Cancel culture and conservative glass houses

The marketplace of ideas is working just fine

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

It is often the case that those who are the least entitled to complain about something do so the loudest. So it is with conservatives and so-called "cancel culture" — firing or de-platforming individuals because of their views. Hardly a day goes by when some conservative somewhere doesn't warn Americans that the lefty "cancel crew will come for you" or that a "new purge" reminiscent of "Stalin" is underway from which "no one is safe."

But those conservatives need to take a deep breath and mind their own house. When it comes to the politically correct left, liberals are themselves rising to defend old-fashioned tolerance, showing that a free marketplace of ideas when left to its own devices can regulate itself.

To be sure, it is an open question, as notes Ross Douthat, The New York Times' uber thoughtful conservative columnist and no friend of the woke left, whether the progressive camp's new censoriousness towards real or imagined disrespect toward marginalized groups would necessarily be more illiberal than the old Protestant consensus they seek to replace. Even liberal polities firmly committed to protecting free speech, after all, impose cultural limits on what ideas they admit in respectable company. And it is inevitable that an ethnically and religiously homogeneous society with one dominant group would draw the lines very differently from a more diverse one. Indeed, as more women and minorities enter the public space, they'll question old rules of social interaction. Many norms that were previously acceptable would no longer be so — and vice versa.

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But the trouble with the new left is that instead of letting these norms shift spontaneously at a natural pace, after due sifting and sorting, it wants to overthrow all of them, all at once. And to accomplish that, it has developed a strategy of pushing hard on power nodes — corporate human resources departments, university bureaucracies — to engineer institution-wide, top-down change.

The upshot is excesses. One does not have to buy the right-wing hype that politically correct activists are modern-day Jacobins thirsting for cultural revenge to be deeply troubled when they go after an obscure graphic designer for sporting blackface to mock a celebrity years after the actual event. Or a data analyst for tweeting a study by a black professor showing that non-violent tactics are more effective in affecting social change than violent ones. Or a museum curator who wouldn't spurn art just because it came from white people. All these people were liberals and they lost their jobs for running afoul of PC sensibilities.

Social change inevitably hurts some people. But progress depends on minimizing the collateral damage, the cost to innocent parties. Progressives, however, are leaving too many victims in their wake, including on their own side. But the good news is that now liberals are joining conservatives, who've been railing against PCism for decades, in pushing back.

New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait has been warning for five years that the left is on a censorious path. But in recent months his fellow liberals have started joining him in noticeable numbers. Chait's colleague at New York Magazine, the celebrated centrist gay writer who spearheaded the gay marriage movement, Andrew Sullivan, quit two weeks ago because, as he noted in his parting column, he no longer felt that its growing ideological narrow-mindedness had space for him. He has already reignited his old blog with the express purpose of critiquing precisely this tendency in the left. Meanwhile, some leading progressives joined public intellectuals on the other side of the ideological spectrum to sign an open letter in Harper's magazine expressing alarm at the culture of "intolerance of opposing views" and "a vogue for public shaming and ostracism" that was engulfing their movement. Among them, notably, was firebrand professor Noam Chomsky who is arguably one of the foremost inspirations of the modern left. And then there is the enthusiastic reception that Johns Hopkins professor Yascha Mounk's new venture Persuasion has received from across the ideological spectrum. Mounk, a centrist liberal, has founded this subscription newsletter to explicitly debate, articulate, and defend the values of a free society and pry open space for the expression of a wider array of opinions than the mainstream media is allowing.

Meanwhile, young conservatives like Ben Shapiro who act like cancel culture is some new left-wing invention are forgetting that right-wingers themselves have been its main practitioners through most of American history. One does not have to go back to pre-Revolutionary America — when Puritans were engaging in the ultimate cancellation and hanging "witches" — to find examples of cultural conservatives "canceling” those who defied their moral strictures. In living memory, employers regularly fired those suspected of being atheists, gays and, of course, communists (remember the McCarthy era?). Only a short time ago, allowing gays in the military on a "don't ask, don't tell" basis, a policy hesitantly implemented by a Democratic president against stiff conservative opposition, was considered progress.

The patriotically inclined right also still has its own list of cancellation-worthy offenses. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick found himself blackballed from the league after President Trump berated him for taking the knee during the national anthem and asked the league to "get that son of a bitch off the field right now." The right's uproar over comments by lefty stand-up comic Bill Maher (that the 9-11 terrorists were brave compared to American forces that launched bombs from a safe 2,000 mile distance) got his show, Politically Incorrect, canceled in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center. The band Dixie Chicks was likewise canceled after its members voiced public disgust at the Iraq War.

With respect to Kaepernick, Trump is now saying he should get a second chance, but his habit of viciously attacking Republican lawmakers who oppose him has prompted scores of them to remain silent or permanently quit politics — in other words, self-cancel. And he has explicitly called for the firing of journalists and dissenters that stand up to him. Even before he became president, he was into cancellation, calling on the Scots to boycott Glenfiddich because the brand honored a farmer who refused to sell his property for a Trump golf course.

But Trump is hardly alone. The conservative establishment itself is doing a masterful job. Far from allowing the full range of opinions to be expressed about the president, conservative publications are canceling anti-Trump voices left and right.

One of the raps against liberal cancel culture warriors is that, unlike in the past when the pressure to fire writers came from irate readers, now woke colleagues on the inside are pushing out dissenters. As proof, critics point to the recent departure of conservative editor Bari Weiss from The New York Times. She published a scathing resignation letter slamming her liberal colleagues for "constant bullying" in response to her heterodox views. But Weiss was also a refugee from the opinion section of the Wall Street Journal that she along with several of her anti-Trump colleagues quit after Trump's nomination made their views verboten. Meanwhile, Sol Stern, a former fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, has revealed that he resigned in protest two years ago after the institute's flagship publication, The City Journal, started muzzling anti-Trump voices, thanks to donor pressure. Indeed, David French, a former writer for National Review and current editor at The Dispatch, notes that "every single dysfunction you've observed from the Online Left and progressive media more broadly applies to the Online Right and conservative media as well. Except in conservative media, the focus isn't on intersectionality and social justice but rather Trump and his followers."

Of course, that conservatives are no strangers to quashing debate and discussion hardly makes the left's zeal to cancel people and viewpoints more palatable.

In the rough and tumble of the marketplace of ideas it is never clear that the "right" side is prevailing until it does. However, what these vigorous defenses of old-fashioned liberal values of debate and discussion from within the progressive camp itself make clear is that free societies defend themselves in unexpected and unpredictable ways. Conservatives should take note of these trends and let liberals police their own side — while they get to work on theirs. With this president, they have plenty to keep their hands full even without a pre-occupation with the liberal enemy.

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