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On January 10, a Tennessee school board voted unanimously to remove the Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novel Maus from McMinn County’s eighth-grade curriculum. (News of this broke January 26—the day before Holocaust Remembrance Day.) The director of schools for McMinn County, Lee Parkison, cited the book’s “eight curse words” and the nudity of the mice (which, like some victims of the Holocaust, are stripped naked inside of a concentration camp). It may be tempting to dismiss the banning of a print book as silly and old-fashioned in the digital age, but censorship is an eternal danger in any democracy. So dangerous, in fact, that even the right used to be against it—or at least pretended to be.
It shouldn’t have come as a shock to me when the anti-cancel-culture warriors at Fox “News” had a rabbi on to defend the banning of the book, but it did. Right-wing pundits who spent months complaining bitterly when Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced they had stopped publishing six relatively unpopular books because they included some very racist illustrations were oddly silent when it came to the removal of Maus. Those same people who are so worried about the “cancellation” of Joe Rogan—the podcaster whose publisher, Spotify, stood by him, declining so far to alter his contract or his content, after Neil Young and others pulled their music in protest over him spreading COVID misinformation—aren’t very worried about removing books from libraries.
On January 10, hundreds of “scientists, medical professionals, professors, and science communicators” sent an open letter to Spotify requesting that they take action against the misinformation Rogan has been accused of spreading. Rogan has been spouting nonsense about COVID since at least April 2021, when he said, “If you’re like 21 years old, and you say to me, should I get vaccinated? I’ll go, no.” A few months later, in August, he made the false claim, popular among anti-vaxxers, that mRNA vaccines are gene therapy. And in September 2021, when Rogan inevitably fell ill with COVID, he was sure to tell his viewers that he was taking ivermectin (not a legit treatment for the disease) along with, of course, monoclonal antibodies (which have been effective in some cases, and which he presumably realized might actually help him).
Many on the right were furious about the open letter and accused the left of attempting to cancel their pugnacious media populist. The National Review ran a piece titled “The Real Reason They Want to Cancel Joe Rogan,” which included the line, “Thanks to this insultingly low opinion of the average American, leftists want to silence Rogan not because his views are unquestionably wrong or objectively dangerous but because they want their ideas to reign supreme, and the easiest way to do that is to silence competing claims.” The right-wing website The Daily Wire titled their own piece, “‘Joe Rogan Is the Media’s New Trump’: Efforts to Deplatform Rogan Podcast Grow, Defenders Rip Attacks.”
Here’s the reality: Thousands of people died of COVID just yesterday in this country. According to a fall 2021 study by the Texas Department of State Health Services, the unvaccinated in Texas were 20 times more likely than the vaccinated to die from a COVID-related cause. What if these doctors don’t want to cancel Joe Rogan—what if they just want him to stop spreading misinformation? What if these cases of “cancellation” need to be taken apart with a scalpel, and not a chain saw?
The open letter prompted Neil Young to pull his music from Spotify, which then prompted Joni Mitchell to do the same. Days later, on January 27, Spotify stock closed at a 19-month low of $171.32 per share. (That’s not cancel culture, that’s the culture of capitalism.)
On January 31, Rogan apologized—to Spotify. (They did, after all, strike a deal with him for over $100 million.) “I’m not a doctor. I’m not a scientist. I’m just a person who sits down and talks to people and has conversations with them,” Rogan said in the Instagram video. “Do I get things wrong? Absolutely. I get things wrong, but I try to correct them whenever I get something wrong. I try to correct it because I’m interested in telling the truth. I’m interested in finding out what the truth is, and I’m interested in having interesting conversations with people that have differing opinions. I’m not interested in only talking to people that have one perspective.”
Spotify stock rebounded. Capitalism bested “cancellation,” yet again.
Meanwhile, in December, Oklahoma State Senator Rob Standridge filed Senate Bill 1142, which “prohibits public school districts, public charter schools, and public school libraries from having or promoting books that address the study of sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity, gender identity, or books that contain content of a sexual nature that a reasonable parent or legal guardian would want to know about or approve of before their child was exposed to it.”
More recently, NBC News reported that a Texas parent had argued that a children’s biography of Michelle Obama promotes “reverse racism.” The parent requested that the district remove the book.
In October, prosecutors in Wyoming mulled over the possibility of prosecuting public-library employees for stocking books that are “obscene”—This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson, How Do You Make a Baby by Anna Fiske, Doing It by Hannah Witton, Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg, and Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy by Andrew P. Smiler. What good citizens does Wyoming have to thank for compiling this list? For one, the local pastor Susan Sisti of the Open Door Church, where all books, apparently, are not welcome.
The people who are obsessed with cancel culture have been conspicuously silent when it comes to banning books and politicizing libraries. Dispensing anti-vaccine content from an enormous platform is literally a matter of life and death. No one has died while reading a biography of Michelle Obama for children. (I know this for sure, because if someone did, Fox News would have devoted a prime-time special to it.) The difference between moderating health misinformation and actual censorship is very real, and so is the difference between consumers protesting a public company and a library removing books. The guy with the $100 million contract having to stop spreading lies about the vaccine is not the same as the removal of books that upset oversensitive parents. A conservative pundit once popularized the phrase “Facts don’t care about your feelings” and that could not be more true in this case.