For the first time since the 1950s, ideologically motivated censorship is becoming a widespread crisis in the United States. On the left, such repression is either informal "cancellation" by online outrage mobs or carried out by universities or private companies. On the right, state censorship is now being enforced by law, including civil, and increasingly even criminal, penalties.
It is especially ironic, then, that one of the clearest signs an outburst of censorship is about to be unleashed is a loud and angry complaint about the lack of freedom of speech, particularly denunciations of "cancel culture". With the most passionate and enraged outbursts, Americans can reliably set their watches and count the seconds before a demand for tolerance suddenly morphs into a platform for thoroughgoing intolerance of divergent views.
Recently I had a fascinating encounter with this phenomenon and it is unfortunately anything but unusual. Indeed, it is typical of the growing inability of many Americans to tolerate differences of opinion, even as they see themselves as champions of intellectual freedom.
In early August, I was surprised to be asked to contribute an essay to an obscure online journal on the subject of "Palestinianism”. I consulted the website and discovered it was a hyper-chauvinistic, indeed racist, Jewish publication deeply hostile to the Palestinians, as the proposed subject matter suggests.
Yet I agreed to write the essay, without compensation, for several reasons. I could reach an audience that I would otherwise never be able to address and perhaps make some think twice about their bigotry. They agreed to my title, "There’s no such thing as Palestinianism,” and made no objection to my insistence that they edit only for style and not content. And finally, their website said the raison d'etre for the publication was that they are passionately opposed to "cancel culture" and seek to ensure that everyone, left and right, and especially a moderate centre, get an equal say.
I naively forged ahead, imagining that they had reached out to me to provide a challenging alternative perspective, consistent with their supposed ethos of openness and fairness. So, I delivered 3,500 words on a mutually agreed-upon topic and was effusively thanked for “an exceedingly intelligent and well-written piece”. Yet, two hours later I was astounded to be informed that "we have elected not to publish your piece". Naturally I asked for an explanation, but never received any response.
What happened, alas, is no mystery. They found my essay intolerable, because it explained that the nonexistent ideology of "Palestinianism” is a crude rhetorical tool to dismiss the reality of the Palestinian people and suggest that their identity is a nefarious anti-Semitic plot – much in the same way as a good deal of "anti-Zionism" boils down to an attempt to negate the reality or validity of Israel or Israeli identity.
The minute I encountered a denunciation of "cancel culture" on their website, rather than taking it as a sign that they might be reaching out to me for alternative viewpoints that could enrich their publication with diversity, I should have known that under no circumstances would they publish anything I had to say on this topic. The complaint about pervasive censorship was the clearest possible sign that they were about to engage in censorship themselves, even more than the pervasive racism against Palestinians already festooning their website.
American censorship is indeed an epidemic. A new Florida law is so restrictive that teachers could be criminally liable for talking about their non-traditional families to their own elementary school children. In a Nebraska public high school, an award-winning student newspaper and the whole journalism programme, was shut down after publishing allegedly controversial articles. Two district attorneys in Tennessee say they are considering prosecuting and imprisoning librarians.
These are just a few examples of how right-wing state authorities are increasingly using government or police powers to crack down on teaching about history, race and sexuality in schools and even universities. It is now absurdly fashionable to denounce exposing children to cross-dressing performers as "grooming" for sexual abuse, as if the English tradition of Christmas pantomime were a nefarious perversion.
Typically, these same conservatives spent years wailing in outrage about left-wing "cancel culture". Unfortunately, liberal repression is an all-too-real phenomenon. Although it does not involve the threat of handcuffs and prison cells, at universities and in some sections of the media it has certainly involved unjust dismissal or harassment.
The public shaming that can befall ordinary, and even to some extent arbitrary, people who become the targets of liberal outrage online is real and alarming.
One of the earliest and most infamous instances of the online outrage mob phenomenon came in 2013 when a woman named Justine Sacco with just 170 followers, tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get Aids. Just kidding. I’m white!” It was horribly insensitive and easily construed as racist, but her life was almost entirely destroyed because of the online backlash, which snowballed into a crushing and frighteningly disproportionate repudiation. Numerous instances of this dynamic have demonstrated how social media has been engineered to fuel dangerous levels of mass outrage, as journalist Max Fisher explains in his invaluable new book, The Chaos Machine.
Often public figures targeted by "cancel culture" ultimately volunteer to be truly cancelled, if they ever are. When George Washington University professor Jessica Krug was exposed as pretending for her entire career to be black when she was, in fact, white and Jewish, she wrote: "You should absolutely cancel me, and I absolutely cancel myself.” But, she added, “What does that mean? I don’t know.” Ultimately, she resigned her tenured position.
But as politicians like former Republican president Donald Trump, or former Virginia Democratic Governor Ralph Northam and Lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax, all demonstrated in different ways and to varying degrees, weathering out highly embarrassing accusations is always an option – unless the state deems your teaching a criminal offence.
Many of the greatest freedoms Americans are used to are not age-old, as often assumed. Voting rights for all Americans, and therefore full democracy, and wide-ranging freedom of speech, were both established in the 1960s. Before then, millions of African Americans were denied the franchise, and much free expression that is taken for granted today was liable to civil or criminal penalties.
The minute I saw denunciations of "cancel culture", I should have known ideological censorship couldn’t be far behind. I let my hubris and naivety get the better of me. But that is how pervasive and hypocritical censorship has become in present-day America.