It’s not hard to see how Ta-Nehisi Coates latest opinion piece for the NY Times came to be. Cancel culture is a hot topic, detested by the right and often defended by the left. Plus, Colin Kaepernick is briefly a hot topic again after his recent, disastrous try-out for the NFL. I’m sure when Coates was looking for something to write about, the idea of fellow leftist Kaepernick as the real victim of cancel culture seemed like an easy touchdown pass. But as is often the case with Coates, the ability to make the language flow papers over some deeper problems with the ideas he’s toying with. The problems begin in the first paragraph:
We are being told of the evils of “cancel culture,” a new scourge that enforces purity, banishes dissent and squelches sober and reasoned debate. But cancel culture is not new. A brief accounting of the illustrious and venerable ranks of blocked and dragged Americans encompasses Sarah Good, Elijah Lovejoy, Ida B. Wells, Dalton Trumbo, Paul Robeson and the Dixie Chicks. What was the Compromise of 1877, which ended Reconstruction, but the cancellation of the black South? What were the detention camps during World War II but the racist muting of Japanese-Americans and their basic rights?
Thus any sober assessment of this history must conclude that the present objections to cancel culture are not so much concerned with the weapon, as the kind of people who now seek to wield it.
I had to look up Sarah Good. She’s one of the first women who was accused of witchcraft in Salem back in 1692. Why is Coates including her in a piece about cancel culture? He doesn’t explain it beyond what you see above. If she counts as an early American victim of “cancellation” what are the lessons Coates wants us to draw from that? Is his point that modern day cancellation is a shadow of its former self (Good was hanged)? Is his point that Good was an innocent victim of powerful courts and religious figures (she was poor)? Depending how you see this first point in his argument may frame how you see the rest, but he doesn’t bother to explain.
That’s a shame because cancel cutlure really does have some disturbing similarities to the Salem Witch Trials. Sarah Good, and many others, were the victims of false accusations by young girls, Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Parris, who were not even teens at the time. The girls would act as if they were being possessed, i.e. rolling their eyes back in their heads, and claim they were being bewitched by Sarah Good and other women.
Claiming to be the victim of vague, oppressive forces is something the left excels at these days. Nearly every campus protest is premised on the idea that bad ideas need to be silenced lest they, like witchcraft, cause harm to the most vulnerable in the community. Like the Witch Trials, the accusations often have little basis in fact and rely mostly on the spread of an emotional reaction among a small cabal of like-minded people.
You can still see this today. Stick a microphone in front of any random student protesting Ben Shapiro’s latest campus appearance and they will likely have a hard time telling you why they are protesting. Most only know that he’s been deemed a witch by their fellow leftists and is therefore a danger to the community. But I sort of doubt those are the conclusions Coates hoped his readers would reach.
Speaking as one who has felt the hot wrath of Twitter, I am not without sympathy for the morally panicked who fear that the kids are not all right. But it is good to remember that while every generation believes that it invented sex, every preceding generation forgets that it once believed the same thing.
His use of the phrase “morally panicked” while simultaneously saying he has sympathy is interesting. Presumably the “morally panicked” are people on the right and left who’ve expressed concern about cancel culture. The phrase “morally panicked” actually seems like a call back to the brief mention of the Witch Trials, i.e. one of America’s most famous and deadly cases of moral panic. But the morally panicked in that case were, to put it bluntly, the villains of the story. Does Coates have sympathy for the people who hanged Sarah Good? Once again, it would be helpful if he’d say what he thinks about the things he brings up instead of leaving us guessing what point he might be making.
Besides, all cancellations are not created equal. Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Brett Kavanaugh at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings of sexual assault, was inundated with death threats, forced from her home and driven into hiding. Dave Chappelle, accused of transphobia, collected millions from Netflix for a series of stand-up specials and got his feelings hurt.
This isn’t anything close to being a serious comparison. Blasey Ford made accusations against Kavanaugh and, unlike the Salem Witch Trials, the authorities (and many of the people watching) concluded they lacked evidence sufficient to derail an exemplary legal career. I have no doubt Coates disagrees with the outcome but would he really want to return to the place where an accusation lacking details and backed up by no one who was present was enough to assume someone’s guilt?
It’s a shame that Ford was harassed and threatened but Coates must know that people on the right get harassed and threatened on a daily basis by online mobs. Pick any significant figure in the Trump administration and read the responses to their tweets. Again, my point isn’t that this behavior is acceptable only that it’s universal these days for anyone who enters the partisan meat-grinder of politics.
Finally, we get to Kaepernick:
The N.F.L. is revered in this country as a paragon of patriotism and chivalry, a sacred trust controlled by some of the wealthiest men and women in America. For the past three years, this sacred trust has executed, with brutal efficiency, the cancellation of Colin Kaepernick. This is curious given the N.F.L.’s moral libertinism; the league has, at various points, been a home for domestic abusers, child abusers and open racists.
And yet it seems Mr. Kaepernick’s sin — refusing to stand for the national anthem — offends the N.F.L.’s suddenly delicate sensibilities.
Coates has a solid point about the NFL’s record of employing some truly horrible people whose personal lives probably ought to keep them off the field. It’s a shame that Adrian Peterson seems to have been given a pass (he got a minor suspension) for beating his child so hard it left stripes.
But the fact remains that Kaepernick’s refusal to honor the national anthem is offensive to millions of fans. I don’t think Kaepernick’s lack of a job is part of an NFL plot. I could be wrong but it seems to me that any team that hires him knows it would have to defend whatever Kaepernick has to say on social issues for as long as he’s wearing their jersey. In short, he’s a PR nightmare because it’s already a given fans aren’t going to like him.
Should Kaepernick be given a chance to speak if he arranges a tour of college campuses? Absolutely. And I bet he’d have a huge supportive turnout in a lot of places. Maybe Coates will tour with him. Granted, I wouldn’t buy a ticket but no one should shout him down or threaten him for making his case. But NFL teams aren’t eager to make their franchise the national platform for his act, knowing it will piss off a lot of their paying customers.
I’m not the only reader who found Coates’ piece disappointing. Quite a few left critical comments which, given Coates’ sainted status on the left, surprised me a bit. Here’s a sample of a few:
- “Mr. Coates, I’m a middle aged white man that’s a big fan of yours – I’ve continued to cut/paste a link to your Atlantic article “The case for Reparations” to anyone I think needs a proper education on the African American experience. I “cancelled” Kaepernick last week. I was with the guy and his right to take a knee (didn’t agree but respect his decision) but after witnessing his antics last week I hope to never read about him or see him again. His focus during the recent NFL practice was all about media attention and not a legitimate effort to rejoin the league. Let’s all cancel Kaepernick and move on.”
- “I have freedom of speech but if I start going to work everyday wearing my red MAGA hat then my employer has every right to tell me to cut it out, and fire me if I don’t stop.”
- “The question should not be who is wielding the power to cancel, but whether or not the power is coercive or not. If you seek to cancel something with which you disagree by boycotting it and persuading others to do likewise, you have the right to do so. However, if you are trying to shut down free speech through violence and intimidation you are a fascist. Everyone should be free to express their political opinions. However, if you use your job as a platform for your political cause, then your employer certainly has a right to fire you, even if you[‘re] wealthy and famous.”
- “This article just seems to miss the point, not about Kaepernick or about power, but about what people mean when they criticize cancel culture.”
- “If I had told my employer, with little notice, when they offered me an interview for my current job that I wasn’t showing up for the interview at their office but rather at a coffee shop across town, I can say with 100% certainty they would have laughed out loud and just scratched me off their list of candidates. Why does Mr. Kaepernick think he is any different?”
- “I know many readers fall over themselves to laud Mr. Coates, but he is a sloppy thinker. In this essay, for example, he provides an incoherent definition of “cancel culture” to fit his notion that it is anything that he finds unjust, discriminatory, and cruel. In fact, the “cancel” in the term refers to the severing of ties with people with whom one once shared an affinity. How on earth does Selma and Dalton Trumbo fit this definition?”
Kaepernick has a right to his opinion and a right to voice it on his own time and his own dime, but the NFL doesn’t have to become a partner in spreading his opinions on the field at their own expense.