by Greg Mayer
An op-ed piece in The New York Times by Sasha Issenberg claims “Cancel Culture Works. We Wouldn’t Have Marriage Equality Without It.” The Times even sent me an email heralding the piece, adding “Naming and shaming were key parts of the campaign to make gay marriage legal.” I was expecting something about the public mockery of Rick Santorum, the Republican talking head and former politician known for his anti-homosexual views, or some similar figure or figures.
I was surprised to find that the piece is not about this at all, but about the efforts of “a retired Republican political operative named Fred Karger . . . [to] defeat . . . Proposition 8, a ballot measure [from 2008] that if passed, would ban same-sex marriage in California.” Karger publicized who the supporters of Proposition 8 were, targeting them for opprobrium and boycott. Issenberg writes that he targeted a car dealer in Utah named Ken Garff
because one of Mr. Garff’s relatives had given $100,000 to pass Proposition 8. “Individuals and businesses gave a vast amount of money to take away our equality, and we want you to know who they are,” Mr. Karger wrote.
So, by Issenberg’s account, Karger was targeting someone who was not supporting Proposition 8, and who didn’t even live in the state!
I was even more surprised when Issenberg revealed that Karger had failed– Proposition 8 passed! By disdaining “to mobilize voters or move public opinion”, Karger’s inaptly named group, Californians Against Hate, had failed in a referendum that was decided by a margin of only 2.5%. What if they had tried to shift opinion just a little bit, instead of shaming supporters?
Issenberg is just flat wrong here. Marriage equality was achieved not through shaming and boycotts of its largely conservative opponents, but by convincing judges of the arguments for marriage equality. Andrew Sullivan, a tireless campaigner for marriage equality, summarized his argument for it at the time of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges:
Homosexuality, at its core, is about the emotional connection between two adult human beings. And what public institution is more central—more definitive—of that connection than marriage? The denial of marriage to gay people is therefore not a minor issue. It is the entire issue. It is the most profound statement our society can make that homosexual love is simply not as good as heterosexual love; that gay lives and commitments and hopes are simply worth less. It cuts gay people off not merely from civic respect, but from the rituals and history of their own families and friends. It erases them not merely as citizens, but as human beings.
We are not disordered or sick or defective or evil – at least no more than our fellow humans in this vale of tears. We are born into family; we love; we marry; we take care of our children; we die. No civil institution is related to these deep human experiences more than civil marriage and the exclusion of gay people from this institution was a statement of our core inferiority not just as citizens but as human beings.
(The first paragraph is from an article Sullivan wrote in 1996, while the second is his added reflection at the time of the 2015 decision; Andrew’s whole, brief, piece from which the above excerpt is taken, is still worth reading.)
The vote of generally conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in the 5-4 Obergefell decision, was, dare I say, not determined by fear of “shaming”, or by boycotts of car dealers in Utah, or of any businesses anywhere. He was persuaded to vote as he did by the arguments of the proponents of marriage equality. Kennedy’s views, as so often on the court, were developed over a series of decisions, the most notable earlier one being United States v. Windsor, in which, writing for the same majority, he held certain parts of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
I suspect Kennedy was influenced by arguments, in much the same way I was. At the time of the Obergefell decision, I wrote here on WEIT:
When I first heard of the idea years ago, gay marriage seemed to me like a contradiction in terms– it was Andrew [Sullivan] who convinced me otherwise. He worked very hard, against opposition from all sides of the political spectrum, to promote the idea, and did so just by the power of reasoned argument– he led no army of followers, no political party, no phalanx of lobbyists.
(I am not suggesting Kennedy was influenced by, or even read, Sullivan’s writings on the matter, but that it was reasoned argumentation, not threats, that persuaded him.)
What Karger did to Ken Garff, and what Issenberg praises, was, and remains, odious—it is a most blatant example of guilt by association. (Recall that, fide Issenberg, it was a relative of Garff that donated to the pro-Proposition 8 campaign.) The dragnet of condemnation ensnared the large and the small, the guilty and the innocent; and it didn’t even work– it cannot even be redeemed by necessity.
The one nugget of enlightenment to be drawn from Issenberg’s piece is the doleful influence of big money of all sorts, and of corporate money in particular, on politics. Issenberg’s ‘solution’ is to threaten businesses until they support the position he advocates. But this no solution at all—it’s merely an invitation to dueling protection rackets by all sides in a political debate.
The best recent statement about the influence of corporate money on politics, and the inkling of a potential real solution, was uttered recently by, of all people, Senator Mitch McConnell:
My warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics. It’s not what you’re designed for.
McConnell doesn’t actually believe this; he just wants corporations to say what he wants them to say, just as Issenberg does. (McConnell and Issenberg differ, of course, over what they want corporations to say.) A step on the way forward is to take McConnell’s statement at face value, and work to get corporations out of debates which they were not designed for.
18 thoughts on “Does cancel culture work?”
I am not sure whether the point is that canceling works. Assassination may work, but is that the political culture we want? To maintain civil society, there must be boundaries, and we can’t just shut people up.
You say that you were persuaded by Sullivan’s argument, but was anyone else? Were any Republicans?
A lot of Republicans did go silent about their previous opposition to same-sex marriage. A lot of Democrats also. But very few said that they were persuaded by Sullivan’s argument, and I suspect that they had other reasons.
I think there are a lot of Republicans today who’d just as soon pretend that they were never really opposed to same-sex marriage. As Schopenhauer observed, a controversial issue “passes through three stages on the way to acceptance: First, it appears laughable; second, it is fought against; third, it is considered self-evident.”
Yes, it does. It achieves its two immediate goals: it pisses off people who think that you can do worse than Western culture, and it provides the quotidian dosis of pleasurable revenge to those who need it. I don’t think, though, that it will achieve its final goal –the demise of Western civilization.
“But this no solution at all—it’s merely an invitation to dueling protection rackets by all sides in a political debate.” Love your phraseology, Greg! 👍
I don’t believe there can be much doubt that today’s Supreme Court, with its solid six-justice conservative majority, would have decided Obergefell v. Hodges differently had it considered the case as a matter of first impression — what with three of the justices who dissented in Obergefell (Thomas, Roberts, and Alito) remaining on the bench, and with the three new justices who’ve taken their seats since (Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett) all being well to the right of retired swing-vote justice Anthony Kennedy.
OTOH, I don’t think there’s much taste among a majority of sitting justices to throw the nation into the type of chaos that would ensue were the Court to overrule that decision, thereby throwing into doubt the validity of the marriages of the hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples who’ve plighted their troth to one another in reliance on Obergefell.
On the other other hand, all it takes is the vote of four justices to grant certiorari on the issue, thereby thrusting the matter onto the laps of six sitting justices who no doubt think Obergefell was wrongly decided.
I agree, counsellor. As you’ll know (but many don’t) judges — even some conservative ones – do try to take into account “reliance” on established law as well as changing public opinion.
This is a sticking point in Roe v Wade: now generations of women have run their lives in reliance of an established precedent making it tough to overrule.
OTOH, I don’t think there’s much taste among a majority of sitting justices to throw the nation into the type of chaos that would ensue were the Court to overrule that decision…
I think this is true of Roberts and the 3 democrats, but I doubt that the other 5 justices have any regards to the chaos a decision like this would create, nor will they consider the chaos that overturning Roe would create. For those five conservatives, ideology is paramount. I hope I’m wrong.
I’m sure Chief Justice Roberts would as lief be the featured guest at the Burning Man festival as to have the Court that bears his name revisit the same-sex marriage issue. But he wrote a very vigorous dissent in Obergefell, so if the issue were thrust upon him, I think it would be difficult for him to vote in favor of SSM without completely revamping his own constitutional philosophy.
I don’t know how a case would ever get up to them right now. For that to happen, I believe there would need to be someone who is harmed by the existence of SSM — that is someone with standing — to carry the case up to them. None of the opponents of SSM are really harmed by SSM as far as I can see.
I don’t see what would stop a state (like, say, Mississippi) from enacting a blatantly unconstitutional law banning same-sex marriage — similar to the way Mississippi enacted a blatantly unconstitutional law essentially banning abortion. Such a law obviously would be ruled unconstitutional (and its enforcement stayed) by a federal district court, but the state could then appeal such a ruling (as Mississippi appealed its adverse abortion ruling), thereby putting the case in the pipeline for the state eventually to seek certiorari from the Supreme Court.
I agree with you wholeheartedly that no individual could establish standing since no individual could plausibly claim that they’ve suffered any injury-in-fact due to the existence of SSM — pace the incessant claims, pre-Obergefell, of religious conservatives that same-sex marriage would be the ruination of “traditional” marriage and of the American nuclear family.
Hillary Clinton and a lot of other Democrats also pretend that they were never really opposed to same-sex marriage. The question here is whether they were persuaded by Sullivan’s argument, or intimidated into submission. The latter seems more likely to me.
They just bent with the way the wind was blowing.
You don’t need a weatherman.
I can expect Hillary, but Obama is well known to have ‘evolved’ in his views on the matter. Although I don’t know if he ever voted to oppose it.
In 2008, Barry said — as any politician with an eye on the top office had to — that he thought “marriage” meant between a man and a woman (though he was in favor of civil unions for gay couples).
It was actually Uncle Joe who (in either one of his patented “gaffes” or in a carefully orchestrated effort to make it seem so) got in front of the rest of the Obama administration in coming out for same-sex marriage.
By the time Obergefell came down, the entire Blue Team was pro-SSM.
It’s a venerable principle of politics that, if you grab ’em by the balls, their hearts & minds will follow.
And remember – MOST of the opposition to SSM comes from the insane edicts of the bronze age fairy tales: the 3 toxic monotheisms.
We can see that by other cultures’ treatment of homosexuality which – while rarely over enlightened (same sex people don’t breed, traditionally, which loses them some respect) they don’t have the murderous rage against LGBTQs as is dictated by the toxic monotheisms. No Japanese ever threw a homosexual off a building for offending their god/s.