There's no more Kate Smith singing "God Bless America" at Yankee games. Her statue outside of the Philadelphia Flyers stadium is gone, too.
The banishment is a result of Smith being cancelled—declared problematic for some songs with racist lyrics that Smith recorded in the early 1930s. While some called for context, others called for Smith to be cancelled. Cancel culture is distinctly modern public shaming, and according to GLT's Culture Maven, there's a dark reason behind its apparent randomness.
Cancel culture goes beyond mere boycotting, said Shari Zeck, interim dean of Milner Library and GLT’s Culture Maven. Zeck observed that cancelling often starts in social media, a place where anyone with a smart phone and Twitter account can take aim at injustice—as well as get a taste of power.
“Someone says or does something of which you disapprove or is not within your value system, and so you cancel them. You stop following them on Twitter, you tell your friends to stop following them on Twitter and it possibly becomes a thing—one large enough to alter that person’s fanbase or sphere of influence, largely in social media, but it also can become big enough that it actually can, say, cancel a TV show, like in the case of Roseanne Barr.”
People are genuinely trying to affect social change, for the most part, said Zeck.
“Certainly, there are plenty of people who just love to sound off and make themselves important. But I think it comes from a genuine place where we want to have more control over what comes at us.”
Thirty years ago, when the media landscape was not heavily populated with cable, satellite, streaming and more options, consumers felt removed from power in terms of impacting programming.
“A mass movement could have some affect, but it was difficult to generate a mass movement at that time. Now, with social media, anybody with a wiseacre line and a cute cat video could potentially reach thousands and thousands of people.”
Zeck said there are a lot of factors that impact whether or not a celebrity gets cancelled. Unsurprisingly, money is a major aspect behind why long-dead Kate Smith was swiftly cancelled but someone like Michael Jackson was not. Jackson was recently the subject of a documentary that delved into accusations of child molestation against the singer. Calls to cancel Jackson never got traction.
“How much money do you think Kate Smith’s work makes people right now?” Zeck questioned sharply. “Versus how much money Michael Jackson's work makes people money?”
“I’m sure there are folks out there who are defending Kate Smith and contextualizing her songs. But, all-in-all, half the population doesn’t know who she is. Michael Jackson still has some traction in popular culture. The charges against him are incredibly serious. So, there’s the story that’s being told that’s from the documentary, and there’s the story being told by people who knew Jackson and believed him to be an honorable person. Those narratives are really competing with each other in this moment – and in the context of his recording still make a lot of money.”
But why dig up Kate Smith’s old bones to kick around someone most people don’t even remember? People are prompted to look for misdeeds in the past as part of a process of elucidating how entrenched and pervasive racism is in American culture, explained Zeck. On a less noble note, it’s also just an easy path to what feels like social justice.
“I think, in general, we find it much easier to get worked up about and attack these relatively smaller matters. I do think that many of us that are interested in social justice get preoccupied and hung up on some of the smaller matters because the larger injustices are just so difficult to take down. So, we take down what we can. Maybe that’s the only way you take down the larger injustices is one small injustice at a time.”
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