Canceling Comedians While the World Burns
We need a smarter, funnier, and more strategic left.
Between the decline of the labor movement, the aftershocks of the falls of so-called "actually existing socialism," and the long exile of even social democrats from the levers of real power, we have gotten far too used to thinking of leftism as a performative exercise in expressing our political commitments rather than a serious effort to achieve left-wing goals in the real world. Cancelling Comedians While the World Burns calls for a smarter, funnier, more strategic left.
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Depending on where you stand, ‘cancel culture’ is either deserved payback for those who have enjoyed their privilege for too long, or a serious threat to free speech and public life. In his lively and thoughtful book Canceling Comedians, Ben Burgis, philosopher, socialist and regular contributor to the US leftwing website Jacobin, analyses why cancel culture is, in fact, a political problem for the left, even if it appears to originate in progressive sentiments that take reactionary attitudes and rightwing politics as their target. Burgis opens with a defence of comedians such as David Chappelle, arguing that comedy, when it becomes ‘art’, functions ‘to make our inner lives more interesting by making us extremely uncomfortable’. Some will object that what comedians say is offensive and even hurtful, but this says less about the nature of what is said than it does about how it is received. Burgis’s broad point is that the narrow focus on policing offensive speech hides a wider loss of belief in the possibility of really changing anything. Canceling Comedians tries to understand the psychological investments that make cancel culture so histrionic and intolerant as a failure of the left to rally people to a politics that’s more material than it is moralising. Burgis draws heavily on the late British theorist Mark Fisher’s prophetic 2013 essay ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle’, and his bleak analysis of the increasingly divisive and disciplinarian tone of leftwing politics, which anticipated the paranoid and censorious atmosphere that has come to dominate public life in the years since. Quoting Fisher, Burgis points out that the inhabitants of the ‘Vampire Castle’ (those obsessed with cancelling others) pretend ‘to care about structural issues but “in practice it never focuses on anything but individual behaviour.”’ ‘If you don’t really believe in changing the world,’ Burgis argues, ‘and deep down you see your politics as a symbolic performance, a way of “taking a stand”’, then it’s only natural that you’ll end up ‘trying to prove your personal virtue and examining the virtue of others’. ~ J.J. Charlesworth, Art Review
“Between runaway capital accumulation and levels of material inequality that might match or exceed any in human history, you might think socialists would be formulating strategies for material redistribution and closing in on taking power in real and meaningful ways. Instead, with honorable exceptions, the left continues to have difficulties building real institutional power, instead producing mean-spirited and toxic subcultures, infused with HR politics and Silicon Valley algorithms. Ben Burgis has written a clarifying, humorous, and sharp as hell wake up call for the left and political culture at large. Read this book to get strategic about power and human about your fellow humans.” ~ Michael Brooks, Co-Host of the Majority Report, Host of The Michael Brooks Show, and Author of Against the Web
“Ben Burgis provides a brutally honest and undeniably important critique of the left in this book. He rightly calls for a critical moment of self-reflection and strategy, making his book mandatory reading for serious leftists who want to accomplish their vision of a just world for workers beyond thought experiments and online activism. Burgis understands the importance of building a broader coalition on the left - one with less judgement and more emphasis on shared goals. By drawing on history, current events and his academic training in logic, Burgis provides a guide on how to make the movement more persuasive and appealing." ~ Ana Kasparian, Producer and Host at The Young Turks
"The pathologies of the contemporary left, including cancel culture, are all too real and self-sabotaging. But they tend to be denied by those suffering from such afflictions, exploited by conservative enemies as a means to undermine the left, or pounced upon by ostensible friends as supposed evidence of the need for the left to take a conservative cultural turn. With his customary wit and logic, however, Burgis carefully navigates between the Scylla, Charybdis—and whatever a third maritime monster would be if this Greek mythological cliché came in a three-pack—of these ruinous responses. I just hope he doesn’t get cancelled himself for writing this utterly essential book." ~ Leigh Phillips, Co-Author of
"Ben Burgis' Cancelling Comedians While the World Burns is, appropriately enough, a very funny and stinging rebuke to some unhelpful strands of left wing thinking and activism. With his characteristically accessible and down to earth style Professor Burgis points out that winning the war of ideas isn't just about having the right ideas, but presenting them in a way that makes them appealing. This is something the left has been rather bad at over the past decades. This book gives one hope that things are changing." ~ Matthew McManus, Author of What is Post-Modern Conservatism
"Professor Ben Burgis has taught me how to question everything. He has sharpened my critical thinking. So imagine my disappointment after finishing this book and finding absolutely nothing to question or criticize... It’s fantastic! And I can’t even count the number of times I reference it in conversation." ~ David Feldman, Comedy Writer, Standup Comedian, Host of The David Feldman Show and Co-Host of The Ralph Nader Radio Hour
"Ben Burgis knows we have a world to win, which is why he wants us in the newly reborn American left to be as effective and powerful as we can be. We can't build that power without abandoning the kind of vicious, exhausting, and downright mean behavior that so many of us have adopted towards our comrades and allies. Burgis makes the case here, in his trademark clear and readable style, for a much more politically serious — and much more personally pleasant — approach to building that movement. Who could be against that?" ~ Micah Utrecht, Managing Editor of Jacobin
"Ben Burgis has recently emerged as one of the most insightful intellectuals of the democratic socialist left. In this essential new book, he turns his gaze on his own side, revealing and criticizing the underlying pathologies that prevent the American left from winning adherents, and, ultimately, winning power. Anyone seriously interested in creating a post-capitalist society must read this book." ~ Daniel Bessner, Author of Democracy in Exile
As the doors of political possibility swing wide open for the Left, Ben Burgis asks a movement that’s germinated while shut out from power to think of itself as one that will someday win and wield it: one that’s not just informed, but smart; not just righteous, but strategic; and one that condemns less than it persuades. With his breadth of knowledge and deep commitment to the movement, there’s no one better to deliver this vital critique of the Left. ~ Branko Marcetic, Author of Yesterday's Man: The Case Against Joe Biden
"Ben Burgis has written a wonderfully terse critique of some of the smelly little pathologies that plague the contemporary left. Using tight argumentation, one by one he dissects what exactly is problematic within trends such as the excesses of antifa, cancel culture, tankieism, privilege theory and a pervasive pseudo religious form of left moralism and how they are not only counterproductive, but positively harmful to any prospective project to reconstitute a socialist movement dedicated to increasing the power of the working class." ~ Ralph Leonard, Nigerian-British writer and cultural critic