Donald Trump’s Independence Day speech at Mount Rushmore was a call to arms to take on the evil mob destroying our beloved country’s values. It was a thunderous condemnation of the political left, and a promise to seize the country from the “totalitarian” proponents of “social justice” who are destroying our culture of “free and open debate,” replacing it with “cancel culture and speech codes”:
In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished… One of their political weapons is “Cancel Culture” — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America. This attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty, must be stopped, and it will be stopped very quickly. We will expose this dangerous movement, protect our nation’s children, end this radical assault, and preserve our beloved American way of life.
Trump’s picture of what is going on in the country is totally detached from reality. Totalitarianism involves guns and concentration camps. The “radical left” in the United States has two members of Congress, Bernie Sanders and AOC. (Perhaps Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.) This is the same conservative persecution complex we have heard for decades; some of the richest and most powerful people in the world complaining that the “far left” are totalitarians. The left is permanently tarred as Stalinist thought police trying to put dissenters in the gulag—even as the contemporary left is trying to dismantle both police and prisons and reduce the power of the carceral state.
It should be clear what’s going on here. Trump’s much-vaunted economy has tanked. Well over 100,000 people have died of coronavirus and cases are on the rise. Eight out of 10 people report that they are dissatisfied with the direction the country is going, and Joe Biden is outpolling Trump consistently. Americans have only gotten more sympathetic to immigrants over time, so he can’t run on scapegoating Mexicans like he did in 2016. Trump has one approach left: try to reignite the culture wars and convince people that a censorious P.C. left is trying to destroy our freedom.
But Trump is not the only one who sees the left as a threat to freedom. Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi has said that the “American left has lost its mind,” and that “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.” Yesterday, Harper’s magazine—which previously fired an editor for criticizing an anti-MeToo essay, and gave the world a 7,000 word self-pitying rant from an NPR host dismissed for sexual harassment and incompetence—published a short open letter on “Justice and Open Debate” co-signed by a motley assortment of luminaries, arguing that free speech is under attack:
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.
When I say the collection of co-signers was motley, I mean it. Included were:
- Figures from the media and academia associated with the “Intellectual Dark Web” and the questioning of Politically Correct culture, including Steven Pinker, Jesse Singal, Zaid Jilani, John McWhorter, Nicholas A. Christakis, Caitlin Flanagan, Jonathan Haidt, and Bari Weiss
- New Yorker writers Atul Gawande and Malcolm Gladwell
- New York Times columnists David Brooks and Michelle Goldberg
- Chess champion and proponent of the bizarre conspiracy that the Middle Ages did not happen, Garry Kasparov
- Linguist, freedom fighter, and Current Affairs patron saint Noam Chomsky
- Right-wing blowhards known for being wrong about everything, David Frum and Francis Fukuyama
- Problematic novelists Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and J.K. Rowling
- Boring centrists George Packer and Yascha Mounk
- Teachers Union president Randi Weingarten
- Civil libertarian and former New York gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout
- Leftish historians Matt Karp and Samuel Moyn
- Harper’s publisher John R. “The #MeToo movement has had an unfortunate tendency to lump together everybody from Harvey Weinstein to the guy who looked at you funny at the lunch room at the office cantine” MacArthur
- Democratic military intervention hawk and illegal bombing proponent Anne-Marie Slaughter
- Matthew Yglesias
- Feminist legal theorist and staunch critic of Elizabeth Warren, Drucilla Cornell
- Ignorant neoliberal CNN host Fareed Zakaria
- Several people you’ve never heard of, such as Neil Blair.
The statement itself is framed as a vague and unobjectionable endorsement of free speech, and several signatories had evidently assumed that’s what they were endorsing. But it is very clearly mainly a warning about censoriousness coming from the left. This is clear not only from the it’s not just the right anymore framing, but from the examples the letter uses to support its case. These are vague (“editors are fired,” “journalists are barred from writing,” “professors are investigated for quoting works of literature,” “a researcher is fired”), and the letter specifically declines to litigate the facts of individual incidents. But a book attacked for “inauthenticity” is probably American Dirt (though it was not withdrawn and is a bestseller), an editor fired is probably James Bennet, who resigned from the New York Times op-ed page after printing an op-ed by far right politician Tom Cotton calling for crushing protesters with military force. (Though it could also refer to Ian Buruma, a signatory to the letter, the New York Review of Books editor who had to leave the publication after publishing a serial rapist’s excuses for his crimes.) The “professor investigated” might well be the UCLA professor investigated for reading the n-word aloud in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” after his Black students asked him not to say it. The “researcher fired” was almost certainly David Shor, who may or may not (he has never claimed he was) have been fired for posting a study encouraging protesters to be nonviolent.
The letter appeared on the surface to be a fairly uncontroversial statement in support of tolerance and open discussion. Fredrik deBoer even argues that anyone who objects to the letter must be objecting to free speech itself, because all the letter is is a statement that free speech is good. But the letter actually goes further: It implies that the theory of a widespread culture of repression and censoriousness on the left is accurate, and there is a serious issue with people being persecuted in the name of social justice.
Anyone should be able to agree that openness is good, due process is good, and arbitrary firings are bad. The more controversial question is whether there is, in fact, a dangerous leftist “cancel culture” that threatens our liberty of thought. The American right believes there is. Trump is staking his reelection on the hope that the public agrees. And if it’s true, there is a serious problem with the left.
But when you look at the actual incidents, usually the case swiftly begins to crumble. There’s a reason the letter kept the charges vague and did not provide links. Most of the actual incidents are more complicated than the “political correctness gone mad” framework suggests. If I tell you a professor was investigated for reading a historical document aloud, you might be outraged. But if I add some more facts, namely that the professor had been told by his Black students that they’d prefer he not say the n-word, and he disregarded them, the complaint seems slightly less insane. If I tell you that Ian Buruma was fired over “printing the wrong article,” you might cry “censorship!” But I haven’t told you that the article in question was a sex criminal lying about his crimes in an effort to manipulate the public into sympathizing with him—a strange piece of writing to appear in the New York Review of Books.
Critical facts are almost always left out. In 2017, Third World Quarterly pulled an article called “The Case for Colonialism,” after a petition calling for its removal. The writer said a “Maoist” “hate mob” had “tried to silence me,” and in the conservative press he was presented as a victim of the Pervasive Liberal Bias on campus. Left out, though, was the fact that the article was appallingly bad as a piece of scholarship. Even an article from the libertarian Cato Institute said it was “empirically and historically inaccurate” and “misuses existing postcolonial scholarship.” The arguments it made were really, really bad. It was like publishing an article denying the Holocaust. If a peer-reviewed journal had published an article denying the Holocaust, would calls to retract it be seen as “politically correct” “Maoist” thought policing, or a reasonable demand for scholarship to conform to basic intellectual and moral standards?
Frequently, there is far more justice in the charges made by “social justice warriors” than their critics want to admit. There was, for instance, always good reason why students thought Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos were not figures worthy of the honor of being invited to speak at a prestigious college. But just as importantly, the “outrage mobs” that “come for” people are usually relatively powerless. Charles Murray, after all, ended up getting to speak successfully at Harvard and Yale. As Osita Nwanevu documents in an excellent essay on the myths around “cancel culture,” generally speaking the main thing the “social justice mobs” can do to people is yell at them on Twitter. And while nobody likes getting yelled at on Twitter, invoking the specter of “lynch mobs,” “Robespierre,” and “Maoism” is an insult to the millions of historical victims of actual violent repression by actual powerful oppressors. Nwanevu shows that generally, the “problematic” people end up doing just fine. They suffer reputational consequences sometimes, meaning part of the public doesn’t like them. But the actual people who end up being “silenced” tend not to be those who say “politically incorrect” things, but rather leftist dissidents who question the power structure. The suggestion that “both sides” are Totalitarian is willfully oblivious to who really has power in this country. We hear constantly from anti-P.C. types who are Just Asking Questions about the Forbidden Issues. The voices that vanish from discussions, on the other hand, are immigrants in detention facilities, or incarcerated men and women in Covid-ridden prisons. Far more Orwellian than anything the left does is the way the American media presented a right-wing coup in Bolivia as a restoration of democracy or the assassination of an Iranian official as something other than an international crime.
Conservatives do not want us to talk about the actual “manufacturing of consent” in this country, so they spin a tale about a topsy-turvy world in which college students, Black and transgender people hold all the power and rich white men are persecuted and sent to the gulag. This story should be easy to see through, because it’s so laughably at odds with reality. But when “liberal” academics sign onto it, as with the Harper’s letter, the “moral panic” around P.C. culture is given new legitimacy.
Of course, there is a problem in this country with “people getting fired over speech,” like the Black Lives Matter supporter recently fired from Deloitte over a TikTok video. But the big problem here is at-will employment, not “cancel culture.” American workplaces are dictatorships, meaning your boss can fire you for any reason. So, if there’s even a slight controversy around you, no matter how small it is, your boss may well just can you to avoid the headache. This means that even if it’s a misunderstanding and the person accusing you deletes their accusation, you will still be let go and have no recourse, because capitalism does not give a shit whether you live or die.
The solution, of course, is unions. The way to prevent arbitrary firings is to make arbitrary firings impossible, by ensuring that all workers receive due process and can’t be let go except for just cause. A person’s livelihood is incredibly important, which is why the unequal bargaining power between employers and the employed is so unfair. Arguments that “P.C. culture” is the problem blame the left for problems that result from institutional hierarchies and imbalances of power. Our side should not accept the blame, because we are the ones who are trying to reduce the reach of police, prisons, and bosses.
It is frustrating when people who are not right-wing lunatics echo the language used by Donald Trump about the left. Donald Trump has risen to power by spinning tales about an America that doesn’t exist, one plagued by marauding hordes of immigrants, vandals, and Stalinists. He promises the public that he will restore a better America, one that also never existed. It is our job to expose these fictions for what they are, and provide a better vision of what could be. Having liberals and leftists endorse the right-wing myth about Totalitarian Leftist Mobs feeds into Trump’s culture war re-election strategy. We should refuse to concede, then, that the grotesque caricature of social justice movements is true. We should demand that the full facts of these “canceling” incidents, rather than vague innuendos and selective details, be put on the table and evaluated fairly. And we need to point to the real problems in this country, which do not come from angry anti-racists on Twitter—who mostly just tweet—but from a government that is letting its people die, and a class of oligarchs that couldn’t care how much ordinary people suffer so long as the stock market keeps going up.