’s all an attempt, he said Friday, to “cancel” Russia.
“Not so long ago, they canceled children’s author [J.K.] Rowling whose books were spread all over the world in the hundreds of millions of copies, because she did not please fans of so-called gender freedoms,” Putin said. “Today they are trying to abolish an entire 1,000-year-old country, our people.”
Rowling, the British creator of the Harry Potter juggernaut, has lately courted controversy with her musings on transgender and same-sex politics, but she had no interest in Putin’s attempt to cast himself as a sympathetic ally.
“Critiques of Western cancel culture are possibly not best made by those currently slaughtering civilians for the crime of resistance, or who jail and poison their critics,” she replied on Twitter.
The notion of getting “canceled” — which began life as a Black-culture punchline before it transformed into a White-grievance watchword — has become a central storyline in right-wing media’s ongoing culture wars. The general premise is that criticism or public shaming of a person for saying certain things or alleged bad behavior is tantamount to censorship and erasure.
While entertainers and politicians on the left have also lamented “cancel culture,” conservative media frequently depicts it as a pervasive sickness threatening to undermine American values — and it’s turned into a major area of coverage.
Since Jan. 1, the phrase “cancel culture” has been uttered 366 times on Fox News programs, according to a Washington Post review of television mentions. The phrase was used 2,181 on Fox News programs in 2021.
Fox News’s website has an entire section devoted to it, boasting that “Fox News is your source for cancel culture coverage, as the fear of being 'canceled’ due to unpopular political or cultural opinions, viral Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or TikTok videos, sweeps the country.” Dan Bongino, who hosts a daily radio show and anchors a Saturday night show on Fox News, is now also the star of a show on the streaming service Fox Nation called “Canceled in the USA.”
“Cancel culture looms around every corner,” Bongino warns in a show preview, “and if you think it isn’t changing the fabric of the country, you need to think again.”
On Sunday morning, “Fox & Friends Weekend” co-host Rachel Campos-Duffy fretted about “this cancel culture and what I call this shaming, silencing … You see people who deep inside feel a certain way, but they are afraid to say it because they are afraid they will be shamed, that they will be excluded, that they won’t be promoted. They may be called transphobic, they may be called homophobic, they may be called racist … So, it keeps people quiet.”
American media personalities have been arguing over “cancel culture” for years, from the pages of Harper’s Magazine and the New York Times opinion section to HBO’s Bill Maher and former CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. The debate can be framed as either one about stifling free speech or attempts to escape accountability for objectionable words or behavior. Conservative personalities have also been accused of hypocrisy in invoking the term; there’s a wave of states considering or enacting laws that would limit what schools can teach about race in classrooms.
Putin’s speech Friday wasn’t the first time Russian officials wielded the term as a critique of the West to defend their actions in Ukraine against mounting global outrage.
“It’s all part of the same game, the term ‘cancel culture,’ ” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a speech Wednesday at a university in Moscow. “So, I think what now is going on is an attempt to cancel our common history as part of a strategy to aggressively contain the Russian federation.”
Last fall, Putin said teaching children about different gender identities was “on the verge of a crime against humanity.” And Lavrov complained last year to Russian state news agency Tass about “political correctness” and the Black Lives Matter movement, which he said the United States is attempting to spread worldwide.
“Hollywood changes its rules now, too, so that everything reflects the diversity of modern society, which is likewise a form of censorship, which stifles art and imposes various artificial restrictions and demands. I saw black people playing in Shakespeare’s comedies. I don’t know when we will have a white Othello,” Lavrov told Tass. “You see, that’s absurdity. Political correctness pushed to such absurdity won’t end well.”
White actors have played Othello, a Moorish prince, for centuries, including Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles and Anthony Hopkins.
Putin’s latest speech also comes after he signed a ban into law essentially criminalizing references to the war in Ukraine as a “war” or “invasion,” with a punishment up to 15 years in prison.
Vocally opposing Putin has been dangerous in Russia for many years. In 2012, he sent members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot into a prison labor camp for two years for performing an anti-Putin protest concert in Moscow. In 2020, the Russian president’s most high-profile critic, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was poisoned and upon his return to Russia, detained and imprisoned.
While Putin is borrowing catchphrases from conservative media, Russian state television has lately recycled clips of its biggest stars, including popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine sarcastically scolded “Democrats in Washington” for supposedly pushing a policy that it is “your patriotic duty to hate Vladimir Putin. … Anything less than hatred for Putin is treason.” Carlson has also echoed Russian disinformation that the United States has bioweapons labs in Ukraine.
The confluence of right-wing talking points in the United States and Putin propaganda has sometimes led to outright praise for the Russian president. Shortly before the invasion, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon invited security consultant Erik Prince onto his “War Room” podcast.
“Putin ain’t woke,” Bannon said. “He’s anti-woke.”
“The Russian people still know which bathroom to use,” Prince replied.