It was a strange figure—like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view.
— Charles Dickens
A killed piece by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens about the forced resignation of veteran Times health and science reporter Donald McNeil is just the most recent of battlefield skirmishes that have left media executives and university administrators cowed, reputations ruined, and careers destroyed. Cancel culture looks like it’s spinning out of control.
There’s no easy way out of this national mess. But three turmoils from our mainstream media world—one Past, one Present, and another Yet to Come—are instructive. This Christmas Carol may be post-seasonal, but the nightmare isn’t about to end.
The first is the Story of Turmoil Past. In September of 2018, the New York Review of Books (NYRB) published an essay by former Canadian musician and broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, who had been accused of assault by more than twenty women. They said he had bitten, slapped, punched, and choked them during sex. Ghomeshi was tried on several charges and acquitted. At least one case was settled out of court with an apology.
There was uproar over his article. Ian Buruma, the distinguished Dutch writer who edited Ghomeshi’s piece and at the time was the editor of the NYRB, left his job. The NYRB would not say whether Buruma resigned or was fired. A long list of literary luminaries and public intellectuals—Joyce Carol Oates, Ian McEwan, Anne Applebaum—protested Buruma’s sudden departure. They said it represented an assault on the “free exploration of ideas.”
The second is the Story of Turmoil Present: Bret Stephens of the New York Times says that Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger killed Stephens’ recent column about the resignation of McNeil. The spiking of Stephens’ piece is now widely cited as another example of the curtailment of debate. McNeil was forced to leave the Times earlier this month after accusations surfaced that he had used racist language and made other offensive comments during a 2019 study trip to Peru with high school students.
Stephens shared the spiked column with colleagues, who in turn shared it with the New York Post, which ran it on February 11. Kathleen Kingsbury, head of Opinion at the Times and Stephens’ direct boss, took responsibility, saying that she, not Sulzberger, killed the piece: “I have an especially high bar of running any column that could reflect badly on a colleague and I didn’t feel that this piece rose to that level,” leaving readers to figure out what she meant.
This brings us to the Story of Turmoil Yet to Come: the case of Karen Attiah, the thirty-six-year-old, Ghana-born columnist who works as global opinion editor at the Washington Post. Attiah is a leading champion of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. It’s part of her brand to exaggerate for effect (she calls the United States a “developing country” when it comes to issues of race and equality) and to push envelopes: “White women are lucky that we are just calling them Karens and not calling for revenge.” America is “a racist society,” she says, one of whose central problems is “white masculinity.” The Texas Rangers should dump their name: They might as well be called the “Texas Klansmen,” Attiah says.
I’ll circle back to what’s Yet to Come with Attiah and the Washington Post. Cancel culture—ruining someone’s reputation or pressuring for them to be fired without due process according to woke progressive criteria—has its context, and it is painfully obvious that something in our political discourse has gone haywire.
The Need for a Wider Lens
There’s cultural blame to spread around. Social media invites snap judgments. Instant opinion trumps considered opinion. Authors and editors everywhere prize pieces that “blow up the internet.” Celebrity is cherished, narcissism accepted or even rewarded. In this sense, Donald Trump made all the sense in the world. We produced him and enabled him. Our co-dependency was almost clinically pathological. Commercial media, obsessed with ratings and beholden to shareholder value, fit into the puzzle as well. Remember the CBS executive who said in 2016 that Trump might not be good for the country but was “damn good” for the company’s bottom line?
It seems we have exquisite knowledge of details but a deficit in wisdom when it comes to piecing things together. If the American experiment fails, no one will look back and see the sources of the demise in a dearth of GDP or IQ points.
Cancel culture is of course ideological: It flows from the Left’s part in the culture wars, the side that has always depended on stark classification and overdrawn categories. (The expression “white male privilege” comes to mind.) It’s all very Marxian. But, then, all righteous crusades require easy villains. Human beings must be made into stick figures—props, really—that are wooden and one-dimensional. If you are certain you know the conclusion, and that’s what counts, how can there be time for trying to grasp the complexity of the characters and all that a complete story entails? The national socialist Right does this, too, with the broad brushing of evil elites, villainous Big Business, and liberalism as the source of all that ails us.
The #MeToo movement and the murder of George Floyd have focused the mind. Crimes and genuine injustices must be addressed. It’s a pity that so much of the Right refuses to be animated even a little by issues of race and gender discrimination. From the respectable Left, though, one would wish for a little more self-awareness and reflection. We used to acknowledge that some cures can be worse than the disease. We thought that last century’s monstrous experiment with communism had taught us this lesson once and for all. Today, we could use a respectable Left that reins in its own militant, intolerant, and reckless.
So, what happens when two uncompromising forces insist on total victory in a conflict alleged to involve, for each side, sacred first principles? That’s Sohrab Ahmari vs. AOC, extremes begetting extremes. We keep hearing from Trumpists that the Left is to blame for the violence of January 6. We’ve heard from the Left the reasons why the looting and arson after Floyd’s killing were unavoidable and even understandable. Then, we had the beheading of Christopher Columbus statues. It keeps gathering steam.
Deep Breath and Lead
Culture changes slowly. There’s no single way to restore trust, civility, empathy, respect—and what used to count as common sense. But surely our leaders can step up, take flak, and do a better job in shaping constructive conversations. People fear being smeared and losing their jobs. Those are indeed frightening things. We still live in a country, though, in which no one goes to prison for saying, “I beg to differ.” No media executives or deans or provosts will be tortured or disappear in the night because they insist on investigating a problem fully and fairly. We say, “Speak truth to power!” We mean, “Speak up to your boss!” Progressives think social media crowds achieve social justice. Now, we have bosses who tremble over being candid with their employees.
In the case of Ian Buruma, what if those in charge at the New York Review of Books had slowed things down and insisted on proper due diligence and a postmortem that included editor and staff? There were editing problems at the very least, with author Ghomeshi being permitted to assert in his article, for example, that he had “several” accusers. One might have met with any of the twenty women who claimed they had been assaulted by Ghomeshi. One might have reviewed the matter with any of the 109 individuals who ended up signing the letter protesting Buruma’s abrupt departure. They were all contributors to the magazine.
One could also have probed the editor’s intent more carefully. It was indeed poor judgment for the NYRB to run the Ghomeshi article without adequate vetting, including participation from women on the team. What was going through Buruma’s head at the time? “I made a themed issue about #MeToo perpetrators who were not convicted by the judiciary but by social media,” he said. “And now I am on the pillory myself.” But cancel culture conflates issues, rushes and forces judgments, and sees all sins as mortal.
In the case of the departed New York Times reporter, intent initially mattered to management—until, suddenly, after controversy erupted, it didn’t. The New York Times is by all accounts once again an internally divided mess. Opinion writer Bari Weiss resigned last summer, claiming that Twitter had become the “ultimate editor” at the Times. There ought to be a “what if” account written of both the Weiss and Stephens-McNeil affairs that would have had Times management doing its job effectively, with better outcomes.
And as for the Turmoil Yet to Come, I’ll wager that a bumpy road lies ahead for Karen Attiah and the Washington Post, or at least for a case like Attiah’s: a Black woman mixing journalism and activism, bloodying noses, and acting as if she is unaccountable, while in the employ of a largely white management team running an essentially establishment paper and wrestling with a range of equities, internal and external. I’d want an honest conversation about roles and responsibilities, authorities, expectations, and ethics—now. Loads of writers needle in excruciating (and, indeed, exquisite) ways. But then again, context. We find ourselves in a moment where the logic of free-speech absolutism is tested mightily, and where those who sign paychecks often feel themselves under pressure to navigate complexity and ambiguity, suddenly and quickly.
We need both concrete ways forward and a wider lens on all this. A decade ago in Prague, I saw something that stunned me and stuck with me. It was a cold winter afternoon. The sidewalk was icy. Across the street from me, a teenage girl, walking on crutches with arm braces, struggled to keep up with a couple a good ten paces ahead. The young woman kept falling. The parents—I assumed they were a family—kept shouting back at her. I was appalled. Then, suddenly, the girl gathered up the crutches, ran past the couple to an elderly woman in a wheelchair a few steps ahead, and handed her the crutches.
Only minutes before, I had been convinced that I was seeing callous and dangerous behavior demanding that I call someone or at least say something. In the end I realized that the parents were probably just calling to their daughter, “Hurry up, and stop playing with grandma’s crutches.”
So, I’d say, resist quick judgments. Forget the snapshots. Follow the film, with all its developments, nuances, and subplots. Frame and contextualize. Doing these things is, admittedly, countercultural.
A big picture view of things was of course what Charles Dickens was going for in his celebrated 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol. If Scrooge could be confronted in cold harsh light by the Ghosts of Past, Present, and Future, he might grasp what was truly important before it was too late.
We cannot cancel the cancel culture warriors, nor can we keep appeasing them. Take a deep breath. Push leaders to lead. This means no more summary executions by Twitter mobs or petitions. It means everybody gets held accountable. We all have to become responsible. Hard conversations need to begin.
Jeffrey Gedmin is CEO and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe