Two years ago I was part of a group of aspiring writers who would follow and promote each other on Twitter as a means to get more exposure for our books. I neither expected much nor gained much from the effort. However, I remember in particular a comment that crystallized in my mind the state of the modern publishing industry. One writer (I forget her name) posted a complaint about Internet “cancel culture,” asking her fellows to weigh in on the sacrifice of free speech to the prevailing PC ideology. The response was enlightening. In the hundreds of replies, something like 90% of the writers said, “Free speech is good, but there should also be consequences.”
These writers did not refer, as an uninformed person might suppose, to laws concerning libel or the classic example of “shouting fire in a crowded theater.” Rather, they were affirming the aforementioned cancel culture, in that people have the right to say “bad” things but that being punished for said opinions – whether it’s losing one’s platform, one’s job, or even one’s bank account – is perfectly acceptable. After all, these are “private institutions” doing the punishing.
Now I’m not going to debate this issue or the fairness of “private” censorship when 90% of America’s banks, news outlets, and social media companies are owned by a tiny cabal of interconnected billionaires who are also intimately entangled with the US government. My focus will be instead on the overwhelming agreement of the majority response. Did all 100-plus of these people who said “cancel culture is OK” actually believe what they were saying? Or were they trying to curry favor with the Powers that Be, which happen to be overwhelmingly and intolerantly leftist? Many progressive writers, J. K. Rowling, for example, have run into trouble due to a single disagreement with the prevailing orthodoxy. It seems that the lesson these writers have learned is not that “cancel culture is bad because it may someday come for me” but “I need to toe the line all the more carefully and I’ll be fine.” That caution includes, apparently, avoiding any criticism of cancel culture itself.
Let’s consider this question against the backdrop of the publishing industry in 2022. New authors attempting to publish a novel in today’s social climate will notice an interesting development. Besides looking for certain genres, topics, and styles of writing, many agents and publishers are also seeking certain kinds of writers. “Marginalized voices” is a common catchphrase, which usually refers to ethnic and sexual minorities – people of color, gay, transgender, etc. Sometimes women are included in this equation, though it’s hard to imagine misogyny is an issue in an industry that is literally dominated by female executives.
What I’m getting to is this: does it make sense for those of us who don’t belong to a protected group – in particular, straight white males such as myself – to muzzle ourselves in hopes that the publishing industry will cut us a break? For blacks and gays, this may make sense, because even luminaries such as Dave Chapelle and Glenn Greenwald can be labeled as “Nazis” despite their favored identities. To be clear, I don’t fault “marginalized” writers for taking advantage of literary affirmative action; I certainly would. It would be wonderful to have my work automatically moved to the top of the slush pile. And if they do fall afoul of the cancel mob, they may be more easily forgiven; consider whether Netflix would have stood behind Chapelle if he wasn’t an African-American. (By the way, I’m a big fan of both Chapelle’s comedy and Greenwald’s clear-headed political commentary.)
As for pale stale males, like me, I believe we’re fools to comply; we should be exactly who we are, as liberal or conservative or libertarian or populist as we feel. I’m reminded of a 1960’s cartoon in which a pair of hippies are dragging a normal-looking man away by his arms. “I’m relevant, I tell you!” screams the normie. The two hippies aren’t buying it and neither will the publishers who prioritize a writer’s identity over the writing itself. Those few enlightened agents or publishers who don’t consider a writer’s politics won’t be impressed by these acts of obeisance. And honoring the progressive shibboleths will positively shut us out of alternative non-liberal institutions such as the notorious Vox Day’s Castalia House.
This may sound like sour grapes, but being a straight white male is freeing in a way. I don’t need to apologize for having voted for Donald Trump twice, for supporting America, or for opposing immigration. Any opinions I express in this column are what I actually believe, no virtue-signaling required. If the political situation continues to decline, the American Stasi might come like the hippies in the cartoon to drag me away, but I’m not worried. The reign of intolerant reality-challenged lunatics can’t go on forever.
Which leads me to the title of this article. In 1862, faced with overwhelming odds in the Battle of Mobile, US Navy Admiral Farragut is quoted as saying, “Damn the torpedoes! Four Bells! Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!” The battle was won for the Union Navy, though Farragut and his men could easily have died in the effort. This motto is perfect for dissident writers of all stripes who refuse to censor themselves. I repeat:
DAMN THE TORPEDOES!