If Horses Were Cancelled

There’s no such thing as cancel culture except for when there is.

Bob Baffert reached for a lifeline and grabbed the biggest one there is right now in the excuse-making game. The racehorse trainer was appearing on Fox News this week to talk about his Kentucky Derby-winning horse Medina Spirit when he was asked about the animal testing positive for a regulated substance; in this case, the anti-inflammatory betamethasone. He gave the kind of response we’ve all come to expect from powerful people who face so much as a hint of consequences: “We live in a different world now. This America is different. It was like a cancel culture kind of a thing so they’re reviewing it.”

A cancel culture kind of thing. You don’t even have to call it “cancel culture” anymore. You can just call it a kind of thing that’s somehow related or adjacent to cancel culture in order to get the same effect. Baffert spent the rest of the day as the butt of a million jokes across social media, but he will not in any way face cancellation; neither for his comments nor probably even for doping his horse.

A couple of months ago, we Zoomed into a class of journalism students in a master’s program to give our thoughts on the self-publishing game. Don’t worry, we were invited. We may be opinionated, but we don’t go around crashing college classes in order to have our say. Talking to college students about whatever topics they’ve asked us to weigh in on (usually blogging, but sometimes just general pop culture coverage stuff) is one of our favorite parts of our job and perhaps not coincidentally, it’s one of the least public aspects of it. During the Q&A session following our talk, one of the students asked us to weigh in on cancel culture and whether it has any effect on our business or publishing model. Before thinking about it too much, we blurted out “Cancel culture is real, but no one uses the term correctly.”

Like the words “feminist” or “woke” or “liberal,” the use of “cancel culture” by people who oppose it is largely about broadening the definition to mean anything that annoys or angers the person making the claim, in the hopes of turning the phrase as toxic as possible to as many people as possible. It’s deliberate and it’s working, of course. The current outcry against rampant cancel culture is an exact replica of the outcry regarding political correctness in the 1990s – and is often being voiced by the same people, using the exact same rhetoric. Nothing gets Americans more riled up than the idea of someone telling them what they’re allowed to say or think. People in politics and the media (and not always on the conservative side) know that if you create the proper sort of bogeyman, it will never matter if he’s real or not. Push the correct buttons on the collective emotional control panel of the American public and soon enough, they will become very angry at the mere mention of something that barely exists and has almost no direct influence on their lives. But at the risk of both-sidesing the topic, the rebuttal to the popular “Cancel culture is out of control” perspective is doing itself no favors.

The anti-anti-cancel culture argument tends to point to the dearth of examples of people being cancelled in popular culture or politics to claim that cancel culture itself doesn’t actually exist. Harvey Weinstein or Louis C.K. or Roseanne Barr, for instance, were not cancelled for wrong think but punished for either criminal actions or behavior that would make them unemployable in almost any job. In other words, they faced the appropriate consequences for their actions. This same argument will often point to people like Woody Allen or Johnny Depp or Roman Polanski or even Donald Trump to note that attempts to cancel these figures have resulted in very little in the way of consequences. This is correct, but it doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as cancel culture.

In the last six weeks alone, we received emails or other messages from readers asking us (and in a few cases, angrily demanding) to place a moratorium on covering Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Kim Kardashian, Cate Blanchett, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Meghan Markle, Emma Roberts, or Kate Winslet on our site, for a range of offenses from working with accused sexual abusers, to racist rhetoric, reported micro-aggressions against co-workers, abuse against domestic partners, and even the very downfall of American culture (guess which one got accused of that particular sin) or the destruction of the British monarchy (ditto). A reader even demanded to know “What is it going to take for you to cancel them?” It’s routine for these requests or demands to be accompanied by a threat to never read us again if we don’t comply with them. We say this not to complain. This sort of feedback is something all publishers and most writers receive from time to time. Some of it is fair and occasionally results in a pulling back on coverage for people or brands that are radioactive or offensive to too many people. But we can’t help thinking that, if little old indie media us gets this many literal cancellation requests, the major movers and shakers in media, entertainment, politics and journalism must face an onslaught of it.  

Cancel culture is a real thing, but as a social movement, it’s not particularly effective and for most people, it’s an annoyance at most. It’s driven largely by the rise of fan culture and its attendant over-identification with public figures crossing with the normalization of intersectionality and intersectional rhetoric as a way of framing the world. If we demand better public figures and reject those who have been found lacking in their politics or choices, the thinking goes, we can improve society by building better exemplars and leaders to look up to. But as a social phenomenon, cancel culture doesn’t really have an effect on the public so much as it does on the people most responsible for driving the public conversation: politicians, celebrities, media figures, the wealthy, and public intellectuals. The elite, in other words. The problem is that they are, practically by definition, the least humble people in the world and there’s a tendency for them to claim any sort of threat of consequences must mean that society itself is spinning out of control. So if you find yourself complaining about rampant cancel culture, just know that you’re using the framing the very elite of the elite want you to use. And if you find yourself arguing that there’s no such thing as cancel culture, you’re using the lack of results to prove lack of intent, which is an approach that practically begs for someone to poke holes in it.

We’re just saying.

And Now, Harsh Celebrity News

Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez have evidently rekindled their somehow iconic(?) romance after seventeen years and the world appears to be ecstatic at the possibility of revisiting this pop culture artifact, but you can’t recapture your youth by living vicariously through the super-famous and you’re going to die just like everyone else.

We joke (not really), but all we can think is how messy they both come off, given how recently they both ended relationships. But what do we know? Maybe they really were The One Who Got Away to each other. We wish them well, but personally, we were more excited when Brad and Jen teased us with a rekindle that never happened. We’re not quite so cynical to argue that this is a blatant publicity ploy by two stars who know a thing or two about self-promotion, but J Lo doesn’t do heartbroken (it’s not her brand) and Affleck would take just about any opportunity for some positive coverage that doesn’t make him look like some sort of laboratory-grown, pharmaceutical grade Divorced Dude. The somewhat rapturous online response to the news is being driven almost entirely by the publications that would benefit most from round-the-clock Bennifer content. None of this is a criticism so much as it is a surveying of the landscape. Honestly, we’d be the last people to complain about this. If those two want to show up at the Met Gala arm in arm, you think we’re gonna have a problem with that? We’re rooting for those two crazy kids as much as anyone else.

I Was Told There Would Be Cat Pictures

Twirlers, meet Tab Hunter. He is the very best boy ever and the largest cat we’ve ever adopted. The tenant below us once asked us about the dog that he hears running around our loft and was shocked when we told him we just have a very big, very energetic cat. When he was a kitten, we used to sing the “Everything is Awesome” song from The Lego Movie to him because that pretty much sums up his joyous, uncomplicated approach to life. He still comes running if one of us sings the refrain. He sleeps between us every night. He doesn’t know how to meow. He has nose freckles and trouble remembering to keep his tongue in his mouth. You can hug him like a teddy bear and he will hug you back. He answers to “Puppy.” He’s… not a thinker, let’s say.

In other news, we’re thrilled to report that we’ve hit our goal of three newsletters a week in our first week. To those of you who’ve subscribed (which is totally free, by the way), thank you. To those of you who haven’t, mash that button! If you’re so inclined, of course. Oh, and also: The name of our twirling ballerina mascot is, after many fine suggestions by all of you, going to have to be Dottie. How could we not? Just look at those eyes! Two pissholes in the snow, as the saying goes. And on that classy note, we’re off until the next entry.

[Photo credit: Lachlan Donald, Tom & Lorenzo]