News Brief: The Harper’s Letter and Our Extremely Narrow, Self-Serving Definition of Cancel Culture
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: You can follow Citations Needed on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled episodes when the takes are just so hot that we need to get something out quicker, a little more immediate, there is something burning that we need to discuss and I know, Adam, this time around, we really are intrigued by what I’m going to call a letter on justice and open debate that was published by Harper’s Magazine on July 7, 2020.
Adam: We are officially entering the letter discourse, it is impossible not to enter the letter discourse, the letter discourse will find you, it is like death from Final Destination, you can’t avoid it.
Nima: You can’t avoid it, it can skip you, but it’ll come back around.
Adam: It’ll come back later. So we’re just gonna get it over with, we’re gonna enter the discourse. So I guess a few dozen, mostly academics, writer types, mostly academics I would say, writer and journalist types, signed an open letter, which I’ll sort of try to generously paraphrase, but it basically says that the cultural moment is good, that kind of obligatory Black Lives Matter is important but they worry that the free exchange of ideas and information, the lifeblood of liberal democracy — which I guess is what we have? It’s not clear to me — is becoming more constricted, and that they are worried that the desire to get people fired or to cancel people, sort of a treatise against cancel culture, though it doesn’t use that term.
Nima: What it really does also is it kind of grants the assumption that being pro-censorship, and being intolerant is kind of obvious when it’s on the right. The letter says this literally, quote, “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.” End quote. There is so much more to say about this, but that gives you a good sense of what this letter is getting at.
Adam: So the letter was signed by a kind of who’s who of who you would expect. You’re kind of extreme centrists, we got the Annes, Anne Applebaum, Anne-Marie Slaughter. It’s a murderer’s row of Iraq War supporters, including those two by the way, and some people on the left prominently and the one who sort of drove the discourse today, which was Noam Chomsky, who has long been sort of free speech guy, Gloria Steinem, Jeet Heer, writer at The Nation. So it’s got Matthew Karp of Princeton University, pro-Sanders, socialist pundit, Bari Weiss.
Nima: Samuel Moyn is on there and, you know, Margaret Atwood, author, Margaret Atwood, Wynton Marsalis, incidentally, the trumpet player.
Adam: Yeah, so you can’t really generalize the list. It’s like 10 percent people we think are pretty cool and then 90 percent people who suck anyway. So here’s what I’m gonna say about this. This is my opening salvo and you can take it, Nima, from there. First and foremost, the declaration is extremely vague and deliberately so. There are no specific examples that are cited, they allude to certain cases, but don’t actually link to them or say what they are, which I think is by design. It’s not clear that the people who signed the list knew who else was signing the list.
Nima: I think that is 100 percent clear, right?
Adam: Yeah but that’s a little bit of a cop out and here’s why I think that: Freddie deBoer and some others have made the statement that the statement being vague and you being opposed to the principle of free speech, is sort of the point because even in the abstract, you won’t support it. But this is disingenuous bullshit and the context matters and anyone who reads this, and more importantly, sees what’s excluded from the statement, should have known it was a right-wing stalking horse. And it seems rather obvious to me. So in the abstract, you say, ‘yes, we can support free speech’ but context matters. So if, you know, Nima, if you were to if someone was to come up to me and say, ‘Do you support human rights in Venezuela?’ I’d say, ‘Well, of course, yeah. Human rights are good, and they’re valuable, and I support them.’ Now, if someone came up to me and said, ‘Here’s the statement by the Venezuelan Liberation Freedom Fund funded by the CIA, Marco Rubio’ —
Nima: And the School of Americas.
Adam: And the School of Americas with a statement saying, ‘Do you support human rights in Venezuela?’ It’s like, ‘Well, no,’ because context matters, right? And the way it’s written, the way it silos off free speech concerns in a very specific, people-were-mad-at-me-on-Twitter way, which of course doesn’t exclude, which I consider 99 percent of what we would sort of consider cancel culture, which is institutional discrimination, silencing of LGBTQ and black voices just institutionally, who editors decide
to publish and don’t publish who’s not legacy, which of course plays into racism, classism, all these things that determine who gets heard from, which we discussed in our free speech episode — totally not mentioned at all. And I think that really kind of gives away the game because what I would say is that I think it would be intellectually dishonest to not acknowledge that there has been a cultural shift on the left towards some kind of accountability, and a more aggressive way from the bottom up, if you will, I still think it’s a fairly trivial percent of what we would call cancel culture, I don’t think it’s as significant as people make it out to be and I think that it can sometimes be excessive, or there can be unjust firings, although I think, with most of the kind of politically correct hysteria, when you look at the actual examples, with rare exception, and there are exceptions, they’re almost always bullshit. If you read the sort of fine print. Yascha Mounk has been doing this for the last few weeks, he keeps saying, ‘Oh, look at this,’ and then you read the fine print and it’s actually, you know, it’s not really that simple, because they’re not really operating in good faith and here’s why I think you know that this whole thing’s bullshit, okay? Because if someone was genuinely concerned about the excesses of the Twitter mob or of cancel culture they would say as a materialist, as someone who thinks, you know, in material and dialectically, you would say, okay, what is the material antecedents to this force, or this kind of bottom up insurrection in newsrooms and academia about racism and sexism? I wouldn’t think it was some sort of arbitrary or random cultural contagion that just sort of took over because Millennials are morally weak, I’d say, wow, there’s probably a widespread problem of not being accountable, there’s a widespread problem of transphobia, there’s a widespread problem of sexism as exposed by movements like #metoo, widespread problem of racism as discussed by Black Lives Matter and the only way a certain set of people feel like they can be heard or to hold people accountable is to use the form of social media, and to call people out in public. What I would do if I had an issue with that, you know, theoretically, if I was in good faith, and I really had an issue with what I viewed as it being kind of capricious or not just —
Nima: Or overwrought or overbearing, yeah.
Adam: Yeah. I would say, wow, what are the systems of accountability that we can urgently build to make sure that if someone does have a grievance with their boss or does have a grievance in a specific space, they can work to rectify that in a way that isn’t haphazard, and not a single person that I know of on this list or any other list has bothered to do that. So Matt Taibbi had his whole famous screed against PC culture. Now, a good chunk of that should be dedicated to okay, so there’s sexism, racism, transphobia and you want to do something about or hold someone accountable for views you view as being harmful to you or damaging to you. What are ways we can do that? And not a single person does that, which along with the very isolated, very siloed off, very specific 1 percent of cancel culture being discussed, much like how we wield notions of democracy and human rights, free speech here is just a stalking horse. It’s not sincere. They’re not really concerned with these one off cases of someone being fired for ways that, you know, that may be excessive, what they want to do is smuggle in their own grievances and I think more importantly, Nima, as we discussed offline, this is really just professional clickism. These are academics and journalists who want to sort of preemptively indemnify themselves and their buddies.
Nima: That’s what it is. That’s totally what I think it is, right? I think it’s this projection that actually winds up being protective for a lot of the people, not all the people, but a lot of the people who wound up signing this, when you have Bari Weiss hand wringing over free speech when she dedicated a large part of her adult life to getting people fired for thinking that Palestinians are humans, that seems a little disingenuous, right? That seems to be maybe a little ridiculous.
Adam: There’s a long list of people on this who’ve gotten people fired. I mean, Anne-Marie Slaughter fired researchers at the New America Foundation because they criticized their large corporate donor Google. So that’s the stuff, again, corporate firing is the ultimate stifling of free speech and the ultimate censorship is not saying things in the media because you want to get a job later in the media.
Nima: Yeah. So on this list you also have, you know, Steven Pinker and Malcolm Gladwell and David Frum and Francis Fukuyama, who rightly should be canceled forever. There’s this idea of ‘Oh, no, if I talk about free speech and the openness of debate, the hallmark of Western civilization, and of democratic discourse, if I can hold that up,’ if i’m John McWhorter, and I have terrible views on things but I don’t really want to pay the price for that if anyone actually pays attention long enough to what I’m writing are saying that they actually call me out on social media and then other people pay attention to it, I don’t want to have to deal with that, I don’t want to have to either justify myself or have a mea culpa, I don’t want to do that, so therefore, I appeal to what is noted in the letter as this quote:
“This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. 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.” End quote.
Now, the idea that Bari Weiss is concerned with those who don’t have power, being able to speak their minds is ridiculous, she’s concerned with her power to keep her job, when her boss was just fired for being a shithead, she wants to keep her job because she doesn’t want to be the next one at the guillotine.
Adam: Yeah. Which, you know, okay, that’s just professional cliquishness, that’s just protecting you and your friend. This is like one of my problems with a lot of the whole, you know, free press, you know, ‘You arrested journalists at a protest,’ it’s like, yeah, but that’s not worse than arresting anyone else, the fact that you’re outraged by this just because you’re in the same industry and the very narrow scope here, I think really gives away the game. One piece of context, which I think really is important to note here, and this is kind of my intuition and my assumption based on how this went down, is this reeks to me like a way of creating space for transphobes. I really read the letter, the current discourse around JK Rowling, of course, sort of came out as full sort of anti-trans in a way that was very dehumanizing and very concern trolling. I really read this as being opening up space for litigating, re-litigating and re-litigating over again the basic premises of trans peoples’ right to exist as themselves, the sort of basic humanity needs to be litigated.
Nima: And to be clear, JK Rowling is a signatory to this letter.
Adam: Well, right. I really think that the recent efforts to sort of quote-unquote “cancel” her are really the motivation here and I feel like it’s kind of disingenuous to not act like that’s the real context here. I think that, especially editors like Jeffrey Goldberg, who didn’t sign it, but many people at the Atlantic, several people who write for the Atlantic did, who’s always opened up space for that kind of conversation, as of other editors, that they’re not sort of willing to give up on that quote-unquote “cultural war,” and they want to be able to litigate the basic axioms of what they view as being whatever, transgender, whatever kind of bigoted thing they believe, is worthy of debate and I think that context and the fact that it reads like a National Review list of grievances I have to think should have tipped off people who are quote-unquote, on the “left,” — obviously I wasn’t asked to sign it because you and I are not important Nima — but like, if I had read that, I would have been like, well, obviously, this sounds like a John Stossel rant. This is not a real, you know, again, had it kept that text and then said, ‘We need to talk about the ways in which pro-Israel lobbying groups stifle Palestinian speech,’ because some, some of the leftists will sort of try to graft on ‘Oh, well, I’m also concerned with that, and also think its bad.’ It’s like, yeah, but that was not in the letter. So obviously, the definition of free speech here is a very sort of banal power serving, Bari Weiss, JK Rowling, ‘Don’t criticize me, I’m being silenced.’ Although, of course, a lot of these people are extremely influential and extremely powerful. Bari Weiss is an opinion page editor at The New York Times, arguably top five most powerful influencing positions you can have.
Nima: And JK Rowling rules the world.
Adam: Right. That’s why intent matters. So this whole, ‘Well, I support free speech in the abstract,’ which is all it’s saying: That’s bullshit. Of course, that’s not what it’s saying. Of course there’s a context here. Of course, if someone from the CIA-backed liberation Venezuela project came to me and said, ‘Do you support democracy in Venezuela?’ And if I had three brain cells I’d be like, well, no, obviously, this is a pretext, to open up space for transphobia and other kind of insidious, I would say, illiberal or anti-left positions. Now, some people have said, ‘Okay, well, this is really about at-will employment, or that you can sort of fire anyone at any time, and that we have no economic security.’ I think that’s partially true. I think that that is an underlying issue. It seems like a bit of an out in terms of what the core feature of what we’re talking about is. It’s the vagary of it, I think, and how hand wringing and unspecified it is and unspecific it is I really think kind of gives the game away because once you started pointing out specific examples that you had a problem with, or you try to universalize the principle by talking about the holistic nature of quote-unquote “canceling” people, by the way, abject poverty not being able to have school lunch, not being able to afford food, these are all forms of preemptive cancellation of entire populations, right? We cancel the two and a half million people in prison, don’t get to publish things they can’t write, they can’t call, they’re not on social media. So millions of people are canceled every day. The selectivity of it. Targeting the 1 percent of the 1 percent, really exposes the bad faith posture here and how much class protection I think gets laundered through these kind of platitudes like free speech.
Nima: Well, right, because so much of it is based on the idea that people in these positions of power, whether it’s in academia, or media, or elsewhere, that they are always operating in good faith, right? And so people need to be allowed to make mistakes, and they need to be able to be redeemed, and this is true, right? But it’s the good faith piece of that, which is that, ‘Look, we need to be able to let people say whatever they want to say, and not be too harsh in our reactions to it,’ but when people say that, it’s almost always because they want to say racist, sexist, transphobic shit, imperial, colonial shit. So when you kind of dole that down into this vagary of this letter, well sure, then you get something like this, which is in the letter, quote:
“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.” End quote.
Adam: Yeah, getting again, they’re sort of alluding to real cases, they don’t actually say which ones they are talking about, but it’s kind of obvious in the subtext what it is. So that kind of allows them to not have to commit to anything, which is so bizarre, because I guess that’s how you get this many people to sign it, right? You remain vague and it’s like a vague cultural feeling, without any sort of rigorous interrogation, which really puts it squarely in the position of posturing. I mean, it is the definition of posturing because it is totally unclear who’s the transgressor, who’s being transgressed, what is actionable, what’s my call to action here, what am I supposed to do just be vaguely concerned?
Adam: And I think that there are edge cases where things get litigated, where it’s not quite clear whether or not someone’s acting immoral. For example, let’s take the James Bennet thing, right. So The New York Times opinion page editor James Bennet, who we’ve shit on on the show many times, gets fired largely because of an uproar because he published Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton’s column advocating deployment of the US military on the streets.
Nima: Against protesters against police brutality.
Adam: To me, the boring criticism of this is the ‘Oh my gosh, you’re canceling James Bennet because he published a senator,’ despite the fact that he’s published all sorts of horrendous shit, and Tom Cotton cannot be de-platformed, he’s a senator, he can publish that anywhere. The question is, why is he publishing it in The New York Times, which is seen as sort of a liberal validator of ideas? The left-wing critique is, why is it that it took the gunning down of Americans for people to care about advocating violence in the opinion pages of The New York Times? That is one of the primary things The New York Times does, it promotes war, and the deployment of US military overseas, but suddenly that US military comes home and this is beyond the pale. There’s a left-wing criticism there that’s completely missed, right? Which is that we only cared about Tom Cotton when he was deploying US military at home without any coherent understanding as to why that’s somehow worse than he and Mark Rubio’s and Donald Trump’s and even some Democrats constant insistence that we deploy troops elsewhere, which is sort of seen as normal and within the realm of discourse.
Nima: Yeah, there have been countless New York Times published opinion pieces about the need to bomb Iran, or that it was a good thing to invade and occupy Iraq, or how we need to overthrow the government of Venezuela and Bolivia or whatever, right? So, these things are all fine.
Adam: Yeah, Tom Cotton’s column was horrendous and violent and it did cross a line in a sense that I do think it was there specifically inciting against black protesters or asking to gun down black protesters. James Bennet has been doing this for years, and now we care, which is good, but it’s so weird that they vaguely allude to James Bennet’s firing — something about publishing opinion pieces you don’t agree with — but it’s like The New York Times turns down thousands of submissions. Thousands of people got turned down for James Bennet’s job, right? Thousands of people applied for and wanted and probably want his job and none of those people stood a chance if they didn’t conform to a certain ideology. So are all those thousands of people, but is that a form of cancellation? I mean, any editorial decisions are made every single day by producers, writers and journalists. The second you wake up in the morning and you publish X and you don’t publish Y and Z, you’ve silenced positions Y and Z. So, a more holistic, more thoughtful method of addressing this notion of free speech that again includes the other 99 percent of the population would I think be in far better good faith, but that’s not what we get. We get this is just norm, this is norm fetishization and this is absolute 100 percent, you know — God bless Patreon, because I don’t give a fuck — this is just other journalists and academics jerking each other off. That is all it is. There’s nothing high minded or noble about any of this shit. It is self aggrandizing, narrow class interest myopia, in my professional opinion.
Nima: I mean, you can kind of see how that’s, I mean, more than just subtext here, right? I mean, in the section that I read a little while ago, I mean, it’s the editors, authors, journalists, professors, researchers, and the heads of organizations.
Adam: Yeah, it’s by definition elites. Did they ask people who are not in the elite? Did they ask plumbers, did they ask people in prison, did they ask people who are low on the rung of academia, did they ask any grad students? Why is this only signed by these people? I guess they wanted to lend their solidarity with — what? — the few one off cases they care about, in the same way that Jesse Watters cares about?
Nima: Right. So obviously it’s just solidarity with each other.
Adam: Yeah. There’s no sense that the logic was behind who was on the list other than people, and Steven Pinker and JK Rowling’s speed dial and, you know, a handful of other journalists who knew each other. So anyway, I think the whole thing is bizarre and thoughtless and I do think that if somebody wants to have a good faith conversation about pressure from the sort of bottom up or social media to hold people accountable, I think there’s a conversation that you can have in good faith, but it absolutely this is not it. This is, again, I think it’s just a product of a bunch of people who are all friends and colleagues defending one another.
Nima: Yeah, there’s a real sense of kind of fainting couch, how dare you tell us what we’re allowed to write about and say, and if it comes back to us through the form of this lowly, lowly discourse on Twitter than that’s just part of this stifling of democratic speech in the marketplace of ideas. That’s where change happens, right?
Adam: Yeah, because people, so people who defend this vision will oftentimes criticize, I think they’ve even criticized us because we obviously tackled this on our episode, The Attack of the PC College Kids, of sort of having it both ways that we sort of say cancel culture doesn’t exist and if it does exist, it’s actually fine. I think what that criticism misses is that there’s two different definitions going on of what we consider “cancel culture.” There’s the definition that’s offered here, which is so vague that you can basically project whatever you want on it, right? It’s like an Obama speech, everyone can see what they want to see in it, which I think is deliberate. It’s a deliberate sort of tactic to kind of marshal a sort of cultural watershed moment and then there’s cancel culture as a right-wing watchword, which is not in good faith, as we’ve talked about, it’s not a real thing and then I think they’re sort of appealing to a kind of vague fear about what is viewed as being a mob, or kind of undisciplined form of accountability via social media, which is something I do think is due and I do think that is a thing, I think it’s a product of technology and a kind of crumbling of a default deference to authority or elites, and a failure of neoliberalism to provide a better life for people and to really undermine these systems of racism, transphobia, anti-immigrant, etcetera, etcetera and that’s why anyone who sort of addresses that issue without coming up with another form of accountability or acknowledging that there’s actually underlying problems motivating this, and it’s not just some kind of trend, like stonewashed jeans or some sort of millennial cultural contagion they all picked up at Brown or some sort of pathologizing explanation, then I don’t take that seriously, then we’re operating on two different definitions of what’s really at stake here and I think until those complaining about cancel culture actually address that issue and address the the total lack of systems of accountability that are meaningful, have teeth and democratic then I don’t believe it’s sincere at all.
Nima: Well, that’s just like your opinion, man.
Adam: It isn’t even my opinion.
Nima: You know the Twitter bomb is going to come after you adam.
Adam: Well, I’m off Twitter so I don’t give a shit.
Nima: Try and cancel me now. Well, that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. We are 100 percent listener funded for good reason but before we go, we wanted to give an extra shout out to the amazing people who have been donating to three organizations that we mentioned a few weeks ago on the show they were Assata’s Daughters, National Bail Out and Chicago Freedom School and so many of our listeners have been donating to those organizations which is incredible. So thank you to everyone who has donated over the past month or so, you are all amazing and collectively Citations Needed listeners raised over $20,000 for those three organizations. So amazing. Thank you again for doing that. That will do it for this News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music by Grandaddy. Thanks again everyone, catch you on our next full length episode.
This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, July 8, 2020.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.