In attempting to diagnose Americans’ sometimes-shoddy collective memory, the writer Gore Vidal once proposed renaming the nation “the United States of Amnesia.”

Yet what ails much of our public conversation today is not so much a form of forgetfulness as a species of misplaced curiosity. The history of American popular culture is positively bursting with glories — take your pick from the songs of Cole Porter, the cartoons of Tex Avery, or the novels of Dawn Powell — worth remembering or rediscovering. Yet our current cultural gatekeepers ransack the past not out of a spirit of discovery but an ethic of accusation, recrimination, and, finally, cancellation.

It isn’t “amnesia” so much as it is selective unearthing: As an arbitrary list of taboos is artificially expanded, the past is combed for thoughtcrimes — and nothing else. It is graverobbing-for-clout.

But what about those of us who have already read or seen those purportedly confusing and troubling works? The trouble with canceling something old is that some of us are already familiar with it, and have long ago processed its strengths and limitations. Before cancel culture made such screenings unlikely if not impossible, I saw Gone With the Wind — subject to a temporary cancellation, for its less than historically comprehensive portrait of the Civil War, on the HBO Max streaming service a few years ago — on the big screen with large, noncinephile audiences, and they took the film for what it was: a big, grand, entertaining epic with all the high cinematic style, and all the casual prejudices, of a film made in 1939. By the same token, parents who have read their way through the Dr. Seuss corpus have already identified those books, or those passages within certain books, with material they find out of touch and may choose simply to skip over them. Earlier this year, Random House passed on the chance to bring out a fresh gathering of political pieces by its longtime author Norman Mailer, reportedly owing to the inclusion of his provocative piece “The White Negro,” but his faithful readers don’t need to be protected from him: Mailer’s jousting, inflammatory utterances should be met with an occasional eye roll or raised eyebrow, perhaps, but not cancellation.

Since there is no shortage of living artists and intellectuals who have either been targeted by or suffered the consequences of cancel culture, the cancelers’ impulse to dive deep into the back catalogs of publishers and movie studios is rather telling. It’s easy enough to understand why the citizen-commissars want to go after living figures with something to lose. But what do they hope to achieve by reviving memories of this or that old book or movie, trumpeting the “news” of its purported shortcomings, and then leading the charge either to remove it from circulation or foster an environment in which it stands a good chance of being removed? Perhaps the activists have in their sights the offending artists’ estates, which can be denied royalties. (Ironically, cancellation can prove counterproductive in the short term, as evidenced by the spike in reader interest in six Dr. Seuss children’s books after Dr. Seuss Enterprises took them out of print for their inclusion of racial stereotypes.) Or maybe the cancelers simply want to shield our innocent eyes from anything that might confuse or trouble us.

It isn’t that we ignore these works’ shortcomings but that we have decided they matter less than their positive attributes. The problem is that to cancel a book or movie or anything else requires dropping the whole thing. When the statue of Theodore Roosevelt at New York’s Museum of Natural History was taken down earlier this year, it wasn’t just an appendage of TR that was removed, an arm or a nose, but the whole of TR. And that goes the other way, too: If we are to have art, we must live with its limitations or not at all.

When they go after long-dead targets, the cancelers can seem to be almost unbearably naive, a group that has scarcely read a book, seen a movie, or considered a work of statuary that predates, or is indifferent to, contemporary political correctness. They can appear perpetually shocked to uncover the kind of art earlier generations made or the sort of artists once celebrated. Take a recent story in Newsweek that rehashed for the umpteenth time filmmaker Roman Polanski’s 2003 Oscar win for the Holocaust drama The Pianist. “Roman Polanski Oscars Clip Shocks Fans Amid Will Smith’s 10-Year Ban,” read the headline to a story that noted, with horror, the applause given that night to the absent Polanski, who in 1977 pleaded guilty to a charge of unlawful sex with a minor but fled the United States upon questionable maneuvers by the judge in the case. “The camera then panned to the audience, where celebrities including [Martin] Scorsese, Meryl Streep, and The Pianist star Adrien Brody were seen standing as they applauded the win,” the article said.

This is gotcha journalism at its worst, and nearly two decades out of date to boot. That Scorsese, Streep, and Brody — and, presumably, some portion of the viewing public at home who had seen and been impressed by The Pianist — honored Polanski on Oscar night did not mean they were unaware of the filmmaker’s crime, nor that they sought to minimize it, but that they made the judgment call, at that moment in time, that his transgression did not render him incapable of making a masterpiece. It may not be the choice you would make, then or now, but to view those who did with such open contempt is most uncharitable — making serious, reasonable people appear monstrous simply for the sin of noting the once widely acknowledged line between art and artist.

Yet I suspect that the cancelers are probably not as naive as they first appear. In scrutinizing Dr. Seuss, reading a Wikipedia entry on Mailer, thumbing through the listings on Turner Classic Movies, or looking up old Oscar ceremonies on YouTube, they are actively seeking bad stuff. Inevitably, since art is every bit as imperfect as the artists who make it, these inspectors will turn up plenty of bad, or at least questionable, stuff — and they are delighted when they do. I accuse the cancelers not only of cherry-picking but of bad faith: When they find misguided or bigoted sentiments or statements in old works of art, they are not bothered by such things as much as bolstered in their conviction that America is a wicked country, one that only began to be slightly less wicked about 10 minutes ago. Could it be that the whole modish trend we call “cancel culture” is one big case of confirmation bias for the Left?

Of course, we must concede that the cancelers often have a point in drawing attention to the stuff they excavate and proceed to erase: When Twitter users dig up a 1971 Playboy interview with John Wayne in which he said dreadful things about race and other topics, or when students at Bowling Green State University in Ohio take exception to a campus theater having been named for pioneering silent film actress Lillian Gish in light of her participation in the landmark but virulently racist film The Birth of a Nation, it’s the responsibility of those opposed to the cancellation of Wayne or Gish to concede that Wayne said some awful, ignorant things and that Gish participated in a medium that at various points furthered racial hatred. That’s called coping with great works of art and the artists behind them. For the prosecutors, though, once Wayne and Gish are trotted out as further evidence of America’s inherent sinfulness, and their legacies sufficiently tarnished or eliminated, their usefulness ends.

Today, those who oppose cancel culture must be considered, whether they are otherwise patriotic or not and whether they realize it or not, implicitly pro-American. To understand that old works of art can be both glorious and messy, beautiful and dastardly, is not so far from understanding that American history itself is similarly majestic and tragic, amazingly graceful and profoundly flawed. Yet, just as America is not something to be expunged but improved, great books, movies, and statues — even those that reflect the biases of earlier times — are not to be censored, deleted, or pulled down, but argued with, understood, and absorbed.

Peter Tonguette is a Washington Examiner contributor.