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‘Canceling’ Reality and Trust in Policy Discussion

My colleagues and I at the Institute have accepted academic responsibility to analyze and to chart America’s policy and democratic course. That mission has come to mind often as I continue to reflect on the implications of the January 6 Capitol Hill insurrection for this nation’s policy making and democratic health. That event was inspired by former President Donald Trump who has refused to concede his election defeat and whose Big Lie concerning that November 2020 contest has persuaded millions of citizens that the present United States chief executive, Joseph Biden, Jr., is not legitimate. This assertion is extraordinary on its face, but all the more so since it is absolutely and unambiguously without foundation. Nonetheless, Trump and other representatives of his Party continue to embrace and press that claim in their efforts to play to the fears and anxieties of their supporters and to marshal anger to support their quest for power.

In this they are hardly alone. The Fox news/entertainment network and a number of aligned website businesses do the same daily. Together, these entities have helped to create a situation in which not only the national election, but even events such as the mass murders of school children, have been twisted via lies into supposed partisan conspiracies of various stripes. Everything for the GOP and its media allies, increasingly, is about gaining power and harming the supposed “enemy,” understood as other U.S. citizens who disagree with whatever the Party or its leader’s line may be at the moment. Many individuals who countenance or otherwise apologize for this egregious situation often claim it to be merely the result of partisan differences. That view is a grievous misunderstanding of what is in play. This situation is not about honest good-faith disagreement about policy priorities or direction. Instead, it concerns whether a demagogue and his Party and allies can mobilize a sufficient number of citizens around lies and fabricated grievances to delegitimate the lawful outcome of a national election. Indeed, all who care about self-governance, irrespective of their partisanship, must now raise their voices to protect the political process that yielded that result and the quest for justice that must accompany it, or risk losing their democracy altogether.

I want to say this as clearly as I can and so repeat: This country is not facing a partisan disagreement or even, as Trump often suggests in his wild rhetoric, catastrophe, because his reelection was stolen from him by some unnamed and vague “them,” for whom the “Dems” or the “Libs” were purportedly responsible. Instead, the nation now confronts a continuing and sustained attack on its efforts to ensure a democratic way of life by the very Party, the GOP, that is feigning outrage over something that never happened. This fact, an abiding and cynically pressed paradox, can be too readily missed because there are so many efforts afoot by the Republican Party and its allies to obscure and trivialize its significance.

One example of one such effort recently were the days of coverage on Fox entertainment/news accorded to the alleged influence of a Democratic Party/Progressive “Cancel Culture” when Dr. Seuss’s trust/estate decided to remove six of that children’s author’s lesser titles, dating to 1937, from continued active publication on the grounds that they included offensive racist tropes and stereotypes.[1] All were minor titles in Theodore Geisel’s catalogue that had sold few copies in recent years. Nonetheless, as Pulitzer Prize winning writer Leonard Pitts has commented, one might imagine the nation was facing a calamitous war at the reaction this change—taken by private actors, acting on their own initiative—elicited among what he aptly dubbed the “conservative outrage complex:”

‘Progressives seek to cancel beloved author,’ wailed an online headline from Fox ‘News.’ The cry was echoed by Donald Trump Jr.—he appeared at CPAC shortly after … and by Michigan congressional candidate Tom Norton. … For the record … unless you’ve spent quality time immersed in it, it’s hard to appreciate how deeply, openly and unapologetically racist the pop and consumer cultures of that era could be.[2]

Four points seem salient and the first must be framed by the fact that books go out of print (not circulation) by the thousands each year, for a host of reasons—including, of course, weak sales—and that fact is unquestioningly accepted as the prerogative of their copyright owners. In the present case, Geisel’s estate, which controls his corpus, elected on its own not to continue to keep these six titles in the active Dr. Seuss catalogue. No government or, especially, Democratic Party or Party-related entity, pressed the author’s trust to take the action it did. Its board chose this course itself in the name of supporting democratic, social equality and justice norms. Fox and the GOP chose to seize on the estate’s private decision to claim outrage for an action that never occurred.  Third, what is it exactly about Dr. Seuss’s misanthropic renderings of “Asians with their eyes at a slant,” and “ape-like Africans in grass skirts” that is so marvelous as to justify this manufactured uproar? Are these not, as the estate put it, “hurtful and wrong” evocations of those they characterized?[3] Finally, what precisely is the GOP/Fox contention here? That a copyright owner cannot control its own title (a deep irony for so-called proponents of private property rights)? That children’s texts that reflect oppressive or discriminatory memes are somehow so valuable that they must be kept in active publication, even as they undermine vital social justice and equality values and norms?  

In short, to the extent this brouhaha is about anything, it is about a concerted effort to inflame an audience to perceive itself as aggrieved by something that its alleged perpetrators never did. As Pitts has put the matter:

So, this outcry is less about outrage than opportunism, a means of firing up a certain segment of white America. Meaning those who simmer in gnawing grievance at cultural changes they find threatening. Those who live with a bone-deep fear of losing their God-derived prerogatives, their ‘place’ as white women and men.[4]

Ultimately, this sort of hue and cry against acknowledging a pluralism of equality, demanding a society of racialized hierarchy in its stead, is democratically and ethically bankrupt. It is also morally indefensible and as empirically fatuous as it is cruel.

I recently watched ecologist and writer Drew Lanham, an African American and distinguished professor of ornithology at Clemson University, deliver remarks during the annual Aldo Leopold Center’s reflection on the life and work of its ground-breaking namesake in conservation. Lanham entitled his moving talk, “Why Words from the Land Matter.”[5] In his comments, the scholar recalled, and partly imagined, a conversation with Leopold’s daughter, Estella Leopold, herself a celebrated biologist and conservationist, in which they discussed threshold criteria for making socially just and prudent ecological choices. As he recounted that and other encounters, Lanham quoted Estella as suggesting, as indeed her father had often done, that “we (society) must do the right things,” and root them in an ethic of love not only for the earth and its array of fauna and flora, but for one another, irrespective of social, racial, ethnic or other group status, as well.

This call to do the right things, and the normative aspiration for social justice and equality to which it is directly linked, contradicts the attempts of the current GOP and its allied media to misinform and to mobilize via fear and hatred of difference. Each is innately inimical to a democratic way of life as well as to a peaceable social pluralism, even as it destroys any foundation for policy making in good faith, which rests on shared social trust and principles. One cannot continuously attack the rights of other Americans, directly and indirectly, in the name of concocted grievances predicated on lies and assumptions of racialized superiority, and expect to do anything but undermine common cause with those who are innocently maligned. Indeed, the GOP seems not to care whom it alienates, or whose rights it abrogates or with what social or democratic consequences, so long as such efforts allow it to maintain power.

Apart from the outrageous negative implications of this orientation for the civil and human rights of millions of Americans, the Republican Party’s actions have resulted in a poisonous politics fueled by anger and fed by lies and conspiracy-mongering that makes conducting any policy making, irrespective of specific programmatic agreements or differences, extremely difficult. It remains to be seen whether the nation can overcome this assault on its founding principles and democratic aspirations, but one of our roles here at the Institute is to chart these deeply demagogic and illiberal efforts and to share what we find as carefully and clearly as we can. No American should expect less of those who claim to study their democratic life and political institutions. As scholars, our charge, and our enduring aim, is to speak truth to power, whether understood as the sovereign, the people collectively, or their various emissaries, and that we will continue to do.

Notes

[1] Gross, Jenny. “6 Dr. Seuss Books Will No Longer Be Published Over Offensive Images,” The New York Times, March 4, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/02/books/dr-seuss-mulberry-street.html, Accessed March 4, 2021. 

[2] Pitts, Leonard Jr. “The Cat in the Hat is Alive and Well. Only the Grinches of Grievance Insist Dr. Seuss has Been Canceled,” The Miami Herald, March 5, 2021, https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article249726918.html, Accessed March 10, 2021. 

[3] Pitts, “The Cat in the Hat is Alive and Well.”

[4] Pitts, “The Cat in the Hat is Alive and Well.”

[5] Lanham, Drew. “Why Words from the Land Matter,” The Aldo Leopold Foundation, March 9, 2021, https://my.demio.com/recording/djbeQnXq?utm_source=Leopold+Week+3-8-21&utm_campaign=b30db6fc8a-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_11_16_06_09_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_10717ceb53-b30db6fc8a-138132993&mc_cid=b30db6fc8a&mc_eid=709c2ad2f7, Accessed March 10, 2021. 

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