Count de Monet: It is said that the people are revolting.
King Louis XVI: You said it! They stink on ice!
This sentiment is more than just petty contrarianism. Apply it in the real world, and it becomes clear that contempt for cancel culture is little more than contempt for democracy.
After all, what is derided as “cancel culture” is nothing more than a large group of people choosing who and what they want to watch, read and listen to. Though “canceling” on its own suggests the work of the anonymous censor or autocratic TV exec, “cancel culture” reflects the opposite: the public and democratic engagement of ordinary people.
By the standards of sophistry, this is on the same low level as “political correctness just means being considerate and polite,” which is to say, hardly worth the strain of an eye-roll. But anyway, since we’re on the subject, ancient Athens used to practice a form of cancel culture. They called it ostracism. Many people might be familiar with Plutarch’s story of Aristides, who was approached by an illiterate voter looking to cast his vote for a candidate for ostracism and asked to write down the name…Aristides. Uh, what harm has Aristides done to you? he asked, understandably. None at all, replied the man of the people. I don’t even know him. I’m just sick of people always calling him “Aristides the Just.” Twenty-five hundred years later, and people’s careers and personal lives are ruined on social media for equally facile, spiteful reasons.
Safe to say Plutarch and Aristides were wiser men with a keener understanding of the nasty tendencies of human character than Mr. Freedman. And while I don’t want to be here all day naming other examples of men with more brains and psychological insight than some smug junior-varsity Jacobin writing opinion pieces in the Washington Post, John Adams deserves a mention. He also held ostracism in contempt. “History nowhere furnishes so frank a confession of the people themselves, of their own infirmities and unfitness for managing the executive branch of government, or an unbalanced share of the legislature, as this institution.” He wasn’t too enamored of “the public and democratic engagement of ordinary people” either:
In your fifth page You Say “Mr. Adams calls our Attention to hundreds of wise and virtuous Patricians, mangled and bleeding Victims of popular Fury.” and gravely counts up several Victims of democratic Rage as proofs that Democracy is more pernicious than Monarchy or Aristocracy.” Is this fair, sir? Do you deny any one of my Facts? I do not say that Democracy has been more pernicious, on the whole, and in the long run, than Monarchy or Aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as Aristocracy or Monarchy. But while it lasts it is more bloody than either.
…You Say I “might have exhibited millions of Plebians, sacrificed to the pride Folly and Ambition of Monarchy and Aristocracy.” This is very true. And I might hav[e] exhibited as many millions of Plebians sacrificed by the Pride Folly and Ambition of their fellow Plebians and their own, in proportion to the extent and duration of their power. Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to Say that Democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious or less avaricious than Aristocracy or Monarchy. It is not true in Fact and no where appears in history. Those Passions are the same in all Men under all forms of Simple Government, and when unchecked, produce the same Effects of Fraud Violence and Cruelty. When clear Prospects are opened before Vanity, Pride, Avarice or Ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate Phylosophers and the most conscientious Moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves, Nations and large Bodies of Men, never.
Freedman makes it sound like a simple, rational process. Nothing but friendly persuasion and free choice involved, right? But as Adams would instantly recognize were he around today, the easy gratification of vanity, pride, avarice and ambition play a dominant role in determining who gets canceled, and the mob’s appetite is insatiable. Contempt for democracy? Damn straight. Have you ever met the demos? Wherever two or three people gather in its name, stupidity and mischief will be there with them.
October 29, 2019 @ 8:15 pm
I can never read anything from John Adams without hearing Paul Giamatti’s voice in my head. I love that guy. Adams, I mean. But Giamatti too.
October 30, 2019 @ 5:44 am
Did Giamatti play him in something? I’m sorry, I’m always lagging far behind on such things.
October 30, 2019 @ 12:34 pm
He played Adams in a 2008 miniseries, which I enjoyed. Laura Linney plays Abigail.