Feature writing


Josh Hawley and the right’s whining on ‘wokeness’ and ‘cancel culture’ is a pathetic diversion

The Daily Beast

January 28, 2021

Senator Josh Hawley and the right want people to move on from the Capitol riot, so have started a ridiculous culture war claiming to be victims of “wokeness” and “cancel culture.”

For someone who is allegedly “muzzled,” Sen. Josh Hawley sure talks a lot. In relentlessly whiny media appearances, he keeps telling us how censored he is from saying anything, as he keeps saying exactly that on mass media platforms. Just last night, he was wailing away on The Ingraham Angle.

The most definitely not-muzzled Hawley wants you to know he is a victim of “wokeness” and “cancel culture,” because people have asked him lots of very, very, very mean questions about his role in inciting the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, his fist raised to the Trump-supporting mob.

Here is what Hawley should be made to explain: his part in a terrible event that left five people dead, injured 140 police officers, and left many fearing for their lives. What does the perpetually whining-about-himself Hawley have to say about the two officers who have died by suicide since, the officers with brain injuries, the officer with two cracked ribs and two smashed spinal discs, the officer who will lose an eye, the officer who was stabbed with a metal fence stake?

Is Hawley proud now to have raised that fist? Is this what he and Ted Cruz wanted when they sought to undermine American democracy—even after the riot? These are the questions Hawley should answer, and he should be asked them wherever he goes.

In another world—one with logical cause and effect—you may think that three weeks later both the now-former president and the still serving lawmakers would be contrite, seeking to explain themselves, apologizing until they had exhausted every apologetic phrase. They would be facing some form of investigation, judgment, or censure—at least from their own party.

Nope. Not yet, anyway. Trump is in Mar-a-Lago, reportedly bored, angry, and figuring out how to remain a thorn in Joe Biden’s side in “the office of the former president.” Forty-five Republican senators have refused to sign up to impeach him.

If you wondered why, these representatives have consulted their pollsters and funders and, as my colleague Asawin Suebsaeng reported Wednesday, come to the inevitable conclusion that Trump is still good for business. They remain yoked to him, so when it comes to the Capitol riots and the words and behavior of Republican representatives before and since, we should not expect any kind of punishment or collective self-interrogation.

Instead of taking to the public square to defend themselves or even attempt to reassure the electorate they are committed to the basic meaning and functions of democracy, Republicans are—like Hawley—scrambling to find find a new, shiny object to focus public attention on, complaining that they are the victims of “wokeness” and “cancel culture.”

This is familiar ground. When the going gets rough, the right wing starts a culture war—and the gaslighting, the “look-over-there, not here,” is extreme. Hawley, who should be being questioned about his incitement and support of the mob and his baseless claims of widespread election fraud, has instead gone into full “I’m the real victim” mode.

This week he was given the front cover of the New York Post to whine about the “muzzling of America.” His article is one long, facetious, Earth-is-flat, up-is-down moaning session in which he casts himself as the victim of the left, who are apparently trying to silence him.

If this were true, the left has failed miserably; the article was printed on the cover of the nation’s fourth largest newspaper by circulation, and Hawley’s plaintively wounded face appears on TV with un-cancelable frequency.

But more than this, Hawley’s arguments are bogus. He has not been canceled by “leftists” and the “woke capitalists” of Big Tech. Simon & Schuster, the company that was originally going to publish his book, observed his anti-democratic actions of recent weeks and decided not to; the places that have canceled his talks clearly feel the same.

The person responsible for Hawley’s mess is Hawley—no one else. He does not want to address his role in the riots; he does not want to explain why he tried to derail an election. And so, like many politicians before him, he seeks to divert our attention, and muddy the water. He wants to make himself—in reality the bully—into the victim. It’s far easier to begin a culture war, to fire up your right-wing supporters with babyish yowling, than it is to be an adult and explain your behavior.

Hawley has not been “cancelled.” He has, like so many other conservative firebrands, used “cancellation” and “woke mobs” as straw men to avoid answering the criticisms fairly leveled at him. For all their sneering at left-wing snowflakes, those on the right show themselves consistently to have the thinnest skin of all.

Hawley’s idea, presumably, is to kick up enough misleading, fallacious dust until he can eventually settle back into his role as a public representative. But there will always be picture of him raising his fist in support of those who attacked the Capitol that day. He will never live that down.

Hawley being given the Post’s front page to make his bad-faith argument should not be a surprise. A few days previously, Rupert Murdoch, the paper’s proprietor, popped up on a video to complain about a “woke orthodoxy.” (Full disclosure: This author worked at the Murdoch-owned Times of London for a number of years.)

“For those of us in media,” Murdoch said, “there’s a real challenge to confront: a wave of censorship that seeks to silence conversation, to stifle debate, to ultimately stop individuals and societies from realizing their potential… This rigidly enforced conformity, aided and abetted by so-called social media, is a straitjacket on sensibility. Too many people have fought too hard in too many places for freedom of speech to be suppressed by this awful woke orthodoxy.”

The irony here is so rich as to deserve its own comedy hour. Murdoch, executive chairman of News Corp, owns Fox News and tabloids like The Sun newspaper, which for years bashed minorities and the marginalized. The only silencing that has been done has been done to those minorities by those outlets. The “rigidly enforced conformity” was exerted by them.

The “awful woke orthodoxy” Murdoch decries is merely people trying to make themselves heard above the fog-horned intolerance of some of his loudest outlets. What is notable in his words, quite besides the gaslighting and the inversion of fact, is the sense of threat that any dissent represents to him.

The point of inventing these arguments around “wokeness” and “cancel culture” is to somehow fool us into thinking that those who question somebody or some institution about their conduct, or who query and challenge inequality and unfairness, are those in the wrong.

Yet for years, these same people and institutions have enforced their own conservative moral judgments and “cancelations”—think, for example, of those who have been the focus of drug and sex and sexuality-related exposés in the tabloids. Think about the lawmakers who have “canceled” the voting rights of Black voters, women’s reproductive choice, or LGBTQ equality.

What is telling is that the conservative establishment now has such a paucity of substantial arguments around whatever the contested issue is—inciting a riot, election integrity, racial inequity, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia—that they can only insist that it is unfair that they, the powerful, be challenged. They seek to render any act of criticism a weapon they are being assaulted with. In this respect, social media—its reach and volume—has them scared.

Yet still they mostly maintain their power, and they do so through money, influence, shamelessness, fear, and the deployment of diversions—like starting culture wars. The rages against “wokeness” and “cancel culture” are useful in creating bogeymen out of those far less powerful but who nevertheless pose a challenge to the conservative establishment’s power and standing. The less powerful, but still loud, can be easily scapegoated and stigmatized as a malign other.


“When you’ve lost an election, and colluded with the desecration of democracy, what else have you got?”

The demonization of “wokeness” is not new. Those of us around in the 1980s and ‘90s recall its close cousin in the right wing’s old bête noire of “political correctness.” This too was used as a convenient, silencing battering ram against minorities who were seeking justice, equality, and fair representation.

As a gay kid growing up in a Britain where my sexuality was illegal (the age of consent at the time was 21 for gay men, and 16 for heterosexuals), there were constant tabloid outcries about TV shows, people, or books (most famously, Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin) that spoke about LGBTQ people or queer relationships and lives in a non-prejudiced way.

The newspapers were full of headlines about AIDS as “the gay plague.” Homophobia was rife. Never mind Russia now; back then Margaret Thatcher introduced Britain’s very own “gay propaganda” law, Section 28. Tabloids like The Sun and the Daily Mail proudly fostered this bigotry. They had immense power and audience. And, just as today, object to it, query it, criticize it, do something opposed to it, and the howls and sneers of “political correctness” would rain down upon you.

The same baiting occurs with “wokeness” and “cancellation” today. The blanket insults seek to tamp down on, say, questioning a country’s past when it comes to race and colonialism, or debating what true LGBTQ equality looks like—anything, in short, that a right-wing politician or media mogul or commentator finds inconvenient or objectionable.

Last week, writing in the Telegraph, Robert Jenrick, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, thought that precise moment—mid-pandemic with Britain about to exceed 10o,000 deaths—would be an appropriate time to argue that statues should be protected from “a baying mob” and “woke worthies.”

With Boris Johnson’s government widely criticized for its handling of the pandemic, why not start a pointlessly inflammatory culture war? Just as with Senator Hawley: look over there, not here.

It is odd that those who squawk about “cancelation” usually do so from influential public platforms, opinion columns, and follower-rich social media feeds. If this is cancelation, it is usually of a very loud and visible kind.

The only difference from the 1980s and ‘90s is that the powerful now cloak their dissent in the mantle of victimhood—which makes their stance that bit more obnoxious because it is a lie. They are far from victims of anything. They have power, and yet they masquerade as victims, like Senator Hawley.

Still, when you’ve lost an election, and colluded with the desecration of democracy, what else have you got? Engaging in culture wars will at least get you on side with the voters, readers, or viewers out there who you hope meet the mistrust and ignorance you’re selling with corresponding velocity—just like the Capitol rioters, who were ready to maim and kill in the name of President Trump.

How did we get to “cancel culture” and “wokeness” so soon after that day? It comes down to the grasping ambition and desperation of Hawley and those like him. The Capitol riots played out on live television; they cannot be imagined away (not yet at least, although conspiracy theorists are already trying). Ever since, voters have seen Republican representatives not take responsibility, and shy away from explaining their role in them.

They have seen old footage of Marjorie Taylor Greene—yet another politician compulsively selling her own social issue victimhood—haranguing Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg on the street and apparently supporting the execution of political opponents. They have seen elected representatives balk at passing through metal detectors.

As Mitt Romney said on Tuesday, “You have many of the Trump supporters in elected office, senators, congresspeople, governors, continuing to say the same thing, that the election was stolen.”

So, the right-wing ecosystem is desperate to get past the Capitol riot—it’s hard to “both sides” a very visible mob of Trump supporters—and to get itself back to its favored demons and targets. Fox News, terrified of losing its viewership to still more right-wing rivals, is reportedly purging those it sees as not in line with a definitively hard-right agenda. Tucker Carlson is speaking in support of QAnon fantasists, and making light of the Capitol riot.

It is no surprise, less than three weeks after the riot, that instead of the investigation, contrition and judgment of those responsible, “cancel culture” and “wokeness” have become the burnished breastplates of the right wing. By baselessly invoking both, they can claim to be the victims of what has happened since.

Perhaps one day—maybe sooner than any decent society could ever imagine—the riot will be straight-out justified, and reclaimed as patriotism. (Indeed, one piercing question recurs: what if the rioters had succeeded? What if somehow Trump had remained president after the successful, bloody completion of the rioters’ actions? What would Mitch McConnell and co. have said and done then?)

Right now, Hawley is using “wokeness” and “cancel culture” to elicit sympathy, as ways to nauseatingly recast himself not as a riot instigator but as a victim of persecution himself. The truly shaming thing is that this nonsense undermines and distracts from the real work towards achieving equality that good government should be engaging in. Away from the absurdist fray, President Biden has signed two executive orders around LGBTQ discrimination and trans military service—this isn’t “wokeness,” it’s how minorities should be treated in a decent society.

Ranged against Biden’s undoing of Trump and Mike Pence’s proudly practiced bigotry, there are presently over a dozen bills in state legislatures aimed at denying trans teenagers access to proper health care and playing youth sports. The most marginalized of the marginalized are still being targeted. Might all those Republican legislators have something more substantial to do—in the middle of a pandemic—than pick on trans kids? Apparently not. And no doubt expect legislators to claim—in response to protests or questions about their bigotry—that they too are victims of “wokeness” and “cancel culture.”

More of this bad-faith whining will also issue forth from Josh Hawley, as his poor-me pantomime continues. As he seeks your sympathy, also remember the picture that showed the real Hawley on Jan. 6; his pasty little fist raised up in support of a violent mob determined to destroy the democracy he swore to serve. Now his party seems to be falling in line behind him, Trump, and the rioters. If there is a dark, transactional shamelessness to that, it will be perfectly echoed in Hawley’s next media appearance, where he will yet again tell us how silenced he is.