Authored by Matt Taibbi
As excerpted from “If it’s Not “Cancel Culture,” What Kind of Culture is it?“
Any attempt to build bridges between the two mindsets falls apart, often spectacularly, as we saw this week in an online fight over free speech that could not possibly have been more comic in its unraveling.
A group of high-profile writers and thinkers, including Pinker, Noam Chomsky, Wynton Marsalis, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem and Anne Appelbaum, signed a letter in Harper’s calling for an end to callouts and cancelations.
“We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom,” the authors wrote, adding, “We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.”
This Hallmark-card-level inoffensive sentiment naturally inspired peals of outrage across the Internet, mainly directed at a handful of signatories deemed hypocrites for having called for the firings of various persons before.
Then a few signatories withdrew their names when they found out that they would be sharing space on the letterhead with people they disliked.
“I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company,” tweeted Jennifer Finney Boylan, adding, “The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.”
Translation: I had no idea my group statement against intellectual monoculture would be signed by people with different views!
In the predictable next development – no dialogue between American intellectuals is complete these days without someone complaining to the boss – Vox writer Emily VanDerWerff declared herself literally threatened by co-worker Matt Yglesias’s decision to sign the statement. The public as well as Vox editors were told:
The letter, signed as it is by several prominent anti-trans voices and containing as many dog whistles towards anti-trans positions as it does, ideally would not have been signed by anybody at Vox… His signature on the letter makes me feel less safe.
Naturally, this declaration impelled Vox co-founder Ezra Klein to take VanDerWerff’s side and publicly denounce the Harper’s letter as a status-defending con.
“A lot of debates that sell themselves as being about free speech are actually about power,” tweeted Klein, clearly referencing his old pal Yglesias. “And there’s a lot of power in being able to claim, and hold, the mantle of free speech defender.”
This Marxian denunciation of the defense of free speech as cynical capitalist ruse was brought to you by the same Ezra Klein who once worked with Yglesias to help Vox raise $300 million. This was just one of many weirdly petty storylines. Writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, who organized the letter, found himself described as a “mixed race man heavily invested in respectability politics,” once he defended the letter, one of many transparent insults directed toward the letter’s nonwhite signatories by ostensible antiracist voices.
This being America in the Trump era, where the only art form to enjoy wide acceptance is the verbose monograph written in condemnation of the obvious, the Harper’s fiasco inspired multiple entries in the vast literature decrying the rumored existence of “cancel culture.” The two most common themes of such essays are a) the illiberal left is a Trumpian myth, and b) if the illiberal left does exist, it’s a good thing because all of those people they’re smearing/getting fired deserved it.
In this conception there’s nothing to worry about when a Dean of Nursing at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell is dismissed for writing “Black Lives Matter, but also, everyone’s life matters” in an email, or when an Indiana University Medical School professor has to apologize for asking students how they would treat a patient who says ‘I can’t breathe!’ in a clinical setting, or when someone is fired for retweeting a study suggesting nonviolent protest is effective. The people affected are always eventually judged to be “bad,” or to have promoted “bad research,” or guilty of making “bad arguments,” etc.
In this case, Current Affairs hastened to remind us that the people signing the Harper’s letter were many varieties of bad! They included Questioners of Politically Correct Culture like “Pinker, Jesse Singal, Zaid Jilani, John McWhorter, Nicholas A. Christakis, Caitlin Flanagan, Jonathan Haidt, and Bari Weiss,” as well as “chess champion and proponent of the bizarre conspiracy theory that the Middle Ages did not happen, Garry Kasparov,” and “right wing blowhards known for being wrong about everything” in David Frum and Francis Fukuyama, as well as – this is my favorite line – “problematic novelists Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and J.K. Rowling.”
Where on the irony-o-meter does one rate an essay that decries the “right-wing myth” of cancel culture by mass-denouncing a gymnasium full of intellectuals as problematic?
Continued reading on Matt Taibbi’s Substack