Cancel Culture Blues: The Strange Case of Steven Wilson

I need to stop reading stories like this, because if I do, I’m in danger of lapsing into Michael Young’s running dog reactionary views on cancel culture.* I’m still a big fan of cancellation as an idea, but if this is what “cancel culture” is going to be, then my thought is: leave me the hell out of it. But this isn’t what cancel culture has to be. We have a choice about what form it will take.

[Steven] Wilson was the chief executive of Ascend, the consortium of central Brooklyn charter schools he built, beginning with plans devised on his dining room table in 2007.

But Mr. Wilson was effectively barred from celebrating with his students.

Several weeks earlier, he had written a blog post embracing the values of a classical education; some younger members of his staff perceived it as racially traumatizing. Others found it simply tone-deaf. He was in a kind of purgatory, still employed by Ascend but taken out of its day-to-day operation.

Racially traumatizing? Even the tendentious, cherry-picked Times article gives the impression that Wilson’s essay is an expression of hood-wearing, cross-burning white supremacy. Jesus Christ. Read it, and come to your own judgment.  If you’re racially traumatized by this essay, you’re the problem, not Steven Wilson.

I don’t mean that I entirely agree with what Wilson says. I’d have to sit down with his essay, re-read it, and think it through. Even at first reading, I’d say it makes some questionable assertions. But you could say that of any piece of writing. What you couldn’t legitimately do is read an essay of this nature, see the word “whiteness,” glance at a few bland criticisms of current pedagogical practices and assumptions, yank them out of context, jump reflexively to the conclusion that the author is a racist, and then embark on a hysterical crusade to get him fired from the school he founded. (It doesn’t matter whether you accept or reject the legitimacy of charter schools. The essential issue here is neutral as between various institutional arrangements.)

Maybe it takes the erstwhile nigger of his neighborhood to say this–I grew up in north Jersey during the 80s being called a “nigger” and still sometimes get called that, at least on the Internet–but: at a certain point, white people are going to have to take on the responsibility of standing up to black and brown people who engage in the racial equivalent of “crying wolf.” And they’re going to have to do it even when the people doing the attacking are supposedly woke folk with names like “Ahmed Ahmed,” and the people on the receiving end of the attacks are rich, middle aged white guys in suits with names like “Steven Wilson.” That means not sitting by in silence when the Steven Wilsons of the world are attacked, hoping that the attacks don’t come your way. It also means going on the offensive against people who want to play the race card when there’s no legitimate reason to do so.

As someone who’s been on the receiving end of racial animus all my life, and has been accused of stupid bullshit all my life, trust me: brown people like me do not seek alliances with white people who cringe reflexively before every charge of “racism,” no matter how ill-founded or motivated by malice or grandstanding they may be. We know, intuitively, that nothing can be gained from alliances with cowards, especially not cowards who seek to ingratiate themselves with us by fawning over our brownness–too obviously a woke mode of brown-nosing to be mistaken for moral probity. We seek alliances with people who have a certain degree of moral backbone, whatever their skin color–and to some degree whatever their political affiliation–who don’t wilt before every challenge, or fall apart because their adversaries wield black or brown skin color as a rhetorical weapon.

An old-fashioned Republican with integrity beats a woke leftist without scruples any day. I’d much rather forge an alliance with a Paul Findley than with an Ahmed Ahmed. And as readers of this blog know, this despite the fact that my own name is “Ahmad.”

A person of moral and intellectual integrity may be wrong about this or that issue, but has the resources and will to self-correction. She’s not afraid of making mistakes, even on racial matters. She worries more whether she’s doing the best she can under the circumstances than about the names people call her. Instead of canceling people for innocent mistakes or sheer disagreements, we should be building a coalition against our actual enemies, the ethno-nationalist fascists eagerly seeking our destruction. From this perspective, the people attacking Wilson are attacking more than one person or one essay. They’re attacking the moral and intellectual resources that make genuine resistance to real fascism possible. When we get to that sort of fascism, the sort of people “traumatized” by Wilson’s essay will be useless as allies in the fight. The best proof of this is that they are, after all, more than useless now.


*I’m joking for effect. I don’t really regard Michael as a running dog reactionary. He’s a cat person.

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