History of cancel culture with focus on its "lynching" of James Bennett

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https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/arts-...tter-dewey

EXCERPTS: . . . Cancel culture is a new name, but the ideological coercions of an overheated left are not, after all, a new problem. They have a history, and, by my reckoning, they even have an origin, which goes back to the 1920s. The American Communist Party was founded in that period in the inebriating belief that Marxism in an updated Russian version was the last and irrefutable word in social science. And, bewitched by that idea, the Communists in New York and California and a few other places where their party was strong awarded themselves the right not just to harangue their rivals and opponents (which is everyone’s right), but to crush them, their left-wing rivals in particular, in the name of the human race.

They set about trying to impose their doctrine on the socialist or social democratic unions and on all the other organizations of the American left, on pain of destruction. Especially they tried to suppress anything unfavorable to the Soviet Union that was spoken from a lectern or printed in a book, which made for a very disagreeable campaign, typically on the edge of violence, or over the edge, with goon squads and boycotts, lasting throughout the 1920s and ’30s-a campaign with not much influence on a national scale, but quite a lot of it in Manhattan, the publishing center, and in a few other places, more than anyone seems to remember today (though you can read about it in the memoirs of Max Eastman, Sidney Hook, Irving Howe, and other writers).

Then again, the people who found themselves getting pushed around also have a history. The modern civil liberties and human rights movements got started in the same years as the Communist Party. And the activists in those movements and their friends among the intellectuals and especially in the unions put up a resistance-sometimes at a delay; sometimes undercut by episodes of gullible delusion about the Soviet Union, which was an intermittent oddity of the American Civil Liberties Union; and, then again, sometimes with a brutality of their own, which was pretty common in the unions.

But the resistance found its style, after a while. It was a firm resistance, which was also a nuanced resistance -- a resistance that condemned the Communist coercions on principle, and, at the same time, was capable of acknowledging that, in spite of everything, the Communists in America sometimes played a helpful role on one specific issue or another. Nor did the resistance wish to see the government come in and smother the entire American left under a blanket repression. Nor did the resistance wish to ease up on the ancient struggle against the mobs and demagogues and coercions of the political right. Lucidity, balance, and persuasion were the idea.

In New York, the resistance to the Communist Party and its bullying tended, in the early years, to go under the names of “socialism” or “social democracy” or some other label of the radical left and the labor movement -- though self-proclaimed liberals also played a role, not always as reliably as the socialists. But by the end of the 1930s, even the socialist intellectuals, some of them -- even Sidney Hook, a principal figure in these battles, sword in hand-began to accept, maybe a little reluctantly, that “liberalism” was the appropriate term. Liberalism, the word and the concept, began to dominate the debate. And liberalism did prove to be persuasive.

Coercive impulses on the left (and on the right, which is its own story) are a hardy thing, though. [...] There was the case of the New Left in the 1960s and ’70s. The New Left in America got underway largely as a liberal movement. But somehow a Maoist inspiration took root here and there, together with a few inspirations from Fidel Castro and the Algerian revolution, until, by the end of the ’60s, a small and annoying percentage of the young New Leftists, irrigated by the hysterias of the era, responded by working up a mob brutality. And they set out to exact vengeance on the enemies of the human race, defined this time as the agents of imperialism, which meant, of course, the liberals. “Putschism” was Irving Howe’s left-wing phrase to describe the left-wing obnoxiousness. Or the New Left launched persecutions of New Leftism’s own erring heretics, who were practically everybody, after a while.

It was the old Stalinist crap in a new version, disorganized this time, instead of institutional, which made it hard to fend off. In the end, the crap was self-defeating. Even Maoists were human beings, and they could abide their own absurdities only for so long. But the challenge meanwhile for people who wanted to think of themselves as liberals was not a little bit perplexing...

And yet, post-New Left, something about the old coercive impulse still lingered on, if only in a version so odd as to be halfway comic. [...] They fell under the influence, instead, of a series of avant-garde philosophical theories from France ... In their American application, though, the marvelous theories were taken to be radical extensions of Marxism, capable of revealing the ultimate source of oppression. The ultimate source turned out to be the structures of language and word choice, combined with a universal will-to-power in the cause of social hierarchies of every kind.

[...] The campaigns were designed to humiliate the accused individuals or, in extreme cases, to damage their careers. There were not a lot of those campaigns. ... The phrase “politically correct,” which has ended up a right-wing insult, began, after all, as a left-wing insult. It was a rueful phrase, ironic and self-critical, which was lifted from the rhetoric of the Marxist past by reasonable people on the left for the purpose of ridiculing the unreasonable fanatics whose leftism was too much even for leftists to bear.

And yet, something about those campaigns, too, peculiar as they were, managed to linger on. It was a matter of viral mutation. The avant-garde philosophical reasoning of the 1970s and ’80s dropped away in favor of a more conventional English-language vocabulary [...] which rendered the reformers’ zeal appealing to the dean’s office. And technology intervened. A social media mob can do without the blessings of avant-garde theory. And yet, a few hints of advanced theory can make a mob appear to be respectably engaged in the praiseworthy policing of language infraction.

It has added up to a vogue on the part of people who deem themselves to be diversity’s finest champions to ruin the careers of other people who may likewise be diversity’s champions, but whose zealotry is lacking, for the crime sometimes of choosing the wrong phrase, or the crime of clinging to a vocabulary judged to be outdated, or, in the case of editors, the crime of publishing even a single disapproved article or composing a wrong headline.

[...] To cite the example most in view lately, everyone ought to see something troubling about the firing of James Bennet, the New York Times op-ed editor. Bennet’s error was to do what op-ed editors at the Times have always done, which is to publish op-eds now and then by Attila the Hun, meaning in this case Sen. Tom Cotton from Arkansas, whose contribution was titled, of course, “Send in the Troops.” Wrote Attila: “Nihilist criminals are simply out for loot.” The value in publishing this sort of thing has always been, in the past, to allow the readers to see the actual words unmediated, which is distinctly useful, and to bow symbolically in the direction of open debate, though without necessarily suggesting that Attila is a worthy debate partner. And the value has been to show the world that even Attila recognizes the universal status of The New York Times. To publish Attila has always been a power move, at the Times.

In the present atmosphere, though, the editor was deemed by a large number of his indignant colleagues not just to have made a mistake, but to have committed a career-ending crime -- which, because the Times is, in fact, the universal newspaper, can only mean that executives everywhere in the world of liberal institutions had better find ways not to offend the enraged militants. Here is el linchamiento: a lynching intended as a message to the world. The lynching is an obvious outrage to the traditional liberalism of the Times itself. And yet, many people plainly do not see an outrage. Nor do they see an intimidation of other journalists or professors. Nor do they see a curious ritual self-abasement by The New York Times, nor any problem at all. They see social progress.

This has been one of the revelations produced by the Harper’s letter -- the indignant response of people who, in not seeing any of the troubling developments, earnestly believe that accusations of anything suggesting ideological coercions on the left add up to a right-wing slander... (MORE - details)
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