Earlier this month, a Hill-HarrisX poll found that 76 percent of Republicans, 70 percent of Democrats, and 68 percent of independents “either strongly or somewhat agree cancel culture has gone too far.” Republicans have long seen “cancel culture” as a winning issue for them—Ted Cruz drove an entire news cycle complaining that Democrats were trying to cancel Dr. Seuss, despite the fact that it was the Seuss estate that stopped publishing certain of his books. Meanwhile, the Texas senator indulged in a little attempted cancellation of his own, attacking Sesame Street’s Big Bird for endorsing vaccines. Ted is hardly alone among Republicans in his hypocritical love of cancellations: The spiritual leader of the GOP, Donald J. Trump, has long complained about cancel culture, pausing only to try to get everyone from former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter to television network Univision canceled. Republicans, in other words, are claiming cancel culture for thee and not me.
Now that Republicans are stoking a new moral panic over critical race theory, they’re using more and more books and movies as bait in their ever-evolving culture war. The idea is always that something is coming to get poor, helpless Republicans, whether it’s the “woke mob” or “learning about racism in American history.” This moral panic is especially effective because it’s focused on children—white ones, who are supposedly made to feel bad when they’re taught about racism. Critical race theory is mostly taught in law schools, but few understand its actual role in education, as a surge in Google searches around the Virginia 2021 election showed.
The mainstream media would have you believe CRT created the wave Glenn Youngkin rode to victory in the state of Virginia. I’m not so sure about that. According to a post-race analysis from political firm Creative Direct, when the incumbent Terry McAuliffe said, “I do not think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” it was a major gaffe that turned Virginians against him. But I have to wonder: Given how milquetoast that statement was, maybe it was more about the rage parents were feeling about the schools not reopening sooner. Maybe they were not inclined to give anyone in education in the state the benefit of the doubt. Teachers’ unions were vilified for their protection of teachers and their part in the refusal to open schools sooner. A lot has been written about the pandemic learning gap, but not as much has been written about the anger that parents who basically spent a year with their kids at home feel toward the academic institutions they feel have let them down. I say this as a parent myself.
In any case, as long as CRT dominates GOP strategy, Republicans will keep finding new stand-ins for it to cancel. In South Carolina, Governor Henry McMaster has targeted a book called Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, calling it “obscene and pornographic” in a letter to school superintendent Molly Spearman. This letter is beyond parody, with lines like “I trust you agree that pornography and obscenity have no place in our State’s public schools, much less in their libraries. Aside from being deeply disturbing and manifestly inappropriate, it is likely illegal under South Carolina law. Accordingly, by copy of this letter, I am notifying the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division of this matter for further evaluation.” What does that even mean?
Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who never met a culture war he wasn’t eager to fight, already sent a letter to the state’s school boards to “ensure no child is exposed to pornography or other inappropriate content in a Texas public school.” In Virginia, a board unanimously voted to remove and review all “sexually explicit” books from the libraries in the district. A board member told The Washington Post, “I think we should throw those books in a fire.”
And in a move that may have achieved peak irony, a Kansas school district is removing—they’re careful to not say “banning”—The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel about a dystopia where books are banned.
We all know that in the 1930s, Nazis burned books. My grandfather’s books were blacklisted and he was sent to jail in the 1950s. My mom’s books were banned in the 1970s. And now Republicans are effectively doing the same thing in 2021. The people who are scared of ideas are always the bad guys, because they know that their hold on power is largely rooted in disinformation and lies. The Republicans who rail against cancel culture in public embrace its methods because they know that culture is always the enemy of the authoritarian.