For most of us, cancel culture is a distraction. We're not academics concerned about French deconstruction or the master narrative. We believe in freedom of speech but we understand that the Internet can be weaponized in powerful ways by bad actors, and our current First Amendment protections can seem like the equivalent of a flip phone in an Apple Watch world.
What is cancel culture good for? The purpose, of course, is to stop racism and sexism. Noble aims. But recently, cancel culture got veteran New York Times reporter Donald McNeil Jr. fired for making remarks to high school students that were not, by any rational measure racist, but happened to be a little above a teenage sophistication level.
Was the public good served by forcing McNeil out of the Times? McNeil had covered AIDS, Ebola, Zika, and swine flu, so when Covid came along, he arguably produced the country's best news coverage of the pandemic by a daily reporter. McNeil was a union activist, too, so the Newspaper Guild lost an advocate.
Immersive pandemic reporting didn't inoculate veteran New York Times reporter Donald McNeil from cancel culture.
Less clear was the canceling of Alexi McCammond. McCammond, 27, had made a name for herself as a political reporter in the fast lane at Axios. But when she was hired by Teen Vogue, a magazine that became a surprise political swashbuckler during the Trump presidency, decade-old tweets surfaced.
Unlike McNeil, McCammond's tweets clearly denigrated Asian people. McCammond had deleted the tweets in 2019 and apologized for them.
As we've noted elsewhere, these issues are complicated. McCammond herself is Black, an extraordinarily talented journalist whose coverage of the Biden campaign won her the award for emerging journalist of the year by the National Association of Black Journalists.
It's worth noting that McCammond wrote the tweets when she was 17. Anti-Asian prejudice is not unknown in the Black community. How many of us reconsidered everything we learned as kids before we graduated from high school?
Alexi McCammond practiced full disclosure for stupid racist stuff she tweeted at 17.
Anna Wintour, the chief content officer for Condé Nast and global editorial director of Vogue, was aware of the decade-old racist tweets, according to The New York Times, and McCammond had acknowledged them in her job interviews. All was forgiven until advertisers Ulta Beauty and Burt's Bees suspended their ad campaigns. That's when the company jettisoned McCammond.
The bottom line is not racism. It's the bottom line. And in the case of the Times, maybe some blinkered pandering to the newsroom's woke-brokers.
Journalism should be different. OK, Condé Nast is all about ad dollars. But The New York Times should care about facts. And about fairness. Right?
Progressives charge, with some justice, that right-wingers use cancel culture to inoculate themselves from criticism and prop up inequality. Our friend J.C. Hallman has been an outspoken defender of cancel culture. Hallman and others have criticized a July 7 letter signed by prominent writers, including Martin Amis, Anne Appelbaum, and linguist John McWhorter that essentially said: Enough.
"The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other," read the letter published in Harper's magazine.
Hallman's position is that "Institutionalized policies of shaming, name-calling, and professional sabotage as an ordinary mode of conducting business and government, already normalized on the far right, is nothing like the semi-organized actions that emerge from individuals—those not likely to be asked to sign open letters—expressing ridicule and outrage from the opposite side of the political spectrum."
In debates on the subject he's said, in so many words: If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
But cancel culture is no longer a left-right shouting match. It's become endemic. Untenured professors and struggling writers may never recover their careers after being canceled. Low-wage workers fired by corporations because of an unknowing misstep aren't in the media kitchen. A recent New York Times article examined the complexities when workers at Smith College were falsely accused of racism. Like so many things, life is more complicated than a tweet.
The upside of cancel culture may be making bias less acceptable in the mainstream. The downside is a further fragmenting of the civitas. Prominent but occasionally contrarian writers like Matthew Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan already have migrated away from big magazines to the self-publishing platform Substack.
Alexi McCammond is still under thirty. Odds are she'll rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of Teen Vogue. She'll be around long enough for cancel culture to lose its meaning. It's already happening.
Recently, in left-wing magazine The Nation, writer Kali Holloway equated "canceling" someone in the media with voter suppression. False equivalence is the bane of American journalism. As much as one might deplore Times veteran Donald McNeil losing his job because he didn't tiptoe around the sensibilities of high-schoolers, the injustice meted out to a 67-year-old newspaperman hardly compares to depriving African-American voters of the right to vote, a right African-Americans marched, bled, and, in some cases, died for.
So many of us have been cancelled now, it's starting to feel like it doesn't mean anything. And that might be the strongest argument against it. Because if everything is wrong, nothing is.
How ‘Lolita’ Escaped Obscenity Laws and Cancel Culture
My father defended a lot of murderers — his favorite clients, because he said they had generally got rid of the one person on earth who was really bugging them, and a kind of peace had descended over them — but his other specialty was obscenity. He was of the “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” school of thinking. He became well known in the field for championing such works as the Sex Pistols’ album “Never Mind the Bollocks” (charged with public indecency), Oz magazine’s schoolkid edition (featuring a centerfold of the beloved cartoon character Rupert the Bear with an enormous erection) and Hubert Selby Jr.’s transgressive novel Last Exit to Brooklyn. All were prosecuted in England, and all but the Sex Pistols under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959.
My dad, who died in 2009, is with me every day somehow or another — in the funny things my kids come out with, in my conversations with my mother, in wondering what he would have had to say about this or that. But there was a period a few years ago when I found myself thinking about him a good deal more than usual. I was publicizing a film called “The Bookshop.” The film was directed by the Catalan filmmaker Isabel Coixet, who had adapted it from Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel. It takes place in the year 1959 and tells the story of Florence Green, a lonely widow (played by me) who decides to open a bookshop in a little coastal town in the west of England.
The film was released in 2017 during the first wave of the #MeToo movement, which was a fitting moment for the story — being about a quietly heroic single woman in her middle age who comes up against the powers that be (mostly men) in her bid both to run a small business and to arrive at some sort of self-realization. But an interesting subplot in both the novel and the movie came up a good deal in the conversations I was having with journalists. The year 1959 was when Lolita was published in England, and Florence Green is faced with the dilemma of whether or not to sell the novel in her shop. In every interview I was asked by journalists what I thought about Lolita as a work of fiction and whether I thought it publishable today. I thought about my father and about a time when fiction was still considered dangerous enough to prosecute. I thought about the fact that Lolita had escaped the absurd gaze of the obscenity law. I wondered if indeed the novel might have an even more difficult time getting published now than it did in the 1950s, and I wished my dad were still alive to talk to about it all.
The Gen X Culture Warriors Who Never Grew Up
Online discourse, unconstrained by politesse, by editorial standards, by antiquated mores, and by boring restraint, is thrilling and heady. It can even feel daring and heroic, all wild abandon and the toppling of sacred cows. On the internet, expertise is instantaneous; we all perform in exaggerated avatars of ourselves, which only reinforces the cultural message that more speech (never mind what speech) is always better, and that the individual—not editors, publications, collectives, contemporary mores, or social solidarity—is the final arbiter of value, accuracy, and decency.
There is also something regressive and a bit adolescent about this sort of thinking, as though all the cancel culture complainers long for are evenings at the debate club and late-night rap sessions full of grand philosophical gestures and free from the grotty pressures of real life. It may be why so many cancel culture critics are fixated on the college campuses they themselves have long since left. The concession and compromises of adulthood are rarely as fun or as heroic as the caffeinated debates of their youth, when they could say and do almost anything, parked in a beanbag chair in a red-brick dorm.
These thinkers are unwilling or unable to grasp that debate alone cannot resolve many of the problems we face—climate, inequality, poverty, disease. They are not mere exercises. They are material and real, and they are immune to cleverness and outrageousness.
The Warped Vision of "Anti-Racism"
What kind of monster doesn’t support “anti-racism”? Who would put themselves on the other side of “social justice”? How could you be opposed to the notion of “racial equity”?
Such terms, once confined to the hallways of academia, have become the ever-present language of our time, not just on the American left but across political, cultural and corporate domains. “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” training sessions are mandatory in workplaces and schools across the nation, where employees and students “examine their whiteness” and undergo “allyship training.” But what began as a collective yen for racial equality—long overdue in our nation—has devolved into something dangerous that is actually undermining its own noble goals.
For, as high-minded as these ideas sound, they mark a shift away from the values they purport to represent—equality before the law; the consent of the governed; even democracy itself—and toward the opposite, with people ranked by immutable characteristics and ruled by a tiny elite. Those who disagree—most crucially, millions of working-class Americans of all ethnicities—are excised from the public square.
The social-justice movement comes at the expense of justice; “anti-racism” ends up exacerbating racism.
How could this be?
How to Write About Africa II: The Revenge
If a single essay can establish a writer on the global stage "How to Write About Africa" did that. Based on an email a young Kenyan writer sent to Ian Jack, the editor of the literary magazine Granta, "How to Write About Africa" was pitch-perfect satire. With seeming casualness, Wainaina ended a century of literary form. Few people read his irreverent take on white guilt and political correctness, both of which followed his pathbreaking essay. He died in 2019 at 48.
Novelists, NGO workers, rock musicians, conservationists, students, and travel writers track down my email, asking: Would you please comment on my homework assignment / pamphlet / short story / funding proposal / haiku / adopted child / photograph of genuine African mother-in-law? All of the people who do this are white. Nobody from China asks, nobody from Cuba, nobody black, blackish, brown, beige, coffee, cappuccino, mulatte. I wrote “How to Write about Africa” as a piss-job, a venting of steam; it was never supposed to see the light of day. Now people write to ask me for permission to write about Africa. They want me to tell them what I think, how they did. Be frank, they say, be candid. Tell it like it is.
I have considered investing in a rubber stamp. I have imagined myself standing at the virtual borders of Africa, a black minuteman with a rubber stamp, processing applications — where YES means “Pass go, pay one hundred dollars,” and NO means “Tie ’em up and deport ’em.” It’s almost a sexual thing. They come crawling out of the unlikeliest places, looking to be whipped. I am bad, Master Binya, beat me. Oh! Beat me harder. Oo! They seem quite disappointed when I don’t. Once in a while I do, and it feels both good and bad, like too much wasabi. Bono sent a book of poems. Someone wrote an essay, “How to Write about Afghanistan.” I shook hands with, not one, but two European presidents, who read my text and shook their heads: How bad, how very bad.
Two Sides of Silence ::: Linton Kwesi Johnson
Erase You ::: ESG
Invisible ::: Amy Rigby
Erase Me ::: Kid Cudi
Last Year’s Man ::: Leonard Cohen
In A Lonely Place ::: New Order