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Book Review: “Canceling Comedians While the World Burns”

“Now, in what is sure to be a more controversial move, Burgis is turning his analytical skills towards criticizing the political left.”

Introduction

My friend and occasional co-author Ben Burgis, a professor of philosophy specializing in logic at Georgia State University, pulled off a very rare feat a few years ago: writing a book on logic and argumentation that actually proved widely popular. His bestseller Give Them An Argument: Logic for The Left was a funny and informative look at some of the (mis)uses of logical rhetoric from the “facts don’t care about your feelings” crowd. It showed that—while figures such as Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro may enjoy referring to the words reason and logic like tantric mantras—the actual rigor of their thinking is questionable at best. Just saying that one is a paragon of clear thinking does not make it so. Burgis’ own argument was helped mightily by the unpretentious and funny delivery of complicated points—something that has helped him to build a considerable following online.

Now, in what is sure to be a more controversial move, Burgis is turning his analytical skills towards criticizing the political left. His forthcoming book Canceling Comedians While the World Burns (available here) is a tough love letter to the political left, arguing that it has become fixated on the wrong ambitions. While autocratic politicians like President Donald Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán grab power and use every trick in the book to hold onto it (including undermining democracy), too many of us progressives get bogged down in culture war battles about canceling offensive comedians (and even leftist icons), who do not sufficiently toe the line of propriety. While Canceling Comedians does not have all of the answers, it is an enjoyable and very lucid book whose arguments become more convincing the deeper one gets into it.

The Problems With Cancel Culture

Burgis points out that there are a variety of ways progressives respond to accusations that they support “cancel culture.” Each is dealt with at length in the book. One of the most common responses is to deny that there is such a thing as cancel culture; to this point, many on the Left point out that many of the allegedly “canceled” martyrs are actually still very much active and getting their opinions across. And there is something to this, of course; as Nathan Robinson points out, many of the loudest men in the world love to posture as the victims of cancelation (ironic given many of them also denounce victim culture etc). Another common argument is that even if cancel culture exists, it is not nearly as ubiquitous or as serious of a problem as people make it out to be. Contra the rhetoric of gulags and mass firings, what counts as “cancelation” is often little more than getting some stern and angry comments online or facing boycotts by consumers. This may or may not be justified depending on the case, but it is not exactly tantamount to being hauled to a show trial. One of the less effective arguments I sometimes see is the cheesy “well the other side does it also,” where proponents of this view point to things like James Gunn’s (short-term) firing from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 after conservative partisans dug up nasty tweets of his. Whether true or not, this whataboutism is not really all that persuasive, given that “they did it too” is not an argument for anything. Finally, there are those who say by even talking about cancel culture critically, progressives play into the hands of their adversaries by vindicating a nasty stereotype that is better off ignored or dismissed, rather than discussed.

Even if the political right has managed to magnify its significance out of proportion, in chess—as in politics—one does not win if he is not willing to respond to the other side’s moves.

I have discussed my own views on the matter elsewhere; however, needless to say, both Burgis and I think none of these arguments are entirely compelling. Some of them have undoubted merits: There are far more important issues in the world than pushing against cancel culture; its significance is oftentimes overstated; and many of the victims of cancel culture are either doing just fine or—as in the case of, say, Milo Yiannopoulos—are not worth shedding many tears over. However, none of this amounts to a basis for simply dismissing frustration with cancel culture. Even if the political right has managed to magnify its significance out of proportion, in chess—as in politics—one does not win if he is not willing to respond to the other side’s moves. And, unfortunately, many progressives provide the political right with much ammunition by ignoring our worst foibles. This is well-expressed by Burgis through an anecdote about Tucker Carlson. Burgis correctly describes Carlson as a “toxic propagandist,” who has made a lucrative living “promoting the agenda of the anti-immigrant right.” But Carlson must have felt it was Christmas day in August of 2019 when he played clips from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Convention where members were told not to use conventional applause to avoid discriminating against the deaf. (They also scolded one another for using the term “guys,” rather than more gender neutral language.) While Carlson obviously cherry-picked these examples to portray the DSA in the worst possible light, the damage was done. As Burgis put it:

“What Tucker’s clips so perfectly captured was an unmistakable tone of scolding one-upmanship. It was a race to see who could go the furthest in the direction of finding ways to prove their own moral virtue by finding ways to object to the utterly unremarkable behavior of their assembled comrades. This reeks of an ‘irl’ (‘in real life’) version of the pathology of Left Twitter so memorably critiqued from the left in left-wing British cultural critic Mark Fisher’s classic 2013 essay ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle.'”

The specter of the late Mark Fisher looms large over Canceling Comedians. In his 2013 essay, Fisher, a radical critic of the neoliberal economy and author of the modern classic Capitalist Realism, published the aforementioned “Exiting the Vampire Castle” about the censoriousness of online left-wing culture. Fisher described left-wing Twitter, in particular, as defined by progressives who had a “priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd.” The nastiness of it all turned many people permanently away from left-wing politics, leading Fisher to protest that there had to be a better and more inclusive way to agitate for social justice. Burgis agrees with Fisher but gives the argument an added twist. He points out that many people on the Left have simply become accustomed to being on the losing side of political debates. As a consequence, leftists have largely given up on trying to reach out to those willing to be convinced and, instead, situated themselves as something of a protest party. Burgis does not deny that we have won significant successes in that mold; however, to truly enact large-scale change, we need to work on coalition building and engaging individuals who may not be converted but are willing to hear arguments for leftist positions, as long as they are delivered in a non-puritanical way. By the conclusion of his book, it is hard to argue against the strategic merits of Burgis’ position. It ends with a stirring call to action (following an unnecessary sting at Immanuel Kant):

“When politics becomes a moral performance, the question of whether or not you’re actually advancing your stated goals recedes into the background. You see your political commitments the way Immanuel Kant saw his system of deontological morality. ‘A good will,’ Kant wrote in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, ‘is good not because of what it effects, or accomplishes, not because of its fitness to attain some intended end, but good just by its willing, i.e. in itself.’ Even if it ‘accomplished nothing’ it would still ‘shine like a jewel’ as ‘something that has full worth in itself.’ I prefer the view of Karl Marx, who wrote about a century later in his ‘Theses on Feurbach’ that ‘previous philosophers have only interpreted the world.’ ‘The point,’ he said, ‘is to change it.'”

Conclusion

The one thing I wanted more of from the book was a principled argument for the importance of deliberative politics. Much of Canceling Comedians focuses on a long-term strategy for the Left, which is, of course, exceptionally important. However, there is something to be said for a moral argument about the importance of free speech and robust engagement.

From the 19th century onwards, progressives were at the forefront of winning political rights for women and marginalized peoples, while also including the voices of some of the best writers and commentators of the age as they engaged in fierce battle with the forces of reaction. When I watch the debate between James Baldwin and William Buckley, I am never less than awed by the power of Baldwin’s convictions and soaring denunciation of an unjust and racist society. He was utterly convinced that he was right, and, indeed, he was. Progressives today should have the courage to believe that we can win a battle of ideas, particularly now when so many reactionary forces are revealing their autocratic tendencies and utter inability to resolve several worldwide crises.

But none of this detracts from the many pleasures of Burgis’ book, which is a worthy sequel to Give Them An Argument. Burgis wants progressives to be the best they can be, and his tough but hopeful tone is never anything less than inspiring. My hope is that Canceling Comedians will spark many conversations when it is released in May. This book is long overdue, and I am optimistic that it will win plenty of converts.

Matt McManus is a professor of politics at Whitman College and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, among other books. He can be added on Twitter via @mattpolprof.

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