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Cancel Culture (Donatism in a new dress)

Boy, are we a culture of whiners (or maybe I should've said "Girl" because, well, y'know, I might've just upset the uber-sensitive types who bemoan our patriarchal culture). But whine, whine, whine is what we do these days, about everything. And don't get me wrong. I have zero issues with us fighting for justice and equality and responsibility. But whining isn't any of those. It's just whining. And it's something that has become a cottage industry in the U.S., given the instant 15-seconds of fame that social media now blesses everyone with. Talk about virtue signaling. Cancel culture is virtue signaling on steroids.

The impulse behind cancel culture actually finds its roots in a Christian heresy from the 4th-5th centuries. Donatism was the belief that ministers needed to live faultless lives in order for their ministries to be effective and genuine. Donatists insisted that Christian clergy who did not live such lives were not worthy of celebrating the sacraments nor of offering prayers on behalf of the church. Which meant, ironically, that unless you didn't need the Christian faith (since you were already blameless), you couldn't be a Christian minister.


Not surprisingly, the sect arose in the midst of the collapse of the Roman empire and its attendant "official" religion, Christianity. Augustine wrote about this in his City of God, which argued (among other things) that Rome didn't fall because the Christian God was to blame. It fell because Roman culture believed that the Roman way of life (and Rome in particular) was the perfect embodiment of what a culture should be. In other words, Roman culture had become an idol of itself, and, well... pride eventually goeth before the fall, and all idols end up suffering the same fate: they rot from the inside out because they can't live up to their own idolized status. The Roman administration basically fell apart through graft, mismanagement, and corruption, and when things like that start to happen, it's always convenient to find scapegoats. That way, you someone to blame other than yourself. And when that begins, the calculus always ends up with heroes and zeroes, and zeroes need not apply. Which is another way of saying, I am perfect and you are the devil. And where the devil lurks, it must be banished, right? Oh, and did I mention that I was perfect and you're not? Which makes you, I guess, the devil. Because that's all there is in the end, you know. Good and evil. Black and white. Right and wrong. Bad and good. Rich and poor. Republican and Democrat. Us and them.

Gaius Octavius (aka Octavian aka Augustus aka Julius Caesar), who fancied calling himself Princeps ("Prince") and took the name Augustus ("Your Holiness"), popularized a slogan: Rome magnum faciam rursus, meaning something like "Rome will make a turn for the better," basically a 1st century version of MAGA. And it was out of this self-aggrandized mindset that Donatism was eventually born. Turns out that Cancel Culture and MAGA folks have more in common than either side is willing to admit. They divinize themselves in proportion to how much they demonize the other. Each needs the other to survive, even flourish, and they flourish precisely in opposition to each other, with each positioning itself as the cure to the other's disease. And so the pummeling continues, the cause of each lent validation by the demise of the other, and round and round it goes in an endless loop of symbiotic destruction and elevation, destruction and elevation, until both sides have been destroyed and there's nothing left to elevate. This is what the demise of American culture looks like.

But I digress. Cancel Culture suffers from the same rational elision that Donatism did: namely, that who you are necessarily translates to what you do. But how does that work, exactly? Aren't there a lot of fabulous athletes who are also miserable people? A lot of talented actors who live morally bankrupt lives? Sociopaths who are skilled laborers and engineers? Wasn't Bill Clinton, not the most moral President we've ever had, an incredibly skilled leader, while Jimmy Carter, arguably the most moral President we've ever had, one the most ineffectual? Look, if we're going to be consistent about Cancel Culture's insistence that we cancel those who do not rise to our standards, we might want to begin by canceling ourselves, since the only people who think they rise to meet their own standards are clinical narcissists. So this latest push to cancel Mel Gibson (in the current issue of the Atlantic) for his many heinous remarks about Jews, et al., turns out to be just another ruse being perpetuated by the denizens of this neo-Donatist age we find ourselves in. Virtue signaling, indeed.

If you saw the movie Hacksaw Ridge a few years back, directed by big bad Mel himself (which also happened to win two Academy awards), you'd know that even an anti-Semite can make great movies. Perish the thought! And George Washington, after which my fair state is named, owned 300 slaves, making him the first of that Pantheon of other POTUS slave owners ( a dozen of our first 15 Presidents, including Jefferson, patron saint of all things patriotic, and Ulysses S. Grant, the guy who commanded the Union army in the Civil War, owned slaves). Might I add that 41 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners? And did you know that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton opposed gay marriage up until a few years ago, and MLK, Jr. was a known philanderer and womanizer, and Mahatma Gandhi was a racist who once wrote as a young man that whites needed to be the "predominating race" in South Africa and that back people are "are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals." Need I go on? I could. Alfred Nobel was called the Merchant of Death for, as one obituary stated it, "finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before," and the reformer Martin Luther was an anti-Semite, and Nelson Mandela was married three times and accused of assaulting his first wife and threatening her with an axe. Hell, even Jesus has been accused by of being a misogynist and racist (Matthew 15:26 anyone?). And the Philippines, my birthplace? Named after King Philip, the man who laid waste to the Incan empire and colonized half of the world in brutal conflicts of forced genocide and slavery. Maybe we should rename the Philippines.

You see where this is going, right? If we pursue Cancel Culture to its logical conclusions, we'd need to rename everything from individual States to schools to awards ceremonies and hospitals, and we'd have to empty out all museums, close down all book publishing, boycott all television shows (including Sesame Street, that evil purveyor of radical progressive messages), and shutter all art galleries. Entire religions would need to be renamed, whole cultural histories would have to be rewritten. Where would it end? Look, if you knew some of the things I've done and said (just read some of my blogs), you'd unsubscribe from my podcast and leave this infernal website. Immediately. Some have. Others will.

But does my rant against Cancel Culture excuse what any of these people have done? Of course not. People say and do (and think) despicable things at various points in their lives, and we need to demand their apologies where it seems prudent, and in some cases, call for reparations where appropriate. But to cancel anyone because they don't meet some arbitrary standard of unblemished virtue is to cancel the entire world. It's Donatism writ large.

So I say, cancel Cancel Culture. It's nothing but lazy thinking that premises itself on a false equivalence, that a person does as a person is, but unless you're willing to live in a world with no one on it (including yourself), you might want to reconsider the whole impulse. Live by the sword, die by the sword, they say. I say, Live by Cancel Culture, then be prepared to cancel yourself.

In the meantime, call out anti-Semitism, sexism, racism, and any other -ism that degrades human beings wherever and whenever you see it, but also feel free to satisfy your Lethal Weapon franchise fix when the fifth installment hits the screens sometime next year, even if it's directed by Mel Gibson. You won't be a bad person for doing so. And, of course, it stars Danny Glover, one of the most adored of all Hollywood actors and one of your safest bets when it comes to your inner-Donatist.

Unless, of course, you heard about what he did in 2014.


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