America’s cancel culture is sometimes compared to McCarthyism, but the comparison is fast becoming quaint. The only beneficiary of McCarthyism was an alcoholic Wisconsin senator, and the losers were at least mostly grown adults. But in 2020, the winners are vindictive sadists, and the losers can be just about anyone.

On Boxing Day, the New York Times published a long article on the sorry story of Virginia high school graduate Mimi Groves. Groves was set to matriculate at the University of Tennessee when a high school classmate maliciously decided to trash her life.

Three years ago, at the age of 15, Groves celebrated getting her learner’s permit by sending a short Snapchat to a friend.

‘I can drive, n*ggers,’ Groves said in the clip.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Groves would have been better off had she instead committed armed robbery, or assaulted her teacher with a hammer. In such cases, her records would have been sealed at 18, with colleges and employers prohibited from taking notice.

To her lifelong sorrow, Mimi did not bash someone’s brains out with a hammer. Her offense was worse than a crime. It was a transgression, a violation of the ever-more-complicated gnarl of rules and commands that define 2020 America’s racial civic religion.

Her video made its way through her high school, eventually into the possession of one Jimmy Galligan. While Groves is white, the Times says that Galligan’s ‘mother is Black and father is white’. Galligan hoarded the video away for more than three years, waiting so he could use it at the moment of maximum sadism. He finally published the video online in June, after Groves was accepted at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. A social media witch hunt ensued, and the consequences were swift: Tennessee admissions officials contacted Groves’s parents, and said she could either withdraw or have her admissions offer rescinded. She withdrew, and is now attending a community college.

Groves’s public humiliation might be understandable had Groves transgressed a real taboo, if the ‘n-word’ was considered so apocalyptically evil that it had been totally banished from all public discourse, surviving only in old books and carefully curated explanatory texts.

But of course, the opposite is true. The world that Miss Groves inhabits is positively drenched in the n-word. Not only is it used routinely, but it is also deployed exclusively by the coolest people in pop culture. Along with foul words for genitals, it could be the single most common word in rap music. Cardi B.’s ‘WAP’, recently declared song of the year by NPR, gleefully uses the word.

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There is no evidence at all that Groves used the word as part of a racist attack. She was a teenager trying to be cool, too young to know the difference between being edgy and giving vindictive ratbags an excuse to hurt her.

The demolition of poor Miss Groves has drawn some reaction from the right, but perhaps not of the kind that would actually be helpful. Rod Dreher at the American Conservative has updated his blog post about Galligan’s smug wickedness five separate times. Reason’s Robby Soave and Fox News, meanwhile, have criticized the Times for its coverage of the story.

But Cockburn thinks everyone is ignoring the elephant, or rather, the volunteer in the room. It wasn’t the pathetic Mr Galligan or the Times who wrecked Groves’s life. None of them held any power over her. Rather, it was the University of Tennessee, a taxpayer-funded institution beholden to the First Amendment, which revoked Groves’s admission. Conservatives control every major office in Tennessee above the level of county dogcatcher, so instead of just dunking on the Times, a useful response might be passing laws to bar a state flagship from enforcing crimethink rules on 15-year-olds. Don’t expect any of that to happen, though. To paraphrase Willam F. Buckley, in 2020 American conservatism is standing athwart history, wincing mildly at the darkening shadow of a new, ethnonarcissist authoritarianism that directly targets their children.