This coercive cultural turn threatens to devour what remains of America’s civic comity and push durable social progress on race and politics out of reach.
We describe this as a Jacobin moment because it has the fervor and indiscriminate judgment of the revolutionary mind. The guillotine isn’t in use, but the impulse is the same to destroy careers, livelihoods and reputations. The wave of resignations, firings, disavowals and forced apologies at institutions large and small is moving so fast it is difficult to keep track.
This month editors at the New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer lost their jobs after staff revolts over an op-ed and headline, respectively. Now the editor of Philadelphia Magazine, Tom McGrath, is resigning after the staff made racial demands. Critics pointed to stories they disliked from 2013 and 2015.
Economists have often been more resistant to ideological orthodoxy than other intellectuals. No longer. University of Chicago economist Harald Uhlig lost his contract with the Chicago Federal Reserve after tweets in which he argued that the Black Lives Matter movement “just torpedoed itself, with its full-fledged support of #defundthepolice.” Mr. Uhlig said he favored the Democratic Party’s more moderate reform proposals. Chicago Fed President Charles Evans, 13 years at the helm, rolled over without a peep.
Economists now want Mr. Uhlig stripped of his editorship of the Journal of Political Economy. New York Times political enforcer Paul Krugman tweeted that Mr. Uhlig is a “privileged white man” and he doubted his “objectivity” to edit the journal. Justin Wolfers of the University of Michigan combed through Mr. Uhlig’s old blog posts and claimed to be outraged that Mr. Uhlig in 2017 criticized left-wing violence.
The purge is being felt across academia. One lecturer was suspended by UCLA’s business school for a blunt email rejecting a student request to make different rules for final exams for black students. Another is facing investigation after reading in class Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It contains the n-word, so professors may now deny students a classic American document on moral opposition to unjust state power.
At MIT, a chaplain was forced out over an email that condemned George Floyd’s death but also noted his criminal record and said, “Many people have claimed that racism is major problem in police forces. I don’t think we know that.”
The purges have reached into left-wing circles beyond the media. David Shor, an analyst at progressive consultancy Civis Analytics, was pushed out soon after tweeting research from Princeton calling into question the efficacy of riots. The leadership of the Poetry Foundation resigned this month after an open letter denounced the foundation’s statement denouncing systemic racism for being too vague.
In the world of sports, the NBA’s Sacramento Kings cut ties with announcer Grant Napear after he was asked on Twitter his views on Black Lives Matter and replied that “ALL LIVES MATTER…EVERY SINGLE ONE!!!” The coach of Oklahoma State University had to publicly apologize after he was photographed on a fishing trip wearing a shirt bearing the logo of “One America News,” a pro-Trump network.
Entertainment is also being subject to new forms of regulation on artistic expression. HBO announced this month that it is temporarily scrubbing “Gone With the Wind,” the classic Civil War novel-turned-movie, from its video library. Mobs are pulling down statues of Confederate generals, but in San Francisco they also pulled down Junipero Serra, an 18th-century missionary and Catholic saint, and U.S. Presidents are targets (see nearby).
The purges also reach into local schools and governments. A Vermont principal was removed after posting on Facebook “I firmly believe that Black Lives Matter,” but “Just because I don’t walk around with a BLM sign should not mean I am a racist.” The mayor of the northern California town of Healdsburg resigned after doubting police reform was necessary in that community. She was excoriated and told local press that “my intention was to follow through with my term, but basically at what personal price?”
Some of the targets of these campaigns may have spoken or acted clumsily, but apologists for cancel culture can find reasons to stigmatize or banish anyone. For some, the destruction of social goods like academic freedom and political pluralism is merely collateral damage if the goal is seen as just. We doubt most Americans agree with this unforgiving and punitive approach to cultural change, but the revolutionaries are now in charge with a vengeance.
They won’t stop by themselves because their campaign is essentially about power and control, and they need new villains. But as they march through liberal institutions, they are also laying waste to liberal values of free speech, democratic debate and cultural tolerance.
Someone has to stop this, and first and foremost that means the liberal establishment. The leaders of universities, foundations, museums, the media and corporations need to draw on their remaining moral authority to make the case for a liberal society. There is a risk that anyone who speaks up, however reasonably, will become a mob target. But if one or two lead, perhaps others will follow.
Social comity in a polarized society will not be achieved through coercion and struggle sessions. If liberals won’t stop the Jacobin left, expect a political backlash and social fracture that will make Donald Trump’s Presidency look like a tea party.