Posted on July 17, 2020

Meet Your New Elites: The Woke Cancel Mobs

Matt Purple, The American Conservative, July 16, 2020


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. {snip} “The free exchange of information and ideas,” it reads, “the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” {snip}

What happened next was utterly predictable. {snip}

{snip} 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.”


{snip} 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. {snip} You start treating everything on the public side as suspect and worthy of criticism, while rationalizing away the bad on the private side. {snip} 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 RepublicOsita 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.


{snip} 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.