Something precious dies when we allow judgment to be passed on ‘the canceled.’
Some years ago—many actually—I picked up a bird’s nest that landed on my front lawn. On examination, I noticed that the nest was constructed largely of string, little circles of string laced together.
On reflection, I realized these were the strings my neighbors and I casually slipped off our rolled-up copies of The Kansas City Star and casually discarded. Hard to believe, but just a generation or so ago, some 90 percent of metro households subscribed to The Star, and delivery routes were as avidly contested as NFL franchises. Not so anymore. That’s a shame—and not just for the birds.
Like many of my neighbors, I consumed the paper from cover to cover. In addition to local news, I learned who was dying, who was getting married, which bands were coming to KC, which movies were showing, which cultural events were unfolding, which teams were playing and how well, and what the weather portended.
At work, I had KCUR, the local NPR station, on in the background just about all day. If I didn’t watch much KCPT, the local PBS station, it was because of the station’s snootiness, not its politics. In the same vein, I watched TV news just about every night, local and national.
As I got to know the town better, I started writing the occasional article for The Star, and I almost took on a regular column. I appeared routinely on KCUR and produced a half-historical dozen documentaries for KCPT. The Star reviewed my books, and I became something of a regular on KCPT’s Week in Review.
Politically, I have not changed since those days of happy “coexistence.” Hell, I manned the right half of a left-right talk radio show on KMBZ for five years in the mid-1990s without having a single door shut in my face, not even those at UMKC, where my wife was a professor.
Although I never did anything to cancel myself—no racial joke told on a hot mic, no groped intern, no self-pleasuring Zoom chat—I and people like me found ourselves being slowly cancelled. The trend started before the turn of the century, took a pause for 9-11, and accelerated during the years when Donald Trump was just another guy with a reality TV show.
The cancelling took place on a personal level as well. One summer day I was out mowing the lawn when a friend beckoned me over to the sidewalk. Reluctantly, I shut down my always petulant mower and asked him what was up. “Bush is an idiot,” said the fellow, a law professor, and stormed off. “That’s it?” I shouted after him. “The mower better start.”
As the range of acceptable opinions shrank, invitations to university-related affairs shriveled. More than once, a hostess would approach me at the door and say, “No politics.” I never initiated a political discussion. It didn’t matter. Her other guests operated under no such constraint. Word to the unwise: never argue with a talk show host. We know too much.
The cancel trend started before 2000, took a pause for 9-11, and accelerated during the years when Donald Trump was just another guy with a reality TV show.
By 2015, The Star had long since stopped talking to me, KCUR stopped hosting me, and finally, without ex-planation, KCPT stopped inviting me to be on Kansas City Week in Review. I do not take this personally. Recently, KCPT cancelled “Ruckus,” the long-running show that positioned itself as the one local source of civilized debate and on which I never appeared.
In 2013, some good souls launch-ed a program called “American Public Square.” It had the commendable goal of “bringing civility back” to the aforementioned square. In early 2016, the organizers invited me to participate in a panel discussion titled “Muslims in the Metro.”
My strategy was to confuse the audience members with the truth, namely that liberal affection for the very conservative Islam makes no apparent sense. When the host and my fellow panelists, two of whom were wearing hijabs, vigorously challenged my thesis, I pulled out my index cards. I recited the Pew polling numbers on how Muslims worldwide felt about issues like family, women, abortion, gay rights, and tolerance of Jews.
The discussion featured an active online fact checker and a civility bell. I welcomed the fact checker. He confirmed that my numbers were right. Although no one rang the civility bell on me, I was never asked back. I am told that the American Public Square has quietly abandoned the idea of having both sides represented on controversial issues.
Increasingly, the Kansas City “community” has morphed into a circle of the like-minded. The astute African-American social commentator Shelby Steele refers to this circle as the “zone of decency.” Those within find redemption by decertifying those without. The decent are quick to call their preferred media outlet when the seemingly less-decent breach the zone with a rogue opinion, which is how Ruckus got cancelled, literally.
By the most generous of definitions, The Star is a for-profit enterprise. It makes no marketing sense to decertify half or more of the newspaper’s red-state market, but that is the publisher’s right. The taxpayer-funded KCUR and KCPT do not have that right. They exercise it nonetheless. These entities no longer even fake objectivity.
Together, they exert substantial pressure on the corporate and nonprofit community to follow the party line. Those who march to the beat of their own drum or even question the orthodoxy du jour can quickly find themselves shamed, decertified, cancelled.
None of this portends well for any genuine sense of community. “I often admired the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States managed to fix a common goal to the efforts of many men and to get them to advance to it freely,” said Alexis de Tocqueville, explaining the unique genius of America.
The critical word here is “freely.” In Kansas City, as in many such cities, freedom has yielded to intimidation. We have already cancelled J.C. Nichols and Andrew Jackson. Can Harry Truman be far behind?