Bob Baffert Proves "Cancel Culture" is Officially Meaningless

“Cancel culture” hasn’t been a meaningful term in awhile. Conservatives use it nonstop, and it’s been on life support for months. But famed horse trainer Bob Baffert delivered the final death blow yesterday on Fox News.

Baffert’s appearance was to defend himself against cheating allegations. His horse Spirit Medina won the 2021 Kentucky Derby but recently failed a drug test, putting its win and future status in jeopardy. Baffert insisted his innocence, which led to a lot of jokes—how exactly does a horse give itself an illegal substance? But that didn’t stop Churchill Downs, the famous racetrack that hosts the Derby, from suspending Baffert indefinitely.

Must be cancel culture.

Baffert released a statement earlier today explaining that he did, unknowingly, give his horse the illegal drug. That sort of renders all this moot. But going on Fox News was his emergency public relations strategy, and using the term “cancel culture” was part of the plan. Baffert knew exactly who he was speaking to: grievance-peddling Fox hosts and the people who watch them.

It’s one of the most striking uses of “cancel culture” yet. Fox News and conservative politicians have been driving the term into the ground for months. It’s the perfect term to encapsulate why a changing country and world doesn’t agree with them. And since conservatives are so much better at weaponizing language and employing identity politics, it’s worked. They’ve totally hijacked the phrase. But Baffert’s usage signals a checkpoint in the shift (one that, in fairness, we were inevitably going to reach someday soon). Cancelling is no longer a means to hold people accountable or even a signal of grievance. It’s a way for people accused of wrongdoing to flip the power dynamic and play victim. In other words, it’s complete bullshit.

The idea of “cancelling” someone started out as a early-80s Nile Rodgers lyric. It became part of Black parlance as a way to call a person out for crappy behavior. And like so many other Black slang terms, white people took it for themselves. It took a few decades, but “cancel” and “cancel culture” are now synonymous with white grievance, particularly conservatives railing against consequences for their actions.

“That White people would lift those terms for their own purposes was predictable, if not inevitable,” Clyde McGrady wrote last month for WaPo. Everyone saw this coming, whether you’re new to the world “cancel” or familiarized yourself during the #MeToo movement or can trace its roots all the way back to “Your Love is Canceled.” The term was always fraught from a political standpoint. But the speed at which it became completely meaningless is still striking.

The examples are countless. If you let Fox News tell it, liberals have cancelled everything from Dr. Seuss to red meat. Donald Trump voters even had the gall to say their voices were being cancelled when his bogus election challenges were turned away. Baffert’s is a step further, though. He took something completely unrelated to politics (at least on its face) and applied the terminology. He either didn’t know what it meant, or worse, knew that it didn’t matter. As soon as he uses it, it’s a signifier to anyone listening that identifies, even passively, with his grievance. Its original meaning and intent are irrelevant. If something bad happens to me or I face any kind of consequences for my actions, I, a rich white man, am a victim of cancel culture—even if it turns out I’m guilty. It’s as simple as that.