Yes, Cancel Culture Is Real
And, yes, both sides are to blame.
And for God's sake, please don’t insult my intelligence by pretending that wokeness and cancel culture are all just figments of the conservative imagination. Sure, they overreact to this stuff, but it really exists, it really is a liberal invention, and it really does make even moderate conservatives feel like their entire lives are being held up to a spotlight and found wanting. —Kevin Drum
Welcome to spring 2022!
Before we dive into our contretemps du jour, take a look at this item from the NYT this weekend, about a new weapon that the Ukrainians are using to great effect on the battlefield: NLAWs, for Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapons. “In perhaps 15 seconds, and sometimes even faster than that, the soldiers can unsling the weapon, unfold its aiming sight, release a safety catch and wait for their prey to appear.”
A gift from Britain, the NLAWs are turning out to be a dramatic game-changer.
They are the result of decades of weapons research dedicated to building small lightweight guided missiles that may have evened the balance of power in combat between the fearsome tank and the soldier.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainians continue to hold on, even as Russian war crimes multiply, and their brutality intensifies.
Perhaps appropriately, given the ongoing clash between autocracy and democracy, another debate about the nature of liberalism has broken out. In case you missed it, the New York Times editorial board set off the latest kerfuffle over cancel culture and free speech with an editorial this weekend.
For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.
As a horde of flying critics has pointed out, this both overstates and understates the problem. As a simple matter of constitutional law, there is no “fundamental right” to be free from the fear of “being shamed or shunned.” So that is an overstatement, and it has been widely dunked upon.
But the NYT also understates the problem because the threats to free speech often go far beyond merely shunning and shaming.
Right-wing politicians have widely embraced bans on ideas and words in education, and have mobilized the power of the state on behalf of their anti-speech crusade. As JVL noted in this podcast last week: “Conservativism, as it exists in the wild, not as an academic construct, no longer has any attachment whatsoever to free speech, except as a cudgel with which to pursue the exercise of power against its political opponents.”
My colleague Cathy Young also reminded us that cancel culture often means organizing a “mob to get you fired and/or make you unemployable, shut down your business, browbeat your publisher into canceling you book, etc.” When one critic objected to the Times equating “the left criticizing hate and the right burning books,” she tweeted back:
Yes, this is very real, and it has been demonstrated over and over and over again.
Cathy documented examples of it The Bulwark, including “the witch-hunt against a distinguished University of Michigan professor of composition who showed his class the 1965 film Othello with Laurence Olivier in blackface” and “MIT’s cancellation of a scientific lecture by a geophysicist who had criticized race-based affirmative action.” But, as she wrote, this culture of censorious illiberalism has now spread out far from the rarefied world of academia.
For example, in 2017, a burrito shop opened by two Portland women was forced to shut down shortly after its launch because its white owners’ account of collecting recipes on a vacation in Mexico prompted a frenzy of denunciations for “stealing” and “culinary white supremacy” in the local left-wing press and the progressive digital media (and a torrent of negative online reviews).
In June 2020, during civil unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd, a Denver chain of yoga studios, Kindness Yoga, was driven out of business by a social media backlash that started with “callouts” from a few employees who felt that the company’s Instagram statement of solidarity with Black Lives Matter was “too little, too late.” (There were other grievances: for instance, that the management consulted “certain diverse members of the staff” about issues of diversity and inclusion instead of hiring an outside “diversity expert.”)
In July 2020, the following month, Gary Garrels, senior curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, stepped down after staffers circulated a petition demanding his removal for “toxic white supremacist beliefs.” Garrels’s offense: He had concluded a presentation on diversifying the museum’s holdings by saying that white artists would still be collected and that a blanket rejection of their work would be “reverse discrimination.”
In the Atlantic, Anne Applebaum catalogued even more cancellations.
Even if you have not been suspended, punished, or found guilty of anything, you cannot function in your profession. If you are a professor, no one wants you as a teacher or mentor (“The graduate students made it obvious to me that I was a nonperson and could not possibly be tolerated”). You cannot publish in professional journals. You cannot quit your job, because no one else will hire you. If you are a journalist, then you might find that you cannot publish at all.
“How has this happened?” asked the Times.
In large part, it’s because the political left and the right are caught in a destructive loop of condemnation and recrimination around “cancel culture.” Many on the left refuse to acknowledge that cancel culture exists at all, believing that those who complain about it are offering cover for bigots to peddle hate speech. Many on the right, for all their braying about cancel culture, have embraced an even more extreme version of censoriousness as a bulwark against a rapidly changing society, with laws that would ban books, stifle teachers and discourage open discussion in classrooms.
So, what about the charge that this is “both sidesism”? For many on the Twitter Left, the Times’s acknowledgement that this is two-front war was an occasion of High Umbrage.
But, let’s be clear here. Both sides are, in fact, guilty.
You don’t have to regard these attacks on free speech as either legally or morally equivalent to recognize that the attacks do, in fact, come from both sides. Recognizing the bipolar assault on speech doesn’t excuse or minimize the other side’s illiberalism; instead it underlines the fragility of the one-time consensus over the centrality of free speech in our culture.
FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff called out the denialists, tweeting that the criticism of “both siderism” is not actually an argument, “it’s just another flippant dodge.”
For all of its flaws — and the newspaper itself really is emblematic of what it is criticizing — the NYT gets it right here:
The full-throated defense of free speech was once a liberal ideal. Many of the legal victories that expanded the realm of permissible speech in the United States came in defense of liberal speakers against the power of the government — a ruling that students couldn’t be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, a ruling protecting the rights of students to demonstrate against the Vietnam War, a ruling allowing the burning of the American flag.
And yet, many progressives appear to have lost faith in that principle.
Bonus: Sarah Longwell and JVL took a deep-dive into the whole issue in this week’s Secret Podcast (available to Bulwark + members.)
Is Free Speech in American Law Schools a Lost Cause?
David Lat, the founder of AboveTheLaw, writes that recent controversies at UC Hastings and Yale Law don't provide much reason for hope.
When these law students become lawyers, and many of them have to go to court or a negotiating table, they will have to listen to the other side—whether they like it or not, and no matter how “offensive,” “triggering,” or “violent” they find the views of the other side to be. Shouting down opposing counsel, then claiming that you’re just engaging in your own form of “free speech” or “zealous advocacy,” will not fly in the world beyond Yale Law School.
Bonus: Don’t expect AOC to champion free speech rights or intellectual tolerance:
We Get Mail
Keep your rants, raves, laurels, and darts coming firstname.lastname@example.org. And, remember that all Bulwark+ members can comment on any Morning Shots.
If I could change one single solitary thing about this country it would be that every single eligible voter take into consideration that everything that happens in the US is then going to float downstream and have an influence on every single other country in the world. That is…VERY UNIQUE. Americans need to remember that when we elect a President, we effectively elect the leader of the entire world. If we could just conduct ourselves in accordance with how much influence we have in the world…Trump never would have run for office. With great power comes great responsibility. That’s what we forgot. And that’s what’s ruining us.
-millennial Josh in Livermore, CA
Many on the far-right indulge in their fantasy that if Trump were still president, Putin would not have invaded Ukraine because he would have faced "dire consequences." The truth is that Trump had his head so far up Putin's posterior, he could have performed an eyewitness colonoscopy.
Putin did not invade Ukraine under Trump's watch only because it wasn't necessary to achieve his alleged objective - to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. Trump wanted to abandon NATO entirely because the Europeans "did not pay their dues." (FYI- there are no membership dues). He did pull U.S. troops out of Germany, much to Putin's delight.
It has been President Biden who has led a broad coalition in response to Putin's aggression. Weapons have been provided to the courageous Ukrainian resistance and economic sanctions have made the Russian ruble virtually worthless. That's what a real leader, with a strong committment to democracy, does.
Some are saying President Biden should be following the example set in 1938 by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Neville Chamberlain, who "negotiated" with Hitler and allowed him to annex Czechoslovakia. PM Chamberlain promised this would guarantee "peace with honor" and "peace for our time." What could possibly go wrong? One might ask Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Yugoslavia, and Greece that question. Those countries were all invaded, in succession, by Hitler's military between 1938 and 1941. For whom was this peaceful or honorable?
At the end of WWII, there was a universal cry of "Never Again." Yet, some now want another megalomaniac to literally call the shots.
Should we allow history to repeat itself and passively accept Putin's atrocities as a fait accompli? Will Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, already NATO members, be the next victims of Putin's 21st century Soviet Union fever dream? Those who don't want an expanded war should think about that.
The whole world is watching.
Yeosu, South Korea
(formerly of Goleta, CA)
How is it that the we have no legal obligation to enforce the security assurance provisions of the Budapest Memorandum because it was a "political agreement"? Are we really saying our word means nothing? (Not that we're doing nothing, but we're clearly not doing enough.)
No wonder people dislike and don't trust politicians. Good luck getting anyone to rely on our military assurances in the future. I know a lot of smart people think giving Polish MiGs to Ukraine is a bad idea, but I agree with Eliot Cohen that the psychological effect alone may be worth it. Besides, who are we to tell Ukraine that the jets wouldn't make a difference? I agree with you that President Biden needs to stop telling Putin what we won't do. I think the American people are willing to do more than the President and Congress are willing to do. For many people, we finally see a cause worth fighting for after decades of poorly conceived and poorly executed military excursions, culture wars and general unseriousness in this country. Thanks for letting me vent. Thank you and The Bulwark for what you do.
When people say liberals started cancel culture, I got two words for you : Dixie Chicks. Can anybody give me an earlier modern example? I’ll wait.
Any person opposing that war was culturally cancelled in the early days by the right. And that war is the reason so many “moderates” have zero clout now and why progressives rose to power. It’s also one of the reasons we can’t help militarily in Ukraine. America just got out of a 20- year- NeoCon started war. I agree AOC is annoying, but she’s not as powerful as GW Bush back in 2003.
I am a lifelong center right independent and I’m 70 years old. I don’t recall people trying to ruin or destroy others in the other party until the rise of Newt Gingrich and Tom Delay in the early 1990s, and their orchestrated campaign of demonization. Delay, in particular, wanted to prohibit anyone who did any business at all with Democrats from doing any business with the Federal Government. I don’t recall any “both sides” equivalent for the orchestrated demonization or approved vendor status.