I’m a reluctant participant in the debate over free speech and the alleged threat of “cancel culture.” I’ve hesitated to join in part because these controversies seem like a rehash of the earlier sterile arguments in the 1980s and ’90s about political correctness. In the brouhaha over both PC and cancel culture, there’s been a disheartening reliance on ridiculously overheated metaphors (guillotines and gulags always in the wings) and bogus anecdotes. In 1991, Dinesh D’Souza, already a notorious charlatan, snookered many liberals, including, sadly, the great historian C. Vann Woodward, with his book Illiberal Education, which offered a fundamentally dishonest account of many controversies, including curriculum changes at Stanford and the Guatemalan civil war.
The other reason I’ve been inclined to pooh-pooh the idea of cancel culture is that to the extent it is real, it still seems like a minor problem in the age of (in no particular order) climate change, Covid-19, the second economic meltdown in two decades, and a racist buffoon occupying the White House.
But Trump himself has forced me to be less blasé about free speech. The president’s authoritarianism has exhibited itself in many ways, one of the most dangerous of which is his attacks on dissent. He’s called the press the “enemy of the people,” cheered the denial of a career to Colin Kaepernick by the NFL because of the football player’s protest against police racism, purged the Voice of America, and (it seems) punished impeachment witnesses like Alexander Vindman. Given Trump’s attack on dissent, it’s urgent for the left to reclaim the language of free speech and not leave this discourse to reactionary cranks like Dennis Prager, who is still stewing about the fact that as a white person it is socially unacceptable for him to use the n-word.
Coupled with the threat from Trump is the fact that along with the welcome rise of social movements protesting bigotry, there have been a few cases of genuine overreach. In early June, Civis Analytics fired David Shor, a young data analyst, in the wake of a tweet Shor posted summing up scholarship showing that violent protest was counterproductive in terms of electoral outcome. (The scholarship Shor cited was by the Princeton political scientists Omar Wasow, who is African American.) After being fired, Shor was kicked off a list serve for progressive analysts.
Aside from the injustice to Shor, this case illustrates a wrong turn by the new wave of activism: the excessive focus on the discourse. The demolition of Confederate statues and the taking down of Confederate flags has been moving. But the focus on symbolic and representational racism has also given an opening to corporate America and business-as-usual politicians to win anti-racism reward points on the cheap. While the ruling elite still refuses to rein in the police or invest in Black communities, corporations are happy to tweet out slogans supporting Black Lives Matter.
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The best example of this corporate faux-anti-racism is Hulu’s decision to remove from circulation an episode of Golden Girls that showed characters wearing masks at a spa out of concern that this might resemble blackface. (The blackface explanation from Hulu might be a pretext, since the episode has other problems). Even with art that is genuinely racist or offensive in other ways, erasure is the wrong approach, since it allows us to whitewash history.
It only serves the interest of corporate giants like Disney to remove from the public record evidence of their prior trafficking in racism. For historians or cultural scholars who want to gauge the pervasiveness of bigotry in American history, it’s harmful that Disney is allowed to keep The Song of the South (1946), a minstrel musical, squirreled away in a deep, dark vault. Ideally, this material should be in the public domain and used for educational purposes. As Adam Serwer of The Atlantic noted, “I think removing episodes with offensive content from availability is protecting the brand more than any kind of progress. The episodes should stay up and audiences should evaluate those shows accordingly.”
Because of these concerns, when I was asked by a friend to sign a letter supporting free speech, I did so. The letter was an anodyne enough statement of liberal truisms. I did have qualms about the fact that there were no specific cases cited. Instead, the letter gave only vague unnamed allusions to events. “My preference would have been for either not detailing cases or if detailed to provide names,” I noted. Still, these unnamed cases were presented in an abstract way with the proviso that issues are disputed. So I didn’t feel the lack of specific details interfered with the general statement of principle, which I agreed with.
The recent letter I signed, grandly titled “An Open Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” was published to great controversy in Harper’s Magazine, not from my point of view an ideal venue for a statement about free speech. Publication in Harper’s was something I found out about only on the eve of the letter’s being published. Harper’s publisher Rick MacArthur, scion of a fortune rivaling that of Richie Rich, runs his magazine with an autocratic capriciousness, hiring and firing editors at whim. One firing can plausibly be seen as a union busting move, itself an assault on free speech. The best way to strengthen free speech rights for most people would be to increase union density and limit at-will employment, thus disempowering the MacArthurs of the world.
The letter had a range of signatories spanning the political spectrum from Noam Chomsky and Nell Irvin Painter to David Frum and David Brooks.
Some of the signatories can fairly be taxed with being the rankest of hypocrites when it comes to free speech. This is especially true of speech that expresses solidarity for Palestinians or speech that is, God forbid, voiced by actual Palestinians. These unreliable free-speech advocates include New York Times editor Bari Weiss, literary scholar Cary Nelson, and political scientist Yascha Mounk.
As Glenn Greenwald has documented in The Intercept, Weiss has been involved “in numerous campaigns to vilify and ruin the careers of several Arab and Muslim professors due to their criticisms of Israel.”
In 2014, Nelson supported the decision to withdraw a job offer to Palestinian American scholar Steven Salaita over objections to harsh tweets Salaita had written. The withdrawal was made by the chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, over the express wishes of the American studies department of that school. Salaita’s academic career was destroyed, and he currently works as a school bus driver.
In 2019, Mounk enthused over a coup in Bolivia led by Jeanine Añez. As Jacobin notes, “Since taking power, the Añez government has massacred protesters, arrested political opponents, and cracked down on the press and activists. In March, her government postponed an election she was on track to lose, the holding of which, as soon as possible, was supposed to be her only job, and in which she had initially promised not to run.”
With free speech advocates like Weiss, Nelson, and Mounk, the forces of censorship will always enjoy a good night’s sleep. Yet to simply say that Weiss and company are hypocrites is only half the story. Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite when he penned “all men are created equal.” Jefferson’s slave-owning doesn’t discredit the principles he articulated. Rather, the principles give us language with which to criticize Jefferson. In the same way, the letter I signed provides standards by which hypocrites can be held accountable.
Another problematic signatory is J.K. Rowling, the wealthiest and most famous name on the letter. Best known as the author of the Harry Potter books, Rowling has disgraced herself in recent months by becoming, for inexplicable reasons, the world’s most prominent anti-trans spokesperson.
Having Rowling sign such a letter is the equivalent of having Kanye West show up at your wedding. The danger is that all everyone will remember of the wedding is Kanye, with the bride and groom reduced to an aside. Just so: The gravitational pull of Rowling’s name means many people are trying to decode the letter, for understandable reasons, as a covert anti-trans manifesto.
As with the hypocrites, so with bigots; it is best to realize that principles are more important than people, even the most famous people. In a strange way, the Rowling case reinforces the importance of free speech absolutism. Just as Lehman Brothers is too big to fail, Rowling is too big to cancel. Even supposing there were a successful boycott that got everyone to stop buying her books, she has enough money to keep herself and her descendants in luxury for several millennia. Short of a revolution, it’s hard to imagine Rowling being touched by any strategy of boycott or de-platforming.
The only way to blunt the impact of someone like Rowling is with more speech—with retort, argument, parody and derision. To secure themselves against the likes of Rowling, trans people have built a vigorous political movement, one that is itself shielded by norms of free speech. A robust culture of free speech serves the cause of trans activism, as it does other progressive causes.
If there’s a critique to be made of “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” it is that it doesn’t go far enough. If free speech is at risk, it’ll take more than a few eggheads and literati signing their names to a string of truisms to protect it. The attorney Max Kennerly has suggested some concrete policies that would actually serve to make it harder for people to lose their jobs for their ideas: (1) “strengthen unions”; (2) “prohibit termination without cause”; (3) “extend Loudermill & Pickering rights [which guarantee public employees the right to free speech on matters of public concern, and prevent them from being fired without due process and a chance to respond to charges against them] to private employment.”
Perhaps the next open letter can advocate these ideas.