‘Cancel Culture’ Letter Really About Stifling Free Speech

Most of the signers are simply pleading for a return to the status quo, writes Jonathan Cook.

By Jonathan Cook

Aopen letter published by Harper’s magazine, and signed by dozens of prominent writers and public figures, has focused attention on the apparent dangers of what has been termed a new “cancel culture.”

The letter brings together an unlikely alliance of genuine 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 defense of free speech.

Although the letter doesn’t explicitly use the term “cancel culture,” it is clearly what is meant in the complaint about a “stifling” cultural climate that is imposing “ideological conformity” and weakening “norms of open debate and toleration of differences.”

It is easy to agree with the letter’s generalized argument for tolerance and free and fair debate. But the reality is that many of those who signed are utter hypocrites, who have shown precisely zero commitment to free speech, either in their words or in their deeds.

Further, the intent of many them in signing the letter is the very reverse of their professed goal: they want to stifle free speech, not protect it.

To understand what is really going on with this letter, we first need to scrutinize the motives, rather than the substance, of the letter.

A New ‘Illiberalism’

“Cancel culture” started as the shaming, often on social media, of people who were seen to have said offensive things. But of late, cancel culture has on occasion become more tangible, as the letter notes, with individuals fired or denied the chance to speak at a public venue or to publish their work.

The letter denounces this supposedly new type of “illiberalism”:

“We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. …

Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; … The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.”

Tricky Identity Politics

David Frum in 2013. (Policy Exchange, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The array of signatories is actually more troubling than reassuring. If we lived in a more just world, some of those signing – like Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former U.S. State Department official – would be facing a reckoning before a Hague war crimes tribunal for their roles in promoting “interventions” in Iraq and Libya respectively, not being held up as champions of free speech.

That is one clue that these various individuals have signed the letter for very different reasons.

Chomsky signed because he has been a lifelong and consistent defender of the right to free speech, even for those with appalling opinions such as Holocaust denial.

Frum, who coined the term “axis of evil” that rationalized the invasion of Iraq, and Weiss, a New York Times columnist, signed because they have found their lives getting tougher. True, it is easy for them to dominate platforms in the corporate media while advocating for criminal wars abroad, and they have paid no career price when their analyses and predictions have turned out to be so much dangerous hokum. But they are now feeling the backlash on university campuses and social media.

Ian Buruma, at right, with the writer Martin Amis at 2007 New Yorker Festival. (CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, centrists like Buruma and Rowling have discovered that it is getting ever harder to navigate the tricky terrain of identity politics without tripping up. The reputational damage can have serious consequences.

Buruma famously lost his job as editor of The New York Review of Books two years ago after after he published and defended an article that violated the new spirit of the #MeToo movement. And Rowling made the mistake of thinking her followers would be as fascinated by her traditional views on transgender issues as they are by her Harry Potter books.

‘Fake News, Russian Trolls’

But the fact that all of these writers and intellectuals agree that there is a price to be paid in the new, more culturally sensitive climate does not mean that they are all equally interested in protecting the right to be controversial or outspoken.

Chomsky, importantly, is defending free speech for all, because he correctly understands that the powerful are only too keen to find justifications to silence those who challenge their power. Elites protect free speech only in so far as it serves their interests in dominating the public space.

If those on the progressive left do not defend the speech rights of everyone, even their political opponents, then any restrictions will soon be turned against them. The Establishment will always tolerate the hate speech of U.S. President Donald Trump or Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over the justice speech of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the Labour Party in the U.K.  

By contrast, most of the rest of those who signed – the right-wingers and the centrists – are interested in free speech for themselves and those like them. They care about protecting free speech only in so far as it allows them to continue dominating the public space with their views – something they were only too used to until a few years ago, before social media started to level the playing field a little.

The center and the right have been fighting back ever since with claims that anyone who seriously challenges the neoliberal status quo at home and the neoconservative one abroad is promoting “fake news” or is a “Russian troll.” This updating of the charge of being “un-American” embodies cancel culture at its very worst.

Social Media Accountability

In other words, apart from the case of a few progressives, the letter is simply special pleading – for a return to the status quo. And for that reason, as we shall see, Chomsky might have been better advised not to have added his name, however much he agrees with the letter’s vague, ostensibly pro-free speech sentiments.

What is striking about a significant proportion of those who signed is their self-identification as ardent supporters of Israel. And as Israel’s critics know only too well, advocates for Israel have been at the forefront of the cancel culture – from long before the term was even coined.

For decades, pro-Israel activists have sought to silence anyone seen to be seriously critiquing this small, highly militarized state, sponsored by the colonial powers, that was implanted in a region rich with a natural resource, oil, needed to lubricate the global economy, and at a terrible cost to its native, Palestinian population.

Nothing should encourage us to believe that zealous defenders of Israel among those signing the letter have now seen the error of their ways. Their newfound concern for free speech is simply evidence that they have begun to suffer from the very same cancel culture they have always promoted in relation to Israel.

They have lost control of the “cancel culture” because of two recent developments: a rapid growth in identity politics among liberals and leftists, and a new popular demand for “accountability” spawned by the rise of social media.

Cancelling Israel’s Critics

Former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn at campaign rally in Glasgow, December 2019. (Jeremy Corbyn, Flickr)

In fact, despite their professions of concern, the evidence suggests that some of those signing the letter have been intensifying their own contribution to cancel culture in relation to Israel, rather than contesting it.

That is hardly surprising. The need to counter criticism of Israel has grown more pressing as Israel has more obviously become a pariah state. Israel has refused to countenance peace talks with the Palestinians and it has intensified its efforts to realize long-harbored plans to annex swaths of the West Bank in violation of international law.

Rather than allow “robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters” on Israel, Israel’s supporters have preferred the tactics of those identified in the letter as enemies of free speech: “swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”

Just ask Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the Labour Party who was reviled, along with his supporters, as an anti-Semite – one of the worst smears imaginable – by several people on the Harper’s list, including Rowling and Weiss. Such claims were promoted even though his critics could produce no actual evidence of an antisemitism problem in the Labour party.

Similarly, think of the treatment of Palestinian solidarity activists who support a boycott of Israel (BDS), modelled on the one that helped push South Africa’s leaders into renouncing apartheid. BDS activists too have been smeared as anti-Semites – and Weiss again has been a prime offender.

Pro-Israel counter demonstration against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions demonstration outside School of Oriental and African Studies in London, April 2017. (Philafrenzy, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The incidents highlighted in the Harper’s letter in which individuals have supposedly been cancelled is trivial compared to the cancelling of a major political party and of a movement that stands in solidarity with a people who have been oppressed for decades.

And yet how many of these free speech warriors have come forward to denounce the fact that leftists — including many Jewish anti-Zionists — have been pilloried as anti-Semites to prevent them from engaging in debates about Israel’s behavior and its abuses of Palestinian rights?

How many of them have decried the imposition of a new definition of anti-Semitism, by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, that has been rapidly gaining ground in Western countries?

That definition is designed to silence a large section of the left by prioritising the safety of Israel from being criticised before the safety of Jews from being vilified and attacked – something that even the lawyer who authored the definition has come to regret.

Why has none of this “cancel culture” provoked an open letter to Harper’s from these champions of free speech?

Double-Edge Sword

The truth is that many of those who signed the letter are defending not free speech but their right to continue dominating the public square – and their right to do so without being held accountable.

Bari Weiss, before she landed a job at The Wall Street Journal and then The New York Times, spent her student years trying to get Muslim professors fired from her university – cancelling them – because of their criticism of Israel. And she explicitly did so under the banner of “academic freedom,” claiming pro-Israel students felt intimidated in the classroom.

The New York Civil Liberties Union concluded that it was Weiss, not the professors, who was the real threat to academic freedom. This was not some youthful indiscretion. In a book last year Weiss cited her efforts to rid Columbia university of these professors as a formative experience on which she still draws.

Weiss and many of the others listed under the letter are angry that the rhetorical tools they used for so long to stifle the free speech of others have now been turned against them. Those who lived for so long by the sword of identity politics – on Israel, for example – are worried that their reputations may die by that very same sword – on issues of race, sex and gender.

[Weiss just quit her post at The New York Times, citing an illiberal environment. As part of her full statement she writes, “Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions.”] 

Narcissistic Concern

To understand how the cancel culture is central to the worldview of many of these writers and intellectuals, and how blind they are to their own complicity in that culture, consider the case of Jonathan Freedland, a columnist with the supposedly liberal-left British newspaper The Guardian. Although Freedland is not among those signing the letter, he is very much aligned with the centrists among them and, of course, supported the letter in an article published in The Guardian.

Freedland, we should note, led the “cancel culture” campaign against the Labour Party referenced above. He was one of the key figures in Britain’s Jewish community who breathed life into the anti-Semitism smears against Corbyn and his supporters.

Jonathan Freedland in 2013. (Chatham House, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

But note the brief clip below. In it, Freedland’s voice can be heard cracking as he explains how he has been a victim of the cancel culture himself: he confesses that he has suffered verbal and emotional abuse at the hands of Israel’s most extreme apologists – those who are even more unapologetically pro-Israel than he is.

He reports that he has been called a “kapo,” the term for Jewish collaborators in the Nazi concentration camps, and a “sonderkommando,” the Jews who disposed of the bodies of fellow Jews killed in the gas chambers. He admits such abuse “burrows under your skin” and “hurts tremendously.”

And yet, despite the personal pain he has experienced of being unfairly accused, of being cancelled by a section of his own community, Freedland has been at the forefront of the campaign to tar critics of Israel, including anti-Zionist Jews, as anti-Semites on the flimsiest of evidence.

He is entirely oblivious to the ugly nature of the cancel culture – unless it applies to himself. His concern is purely narcissistic. And so it is with the majority of those who signed the letter.

Conducting a Monologue

The letter’s main conceit is the pretence that “illiberalism” is a new phenomenon, that free speech is under threat, and that the cancel culture only arrived at the moment it was given a name.

That is simply nonsense. Anyone over the age of 35 can easily remember a time when newspapers and websites did not have a talkback section, when blogs were few in number and rarely read, and when there was no social media on which to challenge or hold to account “the great and the good.”

Writers and columnists like those who signed the letter were then able to conduct a monologue in which they revealed their opinions to the rest of us as if they were Moses bringing down the tablets from the mountaintop.

In those days, no one noticed the cancel culture – or was allowed to remark on it. And that was because only those who held approved opinions were ever given a media platform from which to present those opinions.

Before the digital revolution, if you dissented from the narrow consensus imposed by the billionaire owners of the corporate media, all you could do was print your own primitive newsletter and send it by post to the handful of people who had heard of you.

That was the real cancel culture. And the proof is in the fact that many of those formerly obscure writers quickly found they could amass tens of thousands of followers – with no help from the traditional corporate media – when they had access to blogs and social media.

Silencing the Left

Occupy Wall Street protesters engaging in the “human microphone,” Sept. 30 2011. (David Shankbone, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Which brings us to the most troubling aspect of the open letter in Harper’s. Under cover of calls for tolerance, given credibility by Chomsky’s name, a proportion of those signing actually want to restrict the free speech of one section of the population – the part influenced by Chomsky.

They are not against the big cancel culture from which they have benefited for so long. They are against the small cancel culture – the new more chaotic, and more democratic, media environment we currently enjoy – in which they are for the first time being held to account for their views, on a range of issues including Israel.

Just as Weiss tried to get professors fired under the claim of academic freedom, many of these writers and public figures are using the banner of free speech to discredit speech they don’t like, speech that exposes the hollowness of their own positions.

Their criticisms of “cancel culture” are really about prioritizing “responsible” speech, defined as speech shared by centrists and the right that shores up the status quo. They want a return to a time when the progressive left – those who seek to disrupt a manufactured consensus, who challenge the presumed verities of neoliberal and neoconservative orthodoxy – had no real voice.

The new attacks on “cancel culture” echo the attacks on Bernie Sanders’ supporters, who were framed as “Bernie Bros” – the evidence-free allegation that he attracted a rabble of aggressive, women-hating men who tried to bully others into silence on social media.

Bernie Sanders’ 2020 Campaign Co-chair Nina Turner at Los Angeles City Hall rally, March 2019. (Sara Mossman, Flickr)

Just as this claim was used to discredit Sanders’ policies, so the center and the right now want to discredit the left more generally by implying that, without curbs, they too will bully everyone else into silence and submission through their “cancel culture.”

If this conclusion sounds unconvincing, consider that President Donald Trump could easily have added his name to the letter alongside Chomsky’s. Trump used his recent Independence Day speech at Mount Rushmore to make similar points to the Harper’s letter. He at least was explicit in equating “cancel culture” with what he called “far-left fascism”:

“One of [the left’s] political weapons is ‘Cancel Culture’ — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism … This attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty, must be stopped, and it will be stopped very quickly.”

Trump, in all his vulgarity, makes plain what the Harper’s letter, in all its cultural finery, obscures. That attacks on the new “cancel culture” are simply another front – alongside supposed concerns about “fake news” and “Russian trolls” – in the establishment’s efforts to limit speech by the left.

Attention Redirected

This is not to deny that there is fake news on social media or that there are trolls, some of them even Russian. Rather, it is to point out that our attention is being redirected, and our concerns manipulated by a political agenda.

Despite the way it has been presented in the corporate media, fake news on social media has been mostly a problem of the right. And the worst examples of fake news – and the most influential – are found not on social media at all, but on the front pages of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

What genuinely fake news on Facebook has ever rivalled the lies justifying the invasion of Iraq in 2003 that were knowingly peddled by a political elite and their stenographers in the corporate media. Those lies led directly to more than a million Iraqi deaths, turned millions more into refugees, destroyed an entire country, and fuelled a new type of nihilistic Islamic extremism whose effects we are still feeling.

Most of the worst lies from the current period – those that have obscured or justified U.S. interference in Syria and Venezuela, or rationalized war crimes against Iran, or approved the continuing imprisonment of Julian Assange for exposing war crimes – can only be understood by turning our backs on the corporate media and looking to experts who can rarely find a platform outside of social media.

Algorithms Changed

I say this as someone who has concerns about the fashionable focus on identity politics rather than class politics. I say it also as someone who rejects all forms of cancel culture – whether it is the old-style, “liberal” cancel culture that imposes on us a narrow “consensus” politics (the Overton window), or the new “leftwing” cancel culture that too often prefers to focus on easy cultural targets like Rowling than the structural corruption of western political systems.

But those who are impressed by the letter simply because Chomsky’s name is attached should beware. Just as “fake news” has provided the pretext for Google and social media platforms to change their algorithms to vanish leftwingers from searches and threads, just as “antisemitism” has been redefined to demonise the left, so too the supposed threat of “cancel culture” will be exploited to silence the left.

Protecting Bari Weiss and J K Rowling from a baying leftwing “mob” – a mob that that claims a right to challenge their views on Israel or trans issues – will become the new rallying cry from the Establishment for action against “irresponsible” or “intimidating” speech.

Progressive leftists who join these calls out of irritation with the current focus on identity politics, or because they fear being labelled an antisemite, or because they mistakenly assume that the issue really is about free speech, will quickly find that they are the main targets.

In defending free speech, they will end up being the very ones who are silenced.


Noam Chomsky. (Duncan Rawlinson)

You don’t criticize Chomsky however tangentially and respectfully – at least not from a left perspective – without expecting a whirlwind of opposition from those who believe he can never do any wrong.

But one issue that keeps being raised on my social media feeds in his defense is just plain wrong-headed, so I want to quickly address it. Here’s one my followers expressing the point succinctly:

“The sentiments in the letter stand or fall on their own merits, not on the characters or histories of some of the signatories, nor their future plans.”

The problem, as I’m sure Chomsky would explain in any other context, is that this letter fails not just because of the other people who signed it but on its merit too. And that’s because, as I explain above, it ignores the most oppressive and most established forms of cancel culture, as Chomsky should have been the first to notice.

Highlighting the small cancel culture, while ignoring the much larger, Establishment-backed cancel culture, distorts our understanding of what is at stake and who wields power.

Chomsky unwittingly just helped a group of mostly Establishment stooges skew our perceptions of free speech problems so that we side with them against ourselves. There is no way that can be a good thing.


There are still people holding out against the idea that it harmed the left to have Chomsky sign this letter. And rather than address their points individually, let me try another way of explaining my argument:

Why has Chomsky not signed a letter backing the furor over “fake news,” even though there is some fake news on social media? Why has he not endorsed the “Bernie Bros” narrative, even though doubtless there are some bullying Sanders supporters on social media? Why has he not supported the campaign claiming the Labour Party has an anti-Semitism problem, even though there are some anti-Semites in the Labour Party (as there are everywhere)?

He hasn’t joined any of those campaigns for a very obvious reason – because he understands how power works, and that on the left you hit up, not down. You certainly don’t cheerlead those who are up as they hit down.

Chomsky understands this principle only too well because here he is setting it out in relation to Iran:

“Suppose I criticise Iran. What impact does that have? The only impact it has is in fortifying those who want to carry out policies I don’t agree with, like bombing.”

For exactly the same reason he has not joined those pillorying Iran – because his support would be used for nefarious ends – he shouldn’t have joined this campaign. He made a mistake. He’s fallible.

Also, this isn’t about the left eating itself. Really, Chomsky shouldn’t be the issue. The issue should be that a bunch of centrists and right-wingers used this letter to try to reinforce a narrative designed to harm the left, and lay the groundwork for further curbs on its access to social media. But because Chomsky signed the letter, many more leftists are now buying into that narrative – a narrative intended to harm them. That’s why Chomsky’s role cannot be ignored, nor his mistake glossed over.


Apologies for yet another update. I had not anticipated how many ways people on the left might find to justify this letter.

Here’s the latest reasoning. Apparently, the letter sets an important benchmark that can in future be used to protect free speech by the left when we are threatened with being “cancelled” – as, for example, with the anti-Semitism smears that were used against anti-Zionist Jews and other critics of Israel in the Labour Party.

I should hardly need to point out how naive this argument is. It completely ignores how power works in our societies: who gets to decide what words mean and how principles are applied. This letter won’t help the left because “cancel culture” is being framed – by this letter, by Trump, by the media – as a “loony left” problem. It is a new iteration of the “politically correct gone mad” discourse, and it will be used in exactly the same way.

It won’t help Steven Salaita, sacked from a university job because he criticized Israel’s killing of civilians in Gaza, or Chris Williamson, the Labour MP expelled because he defended the party’s record on being anti-racist.

The “cancel culture” furor isn’t interested in the fact that they were “cancelled.” Worse still, this moral panic turns the whole idea of cancelling on its head: it is Salaita and Williamson who are accused – and found guilty – of doing the cancelling, of cancelling Israel and Jews.

Israel’s supporters will continue to win this battle by claiming that criticism of Israel “cancels” that country (“wipes it off the map”), “cancels” Israel’s Jewish population (“drives them into the sea”), and “cancels” Jews more generally (“denies a central component of modern Jewish identity”).

Greater awareness of “cancel culture” would not have saved Corbyn from the anti-Semitism smears because the kind of cancel culture that smeared Corbyn is never going to be defined as “cancelling.”

For anyone who wishes to see how this works in practice, watch Guardian columnist Owen Jones cave in – as he has done so often – to the power dynamics of the “cancel culture” discourse in this interview with Sky News. I actually agree with almost everything Jones says in this clip, apart from his joining yet again in the witch-hunt against Labour’s anti-Zionists. He doesn’t see that witch-hunt as “cancel culture,” and neither will anyone else with a large platform like his to protect:

Jonathan Cook is a freelance journalist based in Nazareth. Support his work via his blog.

This article is from his blog Jonathan Cook.net.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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30 comments for “‘Cancel Culture’ Letter Really About Stifling Free Speech

  1. Matthew Berryman
    July 20, 2020 at 00:52

    I’m going to press this a bit more. You may or may not have seen my take on why the war against cancel culture is both futile and counterproductive. The short version is that I don’t believe what they describe as cancel culture has strong organizational capacity to ramp up or down. Certainly, public figures can agitate it but when the public “cancels” someone it’s usually organic and due to individuals deciding that they dislike a behavior. The other aspect, that is it’s counter productive to wage battles against it, is that to battle cancel culture is to battle against what the collection of individuals have decided is moral or empathetic behavior. This requires concise and complex argumentation. Battling a culture for stifling free speech will never be capable of doing any argumentative work at any time. Debating an issue for stifling free speech requires particular case scenarios. It’s not only counterproductive to blame a culture for stifling free speech, but intellectually harmful (and quite likely a Pandora’s box). Not only are the authors of that letter being intellectually lazy, but most ironically their argument deserves to be intellectually cancelled by rigorous deconstruction.

  2. robert e williamson jr
    July 18, 2020 at 20:51

    By the media not reporting truth and hanging onto only content that pleases their money mogul bosses, the media is guilty of killing free speech a little more each day.

    Politicians have become so free with the spinning the truth they can’t be depended on to “stand” for anything, as soon as the criticism starts they walk back their positions. This behavior erodes confidence in them and their opinions but their big money contributors never seem to mind.

    What has brought us to this deep discussion about free speech and what it means? The completely corrupted SCOTUS. Can you say Citizens United?

    Money is not speech but it does speak the loudest in the back rooms of courts and congress. The SCOTUS ruling has perverted and compromised our constitution. The loss of true free speech in this country will kill it.

    How anyone who has been paying any attention to world affairs can claim he has skills is baffling.

    He has advisors and lawyers neither of whom appear to be interested in representative governance but instead only in money and being divisive.

  3. Monte George Jr.
    July 18, 2020 at 19:56

    So, bottom line, Mr. Cook is in favor of censorship and does not believe in free speech?

    July 18, 2020 at 18:16

    Here is a good tough-minded take on the “cancel culture” letter:


  5. roadowl
    July 17, 2020 at 16:42

    I have a feeling in one or two months’ time, this outcry against ‘cancel culture’ will very nicely morph into an appeal to ‘VALUES’ by Biden and the DNC.

    July 17, 2020 at 03:10

    One can immediately see the regressive left bias of this article when it claims that Rowling saying biological sex is real is a “traditional view”. Do we say to Flat Earthers that the scientific fact that the Earth is round is a “traditional view”?
    Also, Rowling has been clear that it was not a “mistake of thinking her followers would be as fascinated by her traditional views on transgender issues”. She was fully aware of the status quo view on this issue among her millennial/Gen Z audience, and instead of resting on her laurels, she courageously put her reputation and beloved fan base in jeopardy. This article was full of these dishonest little fact-twistings that, if they had not been twisted, would be complete non sequiturs

    July 17, 2020 at 02:56

    This article flounders around in a desperate attempt to smear as many signees of the letter so as to discredit all the signees and the letter’s totally reasonable complaints, including arrogantly stating that Chomsky has made some kind of geriatric “mistake”. It amazes me how furious the regressive left has become over this important letter, penned mainly by the left (although obviously not far left enough for Mr Cook’s liking) and which accurately describes the dangerous new turn in cancel culture. This “guilt by association” is one of the most beloved tactics of the regressive left to cancel those they disagree with, and reminds me chillingly of Stalinism.

    • July 19, 2020 at 06:48

      Stalinism? Just utterly silly.

      There are good reasons for criticizing this self-serving and carefully-crafted letter.

      See my link to some hard-nosed, informed analysis at the Moon of Alabama site.

  8. Aaron
    July 16, 2020 at 13:55

    I agree with the overall point, I think you unnecessarily overthink it, in a long and meandering way. It’s simpler than all that speculation about motives and stuff like that. It’s just like this – Zionists own most media, therefore they cancel anything not pro-Zionist, in every way shape and form, and the biggest way they do it is with what they omit. They simply omit anything that might give a negative impression of Zionism. Anything else is allowed, there’s just that one criterion. Here’s an example I was thinking of, remember when George Bush appallingly said to all potential enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan during the war to “Bring it on!!”, seriously endangering our troops therefore? That was o.k. to allow because, while it’s the same or worse as shouting “fire in a crowded theater”, it’s a pro-Zionism statement, it was pro-war for Israel’s interests. In other words, the most outrageous or dangerous or appalling crap is tolerated, as long as it doesn’t affect the ever-strengthening Zionist movement. Isn’t it really as simple as that? The letter signatories are basically saying, “freedom of speech for all! with one exception – no negative words for anything related to Israel or anyone who may be a Zionist. ” That is always and forever subject to cancellation immediately. But that point is omitted from the debate. The most powerful propaganda is the act of omission it seems to me. We sub-consciously assume that what we see, hear, and read, is the whole picture, naturally, it takes more intellectual effort to imagine what is missing or omitted from the picture, but that is where the truth is really. I guess I must correct myself, it is paradoxically kinda complicated, it’s simple, yet also complicated in the sense that it’s a strange way of thinking, counter-intuitively like that.

  9. Rob
    July 16, 2020 at 13:12

    Is there anything really novel in cancel culture? Haven’t “opinion leaders” (now known as “influencers”) been mocking and shunning those who disagree with or offend them since the beginning of modern society, if not earlier? What is different today is simply the scale and the speed of the process, thanks to the internet and social media. Someone just put a name (“cancel culture) on it, and it became a thing.

    • Diki Discreet
      July 17, 2020 at 02:46

      So Noam signed something that could be misinterpreted.
      Well somebody meaningful had to sign something that should also be meaningful.
      I have no problem with Frums name on this letter just as I don’t see any point not reading Hoff-Sommers because she calls herself a neo-liberal. And yes, I know the crimes of the Bush era. My point is that people from different backgrounds should be able to Unite to create a much needed change regardless of their past. This to me just sounds like another form of censoring.

      I understand some of the points Johnathon has made in this article and his blogs. However, I feel a line in the sand needs to be drawn with the censoring of views that may not be viewed as politically or socially correct. I think issues can become too confusing if you are trying to please every group. I mean left or right shouldn’t matter if something is TRUE.

      Day by day I am reading about people and groups sentenced to more censorship crimes. I often wonder if it could be flipped. Could Reed Hastings censoring of Classic films and Tv shows work if there was a viable counter culture?. For example would people stop viewing Netflix because they find Censoring Offensive? I do. Hehe but there is no ban on Netflix is there? I think it is a crime to censor art, but I’m pretty sure my views would be drowned out by so called popular opinion. Popular opinion is usually what they say it is anyway and it’s usually Loud n Proud.

      I thought it showed strength that Noam signed this letter I respect the strength of any man or woman to express views that maybe considered unpopular by certain groups… I’m frankly sick and tired of walking on eggs only to express my truth. Sure my truth can be offensive to others but that should not mean I should lose my job my status and possibly my Prime ministership (Corbyn). A top songwriter once wrote “You can hurt somebody and not even know it”. Now how in the hell are you going to shame people into stopping that? Wake up America. Pretty soon you will not be able to even laugh at yourselves. Cheerio.

  10. July 16, 2020 at 12:09

    The “dangers” the author refers to are not “apparent” but real. The fixation on racial and gender identity, and the sudden “disappearance” of anyone supposedly transgressing one of these identities, is of a right-wing, not a left-wing character. It seeks privileges for the few – enrichment of the black bourgeoisie, appointment of women to top corporate boards etc – not the raising of the economic and cultural level of the masses of working class people of all races and genders. This has been exemplified by the NY Times 1619 Project, with its outright falsification of history.
    The World Socialist Web Site – the site that nobody dares to speak of – has pointed to the dangers opened up by this class-divisive screed, that allows the fascistic Donald Trump to pose as the defender of the Declaration of Independence.

    In its July 3 article Hands Off Lincoln and the Emancipation Memorial!, the WSWS says: The movement against police violence and racism that erupted after the murder of George Floyd is being derailed by the Democratic Party and its operatives down a right-wing path, turning the justified demands to tear down Confederate statues into attacks on monuments to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and abolitionist Union officers like Robert Gould Shaw and Hans Christian Heg.
    See: wsws.org/en/articles/2020/07/03/linc-j03.html

    The answer to world-wide injustice, poverty, and discrimination is the fight for Social Equality, and that is the task of the working class.

    • adwoa
      July 17, 2020 at 02:02

      No it is not a right=wing ideology to advocate for oppressed peoples any where. As Karl Marx noted in Capital: “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded”. Class is central to the socialist revolution but in the US there will never be a socialist revolution if Black oppression is not at the core of the discourse for working class emancipation. There is a deep seated anti-black racism that permeates the fabric of US society. Because the US is such a segregated society most whites are ignorant of the horrid racism Black people confront almost routinely. This racism is most egregiously expressed by police violence against Black people.

  11. July 16, 2020 at 08:22

    I don’t really agree with this article. But the author has a right to express his opinion.

    For the record, I am a member of the Green Party, I consider myself a Progressive-Socialist and I believe that all persons are created equal and each person should be treated with respect and dignity and be treated equally under the law. As a vigilant critic of Israeli Apartheid, I too have been accused of anti-Semitism by those. like the author references in his article, in a vain attempt to shame me into silence. It is also true that some Right-Wing and Centrist persons did formally dominate the airwaves in years past but attempting to silence them is not the answer. The best way to deal with offensive opinions is to drown them out with more palatable opinions. Censorship is never answer. Once you censor views you find offensive in others, you license them to censor your views. There is no getting around this.

    To be clear, I abhor racism and racist opinions and I condemn hate-mongering in the strongest of terms.
    With that said, even the Ku Klux Klan or the neo-Nazis have a right to express themselves freely. They have a right to display the Confederate flag or the Nazi flag or the Swastika as much as they like to display it. They have a right to assemble and march peacefully even through say a Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, Illinois. They have a right to say hateful things. Is that awful? Yes, I think it is awful but it is also the ugly side of the right to Free Speech. We must tolerate these highly objectonable opinions if we hope to preserve our own right to say things like our military damages our freedoms or that none of our troops die for their country or for us or for freedom, they only die to protect the Empire and neoliberal capitalist machinations of the Empire. If we hope to make the argumentative case that the U.S. military does almost nothing good for the United States and therefore should be de-funded, (an opinon that many may find extraordinarily offensive), then we must learn to tolerate the extraordinarily offennsive opinions of others.

    The best way to deal with opinons we find offensive is to a) use our critical and independent thinking skills to reject such hateful views, and 2) to drown out offensive opinions with a multitude of our own voices. Censorship of any kind is a far more offensive solution and far more dangerous than any kind of speech, ever.

    Eric E. Johansson
    Veterans for Peace, Chapter 69
    San Francisco

    • Don Dickson
      July 16, 2020 at 17:22

      I don’t agree with it at all, but I won’t say why. (I have probably already said too much.)

    • Dienne
      July 16, 2020 at 17:31

      ” It is also true that some Right-Wing and Centrist persons did formally dominate the airwaves in years past but attempting to silence them is not the answer.”

      Who’s saying it is? If you think that’s the point of this article, I suggest re-reading a little more closely this time.

      The point is not that we should “silence” right-wing and centrist voices, but rather that we couldn’t if we tried, yet those are the loudest voices complaining (hypocritically of course) about being silenced.

    • Paula Densnow
      July 17, 2020 at 10:59

      Thank you, Eric, for your very clear understanding of the principle of free speech and your strong defense of it.
      I am also a member of the Green Party AND a victim of its cancel culture, because I refuse to stop speaking out for women and children. I am banned from commenting on their facebook page, and recently was viciously attacked at the (virtual) convention for not conforming to their rigid upholding of gender roles and their insistence that anyone who doesn’t conform to the rigid gender roles assigned to their sex must necessarily then be a member of the opposite sex.
      I hold no sympathy for the author’s point of view, because it is the same as everyone else in the Woke Totalitarian cancel culture we are facing. No one can speak if they hold views he does not like, even if they are speaking about something completely different. They are shunned, forever and for everything, if they hold any view that the so-called ”left” do not like.
      Trump was right for speaking out, the signers of the Harper’s letter were right for speaking out, even Obama was right for speaking out. These inquisitioners, Robespierres in making, backed by the power of the Establishment, must be shut down.
      It is ”un-American” to oppose free speech. It is not just in our Bill of Rights, put there at the insistence of the citizens who brought that sentiment from England, it used to be part of the culture of America, with ordinary citizens reciting Voltaire’s famous dictum when defending it.
      Don’t bother running through the usual leftist litany of times it has failed. The fact is that it is part of our heritage and used to be part of our culture, and we need to bring it back.

  12. michael888
    July 16, 2020 at 08:19

    Thanks to Jonathan Cook for enlightening me on Trump’s involvement with “Russian trolls”, which seems suicidal (but not surprising). I was under the mistaken impression that Russiagate, the Steele Dossier, the endless harassment of Trump’s campaign team and administration by the CIA and FBI (some even deserved) and the Establishment MSM, and the accusations of Trump (and Jill Stein and Tulsi Gabbard) being in Putin’s pocket emanated from Hillary Clinton’s political campaign, unhinged from reality, with its armies of “identity politicians” and those wielding most of the cleavers of cancel culture, which seemed to hit both alt right and alt left contrarians with equal vigor. Remember that Bernie Sanders was a big advocate of Russiagate and how we have to believe what the CIA tells us, until suddenly the CIA outed him as a Russian stooge.
    When Obama passed the abolition (“modernization”) of Smith Mundt, he unleashed the CIA propaganda narratives (via MSM and the State Dept) on an unprecedented and legal scale (true, at the moment on the DNC side, but things change). It is obvious that, while the government cannot censor free speech, they CAN pointedly tell social media companies whom to censor and when.
    When I was a child upset with being called names by other idiot children, I was told by my parents that “Sticks-and-stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Good to see America has moved into the four year old mindset at every level; there is some predictive value in consistency.

  13. P. Michael Garber
    July 16, 2020 at 01:11

    I’m a long time fan of Chomsky’s work, both linguistic and political. He’s old now and this is not the first time he’s said or done something that seems inconsistent with his lifelong body of work. However I’m grateful to Jonathan for taking the time to reveal the source of the foul odor accompanying this salvo signed primarily by establishment pundits.

    “Highlighting the small cancel culture, while ignoring the much larger, Establishment-backed cancel culture, distorts our understanding of what is at stake and who wields power.”

    • P. Michael Garber
      July 16, 2020 at 01:17

      I meant to say Jonathan Cook.

    • Rob
      July 16, 2020 at 13:27

      Noam Chomsky is 91 years old. In recent interviews that I have seen, he is remarkably sharp and coherent, far better than most people half his age. Signing this letter may have shown a lapse in judgement, but in a short while, it will all be forgotten. I expect this particular story to have a short lifespan, though cancel culture may not. Basically, I agree with Jonathan Cook that the whole dust-up is an attempt by the elite to regain total control of the narrative that people are permitted to hear.

    • robert e williamson jr
      July 19, 2020 at 00:19

      You hit the real problem here right on the nose with your last two lines.


  14. Simon
    July 16, 2020 at 00:19

    Almost everything in this piece is insightful, but fundaments and dynamics are entangled.

    Despite three updates, I think the conclusion still overreaches.

    It was a good letter that could have been better, less hypocritically motivated and more resistant to the forecast abuses.

    Cancel culture is simply unreasonable censure. It has always been with us but never so debased or ubiquitous. That’s what justified the letter, but what what exactly is the downside?

    Should we avoid call a spade a spade in case it plays into the hands of those with a nefarious monopoly on framing and defining?

    To do so is only to be left with dwindling means to fight oppression, which is most vulnerably dependent on unreasonable censure.

    A direct front and centre attack on the latter was long overdue. Power has always rejected every attempt to censure it as unreasonable, yet that is precisely were its disadvantage lies. The sooner they have to resort to that mode of framing the better.

    What do we have to lose from being accountable on the same terms when the advantage on such terms is naturally ours? All we have to do is keep an eye on our own hypocrisy.

    • ks
      July 17, 2020 at 12:28

      Well said. What I get from this is that Chomsky is brilliantly consistent and many leftists whose opinions I value are not. Clear away the confusion of right wing exploitation and ownership of the means of communication and you’re left with a basic question: should ideas considered harmful be suppressed or open for debate? Many on the left seem to think the answer is negotiable – if it involves perceived harm to marginal communities, the answer is ‘suppressed.’ It’s okay to try to prevent Germaine Greer from speaking because her beliefs make trans women feel unsafe. It’s okay to try to prevent publication of Woody Allen’s side of a story that’s caused him psychological and professional harm because #metoo and he’s rich. It’s in the small worlds of academia and social justice groups, not the world inhabited by prominent newspaper columnists and celebrities, that leftist censors do the most harm.

  15. Jared
    July 15, 2020 at 22:23

    “It is easy to agree with the letter’s generalized argument for tolerance and free and fair debate.”

    Indeed, it is. The most important question is whether one agrees with the principles or not. If we only defend principles like free speech when they are politically convenient for us, a charge Cook correctly levels at Weiss and company, then don’t be surprised when leftist examples of being cancelled (such as by Zionists) fall flat with moderates and the right. They will adopt Cook’s argument in reverse, stating that progressive claims of censorship are merely a political power play and should dismissed as hypocritical.

    It is also important to point out that cancel culture has not been limited to the affluent and powerful. I will list a few quick examples:

    -Emmanuel Cafferty, employee of San Diego Gas and Electric, fired for absentmindedly resting his hand out his vehicle’s window in a position that was incorrectly interpreted as a white power symbol (the OK hand gesture).

    -David Shor, data analyst with Civis Analytics, fired for retweeting a scientific study that statistically showed peaceful protest is more effective than violence at achieving policy change.

    -Justine Schwartz, resident advisor at the University of Michigan, despite excellent performance reviews lost her job for having “not demonstrated a commitment to social justice growth and promotion” and for “playing Devil’s Advocate” (a.k.a the Socratic method).

  16. Dienne
    July 15, 2020 at 17:31

    “Trump, in all his vulgarity, makes plain what … obscures.”

    I’m no fan of Trump and there are vast reams to criticize him on, but this is a truly fine feature of the man. While his vulgarity inspires apoplectic rage in neolibs and neocons suffering from TDS, I get sheer delight out of how he strips the polite veneer off their monstrous policies and “philosophy” (to the extent that “greed is good” is a philosophy”. The Never Trumpers don’t hate him for his policies/ideas (which they vocally support under the such banners as “patriotism” and “protecting the country” and “supporting the troops”), they hate him because he reveals how mendacious and immoral their shared policies and ideas are.

    In the education world, for instance, I have often said that DeVos is the best Secretary of Education we’ve had, not because I agree with a single thing she’s done or tried to do, but because she’s doing exactly what Duncan did as a “good liberal” and ripping the “progressive” veneer off it.

    • July 16, 2020 at 11:44

      You nailed it.

    • robert e williamson jr
      July 18, 2020 at 21:14

      Yea I suppose, after all when the only tool you have is a hammer that’s about all that can be expected to happen.

      But do not put lipstick on a pig and expect not to still have a swine on your hands.

    • robert e williamson jr
      July 18, 2020 at 23:42

      Dienne how in the hell can a confirmed liar be expected reveal anything that is credible.

      I do enjoy the fact that you reveal yourself in this manner.

      But! Nope! I ain’t buying any of it.

      You write “Never Trumpers don’t hate him for his policies/ideas (which they vocally support under the such banners as “Patriotism” and “protecting the country” and “supporting the troops”) they hate him because he reveals how mendacious and immoral their shared policies and ideas are.”

      You have expressed your self through the right to free speech. This is your opinion and I’ll take you word for it.

      In the case of this reader you are dead wrong. I’m a NEVER TRUMPER who thinks both parties are essentially one perverted group of politicians pulling the big SLOW CON. Been that way since around 1963.

      As a NEVER TRUMPER I don’t have a visceral dislike for this man because of his non-existent policies or his non-existent ideas, like drinking bleach for instance. I have a visceral dislike for him because he has convinced me that he is a perverted, narcissistic, egomaniac, divisive mental case unqualified to be dogcatcher.

      But if you want to make excuses for him because of that little tingle of “sheer delight” you derive from his antics, you own him. And Besty for that manner. You stripped your own veneer off rooting for the two of them my friend. Nice try, you seem to have much in common with the” fake president.”

      Lead or follow but if your only desire is to get your jollies you need to get the fu** out of the way.

      Thanks CN

  17. Bob Van Noy
    July 15, 2020 at 15:18

    Co-signing any document with David Froum “Axis of Evil” is shurly ill advised…

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