Right Wing Watch newsletter: The woke Left are trying to cancel Russia!

This week's newsletter sees Vladimir Putin coming out against cancel culture while also trying to cancel Ukraine.

This week I wrote about Tory Party Chairman and culture warrior Oliver Dowden’s conference speech about the “privet hedges of suburbia” and how Tufton Street think tank Migration Watch is using the Ukraine crisis to argue that people crossing the channel in small boats to claim asylum are taking resources away from ‘genuine’ refugees from Ukraine.

Across the world, right wingers in the media and politics all seem concerned with how progressive culture is cancelling people they don’t like. Brendan O’Neill, political editor of Spiked! Online, fills a column on this subject almost weekly

At the heart of this ‘anti-woke’ campaign is the fear and insecurity of cultural elites whose traditional control over discourse is waning. As more voices join debates, and marginalised groups cannot be ignored, there is a feeling of loss of control by formerly dominant voices. 

This reminds me of something the writer Marshall McLuhan said in 1967 about the effects of mass media on culture:

“In an electric information environment, minority groups can no longer be contained, ignored. Too many people know too much about each other. Our new environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with and responsible for each other.”

Suddenly people from marginalised communities are raising their voices. But for those who are used to dominating the conversation, equality can feel like oppression. And someone who is feeling very cancelled right now is Vladimir Putin. In another rambling speech, the Russian President said:

“They’re now trying to cancel our country, I’m talking about the progressive discrimination of everything to do with Russia, this trend that’s now unfolding in a number of Westerns states, with the full encouragement of some Western cultures, they’re now engaging in cancel culture, they’re even removing Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov from posters!”

He also complained that Hollywood films ignored the importance of the Red Army in winning the Second World War, and, inevitably… he came out in support of JK Rowling, who he said had been cancelled.

https://twitter.com/SkyNews/status/1507333553448800309
https://twitter.com/SkyNews/status/1507333553448800309

Ironic really, given that Russia has just cancelled the teaching of sociology, cultural studies, and political science at all Russian universities.

Brendan O’Neill wrote a column saying almost exactly the same thing as Putin did, citing as evidence that the woke brigade was cancelling Russia the fact that The Space Foundation, ‘an American space advocacy group’, “announced that an event due to take place next month, which has been known for the past seven years as ‘Yuri’s Night’, will now be called ‘A Celebration of Space: Discover What’s Next’.”

Rowling, for her part, did not welcome the tacit endorsement of Vladimir Putin for her views on gender, saying that he was not the best person to criticise ‘cancel culture’. I do wonder whether it might cause Rowling to pause for thought when getting support from someone like Putin.

On both the UK and US right wing, attacking the ‘woke left’ and ‘cancel culture’ has become part of a clearly identified strategy aimed at dividing cultural groups who could potentially unite in an electoral bloc against them. 

Writing for fivethirtyeight.com in 2021, Perry Bacon Jr said that anti-woke rhetoric was a “fairly easy strategy” for the Republican Party to use, “because in many ways it’s just a repackaging of the party’s long-standing backlash approach. For decades, Republicans have used somewhat vague terms (“dog whistles”) to tap into and foment resentment against traditionally marginalized groups like Black Americans who are pushing for more rights and freedoms. This resentment is then used to woo voters (mostly white) wary of cultural, demographic and racial change.

Another aspect of this strategy is that, in increasingly pluralistic and racially diverse countries like the US and UK, right wing parties “need to make their cultural appeals to the party’s more conservative voters more subtext than text to avoid turning off too many Americans who wouldn’t want to vote for candidates or a party they perceive as bigoted.”

This exact same strategy has clearly been identified as a useful one by the Conservative Party in the UK, showing the influence of right wing US think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, where Oliver Dowden gave a speech earlier this year. 

In this context, it’s quite embarrassing for those who use ‘anti-woke’ arguments to find themselves on the same side as Vladimir Putin. As writer Simon Hannah pointed out, it’s one thing for Laurence Fox to complain about cancel culture on tv, but Putin complaining about it while trying to flatten Ukraine is another level of galaxy brained hyperbole.

For right wing political advisors and campaigners, constantly attacking trans people may appear like a good strategy to drive a wedge between segments of their opposition. The more time wasted on identity politics, these people are betting, the less time we have to organise against them. 

But there are also true believers, like there have always been, who think that progressive culture represents a kind of ‘degeneracy’ in what they nostalgically regard as a formerly great nation. Putin is one of these true believers, and they exist in the West too. 

But Putin’s intervention here will not help those like O’Neill and Dowden who want a reactionary culture war. By coming out on the same side as the anti-trans, free speech lobby, Putin has made it harder for people promoting this agenda, who should now recognise that an endorsement from Vladimir Putin is not going to help them.

John Lubbock leads on the Right-Watch project at Left Foot Forward

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