The fake and the real in American cancel culture

Was Alexi McCammond really ‘cancelled’?

Alexi McCammond resigned from her position as editor-in-chief at Teen Vogue on March 18, 2021 [File: Ed Rode/Getty Images via AFP]

Alexi McCammond is supposedly the latest victim of cancel culture. At least, that is what many Americans in elite spaces believe. McCammond recently resigned from her position as editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue just days before she was to begin running the magazine.

Her use of racist anti-Asian and homophobic language on Twitter when she was 17 years old resurfaced. “She was only 17,” any number of big-named folks in elite circles like Cenk Uygur and Glenn Greenwald have said. To her credit, in 2019 McCammond provided a standard if-I-offended-you-style public apology for her 2011 and 2012 tweets, and again in the past couple of weeks, but only after others disclosed her words.

The big dogs in the media and in right-leaning politics do not seem to understand. Seventeen years is more than old enough to understand that tweeting “now googling how to not wake up with swollen, asian eyes” is something that could come back to bite you in the butt. Seventeen years is old enough to know that saying something or someone is “so gay” or “homo” is homophobic.

One can join the Marine Corps at 17, be arrested and incarcerated as adults at 17, and can co-sign for tens of thousands of dollars of student loans at 17. But by all means, do not let a magazine aimed at teenagers – especially teenage girls – hold a short-lived editor-in-chief to the same standards to which Americans hold 17-year-olds in everyday life. One could even debate whether McCammond at 27 had the prerequisite experience necessary to be a chief editor at a major magazine, especially one that reaches millions of teenagers with articles on the most sensitive and difficult of topics in American culture.

The larger issue is not whether cancel culture exists for things people did when they were only 17 years old. The question is whether cancel culture exists in the US at all. No, it does not, not in the way the “free speech” neoliberal and neoconservative elites believe it does.

The Tucker Carlsons and the Glenn Greenwalds who say cancel culture exists are also the same people who believe that speaking in favour of racism, transphobia, and elitist class warfare are all fine examples of “freedom of speech”. They refuse to understand – or really, do not give a damn – that “freedom of expression” protects people, and corporations, from governments seeking revenge against those who criticise governments and government officials. Period. It is not a blank cheque to slur, marginalise, erase, and render expendable entire classes of people.

Yet that is exactly what many elites have done every day since before the US had declared independence, between justifying slavery, Indigenous genocide and settler-colonialism, and codifying into law women as all but the property of their fathers and husbands. Whether it is McCammond’s slurs, or JK Rowling’s transphobia, or the deceased Dr Seuss’ anti-Black and anti-Asian caricatures, elites expect the world to applaud their use of free speech instead of holding them accountable for their bigotry.

One could argue that the elite version of free speech, one which normalises elite eugenicist ideas, is antithetical to the ideal of representative democracy. One might even say that the everyday denigration and dehumanisation of Black and brown people, queer Americans, Arab Muslims, and Indigenous folk proves the US barely has a democracy at all.

If elites can say what they think of Americans of colour, women of colour, and Americans living with poverty or disabilities consequence-free, they certainly can also leverage their wealth and power to lobby for and enact legislation that discriminates against these groups. And over the past 230 or so years, that is exactly what they have done, between enacting the Jim Crow laws, passing the Chinese Exclusion Act, gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – which guaranteed voting rights for Black Americans – and applauding the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which reversed campaign finance restrictions.

Now, this is the real cancel culture in the US, in operation on Capitol Hill and in every state and local government.

And it manifests in so many ways, permeates every American institution, and influences the thinking of nearly every person with an iota of authority. It is in fact more American than apple pie for eugenicist, elitist, and narcissistic thinking to be enshrined in personal practices and codified by law.

You can see it in George Zimmerman, who took the law into his own hands to cancel 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and was then acquitted of murder. Or in police officer Timothy Loehmann, who cancelled Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old for having the audacity to play with a toy gun in a park in broad daylight. Or in the teachers, truant officers, security guards, and police who regularly criminalise Black boys and girls as adults long before reaching puberty.

My second-grade teacher did as much to me. “You will never amount to anything!” she yelled during one of our Friday spelling quizzes, all because she saw a booger fly out of my nose and land on my copy of the quiz. She crayoned a big red zero on top of my soiled quiz. Just two years beyond the toddler stage and barely able to write, I had to watch as an educator decided my life was already over. I still carry the emotional wound she inflicted on me more than 40 years later.

And you can certainly see it in the recent murders by a white misogynist of Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim, Daoyou Feng, Xiaojie Tan, Yong Ae Yue, along with Delaina Yaun and Paul Andre Michels, and a badly-wounded Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz. Six of the eight killed were Asian women working at three spas in the Atlanta area in the middle of the pandemic.

This is the cancel culture the US has for Black folk, brown folk, Asian folk, Indigenous folk, queer folx, day after day after day.

What cancel culture accusers are doing is yet another form of marginalisation. They are engaged in a constant erasure of everything other than the elite white gaze and its point-of-view on the US and the world. They then pick over the pieces of Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous culture they decided to appropriate – from hip-hop and Taco Bell to yoga, karate, and dreamcatchers – and attempt to whiten them as their own.

This is how accusations of racism and homophobia become witch-hunts, or the figment of 130 million Americans’ imaginations. It centres on the persons who are somehow paying for their -isms and -phobias, not the people who have scars because of them.

It is a logically illogical response to justifiable criticisms because the logic of elite defenders of -ism-laden speech and actions have another -ism that rules them all: narcissism. And only narcissists would believe their critics are attempting to cancel them, instead of merely holding them accountable for their words and behaviour.

In the end, nearly every one of these allegedly cancelled folk fails up. Some news outlets will hire McCammond, maybe even for her to be an editor-in-chief, sometime soon. Millions of people already own all of Dr Seuss’ books, and millions more will continue to consume his writings, for generations to come. Rowling will remain a billionaire, and Harry Potter will remain tremendously popular.

The real cancel culture will continue to turn so many Americans who are not privileged, white, and believers in white supremacy into expendable cannon fodder.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.