As cultural standards change, attacks on familiar icons catch us by surprise. Disney films? The children's books of Dr. Seuss? Is nothing sacred? Has "political correctness" gone too far?
Yes and no. Yes only in part, and only because corrective movements always overreach to some extent. For example, the San Francisco Board of Education recently voted to remove the names of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Senator Diane Feinstein from its schools. To be sure, Washington was a slave-holder. But Lincoln, the Great Emancipator? And of what iniquity was the liberal Sen. Feinstein guilty?
Lincoln, it turns out, allowed the unjust execution of Native Americans. He also agreed, in the Lincoln-Douglas debates and elsewhere, that African-Americans were racially inferior. Feinstein, as Mayor of San Francisco, reportedly replaced a Confederate flag that had been (justly?) vandalized.
Still, one might give Lincoln a pass on the grounds of his larger historical role. And even regarding Founding Father George, are we going to rename our national capital, or the state in which I happen to live?
So -- allowing for some inevitable excesses -- the answer is mainly no, the cancel culture is not pernicious. For the most part it addresses behavior that should be called into account. Consider the "Me Too" movement: is depriving Harvey Weinstein of his casting couch a bad thing? Isn't the world a better place when women no longer fear to speak out?
Sexual assault, as with Weinstein or Trump, can often be prosecuted. Racism, on the other hand, is often protected as free speech, and retreats only when faced by massive disapproval; that is, by other free speech. Even as a child, I understood what the black crows in Disney's Dumbo represented. Their removal from public distribution is a good thing.
Among the legitimate targets of cancel culture are the estimated 2100 statues, monuments, schools, roads, bridges, cities, and counties named after Confederate leaders who fought to perpetuate slavery. One can only ask in wonder: is there another nation on earth that has so honored rebels defending the indefensible? Does France have a statue of Petain, or Norway of Quisling (both Nazi collaborators)?
In the wake of the George Floyd killing, roughly 160 Confederate monuments and other symbols have been scrapped. But most remain in place.
There are ten major U.S. military bases named for Confederate officers. Over Trump's veto, the latest National Defense Authorization Act set in motion a process to reconsider these names. This was long overdue.
There is much that is long overdue for cancellation. "Political correctness," when it is correct, can be a powerful weapon when other remedies do not apply.