Chris Hedges Original

Chris Hedges: Don’t be Fooled by the Cancel Culture Wars

The politically correct speech and symbols of inclusiveness, without a concerted assault on corporate power, will do nothing to change the system.

By Chris Hedges / Original to Scheerpost

The cancel culture — the phenomenon of removing or canceling people, brands or shows from the public domain because of offensive statements or ideologies — is not a threat to the ruling class. Hundreds of corporations, nearly all in the hands of white executives and white board members, enthusiastically pumped out messages on social media condemning racism and demanding justice after George Floyd was choked to death by police in Minneapolis. Police, which along with the prison system are one of the primary instruments of social control over the poor, have taken the knee, along with Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of the serially criminal JPMorgan Chase, where only 4 percent of the top executives are Black. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world whose corporation, Amazon, paid no federal income taxes last year and who fires workers that attempt to unionize and tracks warehouse laborers as if they were prisoners, put a “Black Lives Matter” banner on Amazon’s home page.

The rush by the ruling elites to profess solidarity with the protestors and denounce racist rhetoric and racist symbols, supporting the toppling of Confederate statues and banning the Confederate flag, are symbolic assaults on white supremacy. Alone, these gestures will do nothing to reverse the institutional racism that is baked into the DNA of American society. The elites will discuss race. They will not discuss class.

We must be wary of allowing those wielding the toxic charge of racism, no matter how well intentioned their motives, to decide who has a voice and who does not. Public shaming and denunciation, as any student of the Russian, French or Chinese revolutions knows, is one that leads to absurdism and finally despotism. Virulent racists, such as Richard Spencer, exist. They are dangerous. But racism will not end until we dismantle a class system that was created to empower oligarchic oppression and white supremacy. Racism will not end until we defund the police and abolish the world’s largest system of mass incarceration. Racism will not end until we invest in people rather than systems of control. This means reparations for African-Americans, the unionization of workers, massive government jobs programs, breaking up and nationalizing the big banks along with the for-profit health services, transportation sector, the internet, privatized utilities and the fossil fuel industry, as well as a Green New Deal and the slashing of our war expenditures by 75 percent.

The politically correct speech and symbols of inclusiveness, without a concerted assault on corporate power, will do nothing to change a system that by design casts the poor and working poor, often people of color, aside — Karl Marx called them surplus labor — and forces them into a life of misery and a brutal criminal caste system.  

The cancel culture, with its public shaming on social media, is the boutique activism of the liberal elites. It allows faux student radicals to hound and attack those deemed to be racist or transphobic, before these “radicals” graduate to work for corporations such as Goldman Sachs, which last year paid $9 million in fines to settle federal allegations of racial and gender pay bias. Self-styled Marxists in the academy have been pushed out of economic departments and been reborn as irrelevant cultural and literary critics, employing jargon so obscure as to be unreadable. These “radical” theorists invest their energy in linguistic acrobatics and multiculturalism, with branches such as feminism studies, queer studies and African-American studies. The inclusion of voices often left out of the traditional academic canon certainly enriches the university. But multiculturalism, moral absolutism and the public denunciations of apostates, by themselves, too often offer escape routes from critiquing and attacking the class structures and systems of economic oppression that exclude and impoverish the poor and the marginal.

The hedge fund managers, oligarchs and corporate CEOs on college trustee boards don’t care about Marxist critiques of Joseph Conrad. They do care if students are being taught to dissect the lies of the neoliberal ideology used as a cover to orchestrate the largest transference of wealth upwards in American history.

The cancel culture, shorn of class politics, is the parlor game of the overeducated. If we do not examine, as Theodor Adorno wrote, the “societal play of forces that operate beneath the surface of political forms,” we will be continually cursed with a more ruthless and sophisticated form of corporate control, albeit one that is linguistically sensitive and politically correct.

“Stripped of a radical idiom, robbed of a utopian hope, liberals and leftists retreat in the name of progress to celebrate diversity,” historian Russell Jacoby writes. “With few ideas on how a future should be shaped, they embrace all ideas. Pluralism becomes a catchall, the alpha and omega of political thinking. Dressed up as multicultural, it has become the opium of disillusioned intellectuals, the ideology of an era without an ideology.”

The cudgel of racism, as I have experienced, is an effective tool to shut down debate. Students for Justice in Palestine organizations, which almost always include Jewish students, are being banned on college campuses in the name of fighting racism. Activists in these outlawed groups are often barred from holding any student leadership positions on campus. Professors that dare to counter the Zionist narrative, such as the Palestinian American scholar Steven Salaita, have had job offers rescinded, been fired or denied tenure and dismissed. Norman Finkelstein, one of the most important scholars on the Israel-Palestine conflict, has been ruthlessly targeted by the Israel lobby throughout his career, making it impossible for him to get tenure or academic appointments. Never mind, that he is not only Jewish but the son of Holocaust survivors. Jews, in this game, are branded as racists, and actual racists, such as Donald Trump, because they back Israel’s refusal to recognize Palestinian rights, are held up as friends of the Jewish people.

I have long been a target of the Israeli lobby. The lobby, usually working through Hillel Houses on college campuses, which function as little more than outposts of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), does not attempt to address my enumeration of the war crimes committed by Israel, many of which I witnessed, the egregious flouting by Israel of international law, exacerbated by the plans to annex up to 30 percent of the West Bank, or the historical record ignored and distorted by the lobby to justify Jewish occupation of a country that from the 7th century until 1948 was Muslim. The lobby prefers not to deal in the world of facts. It misuses the trope of anti-Semitism to ensure that those who speak up for Palestinian rights and denounce Israeli occupation are not invited to events on Israel-Palestine conflict, or are disinvited to speak after invitations have been sent out, as happened to me at the University of Pennsylvania, among other venues.

It does not matter that I spent seven years in the Middle East, or that I was the Middle East Bureau Chief for The New York Times, living for weeks at a time in the Israel-occupied territories. It does not matter that I speak Arabic. My voice and the voices of those, especially Palestinians, who document the violations of Palestinian civil rights are canceled out by the mendacious charge that we are racists. I doubt most of the college administrators who agree to block our appearances believe we are racists, but they don’t also want the controversy. Zionism is the cancel culture on steroids.

The Israel lobby, whose interference in our electoral process dwarfs that of any other country, including Russia, is now attempting to criminalize the activities of those, such as myself, who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The lobby, with its huge financial clout, is pushing state legislatures, in the name of fighting anti-Semitism, to use anti-boycott laws and executive orders to punish companies and individuals that promote BDS. Twenty-seven states have so far enacted laws or policies that penalize businesses, organizations and individuals for supporting BDS.

The debate about the excesses of cancel culture was most recently ignited by a letter signed by 153 prominent and largely privileged writers and intellectuals in Harper’s Magazine, a publication for educated, white liberals. Critics of the letter argue, correctly, that “nowhere in it do the signatories mention how marginalized voices have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia, and publishing.” These critics also point out, correctly, that signatories include those, such as The New York Times columnist David Brooks and Malcolm Gladwell, with access to huge media platforms and who face no danger of being silenced. They finally note that a few of the signatories are the most vicious proponents of the Zionist cancel culture, including The New York Times editor Bari Weiss, who led campaigns while at Columbia University to destroy the careers of Arab professors; literary scholar Cary Nelson, who was one of those who denounced the Palestinian American scholar Salaita as a racist; and political scientist Yascha Mounk, who has attacked Rep. Ilhan Omar as an anti-Semite.

I find the cancel culture and its public denunciations as distasteful as those who signed the letter. But these critics are battling a monster of their own creation. The institutional and professional power of those targeted by the Harper’s letter is insignificant, especially when set against that of the signatories or the Israel lobby. Those singled out for attack pose little threat to the systems of entrenched power, which the signatories ironically represent, and indeed are more often its victims. I suspect this is the reason for the widespread ire the letter provoked.

The most ominous threats to free speech and public debate do not come from the cancel culture of the left, which rarely succeeds in removing its targets from power, despite a few high profile firings such as James Bennet, who oversaw a series of tone-deaf editorial decisions as the Opinion Page Editor at The New York Times. These corporate forces, which assure us that Black Lives Matter, understand that the left’s witch hunts are a harmless diversion.

Corporations have seized control of the news industry and turned it into burlesque. They have corrupted academic scholarship. They make war on science and the rule of law. They have used their wealth to destroy our democracy and replace it with a system of legalized bribery. They have created a world of masters and serfs who struggle at subsistence level and endure crippling debt peonage. The commodification of the natural world by corporations has triggered an ecocide that is pushing the human species closer and closer towards extinction. Anyone who attempts to state these truths and fight back was long ago driven from the mainstream and relegated to the margins of the internet by Silicon Valley algorithms. As cancel culture goes, corporate power makes the Israel lobby look like amateurs.

The current obsession with moral purity, devoid of a political vision and incubated by self-referential academics and educated elites, is easily co-opted by the ruling class who will say anything, as long as the mechanisms of corporate control remain untouched. We have enemies. They run Silicon Valley and sit on corporate boards. They make up the two ruling political parties. They manage the war industry. They chatter endlessly on corporate-owned airwaves about trivia and celebrity gossip. Our enemies are now showering us with politically correct messages. But until they are overthrown, until we wrest power back from our corporate masters, the most insidious forms of racism in America will continue to flourish.


[Chris Hedges writes a regular original column for Scheerpost twice a month. Click here to sign up for email alerts.]

Chris Hedges
Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He wrote a weekly column for the progressive website Truthdig for 14 years until he was fired along with all of the editorial staff in March 2020. [Hedges and the staff had gone on strike earlier in the month to protest the publisher’s attempt to fire the Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer, demand an end to a series of unfair labor practices and the right to form a union.] He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show On Contact. 

Copyright 2020 Chris Hedges.

30 comments

  1. You, as always nailed it, Chris. In time to meet the tax filing deadline, I awoke in the middle of the night with the thought …”why should I pay my fair share of tax when so many others duck and dodge their responsibility? Where is my representation which would argue for the end of tax unfairness? The answer, just as there are only a few, a very few voices, who would argue for justice for the oppressed, few. Your voice argues against the substance of decay this civilization accepts as normal as it slowly inches towards the cliff. You are a good voice. Thank you for your strength of your argument and your dedication to the truth.

    1. No he didn’t. This journalist who appears to have an endless rebuke and no answers that aren’t Communistic in nature, is a walking contradiction. He has no acceptance of the underlying affect on emotion and psychology that these political games have, he doesn’t see them and that’s dishonest because much of what is happening is for it’s effect on our minds. Despite his Writing seeming to be above the political system, I bet he still craves a globalist moron like Biden to get into power. I thought I was reading something profound on the Gaslighting piece, I was wrong, He’s an idiot.

      1. If you don’t know who this man is, and it appears that you don’t, you’re the one who appears to be the idiot. You can Google yourself out of that status or you can confirm your idiocy by not finding out who this Pulitzer Prize winning man is. Chris Hedges is the LAST person on earth to be a Biden Boi. Go on, Google his name, look for videos, you owe it to yourself to get smarter about who this man is.

      2. T… The piece is a prescient critique of the bogus ‘cancel culture’ narrative. Hedges makes the correct argument that the real problem underlying racism is massive wealth inequality – the entrenched class system. This clearly sails right over your head…

  2. “Public shaming and denunciation, as any student of the Russian, French or Chinese revolutions knows, is one that leads to absurdism and finally despotism.”

    I am interested in this topic. Can I have a reference/reading list for understanding the effects of public shaming and denunciation in context of revolutions.

  3. “I find the cancel culture and its public denunciations as distasteful as those who signed the letter.”

    Pretty powerful statement considering on of Hedges’ mentors, Noam Chomsky, signed it.

    Nevertheless, I am on the fence re cancel culture. Hedges is right, this is a nonstarter in terms of making meaningful changes to the mass of people. It won’t lead to economic justice, racial justice, and so on. However, when it comes to those people in society who preach and embrace hatred and ignorance, that’s something I feel must be canceled because this kind of thing fuels and refuels violence. Perhaps this doesn’t qualify as part of cancel culture, maybe they’re talking about something else. But there is a line that gets crossed.

    1. I think you are misreading that sentence. He is stating a shared area of agreement with the letter signees, not saying he finds them all distasteful.
      – eds.

  4. I was trained in the late ’60s by older people who’d been ’30s union organizers. I never forgot being told: “Liberals are the ones who leave the room when the fight starts.” I was also a local Dem campaign manager during the late ’70s-early ’80s when centrists usurped the D party. They abandoned labor, purged the left over New Dealers, and courted Wall Street sponsors, fully in the grasp of neoliberalism. The majority working class was in effect disenfranchised.

    Therefore reading “Stripped of a radical idiom, robbed of a utopian hope, liberals and leftists retreat in the name of progress to celebrate diversity” struck me as a succinct truth. It’s a consolation prize that isn’t much consolation. One that wants to believe that the reforms of the ’30s and ’60s happened because of liberal gradualism, pretending that the strong (real) left of those eras wasn’t what made progressive reforms an attractive compromise.

    The current “diversity” that has a few women, People of Color, and LGBTs present among elites does nothing to to make structures any less oppressive for the majority. Yes, racism is not only morally reprehensible, but deadly–that does take precedence. However, racism is also a convenient way of preserving class privilege by keeping people divided. And a convenient way to deflect blame not only from the economic oligarchy, but from liberal intellectual elites as if the problem were only in the ignorant white masses. Thus yet again justifying class prejudice.

    Believing that a Black lesbian 1%er corporate boss would mean equality is to believe that the flimsy mask of “diversity” is all that is needed to radically transform the same old. Or it could be those that “celebrate diversity” do so because they aren’t committed enough to risk fighting for real progress. Perhaps the recent wide-spread BLM demonstrations and dissatisfaction with the creepy corporate Dixiecrat Dem Presidential nominee signal a revival of radical direct action. Especially among the young, who cannot escape the devastated communities and ecological destruction that are the tailings of econopathy. There is nowhere left to go…except to the left.

    1. Morningstar has no real critique of the Green New Deal. Just innuendo and guilt by association, filled out with a comfortable helping of slurs and fabrications and ignorance- spreading.

      I have my suspicions – and I’m not the only one – that she or others associated with Wrong Kind of Green are plants of the fossil fuel industry, so ardently – and with such little basis – do they attack everybody who is doing something in the real world. There used to be a comment page there where many people voiced such suspicions. Can’t find it any more, so I think these “fearless critics” are afraid of a little criticism themselves.

      From that link:

      net-zero emissions …. . From a climate standpoint, that’s a fake solution. Nonsense. Net-zero means just that and the “net’ is just about the ONLY thing relevant to the climate. What do they want – absolute zero emissions? Humans, animals emit when they exhale. Only way to achieve absolute zero is to kill all life on earth. So I guess total nuclear war is the only real solution. Sure, not increasing emissions would be good, but politicians are trying to get signatures, build a movement, logroll legislation. Give a little on the relatively unimportant, get a lot of the important. Politics is political.

      There’s no mention of ending current subsidies paid to fossil fuel companies, nor any mention of potential financial support to the clean energy sector or to households that can’t afford to refashion their use of energy (which, quite frankly, will be most of them).

      That’s just a blatant, outright lie. Of course these things are prominently mentioned in the Green New Deal.

      The Green New Deal is the Trojan Horse for the Financialization of Nature.

      This title is the biggest lie. The Green New Deal, like FDR’s New Deal is inalterably and inherently opposed to financialization. Economies became “financialized” when the New Deal reforms were abandoned in the 80s and after. The Green New Dealers are all about restoring and going beyond the New Deal control of the financial sector.

      Morningstar, WKOG equates spending for environmental purposes with “financialization”. In other words, doing anything about the environment – which in the real world means spending money – is “financialization”. Utterly mad.

      And, the largest issue of all, in many respects, there’s no language that challenges consumption as not only a lifestyle, but as the essential ingredient of a strong economy.

      Of course there isn’t, because such language would be nonsense. This is to not understand what “consumption” means in economics. Consumption has always been and always will be an essential ingredient of a strong or any other economy -as a matter of logic and definition.

      Consumption just means spending on stuff we use right now. Investment means – all other spending. “consumption” includes “eating food”. If you don’t treat consumption, for instance eating as absolutely essential – Then you starve and die.

      The thing is to redirect investment so we are consuming sustainably, not drawing down “natural capital”. So we consume and invest wisely. There is plenty of that in the very well thought out Green New Deal proposals. But very little in the Wrong Kind of Green’s hare-brained “critiques” – which amount to spouting slogans that may SOUND nice and enviromental and ecological – but conceal irrationality, deceit, stupidity – and maybe worse.

      1. What you failed to mention were the commodities, or the ‘rare’ precious metals and other unknown known resources that will be required in the future to build a platform for these new Green Cities on the Hill…

        FDR’s grand new plan was stalling from too much internal investment drawing in budgets and not enough ‘foreign investment’s into the IS until WW2 came along..

        Green Cities in the future wars may be pillaged for their valuable recycling commodity components…

        Don’t think human beings will “go green” without organized crime interferrences from mafiosos, corporatists and the bagmen…

        Don’t think “all too human”…

  5. Corporations, and the institutions that have been created to assist them in their quest for insured perpetual returns on investment, have mastered their control of societies by entertaining the masses with moral arguments while they work relentlessly with governments to ensure returns and externalize every conceivable cost associated with the pursuit of profits. The process that has created and allows corporations to prosper touches most everyone and everything the Earth supports. Participation with that process is mandatory. Citizens or nations that question, let alone opt out of the corporate agenda are swiftly silenced, sanctioned or attacked and labeled as a threat to freedom.

    A process controls us. The process to overthrow the process needs to start somewhere: a plan. Who gets toppled first: the bank clerk or city manager or county district attorney or the chief of police? Needless to say, there’s a few layers to overthrow. And once overtaken they’ll need to be fed – at a minimum.

    1. Well, to cut short your excellent analysis, we could all grow our hair long and get back to the gardens and what will that do to the markets and acquisitionists?

      Let’s forget about ‘no money’ cause no money ever comes..

      Besides, you gotta give up A LOT to win any fight!

      So why not voluntarily give up your lot in life and give everything a rest and test surviving in a mobile society of vibrant, living Weather Dodgers?

      We will have to at some point seeing how we tipped the bucket over already, speaking of “process”….

  6. No question, years of work went into pitting middle class against poor, and the poor against each other by race. Divide, subdivide, conquer. It has been one of the most successful “social” campaigns of the modern era.

  7. Thank you, Mr. Hedges. I’ve been saying the same about the Palestinian issue – where is the outrage for them? Seems evident that the RACIST outcry is not about race and oppression, it’s about distraction as well as divide and conquer. Do the elite really care about us, no matter what color we are?

    But do we really want to de-fund the police? Wouldn’t demilitarizing the police make more sense, which would lead to less funding.

    1. In my mind, “defund” the police is a stand-in for “tear it down to the roots and rethink everything” about public safety. Basically, raze it to the ground over here and start something different over there.

      “Demilitarize” sounds good, but what does it really mean? Take away some of their toys? Cops were perfectly capable of biased, abusive policing long before they got tanks and plexiglas shields. They raped Abner Louima with a baton, not an assault rifle.

      If people say “more accountability, more community policing” we will see another 30 years of near-zero improvement, or worse. The entrenched forces are too powerful. See:

      https://scheerpost.com/2020/07/01/what-defunding-the-police-can-look-like/

    2. No Kathy, the elite don’t really care. While defunding the police is fine, I prefer to defund the elite and use that money to enrich those who need it most. With more economic equity and justice, you won’t see the cops beating up on a wealthier black community. That being said…

      The Asheville (NC) City Council just approved reparations for blacks in a unanimous vote, along with a public apology to the community. So with the increased wealth of said black community, we’ll see how policing reacts. Of course this is definitely a wait-and-see thing.

      I live in NC, and the Asheville/Hendersonville area, for years, has been known to be more liberal than, say, the Charlotte or Raleigh areas. But a reparations is something I never saw coming considering Asheville is supermajority white (78% according to the 2000 census).

  8. Thank you. I completely agree that, until we analyze and address our issues as a function of class first and foremost, we will see no lasting progress toward dismantling systemic racism, political disenfranchisement, or inequality in resource distribution. Class is the causal factor—the others are symptomatic expressions of class in action. Symptoms are important to clearly note, but the disease needing treatment is class.

  9. Though I greatly appreciate Chris Hedges’ denunciation of ”cancel culture” as boutique activism of the elites, I think he fails to notice how the BDS movement which he supports in much of this article as a “victim of cancel culture” for over a decade has placed most of its energy and activism in the cultural and academic boycott– or the cancelling of Israeli artists and scholars by polite society as Israel becomes less defensible by liberal elites, who now know too much about the occupation. That too is a “boutique activism” and nobody with corporate power in the US cares much if an Israeli film is pulled from a chic festival in the name of human rights or if a protest takes place by VIP artists against the notion that the Israeli government might have covered the plane ticket of some Israeli artist. I criticized that failure of BDS in two essays, one in counterpunch and one in open Democracy.net.

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