The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Substack controversy’s bigger story

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The cancellations have started again.

In recent weeks, the new editor of Teen Vogue resigned before she even started over racist tweets written when she was 17 (and had already publicly apologized for in 2019); the host of next season’s “The Bachelorette” was replaced after he failed to condemn a former contestant’s college behavior; and online activists began pressuring a self-publishing service called Substack to deplatform some of its most successful writers.

Individually, these may seem like small incidents, even unrelated, but they are manifestations of an increasingly merciless “cancel culture” that tolerates no violations of progressive norms, even those committed long ago or inadvertently. That culture has become powerful in media, academia, entertainment and corporate America, which means it affects everyone. The Substack fight in particular might prove an augury of where free expression is headed.

Substack is a start-up for self-publishing email newsletters: Writers decide how often to write and whether and how much to charge; Substack sends the newsletters and collects any fees. The ease of use has made it popular with journalists: I myself briefly had a holiday Substack newsletter.

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Some of the most prolific users are heterodox political writers who had found mainstream publications an increasingly poor fit. A number quickly rose to the top of the Substack leader boards. This attracted the gimlet eye of the cancelers: Other online writers — some of whom had their own Substack newsletters — have leveled accusations of transphobia and other offenses. A nascent boycott aims to pressure Substack into deplatforming the alleged offenders. Reportedly, their campaign is having some effect.

The accused, of course, insist that they are not transphobic. I find many of the accusations unconvincing, but I won’t parse all the back-and-forth. While the specifics of charges obviously matter, even more important than who wins these individual fights is what those victories signal for the rest of us.

In this case, a win for the cancellation artists would validate the dark prophecies one often finds in conservative writing, including on Substack: a future where “woke capital,” in thrall to left-wing activists, makes it effectively impossible to hold a professional-class job without enthusiastically embracing progressive orthodoxy — especially on issues of identity.

That world already seems uncomfortably close for journalists and academics, given that most of their institutions lean left. But self-publishing? It ought to be immune from cancellation unless the mob can somehow convince you to fire yourself.

That changes, however, if activists can enforce a secondary boycott on the newsletter services, payment processors or web hosts that writers use. If that happens, it’s hard to see where viewpoint diversity could survive for long, except possibly in conservative outlets big enough to run their own technology and thereby survive the purge.

Happily, I rather doubt this latest attack will work. But that, too, would tell us something important about cancel culture and its limits.

Substack became an appealing sanctuary for media’s heterodox refugees because people are most likely to pay for a newsletter that offers them something they can’t get from other outlets. Ironically, thanks to the cancellation artists, viewpoint diversity is one thing that’s getting harder to find in bigger places with more resources.

That’s not the only thing people look for on Substack — newspapers also don’t provide 1,500-word missives on the history and preparation of craft cocktails, which is why my husband, a political writer, runs a successful cocktail newsletter on the side. But viewpoint diversity is obviously profitable. So profitable, in fact, that one wonders why woke capital doesn’t do what capital normally does and go after a lucrative economic niche.

Recently, economist Cameron Harwick suggested one possibility: We actually are witnessing woke capital do what capital normally does, if the capitalist controls a monopoly. That is, extracting excess returns from the market — what economists call “rents.”

Companies with valuable monopolies typically force higher prices from customers, a.k.a. “economic rents.” Labor monopolies, however, often prefer fringe benefits to straight cash. And woke capital, Harwick argues, is actually the creation of a labor cartel: the highly progressive monoculture of professional workers. To keep them happy, institutions that employ a lot of professionals have been pressured toward a narrow ideological consensus, corresponding to the views of roughly the left-most 8 percent of the American electorate. It’s a hidden fringe benefit that Harwick dubs “ideological rents.”

If Harwick is right, then cancel culture can’t be defeated by Republican senators hassling Facebook or Twitter, because that doesn’t touch the monoculture. But there’s also some good news here for dissenters: Monopolies create market opportunities. While comfortable incumbents in media or entertainment may pass up those opportunities to keep peace with their staff, hungry upstarts such as Substack usually cannot afford to do the same.

If forced to choose, simple arithmetic suggests those firms should probably let the most progressive 8 percent go and focus on the other nine-tenths of the country. And if the math tilts toward serving a broader demographic, it also leans toward a potentially prosperous sanctuary where dissenting views can thrive.

Read more:

Megan McArdle: As cities rebuild, remember that people don’t just fear crime. They fear disorder.

George F. Will: Trump and many of his ‘woke’ critics are more alike than they realize

Max Boot: Why we should cancel the phrase ‘cancel culture’

Matt Bai: Are we all being canceled? No. But the cultural revolution is real.

Paul Waldman: The American right is consumed with its cultural Lost Cause