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Cancelled to Death: The Mike Adams I Knew

The iconoclastic UNC Wilmington professor was a more complicated figure than the media is willing to admit

Photo via UNC Wilmington

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial,” write the signatories of the now infamous Harper’s Letter. Despite the hysterical reactions it drew, the letter itself could not be more minimal or measured in its call for a check on “public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” Last week, this warning was made tragically tangible, as friends and family grieved the loss of Mike Adams—conservative columnist, free speech activist, and gadfly professor of criminology at University of North Carolina Wilmington. A lifelong firearms enthusiast, Adams died by a gunshot wound, now confirmed to be self-inflicted.

Adams had recently stepped down as full tenured professor at the university, under pressure in the wake of his social media comments on COVID and the George Floyd protests. He was vocally anti-lockdown and encouraged people to “defy” North Carolina governor Roy Cooper’s strictures. After pizza and drinks with friends, hemade a tweet referring to North Carolina as a “slave state,” concluding “Massa Cooper, let my people go!” He alsoreferred to BLM rioters as “thugs.” UNCW officially condemned the remarks, whileseveral Change.org petitions called for his resignation. Rather than take the school to court again (in a repeat of the grueling seven-year-long battle he finally won in 2014), Adams chose to retire with a half-million dollar settlement.

The reactions to his death could not be more polarized. While friends like David French haveeulogized him as a dedicated teacher and a fierce advocate for constitutional liberty, haters have danced on his grave. Mainstream media headlines fromNBC News toBuzzfeed played woke bingo with the news, repeatedly attaching modifiers like “racist,” “misogynist,” “vile”—sometimes with the fig leaf of quote marks, sometimes without. 

Journalists also engaged in artfully curtailed summations of Adams’s controversies. The NBC News report referred ominously to his “targeting” of a Muslim UNCW student with no further details given. A little more digging would reveal the context: a Facebook post where the student was making plans to attend a Trump rally, joking, “Y’all are not prepared for what I’m about to do,” and requesting prayer that she “make it out alive.” Adams did not report the student as a serious threat. He simply laughed at her.

Meanwhile, UNCW colleagues tweeted out lip-curling reactions. “Please do mourn,” murmured Dr. L. J. Randolph Jr., “but don’t sugarcoat his rhetoric.” The sum of Adams’s legacy is still, “racist, homophobic and sexist.” Professor Tim Gill opined that he found Adams’ words “reprehensible” and “just tried to avoid him,” recalling his few “very awkward” attempts to make friendly small talk. Gill’s point in sharing all this was unclear, but if the intended effect was to paint Adams as a sad object of pity, the actual effect was rather the opposite.

From the outside looking in, Adams may not seem like a typical cancel culture victim. He had successfully won his old lawsuit, secured tenure, and negotiated an early golden handshake. But for friends like myself who actually knew Mike, who knew his passion for teaching and mentoring students, the timing does not seem so odd. To some professors, early retirement equals wish-fulfillment. To Mike, it was undoubtedly a personal and professional blow. Ever the happy warrior, he always projected a fearless optimism that one could fight back, one could hold out hope of beating the machine. But his was the optimism of an era that is going away. When 2020 hit, Mike didn’t know what had hit him.

It was easy for peers who privately agreed with Mike to support him from the sidelines, in whispers. Mike soaked up the heat, after all. This was the guy who turned “I Hate Mike Adams” into his own bumper sticker. This was the guy who would sneak into his own hate rallies and protest himself just for kicks (a joke, but a reflection of Mike’s true dedication to free speech for all, not just for his admirers). So let him do that, people thought. Let him be loud and brash and edgy and hated. We’ll just be over here, golf-clapping.

Mike had no time for golf-clappers. “Boy, some people think I appreciate them. I don’t,” he saysin a 2014 interview, recalling a particular instance of hallway-whispered “support.” But he wonders, what if it were different? “What if all of them got up and said no, he’s right, it’s systematic? And even if it were just half a dozen or a dozen at every university that just said ‘Oh no, this stuff goes on all the time,’ then they couldn’t just target one person. So that’s the lesson I hope will be learned. Sometimes we’re our own worst enemy.”

Mike’s words sting now more than ever. Tragically, towards the end of his life, he privately confided to some that he’d come to feel distanced even from fellow conservatives like David French, who served on his defense team in the Wilmington case. While French’s star rose as he developed his brand of Never Trump commentary, Mike’s brand no longer quite fit anywhere. He was no Trump supporter, as I can attest based on our own correspondence. At the same time, he was disinclined to expend energy chiding those who were. And when his social media posts stirred up the hornets’ nest, like Benjamin Disraeli he never explained, never apologized.

As I write, a couple of friends are taking out their bitterness on French. I have not done so, despite my own frustrations at some of his recent rhetoric. Hanging Mike’s death around his neck is not fair, and it’s not the answer. To me, the whole thing seems all too tragic, all too human. His eulogy might be dismissed by some as too little, too late, but from where I sit, it reads as the genuine offering of a grieving friend. 

French writes poignantly about how for Mike, as for so many jesters, the outward brashness concealed deep private pain. He recalls an especially dark moment from the Wilmington trials when Mike sat for cross-examination and listened to a string of decontextualized column quotes, carefully arranged to frame him as a vicious bigot. For a moment, French saw the light go out of Mike’s eyes, his shoulders drooping under the weight. “Mike was not racist,” French writes. “I knew him. I knew his heart.” This is no mere blind loyalty. French speaks as an adoptive father who knows better than many what it’s like to be on the receiving end of actual racist abuse.

Mike had many friends who knew the truth. But one more falling domino in the COVID effect was the cancellation of the Summit worldview workshops where he taught in Colorado Springs every summer. Zoom was a poor replacement. As a teacher and a friend, Mike thrived on live connection, embodied give-and-take. I spent extended time with him during one of these summers and can still recall how his table was always the “it” table come meal times. In all this, I am moved to reflect that there has not been nearly enough acknowledgement of the COVID lockdowns’ intangible losses—losses of human fellowship, human connection, human touch. Perhaps Mike’s death can inspire deeper reflection on that front as well. As cancel culture has claimed more than one kind of victim, so too has COVID.

Still, there is no softening the cruel fact that in the end, Mike was his own perpetrator and victim together. There never can be with a death like this, not without peddling platitudes at the expense of truth. Nevertheless, in a man’s final act of despair, all who drove him to that end are implicated, whether by their speech or their failure to speak.

Let Mike’s death be a warning. Let his life be an inspiration for those who knew him as he was: a flawed but good man, a generous friend, a gentlemanly foe, and a quintessential American conservative. He is mourned. He is missed. He will not be forgotten.

Esther O’Reilly is an American writer and conservative cultural critic. She has written for Patheos, Quillette, The Critic, and Arc Digital. In print, she has contributed to the anthology Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson (Lexham Press).

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