In a spirit of inquisition the puritan left roots out heretics who are insufficiently woke. In that same spirit the MAGA faithful wage holy war against apostates who fail to submit to the twice-impeached former president with unconditional fealty. Reputations are smeared, lives upended, careers damaged and destroyed, always for a good cause.
The epithets woke and cancel culture may be past their expiration dates. They have been rendered near meaningless by propagandists for conservative grievance who at the drop of a trope screech about annoying but relatively trivial episodes of social-justice puritanism and cases where the terms are not applicable. Abuse of the term cancel culture has become bipartisan. Andrew Cuomo is no more a victim of cancel culture when called on to resign because of multiple allegations of impropriety than Josh Hawley when Simon & Schuster canceled his book contract or Mike Pompeo when his tenure as Secretary of Sate is subjected to critique he disputes.
This overblown windbaggery has about as much substance as claims that January 6 was a false-flag operation carried out by the radical left, Antifa, socialists, Marxist-Leninists, in a word, Democrats. An unfortunate consequence is that it is difficult to gauge the extent to which excesses of the puritan left represent a threat to liberal values. Tim Miller observes that most of the people who complain about cancel culture are thriving: "Never before in history have more cranks and contrarians with political views way outside the mainstream had a wider variety [of] platforms—with larger audiences—available to share their ideas" (Let's Talk about "Cancelling").
For present purposes my focus is on the puritan left. Volumes could be written about the MAGA faithful and the revanchist right. That goes beyond the scope of this exercise. Another time perhaps.
Austrian historian Friedrich Heer, in his book The Medieval World: Europe 1100–1350, distinguishes between the open Europe of the twelfth century, marked by a vibrant intellectual life, openness to critical thought and heterodox opinion, curiosity, and thirst for knowledge that extended beyond national boundaries to embrace the intellectual and cultural treasure Islam had to offer, which included the intellectual heritage of Greek antiquity that had been lost to the West, and the closed Europe of the late medieval and early modern periods, characterized by dogmatism, rigid divisions, and isolation from outside cultures.
The Inquisition had its origins toward the end of the twelfth century. It was governed by the maxim that there must be no arguing with heretics.
"If a heretic believes, he should be received back, if he refuses to believe he must be condemned." The Inquisition had no use for "conversations between adversaries" of the kind which took place in the open world of the twelfth century; the Inquisition recognized nothing short of total surrender, the abject prostration of conscience and intellect. (Heer)
That closed Europe with no use for conversation between adversaries comes to mind as I reflect on our culture wars and political divides.
Donald McNeil Jr. began working at The New York Times in 1976. As a science and health reporter he covered epidemics, including HIV/AIDS and the Covid-19 pandemic. Earlier this year he resigned under fire as a result of complaints that he used a racial slur, was racially offensive, and displayed cultural insensitivity while acting as a tour guide for high school students on a trip to Peru sponsored by the paper in 2019. The paper investigated the complaints. McNeil was reprimanded but not fired because his statements did not appear to be hateful or malicious.
There things simmered until an article in The Daily Beast on January 28 (Tani, Cartwright, Star NY Times Reporter Accused). McNeil's offenses reportedly included use of the "n-word," suggestions that he did not believe in white privilege or white supremacy, making racist comments and using stereotypes about black teenagers, and not being respectful during traditional ceremonies with indigenous healers and shamans attended by the group. Students were said to have felt uncomfortable with his remarks. The Beast article is short on detail that might cast more light on these general charges.
More than 150 Times staffers, "outraged and in pain," fired off a letter to executive leadership criticizing the paper's response to the complaints and its handling of the scandal that unfolded when the complaints were reported. The decision to give "a prominent platform covering a pandemic disproportionately affecting people of color…to someone who chose to use language that is offensive and unacceptable by any newsroom's standards" was in their view contrary to "the paper's seeming commitment to diversity and inclusion." The letter cited company guidelines that make clear that what matters is how an act makes victims feel (Evelyn, Times newsroom erupted).
The paper's executive and managing editors responded with a statement that they do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent. Neither the editors at the Times nor the Beast distinguished between using a word and mentioning or describing it. At the Beast an attention-grabbing headline proclaimed that McNeil used the forbidden word while the article itself reported that an internal investigation by the Times found that McNeil used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language.
Jonathan Chait called them out on this, pointing out what should be obvious to people whose business it is to be mindful of such distinctions:
[If] we are going to decide to change our standards so that vocalizing a slur in any context is considered unacceptable, that doesn’t require us to erase the distinction between use and mention. You can decide that mentioning a slur is also unacceptable without going so far as to treat it as the same thing. (Describing a Slur Is Not the Same as Using It).
McNeil gave this account in a parting letter to his colleagues:
I was asked at dinner by a student whether I thought a classmate of hers should have been suspended for a video she had made as a 12-year-old in which she used a racial slur. To understand what was in the video, I asked if she had called someone else the slur or whether she was rapping or quoting a book title. In asking the question, I used the slur itself. (Folkenflick, 2 Prominent 'New York Times' Journalists Depart)
He has since said that he misjudged his audience in Peru:
I thought I was generally arguing in favor of open-mindedness and tolerance—but it clearly didn’t come across that way. And my bristliness makes me an imperfect pedagogue for sensitive teenagers. Although the students liked me in 2018, some of those in 2019 clearly detested me. (Johnson, Former New York Times Reporter Donald McNeil Responds)
This is consistent with the initial finding by the Times that McNeil was guilty of bad judgment but his statements did not appear to be hateful or malicious. He failed to choose his words carefully enough in conversation with members of a generation that has been socially conditioned to be traumatized by mention of a word. As the staffers point out and the editors echoed, intent does not matter. All that matters is how an act, in this case speech, makes the victim feel. The facts and context of what actually happened seem to be not worthy of consideration. The designation victim in the context of being made to feel uncomfortable strikes me as problematic, but here as with the disappearing distinction between use and mention of a word, mine is a minority view.
The retroactive application of new norms is another troublesome feature of the spirit of inquisition. Chait cites a case where a decade-old video of a teacher reading the forbidden word from a black author's book about Jim Crow-era racism to her class surfaced last summer. Students called for her head and got it. She lost her job.
Another incident that got some play in the press at the end of last year involved a White high school senior in Virginia who as a fifteen-year-old freshman used a forbidden word in a three-second video sent to a friend after she got her learner's permit. The word was used in an exclamatory expression conveying a teenager's excitement about being able to drive. She was familiar with it from rap music where it routinely appears in similar expressions. Nothing in the reporting I found suggest any history of racist language or conduct by the girl.
The video circulated among some students at her school without any fanfare. Somewhere along the way she learned that her use of the word was considered inappropriate. A Black friend said she personally apologized for using it long before the video became a cause célèbre in June 2020 when a classmate released it, by which time the girl had been accepted for admission to the University of Tennessee and awarded a position on its highly regarded cheerleading squad. The cheerleaders unceremoniously dumped her. University admissions officials were bombarded by phone calls and emails from outraged alumni, students, and the public, whereupon they pressured her to withdraw from the school. Would it be unfair to wonder if concern how this might affect the institution's financial bottom line in mind played a part in their actions?
The girl is reportedly resigned to fallout from the rush to judgment, saying "I’ve learned how quickly social media can take something they know very little about, twist the truth and potentially ruin somebody’s life." Last fall she enrolled in online classes at a community college. The boy began his freshman year at Vanguard University in California. He declared himself satisfied that he had taught somebody a lesson (Levin, A Racial Slur, a Viral Video).
It turns out that non-people of color are required to censor themselves when rapping along with music that uses the word whose utterance is forbidden to individuals of pale complexion. They should self-bleep when singing along at a concert. Some raise a virtuous finger to pursed lips when the word comes up in the lyrics. A couple of years ago Trevor Noah explained that the word is a perk of the black experience denied those who are not black. He proposed that rappers record two versions of their songs, one with the word for people of color, the other with an innocuous substitute for White audiences (Stolworthy, Travor Noah says). The logical extension of this principle would be to have two concerts, separate but equal. Is this a direction we want to go?
The mania for tearing down statues and removing names of historical figures and some contemporary ones from public buildings, parks, and so on hit San Francisco in January with the Board of Education's resolution to rename forty-four schools
named for historical figures who engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings; or who oppressed women, inhibiting societal progress; or whose actions led to genocide; or who otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (press release)
The resolution does change or remove names but serves as board's commitment to replace them.
Wikipedia was reportedly the board's primary resource for its research to determine who should be purged. Historians and other scholars were not consulted. The board adopted the principle "one strike and you're out." An exception was made for Malcolm X, who engaged in some oppression of women during his youthful pimp phase, on the grounds that his later career made up for those sins. No redemption for George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Diane Feinstein, and a host of others judged by the retroactive application of contemporary norms with no consideration for historical context or contributions to the founding of the country, emancipation of slaves, liberation of women, and provision of greater opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Washington owned slaves. Lincoln pursued policies detrimental to Native Americans, and Feinstein ordered the reinstallation of a Confederate flag, part of an eighteen-flag display put up in 1964 to symbolize various stages of American history, after it was taken down by a protester when she was mayor of San Francisco in 1984.
Parents and politicians questioned the resolution's timing and the makeup of the list. Mayor London Breed issued a statement calling it offensive that the school board is devoting resources to name changes when there is not a plan to have students back in the classroom or to address challenges with distance learning faced by families and students. Breed went on to say, "Look, I believe in equality. It's the forefront of my administration and we've made historic investments to address the systemic racism confronting our city. But the fact that our kids aren't in school is what's driving inequality in our City. Not the name of the school" (Sandler, No Lincoln, FDR, or Diane Feinstein?). Breed happens to be Black, not that this should matter, but of course it does to some.
Coming to terms with a history distorted by the myth of American exceptionalism and veneration of the founding fathers as men of otherworldly wisdom and virtue is a substantial piece of unfinished business. The founders were a cranky and contentious lot, in that respect representative of their fellow citizens. Some were slaveowners. John Adams was an abolitionist. Benjamin Franklin owned slaves as a young man and was an abolitionist leader as an old one. Flawed and all too human, in this respect not unlike their critics and their defenders today, these men articulated values, principles, and ideals that we look to when we hold them accountable for failing to live up to those values, principles, and ideals. Such progress as has been made toward fuller realization of those ideals has been painfully incremental. That is the sober way of things. As Jack Kerouac said, walking on water wasn't built in a day.
Since at least the 1960s revisionist historians have slowly but slowly been providing fuller accounts of the nation's history. Dark, abhorrent elements of the story, the ugly stain of slavery, racial injustice that persists to the present, and atrocities perpetrated against indigenous peoples, have not it appears filtered down to any appreciable degree to textbooks for primary and secondary education, much less permeated popular culture, but they have not been so totally neglected as has been made out by neo-revisionists who would remedy past misrepresentations and omissions by simply turning the traditional story on its head. We need to do better than the history taught to my contemporaries and me in the 1960s. The substitution of a new partial, lopsided account for an old one will not accomplish that. Wrongheadedness stood on its head is just wrongheadedness stood on its head.
In an article about the split among Chinese dissidents between Trump "boosters" and Trump "critics," Perry Link relates an observation about political correctness in the US made by "a friend inside China": "When a person in the US says something is not politically correct, the response to him seems to be not only to reject it automatically but to begin examining the motive. How Maoist!" (Seeing the CCP Clearly)
Academics at institutions of higher learning flagellate themselves with feather whips in penance for association with schools founded on pillars of an oppressive, racist past. At Princeton about 350 faculty members signed an antiracist manifesto that included demands for "an overhaul of faculty, curriculum, and admissions procedures to fumigate the campus of an all-permeating racism" and "mandatory anti-racist training focused on identifying participants' 'vulnerability' and fostering 'productive discomfort'" (McWhorter, Schools Must Resist). Fumigate the campus? Foster productive discomfort?
John McWhorter holds that this document and kindred initiatives at Bryn Mawr, Northwestern, and elsewhere would be legitimate if these campuses actually were bastions of social injustice, a premise he disputes. McWhorter cites his colleague Conor Friedersdorf's reporting on the Princeton manifesto:
[Friedersdorf] has documented that even some of the faculty who signed the Princeton petition were not necessarily united in adherence to its specific demands, or in agreement as to the depths of the university's depravity. Many wanted, simply, to deliver a nebulous acknowledgment that some anti-racist efforts would be beneficial. Although racism surely exists at Princeton, as it does throughout American society, Princeton is not the utter sinkhole of bigotry and insensitivity that the letter implies. American universities have long been more committed to anti-racism than almost any other institutions.
The writers of manifestos might classify resistance as racist, denialist backlash. But the civil, firm dismissal of irrational demands is, rather, a kind of civic valor. School officials must attend to the fine line between enlightenment and cowardice—for the benefit of not only themselves, but the Black people they see themselves as protecting.
Between 1231 and 1233 Conrad of Marburg (circa 1180–1233) was the chief inquisitor for Germany. For two years he "raged up and down Germany in search of heretics, accompanied by his two lieutenants, Conrad known as Dorso, and one-handed, one-eyed John." Friedrich Heer cites contemporary German sources, mostly of ecclesiastical provenance, on their reign of terror, quoting one chronicler:
In various parts of Germany it has happened that nobles and non-nobles, monks and nuns, townsmen and peasants, have been given up to flames by Brother Conrad because of their actual or suspected heresy after a trial which was…far too hasty. For a man may be sentenced without opportunity of appeal or defence and thrust into the fearful flames on the very same day on which he is accused; whether the accusation is justified or no makes no difference.
Conrad was assassinated in 1233 by followers of noblemen he had summoned to appear before his court.
For Germany the death of Conrad was like the vanishing away of a spectre. Suddenly it seemed absurd that an entire people, great men and small, should have for so long remained in terror of this little man, riding about on his tiny mule, and of his two gloomy-looking assistants; people wondered how it had ever been possible. This raises a question of some interest, not only from a contemporary point of view, but because of the light it sheds on some frequently overlooked features of the later medieval inquisition, which can only be understood in the context of mass and group psychoses…It was very often the masses, spurred on to "purge" themselves of all "uncleanliness" by a fervour in which hysterical devotion was mingled with fear (of everything alien and of Hell), who were the mainstay of the Inquistion and its driving force. (Heer)
A whiff of mass hysteria and group psychosis hangs over the frenzied digging up of long past transgressions and demands for accountability out of all proportion to alleged sins. Allegation implies guilt, intention is of no matter, and a quick judgment is rendered with the stern rectitude of the inquisitor. In this little or nothing is accomplished by way of remedying wrongs and injustices done to individuals, families, and communities. When the issue is race, strict, unswerving commitment to the precepts of Ibram X. Kendi is the way forward. Deviation calls for banishment to a diversity training reeducation camp for self-criticism and thought reform.
Anecdotal examples do not establish where on the spectrum between sporadic overreaction and existential crisis excesses of the puritan left lie. A friendly critic might suggest that my references to inquisition, mass hysteria, and group psychosis go too far. Someone less kindly disposed would denounce me as racist and whitely fragile. I would dissent. The ease with which examples can be found indicates that the problem is not insignificant.
We do not go high when we casually accept harm to individuals and groups as collateral damage in a crusade against racism and social injustice. Utopian dreams can be useful when they spur us to try to make the world a bit better place or at least less bad, where more people are more able to enjoy life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. These dreams undermine themselves when they metamorphose into dogmatism. No, we are not burning heretics or executing dissidents. We do not have to be witnessing Stalin's terror, Mao's cultural revolution, the Khmer Rouge's return to Year Zero, to see that something destructive and dark is going on. Will people someday wonder how it had ever been possible?
My position is riddled with conflicts. I am a free speech extremist resolute in my conviction that there are limits to every right, even speech. It is never the case that just anything goes. My criticism of the puritan left is not about giving a pass to objectionable language and conduct. It is about consideration of the norms delineating what is acceptable and what is unacceptable and what social or civil sanctions are appropriate in particular situations when those norms are transgressed. There will always be disagreement over what these norms and sanctions should be. Zero tolerance should not be one of them. Conversation between adversaries takes us to a better place than the desire to teach someone a lesson.
Memo from the serendipity desk: While hacking away at this essay over the past few weeks I happened to catch a little NPR tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsberg. An attorney who had been mentored by Ginsberg recalled her Senate confirmation hearing when she paraphrased from Justice Learned Hand's spirit of liberty speech: "The spirit of liberty is never quite sure that it is right" (Inskeep, 'Justice, Justice, Thou Shalt Pursue'). This prompted me to look up Hand's speech, which I found as inspiring as Ginsberg did and moreover relevant to the subject I was grappling with. The speech is brief and worth reading in its entirety. I was particularly struck by this passage:
And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow.
What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias…
Jonathan Chait, Describing a Slur Is Not the Same As Using It, NY Mag Intelligencer, February 8, 2021
Joe Eskenazi, The San Francisco School District’s renaming debacle has been a historic travesty, Mission Local, January 28, 2021
Kenya Evelyn, Staff outraged at New York Times at response to reporter's racist language, The Guardian, February 4, 2021
David Folkenflik, 2 Prominent 'New York Times' Journalists Depart Over Past Behavior, NPR, February 6, 2012
Guardian staff, San Francisco school board pauses plan to rename 44 schools until students return, The Guardian, February 22, 2021
Learned Hand, "The Spirit of Liberty" Speech, 1944, published online at FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education)
Friedrich Heer, The Medieval World: Europe 1100–1350, tr. from the German by Janet Sondheimer, Wiedenfield & Nicolson, Ltd., 1961
Steve Inskeep, 'Justice, Justice Thou Shalt Pursue' Offers Look At Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Early Work, NPR, March 16, 2021
Ted Johnson, Former New York Times Reporter Donald McNeil Responds To Controversy Over Remarks, Deadline, March 1, 2021
Gary Kamiya, The Holier-Than-Thou Crusade in San Francisco: The city’s move to rename schools will provide invaluable ammunition to Fox News, The Atlantic, February 2, 2021
Merrit Kennedy, San Francisco May Rename Schools Named After Washington, Lincoln And Others, NPR, January 28, 2021
Dan Levin, A Racial Slur, a Viral Video, and a Reckoning, The New York Times, December 26, 2020
Perry Link, Seeing the CCP Clearly, The New York Review of Books, February 11, 2021
John McWhorter, Schools Must Resist Destructive Anti-racist Demands, The Atlantic, January 29, 2021)
Tim Miller, Let's Talk about "Cancelling," The Bulwark, March 21, 2021
Aja Romano, A history of "wokeness," Vox, October 9, 2020
Rachel Sandler, No Lincoln, FDR Or Dianne Feinstein? San Francisco Committee Recommends Removing Names From Schools—And Faces Heavy Backlash, Forbes, October 16, 2020
San Francisco Unified School District Press Release, SF Board of Education Advances Plan to Rename Schools, January 27, 2021
Jacob Stolworthy, Trevor Noah says rappers should release versions of their songs without N-word, October 26, 2019
Charlie Sykes, The Woke Wars, The Bulwark, March 2, 2021
Maxwell Tani, Lachlin Cartwright, Star NY Times Reporter Accused of Using ‘N-Word,’ Making Other Racist Comments, The Daily Beast, January 28, 2021