Did Cancel Culture Go Too Far?

On Jerry Seinfeld, and others.

Did Cancel Culture Go Too Far?
Photo by Michael Dziedzic / Unsplash.

I have a piece in The Daily Beast this week about everyone’s favorite comedian who hasn’t been relevant for two decades. (Here's an archived version if you're hitting a paywall.) The headline is “Jerry Seinfeld’s Teflon Legacy Could Finally Be at Risk,” but the essay basically makes the opposite argument, looking at Seinfeld’s post-Seinfeld artistic output, his complaints about political correctness, his longstanding support of Israel and more specifically the IDF, and the recent flak this support has brought him, using these to examine the thin blue line culture in comedy that effectively guarantees immunity from lasting reputational/career damage so long as one retains the support of one's fellow comedians.

Louis CK, Jeff Ross, Dave Chappelle, Shane Gillis, Tony Hinchcliffe—perhaps some of these people lost esteem with liberal society, but the fundamentally conservative comedy industry powered them through their controversies by sheer brute force until nobody remembered or cared that they ever did anything wrong, and look, they’re back anyways, so how bad it could it really have been? Seinfeld, by contrast, has never done anything to threaten his standing with liberals, who still don't even care that he dated a high schooler when he was almost 40. Obviously his family’s financial support for anti-Palestinian counterprotests isn’t going to make any dent; it would be like Jimmy Fallon getting canceled for gushing over Andrew Cuomo.

Jerry Seinfeld Heckled by Pro-Palestinian Protesters, Fights During Stand-Up
Jerry Seinfeld’s become the #1 celeb target of pro-Palestinian protestors -- for the 2nd time in a week they went at him in public ... this time repeatedly heckling his stand-up routine, and fighting with other audience members.

Still… what a piece of shit! Last night TMZ published video of a pro-Palestinian protestor heckling Seinfeld’s show in Norfolk, Virginia, and soon enough other attendees posted their own videos on Twitter. To cries of “Free Gaza,” “You’re a genocide supporter,” and “Free the children of Gaza,” Seinfeld sarcastically responded, “I think your message is really resonating with the crowd, people seem to be on your side,” and “I like it when Jew-haters spice up the show.” Later, an unmistakeable tone of derision in his voice, he said: “Alright, I’m gonna keep going… ‘Save the children of Gaza.’” All of this while another audience member grabs the protestor and puts him in a headlock; in one video, you can hear someone saying “You’re gonna break his neck.”

It occurred recently that I have been wrong, in this newsletter and in podcasts and casual conversations, to described quote-unquote cancel culture as over. I don’t think that’s true. Looking back over the last five years or so, it seems more like the left, whether out of exhaustion or embarrassment or both, abandoned its use of mass social censure as a means of ostracizing abusers and other bad actors from the workplace and public square. The right, meanwhile, co-opted this mechanism and industrialized it into the neo-McCarthyism that dominates our current discourse.

Chris Rufo, Libs of TikTok’s Chaya Raichik, Bari Weiss, anti-trans crusaders Dave Chappelle and JK Rowling, the billionaires pressuring New York City Mayor Eric Adams to crack down on students protestors, the NYPD officials using their public platforms to rant about communists infiltrating college campuses: all of these people are doing cancel culture. The difference is that instead of using social opprobrium as a last-ditch means of compensating for structural failures to combat abuse and inequality, the right is using it to reify those structural failures, often by explicitly targeting the victims of abuse and inequality. More frighteningly, it does this with the support of deep-pocketed institutions and the eager collaboration of lawmakers. Whereas the goal of what you might messily call left cancel culture was the expulsion of bigots and abusers from the workplace—and eventually the creation of safer and more equitable social structures—the goals of right cancel culture include defunding public education, eliminating trans people from public life, criminalizing pro-Palestinian speech, diluting the power of Black voters, and eroding the autonomy of women. 

Through this lens we can see clearly what interests are served when theoretical liberals like Jerry Seinfeld complain about extreme left-wing political correctness, a social phenomenon whose political ramifications have been negligible at best. They may claim to be concerned with free speech, but their concerns are ultimately cannon fodder in a very real, successful assault on human rights. So too can we see what a horrendous failure it was for the left to abandon what may have become a powerful weapon in its advocacy for the vulnerable and marginalized, ceding to the nonsense right-wing critique that its social censure campaigns sometimes went too far. Given what the other side has accomplished, it seems safe to say they didn’t go very far at all.

What Else?

-Do not miss Conner O’Malley’s special Stand Up Solutions, streaming free on YouTube

-I also enjoyed TANGLEWHIP, a new animated short from Charlie Hankin.

-Please read the New York Times Magazine’s history of the extremist settler movement in Israel. 

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