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Cancel Culture Will Never Die. It Will Only Evolve.

September 5, 2019
Cancel Culture Will Never Die. It Will Only Evolve.

Something heretofore unseen in our era of wokeness happened on Wednesday. A man facing the destruction of his career by an outrage mob (or in this case, a single obstinate little drone with a reporter’s badge) was swiftly vindicated and made whole again. 

But this happy ending is less of an actual “happy” ending so much as a stark warning about how far cancel culture has gone.

The Department of Labor announced that it was reinstating Leif Olson, a political appointee who’d worked for the department for only 18 days before resigning. Why had he resigned? 

In case you missed it, the nub of the story is this:

On Tuesday, Bloomberg Law’s Ben Penn had touted a “scoop” about Olson’s resignation, which came after Penn had asked the department for comment following the reporter’s exciting discovery of an “anti-Semitic” Facebook post of Olson’s.

The first problem was that the post in question was actually making fun of white nationalist (and actual anti-Semite) Paul Nehlen. It was the opposite of anti-Semitic. The second problem was that Penn had either not seen, or had wilfully ignored, remarks in the same Facebook thread that made it explicitly clear whose side Olson was on. Penn and Bloomberg Law were roundly trashed by lefties, righties, and Washington Post media critic Erick Wemple.  (The Bulwark and Vox saved some animus for the weak response by the Labor Department for immediately accepting the resignation.)

The third problem was that instead of acknowledging the mistake and fixing it, both Penn and Bloomberg law dug in:

As of 11 a.m. ET Thursday, Bloomberg Law had made no updates to the original article to address Olson’s reinstatement or the many criticisms of the story’s misleading premise, though it had published a separate item on the fallout and Olson’s return.

Amazingly, Donald Trump’s Department of Labor proved to possess more common sense than Penn and Bloomberg Law and Olson is back where he should be. 

But the incident shows that cancel culture is like an antibiotic-resistant superbug. One minute you think you’re making progress against a pernicious infection, the next it’s popped back up, more dangerous than ever. 

It was just five minutes ago that the general public started expressing its fatigue with celebrities losing gigs over old tweets. Aziz Ansari was welcomed back into polite society with the tacit admission that the #MeToo revolution had gone too far. And Dave Chappelle drove a stake through the heart of sanctimonious wokeness in his new Sticks and Stones set. It looked like the cancel fever had finally broken.

And then Ben Penn comes along to show that the fever can go on forever: Because now you can cancel people even if they don’t actually have problematic opinions. So long as there is guilt by association—note Penn’s insistence that Olson had it coming simply because he worked in a Republican administration—you can just make shit up.

There are only two possible explanations for what Penn and Bloomberg Law tried to do to Olson. One is incompetence, the other is malice. Penn has made it difficult to believe it was the former. 

In the lead to his original story, Penn refers to Olson’s “history of advancing controversial conservative and faith-based causes in court.” And a later tweet by Penn accused Olson of suing over a Houston law “recognizing same-sex marriage licenses—even after Supreme Court ruled gay marriage legal nationwide.” As Michael Brendan Dougherty pointed out at National Review, the suit was about spousal benefits for same-sex couples at a time when the Texas constitution prohibited gay marriage. And, after Obergefell, Olson’s name was taken off the case.

So there’s at least some incompetence involved. But then there’s this:

Ah, yes. Olson had been working to implement the policies of the Bad Orange Man and needed to be dealt with. Imagine calling yourself a reporter—not a columnist, not a pundit—and bragging that your work had succeeded in hampering the efficiency of a government body whose policy preferences you find distasteful. Imagine being a reporter and not caring that you used false pretenses to create that situation. That, my friends, is malice. 

The incident resembles an older, and frankly more serious, case that has been made relevant again. You may remember Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation process. Liberals were aghast that swing-voter Anthony Kennedy was about to be replaced by the reliably conservative, beer-loving, former frat boy. Kavanaugh was an affront to all that liberals find good and decent. And by total coincidence, he was also a threat to the sanctity of Roe v. Wade

After Democrats failed to knock out Kavanaugh in his first round of confirmation hearings in September 2018, Dianne Feinstein waited almost a week before revealing that she had been sent a letter by Christine Blasey Ford detailing decades-old allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh. What happened next was a sharknado of a clusterfuck that started with a near-change of heart from Senator Jeff Flake, another round of hearings—this time with Ford and Kavanaugh—and lots and lots of yelling. In the end, Kavanaugh got to the Supreme Court, but with a badly bruised reputation. 

It’s fair to say that Feinstein herself acted with malice. Her claims to have been protecting Ford’s identity rang a little hollow given that the Senate has processes and protocols for adjudicating such claims quietly and confidentially. Feinstein ignored them and waited to see how Kavanaugh’s initial hearings went before busting out her 11th-hour surprise and turning what should have been a sober investigation of serious allegations into a circus.

But what of Ford? She was a sympathetic and credible figure. She seemed sincere in her testimony, even if some of her claims seemed far-fetched. Now we have a better idea, or at least confirmation of what some had suspected all along. Video obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation and cited in Ryan Lovelace’s Search and Destroy shows Ford’s lawyer Debra Katz bragging that her client’s testimony put “an asterisk next to his name.”

Video Shows Christine Ford's Lawyer Saying Ford Acted To Protect Roe v. Wade, Author Says

“Christine’s testimony brought about more good than the harm misogynist Republicans caused by allowing Kavanaugh on the court. We’re going to have a conservative. Elections have consequences. But he will always have an asterisk next to his name. When he takes a scalpel to Roe v. Wade, we will know who he is, we know his character, and we know what motivates him. That is important. … That was part of what motivated Christine.”

What a remarkable statement: Ford’s own lawyer bragging that her client was motivated by a political desire to damage Kavanaugh’s career. Even if Ford couldn’t remember important details, or provide corroborating witnesses, and even though the allegations could not be reliably proved or disproved, none of that mattered. The damage was politically necessary. And so the damage was done.

It was mildly upsetting to see Kevin Hart lose an Oscars-hosting gig over being, as Chappelle described it, “four tweets away from perfect.” It’s slightly ridiculous to watch affluent urbanites quit their SoulCycle classes because a corporate owner hosted a fund-raiser for Donald Trump. But at least those allegations had some meat on their bones. Hart did say the things about his concern that son would grow up and be gay that he was accused of (yes, he was joking). The SoulCycle guy really did raise money for Trump. 

But as outrage mobs get bigger and more desperate, the first thing they are going to dismiss is any regard for the veracity of their own accusations, or any requirement that their accusations be topically relevant. 

Opposed to the Green New Deal? You’d better hope you never made a joke about your kid having too much homework, lest you be labeled the next Betsy DeVos.

Do you like as much as 5 percent of what Donald Trump has done since the 2016 election? Make sure none of your Facebook posts contain jokes about “the Squad” or you’ll have a MAGA hat slammed onto your head and be frog-marched through an antifa rally in Portland. 

The #Resistance is serious business. The Ben Penns of the world have neither the time nor the inclination to fully vet every bad opinion out there. To be accused is to be convicted. Eggs, omelettes, etc.

Consider yourself warned.

Rachael Larimore

Rachael Larimore was the managing editor of The Bulwark.