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Culture

A Cynical Ploy in the Cancel-Culture Wars

The statue of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, stands over his grave in Health Sciences Park in Memphis, Tennessee, August 17, 2017. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Reuters)

A few weeks ago, I posted here on the Corner about how masterfully Governor Bill Lee has managed the removal of a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Tennessee state capitol. Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, is an example of someone who really should be canceled by a civilized society. No amount of “Cancel Culture Comes For Nathan Bedford Forrest” headlines would have me clutching my pearls and fretting over the immanence of a totalitarian police state. We should cancel him proudly, just as General Lovell H. Rousseau did when he sent Forrest and his men running for the hills like a bunch of frightened little girls at the Third Battle of Murfreesboro.   

But it seems as if a few of Tennessee’s state senators disagree. Because less than two weeks after the state’s historical commission voted to remove the bust of Forrest, these senators have drafted a bill that would remove all 29 members of the commission and replace them with twelve new members. Under the proposed changes, the governor would have less authority over who sits on the commission. Evidently, some state senators were sorry to see Forrest’s likeness go from the state capitol, and they’re unhappy with the leading role Governor Lee took in making it happen. Senator Janice Bowling of Tullahoma basically confessed as much. “In our culture today it seems there is a desire to cancel history, cancel culture, cancel narratives that are just based on fact,” she said. “I think that that’s a dangerous precedent.” 

What a damnably cynical ploy. As if removing Forrest’s bust from a place of reverence and veneration will cast aspersions on the fact of his existence, or suddenly disappear all of the primary documents relating his deeds to posterity! Judging from the above statement, you’d think that William Tecumseh Sherman had risen from the dead two weeks ago, donned Thanos’s infinity gauntlet and wiped all memory of Forrest from the historical record, just as he wiped Forrest’s pretend country from the face of the earth a century and a half ago. 

We need to get better at having direct and honest conversations about the ethical boundaries of our culture. If we could do that, we would rob bad actors of their ability to reach for lofty-sounding, fake process arguments. They’d have to argue straight out why Confederate generals shouldn’t be canceled. Our present discourse is far too focused on the fact of cancellation rather than the criteria. We need to talk about substance rather than process. I’m sure if we put our heads together and tried some public moral reasoning for a change we could come up with a way of canceling the Klan without canceling Dr. Seuss. The question isn’t whether or not we’re going to have a “cancel culture,” it’s what we’re going to cancel people for.

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