The Cancel Culture Conversation
This week: conversations about cancel culture with Noam Chomsky, David Bromwich, and Tressie McMillan Cottom. Hear it today at 2 pm or anytime at our website.
The Harper’s “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” added a jolt to the ongoing conflict (invoked, too, by President Trump) over “cancel culture,” that phrase used to describe censorious progressivism. There were swift responses to The Letter—some pro, some con. Questions of all kinds emerged; it’s a topic with so many ramifications, complications, twists, turns. But among other things, The Letter was asking for freer public conversation, in the spirit of liberalism, and so we convened such a conversation. We brought onto this week’s show three guests to discuss the issue: Noam Chomsky, David Bromwich, and Tressie McMillan Cottom.
Bromwich, Sterling Professor of English at Yale, signed the Harper’s letter, and he started the show with an intense indictment of what he sees as a growing cultural tendency to suppress free speech:
It has some traits in common with the cultural Stalinism of the Communist Party in the 1930s, but it is a Stalinism without Stalin. It has no political power behind it, it is a power in the world of culture, and it has some traits in common with McCarthyism. But it’s a peculiar kind of blacklist. It’s much more damaging immediately than the imputation of past Communist connections was. You can lose your job all at once. But on the other hand, the people who make the charges don’t altogether seem to believe their own ideology, because a groveling and abject apology is all it takes very often to assure that you’ll get a job further on somewhere along the way.
One result, Bromwich says, is that universities are on the way to becoming much less free than they were “let’s say from 1945 to 1995 or 2000 or so. Universities were the freest part of American life for all those years . . . places like University of Chicago, Yale, UCLA, Michigan. They have become very far from the most free institutions in American life.”
Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, did not sign the Harper’s letter. On this week’s show, she says she doesn’t see the same kind of suffocation of intellectual freedom, but rather, on the contrary, “the greatest period in democratic knowledge production in the history of the West. More people have more opportunities to speak to their own experiences in a variety of ways than has ever been possible before, in recorded history.”
To McMillan Cottom, there’s an elite reaction to this democratization, a reaction found in responses such as the Harper’s letter:
For someone at an elite social institution, the expansion of public life would feel like a contraction, because their space in the public life has probably contracted. But a greater liberalism was always about increasing access, or so that’s what we were told, anyway.
As for whether universities once enjoyed greater freedom, she says: “My grandmother wasn’t allowed to go to college because she was a Black woman . . .There is no “golden era” of higher education for some of us, and I am one of those people.” She told us of a historical context behind the sense a previous, lost era of freer speech:
I do think it is true that institutions had more latitude to determine the debates that were had and who was allowed to participate. For the people who cleared that significant bar, those institutions did feel quite free. But that was because they agreed on some basic assumptions that they never really questioned, which was that those people in those institutions belonged there, that they should be the ones driving public debate, that they should be the ones driving discourse. When that fundamental assumption, however, was called into question—by more women, by more people of color, by more working class people participating in higher education—I do think that called into question whether or not everybody was free to speak as they wanted, because they could no longer appeal to the shared belief that everyone was there belonged there.
(McMillan Cottom also live-tweeted our show, providing both a commentary on the commentary and generating still more Twitter conversation.)
And then, Noam Chomsky, founder of modern linguistics and author of too many books to count, brought this week’s conversation home. He signed the Harper’s letter, but his perspective overlaps intriguingly with both David Bromwich’s and Tressie McMillan Cottom’s. To Chomsky, censorious progressives who would suppress opposing points of view are not one of the world’s major problems, but still a problem on principle. “It’s a mistake,” he says on this week’s show, “for segments of the left to join in the right-wing establishment practice of silencing opinion you don’t like. It’s a very minor part of it, but it’s wrong to do it.”
Chomsky lists instead four perils more deserving of serious attention: the pandemic, environmental catastrophe, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the erosion of democracy. They are indeed serious, yet, he says, “what I’m called on by the media is to come and talk about a little trivial thing, the irrationality of intellectuals on an anodyne letter. But not these things.”
More Conversations on the Conversation
We also checked in with independent journalist Matt Taibbi, playwright P. Carl, and community organizer Khemani Gibson for more perspectives on cancel culture, the Harper’s letter, and more. Find them at our site!
Watch: The Green Ray
It’s summer, which is normally a joyous thing to say, but this is an unignorably sad summer. Catastrophic loss of life due to the pandemic continues in the U.S. We’re just not going to have a season of happy gatherings.
Sad summers have been dealt with before, though, and they’ve been vanquished. In The Green Ray, the 1986 film directed by Eric Rohmer, a particularly French version of a sad summer leads to a magical, surprising, coincidental, and exuberant recognition. This subtle observed and thoughtful movie is the story of Delphine, a woman dealing solitarily, glumly at first, with one of those month-long French summer vacations.
For most of the film, she drifts between different friends, different lonely experiences at vacation sites, and the days run away from her. Throughout it all, she hopes for something transcendent, something in the key of a fairy tale, or science fiction, or mysticism. And, thanks to Jules Verne, she finds it.
Read: The End, by Knausgaard
Noam Chomsky tells us this week that democratic collapse could threaten human life on an enormous scale. The peril is almost too much to think about, but in the meditative conclusion to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s multi-volume My Struggle, Knausgaard does think about it, analyzing fascism for hundreds of pages, even as he reflects on his own life in liberal bourgeois society.
This week’s show, in one way or another, discusses collisions of liberalism with illiberalism, and a similar collision also provides the narrative tension of Knausgaard’s books. Liberal, secular modernity, in Knausgaard’s mind, doesn’t eradicate ways of feeling or thinking that can undermine it. And so in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, the liberal individual still has this impulse toward some delusion or dream of experience beyond sturdy bourgeois convention. Knausgaard describes that impulse as a kind of Romantic yearning for the sublime, as an irrational and destabilizing force. In My Struggle: Book 6 (The End) he writes:
The idea of the sublime is a faint echo of our experience of the holy, without the mystery. The yearning and the melancholy expressed in Romantic art is a yearning back to this, a mourning of its loss. This at least is how I interpret my own attraction to the Romantic in art, the short yet intense bursts of emotion it can discharge in my soul, the sudden swell of joy and grief that can arch up inside me like a sky if I happen to encounter something unexpected or something commonplace in an unexpected way
Here’s the escape route Knausgaard discovers, beyond both bourgeois convention and the terrifying rejections of liberalism: he focuses on granular actuality, on the hyperspecificity of his real experience. To do this, he wrote My Struggle as an autofiction epic (extremely autobiographical and, apparently, barely fictional outside of changed names or faulty memory), but by emphasizing the books’ own reception, by making books that would speak obviously and uncomfortably and loudly to individual readers who are themselves characters in the books, he created novels that connect multiple realities at once: his own, his friends’ and family-members’, his readers’.
So at last, it becomes clear (and this gets explained at great length in Book 6) how his autofictional books aren’t monuments to self-absorption, but works of a mind in conversation with real-world readers, of a real “I” talking to a very real “you.” It’s not a completely reassuring or comfortable series of novels, but Knausgaard does give you some hope that humans can think through at least some of our problems just by paying closer attention. To continue untangling all this, listen to Knausgaard’s conversation on Open Source.
Support Open Source on Patreon
Please do support Open Source over on Patreon! There, patrons can hear interviews with more of the world’s most interesting minds. Lately, we have our ongoing series of conversations about close reading in a time of social distance. Adam Colman talks this week to Maggie Doherty, author of the new book The Equivalents, about Anne Sexton and others who thrived creatively in the 1960s around the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. You’ll also hear Anne Sexton herself, giving a talk at Radcliffe in 1962.