Cancel Cancel Culture
The state of American debate is not strong.
Two interesting pieces today argue that American liberals have become significantly less liberal—especially in the case of the elite media.
Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi, whose writing style and topical choices make him hard to pigeonhole but is certainly well to my left politically, has an incredibly long and hard-to-excerpt essay at his personal website titled “The American Press Is Destroying Itself.” After two paragraphs bemoaning how awful things have gotten under President Trump, he gets to his argument-in-chief:
On the other side of the political aisle, among self-described liberals, we’re watching an intellectual revolution. It feels liberating to say after years of tiptoeing around the fact, but the American left has lost its mind. It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.
The leaders of this new movement are replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation. They are counting on the guilt-ridden, self-flagellating nature of traditional American progressives, who will not stand up for themselves, and will walk to the Razor voluntarily.
They’ve conned organization after organization into empowering panels to search out thoughtcrime, and it’s established now that anything can be an offense, from a UCLA professor placed under investigation for reading Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” out loud to a data scientist fired* from a research firm for — get this — retweeting an academic study suggesting nonviolent protests may be more politically effective than violent ones!
Now, this madness is coming for journalism. Beginning on Friday, June 5th, a series of controversies rocked the media. By my count, at least eight news organizations dealt with internal uprisings (it was likely more). Most involved groups of reporters and staffers demanding the firing or reprimand of colleagues who’d made politically “problematic” editorial or social media decisions.
The examples are far-ranging, with some more egregious than others. But Taibbi makes a good case that there’s a heavy price to be paid for daring to deviate from the party line being set by young journalists and that it’s clouding and distorting news judgments. Indeed, he argues, it’s actually led to partisan, activist coverage:
The media in the last four years has devolved into a succession of moral manias. We are told the Most Important Thing Ever is happening for days or weeks at a time, until subjects are abruptly dropped and forgotten, but the tone of warlike emergency remains: from James Comey’s firing, to the deification of Robert Mueller, to the Brett Kavanaugh nomination, to the democracy-imperiling threat to intelligence “whistleblowers,” all those interminable months of Ukrainegate hearings (while Covid-19 advanced), to fury at the death wish of lockdown violators, to the sudden reversal on that same issue, etc.
It’s been learned in these episodes we may freely misreport reality, so long as the political goal is righteous. It was okay to publish the now-discredited Steele dossier, because Trump is scum. MSNBC could put Michael Avenatti on live TV to air a gang rape allegation without vetting, because who cared about Brett Kavanaugh – except press airing of that wild story ended up being a crucial factor in convincing key swing voter Maine Senator Susan Collins the anti-Kavanaugh campaign was a political hit job (the allegation illustrated, “why the presumption of innocence is so important,” she said). Reporters who were anxious to prevent Kavanaugh’s appointment, in other words, ended up helping it happen through overzealousness.
There were no press calls for self-audits after those episodes, just as there won’t be a few weeks from now if Covid-19 cases spike, or a few months from now if Donald Trump wins re-election successfully painting the Democrats as supporters of violent protest who want to abolish police. No: press activism is limited to denouncing and shaming colleagues for insufficient fealty to the cheap knockoff of bullying campus Marxism that passes for leftist thought these days.
Now, I think Taibbi oversells this part of the argument a wee bit. In particular, Collins was almost certainly going find some excuse to toe the party line on Kavanaugh.
Taibbi also suggests that the desire to be politically correct meant there was insufficient coverage of the rioting and mayhem associated with the recent protests. Having written that the violence was threatening to take the focus off of the cause at hand (ultimately, it did not), I’d have to disagree.
Coming from the other end of the spectrum, Andrew Sullivan asks a similar question: “Is There Still Room for Debate?” Maybe precisely because he’s not of the left, his take is less persuasive than Taibbis.
. . . Americans have always been good at policing uniformity by and among themselves. The puritanical streak of shaming and stigmatizing and threatening runs deep. This is the country of extraordinary political and cultural freedom, but it is also the country of religious fanaticism, moral panics, and crusades against vice. It’s the country of The Scarlet Letter and Prohibition and the Hollywood blacklist and the Lavender Scare. The kind of stifling, suffocating, and nerve-racking atmosphere that Havel evokes is chillingly recognizable in American history and increasingly in the American present.
The new orthodoxy — what the writer Wesley Yang has described as the “successor ideology” to liberalism — seems to be rooted in what journalist Wesley Lowery calls “moral clarity.” He told Times media columnist Ben Smith this week that journalism needs to be rebuilt around that moral clarity, which means ending its attempt to see all sides of a story, when there is only one, and dropping even an attempt at objectivity (however unattainable that ideal might be). And what is the foundational belief of such moral clarity? That America is systemically racist, and a white-supremacist project from the start, that, as Lowery put it in The Atlantic, “the justice system — in fact, the entire American experiment — was from its inception designed to perpetuate racial inequality.”
He spends several paragraphs challenging this argument as insufficiently nuanced on the website of the prestigious New York magazine, which would suggest that there is indeed room for debate. And, indeed, he not-so-subtly alludes to the race/IQ debate for which he has regularly been excoriated for being on the wrong side of for the last quarter-century.
So what’s the problem?
In this manic, Manichean world you’re not even given the space to say nothing. “White Silence = Violence” is a slogan chanted and displayed in every one of these marches. It’s very reminiscent of totalitarian states where you have to compete to broadcast your fealty to the cause. In these past two weeks, if you didn’t put up on Instagram or Facebook some kind of slogan or symbol displaying your wokeness, you were instantly suspect. The cultishness of this can be seen in the way people are actually cutting off contact with their own families if they don’t awaken and see the truth and repeat its formulae. Ibram X. Kendi insists that there is no room in our society for neutrality or reticence. If you are not doing “antiracist work” you are ipso facto a racist. By “antiracist work” he means fully accepting his version of human society and American history, integrating it into your own life, confessing your own racism, and publicly voicing your continued support.
That belief is indeed out there. And we have indeed seen a lot of celebrities flagellate themselves on the altar of white guilt. But I’ve neither replaced my social media avatars with #BlackLivesMatter symbology nor defriended those who are less than woke and, thus far at least, I have not been drubbed out of polite society.
That’s why this past week has seen so many individuals issue public apologies as to their previous life and resolutions to “do the work” to more actively dismantle “structures of oppression.” It’s why corporate America has rushed to adopt every plank of this ideology and display its allegiance publicly. If you do this, and do it emphatically, you can display your virtue to your customers and clients, and you might even be left alone. Or not. There is no one this movement suspects more than the insincere individual, the person who it deems is merely performing these public oaths and doesn’t follow through. Every single aspect of life, every word you speak or write, every tweet you might send, every private conversation you may have had, any email you might have sent, every friend you love is either a function of your racism or anti-racism. And this is why flawed human beings are now subjected to such brutal public shamings, outings, and inquisitions — in order to root out the structural evil they represent.
If you argue that you believe that much of this ideology is postmodern gobbledygook, you are guilty of “white fragility.” If you say you are not fragile, and merely disagree, this is proof you are fragile. It is the same circular argument that was once used to burn witches. And it has the same religious undertones. To be woke is to wake up to the truth — the blinding truth that liberal society doesn’t exist, that everything is a form of oppression or resistance, and that there is no third option. You are either with us or you are to be cast into darkness.
I’m closer to Sullivan’s views on this than Lowery’s. I fundamentally believe that civil discourse and persuasion are the only way democracy works. So, I simultaneously support radical reform of policing such that the black community doesn’t see law enforcement as a threat to their lives and condemn rioting and looting associated with the protests seeking that end. I simultaneously think we should remove monuments that were specifically put up to signal to black citizens that they were lesser beings and that we should do so according to the rule of law, not the actions of the mob. I simultaneously think we should rename Army bases named after Confederate generals and not inflame matters further by naming them after William Tecumseh Sherman.
But I also think Lowery and others have a point, even if they go too far. The nature of institutional racism is that a level playing field isn’t truly level.
And, in fairness, Sullivan seems to agree:
Mercifully, we are far freer than Havel was under Communism. We have no secret police. The state is not requiring adherence to this doctrine. And it is not a lie that this country has some deep reckoning to do on the legacy of slavery and segregation. In so far as this movement has made us more aware and cognizant of the darkness of the past, it is a very good thing, and overdue. But in so far as it has insisted we are defined entirely by that darkness, it has the crudeness of a kind of evangelist doctrine — with the similar penalties for waywardness. We have co-workers eager to weaponize their ideology to purge the workforce. We have employers demanding our attendance at seminars and workshops to teach this ideology. We have journalists (of all people) poring through other writers’ work or records to get them in trouble, demoted, or fired. We have faculty members at colleges signing petitions to rid their departments of those few left not fully onboard. We have human-resources departments that have adopted this ideology whole and are imposing it as a condition for employment. And, critically, we have a Twitter mob to hound people into submission.
Too many in journalism and the academy—myself included—draw conclusions from Twitter that are too broad. Twitter, as has been frequently noted, is not real life. But, increasingly, for those of us who make our living in the intellectual space, it seems that way.
Still, I agree with Sullivan here:
Liberalism is not just a set of rules. There’s a spirit to it. A spirit that believes that there are whole spheres of human life that lie beyond ideology — friendship, art, love, sex, scholarship, family. A spirit that seeks not to impose orthodoxy but to open up the possibilities of the human mind and soul. A spirit that seeks moral clarity but understands that this is very hard, that life and history are complex, and it is this complexity that a truly liberal society seeks to understand if it wants to advance. It is a spirit that deals with an argument — and not a person — and that counters that argument with logic, not abuse. It’s a spirit that allows for various ideas to clash and evolve, and treats citizens as equal, regardless of their race, rather than insisting on equity for designated racial groups. It’s a spirit that delights sometimes in being wrong because it offers an opportunity to figure out what’s right. And it’s generous, humorous, and graceful in its love of argument and debate. It gives you space to think and reflect and deliberate. Twitter, of course, is the antithesis of all this — and its mercy-free, moblike qualities when combined with a moral panic are, quite frankly, terrifying.
Here’s a caveat, though: the fight for black Americans to be treated as full and equal citizens has been ongoing for at least 155 years. And, while we’re undeniably a lot closer than we were 50, even 25, years ago it’s understandable that people have simply run out of patience.
I don’t like that people who dare to offer counterarguments are shouted down. And I positively loathe when ordinary people are suddenly turned into public figures and have their lives ruined for a single, thoughtless act.
“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values,” President Kennedy once said. “For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” Let’s keep that market open. Let’s not be intimidated by those who want it closed.
I long for that ideal to be realized but despair that it’s impossible.
And, as much as “cancel culture” is making it harder, the main culprit right now is coming from the right. Whatever pressures are being placed on the editors of the New York Times and Washington Post—or even Vox and New York—to take sides in the culture wars, I get a reasonable sense of the debate from reading those sources. Fox News, the Daily Caller, Breitbart, and the like don’t even pretend anymore to show “both sides” of the story.
Still, while I don’t operate from fear of being “cancelled” online, I do find myself self-censoring more often. Even though my views on race, gender, and LGBTQ issues are likely somewhat left-of-center at this point, certainly in my age cohort, it’s just not worth the aggravation to respond to the Twitter mob. Presumably, those with views further out of favor with the “woke” left that dominates the medium do so more often.
To that extent, the mob has won. And that’s not good for the country or our state of discourse.
Now, again, this threat pales in comparison to a President that fans the flames of racial outrage and threatens the rule of law and the freedom of expression. But I do fear that the backlash against “cancel culture” will alienate people who might otherwise be inclined to vote for Joe Biden to stay home or even vote to re-elect Trump.