I’ve never really been a victim of cancel culture. But that’s not to say my critics haven’t tried to make me one.
I began my syndicated column in 1986. It ran initially in a couple of newspapers in eastern North Carolina, then spread to dozens of others over the ensuing decade. On several occasions, left-wing activists have tried to get editors to drop my column. It never worked. In my experience, local newspaper folks didn’t like obviously orchestrated attempts to dictate editorial decisions.
During my quarter-century as a regular panelist on TV shows, I can’t say producers or stations were never subject to political pressure. They were. But I was never silenced.
I am, of course, just a relatively obscure scribbler and pontificator. At the national level, cancel culture has become a real and pervasive threat in universities, business, and media. Teachers, writers, actors, and even low-level employees have been fired not for doing their jobs poorly, or for truly egregious personal behavior that reflected poorly on their judgment and their employers, but simply for expressing or even tolerating political views that online bullies didn’t like.
Before you jump to the conclusion I’m only talking about political conservatives, I’ll offer two cases of non-conservatives who’ve lost their jobs at just one outlet, the New York Times, for reasons that can only be described as ridiculous.
The first example, James Bennet, is someone I happen to know slightly. We were both reporter-researchers at The New Republic at the same time, just as the Reagan administration was drawing to a close, although the number of meaningful conversations we had could be counted on one hand.
During the riots last summer, Bennet ran an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas that advocated deploying the military if necessary to protect lives and property. Many people had a strong negative reaction to it. I disagreed with part of Cotton’s argument myself. But it was an obviously newsworthy column by a sitting U.S. senator that expressed a mainstream view held by many millions of Americans.
No doubt Bennet disagreed with Cotton, too. But he was editorial-page editor of a national newspaper. It was his job to run such op-eds. In fact, the Times even solicited the piece! But Bennet was forced out over it.
More recently, you may have heard, Times science writer Donald McNeil Jr. was cancelled because he used the “n-word” in a conversation with a student. Was McNeil engaging in some racist fulmination or treating the student in a creepy way? No. The student asked McNeil for his opinion about the fate of another student who’d been suspended for using the n-word in a video made when that student was 12 years old. While asking for clarification of the question, McNeil repeated the word. For that, he was forced out.
To be sure, there is a lot of hyperbole, hypocrisy, and shoddy reasoning to be found among current condemnations of cancel culture. When Sen. Josh Hawley lost a book contract with a major publisher after the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, he said, “This is not just a contractual dispute. It’s a direct assault on the First Amendment.”
Nonsense. The constitution prohibits the government from restraining our right to speak or publish, or to punish us later for expressing political views that government functionaries dislike. It has nothing to do with the decisions of private actors.
A better argument is that even perfectly legal private decisions to cancel will, over time, weaken the culture of free expression. We need that culture. We need it to foster good journalism, to create great works of art, and to lubricate our daily interactions within a society of diverse opinions.
Remember the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s? It’s been denounced repeatedly ever since. But now I can’t help wondering: Were those denunciations really about the injustice of people losing jobs because of their political views and friendships? Or is cancel culture OK as long as the victims aren’t communists?
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and author of the forthcoming novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.