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Meet Your New Elites: The Woke Cancel Mobs

They trot out old power dynamics and pathetically shadowbox authority. Yet they're the ones who are in charge now.

Former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss. Credit: HBO/YouTube Screenshot

If only we could all lead pampered lives like Salman Rushdie.

Last week, several dozen writers and intellectuals published a letter in Harper’s Magazine that condemned—though they never used the term explicitly—cancel culture. The signatories included Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis, Gloria Steinem and Steven Pinker, while the missive itself was a fairly routine statement of classical liberal principles. “The free exchange of information and ideas,” it reads, “the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” Also: “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 political right under Donald Trump long ago grew illiberal, the signers say. Now the resistance to Trump and the online woke are going the same way.

What happened next was utterly predictable. Conservatives, despite being denounced as illiberal in the very first paragraph, did not attack the letter, demand consequences for the signers, sneer themselves into post-anoxic comas on Twitter; mostly they praised the document and passed it around. The left, meanwhile, began a four-alarm hissy fit that’s somehow still ongoing today. The letter was accused of fanning a moral panic. Cancel culture was dismissed as fake news, a repackaging of normal political passions and activism into a counterfeit bogey.

Mostly though, progressives just crammed the letter into their usual class war. The signatories were tagged as elites desperately trying to safeguard their privilege, in contrast to their targets, the huddled masses of the Twitter woke. The letter’s critics, as Michael Hobbes of the Huffington Post put it, were “ordinary people” who lack “institutional power” and “point out the failures of those institutions.” A woke response letter published at The Objective, which appears to have been penned by an illiterate—it may be that the real divide here is between those who can write and those who can’t—claimed of the first letter, “The content of the letter also does not deal with the problem of power: who has it and who does not.” It continued, “Harper’s has decided to bestow its platform not to marginalized people but to people who already have large followings and plenty of opportunities to make their views heard.”

A few words on all this.

First, you don’t get more “marginalized” than having a fatwa declared against your novel by a national government, becoming the target of riots and book burnings, being forced into hiding, and dodging repeated attempts on your life, as happened to Salman Rushdie, one of the Harper’s signers. Another, Garry Kasparov, was exiled from Russia for supporting democracy. To be sure, this hardly compares to the tribulations undergone by your average Huffington Post staffer, who risks ennui-filled glances from her coworkers every time she shares the wrong Handmaid’s Tale GIF. But it does seem like Rushdie and Kasparov might know something about standing up for free expression. It may even be that we should consider what they have to say.

Second and more importantly, the reaction to the letter demonstrates just how oblivious the left has become to its own power. Back in the 1960s, to be a leftist was to be countercultural, smashing monogamy and fighting the man. Today’s left wants that same rebellious aura, except that they’ve since marched through just about every major institution. Academia swallows whole their assumptions; so does the publishing industry, many corporate boards, much of the media, the federal bureaucracy, a healthy section of the internet. Those who speak out against the Harper’s letter are thus not remotely “marginalized”; they are heard loudly and often. Many of them have blue Twitter checkmarks, that garish amulet of the modern elite. This is how power works now: money and rank matter less than they used to, visibility and influence count for more. And by those yardsticks, the woke are plenty powerful.

This is why a social media mob—an aggregate of all that power—can be just as coercive, just as authoritarian, as an out-of-control government. Yet the wokesters refuse to see this. They act as though by participating in cancel culture, they’re merely exercising their own free speech, their right to critique authority, a far cry from the state shutting someone up. In this, they make a mistake usually committed by only the most doctrinaire libertarians. There’s a tendency among some libertarians to divide the world into the private sector and the public sector. And right on—that bifurcation is healthy and necessary, even if these are imprecise and overlapping terms. But emblazon that line too brightly and the division can become a moral one. You start treating everything on the public side as suspect and worthy of criticism, while rationalizing away the bad on the private side. That’s just business being business, you say. You come to view Google, for example, as not just free to do as it likes, but fundamentally justified in its actions by mere virtue of its epistemological geography in the private sector.

The woke left is now falling into a similar trap. So long as the government isn’t kicking down anyone’s door, they say, there’s no censorship at work, since their angry letters and boycotts all fall under the umbrella of private expression. Yet such private expression can be a bullying force all its own. A professor who risks being fired from his position and permanently stigmatized on the internet because he says the wrong thing is not really free to speak his mind. He may not receive a cease-and-desist order in the mail, but he’s still being suppressed. Yet the left has willfully blindfolded itself to this. Over at The New Republic, Osita Nwanevu notes, “When a speaker is denied or when staffers at a publication argue that something should not have been published, the rights of the parties in question haven’t been violated in any way.” That’s technically true. But the result can be close to the same. The idea that the spirit of free speech can’t be squashed by private actors, by a culture or a crowd, is absurd.

From here, the woke left issues another denial: cancel culture doesn’t really exist. What the Harper’s letter frets about, they say, is just a smattering of incidents that hardly amount to a pattern. Really? A University of Chicago economist was recently put on leave for criticizing Black Lives Matter and opposing efforts to defund police departments. A political data analyst was fired for tweeting out academic research that found that riots in 1968 helped Richard Nixon. A children’s author was sacked for saying she stood with J.K. Rowling. A novelist stopped her own book from being published after it was attacked for depicting intra-racial slavery.

Another novelist had his book yanked for the crime of being set during the Kosovo War. Two professors at Yale stepped down as heads of a residential college because they’d suggested the university didn’t need a policy against offensive Halloween costumes. A New York Review of Books editor resigned for publishing an essay by a broadcaster who’d been acquitted of sexual assault. Conservatives like Charles Murray, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Ben Shapiro have been regularly attacked and disrupted when they try to speak on college campuses. How much more needs to happen before we’re allowed to acknowledge a trend? This isn’t prudent maintenance of the Overton window, weeding out genuine hatred and bigotry; it’s the enforcement of the whims of a neighing, infantile mob. Its aim isn’t to inquire and improve, but to ossify and silence.

The Harper’s signers thus aren’t “the real illiberals,” as the woke have asserted. Nothing in their letter suggests they want to use their power to silence their critics. What they desire is the opposite: an end to hair-trigger punishments that have sent a chill through our intellectual life. It shouldn’t be remotely surprising that artists and academics support free expression. What should really flabbergast us is that the consensus in bohemia and the ivory tower is tilting in the other direction. As I wrap up this column, Bari Weiss, one of the Harper’s signers, has just left the New York Times, citing a hostile woke work environment. Steven Pinker, another signatory, has narrowly survived an attempt to cancel him. The new orthodoxy is intolerant, hell-bent on enforcing its views, pathetically shadowboxing an elite it long ago joined. It threatens nothing less than our essential ability to communicate.

about the author

Matt Purple is a senior editor at The American Conservative.

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