The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Are We Living in Crazytown?

The bizarre reaction to the anti-cancel culture letter.


The anti-cancel culture letter published in Harper's and signed by various intellectuals ranging ideologically from Noam Chomsky to Steven Pinker, and the harsh reaction to it from many "progressive" activists, has been covered in detail elsewhere.

But two specific reactions to the relevant controversy really made me feel like we are  living in Crazytown.

First, several Vox employees publicly objection to the fact that their colleague Matt Yglesias signed the letter. In response to the tensions within Vox, senior foreign editor Jennifer Williams tweeted, "The Harper's letter is revealing a deeper issue: Do we judge opinions/arguments on their merits or on who makes them? Does signing a letter mean you endorse the letter? Yes. Does it mean you also endorse the opinions of those who also choose to sign it? That's the question here."

That asking the first and third of these questions seem like a reasonable, moderate position to a senior editor of a major media company is remarkable. (In case this escapes you, the correct answers are (1) on their merits; and (3) No.)

Even weirder was a tweet by New York Times reporter Farnaz Fassihi who tweeted, "'The Letter' was shaped/spearheaded from conversations by four privileged white men. Apparently they felt entitled to really weigh in on racism, diversity & inclusion. That says it all."

The first weird aspect of her tweet is that she links to an article in her own newspaper explaining that the letter was spearheaded by the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, who is African American. This was pointed out to her by numerous correspondents, but the tweet is still up.

The second weird aspect is that she apparently believes that a letter against cancel culture, or, if one prefers, in favor of free speech and open debate, constitutes "weighing in" on "racism, diversity & inclusion."

The third weird thing is that she thinks that white men have nothing to say worth saying about these issues, which means, in effect, that white men can never usefully express an opinion on anything related to her rather capacious definition of racism, diversity & inclusion, to include opinions on freedom of speech and open debate. (This, btw, includes two of the four "white men" who have Jewish surnames. Apparently, everything from the Pittsburgh and Poway shootings to the Holocaust notwithstanding, Jews totally don't have any experience with racism.)

But what really struck me about her tweet is her implicit claim, unlike the white men in question, to be free of privilege. Fassihi is an Iranian-American, who grew up in Portland and Iran, apparently to a family of some means. She is a relatively fair-skinned Iranian Caucasian, i.e., white in American parlance (and law). Now, she might have an idiosyncratically capacious definition of "non-white," but why that would encompass Iranians but not Jews is unclear.

She attended two of the best (and most expensive) universities in the world, Harvard and Columbia, which she proudly announces in her Twitter profile. She has a high-profile position at perhaps the most powerful and prestigious media outlet in the world.

And, the kicker… According to Wikipedia, "her great-great grandmother is said to be Taj Saltaneh Qajar, the most notable daughter of Naser al-Din Shah, who ruled over Iran from 1848 to 1896."

It seems to be that in a sane world, the Ivy-educated, descendant of kleptocratic Iranian royalty employed by an extremely influential media company would not have the chutzpah to announce that other people shouldn't be expressing their opinions because they are "privileged." But like I said, we seem to be living in Crazytown.