Today not even the stalwarts of American liberalism-cum-progressivism are safe from what television pundit Bill Maher calls the “woke mob”. In an episode of his HBO program Real Time, for example, Maher cited the circumstances of Emmanuel Cafferty, who last year lost his job at San Diego Gas & Electric after being photographed in the vicinity of a Black Lives Matter protest “allegedly flashing a white power gesture”. Cafferty, as it turns out, had been making his way home from work in a company truck when a (white) BLM supporter, David Bentley, snapped a picture of Cafferty’s hand formulating—or seeming to formulate—the OK gesture out of the open cabin window. Bentley, a quintessential keyboard social justice warrior, posted the offending hand gesture, construed as a sign of white power, on Twitter. He next contacted San Diego Gas & Electric with a link to the “evidence” that one of its employees was a white supremacist. Management terminated Cafferty’s employment. Cafferty, as it happens, is a person of colour and a supporter of BLM, who has a lifelong habit of extending an arm and cracking his knuckles one finger at a time. Irritating, yes, but not exactly an endorsement of white supremacism. Maher concluded his diatribe against the injustice of Emmanuel Cafferty’s sacking and an assortment of other cancel-culture incidents with this barb: “Memo to social justice warriors. When what you’re doing sounds like an Onion headline, stop.”
I doubt that Maher understands the root cause of cancel culture, but he at least appreciates its brutal potential. America’s self-styled Defender of Liberal Principles is aghast that a good and honourable person—that is, a person who shares his progressive feelings—should find himself the target of public shaming for not always having been so enlightened: “Think about everything you’ve ever texted, emailed, searched for, tweeted, blogged or said in passing, or now even just witnessed. Someone had a Confederate flag in their dorm room in 1990—and you didn’t do anything.” The fanaticism of the woke mob, empowered by the omnipresence of social-media platforms, makes everyone a potential victim: “Andy Warhol was wrong … In the future, everyone will not experience fifteen minutes of fame, but fifteen minutes of shame.” Not even the Great Emancipator himself is safe. “[Lincoln] is now cancelled in San Francisco. And they’re thinking about it in Illinois. Yes, the Land of Lincoln might cancel Lincoln.”
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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What, exactly, has gone awry in the Land of Lincoln? For starters, America’s liberals-cum-progressives, including Maher himself, have discarded traditional liberal notions about the sovereignty of the individual. American-style liberalism has committed the Aggregations Fallacy of indiscriminately combining one “good” with another “good”—the rights of the individual with the rights of the group. In an earlier revolutionary era, explained Roger Scruton in The Uses of Pessimism, the Jacobins fervently promoted liberté and égalité without appreciating the conflicting nature of the two concepts, and so ended up with Robespierre’s “despotism of liberty”. Today, extrapolating from Scruton, we are witnessing a “despotism of identity”.
Consequently, self-described liberal organisations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have simply abandoned their foundational principle to defend the sovereignty of the individual. James Kirchick gives a good account of the shift in “The Disintegration of the ACLU” in Quillette magazine. The civil rights outfit began in 1920 with the classical liberal mission “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States”. Kirchick argues that until relatively recently the ACLU was led by “stubbornly principled people” with a history of defending the constitutional right of all individuals to free speech and freedom of assembly. He mentions the 1977 Skokie affair in which the ACLU, despite a number of Jewish liberals in its senior ranks, took legal action to ensure that members of the National Socialist Party of America (NSPA) were permitted to march in the town of Skokie, Illinois, despite a not inconsiderable number of Holocaust survivors living in the neighbourhood. The NSPA, as it turned out, assembled in Chicago. Nevertheless, the ACLU had strengthened its claim to be an organisation that “refused to buckle under fashionable opinion or donor pressure”.
Under the leadership of Ira Glasser from 1978 to 2001, according to Kirchick, the men and women of the ACLU were “liberals in the most honourable, but increasingly obsolescent, meaning of the term”. The professed objective of the civil liberties organisation was not to defend members of the Communist Party at one end of the political spectrum or the NSPA at the other, but to defend the First Amendment—freedom of speech, the press and assembly, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. In other words, the adoption of a “content-neutral approach to the defence of free speech”. In sharp contrast, Glasser’s successor, Anthony Romero, created a set of internal guidelines in which the right to free speech and assembly is counteracted by the rights of the group (minority communities et al). Free speech need not be defended if the views expressed in that speech “are contrary” to its “values” and “impede progress towards equality”. This, clearly, is not about free speech made accountable to the customary checks and balances of libel or slander, but speech made accountable to the new and inexact entitlements of the group or modern-day tribe—in short, we are witness to the despotism of identity.
Kirchick highlights the role the ACLU played in the disreputable attempt by progressives to destroy Brett Kavanaugh:
In 2018, the ACLU spent over $1 million on advertisements likening Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh to Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, essentially accusing him of crimes for which he was never tried or convicted. More egregious than their brazen political partisanship was the way in which the ads traduced the presumption of innocence, a bedrock of American jurisprudence and principle the ACLU was founded to uphold.
The ACLU has become another progressive outfit championing the rights of the group over the rights of the individual. By adhering to the logic of this ideology, the ACLU leadership decided it had no choice but to denounce Brett Kavanaugh and endorse Christine Blasey Ford’s unverified, uncorroborated and unproven accusations. Kavanaugh’s only verifiable offence, in reality, was to be a member of a group that exists at the lower reaches of PC victimhood. Kavanaugh was, for all intents and purposes, condemned by social justice warriors for belonging to the wrong modern-day tribe. The same, in Australian terms, might be said about the Victorian Court of Appeal’s treatment of Cardinal Pell in 2019. Here was an innocent man—according to the later seven-to-nil judgment of the High Court—forced to pay the price for the sins of other members of the Catholic clergy.
The case of film-maker Woody Allen—accused by his seven-year-old adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow of sexually molesting her in the home of her adoptive mother, actress Mia Farrow—might seem unrelated to the nightmare faced by Kavanaugh and Pell. But for anyone with a genuine liberal sensibility it is all too similar. Back in 1993, the Connecticut State Police referred the allegation to the Yale-New Haven Hospital. New Haven’s Child Sexual Abuse Unit undertook an inquiry which found that Allen was not guilty of the charges. Moreover, it presumed that Mia Farrow, recently separated from Allen and unlikely to appear in any of his prospective films, had probably coached or influenced Dylan to make her claims. Contemporaneously, the New York Department of Social Services investigated Farrow’s accusations and independently concluded that Allen was not guilty of sexually abusing his adopted daughter. For everyone, apart from Mia Farrow and anybody in her orbit and fanatics with no confidence in New Haven’s Child Sexual Abuse Unit or the New York Department of Social Services, that ought to have been the end of the matter.
Only that was not the end of the matter. All Hollywood celebrities who worked with the octogenarian Woody Allen in the past have been pressured to publicly support the “I believe you, Dylan” movement and many, with notable exceptions, have acquiesced. Dylan, now in her thirties, and her high-profile brother, journalist Ronan Farrow, have used America’s PC mainstream media to promote their cause, now aided and abetted by HBO’s recent Allen v Farrow documentary, produced by activist-journalists Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick.
The case of Greta Gerwig, who appeared in Allen’s film To Rome with Love in 2012, is illustrative of the progressive version of neo-McCarthyism that now pervades America. For a time Gerwig refused to be drawn into denouncing Allen but after being targeted by Dylan Farrow in the Los Angeles Times she performed a volte-face: “If I had known then what I know now, I would not have acted in the film. I have not worked for him again, and I will not work for him again.” A small number of actors, including Elena Anaya, have had to put their career in Hollywood on the line in order to make the obvious point that Allen has never “been found guilty of anything”.
Maher is not the only humourist pushing back against cancel culture. The Irish comedian Andrew Doyle, for instance, created the spoof persona “Titania McGrath”, a self-described “radical intersectionalist poet committed to feminism, social justice and armed peaceful protest” who identifies as non-binary, poly-racial and eco-sexual. Titania, Doyle explains, is named after the queen of the fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream because social justice warriors promote a “hyper inclusive culture” that is an “utter fantasy world”. Doyle, in an interview with Bernard Lane for the Australian, contends that social justice ideology is the “predominant force in major cultural, artistic, political and media institutions” and that left unchecked will follow its own internal logic—which is not logical at all—towards madness, like a moth to the flame: “On 19 September 2018, [Titania McGrath] criticised Julie Andrews (aka Mary Poppins) for chimney soot blackface. On 28 January 2019, The New York Times concurred.” The so-called newspaper of record actually published an article with the headline “Mary Poppins and a Nanny’s Shameful Flirting with Blackface”.
The pronouncements of the Titania McGrath persona are simultaneously (a) amusing since they are absurd and (b) nightmarish because of their resemblance to those of actual social justice warriors. There is such a fine line between Andrew Doyle’s mockery and the reality of cancel culture that even now there are those who “take Titania seriously”, some in support of Titania’s missives and others outraged. Most of Titania’s 634,000 followers, nevertheless, recognise the sarcasm behind missives like these: “The very act of writing a book is hugely offensive to the illiterate community” or “If you find yourself laughing at comedy, it is probably not sufficiently progressive” or “Given that hate speech is not possible without free speech, my defence of free speech is a form of hate speech.” Titania is a caricature and yet the illiberalism of these sentiments is close to the real thing. One of the inspirations behind Doyle’s creation was an earlier online persona called “Godfrey Elfwick”, whose satirising of PC orthodoxy—“It’s 2018 and women should be free to do whatever feminists say they can”—earned a permanent ban from Twitter. The progressive notion of social justice is to justice what its concept of hate speech is to free speech—that it to say, its nemesis.
The despotism of identity works against liberty in a number of ways. Firstly, as Joe Rogan, international podcaster and comedian, recently observed about the accelerative nature of cancel culture: “it’ll get to [a point where] straight white men are not allowed to talk, because it’s your privilege to express yourself when other people of colour have been silenced throughout history”. Progressive pundits and keyboard warriors responded with scorn that Rogan should complain about the silencing of straight white men when his popular podcast has earned him millions and a platform on Spotify, all the while ignoring—and thereby corroborating—his proposition: the point of view of a straight white men in the 2020s is increasingly likely to be treated with scorn by the PC brigade because “people of colour have been silenced throughout history”. It is not Joe Rogan equating his identity with “straight white male” but his detractors.
Rogan, as a moderating voice, is likely to understand his humanity as something that transcends—rather than is defined by—such faux “identities” as sexual preference, ethnicity and religion. We have only to recall the fallacy underlying anti-Semitism, to take one example, to fully grasp where the despotism of identity leads. A person who happens to be Jewish cannot be judged, in any fair or reasonable way, by a prescribed set of criteria—and so it must be with a straight white male.
It is not just a question of silencing the “privileged” white straight male—there is the added problem of remaining silent in the face of those who speak on behalf of the “oppressed” rainbow of discontents. Radical organisations such as Black Lives Matter, Council of American-Islamic Relations, Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, Students for Justice in Palestine and so on ad infinitum, masquerade as genuine civil rights groups. They are Leninist in their audacity to speak on behalf of a sanctioned victim group or groups; and yet they have as much legitimacy as Lenin did when establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat in the name of workers, peasants and sailors—that is, none. A non-white questioning the correctness of (say) BLM can be spurned as an identity traitor, in much the same way Lenin, back in 1921, branded Alexander Shlyapnikov and the Workers’ Opposition as counter-revolutionary.
Liberals-cum-progressives have, since the 1960s, made a pact with latter-day radicals/Leninists against conservatives on almost every issue of note. Now, according to Georgetown University’s Lama Abu-Odeh in “The Academic Origins of the American Revolution” (in Tablet magazine, September 2020), radicals are mounting a successful “coup” against their erstwhile allies in US academies—that is, American-style liberals who embraced the identity politics of everything from Germaine Greer’s second-wave feminism to Edward Said’s post-colonialism. Together radicals and liberals subverted the mission of the Humanities with its emphasis on delineating our identity through the unrestricted study of humanity. Today it is only via the (prescribed) identity of the group—or “culture”—that students are permitted to study humanity. Only through the restrictive dogma of ideology is the younger generation taught to explore the infinite complexity of humankind. This, for classical liberals and conservatives alike, is an anathema, a betrayal of the strictures of Western scholarship based on provable (and disprovable) truths rather than creedal absolutes.
Today only 12 per cent of America’s professoriate identify as conservative. Having largely rid the academy of Republicans and old-style liberals, the advocates (and beneficiaries) of anti-liberal doctrines such as Critical Race Theory (CRT) are presently training their guns on liberals and moderate Democrats. Lama Abu-Odeh’s “Georgetown’s Cultural Revolution” (in Quillette magazine, April this year), is a useful case study of previously fashionable academics fearful of being shamed if they refuse to publicly endorse theories of anti-white and anti-West racialism.
The remedy to this anti-liberal trajectory, of which cancel culture is but one marker, is for so-called liberals to start behaving like actual liberals. This would mean, in the first instance, to open up the channels of communication with conservatives rather than scorning them. In September 2020, for instance, Bill Maher found it opportune to round on Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett for being “really, really Catholic”. Maher’s sectarianism was once the domain of Ku Klux Klan cranks, country-club snobs and Kennedy-haters but is now almost de rigueur amongst the fashionably snide. Maher’s vogueish anti-Catholicism, an ongoing theme in a decade or more of slurs, is a first cousin to cancel culture demonising individuals according to their group.
Some might argue that Maher’s anti-Christian diatribe is balanced by his occasional anti-Muslim invective, making him an equal-opportunity critic of all religions and therefore a genuine progeny of the Enlightenment. Maher himself asserts that he cannot be bigoted for stereotyping those with a faith because he is “trying to stand up for the principles of liberalism”. Liberals, by Maher’s definition, cannot be illiberal. Only if he were a conservative—again by his definition: narrow-minded and discriminatory—would his critics have a point. His stereotypes, as television’s self-styled Defender of American Liberalism, are factual. In truth, they are no more than an upended version of the standard PC view that Islam is a monolithic entity. Thanks to the “liberal” Maher and the “liberal” Joe Biden—albeit for opposite reasons—the Muslim Brotherhood remains safely protected by the sword of civil rights advocacy and the shield of “Islamophobia”.
Today, as BLM leaders makes common cause with pro-Hamas sympathisers and Antifa, anti-Semitism becomes increasingly rife in America. Biden has, at least, criticised the surge of violence currently perpetrated against American Jews, calling it “despicable, unconscionable, un-American”. The point could be made, nevertheless, that America’s academies, the radical wing of the Democratic Party, the mainstream media—in concert with the social justice warriors and the woke mob—became intolerant and un-American some time ago. Liberals-cum-progressives are likely to view the 2021 Gaza War as a case of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savage” defying colonialist “white Jews”—in much the same way Walt Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) portrays the plight of the immaculate Powhatan Native Americans up against the “ravenous wolves” from across the sea who “devour everything in their path”. Very little of this aligns with the reality of Hamas and its violent millennialist madness, but it does fit with Settler-Colonial Theory and Holocaust Inversion. These anti-liberal ideas can also be used as a weapon against the legitimacy of the American Republic, along with Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project, an initiative by the once-liberal New York Times to define America not by the “spirit of 1776” but by the arrival of the first twenty African slaves in 1619.
I am reminded, at this juncture, of these lines by Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, / And sorry I could not travel both”. American liberals can maintain their alliance with—or at least submit to—the doctrines of anti-America militants or begin the painful journey back to the side of liberty, at least the kind of liberty and freedom defined by the Founding Fathers of the United States. For Lama Abu-Odeh, the Palestinian-American Professor of Law at Georgetown University who holds to classical liberal and constitutionalist principles despite the pressure applied by colleagues, it is getting very late in the day for any kind of fightback. Liberal academics, in her experience, long ago won the “culture wars” against conservatives but now sense they have been outflanked—as Kerensky was in October 1917—on the left. The default position of America’s vanquished liberal professoriate, according to Abu-Odeh, is virtue signalling: that is, publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate the political correctness of their position. For America’s professors it is a question of submitting to the demands of BLM commissars or becoming former persons in the tradition of Bolshevism or Maoism.
Submission of this kind is everywhere in America. The images from last year of geriatric Democrat politicians like Nancy Pelosi getting down on one knee—and not quite able to get back up without assistance—in order to pay homage to BLM as it torched urban precincts and held the nation to ransom looked very much like the surrender of American liberalism to the ethno-nationalism of Malcolm X. It is true that Martin Luther King Jr sought more than the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but his idea of racial justice was nonetheless built on the genuine fulfilment of the “spirit of 1776” and not the racialism that Malcolm X—or, for that matter, the KKK—preached. His 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech was interwoven with affirmative references to the Founding Fathers and the Bible, the very things that latter-day leftists view with withering contempt. King’s plaintive cry was the voice of true liberalism, of the American Dream, as distinct from Critical Race Theory. It never occurred to him that the US Constitution was the product of white supremacism and solely in the service of white privilege. America was, rather, a Christian-derived civilisation and, ultimately, at the service of all its people “irrespective of colour or race”.
The trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of African-American George Floyd says a lot about the vulnerability of judicial proceduralism—a customary bulwark of American liberalism—at the present juncture. If it were not enough that BLM-Antifa activists surrounded the courtroom promising violence if a not-guilty verdict was delivered, Democrat Representative Maxine Waters warned the jurors that there would be mob retaliation if they came to the wrong conclusion. Joe Biden also anticipated and potentially influenced the outcome by “praying” that the jurors would come up with “the right verdict”, which is to say guilty on all three counts of murder. It was left to the likes of old-fashioned liberal Alan Dershowitz to note that one of the jurors wore a pro-BLM T-shirt to proceedings. This made him less a juror than an advocate and would, in other circumstances, be reason enough to “vacate” the guilty verdict. Throwing all caution to the wind, the former Harvard Professor of Law remarked on the similarity between the intimidation exerted upon the judge and jurors officiating at the trial of Derek Chauvin and the tactics used by the KKK in the 1920s.
Apologists for BLM will, of course, insist that reverse racism is a fallacy because not only have “people of colour” been silenced throughout history but, according to CRT, the Founding Fathers and every white person in the land, including Abraham Lincoln, has been endowed with white privilege. Not even the death of 260,000 or more white Union soldiers during the Civil War or the 1964 Civil Rights Act can erase the original sin of race which stains every white person, informs the DNA of the Republic, and explains all the evils of the world, past, present and future. In other words, America’s youth are being indoctrinated to resent, despise and hate people—themselves included, if appropriate—born into the “wrong” family. This despotism of identity foretells the death of liberty. As Ronald Reagan observed in his 1967 inaugural address as Governor of California, “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction”.
Cancel culture, a hyper-version of the identity politics that for the past half-century plagued conservatives, has now come for contrarians like Germaine Greer and social democrats such as J.K. Rowling. No amount of money or celebrity can save them from ignominy. Liberals such as Joe Rogan, however wealthy and popular, are right to fear the abyss lurking somewhere in front of them. Most American liberals, we might assume, are going to keep their heads below the parapet and hope cancel culture and all it entails will somehow burn itself out before it burns down the house. But a fire of this kind is unlikely to abate of its own accord. The restoration of America, the return of the nation to the principles on which it was founded, could be summarised with this single line: “We all bleed the same red blood of patriots.” Now, who said that?
Daryl McCann, a regular contributor, has a blog at https://darylmccann.blogspot.com.