I’ve told you about mantras I teach undergraduates. Here’s another one: “You can’t get anything done when fascists are sitting at the table of democratic politics.” A democratic community can tolerate a vast array of opinions. However, it cannot, and should not, tolerate opinions in which democratic politics is the problem. If it does, then nothing needing to get done gets done—and everyone suffers. Kaitlin Byrd put it another way: “Democrats are the entire spectrum of rational politics in this country. We don’t have a government, and we won’t, until we break the Republican Party.”
I think Byrd’s “spectrum of rational politics” is ideal for viewing the debate over “cancel culture.” This term is gaining traction thanks to Donald Trump’s lawyers accusing the House Democrats of “canceling” the former president’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech during his second impeachment trial. And like most people aligned with Trump, or most people seeing opportunities in that alignment, they pervert reality. Truth is, the sacking and looting of the United States Capitol, which Trump incited, was an attempt to cancel a free and fair democratic election. These fascists did not fight for principles. They fought against democratic politics itself. (Indeed, many of them longed for a United States purified by blood and violence.)
If you remove the fascists from democratic debate over “cancel culture,” we might be able to see a “spectrum of rational politics,” though debate participants might disagree vehemently. Michelle Goldberg, a liberal columnist at the Times, noted Sunday where she parts ways with “the critical race theory tradition” and its “tension with liberalism, particularly when it comes to issues like free speech. Richard Delgado, a key figure in the movement, has argued that people should be able to sue those who utter racist slurs. Others have played a large role in crafting campus speech codes.” Goldberg said she sides with Skip Gates’ classic argument against the tradition’s position vis-a-vis First Amendment rights. But like Gates, she takes it seriously.
If the debate over “cancel culture” were restricted to a center-liberal-left spectrum, it might be fruitful. But fascists make democratic debate impossible. Their goal isn’t assessing whether this or that is good or bad. It’s smashing debate altogether.
Sadly, the news media seems captive to the fascist inclination to view everything in terms so desperately black and white that they are locked in a zero-sum struggle for existence. The Times of London reported over the weekend, for instance, that an award-winning translator pulled out of a project to translate into Dutch the poem written and performed by Amanda Gorman at Joe Biden’s inauguration. Marieke Lucas Rijneveld is the youngest person ever to win the international Booker Prize. He left the project after critics said it was inappropriate for a white person to translate a Black poet’s work. The newspaper saw Rijneveld’s departure as undermining what Gorman called for when she said, “We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation.”
I don’t know anything about The Times of London except its reporter in this case amplified the fascist belief that criticism—which is to say, counter-speech—is the same thing as intimidation. The paper misled its readers by suggesting Rijneveld was pushed out of the project rather than having left it freely. It made room, in other words, for the fascists to sit at the table of democratic politics. At the same time, I think Rijneveld’s critics are wrong. There’s nothing morally suspect about a white translator translating a Black poet. But being wrong is irrelevant to the fascists.
To them, what’s important isn’t debating political ideals and public morality. What’s important is dominating democratic discourse for the purpose of putting a stop to it and subsequently replacing it with “The Truth.” Goldberg reports, for instance, that Republican legislators in Arkansas, West Virginia, and Oklahoma are introducing bills that would ban “divisive” conduct, such as the “the teaching of The Times‘s 1619 Project curriculum.” A New Hampshire lawmaker proposed a “divisive concepts” ban, saying in a hearing, “This bill addresses something called critical race theory.”
How do you keep the fascists away from the table of democratic politics? Here I reveal myself to be more in line with liberals like Goldberg than with leftists like Delgado. We’re not going to keep them away with bans and codes. Those might even backfire. But I do think free speech—importantly, counter-speech!—remains the most effective tool for defending the public arena. The more people are aware of the fascist tactic of suppressing free speech in the name of protecting it, the more people can speak out against the fascists. There’s a lot we can do when the “spectrum of rational politics” stays rational. But to keep the country from going to hell, we have to keep raising hell.