Why Media Liberals Have To Lie About “Cancel Culture”

Judd Legum is a standard-issue, loyal Democrat who writes on Substack under the auspices of something approximating journalism; he previously ran the now-defunct partisan propaganda operation ThinkProgress. As a faithful Party operative, Legum is evidently shielded from the raving anti-Substack hysteria that frequently gets directed at those who use the platform to do things other than pay daily homage to generic liberal pieties. (He has been quite successful on Substack, but curiously this hasn’t resulted in his being accused of legitimating a platform that perpetuates violent transphobic hatred. Very convenient!)

In any event, one recent statement from Legum is worth remarking upon because it’s so emblematic of the kind of unremediated whitewashing and memory-holing that standard-issue media liberals reflexively seem to engage in — usually in an attempt to deflect from their constant torrent of dishonesty and record of craven failures:

There is only one way in which this contention could be even remotely intelligible… but it would cast doubt on the ability of Legum to reason like a mentally-competent adult. Is Judd really arguing that because the exact term “cancel culture” was not literally used in reference to a controversy involving the Dixie Chicks in 2003, the arguments associated with opposition to “cancel culture” circa 2021 are rendered invalid? It would seem so. This reasoning makes zero sense because, as should be obvious to anyone in possession of a functioning brain, the term “cancel culture” did not meaningfully exist in 2003. The whole concept of “cancel culture” gained prominence in the late 2010s as a derivation of the concept of “call-out culture,” which is thought to have flourished in particular due to the ascendance of social media — with the idea being that social media has created an environment whereby people are being unduly demonized and/or “called out” for committing relatively trivial ideological or speech code infractions. When these people face excessive professional or social repercussions, they’re then said to have been “canceled.” Perhaps someone should inform Legum that social media as we know it today did not exist in 2003.

Legum’s contention makes even less sense when you consider that the 2003 Dixie Chicks episode did provoke an enormous amount of contemporaneous controversy and debate. Many high-profile people (see below) objected strenuously to the backlash engendered by lead singer Natalie Maines after she said she was “ashamed” to be from the same state as George W. Bush. Full quote: "Just so you know, we're on the good side with y'all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas."

She said this at a concert in London days before the invasion of Iraq was launched, so emotions were running high. Country music radio stations pulled Dixie Chicks songs from rotation, and sales of their just-released album Home plummeted, which was notable because the band was one of the most popular acts in the US at the time. Anyone with even a minimal recollection of that period would have a memory of how much public consternation the whole affair generated — not just from those who were angry at the Dixie Chicks and wanted them ostracized, but also from those who objected vehemently to the ostracization on free speech grounds. One basic LexisNexis search reveals too many examples to possibly catalogue, but here’s just a small sampling:

  • Liberal pundit Bill Press appeared on MSNBC on March 14, 2003 and denounced the anti-Dixie Chicks movement as “redneck McCarthyism.” 

  • Paul Krugman wrote a March 25, 2003 column in the New York Times likening a Bossier City, LA radio station’s publicity stunt — in which Dixie Chicks CDs were crushed by a tractor — to “Kristallnacht, or Nazi book burning.” 

  • John McCain even hauled Cumulus Media executive John Dickey before a Senate hearing in July 2003 and opined, “I was more offended or as offended as anyone by the statement of the Dixie Chicks, but to restrain their trade… because they exercised their right of free speech, to me is remarkable.” McCain declared, “Because if someone else in another format offends you and there is a huge hue and cry and you decide to censor those people, my friend, the erosion of the First Amendment in the United States of America is in progress.”

NOTE: While that one corporate radio chain — Cumulus — did ban the Dixie Chicks from its country music stations, UCLA professor Gabriel Rossman later found that the overall plunge in Dixie Chicks airtime was not principally the byproduct of any centralized corporate censorship initiative, but rather had been “fundamentally driven by the political mobilization of right-wing social movements whose members called and wrote to radio stations.” Or in other words, most individual stations were autonomously reacting to pressures based on the anger among their listenership that the comments had provoked. Rossman also reports that in his own personal correspondence with radio station program directors, the general sentiment was that Dixie Chicks material was pulled off the airwaves as a response to indignant listener calls and emails, not a corporate fiat. In which case, the parallel to present-day “cancel culture” is more direct.

The matter was even brought directly to the attention of George W. Bush himself in an interview with NBC’s Tom Brokaw:

BROKAW: And part of that was, by the way, that it became very emotional very quickly. One of the things that you said was that you wanted to liberate the Iraqi people so they could speak their minds. But in this country, when some people spoke their minds and it happened to be in opposition of the war, they got jumped on by a lot of folks.

BUSH: Oh, I don't think so.

BROKAW: Well, the Dixie Chicks, for example. Would you have them come to the White House?

BUSH: I mean, the Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say. And just because — they shouldn't have their feelings hurt just because some people don't want to buy their records when they speak out. You know, freedom is a two-way street. But I have — don't really care what the Dixie Chicks said. I want to do what I think is right for the American people, and if some singers or Hollywood stars feel like speaking out, that's fine. That's the great thing about America. It stands in stark contrast to Iraq, by the way.

So why would a hardcore partisan Democratic media operative like Legum feel the need to dissemble so flagrantly about this episode? Some clues lie in other examples of easily-findable commentary produced around the time, which Legum would apparently have us believe never materialized. 

Take for instance a segment aired by NPR on March 26, 2003, entitled “Dixie Chicks should not be punished for expressing an opinion.” Producer and composer Paul Schwartz was brought forth to share his objection to the removal of the Dixie Chicks from radio airwaves on the ground that this constituted “action to punish individuals via their livelihood because they expressed a political view that has nothing whatsoever to do with how they make their living.” He added, “I don't know my mailman's political views, but if I don't like them, I'm certainly not going to go to the post office and insist that they fire him.”

That was a trivially conventional left/liberal viewpoint at the time, as evidenced by the fact that it was aired on NPR. But notably, if the very same argument were aired today in reaction to some “cancellation” controversy, it would almost invariably be dismissed as right-wing nonsense by Judd Legum types.

Within about a month of her anti-Bush comments, Natalie Maines appeared in the nude on the cover of Entertainment Weekly alongside her bandmates with the words “free speech” emblazoned on her forearms. Again, does anyone doubt that if something similar happened today in the wake of a “cancellation” controversy, it would be derided as reactionary right-wing showmanship, or at least a laughably cynical effort to cast oneself as a fake “free speech” martyr? In 2021, the too-cool-for-school online liberal/leftist crowd often insist that any kind of fidelity to free speech is just another cringey Substack-guy take or worse, code for stealth right-wingery. Even the ACLU appears less interested than ever in prioritizing anything to do with “free speech,” given the newfound connotation of “free speech” as being little more than a tactical ploy of the Right.

It’s nonetheless true that at the time, pro-Bush minions tried to cast all opposition to the war as the province of allegedly kooky movie stars and musicians. In the now-defunct Weekly Standard, pundit Hugh Hewitt mocked the Dixie Chicks along with other anti-war celebrities — “had they prevailed, Saddam's children's jail would still be doing a brisk business,” Hewitt sneered — and defended the right of the marketplace to “cancel” entertainers based on their political views. (Although he didn’t use the word “cancel,” he might as well have, as it was the same general issue as what today gets lumped under the banner of “cancel culture.”) More recently, Hewitt has a substantially different take on the desirability of punishing citizens on the basis of their political views, and expresses typical GOP antipathy toward what is perceived as the proliferation of left-wing “cancel culture.” 

Likewise, the New York Post also gleefully jumped on board with the 2003 “cancellation” initiative. Under the headline “DON'T AID THESE SADDAM LOVERS,” the paper named celebrities in addition to the Dixie Chicks who ought to be boycotted. “If you'd prefer not to support the careers of stars who want to stop the liberation of Iraq from mass murderer Saddam Hussein and his rapist henchmen, PAGE SIX offers this quick reference list,” the editorial blared. Among the celebrities allegedly deserving harsh censure were Samuel L. Jackson and Fred Durst of the band Limp Bizkit. Very serious business.

So yes, it’s true that you can score a big win EXPOSING HYPOCRISY about “cancel culture” if your barometer for consistency over the course of 18 years is Hugh Hewitt or the New York Post editorial page, but that would be a rather impoverished view of the situation — typical of liberal commentators like Legum, though, whose worldviews and business models revolve around bashing the lowest-hanging-fruit right-wingers as the sum total of their political attention.

The memory-holing of the “anti-cancel culture” sentiment vis-a-vis the Dixie Chicks is a function of media liberals’ inability to acknowledge that the political and cultural circumstances have changed since 2003 — and that the power to “cancel” is increasingly wielded by those whose ideological disposition exactly matches Legum’s. The arguments cited to oppose the banishment of the Dixie Chicks at the time have now been forfeited due to a major shift in the dynamics of political and media culture, and they cannot bring themselves to recognize it.

For instance, Bruce Springsteen published a statement on his website in defense of the Dixie Chicks shortly after the ordeal erupted, decrying “the pressure coming from the government and big business to enforce conformity of thought.” Which, again, if voiced today in response to government/corporate enforcement of “conformity of thought” would be snarkily ridiculed by Judd Legum types as just more opportunistic or dishonest right-wing performative grievance-mongering.

The reality is this: pro-war conservatives had much more cultural leverage in the hysterical era of 2003 than they do now. In many ways that’s a good thing. But it shouldn’t somehow preclude admitting that over the past decade or so, they’ve been replaced with left/liberals whose proclivities increasingly dominate elite institutions. And with that comes the power to “cancel.”

Notwithstanding the controversy in 2003, the Dixie Chicks enjoyed “the most lucrative country tour of all time” according to the music industry tracking outfit Pollstar, raking in $60.5 million in North America alone. (It might’ve helped that anti-war journalists promoted them as “FREE SPEECH HEROES” in an attempt to court attendance at concerts.) Still, if you believe there was something objectionable about the backlash engendered by the Dixie Chicks that is reminiscent of “cancel culture,” the fact that they enjoyed prosperity doesn’t automatically make their cancelation less objectionable. Moreover, in contrast with many recent “cancelation” cases, there was a concerted effort in left/liberal cultural circles to passionately defend them. As Chris Willman, the writer of the Entertainment Weekly cover story which accompanied the nude photoshoot, excitedly introduced the Chicks: "They're sitting down at a Japanese restaurant to break their Stateside silence for the first time. Groveling will not be on the menu.” He proceeded to compare them to John Lennon, who’d faced a similar “cancelation” in 1966 for proclaiming the Beatles “more popular than Jesus.” In short, the Dixie Chicks were the beneficiaries of “anti-cancel culture” liberalism that formed in response to the genuine stifling of anti-war opinion during that period. 

None of this is to deny that the term “cancel culture” is often invoked in contexts that are extremely tedious. Notice I didn’t use the term in anything other than scare quotes within this post, given all the incredibly annoying baggage it carries. The tedium accelerated massively over the past year as Republican elected officials began using the term to petulantly dismiss run-of-the-mill political criticism, and the final death knell for the term’s utility might’ve been in February when the annual CPAC conference was titled “America UnCanceled” — like attending the Republican Party’s premier youth feeder conference is some kind of extraordinarily edgy statement of rebelliousness.

Despite all this, Judd Legum types have to pretend that repulsion to “cancel culture” is a brand new phenomenon, always cynically invoked and never consistent across time. They even have to rewrite history and pretend that there was no serious objection to the “cancelation” of the Dixie Chicks — because they’re the ones who now largely exert the power to “cancel.” And acknowledging this forthrightly would give away the game.

NOTE from MT: I will be in Minneapolis for a week starting tomorrow (Wednesday) so if you’re in the area let me know if you have any hot takes or info on the situation as it unfolds. Looks tentatively like no riots, thankfully, as a result of the guilty conviction — but I’m sure that won’t diminish the amount of interesting material to be found.