On the morning of June 15th, comedian David Cross took to Twitter to deliver news to the nearly two-hundred thousand accounts who follow him. Cross has, since the 90’s, featured in countless film and television projects, from family-friendly fare like the Alvin and the Chipmunks franchise to edgier material like Arrested Development. But to many, he will forever be known primarily for being the “David” in “Bob and David,” the driving forces behind HBO’s subversive sketch comedy cult classic, Mr. Show with Bob and David. His partner in that enterprise was the similarly-talented Bob Odenkirk, known best to modern audiences for Better Call Saul. David Cross continues to perform in a variety of projects across multiple media every year.
But when he tweeted this week, it was not a new project that Cross sought to bring to his fans’ attention, but rather, one that is now five years old. In 2015, Netflix revived the Bob and David experience for a sketch show called W/ Bob & David. Reactions at the time seemed mixed, and Netflix only aired one season of the show. Nevertheless, Cross has said in interviews that he and Odenkirk (and Netflix) would like to make more episodes, and that it is only a matter of scheduling. Many (including this writer) would have been happy if it were a new batch of episodes that David Cross was tweeting to announce, but instead, we got this:
The offending sketch was “Know Your Rights,” one in which Cross plays a YouTubing citizen-journalist who seeks to expose police misconduct at a DUI checkpoint. The joke is that he can’t get the cop, played by guest star Keegan-Michael Key, to violate his civil rights in the way he imagines will occur. Like the character, the sketch does not exactly succeed spectacularly, as far as comedy goes, but it’s funny enough. In the context of 2020, it does feel especially in poor taste. It ends, however, with Cross’ character darkening his face and pretending to be black, at which point a white cop played by Mr. Show regular Jay Johnston repeatedly maces him.
If this sketch has anything to say about our modern moment in history, and it would be fair to say we should have no expectation that it does—as there are now five years between us and it—it would be this: it stands for the proposition that police are much more likely to use force against black people. That is the truth about our society which the offending part of this sketch satirizes. In that way, it is entirely in line with the seeming view of the many thousands of protesters who have recently flooded streets in America and around the world. This movement seeks to expose and remedy police abuses along racial lines, of the sort this sketch ultimately highlights.
But to Netflix, it’s just an instance of David Cross wearing blackface. Sure, it was not enough of one that they wouldn’t air it on their platform consistently for the past five years, though the destructive and harmful effects of white performers engaging in blackface has been well-known for several decades (spoiler alert: it predates Netflix’s 1997 founding). That being so, I agree that it was in bad taste to have David Cross, a white man, darken his skin for this sketch. But it didn’t change my view of Cross, his collaborators, or Netflix. I know David Cross is an edgy comedian, but he’s also a famously progressive one, and I probably could never be persuaded that his comedy has negatively impacted marginalized groups.
But in the very fluid culture of 2020, this depiction plays as suddenly very unacceptable, and Netflix chose to act. Hence, a seemingly-unhappy Cross was using Twitter to voice his displeasure at this turn of events. He was subsequently joined in expressing less than a vote of confidence in Netflix’s decision by Odenkirk, and countless others on Twitter, though there were plenty of others who disagreed and suggested the sketch was plainly inappropriate. By the time I saw the tweet, Cross’ link to the video was broken. Netflix had apparently killed it. Here is another, which Netflix will no doubt successfully demand the removal of shortly:
I have often wanted to write something about “Cancel Culture,” a hysterical movement that has crept across the cultural classes for the last decade or so, passing judgment on what entertainments can or cannot be consumed, and which artists can or cannot earn a living, based upon an amorphous coalition of cancellers’ cultural mores. Though often political, no political affiliation renders a person safe from cancellation. Sometimes a person is cancelled because of an accusation of a heinous, actual crimes, and other times for something they’ve said, or otherwise expressed. For Cross’ violation of darkening his skin, no less than comedians Jimmy Fallon and Sarah Silverman, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam have all faced intense public scrutiny in the last two years. Like Cross, all four are otherwise known to have progressive attitudes about race, for which they advocate. It is no shock that Netflix would want to pull the sketch, and thereby proactively protect itself against cancellation archeologists sifting through W/ Bob & David to create a new such controversy on Twitter.
I’m like most people. When I see these cancellations occur, I sometimes find myself agreeing with their basis, and other times I’m revolted by their swift silencing of their targets. To focus purely on a spate of cancellations that followed from the appearance of the #MeToo movement in late 2017, I thought Harvey Weinstein was a rapist who belonged in prison; I believed Louis CK had acted inappropriately and should be condemned for it, but I was still his fan; I failed to understand any reason why my positive view of Aziz Ansari should change. But they were all initially “cancelled,” without much due process to speak of before our media culture cast them out. Today, Weinstein is in prison, but the ability of Louis CK and Ansari to reemerge has been mixed. There are clearly still marks on their careers, to one degree or another.
And that’s what makes Cancel Culture different than a boycott. Boycotts have been popular (or at least popular enough for people to call for them) for as long as I can remember, and famous ones, like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, occurred long before I was born. In a boycott, one is urged not to patronize the offending person or organization. A boycott would have called for audiences to shun Louis CK’s shows, movies, and comedy specials. In Cancel Culture, demands are made to to the corporate parents who control those projects to smother them out of existence. The decision about whether an artist’s work is invalid because of who that artist is as a person is thereby removed from the hands of the consumer, and becomes solely a matter of how much you can make executives squirm with threats of damage to their own reputation. If this was purely a matter of David Cross, it’s likely that his other fans (like me) would not abandon him because of the poor decision making that underlied “Know Your Rights.” But for Netflix, a public company with a nearly $200b market capitalization, the bad press that can stem from being branded an employer of racists effectively obliterates whatever tiny bit of revenue even W/ Bob and David as a whole has generated in five years, let alone this five-minute sketch.
In other contexts, the calculus is different. President Trump has engaged in all manner of despicable behavior on Twitter. Twitter is by far the most censorious of the modern social media platforms. This seems like a match made in Cancel Culture heaven. Yet, Twitter has never (until recently, and then even barely) acted to even remark on Trump’s transgressions. Why is this? With his more than 82 million followers, Trump is in the top ten most followed accounts on the platform. But much more than that, even among the accounts (like me) who don’t follow the President, Trump’s tweets drive a substantial amount of activity on Twitter. If they were to ban him, there’s no measure by which it wouldn’t result in some measurable amount of loss in activity on Twitter. There’s no comparing Trump’s productivity for Twitter with David Cross’ for Netflix. Thus, the President remains uncancelled. It really is a slimy financial decision, even for the never-miss-an-opportunity-to-virtue-signal Jack Dorsey.
I haven’t written about cancel culture before because I didn’t believe I had anything worthwhile to say about it. That is to say, I didn’t believe I had any kind of take on it that you hadn’t heard before. I can say I’m mostly against it, because it makes me uncomfortable anytime a mob demands someone be silenced, no matter the circumstances. It doesn’t make matter to me that the speaker offends one’s sensibilities, even my own, whether that be through their speech or their conduct otherwise. My concern is the demand that they be denied an opportunity to be heard. I grew up in the 90’s. I felt this way about gangsta rap. I felt this way about Howard Stern. I felt this way about Pee-wee Herman. In my 37-year life, the cringe I feel when any kind of speech is abridged is one of the few things that age hasn’t moderated in the least. My feeling is that if the speech is unjust or harmful, the responsibility is on us to counter it with our own and expose it as intellectually invalid. Muffling it is never the solution.
If you think speech codes work, history is lousy with examples of them serving to undermine their own purpose. But you don’t have to look to history; I would rather direct your attention to Western Europe, where legal protections are firmly in place to prohibit hate speech, but where the political climate is currently darkening in the shadow of the rise of right-wing nationalists on a scale unseen in nearly a century. Clearly, the well-meaning speech codes are not serving their intended purpose.
And I understand the most important distinction: in the United States, we have the First Amendment to the Constitution to protect our speech rights from ingress by government. Netflix is not (yet) a sovereign, but rather a private streaming-video company, and they can operate their business as they please. Netflix’s removal of this offensive comedy sketch is not the manifestation of any edict by the state.
But it does make me uncomfortable, and here’s why: as I said before, this sketch was not too risque for Netflix in 2015. At some point in the interim, and certainly in the very recent past, after the developments of this Spring, it became too-hot-for-TV, to quote a phrase we once used. Thus, they pushed a button, and the sketch evaporated from Netflix. Zap! And it’s gone. Again, there can be no doubt that the link I’ve provided to another account which hosts a version of it will also vaporize in the near future.
In the realm of corporate censorship, this is actually an interesting departure. It has very little to do with my high-minded moralizing about access to speech, and everything to do with technology. This is where the part comes in about me having something novel to point out.
In the old days, a publisher would print a book. Maybe a provocative one. Then, there would be some movement to ban that book. This happened throughout the 20th century to books that are now unquestioned classics. This list is a great catalog of that phenomenon. But it didn’t just happen with books, there was also music and movies and of course, throughout history, “ideas” that were purely verboten to subscribe to. Some of these harmful notions remain contested to this day, like heliocentrism.
But say you were an ordinary, middle-20th century American living in middle America. The Catcher in the Rye has recently caused a stir in your town. It’s been banned from the schools, the public library, and now your bookstore isn’t carrying it because of the upheaval. Well, in that time and place, you were probably shit out of luck if you wanted to read it. Except for one thing: you bought the book six months ago, and it now rests on a shelf in your living room. No matter the local outcry, the chances are very low that anyone will enter your home against your will, seize the book, and destroy it. It’s possible, but extremely unlikely, particularly if you don’t advertise your possession of it to those who are irate about its existence.
That was the model of consuming media that we all used to live with. Books, records, tapes, newspapers, magazines, photo albums, CDs, DVDs, etc. Media was a physical good which we could possess. The companies who distributed these items parted with them forever when they sold them to us, and as long as we retained them, those companies could not alter our experience of them.
The entire model has now changed. We still consume media as written text, still images, moving pictures, and audio recordings, but we stream these things to our devices. Most of the time, we don’t even download that data in a way where we retain it for storage and future use. Effectively, Netflix broadcasts the episode of W/ Bob & David to us just for the time we watch it, and when we are done, it’s gone. Zap! If we want to watch it again, our device will have to send another request to Netflix for them to send it to us again.
Why does this matter? Because in this model, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings can push a button, and make it so you can never see the “Know Your Rights” sketch again. And basically, that is what has happened in this case. That’s important, because in addressing the question of whether “Know Your Rights” was racist, or in bad taste, or however else we want to frame it, we are going to be substantially at a loss without access to the original material. Reading this piece, or a description on Wikipedia in ten years, is not an effective substitute. These are forums in which my (or someone else’s) analysis will skew your perception of the original material. There’s no way to avoid that.
And lately, it’s happening all over the place. Amazon may stop streaming the Dukes of Hazzard because of its depiction of the confederate flag. The BBC has censored Little Britain and Fawlty Towers. Warner Media has “temporarily” removed Gone with the Wind from HBO Max. And in the most sweeping, glaring example, Disney Plus launched late last year with a rash of changes to films and shows that were beloved to generations who had experienced them as children, almost all of which were made seemingly to appease modern social and political norms.
In each of these cases, the charges are hardly baseless. Like the “Know Your Rights” sketch, these titles feature content that is often in poor taste, or even downright offensive to right-thinking people. But do they actually promote a retrograde world? What is the likelihood, that if these things remained available to stream, they would actually leave an impression on someone impressionable, such that it actually changed that someone’s approach to the world in a negative way? I would venture that this is an unlikely outcome. I would even contend that this is less likely than the gangsta rap I defended in the 90’s was to influence a generation of kids to become gangsters, a non-event that failed to happen, despite the wildly popular form’s sustained embrace by audiences during that time. When Marylin Manson and video games were similarly blamed for the 1999 Columbine Massacre, I scoffed. The monsters who perpetrated those killings had only their own warped minds to blame. The millions of other young minds, like my own, who had consumed Manson and violent video games were adequate testimony of the fact that such things can’t make a person into such a monster.
But by 2013, the winds had really begun to shift about how harmful art could be. That year, after the recent, even-more-monstrous-than-Columbine Sandy Hook massacre, the author Stephen King published this essay. In it, while addressing the controversy about guns in America, he discussed the book Rage, which he had written in the late 70’s under the pen name Richard Bachman. The book is the story (clearly ahead of its time) of a deadly school shooting. The problem for King was that the book had gone on to be an inspiration that many actual school shooters had identified. However this felt, it is a feeling that no author should ever know. It is true that King has written millions of words that detail nearly all the worst things known in the world, and many purely of his own invention, as well many noble things and ones that touch the reader’s heart. But Rage was unique in his experience for having so visceral a connection to actual real-world carnage. He chose to let the book fall out of print. It is difficult to blame him, particularly because it was his decision, and not any effort to cancel him.
The problem is, by letting Rage vanish, in a world where copyright claims are often aggressively pursued on the Internet, nobody can judge how harmful Rage is, for themselves. We cannot read the book. We must take either its critics word for it, or its defenders, or those sick murderers who claim it as their inspiration, or King’s. We can take any interpretation, except our own.
The real question is, can we even have this debate for much longer? I run this website, and pay a small price to have this content hosted here. But in a short time, all the links I’ve embedded this post will become broken. We won’t be able to discuss how racist Gone with the Wind is, because neither you or I will have access to the film to support our arguments, be they pro or con. This is because the film is no longer like the copy of Catcher sitting on your bookshelf, or a copy of Rage, for those who have one. It sits instead on an HBO Max server, somewhere far away, vague, and hidden. We are increasingly living in an age where we can’t own media anymore. We can merely rent it, subject to the whims of those who control the rights to it.
And here’s what makes W/ Bob & David special: if we’re talking about Gone with the Wind, there are millions of copies out in the wilderness. Sure, scarcely anyone has even a DVD player anymore, but we could if we wanted to. W/ Bob & David was a product created by Netflix exclusively to stream on its platform. There are no DVDs, VHS cassettes, LaserDiscs, etc. When Netflix CEO Reed Hastings pushes that Zap! button, its effect is total. He can utterly smite the “Know Your Rights” sketch from the fabric of our culture.
And this is actually happening all over. Not in large ways, but in small ones. The aforementioned Disney Plus edits were noteworthy, but this process of selectively rewriting history, once only famously a tool of the Soviet Union at its peak, permeates our media culture. The New York Times will change a front page headline to appease the hardliners in its party. The Times, recently a hotbed of many controversies that could be classed as part of Cancel Culture, even rewrites its own coverage about its internal controversies. And the Times, at least for now, is still reasonably described as the country’s “paper of record.” If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere, and pretty soon you’ll see it happening everywhere. As media, writ large, moves more and more online, and becomes something we merely stream when we want access to it, those who control the content will regularly edit it to serve their momentary interests.
To longtime fans of George Lucas, this is unsurprising. In the late 90’s, Lucas began making edits to his fan-beloved Star Wars trilogy, which were often not so beloved by those fans. These were most publicly executed in his 1997 Special Editions, but the work didn’t stop there. It, in fact, continues to this day, including to the versions that now stream on Disney Plus.
This raised an interesting question, that has never been satisfactorily answered. Who owns the Star Wars trilogy? As a pure matter of intellectual property, surely it was Lucas (now Disney), much like Stephen King owns Rage. But the people who ask this question aren’t talking about traditional notions of American copyright. They are more concerned with the claim they laid on the work when they invested in it, usually as children, with their hearts. Nobody cancelled Star Wars, and there’s no suggestion that anyone would, but the idea is the same: Disney is deciding what fans of the series can experience, for them. If the company wanted to provide every possible version that has existed since 1977 on its platform, it could do so for a pittance. Yet, it does not. It provides one uniform experience, deemed by the company to be the flavor of Star Wars suitable for good people. For the rebels who believe otherwise? Those scum will have to hide from this empire on the dark web, and in other nefarious corners of the Internet galaxy, trading video files of dubious quality, and always running the risk that Disney’s legal department stormtroopers have pinpointed their location.
If the censoring of the “Know Your Rights” sketch was what Netflix was doing behind the scenes on June 15th, what were they doing in front of them? The company announced a $5m gift to organizations dedicated to creating opportunities for Black creators. That sounds like a lot of money (at least to me), and it’s a gesture no doubt meant to show social justice isn’t just a matter of lip service and steamrolling the creative expression of Gen X comedians for them. But this is a corporation that will spend an estimated $17.3b (as in billion) on content this year. If we were looking at a $17.3b pie, and I asked you to cut me a $5m slice, how small would it be? Would it be as large as the line a knife displaces in a delicious real pie? I doubt it. The company reportedly spent the better part of $100m just to secure Martin Scorsese an Oscar this year, a mission I rightly predicted was destined to fail. I don’t think one has to be an utter cynic to question what meaning their $5m donation has.
David Cross is not in danger of being cancelled. At least not yet. His transgressive comedy falls somewhere not quite transgressive enough for a mob to form and demand his removal from show business. But as of today, you can experience exactly one less comic moment from his storied career. Sometimes the sword of the canceller acts swiftly and dramatically. But other times, as here, it merely chips away. It may do so slowly, but in enough time, the original thing is rendered so changed and unrecognizable, that something entirely different is what’s left in the relief. This is what Cancel Culture seeks to remake the media landscape as. This is the only version of life they want you to be able to stream.