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The Cancel Cancer Spreads

Cancel culture is immoral and un-American, a threat to democratic norms

 

The extended critique in these pages last week of cancel culture was sobering. That phrase refers to the recurrent phenomenon in which someone who says or does something that runs afoul of left-leaning orthodoxy is set upon on social media by a swell of calls for ostracizing the culprit, banning his work and firing him from his job.

Protest is one thing, but this is about intimidation, humiliation, and ultimately, silencing — in a word, “canceling” — not just a person’s books, speaking events, and employment, but the person himself, his reputation, his self-expression, and basic humanity. It happens to individuals, to businesses and institutions, and it is occurring ever more frequently.

Cancel culture is immoral and un-American, a threat to democratic norms, and as the article contended, a potential threat to Jews too. And although it’s often framed as a problem on the left, it exists across the contemporary ideological spectrum.

A recent example: Republican senator Mike Braun of Indiana introduced a bill to reform the legal doctrine of qualified immunity — a judicially created doctrine that shields  government officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations (and paying monetary damages) as long as the officials did not violate “clearly established” law — which we discussed here several weeks ago. There’s a strong case to be made that the doctrine — “legislated” by judges, itself a conservative anathema — has produced many miscarriages of justice for ordinary citizens. Numerous conservative jurists, including Justice Clarence Thomas, and conservative groups like Alliance Defending Freedom, Americans for Prosperity, the Second Amendment Foundation, and the Cato Foundation support reworking, rather than jettisoning, the doctrine to make it fair by balancing the rights of citizens with those of the public officials who serve them.

But due to the fierce opposition of police unions, the White House declared any changes to qualified immunity a “non-starter.” And on cue, Mr. Braun was set upon by what can only be described as a cancel mob. Libertarian-conservative journalist Brad Polumbo writes that popular talk-show host Tucker Carlson “charged the senator with supporting the murder of police officers… [which] led to a frenzy of attacks from other right-wing populists. [One] called Braun a ‘Schumer-appeasing Marxist sympathizer’ and said it’s ‘time to flood the leftists out of the Republican Party.’ ” Pundit David Krayden called Mr. Braun “the face of Republican appeasement [who has] gone further than Hitler’s appeasers in this instance….”

And as a result, the senator has stepped back from sponsoring the bill. This is classic cancel culture: intimidation, humiliation, and silencing — and American ideals and the ordinary citizen are the losers. It’s a mirror image of the left-wing version, with police unions in the role of woke mobsters demanding knee-jerk political lockstep.

In a Boston Globe column, my friend Jeff Jacoby wrote that recent events have “led to greater awareness of the role played by labor unions in protecting bad cops [and] calls to reform the powerful police unions have been expressed across the political spectrum…. But the only way to ‘reform’ police unions is to abolish them altogether….” Will the cancel posse soon come for Jacoby, too, with their rhetorical pitchforks? Ironically (and thankfully), as the conservative voice at the liberal Globe, he’s safe on this one from the right-wing cancel-meisters, since they have no leverage at that newspaper.

Sol Stern, a Ramat Gan-born, Bronx-bred former radical turned conservative thinker, was a senior writer at City Journal, the flagship publication of the conservative Manhattan Institute (MI), where he was a respected voice on education and school choice. Last week, he described in Democracy Journal why his two-decade tenure at CJ ended in 2017.

Ever since the 2016 presidential campaign, CJ had squelched all critique of Trump, but after the election, he writes, “I assumed that CJ couldn’t just ignore the danger to the country now emanating from the highest office in the land. Once again I was naïve. Writers who wanted to sound the alarm about the new president were still muzzled,” which he believes was attributable to the fact that MI’s two biggest donors were big Trump supporters.

“I agonized about what to do about the conspiracy of silence at my magazine…. As President Trump continued to demonstrate his lack of fitness for office, I knew I had to make a more forceful statement,” and in October 2017, he resigned. In response, MI’s vice president said that CJ was never really an “overtly political journal and would not help matters much today by becoming one.” That, Stern writes, “was news to me, since a good part of my own writing for the magazine consisted of sharp political criticism of mayors, governors, and presidents (most of them Democrats). And even as City Journal stayed out of the fray over Trump during the 2016 election, it had continued to savage President Obama.”

When MI chose a new president in 2019, who said he valued “clashing opinions,” Stern was hopeful things might change. But then, he writes,

came the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. government’s response to the worst national emergency since World War II. Surely, I thought, CJ’s editors and writers would now have to… fairly assess whether the President had fulfilled his constitutional obligation to protect the nation.

CJ’s coverage of the health crisis was massive… 80 articles on the website, plus a special issue of the print magazine…. However, in the entire collection, there was hardly a mention of President Trump’s role in the crisis…. If this was history it was Orwellian history, as if a group of editors and writers had produced an account of America without assessing the role of the nation’s commander-in-chief at the height of World War II.

It wasn’t that the writers lacked the appropriate vocabulary to evaluate President Trump’s leadership during the health crisis. An article… blasted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s performance during the crisis as “a daily exercise in justification, accountability denial and self-aggrandizement….” By that date, everyone in the country except for Trump’s tribal loyalists could see that the President’s briefings on the coronavirus had also become “a daily exercise in justification, accountability denial and self-aggrandizement….”

Recently, Stern concludes, a CJ editor opined “on the dangers of ‘woke’ culture and self-censorship…. Everything in my old friend’s indictment of liberal cancel culture rang true to me. Unfortunately, my former City Journal colleagues… were among those unable to resist the impulse to self-censorship. They were now bound by a code of silence on an American President’s out-of-control behavior during a national emergency.”

What happened at CJ is what has happened at one conservative entity after the other: magazines, blogs, radio programs, colleges, religious movements. All have experienced what Sol Stern calls “a moral collapse in the face of the gathering storm…. The Trump seduction happened at so many distinguished conservative thought centers….”

This is cancel culture in every sense of the term — the intimidation, the firing or forcing out from positions, and the stifling of the slightest dissent are all there. But it’s a quiet form of cancellation, taking place out of view, in executive offices rather than on social media. The left-wing Twitter mobs can’t fire people directly, so instead they humiliate and threaten boycotts until they get their way. But CJ and First Things and Salem Radio Network and all the others have all the power on their own to force resignations and squelch freedom of expression.

Last week, a very high-profile group of 153 of the biggest names in American arts and letters, largely left and left-of-center, signed a “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s magazine opposing the rise of cancel culture on the left:

The 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…. This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time…. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.

It’s quite a bold statement, and predictably, the left-wing cancel mob has already come after one or two of the names. Question: Will an equally distinguished group — or any group — on the right now speak out against what’s happening on their side of the fence?

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 819. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

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    Y. J.

    In his critique of supposed cancel culture on the right, Eytan Kobre misses a few vital distinctions.
    There is a difference between shaming a person publicly, ruining their livelihood and reputation, and not printing a differing viewpoint. There is also a difference between a supposedly objective news outlet printing one-sided opinion pieces under the guise of news, and the City Journal, which is a publication of a Conservative think tank (translation: opinion) not printing a piece that doesn’t align with its editorial views. Would it be a manifestation of cancel culture for Mishpacha to refuse to print an article supporting semichah of women rabbis? Would you even suggest they would be wrong for firing the contributor who wrote the piece?
    There is also a difference between sometimes criticizing the president — as do most Conservative publications — and suggesting that there is a great danger to the country emanating from his office.
    As an aside, the issue of qualified immunity for police is not just about the prosecution of bad cops. If stripped of all immunity, the fear of prosecution would likely make police risk-averse, thereby emboldening criminals. While the scope of immunity required is debatable, it is a fine line that is hard to draw. In addition, in the current political environment which is unfriendly to law enforcement, it is understandable that such a suggestion would be interpreted as anti-cop.


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    Name Withheld

    I am a longtime reader of Mishpacha and am appreciative of the insightful commentary from the various writers and contributors to your magazine.
    I would like to comment on something that struck me from Eytan Kobre’s article harshly criticizing both liberal and conservative “cancel culture,” although in fairness, he is not the first writer to raise the issue.
    As I read the article, I could not help wondering if, instead of sitting back and taking aim at the various non-Jewish political factions and commentators for their “policies of cancellation,” it does not behoove us to first take a hard look internally at our own society and its own penchant for canceling those with whom we disagree. As the saying goes, “those in glass houses should not be throwing stones.”
    Have we not seen fine talmidei chachamim abruptly “cancelled” for writing books and seforim that contain opinions about which reasonable Torah minds can disagree? How about gedolim that have been the subject of vicious “cancellations” because of unpopular opinions about subjects that, again, very reasonable people can disagree about. (I was personally in Meah Shearim when one of the acknowledged gedolei hador had his car stoned due to an unpopular opinion that he had vis a vis service in the Nachal Chareidi).
    I can continue with dozens of examples from many facets within our community and I am sure your readers can as well. Instead, let’s perhaps take a moment to reflect on how, amid an outside world that is more divided than ever, we can all work together to create a society in our own community in which healthy discussion, questions, and disagreement are encouraged; kindness is employed to those whom we disagree; and instead of ostracizing those that fall under different rubrics, we embrace them.