The great commencement cancelculture scare of 2014
From the annals of bullshit!
There are a number of Twitter people — Seth Cotlar, Rick Perlstein, David Neiwert, et alia — whose knowledge of rightwing history is very deep, and who frequently excavate some Bircher, White Citizens Council, or other antique conservative nonsense that was fringe at the time but is now recognizable as mainstream Republican political discourse.
I’m nowhere in their league but I had a moment of deja vu when I saw this Wyoming K2 radio item about Wyoming Senator Cynthia Lummis’ TERFy antics at the U of Wyoming’s commencement and how the students reacted:
Wyoming Senator Cynthia Lummis was asked to give the commencement address and, in doing so, she ended up almost getting booed off the stage by those in attendance, due to a comment about the two (or more) sexes…
“[This includes] our rights to freedom of speech, religion, property, assembly, and to keep and bear arms," Lummis said. "Even fundamental scientific truths, such as the existence of two sexes - male and female - are subject to challenge these days.”
And then, the booing began. It sounded like it started in the back and, like an angry ocean wave, it gathered momentum and crashed over Senator Lummis to the point that she had to stop speaking.
Eventually, after taking in the scene, she regained her composure.
“And I challenge those of you,” she began, but then thought better of it. "I'm not making a comment on the fact that there are people who transition between sexes...”
“I personally question how, under our constitution, we could forbid in-person worship services during a pandemic, while labeling liquor stores as essential,” she said, attempting to steer the ship back on track…
This reminded me of something that I think belongs in the history of the cancelculture whinge (on which, as you know, I take a strong anti-whinge position).
The bully-claims-victim-status shtick that we call cancelculture probably traces back to the birth of the concept of “rights” itself (“what about my rights,” one can imagine King John telling his barons in 1215). Over the centuries its weaponization has undergone many permutations, especially in the modern era. I distinctly remember a ‘60s Smothers Brothers bit, for example, in which Tommy’s response to one of Dick’s traditional tongue-lashing tirades over something stupid Tommy said was a stammering “you’re a fascist” — a clear reference to a then-popular hippie conversation-stopper. (Anyone got video? I’ve been looking on YouTube for years with no luck.)
We can probably agree that the direct descendant of the current CC thing has some connection to the “political correctness” mania of the 1990s, when newsweeklies put the signifier of alleged lefty censoriousness on their covers and two generations of conservatives got a new comeback for whenever someone refused to put up with their bullshit. That catchphrase was born of a lefty in-joke that conservatives inflated, stuck devil horns on, and made an object of terror and ridicule, as is cancelculture, so one could in justice say that cancelculture is really PC 2.0 — a brand refresh for a popular reactionary security blanket. That’s why PC yak and CC yak have so much in common, including Bill Maher.
That’s a quick-and-dirty and necessarily incomplete assessment, and we can get into the details some other time. But in these periods of cultural transition there are always watersheds — or, maybe more properly said, canal locks that help explain how we got from level A to level B.
The Lummis thing flashed me back to a late-Obama-era phenomenon I wrote a bit about at the time: Students deciding they didn’t want people they thought were assholes to speak at their graduations, and rightwingers going nuts over it.
Thus, from my May 11, 2014 Village Voice column, “Opprescious: Rightbloggers Claim Condi Rice, Themselves Victims of Liberal Fascists”:
As we’re fond of pointing out, rightbloggers are prone to mood swings between triumphalism and persecution mania. Though we’re sure they’ll be on the upswing by the time the 2014 [midterm] elections roll around — they’re gamers that way — lately they seem to be on a down cycle.
In fact, to hear rightbloggers tell it, they’re currently being ground under the jackboot of liberal fascism. Colleges don’t want conservatives to give commencement addresses, which is fascism. Companies and government bodies make them follow rules, which is fascism. They may not even win literary awards they feel entitled to. Jesus Christ, what is this, Russia?
Ha ha ha, I kill me. The commencement example in this case was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was going to get $35,000 to talk to the kids at Rutgers, who instead told her to fuck off and the school swapped in former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean (“who,” I then observed, “is a Republican but since he hasn’t run for office since the 1980s is probably now considered a Socialist.” Sometimes this gift of prophecy feels like a curse!). As I then observed, the wingnuts went wild:
Even though Rice herself said that “America’s belief in free speech and the exchange of ideas… is not what is at issue here,” many of the brethren asserted that Rice’s exit was liberal fascism because she had a Constitutional right to that platform and that thirty-five grand no matter what.
Campus Reform had the smoking gun: “Emails: Rutgers professors pushed students to protest Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker.” Teachers trying to influence students! (They even held “teach-ins” against Rice, Campus Reform informed us. That’s a total violation of free speech!) “College campuses essentially operate on mob rule at this point,” harrumphed Sonny Bunch of the Washington Free Beacon. “This is why we lost the campuses,” bloody-flagged William A. Jacobson of Legal Insurrection. “We let the load [sic] mouths and bullies have their way.”
“I visit about a dozen campuses a year, and at nearly every one, it’s common to hear tales about how the social or administrative policing of thought crimes is all the rage,” said National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, who did not explain why his rightwing ass was even allowed on these campuses if the thought-policing’s so intense there.
Zev Chafets of Fox News was even mad at Rice herself for backing out. “The decision cost Rice a $35,000 fee, but the loss isn’t only monetary,” boo-hooed Chavets. “It was also a loss in a big battle of ideas being fought on American campuses… Rice’s decision wasn’t classy. It was irresponsible.” Chavets then envisioned Rice on the speakers’ platform with Chris Christie “facing the hecklers and affirming the right of New Jersey’s biggest public university to honor a talented and public-spirited scholar-diplomat…” Apparently Rice violated Chavets’ right to live cosplay reenactments of his fantasies…
Etcetera ad nauseam. I can’t resist republishing this bit of lagniappe:
Oh, by the way, last month Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder cancelled his speech at the Oklahoma City Police Department’s graduation ceremonies after local Republicans denounced and, in one case, threatened to arrest him. If you can find any rightbloggers complaining that his Constitutional rights were violated by this, please let us know; the rightbloggers reax we’ve seen run more like, “Liberty activists 1, Holder 0,” “Hundreds are celebrating right now,” etc.
You should go read the whole thing — I know political columns are supposed to be evanescent, but at the risk of sounding conceited I think Clio’s still keeping some of mine under her pillow.
I think that was a hinge point, because about then there was an explosion of “How dare these insolent students demand a say on who drones at them for big bucks on graduation day” stories. For example:
“This Year, Colleges ‘Play It Safe’ with Commencement Speakers,” blubbered the rightwing civil libertarian cosplayers at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) on April 21, 2015, linking to an Inside Higher Ed pity party over Rice and other victims of cancelculture avant la lettre, like Robert Birgeneau, a former chancellor at UC Berkeley, given the boot by Haverford College students because of “his handling of a 2011 incident in which campus police injured student protestors.” (Remember the famous photo of a cop casually pepper-spraying UC Davis protestors? That was part of what they were protesting.) And, Inside Higher Ed futher groused, Smith students disinvited International Monetary Fund Chair Christine LaGarde, who as a Frenchwoman must have been amused that some reactionary cranks were elevating what to her must have seemed normal student fractiousness into an offense against the free-speech rights of rich international NGO executives.
The dreary defenses of rich rightwing toffs from whom kids just didn’t want to hear lectures went on and on: “Commencement speakers put to the test,” cried rightwing make-work project Voice-Less in April 2016. At the Wall Street Journal in May 2016, Jason L. Riley wept over conservative celebrities deprived of their commencement honoraria: “A lecture on crime prevention by former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was canceled after Brown University students booed him off the stage,” he gasped. “Scripps College in California invited and then disinvited Washington Post columnist George Will for criticizing ever-expanding definitions of criminal assault.” College students telling Ray Kelly and George F. Will to get stuffed! Obligatory Oscar Wilde quote on the death of Little Nell here.
And — get out your handkerchiefs — Riley himself had been “disinvited” from a Virginia Tech payday because someone, he alleged (never take these people at their word), was afraid “my writings on race in The Wall Street Journal would spark protests.” You’re kidding! What college kid wouldn’t want to be lectured by one of the few WSJ editorial writers even less well-known than Daniel Henninger?
In August 2016 Big Think included the Rice defenestration among its examples of colleges “embracing” “safe spaces,” which you may remember was a big rightwing swear-word before they started banning books and passing “don’t say gay” laws.
Anyway, a few months later Trump was president. Draw your own conclusions. Me, I’d say that the Big Blubber over reactionaries who lost their sweet gigs hectoring the youngs was a key factor in the rise of cancelculture bullshit. It is forgotten now, as its operatives have moved on to other things to be enraged by, like the PGA tour. But let history judge!