The cancel culture, rampant today, is defined as punishing public figures for their offensive behavior, whether boycotting their products and franchises or getting them fired. Today, when the Woke, virtuous and outraged demand the head of a miscreant on a platter it not only works, it works quickly thanks to social media.
Were public figures still shamed and piled on before social media apps like Instagram? A backward look shows that they were—and sometimes their remarks were even “worse” than what provokes cancellation today.
High and mighty cancel culture
Consider, for example, when former First Lady the late Barbara Bush observed in 2005 that many Hurricane Katrina evacuees in New Orleans “were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” What?
How about when former Education Secretary William Bennett mused that aborting Black fetuses would reduce the crime rate, the same year? And who can forget when TV evangelist Pat Robertson called for the assassination of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, also in 2005?
Sorry doesn’t cut it
Today’s cancelled people, in the hate sites of millions of angry tweeters, emit swift and effusive apologies to get out of the hot seat. But years ago apologizing for an offensive statement sometimes only made things worse; it reminded everyone of the original remark and re-offended them all over again as in “When I said that Hitler was …”
Robertson, for example, pleaded that he didn’t say “assassination” but rather that he had said special forces should “take him out.” Oh, in that case …
Bennett tried to finesse his remarks by pointing out that using abortion to allegedly lower crime rate would be “impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible.” How well did his apology work? Who has heard from him since?
That was a cancel culture freakout on steroids.
Who is more important than what
Cancel-worthy phrases have everything to do with who says them. Off the record some New Orleanian evacuees had no doubt said they were better off in their Katrina digs in other cities where they had been relocated. But when Barbara Bush said it, well think “Let them eat cake.”
Many are relieved when a cancel-worthy phrase is uttered by a public figure. Not only are they grateful they didn’t utter the offensive term themselves, they now know where the Woke third-rail is to avoid it in the future. If you say this, this will happen. Moreover, cancellations create an icebreaker for easy social interaction. One stranger can say to another, “Can you believe what that racist (or Islamophobe or transphobe) said?” and the shame has a unifying effect.
Watch them squirm
Occasionally public figures are such bad actors no one enjoys cancelling them—watching them squirm and try to apologize. Instead, this set of wrong-doers are given the ultimate punishment—exile. Who, for example, has even thought about John Edwards, John Kerry’s vice presidential running mate in 2004 who reportedly cheated on his wife as she was suffering from cancer and later had a child with his mistress? (Who has given much thought to the fact that he could have been the U.S. president?)
The public largely exiled movie director Woody Allen, losing all interest in his antics after his affair and marriage to 21-year-old Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his former partner Mia Farrow.
The king of cancel
Still, the ultimate banished public figure probably continues to be cyclist Lance Armstrong who maintained the lie of using no performance enhancing drugs for years, deceiving the public and sports fans everywhere. When the truth came out, fellow athletes, the press and his hometown would have little to do with him. “I’m that guy everybody wants to pretend never lived,” he told a British paper.
Cancel Culture is old hat, but the name is new.
Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” published by Prometheus Books. Check her Facebook page.