Faculty demanded this week that the trustees reconsider, but so far the board has stood firm.
There’s little question this is the conservative version of cancellation, motivated by the controversial politics of Hannah-Jones and her signature work, the 1619 Project, which reframed U.S. history around slavery. Such ideological interference from a politically appointed board is dangerous. It’s also hypocritical, given how much conservatives complain about cancel culture.
But there’s also some hypocrisy in complaining about it. A writer who chose less controversial topics probably wouldn’t have had trouble with the trustees — or received so much acclaim from left-wing institutions. And of course, many of the progressives outraged have previously been enthusiastic about using institutional power to cull ideological enemies. This includes the University of North Carolina system, where conservative professor Mike Adams was sanctioned and eventually forced into early retirement over his opinion columns and tweets, an event that led to his suicide last year.
It’s also highly visible at the New York Times, where James Bennet was forced to resign as editorial page editor last year after publishing a controversial op-ed from a Republican senator. After the publication of the column by Tom Cotton, Hannah-Jones tweeted that she was “deeply ashamed that we ran this.” Additionally, she attended a meeting of Black Times employees with senior editors about veteran Times reporter Donald McNeil at which, she later told Slate, she said her own reporting indicated that McNeil had “made what some consider misogynistic and culturally insensitive remarks in general.” Among many conservatives, she’s at least as well known for these episodes as she is for the 1619 Project, which may have played some role in the UNC debacle.
All of which raises a question: Do cancellation artists themselves deserve protection from being canceled? And is such a thing even possible?
My answer to the first question is yes. Conservatives reveling in schadenfreude, or writing earnest excuses for the board, should remember that they have the most to lose from undermining academic freedom. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonpartisan group that defends free speech on campus, has recorded 388 attempts to sanction scholars for their views since 2015. According to senior research fellow Sean Stevens, 253 came from the left of the scholar; 135 came from the right.
Unfortunately, my answer to the second question is that the arguments above are simply no longer effective. Too many people no longer believe in the old liberal social contract of “do unto others” and “live and let live,” in part because they don’t trust that goodwill gestures will be reciprocated.
Can academia and mainstream media really be shamed into giving conservative ideas a fairer hearing, for example, if conservatives do the principled thing and grant Hannah-Jones tenure? Hardly.
Besides, many within their ranks think they are in an existential battle with the forces of evil, so they quite understandably refuse to make a mutual nonaggression pact. Eisenhower’s Allied Expeditionary Force didn’t try to set a good example for the Nazis by modeling the golden rule; they aimed for overwhelming firepower.
This view of our current partisan battles reportedly has a powerful following within the Times, and whether Hannah-Jones identifies with that approach, she embodies it for many conservatives. The events at UNC, however, also embody its contradictions.
While cancellation artists talk of a world-historical mission to save America from itself, the battles they choose are exceedingly parochial. This creates a sort of optical illusion: Because control of American institutions is now so skewed — the left has most of the cultural power, while the right punches above its weight politically — those local battles have never been easier for a hard-line faction to win. Unfortunately, such easy victories make the Eisenhower option look more plausible than it is.
Even Donald Trump, our canceler in chief, ultimately used his power mostly to transform the Republican Party, not the country writ large. If you can’t achieve total dominion by securing the Oval Office, you certainly won’t manage it by grabbing faculty lounges and editorial boards.
One hears a lot of fantasizing about how one might force the other side to cede its power bases while retaining one’s own — dreams of extra states and packed courts, or antitrust action against conservative-unfriendly social media platforms. But if either side had enough juice to manage this feat, they wouldn’t need to actually do it; they’d already have won.
Which is why none of these dreams has spun anywhere close to reality thus far. Combatants geared up for the Moral Equivalent of War have merely dragged us into the Moral Equivalent of Quagmire — plenty of casualties but no real path to victory. It’s probably useless to say it one more time, but I will anyway: It would be prudent to seek the Moral Equivalent of Peace instead.