In his post critiquing my original post on cancellation, David Potts has a long passage about the politics of our dealings with the People’s Republic of China (the PRC). Instead of quoting it at length right now, I mention it as preface to what I want to say about China in this post; I’ll respond directly to DP’s comments in part 2 of this post. For now, suffice it say that one of the things I find puzzling is how DP’s discussion of China relates to, or rebuts, anything I’ve said in defense of cancellation. Either his remarks are meant to rebut my claims or not. If they are, I don’t see how they do; if they’re not, I don’t see why they’re there. But let me save the development of that thought for part 2. For now, I want to say something more directly about the idea of cancelling the PRC. The tl;dr here is: I’m all in. The PRC is on my list of countries that badly need to be cancelled.
Though China has not been a sustained focus of my writing or activism, I have no love whatsoever for the PRC, at least as a political entity, and no objection whatsoever to the idea of cancelling it. That it hasn’t been a focus of my political attention is a function of the fact that no single person can focus on every evil in the world; for a variety of reasons, my attention has been focused elsewhere. That we can’t, as DP points out, literally cancel the PRC on every front is true, but not all that significant, whether morally, politically, or practically.
It would be quixotic and irrational to try, at this late date, to cancel the PRC in a wholesale way, e.g., to stop buying Chinese products, to break off all relations, to “build a wall” between them and us, etc. Nothing about the theory or practice of cancellation requires a commitment to willful quixoticism that ignores cost-benefit calculations, or blindness to path-dependencies that constrain one’s options. That you can’t cancel something as a whole doesn’t entail that you can’t cancel it in piecemeal fashion, or that you shouldn’t. Realism is a necessary condition of any sane course of action, cancellation included.
That said, there are ways of engaging in discrete but morally/politically significant cancellations of the PRC that are eminently do-able and can have an impact, but at present don’t have the traction in our political culture that they should. Consider a few examples, some drawn from my own personal experiences, extending across a few decades.
(1) As I’ve said, China has not been a significant focus of my writing or activism, but it hasn’t been entirely off of my radar screen, either. About twenty years ago, I called for the (literal) cancellation of Princeton University’s Study Abroad program in China, Princeton-in-Beijing, in the pages of the university’s alumni magazine, Princeton Alumni Weekly (PAW) (scroll down for it). Though the university didn’t cancel the program (and probably never seriously contemplated doing so), my letter was noticed back then, not just by ordinary readers of PAW, but by those in charge of the program itself. Some readers of PAW agreed with me; others called me a “fascist.” Meanwhile, the then-director of Princeton-in-Beijing, Professor C.P. Chou, made a weak, characteristically pro forma attempt to respond to my claims (I mean “characteristic” of a university administrator) without mentioning me by name, or responding directly to my arguments.
Because I didn’t, at the time, have the wherewithal or political wisdom to follow through, my proposal for cancellation predictably went nowhere. The lesson to learn here was not that cancellations are a bad idea as such, but that I had done a bad job at following through on the cancellation that I’d proposed. It’s a mistake (however tempting) to issue a call for cancellation if you either don’t intend to follow through on your initial demand, or don’t have a plan for exploiting your initial demand in some form at a later date. To call for cancellation once and leave things there is to set your cancellation up for failure.
It’s a mistake, in other words, to treat cancellations as a one-time effusion of expressivist sentiment. Cancellation is a tactic that only makes sense in the context of a broader strategy. A strategy only makes sense in the context of the broader moral values that motivate the goals behind the strategy. If you divorce cancellation from that overall moral-strategic context, the tactic ceases to have a point and inevitably fails, as mine did. Predictably, Princeton-in-Beijing remains in place; Professor Chou had a long and eminent career at Princeton in East Asian Studies, and has now earned Emeritus status there. Evidently, there are no penalties in academia for complicity with totalitarianism–another way of saying that in a world where people equate accountability with litigation or prosecution, the non-legal phenomenon of moral accountability atrophies, withers, and dies.
There’s another lesson here: an attempted (and failed) cancellation remains a kind of cancellation. Many cancellation attempts do, after all, fail. It’s a mistake to focus only on the ones that succeed, and infer that the successes (or worse, the successes that get mass media attention, or even worse, the successes that get mass media attention, are perpetrated by “the Left,” and exemplify a very specific fact-pattern) are the only ones that exist. That’s cherry picking, and it’s the basic hallmark of all wholesale critiques of cancellation, i.e., critiques of the practice as such: focus on some cancellations, ignore the others, and let some stand in as proxies for all.
(2) When, a few years later (2003-2004), I taught in the Politics Department at Princeton, I discovered–through a gifted Taiwanese student of mine, Catherine Chou, now an academic historian in her own right–that Chinese graduate students had been bullying and threatening Taiwanese students at the university. (I gather that this doesn’t just happen at Princeton, but is a general phenomenon on many university campuses, and of course, constitutes a looming problem for Taiwan itself.) For all of the loud talk about creating “safe spaces” for students on campus, the university ignored this. And it’s not that it didn’t receive complaints about it. It did; it just ignored or minimized them. It’s one thing, I guess, for bigoted jocks or TERFs to bully gay or trans students; it’s another thing for Chinese communists to bully Taiwanese undergrads. Chinese students are, after all, big business. And Chinese communists are, apparently, no big deal.
Or so says standard-issue university propaganda. Regardless, I would say that communist bullying fully justified activism against and cancellation of, the bullies. There would have been nothing wrong with–on the contrary, a lot right about–“woke mobs” of students demonstrating in front of Nassau Hall, demanding an end to bullying by Chinese students, and failing that, demanding the “cancellation” of every one of these communist student-bullies, that is, by expulsion and deportation (following the application of all relevant procedures, of course, but with a sense of urgency about initiating the process). If Princeton students could do as much to demand the institution of Asian-American studies at Princeton (as they did), they could have done the same in solidarity with Taiwanese students on campus.* I don’t know if my critics will regard that as “cancellation” by their standards, but being expelled and deported is no picnic, and I’d have been perfectly happy to see the guilty parties get the full treatment. They had it coming.
In other words, there’s no reason to think that cancellation should be reserved for stereotypically left-wing causes. Nothing I’ve said in defense of cancellation should (or ever did) suggest that communists (or leftists) should be immune from cancellation. I don’t mean, of course, that simply being a communist or leftist should set you up for cancellation. I mean that cancel-worthy behavior should be cancelled whether it comes from the Right, the Left, or comes from nowhere in particular, ideologically speaking.
In his remarks on China, DP links to a cringe-worthy video with the actor John Cena.
If DP’s point is that Cena’s remarks are indeed embarrassing and cringeworthy, I can only agree. But I would remind readers that I was the one who called for the cancellation of “Mulan” on this blog over a year ago. No one at the time responded to my anti-“Mulan” post whether to agree that “Mulan” should be cancelled, or to protest the Maoist/Stasi “thought police” character of my suggestion. The suggestion simply went unnoticed.
My point here is not to rue the fact that people fail to respond to my brilliant posts (grevious as that is). It’s to draw attention to the cherry-picking that critics of “cancel culture” engage in when they criticize cancellation. When cancellation involves left-wing malfeasance against innocent victims–or rather, left-wing malfeasance involving a third party complaint that harms an innocent person, typically by terminating them from a job for a putatively offensive speech act (apparently, that’s how specific it has to be to count)–it gets noticed and is thought to count as a “true instance” of cancel culture. By contrast, when cancellation targets communists, it gets ignored. And my call to cancel “Mulan” was hardly idiosyncratic to me. It’s not as though I started a trend that others had climbed aboard; I was the one who was following a trend that others had started. (Here is the BBC on that campaign; here is Fortune.) I mean, a person who hasn’t owned a TV in over a year can hardly be called a trend setter.
So here is a question: How can the failure to cancel Chinese communism be an objection to my defense of cancellation when I’m the one who’s actually advocated the cancellation of Chinese communists? Meanwhile, my would-be critics haven’t actually advocated cancelling Chinese communists–indeed, have come out against cancellation as such, presumably including the cancellation of Chinese communists–because cancellation obscures the moral complexities of the issues of the day.
Are the evils of Chinese communism really so complex right now that we can’t discern what they are, and act accordingly? A twenty-first century reader can almost (almost) see why Hannah Arendt, writing in the 1950s and 60s, might have hedged her bets about the moral character of Chinese communism when she was writing The Origins of Totalitarianism.** But that was then; this is now. There is, as I see it, no need, in the year 2022, to get lost in the epistemic thickets of moral complexity over the judgment we’re to make on the PRC. That regime deserves something by way of pushback, even if cancellation is the best we can do.
(3) That brings me to my third and final example: the Beijing Olympics. I won’t belabor this one. Like the 1936 Berlin Olympics in Nazi Germany (which weren’t boycotted but should have been), and the 1980 Moscow Olympics (which properly were boycotted), I think the Beijing Olympics should have been boycotted–fully boycotted. I appreciate the symbolism of the partial boycott that’s taken place, but don’t think it goes far enough. Chinese repression of its ethnic minorities (meaning: between 1-2 million people in concentration camps), and the PRC’s assaults on Hong Kong, deserve something more robust than a mere “diplomatic boycott.” That we didn’t go beyond a diplomatic boycott is not an objection to cancellation as a practice, but an indication that there isn’t nearly enough of it to go around.
The case for a full boycott of the Beijing Olympics has eloquently been made by Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post and Ilya Somin in Reason magazine. It’s also been made by activists who in no plausible sense can be described as associated with the American Right (not that I think Somin can). Feel free to add my non-right-wing name to that list, and add yours, whatever your political affiliation. The Olympics, alas, are underway as I post this, and not even the most zealous social justice warrior thinks that we should go back in time to stop them from happening. But there is such a thing as learning from the mistakes of the past, and trying to ensure that we don’t make the same ones in the future. We can’t boycott this Olympics, but that won’t be an excuse come the next one that deserves it.
*Actually (as the link documents), the protesters demanding a program in Asian-American Studies broke into Nassau Hall, and staged a sit-in. I’ve gone out of my way to suggest that protesters should gather in front of the building, not break into it. I generally do not regard sit-ins as justified.
**The pages that Arendt spends on Maoist China in Totalitarianism would make for an interesting study of the question, “How much certainty can one claim of the moral character of a closed, faraway society?” Arendt focuses on the relatively narrow academic question of whether Chinese Communism ca. 1966 was “totalitarian,” in her narrowly idiosyncratic sense of that word, a point on which she claims agnosticism. But “totalitarian” or not, she makes it plain that the Maoist regime was a murderous dictatorship based on state-sponsored terrorism, which seems like more than enough for a moral verdict (Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, vol. 3 of The Origins of Totalitarianism, pp. viii-x of the 1966 Introduction to the 1968 edition).
The Beatles famously rendered a similar verdict on Chairman Mao in “Revolution” (1968): “But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.” Sounds like a manifesto for cancellation to me.