The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Revolution is Eating its Own

Jonathan Chait's article on progressive intolerance both describes and illustrates the problem.


Jonathan Chait has a stunning article in New York Magazine describing and criticizing what has become known as (but he doesn't refer to as) the cancel culture on the far left and its seepage into the mainstream left.

The aritcle stunning in its description of people on the left going after fellow progressives for perceived wrongthink. It's also stunning because Chait, while standing up for traditional "marketplace of ideas" liberalism as essential to democracy, spends an extraordinary amount of effort trying to make the entirely unreasonable gross intolerance of budding Torquemadas sound reasonable, likely because he too fears "cancellation." Here's an excerpt that illustrates both sides of the coin, about an incident involving Intercept journalist Lee Fang:

A few days later, Fang recorded several interviews with participants in a Black Lives Matter rally in Oakland. One of his interview subjects, a young African-American Black Lives Matter supporter, told Fang he wished the movement devoted more attention to non-police violence faced by minorities in his community. Fang posted the exchange without comment, other than labeling it a "measured critique."

It is easy to understand why somebody — especially one predisposed against Fang — would view this comment with suspicion. Bringing up crime in black communities to deflect away from systemic racism is a conservative trope so familiar and clichéd it is often summarized with the mocking shorthand "what about black-on-black crime?" And the simplistic comparison of deaths at the hands of white police versus minorities fails to acknowledge both the broader patterns of mistreatment by police that falls short of outright murder, and the fear this creates, so that a single police murder can terrorize thousands and shape their view of the state in a way that a local murder cannot.

Fang's interview subject probably lacks familiarity with the history of this issue being used as an excuse for racism, and almost surely didn't realize the cruel resonance of the phrase "black-on-black crime." Still, he was not arguing for focusing on violent crime as an alternative to demanding reform, but as an addition to the agenda of a movement he supports. ("It's stuff like that I want to be in the mix.")

Read more generously, his comment expresses a not-uncommon concern within the black community, where police abuse and neglect are often two sides of the same coin. White law enforcement has a long tradition of ignoring black crime victims as an expression of discounting the value of black lives. In "Worse Than Slavery," a history of the Mississippi criminal justice system being used to functionally re-enslave African-Americans after the Civil War, David Oshinsky wrote, "because the great bulk of this crime was black on black, the Negro community suffered most of all. As one white man noted: 'We have very little crime. Of course, Negroes knife each other … but there is little real crime. I mean Negroes against whites or whites against each other.'"

It seems likely that the man Fang interviewed simply wanted the movement to address an issue that has understandable importance in his life, without abandoning its core commitment to confronting racism, and that Fang posted the interview because he found it provocative and interesting.

But the interview became the match on the kindling. Lacy called him racist in a pair of tweets, the first of which alone received more than 30,000 likes and 5,000 retweets.

A journalist friend of Fang's told me he felt his career was in jeopardy, having been tried and convicted in a court of his peers. He was losing sleep for days and unsure how to respond. "All of us were trying to protect his job and clear his name and also not bow to a mob informed by an attitude that views that you disagree with are tantamount to workplace harassment."

The outcome of this confrontation was swift and one-sided: Two days later, Fang was forced to post a lengthy apology.

So (1) Fang tweeted an interview with a young African American BLM supporter who said that he wished BLM would also pay some attention to violence internal to the black community; (2) a Twitter mob descended on Fang for spreading wrongthink; (3) Fang, fearing for his job, had to issue a Maoist-style apology for reporting wrongthink. And Chait, while appalled at the mobbing of Fang, feels the need to discuss in excruciating detail (including, ironically, some old-fashioned whitesplainin' of the interviewee's lack of wokeness) why it's not unreasonable for people to so strongly object the rather anodyne sentiment expressed by the interview subject. One assumes this is insurance against being Twitter-mobbed like Fang.

Also interesting to note: Chait's article fails to mention a perhaps too-close-to-home example of the cancel culture at work. His own New York Magazine has banned columnist Andrew Sullivan from writing about the recent protests.