David Roth: Before we begin I want to make clear that it was my plan never to speak to you again in this format for any reason. We have moved on to being upset in the same way on different platforms.
Maria Bustillos: And yet a remarkable document that appeared on Monday morning has dragged us out of retirement.
David: “Caitlin Flanagan… now there’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time.”
Maria: Our old friend, the least surprising signatory of this dog’s breakfast at the venerable Harper’s.
David: Because everyone will have either forgotten about or recanted this by the time anyone reads this exchange, it’s a big open letter that ran at Harper’s kind of broadly gesturing at the importance of the Free Exchange Of Ideas signed by a bunch of extremely eminent people who maybe didn’t read it first and a number of other people whose online lives, if not their actual careers, have been built on clammily conflating the presence of rude weirdos in their mentions and the general concept of being held to account for anything with deplatforming and totalitarian censorship.
Honestly I’m not sure it’s less silly for us to get all het up about a bunch of big shots getting fussy about Cancel Culture Mobs than it is for them to get so upset about it, but I don’t really have anything else going on today.
Maria: In a sane world, it would be equally silly. But it honestly steams me that this will be taken seriously/“seriously.”
David: I am prepared to ignore that if you are because man what a document it is. Imagine a world in which this was authentically one of our bigger problems. I would visit. I would move.
Maria: For reals.
David: The “seriously” part is the interesting one to me, because the case they’re sort of hinting at making—as near as I can tell it’s about how other people’s speech criticizing their speech is somehow not just not free speech but its opposite—is not new or very artfully made. But I read through the list of blue-chip signatories and was like mentally ticking off in my head which ones really believe it and which are just kind of doing what they do.
And I decided that like five or six of them care about it more than anything else, and the rest probably weren’t really thinking about it very hard.
Maria: Someone is going to recant within the next few days, I imagine.
David: It’s started happening since we started editing this. A lot of the signatories are even now searching for the right way to say “I got an email and replied to it, I don’t know man.”
Maria: To unpack. We begin with the pointy-heads applauding “powerful protests,” followed quickly by “but.” It emerges that they are complaining about “cancel culture,” which according to them is destroying public discourse and free speech.
So I have a question for you, David. How is ‘cancelation’ not speech?
David: Well for one thing it’s something that other people do to you. Speech is when you say something. When other people say something it’s much more Dangerous.
Maria: Yeah! we don’t want them saying anything! How did they not get the memo?
David: I think it’s also worth taking a minute to think about what they mean by cancelation. Which in this case is mostly “reading your mentions.” Like I don’t consider James Bennet to be canceled, really. I think it’s more he resigned under some heartily earned duress after years of being embarrassingly bad and lazy re: doing his job.
Maria: His firing seemed to me to be connected to his not having read that alarming Tom Cotton op-ed, rather than “running controversial [i.e. really shitty, badly-reasoned] pieces.”
David: Right! Like that is not on the woke mob, dude. You could have just read the blog.
Maria: Op-ed editors should basically be required to read op-eds, I feel. Pretty much.
David: The idea of waking up and finding out for the very first time that Sen. Tom Cotton has published a demand to occupy your city with federal troops, on your page—I would feel bad about that. It’s so relatable to see that “Dominate The Brutes; Send In The Troops” headline on your webpage and be like “shucks.”
Maria: I find it impossible to believe he didn’t read it, but it scarcely matters. For years readers had been shrieking about what a poor job this man is doing (incl. me, admittedly).
David: The only way to counter that? You’ve got to do an even worse job so they know they’re not in your head.
Maria: With a side order of accusing your detractors of closed-mindedness.
David: The Times opinion page is kind of an embarrassing thing to care about, but with publications dying/being murdered at this crazy clip it’s natural to have some investment in one of the four or five places that are not falling apart.
Maria: Also. Shrieking readers are in fact providing the robust discourse this document demands!
David: I don’t know if this is right or just the sort of thing that happens when you can’t go to bars or restaurants for months, but I don’t know that I’ve ever felt a bigger disconnect between politics as they are opined upon at the highest levels and politics as they are happening in the street. All this Ah Hmm shit about debate feels so abstracted it’s laughable, but also at some point you are just talking about something that no one else is really talking about.
Maria: It’s blindingly bizarre argumentation.
1. Police are killing black people and there are protests, and that’s good, okay.
2. This stifling atmosphere of correctness will harm us all!
David: People are in the streets, for a very particular reason that is easy to understand and honestly not especially tough to debate. Why are we talking about this instead of that? Or kind of sweatily trying to make that about your particular thing. Which for many of these signatories is “I did my thing, and some people told me they didn’t like it.”
Maria: All this speech is destroying my free speech!
David: This is what makes the distribution of people that signed it so weird. There are all these eminences who have been against censorship since before I was born appending their important names to a letter written in a weaselly and vague enough way that it seems like they’re supporting a bunch of mediocrities whose whole gambit is “all these less-powerful people are mad about my shitty opinion, am I literally being murdered right now?”
Maria: “I am entitled to ‘likes’ on Twitter, and with no snipin’ from the peanut gallery!”
David: The last 150 employed people in journalism watching the country finally reckoning with some long-overdue things and thinking to themselves “why was DildoTrotsky so rude to Bari online?”
Maria: The number of times my heart has soared at the musings of such guys as DildoTrotsky!! If anyone had told me what 2020 was going to be like?!
David: A moldering old tabloid fascist with a foil-wrapped baked potato where his brain should be, squinting at a teleprompter and being like “Joe Biden wants to do cancel culture on Mount Rushmore.” I think we all called that one.
Maria: His son, Twittering a photoshopped image of his father riding an eagle that looks like it was made by a five year old who’d previously eaten a pound of Skittles.
David: How can you find yourself making an argument so easily co-opted by the worst and dumbest man in the country and feel comfortable continuing to just… make it?
Maria: Literally, Noam Chomsky and Margaret Atwood echoing Donald Trump within a matter of days. What the hoo hey. Anyhow, they themselves are aware that they can’t argue both for and against caustic speech. They’re consequently stuck with defining the problem with this insanely opaque convolution. Here’s the crux of their argument, the Bad Things That Happened because ‘cancel culture’:
Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.
This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.
But the Bad Things are entirely unrelated, so far as I can tell, to the problem as they see it. It’s a tell that they’re not explicitly enumerated, but for those condemned to mow through media like a blue whale swallowing krill, certain things are obvious enough. We have to think they’re referring to James Bennet’s departure from the Times; with respect to books being pulled for matters of “inauthenticity”, that rash of YA books, and maybe American Dirt? “Barred journalists,” I’m guessing Lee Fang, and the Shor business? “Heads of organizations”?—that could be anything from Refinery29 or The Wing to Adidas or Bon Appétit.
There aren’t many suspects for each case, but the fact is these stories have very little in common and did not proceed from a single cause.
David: There are a couple of other editors who got pushed out at legacy publications. Ian Buruma is one.
Maria: Oh yes, he is a signatory.
David: Who in this case are mostly guys that ran sloppy “I Got Canceled For Being A Creep: It’s Not What You Want” essays over the objections of their staff, and then were held to account for it.
Maria: Assuming they’re referencing the story of Shor as the fired researcher—it could be some other story, obviously, who knows?—he is under an NDA, and the think tank he was fired from denied having fired him for the reason cited. There isn’t even a verifiable story there, to my knowledge.
David: I wonder if there’s a service out there that ensures the people on the Cancel Outrage beat know about these stories.
Maria: There must be a Hell Slack. It’s beyond ridiculous, in any case, to have not been specific about whatever the fuck it is they think has gone wrong.
David: Just to look at the list of active journalists on the letter, it seems like a lot are writers who are maybe just sick of being reminded that they supported the Iraq War. Some of whom seem to have curdled as a result. Others of whom are literally David Frum.
Maria: lolll omg I wouldn’t sign a birthday card that had David “Axis of Evil” Frum’s signature on it.
David: This is neither here nor there but I love how badly written it is. The idea of Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood and John Banville splitting a byline on something written entirely in indemnifyingly vague passive constructions and weapons-grade “however”s.
Maria: There are quite a number of good writers on there who should have known better.
David: Honestly even Caitlin Flanagan is a good writer, if you’re just going sentence by sentence.
Maria: Sure! [*grinds teeth*] What I was gonna say was, they list these crimes in a vaguely censorious way, then comes the mad pivot: “Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.”
Here’s yr. central rhetorical disaster: “Whatever the arguments.”
David: The classic phrase we love to see and blithely accept.
Maria: Sorry, Discourse Experts! You can’t wave that away, you haven’t named the incidents, let alone the arguments. It’s astonishingly poor reasoning.
David: There’s something kind of touching about it, because they don’t want to exclude any of the people who felt gored by this particular ox.
Maria: Yeah. And then, to add insult to injury, “steadily narrow the boundaries,” as if James Bennet’s ouster had had the result of making people in general “fear for their livelihoods.”
David: I imagine it made opinion-section editors who work 25 hours a week anxious about their livelihoods, but what makes me worry about my livelihood, and the free exchange of ideas, is THE DEATH OF THE PRESS.
Maria: Please elaborate because YES.
David: Which is happening not at The Hands Of The Ravening Twitter Mob, but because of like three private equity concerns whose names everyone in this business knows, and because of thin-skinned, litigious billionaires taking advantages of weak spots in civil society, and because of terminal-stage syphilitic dynasts who wound up in charge of vital civic institutions. And and and.
So while I want to chalk some of this up to people being like “I’m afraid to put in print some of the complicated feelings I have, because people might not like them,” I just can’t accept the idea that feeling that ambivalence is in any way equatable to The Death Of Free Exchange. I know this is kind of dragging it back onto my/our turf.
Maria: It’s the central question, though. Because you can’t do this job unless you are prepared to risk reprisal, beyond just a strong response. If you’re afraid of getting fired for telling the truth as you see it? You need another gig, in or out of think-tanking or the academy or journalism or media.
David: Also in this construction you already have a job, which is another bit I’d have to recuse myself from. But beyond that, that seems exactly right. You can’t graduate out of consequences; I don’t know why you’d want to. For Ian Buruma, whose work I read for many years and kind of idly respected, the issue was running some maundering shit by a MeToo casualty. It either reflected what he thought or advanced what he saw was an underserved part of the debate, but it wasn’t good and his staff, quite deservedly, lost confidence in his leadership as a result. Sorry, dude, but we don’t need to get forensics in here to analyze that crime scene.
Maria: It’s bound to sting.
David: Just at some point you have to consider that this might be a You Problem and not a Cancel Culture Problem.
Maria: What happens to people like Buruma and Bennet has a lot to do with how they handled it after, I reckon.
David: Yeah, there’s definitely a way to imagine a leader salvaging that moment. Being entitled to their mistakes.
Maria: There is the Halle Berry method, of like “Yikes! I have fucked this up in a monumental way, and I’m sorry and I take it back.” Which neither Buruma nor Bennet opted for, it seems. Choosing not to care that your own people are absolutely and violently opposed to your position. And that, rather than the airing of unpopular ideas, is the problem.
Maria: And it’s that exact accountability that this letter seeks to avoid, as a matter of “principle.”
David: That gets at what kind of enraged me most about it. Like beyond the priggishness and bad writing and calculated bad faith, all of which if I am being honest I do not care for.
Maria: Having to put the arguments of hoi polloi on a level with your own empyrean air. The nerve! (“Still, we loftily approve the ‘protests’, those were fine.”)
David: That really is it, to me. It takes some fucking brass to not just refuse to learn any kind of lesson, but to elevate that refusal to re-evaluate and respond to the level of martyrdom. Also those clauses are always so funny to me. “Racism is bad, however so too is it bad to call me ‘a turd gobbler’ on Twitter.”
Maria: “And worst of all?! To criticize me by saying that I am anti-trans which, by the way, I am.”
David: There’s just the darkest comedy to it. J.K. Rowling believing that if she marshals a bunch of specious cheesy TERF shit elegantly enough people will stop calling her a TERF.
Maria: They really want to be able to own their transphobia in peace!
David: Honestly to me if you don’t put it in print, you can believe whatever you want. No one has taken away your right to make the dinner party awkward.
David: It’s not the wokescolds that make everyone else cut pee-pee faces at you when you start talking about that. They really disagree with you!
Maria: Plus if you’re a real advocate for free and even caustic debate, why does it bother you that people are gonna yell at you?! You welcome that, I thought!
David: Yeah I think that’s at the heart of it.
Maria: That’s one thing you can say about Lionel Shriver, she really does welcome it.
David: Yeah that’s all she seems to enjoy. But she does enjoy it. She’s a wrestling heel.
Is there a level of professional and personal success above which it is impossible to do any kind of self-reflection? This is what made me sad about some of the names on it. While she has seemed a pretty straight-line liberal, Margaret Atwood seemed to be one of those people who’s continuing to engage and assess and try to understand the world as it changes, as opposed to just getting beefy about it.
Maria: Atwood surprised me. Zephyr Teachout, too. Atul Gawande.
David: It is notable how many of the people on that letter are people that I remember reading a decade or two ago with some admiration who just kind of seemed to get turned around.
Maria: George Packer, for sure.
David: Absolutely him, I have no idea what happened there. I do sense that the idea of “illiberal liberalism” is a lot harder to sustain if you just log off for a little bit.
Maria: And people have pointed out that age is a factor, and I would like to state for the record that I am insanely old, three paws into the grave probably, and you know, fuck this shit. No.
David: I think Twitter really can be toxic and stupid, but also you can close that tab.
Maria: I’ll say! However annoying the NYT Op-Ed Page may be, they also offer Spelling Bee to those afflicted by material elsewhere in the paper. The Cooking part is also consistently excellent.
David: The Times is good, I’m not going to pretend it’s not. It’s essential. It’s imperfect and infuriating but we need it. This is why it bothers me that the opinion section is the way it is. Obviously the real politics that are happening now are happening in the streets, but this matters, too.
Maria: SO MUCH. They should pay more attention to us screaming readers, I strongly feel. Also: Wesley Lowery, I should like to say. WOW. and thank you, to this man.
David: Because it seems like a paper that does all this work on how institutions are failing us, killing us, and killing other people would benefit from a crew of writers with a little bit more space—as writers and thinkers—to synthesize that. They should all work together. It’s not hard to see how they might.
And yet there’s all this good work about all these urgent, dangerous things and then the larger part of the opinion page is just jerking itself off about something else.
David: It just signals that the actual reporting isn’t important, in a way.
Maria: I don’t know about that. It’s a rage magnet, for sure, but I don’t know how many people care about it in comparison with the rest of the paper.
So, hilariously, the letter contains its own perfect refutation: “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” So… here you go, as requested.
David: Ah yes. The bad ideas of other people.
Maria: Hell is Other People, like the signatories of this nonsensical letter. An ourobouros of stupidity, and yet irresistible. I’m embarrassed that it made my spleen rupture in such a way. There’s just bits of spleen everywhere.
David: Is there an argument, in your mind, for the idea that Charles Murray Must Be Heard?
Maria: No; I think that argument is senseless, at its core. It would be another thing if we were immortal. But as matters stand, time is short. The freedom to NOT consider is in practical terms of greater importance than the freedom to consider, seeing how we’re necessarily going to be missing most books, and most ideas. That’s why we have editors and publishers we like and trust. Their main function is just pruning.
David: Something that we’ve talked about in the past, never in print FOR FEAR OF THE MOB, is how there just aren’t that many good websites anymore. There really are fewer outlets for heterodox thought and weird writing. This seems to me much more urgent a threat to speech than whatever is or isn’t going on at a few elite workplaces and some dinner parties that have been suspended due to plague. We really are missing out on things we should know, but it’s not because of shame or fear—Charles Murray’s deplatforming doesn’t matter to me at all, especially relative to the urgent lack of actual platforms on which to learn practical things about wherever you live, or read weird blogs about the world.
To see the work that needs to be done and to try to do it necessarily means telling Charles Murray that we’ll get back to skull-shapes in a little bit. Once we’ve figured out how to get the state to do anything but hurt vulnerable people.
Maria: Once we figure out how to make “all men are created equal” mean literally everyone, the way it will, someday.
Every single one of those clowns would have done better to tweet ‘Black Lives Matter’ than to sign this ultragarbage.
David: The freedom of speech is obviously also the freedom to show your ass in its entirety, but that’s the bit I can’t get over. There are so many other things happening, right now, that you could talk about in honest, scary, brave ways if you wanted, instead of just reiterating why you feel like you can’t.
Maria: So many real emergencies we all urgently, absolutely need to talk about, more than this.
David: Sorry the conversation isn’t about you for one fucking minute. We’re busy right now.