The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Are we all being canceled? No. But the cultural revolution is real.

Books by Dr. Seuss at a bookstore in Brooklyn this month. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)
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There’s a trend in the left-leaning political media whereby anyone who faults both parties in a debate is immediately bullied for “false equivalence” or “whataboutism.” The idea is that the left clearly occupies the moral high ground, and anyone who can’t acknowledge this fact is just fetishizing balance at the expense of truth.

Sometimes that’s fair — but not in the case of the culture war over free expression. Here, the plain truth is that both parties are acting recklessly, and we ought to be able to say so.

On one side are the risible histrionics of Republicans, who seem completely unmoored in this post-Trump moment, a carnival sideshow suddenly missing its Barnum-esque huckster.

I’ll admit I don’t watch a lot of Fox News, but apparently, if I did, I would know that the main thing happening in the country isn’t the effort to end a pandemic or another massive economic bailout, but rather the “canceling” of icons in children’s literature and Saturday morning cartoons.

While Congress was debating a nearly $2 trillion spending package, the Republican House leader, Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), was actually doing a dramatic reading of “Green Eggs and Ham” for his social media accounts.

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This is all pretty overhyped. As my own critics repeatedly pointed out when I wrote about this issue (in verse) last week, no one has banned “Green Eggs and Ham” or any other Dr. Seuss book. Only six, mostly obscure, books of the dozens written by Theodor Seuss Geisel are slated to be disappeared by the company that publishes them (and by eBay, which de-listed them) because of racist imagery.

(As for Pepe Le Pew, the licentious and irritating cartoon skunk who has also came under attack, let’s be candid: No one’s going to boycott the Oscars because Pepe lost his role in “Space Jam 2.”)

We know what Republicans are really doing here, because it’s the main play they took away from the Trump era: Try to divide the country between traditional White voters and everyone else, and hope that no one notices you’ve ceased governing entirely.

One of the frustrating realities of our politics, however, is that whenever one party stakes out the extreme side of an issue, the other immediately retreats to the opposite pole.

And so the overwhelming leftist response to Republican hysteria has been to say that there is no such thing as “cancel culture,” no actual threat to free expression. It’s all just a lot of Trumpian nonsense, propagated by racists and sexists.

This isn’t true, and it isn’t helpful.

The first time I heard the term “canceling” was when no less a liberal than former president Barack Obama assailed it during an interview in 2019. Obama warned, presciently, that “wokeness,” at its worst, could lead to a rigid policing of language and thought.

This illiberal retribution has only intensified since, and it’s reaching a critical point. A culture of self-censorship pervades media and the arts — a fear that using the wrong word or recommending the wrong book can derail a career.

We are, in fact, witnessing the most direct assault on free expression in my lifetime, mainly because a loud segment of younger activists view free expression as a convenient excuse for perpetuating oppression.

Opposing this worldview isn’t Trumpian or conservative. It’s what we used to call ACLU-style liberalism.

Most sensible liberals I talk to — in politics, news, entertainment or academia — understand this. But there’s a palpable fear of getting on the wrong side of the woke mob, and it doesn’t seem worth the risk.

They tell me it’s just a moment of pent-up rage. They tell me it’ll pass.

Well, all right. But where have I heard this before?

Every day for the past four years, Democrats wondered aloud how craven Republicans could stand by idly while President Donald Trump perverted their ideology and transformed their party.

The answer was pretty simple: They were afraid of their own activists, and they thought the moment would inevitably pass. It didn’t.

This burgeoning cultural revolution — and yes, I use that term knowing full well the allusion — won’t blow by like a cloud, either. And if principle isn’t enough to persuade the White House and leading Democrats that they will need to take on the threat at some point, then self-interest ought to be.

Because you can send out all the stimulus checks you want, but if 2022 rolls around and the primary image of Democrats is of a party trying to impose on the country an acceptable code of language and imagery, you will very likely lose your reed-thin majorities.

Are Republicans ridiculously overhyping the dangers of cancel culture for their own cynical reasons? Of course they are.

But Democrats know the problem exists. And sheepishly waiting it out will come with a cost.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Joe Biden is kryptonite to the Republican culture war

Alyssa Rosenberg: The Great Dr. Seuss Hysteria of 2021 shows how silly and unimaginative adults can be

Sonny Bunch: How copyright law can save Dr. Seuss — and the rest of us — from cancel culture

Ron Charles: Did Facebook ‘cancel Abe Lincoln’? The truth is complicated — and alarming.

Margaret Sullivan: So you’re being held accountable? That’s not ‘cancel culture.’