“Cancel culture,” however you want to define it — as either an overreaction by an irrational mob, or as a reasonable consequence of despicable deeds — is considered by many to be a contemporary phenomenon, arising from social media.
But many of its features, including branding someone a villain and crusading against them in lieu of addressing difficult social problems, have been with us for quite some time. You can find all of the hallmarks of “cancel culture,” minus Twitter dogpiles, in Tom Wolfe’s satirical 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities.
There are no heroes in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Its protagonist is a greedy and amoral finance guy, Sherman McCoy. He is blamed inaccurately for the death of a Black teenager, Henry Lamb, in a hit-and-run accident in the Bronx. (It was actually McCoy’s mistress at the wheel.)
Uninterested in bringing the real killer to justice, or in fixing the longstanding racial and economic disparities that plague the city, journalists, prosecutors and politicians instead foment public outrage at McCoy, and milk the reaction for their own gain.
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Characters see McCoy as the “Great White Defendant, a rare white person who is so widely despised that going after him or her can absolve public servants, at least optically, of all of their years…