It’s an irresistible parallel to draw, I guess — except that it’s wrong, and it misses the point of what’s really going on in the culture right now.
I generally don’t like to use the term “canceling,” which has become a catchall cliche. To the extent that it does have an actual meaning, though, canceling has nothing to do with punishing a politician who won’t adhere to the party line. That’s just old-fashioned bullying.
Rather, canceling is about a shift in the primacy of free expression. It refers to the idea that someone who traffics in the wrong ideas, or who has been accused of some profound moral transgression, does not deserve the right to be heard at all.
Canceling stems from the idea, ascendant on the left, that free expression is too often an excuse to oppress minority views — and therefore it’s sometimes necessary, in the interests of a just society, to silence hurtful voices.
The argument that conservatives are just as guilty of canceling isn’t new. During a committee hearing in March, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) read into the record a partial list of people he said had been canceled by Republicans — from journalists and comedians to ACORN, Campbell’s Soup, climate change and the band formerly known as the Dixie Chicks.
The reality, though, is that Republicans can’t really cancel anything, because they don’t actually control anything.
I’m not talking about controlling chambers of Congress or state legislatures. That kind of control matters a lot if you’re passing laws (or blocking them), but it doesn’t exert much influence on the public square.
No, I’m talking about the country’s central clearinghouses for speech, ideas and art — nearly all of which are firmly in the grasp of liberal, coastal, educated urbanites like me.
Conservatives don’t control the mainstream news media; virtually everyone who brings you the news, and the vast majority of people who comment on it, are culturally, if not politically, liberal.
They have virtually no representation among Hollywood studios, elite publishing houses and music labels. They make up only a small segment of the innovators, executives and engineers who oversee social media platforms.
As for academia, which is supposed to be the ground zero for invention and debate in the United States, good luck finding many Republican department chairs and tenured professors at the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities.
I’m not complaining about any of this. Trumpism, which is suddenly the basis of the Republican Party, is proudly indifferent to truth. We should be thankful that it holds so little sway among our cultural gatekeepers.
What I’m saying, however, is that there really is no symmetry between the parties when it comes to their ability to choke off free expression.
Conservatives can make things hard for dissenters when it comes to commercial or political viability. The Chicks suffered mightily for offending their own fan base, just as Cheney might soon find she has no future left in Republican politics.
But if Cheney wants to make her voice heard among a wider audience, her opportunities just expanded tenfold. All she has to do is walk into any publishing house tomorrow in Manhattan, where she’ll likely be rewarded with a book deal worth many times more than her salary as a lawmaker.
She can lecture at any university she wants; there isn’t a show, podcast or talkfest from Nantucket to Aspen that wouldn’t pay a premium in travel expenses to get her on the summer docket. Whatever “canceled” means, Cheney is now experiencing the opposite.
Truth is, there is no one the right can censor who would not immediately find more exposure than ever before among the most powerful intellectual institutions in the country.
Contrast that with the voice of, say, Blake Bailey, the Philip Roth biographer whose publisher, W.W. Norton, decided to un-publish his book after allegations of sexual assault surfaced. Whatever one thinks of Bailey, his work — maybe his voice — will now essentially cease to exist.
This imbalance matters, because the left needs to acknowledge that it has a unique responsibility for safeguarding controversial speech and vibrant debate, no matter how intense the pressure from a new generation of activists who feel otherwise.
It’s easy to point at Republicans and say, “They do it, too!” But however boorish conservatives can be toward their own, the truth is that the intellectual left enjoys a near monopoly on the power to protect American ideals of free expression.
Or, as it happens, to tear them down.