The GOP Hypocrisy on Cancel Culture

The party that claims it wants to save history actually denies it.

In the 1960s, the term “politically correct” was used by both Democrats and Republicans in a non-derisive way. But as Joshua Florence noted, things changed in the 1990s:

Republicans believed the anti-war protests during the late ’60s to be “politically incorrect” and Democrats considered support for civil rights legislation to be “politically correct.”… The late 1990s saw another shift in the phrase and it was soon “used every which waystraight, ironically, satirically, interrogatively.” Political correctness was no longer a compliment, but a term laced with partisan feeling, owned by the left and despised by the right …

Conservatism, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is a tendency or disposition “to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions,” including, but not limited to the American vernacular. Conversely, liberalism is a “belief in the value of social and political change in order to achieve progress.” It therefore makes sense that those with liberal ideologies continue to institute new rules of language and speech.

As women and people of color asserted their equal rights, cultural norms related to patriarchy and white supremacy began to be challenged. Those committed to the status quo were threatened, and eventually started to complain about the burden of having to be “politically correct.” During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump’s claim to be politically incorrect was his way of signaling his ties to those who wanted to express their racism and sexism openly.

But we don’t hear much about political correctness these days. That’s because there is a new name for the same thing: cancel culture. The thing both of these terms have in common is that they are used derisively to condemn liberals who call out racism or sexism. Critics claim that their constitutional right to free speech is being infringed upon when their views are challenged. But the 1st Amendment is pretty specific:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Congress is prohibited from passing laws that abridge the freedom of speech. But private citizens and companies are nowhere prohibited from taking action against any form of speech—as long as it is legal. In other words, punching someone because they say something you don’t like is illegal, but for a private news organization to refuse to publish offensive screeds is not an infringement of the 1st Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.

What often goes without comment is the fact that it isn’t just liberals who demand political correctness or engage in cancel culture. For example, Republicans launched their whole narrative about Barack Obama not loving America because he wouldn’t used their preferred term: “radical Islamic terrorism.” There were also issues when, in 2009, Obama was invited to give the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame:

Protests continued through the night at the United States’ foremost Roman Catholic university, as demonstrators object to the school’s decision to invite President Obama to give the commencement address this afternoon, given his stands on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research.

Anti-abortion activists promise to disrupt the president’s appearance on Sunday at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., where he also will receive an honorary degree.

Those are just two examples from the Obama years. But in a blatant display of hypocrisy, one of the biggest critics of cancel culture is engaging in it himself. Here is an announcement from Senator Tom Cotton (Republican-Arkansas) on Thursday.

Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) introduced the Saving American History Act of 2020, a bill that would prohibit the use of federal funds to teach the 1619 Project by K-12 schools or school districts. Schools that teach the 1619 Project would also be ineligible for federal professional-development grants …

“The New York Times’s 1619 Project is a racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which our nation was founded. Not a single cent of federal funding should go to indoctrinate young Americans with this left-wing garbage,” said Cotton.

Cotton’s statement about the 1619 Project is a lie. Here is what Nikole Hannah-Jones, who oversaw the project, wrote in the very first essay (emphasis mine):

The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.

Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all.

In other words, not only does Tom Cotton want to cancel the ability of schools to teach the history contained in the 1619 Project, he also wants to cancel the experience of African Americans in this country — and their contribution to perfecting our union.

I doubt that Cotton’s bill will go anywhere, because the senator is more interested in laying claim to be Donald Trump’s successor than he is in actually passing this piece of legislative crap. But it’s a good reminder that the party that denies not only science, but history too, is a major purveyor of cancel culture.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.