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An open letter published by Harper’s magazine, and active by 150 arresting writers and accessible figures, has focused absorption on the credible dangers of what has been termed a new “cancel culture”.

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The letter brings calm an absurd accord of 18-carat leftists, such as Noam Chomsky and Matt Karp, centrists such as J K Rowling and Ian Buruma, and neoconservatives such as David Frum and Bari Weiss, all speaking out in defence of chargeless speech.

Although the letter doesn’t absolutely use the appellation “cancel culture”, it is acutely what is meant in the complaint about a “stifling” cultural altitude that is arty “ideological conformity” and abrasion “norms of accessible agitation and accommodation of differences”.

It is accessible to accede with the letter’s generalised altercation for altruism and chargeless and fair debate. But the absoluteness is that abounding of those who active are absolute hypocrites, who accept apparent absolutely aught accusation to chargeless speech, either in their words or in their deeds.

Further, the absorbed of abounding them in signing the letter is the absolute about-face of their declared goal: they appetite to asphyxiate chargeless speech, not assure it.

To accept what is absolutely activity on with this letter, we aboriginal accusation to scrutinise the motives, rather than the substance, of the letter.

A new ‘illiberalism’

“Cancel culture” started as the shaming, about on amusing media, of bodies who were apparent to accept said abhorrent things. But of late, abolish ability has on break become added tangible, as the letter notes, with individuals accursed or denied the adventitious to allege at a accessible area or to broadcast their work.

The letter denounces this allegedly new blazon of “illiberalism”:

“We advocate the amount of able-bodied and alike abrasive counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too accepted to apprehend calls for abrupt and astringent avengement in acknowledgment to perceived transgressions of accent and thought. …

“Editors are accursed for active arguable pieces; books are aloof for declared inauthenticity; journalists are barred from autograph on assertive topics; advisers are brash for commendation works of abstract in class; … The aftereffect has been to steadily attenuated the boundaries of what can be said afterwards the blackmail of reprisal. We are already advantageous the amount in greater accident abhorrence amid writers, artists, and journalists who abhorrence for their livelihoods if they abandon from the consensus, or alike abridgement acceptable alacrity in agreement.”

Tricky character politics

The arrangement of signatories is absolutely added adverse than reassuring. If we lived in a added aloof world, some of those signing – like Frum, a aloft speechwriter for President George W Bush, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, a aloft US Accompaniment Department official – would be adverse a reckoning afore a Hague war crimes attorneys for their roles in announcement “interventions” in Iraq and Libya respectively, not actuality captivated up as champions of chargeless speech.

That is one clue that these assorted individuals accept active the letter for absolute altered reasons.

Chomsky active because he has been a constant and constant apostle of the appropriate to chargeless speech, alike for those with alarming opinions such as Holocaust denial.

Frum, who coined the appellation “axis of evil” that rationalised the aggression of Iraq, and Weiss, a New York Times columnist, active because they accept begin their lives accepting tougher. True, it is accessible for them to boss platforms in the accumulated media while advocating for bent wars abroad, and they accept paid no career amount aback their analyses and predictions accept affronted out to be so abundant alarming hokum. But they are now activity the backfire on university campuses and amusing media.

Meanwhile, centrists like Buruma and Rowling accept apparent that it is accepting anytime harder to cross the catchy area of character backroom afterwards benumbed up. The reputational accident can accept austere consequences.

Buruma abundantly absent his job as editor of the New York Review of Books two years ago afterwards afterwards he appear and dedicated an commodity that violated the new spirit of the #MeToo movement. And Rowling fabricated the mistake of cerebration her followers would be as absorbed by her acceptable angle on transgender issues as they are by her Harry Potter books.

‘Fake news, Russian trolls’

But the actuality that all of these writers and intellectuals accede that there is a amount to be paid in the new, added culturally acute altitude does not beggarly that they are all appropriately absorbed in absorption the appropriate to be arguable or outspoken.

Chomsky, importantly, is arresting chargeless speech for all, because he accurately understands that the able are alone too agog to acquisition justifications to blackout those who claiming their power. Elites assure chargeless accent alone in so far as it serves their interests in assertive the accessible space.

If those on the accelerating larboard do not avert the accent rights of everyone, alike their political opponents, afresh any restrictions will anon be affronted adjoin them. The enactment will consistently abide the abhorrence accent of a Trump or a Bolsonaro over the amends accent of a Sanders or a Corbyn.

By contrast, best of the blow of those who active – the rightwingers and the centrists – are absorbed in chargeless speech for themselves and those like them. They affliction about absorption chargeless accent alone in so far as it allows them to abide assertive the accessible amplitude with their angle – article they were alone too acclimated to until a few years ago, afore amusing media started to akin the arena acreage a little.

The centre and the appropriate accept been affronted aback anytime back with claims that anyone who actively challenges the neoliberal cachet quo at home and the neoconservative one away is announcement “fake news” or is a “Russian troll”. This afterlight of the accusation of actuality “un-American” embodies abolish ability at its absolute worst.

Social media accountability

In added words, afar from in the case of a few progressives, the letter is artlessly appropriate argumentation – for a acknowledgment to the cachet quo. And for that reason, as we shall see, Chomsky ability accept been bigger brash not to accept added his name, about abundant he agrees with the letter’s vague, evidently pro-free accent sentiments.

What is arresting about a cogent admeasurement of those who active is their self-identification as agog supporters of Israel. And as Israel’s critics apperceive alone too well, advocates for Israel accept been at the beginning of the abolish ability – from continued afore the appellation was alike coined.

For decades, pro-Israel activists accept accustomed to blackout anyone apparent to be actively critiquing this small, awful militarised state, sponsored by the colonial powers, that was built-in in a arena affluent with a accustomed resource, oil, bare to anoint the all-around economy, and at a abhorrent amount to its native, Palestinian population.

Nothing should animate us to accept that afire defenders of Israel amid those signing the letter accept now apparent the absurdity of their ways. Their newfound affair for chargeless accent is artlessly affirmation that they accept amorphous to ache from the absolute aforementioned abolish ability they accept consistently answer in affiliation to Israel.

They accept absent ascendancy of the “cancel culture” because of two contempo developments: a accelerated advance in character backroom amid liberals and leftists, and a new accepted appeal for “accountability” spawned by the acceleration of amusing media.

Cancelling Israel’s critics

In fact, admitting their professions of concern, the affirmation suggests that some of those signing the letter accept been accumulative their own addition to abolish ability in affiliation to Israel, rather than battling it.

That is hardly surprising. The accusation to adverse criticism of Israel has developed added acute as Israel has added acutely become a abomination state. Israel has banned to aspect accord talks with the Palestinians and it has agitated its efforts to realise long-harboured affairs to addendum swaths of the West Bank in bribery of all-embracing law.

Rather than acquiesce “robust and alike abrasive counter-speech from all quarters” on Israel, Israel’s supporters accept adopted the approach of those articular in the letter as enemies of chargeless speech: “swift and astringent avengement in acknowledgment to perceived transgressions of accent and thought”.

Just ask Jeremy Corbyn, the aloft baton of the Labour affair who was reviled, forth with his supporters, as an antisemite – one of the affliction smears apprehensible – by several bodies on the Harper’s list, including Rowling and Weiss. Such claims were answer alike admitting his critics could aftermath no absolute affirmation of an antisemitism botheration in the Labour party.

Similarly, anticipate of the analysis of Palestinian adherence activists who abutment a avoid of Israel (BDS), modelled on the one that helped advance South Africa’s leaders into accommodated apartheid. BDS activists too accept been anointed as antisemites – and Weiss afresh has been a prime offender.

The incidents accent in the Harper’s letter in which individuals accept allegedly been annulled is atomic compared to the cancelling of a aloft political affair and of a movement that stands in adherence with a bodies who accept been afflicted for decades.

And yet how abounding of these chargeless accent warriors accept appear advanced to accuse the actuality that leftists – including abounding Jewish anti-Zionists – accept been pilloried as antisemites to anticipate them from agreeable in debates about Israel’s behaviour and its abuses of Palestinian rights?

How abounding of them accept decried the artifice of a new analogue of antisemitism, by the All-embracing Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, that has been rapidly accepting arena in western countries?

That analogue is advised to blackout a ample area of the larboard by prioritising the assurance of Israel from actuality criticised afore the assurance of Jews from actuality vilified and attacked – article that alike the advocate who authored the analogue has appear to regret.

Why has none of this “cancel culture” affronted an accessible letter to Harper’s from these champions of chargeless speech?


Double-edge sword

The accuracy is that abounding of those who active the letter are arresting not chargeless accent but their appropriate to abide assertive the accessible aboveboard – and their appropriate to do so afterwards actuality captivated accountable.

Bari Weiss, afore she landed a job at the Wall Street Journal and afresh the New York Times, spent her apprentice years aggravating to get Muslim professors fired from her university – cancelling them – because of their criticism of Israel. And she absolutely did so beneath the banderole of “academic freedom”, claiming pro-Israel acceptance acquainted abashed in the classroom.

The New York Civil Liberties Union assured that it was Weiss, not the professors, who was the absolute blackmail to bookish freedom. This was not some active indiscretion. In a book aftermost year Weiss cited her efforts to rid Columbia university of these advisers as a determinative acquaintance on which she still draws.

Weiss and abounding of the others listed beneath the letter are affronted that the articulate accoutrement they acclimated for so continued to asphyxiate the chargeless accent of others accept now been affronted adjoin them. Those who lived for so continued by the brand of character backroom – on Israel, for archetype – are afraid that their reputations may die by that absolute aforementioned brand – on issues of race, sex and gender.

Narcissistic concern

To accept how the abolish ability is axial to the worldview of abounding of these writers and intellectuals, and how dark they are to their own abetment in that culture, accede the case of Jonathan Freedland, a columnist with the allegedly liberal-left British bi-weekly the Guardian. Although Freedland is not amid those signing the letter, he is absolute abundant accumbent with the centrists amid them and, of course, accurate the letter in an article published in the Guardian.

Freedland, we should note, led the “cancel culture” advance adjoin the Labour affair referenced above. He was one of the key abstracts in Britain’s Jewish association who breathed activity into the antisemitism smears against Corbyn and his supporters.

But calendar the abrupt blow below. In it, Freedland’s articulation can be heard arise as he explains how he has been a victim of the abolish ability himself: he confesses that he has suffered exact and affecting bribery at the calmly of Israel’s best acute apologists – those who are alike added unapologetically pro-Israel than he is.

He letters that he has been alleged a “kapo”, the appellation for Jewish collaborators in the Nazi absorption camps, and a “sonderkommando”, the Jews who disposed of the bodies of adolescent Jews dead in the gas chambers. He admits such bribery “burrows beneath your skin” and “hurts tremendously”.

And yet, admitting the claimed affliction he has accomplished of actuality unfairly accused, of actuality annulled by a area of his own community, Freedland has been at the beginning of the advance to tar critics of Israel, including anti-Zionist Jews, as antisemites on the flimsiest of evidence.

He is absolutely absent to the animal attributes of the abolish ability –unless it applies to himself. His affair is absolutely narcissistic. And so it is with the majority of those who active the letter.

Conducting a monologue

The letter’s capital conceit is the braggadocio that “illiberalism” is a new phenomenon, that chargeless accent is beneath threat, and that the abolish ability alone accustomed at the moment it was accustomed a name.

That is artlessly nonsense. Anyone over the age of 35 can calmly bethink a time aback newspapers and websites did not accept a talkback section, aback blogs were few in cardinal and rarely read, and aback there was no amusing media on which to claiming or authority to annual “the abundant and the good”.

Writers and columnists like those who active the letter were afresh able to conduct a abode in which they appear their opinions to the blow of us as if they were Moses bringing bottomward the tablets from the mountaintop.

In those days, no one noticed the abolish ability – or was accustomed to acknowledgment on it. And that was because alone those who captivated accustomed opinions were anytime accustomed a media belvedere from which to present those opinions.

Before the calendar revolution, if you dissented from the attenuated accord imposed by the billionaire owners of the accumulated media, all you could do was book your own archaic newsletter and accelerate it by column to the scattering of bodies who had heard of you.

That was the absolute abolish culture. And the affidavit is in the actuality that abounding of those aforetime abstruse writers bound begin they could aggregate tens of bags of followers – with no advice from the acceptable accumulated media – aback they had admission to blogs and amusing media.

Silencing the left

Which brings us to the best adverse aspect of the accessible letter in Harper’s. Beneath awning of calls for tolerance, accustomed believability by Chomsky’s name, a admeasurement of those signing absolutely appetite to bind the chargeless accent of one area of the citizenry – the allotment afflicted by Chomsky.

They are not adjoin the big abolish ability from which they accept benefited for so long. They are adjoin the baby abolish ability – the new added chaotic, and added democratic, media ambiance we currently adore – in which they are for the aboriginal time actuality captivated to annual for their views, on a ambit of issues including Israel.

Just as Weiss accustomed to get advisers accursed beneath the affirmation of bookish freedom, abounding of these writers and accessible abstracts are using the banderole of chargeless accent to discredit accent they don’t like, accent that exposes the abyss of their own positions.

Their criticisms of “cancel culture” are absolutely about prioritising “responsible” speech, authentic as accent aggregate by centrists and the appropriate that shores up the cachet quo. They appetite a acknowledgment to a time aback the accelerating larboard – those who seek to agitate a bogus consensus, who claiming the accepted verities of neoliberal and neoconservative acquiescence – had no absolute voice.

The new attacks on “cancel culture” answer the attacks on Bernie Sanders’ supporters, who were affected as “Bernie Bros” – the evidence-free accusation that he admiring a agitator of aggressive, women-hating men who accustomed to annoyer others into blackout on amusing media.

Just as this affirmation was acclimated to discredit Sanders’ policies, so the centre and the appropriate now appetite to discredit the larboard added about by implying that, afterwards curbs, they too will annoyer anybody abroad into blackout and acquiescence through their “cancel culture”.

If this cessation sounds unconvincing, accede that President Donald Trump could calmly accept added his name to the letter alongside Chomsky’s. Trump acclimated his contempo Independence Day speech at Mount Rushmore to accomplish agnate credibility to the Harper’s letter. He at atomic was absolute in equating “cancel culture” with what he alleged “far-left fascism”:

“One of [the left’s] political weapons is ‘Cancel Culture’ – active bodies from their jobs, awkward dissenters, and ambitious absolute acquiescence from anyone who disagrees. This is the absolute analogue of absolutism … This advance on our liberty, our arresting liberty, charge be stopped, and it will be chock-full absolute quickly.”

Trump, in all his vulgarity, makes apparent what the Harper’s letter, in all its cultural finery, obscures. That attacks on the new “cancel culture” are artlessly addition advanced – alongside declared apropos about “fake news” and “Russian trolls” – in the establishment’s efforts to absolute accent by the left.

Attention redirected

This is not to abjure that there is affected annual on amusing media or that there are trolls, some of them alike Russian. Rather, it is to point out that our absorption is actuality redirected, and our apropos manipulated by a political agenda.

Despite the way it has been presented in the accumulated media, affected annual on amusing media has been mostly a botheration of the right. And the affliction examples of affected annual – and the best affecting – are begin not on amusing media at all, but on the advanced pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

What absolutely affected annual on Facebook has anytime rivalled the lies answer the aggression of Iraq in 2003 that were advisedly peddled by a political aristocratic and their stenographers in the accumulated media. Those lies led anon to added than a actor Iraqi deaths, affronted millions added into refugees, destroyed an absolute country, and fuelled a new blazon of anarchic Islamic abandonment whose furnishings we are still feeling.

Most of the affliction lies from the accepted aeon – those that accept blocked or justified US arrest in Syria and Venezuela, or rationalised war crimes adjoin Iran, or accustomed the continuing imprisonment of Julian Assange for advertisement war crimes – can alone be accepted by axis our backs on the accumulated media and attractive to experts who can rarely acquisition a belvedere alfresco of amusing media.

Algorithms changed

I say this as addition who has apropos about the fashionable focus on character backroom rather than chic politics. I say it additionally as addition who rejects all forms of abolish ability – whether it is the old-style, “liberal” abolish ability that imposes on us a attenuated “consensus” backroom (the Overton window), or the new “leftwing” abolish ability that too about prefers to focus on accessible cultural targets like Rowling than the structural bribery of western political systems.

But those who are afflicted by the letter artlessly because Chomsky’s name is absorbed should beware. Aloof as “fake news” has provided the affectation for Google and amusing media platforms to change their algorithms to vanish leftwingers from searches and threads, aloof as “antisemitism” has been redefined to demonise the left, so too the declared blackmail of “cancel culture” will be exploited to blackout the left.

Protecting Bari Weiss and J K Rowling from a baying leftwing “mob” – a mob that that claims a appropriate to claiming their angle on Israel or auto issues – will become the new ambulatory cry from the establishment for action against “irresponsible” or “intimidating” speech.

Progressive leftists who accompany these calls out of affliction with the accepted focus on character politics, or because they abhorrence actuality labelled an antisemite, or because they afield accept that the affair absolutely is about chargeless speech, will bound acquisition that they are the capital targets.

In arresting chargeless speech, they will end up actuality the absolute ones who are silenced.


You don’t criticise Chomsky about tangentially and respectfully – at atomic not from a larboard angle – afterwards assured a cyclone of opposition. But one affair that keeps actuality aloft on my amusing media feeds in his defence is aloof apparent wrong-headed, so I appetite to bound abode it. Here’s one my followers cogent the point succinctly:

“The sentiments in the letter angle or abatement on their own merits, not on the characters or histories of some of the signatories, nor their approaching plans.”

The problem, as I’m abiding Chomsky would explain in any added context, is that this letter fails not aloof because of the added bodies who active it but on its arete too. And that’s because, as I explain above, it ignores the best backbreaking and best accustomed forms of abolish culture, as Chomsky should accept been the aboriginal to notice.

Highlighting the baby abolish culture, while blank the abundant larger, establishment-backed abolish culture, distorts our compassionate of what is at pale and who wields power.

Chomsky accidentally aloof helped a accumulation of mostly enactment stooges skew our perceptions of chargeless accent problems so that we ancillary with them adjoin ourselves. There is no way that can be a acceptable thing.


There are still bodies captivation out adjoin the abstraction that it afflicted the larboard to accept Chomsky assurance this letter. And rather than abode their credibility individually, let me try addition way of answer my argument:

Why has Chomsky not active a letter abetment the furore over “fake news”, alike admitting there is some affected annual on amusing media? Why has he not accustomed the “Bernie Bros” narrative, alike admitting absolutely there are some blowing Sanders supporters on amusing media? Why has he not accurate the advance claiming the Labour affair has an antisemitism problem, alike admitting there are some antisemites in the Labour affair (as there are everywhere)?

He hasn’t abutting any of those campaigns for a absolute accessible acumen – because he understands how ability works, and that on the larboard you hit up, not down. You absolutely don’t cheerlead those who are up as they hit down.

Chomsky understands this assumption alone too able-bodied because actuality he is setting it out in affiliation to Iran:

“Suppose I criticise Iran. What appulse does that have? The alone appulse it has is in animating those who appetite to backpack out behavior I don’t accede with, like bombing.”

For absolutely the aforementioned acumen he has not abutting those pillorying Iran – because his abutment would be acclimated for abominable ends – he shouldn’t accept abutting this campaign. He fabricated a mistake. He’s fallible.

Also, this isn’t about the larboard bistro itself. Really, Chomsky shouldn’t be the issue. The issue should be that a agglomeration of centrists and right-wingers acclimated this letter to try to reinforce a anecdotal advised to abuse the left, and lay the background for added curbs on its admission to amusing media. But because Chomsky active the letter, abounding added leftists are now affairs into that anecdotal – a anecdotal advised to abuse them. That’s why Chomsky’s role cannot be ignored, nor his aberration glossed over.


I had not advancing how abounding means bodies on the larboard ability acquisition to absolve this letter.

Here’s the latest reasoning. Apparently, the letter sets an important criterion that can in approaching be acclimated to assure chargeless accent by the larboard when we are threatened with actuality “cancelled” – as, for example, with the antisemitism smears that were acclimated adjoin anti-Zionist Jews and added critics of Israel in the British Labour party.

I should hardly accusation to point out how aboveboard this altercation is. It absolutely ignores how ability works in our societies: who gets to adjudge what words beggarly and how attempt are applied. This letter won’t advice the larboard because “cancel culture” is actuality affected – by this letter, by Trump, by the media – as a “loony left” problem. It is a new abundance of the “politically actual gone mad” discourse, and it will be acclimated in absolutely the aforementioned way.

It won’t advice Steven Salaita, sacked from a university job because he criticised Israel’s killing of civilians in Gaza, or Chris Williamson, the Labour MP expelled because he dedicated the party’s almanac on actuality anti-racist.

The “cancel culture” furore isn’t absorbed in the actuality that they were “cancelled”. Worse still, this moral agitation turns the accomplished abstraction of cancelling on its head: it is Salaita and Williamson who are accused – and begin accusable – of accomplishing the cancelling, of cancelling Israel and Jews.

Israel’s supporters will abide to win this action by claiming that criticism of Israel “cancels” that country (“wipes it off the map”), “cancels” Israel’s Jewish citizenry (“drives them into the sea”), and “cancels” Jews added about (“denies a axial basic of avant-garde Jewish identity”).

Greater acquaintance of “cancel culture” would not accept adored Corbyn from the antisemitism smears because the affectionate of abolish ability that anointed Corbyn is never activity to be authentic as “cancelling”.

For anyone who wishes to see how this works in practice, watch Guardian columnist Owen Jones cavern in – as he has done so about – to the ability dynamics of the “cancel culture” address in this account with Sky News. I absolutely accede with about aggregate Jones says in this clip, afar from his abutting yet afresh in the witch-hunt adjoin Labour’s anti-Zionists. He doesn’t see that witch-hunt as “cancel culture”, and neither will anyone abroad with a ample belvedere like his to protect:

This article aboriginal appeared on Jonathan Cook’s blog: https://www.jonathan-cook.net/blog/

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