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.

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The Girl Who Did Her Cause No Favors

I almost feel guilty saying this, but as yet, I have no strong view on climate change. I more or less defer to expert opinion on the subject, which as I understand it holds that the planet is on fire, that it’s our fault, and in consequence that we should shop less and recycle more. At least half of that message is music to my ears: I find shopping a bore, and often think the planet deserves to be burned down. The other half I find unobjectionable: it wouldn’t surprise me if the planet’s demise were our fault (given my estimation of the people who inhabit it), and at this point, I’ve been married often enough to have internalized recycling. So I’m down with the whole climate change agenda.

I’m less down with Greta Thunberg, whom I find problematic. Or rather, not with Greta the person, but Greta the media phenomenon. Unlike many of Greta’s critics (and yes, I’m going to call her that), I don’t dislike Greta the person. I like her. Not only do I like her, but I like the very things about her that her critics so intensely dislike. She’s a hectoring, fanatical, self-righteous prig. A kindred spirit, in short. Continue reading

“Believe Women Except When…”

So whatever happened to the “Believe Women” mantra, brought to us care of #MeToo? Yesterday’s unqualified axiom seems to have been washed away by today’s intra-progressive controversy. The reasoning here seems to be: Elizabeth Warren accused Bernie Sanders of sexism. But Bernie is more progressive than Liz. So the accusation can’t possibly be true, because if it were true, its truth would ruin the most progressive mainstream candidate’s shot at the presidency. Hence the accusation must be false, and Elizabeth Warren is a bit of a bitch for making it. From which it follows that the “Believe Women” axiom must also be false, though we’re not to say so out loud.

Gee, that was easy. Who knew that moralized axioms could so lightly be adopted, and so lightly be cast aside?  Continue reading

That Zola Commercial

Here it is:

As you’ve probably gathered, the Hallmark Channel pulled this ad because the couple’s kissing–at their own wedding–supposedly violated Hallmark’s “policies on PDA.” Apart from the obvious hypocrisy and disingenuousness involved in invoking this excuse–what channel runs an ad that violates its own policies?–surely the question has to arise: why would any company adopt so idiotic a policy in the first place? Are articulable reasons involved, or just inarticulate fears? Continue reading

Vile, Stupid, and Tenured

I rarely praise university administrators, but then, I rarely have the opportunity to do so. For once, an opportunity presents itself:

The provost did not mince her words about the opinions of a professor on her campus. His views were racist, sexist and homophobic, she wrote in a statement this week. They were “vile and stupid,” she said, and “more consistent with someone who lived in the 18th century than the 21st.”

But the provost, Lauren Robel of Indiana University Bloomington, was equally clear on another point: The First Amendment prohibited the university from firing the professor, Eric Rasmusen, for expressing those views. “That is not a close call,” wrote Professor Robel, who also teaches at the law school.

The unusually candid statement quickly drew attention from students, academics and lawyers, many of whom praised the provost for publicly excoriating the professor’s opinions while respecting one of the nation’s basic freedoms.

For once, a provost who’s struck the right balance between bureaucratic amoralism and opportunistic, pseudo-moralistic pandering. She’s absolutely right: firing Rasmusen is not a close call; neither is condemning him. The only close call is whether he should have been hired in the first place, but that ship has sailed. Continue reading

The Unwarranted Demonization of Scot Peterson (3): A Series

I’ve previously written two posts on the Scot Peterson case under the title of “The Premature Demonization of Scot Peterson.” Here’s the first post, and here’s the second. Here’s background on the criminal case.

Having revisited and followed the case for the last few weeks, and having had a couple of conversations both with Peterson and with one of his colleagues, I’ve decided to turn this into an ongoing series. But there’s no need at this point for the overly cautious title I initially used. The demonization of Scot Peterson isn’t just “premature”; it’s an act of collective irresponsibility verging on hysteria. I so far have not been convinced that Peterson deserves to be called either a “failure” or a “coward,” much less a criminal. It seems more apt to describe him as the unfortunate victim of a society addicted to loose talk and unrestrained vindictiveness. As I see it, even commentators properly skeptical of the criminal charges against Peterson have bought too easily into the claim that he “failed” to stop the shooter out of “cowardice” (and have irresponsibly repeated those claims). Continue reading

R. Kelly and Mob Justice

I was on spring break last week, so I made the mistake of sitting down and watching some TV for the first time since Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s just my ineptitude with a remote, but aside from Ilhan Omar’s anti-Semitism, the only topic that seemed up for discussion was R. Kelly and the charges made against him. (I also made the mistake of watching Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” quixotically expecting a Spike Lee movie to rise above the level of a comic book, but alas, wrong again. More on that fiasco some other time.)

Here’s an obvious point about guilt and innocence when it comes to criminal charges: if you’re going to try someone for a criminal allegation in the court of public opinion–a very big and very dubious if–you have to distinguish clearly between four mutually exclusive things:

  • the case against him,
  • the case in his defense,
  • the set of known facts that don’t easily fit either of the first two categories, and
  • the unknowns.

The least you can do is to try to do justice to the facts in all four categories, rather than fixating on, say, the case against him to the exclusion of everything else. There are complications here about how broadly or narrowly to understand each category, but even if we set those aside, there’s more than enough complexity here to keep a competent journalist busy for awhile. Continue reading

The Obligation to Smile

I just taught a class on cat-calling in my ethics course, focused in part on this famous viral video on the subject just below. A number of issues came up about cat-calling as such, but for reasons that are obvious to anyone who’s seen the video, a secondary issue came up as well: whether anyone ever has an obligation to smile.

I had always assumed that the answer had to be “no”: you have no free-standing obligation to smile, and certainly no obligation to smile on command. Properly conceived, smiling is the epitome of a spontaneous expression of one’s inner states: you smile when you’re genuinely in a good mood. To fake a smile is to wreck it: you fake a smile when you want other people to think (or even pretend to think) that you’re in a smiley mood when you aren’t. But there’s no good reason to do that, and lots of good reasons to avoid it. Fake smiling distorts your relationship with others, and distorts your relationship with your own inner states. It demands that you literally present a face to the world that in some sense isn’t yours, then do your best to believe that it is.    Continue reading

Hang ‘Em High: Abortion, Gaza, and the Gallows

This has now become the standard conservative line on the Kevin Williamson affair, care of Bret Stephens of The New York Times. The “you” refers to Kevin Williamson.

The case against you, as best as I can tell, rests on three charges. You think abortion is murder and tweeted — appallingly in my view — that doctors and women should perhaps be hanged for it. You believe “sex is a biological reality” and that gender should not be a choice. And you once boorishly described an African-American boy in East St. Louis, Ill., “raising his palms to his clavicles, elbows akimbo, in the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge.” …

Weighed against these charges are hundreds of thousands of words of smart, stylish and often hilarious commentary, criticism and reportage. …

Shouldn’t great prose and independent judgment count for something? Not according to your critics. We live in the age of guilt by pull-quote, abetted by a combination of lazy journalism, gullible readership, missing context, and technologies that make our every ill-considered utterance instantly accessible and utterly indelible. I jumped at your abortion comment, but for heaven’s sake, it was a tweet. When you write a whole book on the need to execute the tens of millions of American women who’ve had abortions, then I’ll worry.

We also live in an age — another one — of excommunication. This is ugly because its spirit is illiberal, and odd, because its consequences are negligible. Should The Atlantic foolishly succumb to pressure to rescind your job offer, you’ll still be widely read, presumably at National Review. If you’re really the barbarian your critics claim, you’re already through the gates.

The Atlantic did eventually rescind Williamson’s job offer, so I guess the barbarian has been ejected from the gates. Question in passing: if the consequences of the current spirit of excommunication are “negligible,” why the fuss? Continue reading