Dropping the hammer on "cancel culture"

Republican elected officials support a variety of extremely unpopular policy positions including cutting taxes for corporations, maintaining a $7.25 minimum wage, and subsidizing the fossil fuel industry. As a result, these officials prefer to spend more of their time talking about cultural issues. It's hard to win an election arguing that massive corporations like Apple and Amazon should continue to pay little to no taxes. So why not try fighting the "culture war"?

Recently, Republicans have focused on "cancel culture." They claim the left is trying to banish anyone — past or present — who has ever expressed a controversial idea. 

One of the politicians who is most focused on fighting "cancel culture" is Congressman Dan Crenshaw (R-TX). Here's a sampling of Crenshaw's Twitter feed:

"[W]oke leftists want to keep doing their petty cancel culture BS"

"No more cancel culture. Draw the line."

"Never give into cancel culture"

"Dr. Bret Weinstein...was one of the first people to be targeted for 'cancellation' by radical progressives."

"Call your Democrat rep and see if they’d sign a letter standing against mob tactics and cancel culture."

"[T]he left is stoking the flames of tribalism, outrage, and cancel culture to divide America"

"It is time to cancel Cancel Culture. This has to stop. It has no end."

On one level, Crenshaw has a valid point. Freedom of expression is a core principle of American democracy. People should feel free to express controversial viewpoints — even views that others find objectionable or offensive. No one should be harshly punished just for expressing opinions that aren't popular.

But is Crenshaw's focus on "cancel culture" rooted in an appreciation for free speech? Or is he merely exploiting the issue to gain political advantage?

Crenshaw revealed the answer Monday morning on Fox News when he called for Gwen Berry, a world record-holding athlete who competes in the hammer throw, to be kicked off of the U.S. Olympic team. Berry qualified for the team on Saturday when she finished third in the U.S. Olympic trials. But on the podium Berry "turned away from the flag to face the stands while 'The Star-Spangled Banner' played during the medal ceremony on Saturday." She then "draped a T-shirt bearing the words 'activist athlete' over her head."

The anthem is only played once per day at the U.S. Olympic trials for track and field and was not part of the hammer throw medal ceremony. Nevertheless, Crenshaw called on Berry to be canceled:

We don't need any more activist athletes. You know, she should be removed from the team. The entire point of the Olympic team is to represent the United States of America. That's the entire point, OK.

During the 2019 Pan Am games, Berry raised her fist during the medal ceremony, an act that resulted in "a 12-month probation from the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee." The gesture harkened back to Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their fists in 1968 after medaling in the 200 meter sprint in protest of racial injustice. 

In addition to the probation, Berry lost many of her sponsors. The resulting financial difficulties were only exacerbated when the Olympics were postponed until 2021. The hammer throw is not a lucrative sport. Berry has previously had to take work at Dick's Sporting Goods to make ends meet. 

Nevertheless, Berry persevered and made the U.S. Olympic team headed to Tokyo. The rule on political demonstrations that resulted in her previous probation, Rule 50, will not be enforced at the Tokyo Games

Crenshaw, however, thinks she should not be allowed to compete because she holds political views that differ from his own. Crenshaw noted that there were "multiple cases" of athletes expressing political views in ways he disagreed with and said they all "should be removed." 

Crenshaw's willingness to enthusiastically embrace "cancellation" when it suits his political agenda strongly suggests his stated commitment to freedom of expression is more about political opportunism than principle. 

The incoherence of the culture war

During his appearance on Fox, Crenshaw said that Berry's decision to turn her back during the national anthem was a result of Critical Race Theory (CRT).

Taking it a couple levels deeper, this is the pathology that occurs when we're teaching critical race theory in our institutions ... It results in these displays of hatred towards our own country, and it's gotta stop.

As Popular Information detailed, CRT is concerned with identifying the causes of racial inequality. CRT scholars have identified structural racism embedded within our laws that help explain that inequality. But studying America's problems and trying to identify their root causes does not mean you "hate" the country. It may mean that you love the country and want it to be better. 

Nevertheless, it's odd to attribute Berry's protest to CRT and not her own deeply held convictions about racial justice. But it does show how CRT is used as a catch-all term for the right to encapsulate anything they don't like. 

Chris Rufo, an operative affiliated with the Manhattan Institute who has helped mainstream misinformation about CRT, is open about his strategy. Rufo told the New Yorker that CRT serves the same purpose as "cancel culture" and "woke," but sounds worse. 

The other frames are wrong, too: ‘cancel culture’ is a vacuous term and doesn’t translate into a political program; ‘woke’ is a good epithet, but it’s too broad, too terminal, too easily brushed aside. ‘Critical race theory’ is the perfect villain...Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.

Notably, opposition to CRT is not based on what it is but what the words "critical," "race," and "theory" can connotate. You can use the words "cancel culture" or "Critical Race Theory" — two ostensibly different things — interchangeably but "Critical Race Theory" is preferred because it translates into a "political program." 

Rufo and Crenshaw reveal that the right-wing culture war is not about a commitment to free speech or a different approach to racial issues. It's about motivating a political constituency around buzzwords.