I’m disappointed that Bari Weiss has resigned from the New York Times and not just because she was one of the few voices of reason on the paper. A while ago, I flew to New York at Bari’s request to be interviewed by her for a forthcoming profile of a group of maverick writers and intellectuals in what was billed as a follow-up to her famous piece on the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ — a kind of Junior College branch.
Among those to be featured were the African American essayist Coleman Hughes; the Australian editor-in-chief of Quillette, Claire Lehmann; and the Swedish columnist Paulina Neuding. We spent an enjoyable afternoon together at the Times building on Eighth Avenue, having our photographs taken and being wined and dined by Weiss in the boardroom. I was looking forward to seeing the piece.
In truth, it probably wouldn’t have appeared even if she’d stuck around. The people Weiss wanted to include in her piece are all non-woke and, according to the new orthodoxy at the Times, that means we might as well be wearing white hoods, including Coleman.
As Weiss wrote in her resignation letter: ‘Op-eds that would have easily been published just two years ago would now get an editor or a writer in serious trouble, if not fired. If a piece is perceived as likely to inspire backlash internally or on social media, the editor or writer avoids pitching it. If she feels strongly enough to suggest it, she is quickly steered to safer ground. And if, every now and then, she succeeds in getting a piece published that does not explicitly promote progressive causes, it happens only after every line is carefully massaged, negotiated and caveated.’
Weiss’s resignation letter was the second broadside in the space of a week aimed at the witchfinders-general of the public square. The first was the letter in Harper’s signed by 153 liberal muckety-mucks.
From the point of view of conservatives like me, who have been banging on about this Maoist tendency for years and are constantly being told we’re just being paranoid, the letter was quite helpful. The signatories weren’t male, pale and stale Republicans like Donald Trump, who attacked ‘cancel culture’ in his Mount Rushmore speech. They were a diverse group of mainly left-wing writers, including Salman Rushdie, J.K. Rowling, Malcolm Gladwell, Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis. Surely, if they too were complaining about ‘liberal McCarthyism’, there must be something in it?
Not that the addition of these progressive voices forced the authoritarian left to admit there’s a problem. Now the free speech crisis was a figment of their imagination as well as ours. Days later, a counter-letter appeared on the Objective, this one signed by 164 people, rubbishing the claims of the first. The signatories of the Harper’s letter were described as mainly ‘white, wealthy and endowed with massive platforms’. Where did they get off complaining about being ‘canceled’?
Pankaj Mishra, the Indian essayist, took the same line on Bloomberg Opinion, arguing that the ‘privileges’ of the Harper’s whistleblowers invalidated their complaints. ‘Could it be that increasingly diverse voices and rich conversations are a threat to their free speech — more accurately, the prerogative of famous and powerful people to speak at length on all sorts of things without interruption or disagreement?’ he wrote.
That’s an easy point to rebut. The Harper’s letter writers weren’t complaining about their own speech rights being endangered — although it’s hard to argue Salman Rushdie’s haven’t been — but those of nonconformists in general. They were using their platform to highlight a problem afflicting people less well protected than they, particularly in the media, the academy and the arts. ‘Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes,’ they wrote.
The other big counterargument is that these public defenestrations aren’t an assault on the norms of a liberal society; rather, they’re an example of democracy in action. When the storm troopers of the left mobilize to get someone fired — starting open letters and petitions, launching hashtag campaigns and bombarding their employers with vexatious complaints — they’re exercising their right to free speech. If the person does end up losing their livelihood, that’s just an example of them being held accountable for their views.
There are numerous problems with that position. First, the justice being meted out to these thought criminals is mob justice, with little or no due process. If someone is accused of being racist or transphobic, their employer rarely gives them a chance to defend themselves. Second, being held accountable often involves more than just losing your job. Was Professor Allison Stanger, who tried to prevent Charles Murray being no-platformed at Middlebury College and ended up in the emergency room, being held accountable? And third, canceling someone for having the wrong opinions, even if it just involves publicly shaming them, is not within the acceptable boundaries of conventional liberal discourse, however you dress it up. It stifles dissent, shuts down conversations and creates a climate of self-censorship.
I think the time has come to open a US branch of the Free Speech Union, the organization I set up in Britain earlier this year that stands up for the speech rights of its members. If you want to get involved, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is in The Spectator’s August 2020 US edition.