5 Historical Artists Who Faced Consequences Far Worse Than Cancel Culture
Look, I’m probably like you: Reading the phrase “cancel culture” causes a white-hot, shooting pain in my brain that can’t be healthy. It’s the latest over-discussed and under-defined bugaboo of the drunkest guy at a party. It’s single-handedly filled Fox News’ airtime for the last couple of years, and is painted as an assault on free speech by people who claim you “can’t say anything anymore” where “anything” is almost always the n-word.
Of course, in reality, it’s usually just the widespread disinterest that grows in anyone wanting to hear from somebody repeating opinions from the turn of the millennium. Everyone who complains about it has also convinced themselves that jokes about how women should stay in the kitchen are somehow now transgressive despite being cribbed from joke books that would be old enough to receive social security. Not being invited to things, whether they’re parties or movie roles, because everyone finds you deeply unpleasant isn’t some new political development, it’s just natural social consequences.
Along those lines, here are five artists who would roll their eyes at these guys complaining that they can’t say anything on their Spotify podcast…
The most recent entry, from this very year, is a stand-up comedian from China named Li Haoshi, who performs under the stage name “House.” He was performing live when he delivered a joke that would end up with him in police custody and the entertainment company that hired him paying nearly $2 million in fines. Surely, this joke must have been gravely offensive to have earned such a reaction. The joke starts with him talking about two dogs he adopted. No despicable acts spied yet.
It was his description of the way they chased a squirrel that attracted the attention of the government, who apparently has some spare time on their hands. In particular, he used a slogan connected to the People’s Liberation Army to describe the chase, saying, “Fine style of work, capable of winning battles.” End joke. Even knowing how restrictive the Chinese government is on speech, he might not have expected to be arrested shortly thereafter. He wasn’t the only one who ended up detained in the fallout either, as another woman was also arrested after questioning why Haoshi was detained. But sure, there’s a “war on free speech” here because you can’t do Fallon.
Speaking of comedians who ran afoul of those in power, let’s take a look way further back in the history books. Triboulet was a famous French jester, jesters being, as equally obnoxiously up-their-own-ass comedians love to tell you, the only ones who could “speak truth to power.” Triboulet’s most famous joke wasn’t spoken, but was more, well, let’s call it physical comedy. That being slapping King Francis I on the ass. Apparently, spanking was one thing the king couldn’t take in good fun.
He ordered Triboulet killed unless he could think of an apology worse than the cheek-clapping that got him in hot water, and Triboulet obliged. He explained that he hadn’t meant to spank the king at all — he’d thought he was spanking his wife. The king got exactly what he wanted, and shockingly, it only pissed him off more, so he informed Triboulet he was a dead man, but maybe out of respect for jokes past, let him choose his method of execution. Here, Triboulet exhibited some wit that could get him a permanent seat on any British panel show, and told the king he chose to die of old age.
Possibly the most important punchline of his life, and luckily, it hit.
In 1703, an Englishman named Daniel Defoe decided to try his hand at satire. He’d been hired to write a brown-nosed puff piece on how good and smart the Church of England was, and he decided to get a little cheeky with it. While he was chuckling to himself and penning a purposefully insane screed about putting all dissenters to exile or death, he might not have expected that it was going to land him not only in jail, but on display for public shaming.
When he published The Shortest Way With the Dissenters, it turns out even the famously good-natured Church of England didn’t find it very funny at all, and charged him with seditious libel. It’s sedition! It’s libel! It’s seditious libel!
In the end, he found himself locked up in the pillories for three days straight and sentenced to another month in jail.
Let’s jump back to more recent history with somebody who is constantly name-dropped as a champion of free speech: Lenny Bruce. Bruce was famous for his offensive act (which at that time, just meant really bad swears) and was actively silenced. Like the worst comedians you’ve ever heard now! Except, not really at all like that.
There’s one big difference between Bruce and today’s hackiest firebrands, and that’s that he was actually legally persecuted for what he said. He was repeatedly arrested and jailed on obscenity charges for the content of his act. In New York, detectives attended two of his shows undercover, and based on the content, arrested him and the club owner for allowing him to perform. Take note: This is what actual First Amendment violations look like.
The Flute of Shame
This last punishment didn’t have to do with the content of a performance, but instead the quality. In the Middle Ages, musicians subjecting the public to sufficiently terrible, unrequested performances would be shackled with some cast iron(y): the schand flote, or shame flute. It was half-instrument, half-torture device, a metal flute strapped to their head that they were then forced to wear while being trotted around in front of a jeering public.
It’s also the one I’m by far the most on-board with.