The "Cancel Culture" Death Reel

We remember the victims of this alleged plague.

If you were to turn on certain television or talk radio channels right now, you might hear a lot of talk about a terrible thing that’s happening right now. Perhaps you’ve already heard about it from certain political figures or keynote speakers or even from ordinary people on the internet. It’s a devastating plague, they’ll tell you—but not the viral pandemic that’s killed over a half million Americans and more than two million people worldwide. It’s a swath of destruction, and not the kind we see when climate changed-fueled storms barrel into our crumbling, poorly-maintained national infrastructure. No, it’s a travesty—and not the kind of travesty that sees actual children having to run lemonade stands to fund their own lifesaving medical care.

It’s worse than that, they’ll tell you.

They’re cancelling things.

That’s right, according to a growing chorus of deeply unserious voices, the greatest current threat to our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness is not the chance that we’ll suffocate on a gurney in a hospital gift shop while leaving behind ruinous medical bills for our loved ones. It’s the threat of being “cancelled”, a term that few of these voices even bother to try and define, instead choosing to invoke it like the name of some cryptozoological folk beast that eats children who stray too far from the homestead.

According to these voices, this phenomenon has claimed countless beloved figures and properties in recent weeks, a spree that would make the Zodiac Killer proud.

Well, I figure, it’s awards season. Let’s take a look back at this list of victims, Oscars Death Reel-style.

The Muppets (1955-2021)

Hey, I love the Muppets! In fact, did you know that over 100 episodes of The Muppet Show were just added to Disney+, a streaming service that reaches over 100 million customers? That’s great news, now we can watch the Muppets whenever we w—

[logs into Disney+]

Huh, that’s weird. They’re still there.

I don’t know why this man—who I’m not at all familiar with but based on appearance and demeanor alone I believe to be a struggling actor who impersonates Ellis from Die Hard at office parties—would lie about such a thing?

[reads further]

Ah, I see. Apparently, what they’re reacting to here is that not *all* of The Muppet Show—which, I repeat, over 100 episodes of which were just made more available than ever before—can be easily viewed online right now. A handful of musical numbers are missing from certain episodes due to licensing issues, a brief explanatory disclaimer is aired prior to some other episodes featuring problematic content, and a single full episode was left out entirely—a move widely suspected to be on account of the terrible crimes committed by that particular episode’s guest star.

Huh. This isn’t quite the death I thought it would be. Let’s keep the reel going, though.

Dr. Seuss (1904-2021)

[reads dates] Wow, dude lived to 117. Good for him.

[reads fine print]

Ah, okay, he actually died in 1991, but he’s being “cancelled” now. What’s that mean?

Well, listen. Theodore Seuss Geisel, who we all know as Dr. Seuss, wrote some of the most beloved and enduring children’s literature of all time, bringing us characters like The Cat In The Hat, Sam-I-Am, Horton Who Heard a Who, and the Grinch.

He also wrote some stuff that, uh, didn’t age terribly well. Now, six of his most problematic books are being removed from publication, owing to the offensive stereotypes and illustrations contained within.

So the books are being banned!?

Well, no. They’re just not being published anymore. Books go out of print all the time. I’m sure you could find them at a used bookstore.

The publisher is just refusing to print them! This is like 1984, a book which I have not read! How does his estate feel??

It was actually a decision made by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the company that oversees his estate.

Wow. Wow. Wow. The cancel is coming from inside the house.

Yeah. Also, my children have one of these books, and I guess I’m guilty of cancel culture too, because I’ve spent years getting to certain pages in If I Ran The Zoo and saying “oh, yikes, uh, I’m not reading that. Next page.”

You’re a monster.

I never claimed to be anything but. Let’s move on.

Mr. Potato Head (1952-2021)

Ahh, Mr. Potato Head. A beloved classic toy, a familiar character from the Toy Story movies, and a valuable educational tool that teaches children how to leave feet and eyes all over the house.

Surely, the cancel-mobs wouldn’t come for this innocent carb, would they??

Wait, so you’re telling me that government regulators expressly banned toymakers from including the realistic gender-conforming anatomy that we’ve come to expect our anthropomorphized potatoes to have?? Is Hasbro fighting this? Can they go to the Supreme Court? What did they have to say?

Hasbro is officially renaming the MR. POTATO HEAD brand to POTATO HEAD to better reflect the full line. But rest assured, the iconic MR. and MRS. POTATO HEAD characters aren’t going anywhere and will remain MR. and MRS. POTATO HEAD.

Oh.

[motions for orchestra to play “In Memoriam” music louder]

Culturally-Insensitive Mascots (various-2021)

The Washington Football Team, Cleveland Baseball Team, and Land O’Lakes butter are all in some stage of removing Native imagery from their branding. Quaker Oats is retiring the “Aunt Jemima” brand, replacing it with “Pearl Milling Company”. The once-common use of ethnic stereotypes in branding has been in retreat for decades, but is now reaching its final, long-overdue purge of the biggest remaining holdouts.

But wait, where am I supposed to go if I want to watch a sports team finish third in their division while eating buttered pancakes, a food I often sneak into ballparks??

Well, you can still do that, those things just won’t be branded in harmful stereotypes that were never intended to honor their subjects. You’ll just be seeing the Cleveland Spiders or Guardians or Swamp Dragons trade away their best players before they reach free agency instead.

Isn’t that offensive enough?

Comedians, Musicians, Actors, and Other Public Figures (various-2021)

I’m not going to bother getting into names and details here, because in most cases I do not care. A number of successful and popular public figures have said or done things that have earned them rebuke and scorn from audiences, and in some instances cost them work. None of them have been jailed for their actions, and for many of them their careers have continued apace, earning money that most people could only dream of, their only real loss being a loss of esteem among some viewers.

Ultimately, this is what “cancel culture” amounts to: a diminishing of esteem for something or someone once more widely-appreciated. Things are not being banned. No one is being arrested. No one is being sanctioned by the government. No one is actually being silenced in any real way. The people and things that are being portrayed as victims are simply being viewed in a new light by many, and that’s being treated like a crime instead of societal values changing.

Of course, I don’t believe that any of these arguments are being made in good faith. I don’t believe that there’s anyone who legitimately believes that our culture has been diminished because you can’t order a few of Dr. Seuss’s most-poorly-aged books on Amazon or because the branding on a toy box is any different.

To borrow a line from the New York Times’ Jane Coaston: it’s all kayfabe.

And these people know it.

The loudest and most defensive contingents of American life rarely face any real consequences for their selfish actions, so they’re forced to invent them, to pretend that people thinking you’re an asshole is the worst thing that can possibly happen to someone. They care about their right to offend people without ever being called out for it, because they cherish the power that represents. It’s the same motivation as when offensive jokes or prying questions are delivered in a workplace, knowing that subordinates are afraid to object—it’s about demonstrating power, a power that is shrinking as our society becomes ever-so-slightly more equitable, common decency on matters of identity becomes more widespread, and their battlefield of cultural grievance continues to get smaller, dumber and more esoteric.

If someone tells you that the renaming of Mr. Potato Head represents anything more consequential than a toy company modernizing its brand, they are telling you that they are not a serious person. They are telling you that they do not wish to engage in any constructive efforts toward the real problems of society, and they’re hoping you’ll get bogged down arguing with them about books and toys and television shows instead of making those efforts yourself.

And if they tell you their kids will suffer for not reading If I Ran The Zoo?

Send me their address. I’m tired of skipping over those pages anyway.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

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