Elites and their courtiers who trumpet their moral superiority by damning and silencing those who do not linguistically conform to politically correct speech are the new Jacobins.
By Chris Hedges
The Rev. Will Campbell was forced out of his position as director of religious life at the University of Mississippi in 1956 because of his calls for integration. He escorted Black children through a hostile mob in 1957 to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School. He was the only white person that was invited to be part of the group that founded Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He helped integrate Nashville’s lunch counters and organize the Freedom Rides.
But Campbell was also, despite a slew of death threats he received from white segregationists, an unofficial chaplain to the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He denounced and publicly fought the Klan’s racism, acts of terror and violence and marched with Black civil rights protestors in his native Mississippi, but he steadfastly refused to “cancel” white racists out of his life. He refused to demonize them as less than human. He insisted that this form of racism, while evil, was not as insidious as a capitalist system that perpetuated the economic misery and instability that pushed whites into the ranks of violent, racist organizations.
“During the civil rights movement, when we were developing strategies, someone usually said, ‘Call Will Campbell. Check with Will,’” Rep. John Lewis wrote in the introduction to the new edition of Campbell’s memoir Brother to a Dragonfly, one of the most important books I read as a seminarian. “Will knew that the tragedy of Southern history had fallen on our opponents as well as our allies … on George Wallace and Bull Connor as well as Rosa Parks and Fred Shuttlesworth. He saw that it had created the Ku Klux Klan as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That insight led Will to see racial healing and equity, pursued through courage, love, and faith as the path to spiritual liberation for all.”
Jimmy Carter wrote of Campbell that he “tore down the walls that separated white and black Southerners.” And because the Black Panther organizer Fred Hampton was doing the same thing in Chicago, the FBI — which, along with the CIA, is the de facto ally of the liberal elites in their war against Trump and his supporters — assassinated him.
When the town Campbell lived in decided the Klan should not be permitted to have a float in the Fourth of July parade Campbell did not object, as long as the gas and electric company was also barred. It was not only white racists who inflicted suffering on the innocent and the vulnerable, but institutions that place the sanctity of profit before human life.
“People can’t pay their gas and electric bills, the heat gets turned off and they freeze and sometimes die, especially if they are elderly,” he said. “This, too, is an act of terrorism.”
“Theirs you could see and deal with, and if they broke the law, you could punish them,” he said of the Klan. “But the larger culture that was, and still is, racist to the core is much more difficult to deal with and has a more sinister influence.”
Demonizing Trump Supporters
Campbell would have reminded us that the demonization of the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol is a terrible mistake. He would have reminded us that racial injustice will only be solved with economic justice. He would have called on us to reach out to those who do not think like us, do not speak like us, are ridiculed by polite society, but who suffer the same economic marginalization. He knew that the disparities of wealth, loss of status and hope for the future, coupled with prolonged social dislocation, generated the poisoned solidarity that give rise to groups such as the Klan or the Proud Boys.
We cannot heal wounds we refuse to acknowledge.
The Washington Post, which analyzed the public records of 125 defendants charged with taking part in the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, found that “nearly 60 percent of the people facing charges related to the Capitol riot showed signs of prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades.”
“The group’s bankruptcy rate — 18 percent — was nearly twice as high as that of the American public,” the Post found. “A quarter of them had been sued for money owed to a creditor. And 1 in 5 of them faced losing their home at one point, according to court filings.”
“A California man filed for bankruptcy one week before allegedly joining the attack, according to public records,” the paper reported. “A Texas man was charged with entering the Capitol one month after his company was slapped with a nearly $2,000 state tax lien. Several young people charged in the attack came from families with histories of financial duress.”
We must acknowledge the tragedy of these lives, while at the same time condemning racism, hate and the lust for violence. We must grasp that our most perfidious enemy is not someone who is politically incorrect, even racist, but the corporations and a failed political and judicial system that callously sacrifices people, as well as the planet, on the altar of profit.
Like Campbell, much of my own family comes from the rural working class, many espousing prejudices my father, a Presbyterian minister, regularly condemned from the pulpit. Through a combination of luck and scholarships to elite schools, I got out. They never did. My grandfather, intellectually gifted, was forced to drop out of high school his senior year when his sister’s husband died. He had to work the farm to feed her children. If you are poor in America, you rarely get more than one chance. And many do not get one. He lost his.
The towns in Maine where my relatives come from have been devastated by the closures of mills and factories. There is little meaningful work. There is a smoldering anger caused by legitimate feelings of betrayal and entrapment. They live, like most working-class Americans, lives of quiet desperation. This anger is often expressed in negative and destructive ways. But I have no right to dismiss them as irredeemable.
To understand is not to condone. But if the ruling elites, and their courtiers masquerading as journalists, continue to gleefully erase these people from the media landscape, to attack them as less than human, or as Hillary Clinton called them “deplorables,” while at the same time refusing to address the grotesque social inequality that has left them vulnerable and afraid, it will fuel ever greater levels of extremism and ever greater levels of state repression and censorship.
The cancel culture, a witch hunt by self-appointed moral arbiters of speech, has become the boutique activism of a liberal class that lacks the courage and the organizational skills to challenge the actual centers of power — the military-industrial complex, lethal militarized police, the prison system, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the intelligence agencies that make us the most spied upon, watched, photographed and monitored population in human history, the fossil fuel industry, and a political and economic system captured by oligarchic power.
Turning Away from Larger Battles
It is much easier to turn from these overwhelming battles to take down hapless figures who make verbal gaffes, those who fail to speak in the approved language or embrace the approved attitudes of the liberal elites. These purity tests have reached absurd and self-defeating levels, including the inquisitional bloodlust by 150 staff members of The New York Times demanding that management, which had already investigated and dealt with what at most was poor judgment made by the veteran reporter Don McNeil when he repeated a racist slur in a discussion about race, force him out of the paper, which management reluctantly did.
Too often the targets of the cancel culture are radicals, such as the feminists who run the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter and who do not admit trans people because most of the girls and women in the shelter have been physically assaulted and traumatized by those with male bodies. None of the critics of these feminists spend 10 or 12 hours a day in a shelter taking care of abused girls and women, many of whom were prostituted as children, but fire off screeds to attack them and cut their funding. The cancel culture, as the Canadian feminist Lee Lakeman says, is “the weaponization of ignorance.”
The cancel culture was pioneered by the red baiting of the capitalist elites and their shock troops in agencies such as the FBI to break, often through violence, radical movements and labor unions. Tens of thousands of people, in the name of anti-communism, were cancelled out of the culture. The well-financed Israel lobby is a master of the cancel culture, shutting down critics of the Israeli apartheid state and those of us who support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement as anti-Semites. The cancel culture fueled the persecution of Julian Assange, the censorship of WikiLeaks and the Silicon Valley algorithms that steer readers away from content, including my content, critical of imperial and corporate power.
In the end, this bullying will be used by social media platforms, which are integrated into the state security and surveillance organs, not to promote, as its supporters argue, civility, but ruthlessly silence dissidents, intellectuals, artists and independent journalism. Once you control what people say you control what they think.
This cancel culture is embraced by corporate media platforms where, as Glenn Greenwald writes, “teams of journalists at three of the most influential corporate media outlets — CNN’s ‘media reporters’ (Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy), NBC’s ‘disinformation space unit’ (Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny), and the tech reporters of The New York Times (Mike Isaac, Kevin Roose, Sheera Frenkel) — devote the bulk of their ‘journalism’ to searching for online spaces where they believe speech and conduct rules are being violated, flagging them, and then pleading that punitive action be taken (banning, censorship, content regulation, after-school detention).”
Corporations know these moral purity tests are, for us, self-defeating. They know that by making the cancel culture legitimate — and for this reason I opposed locking Donald Trump out of his Twitter and other social media accounts — they can employ it to silence those who attack and expose the structures of corporate power and imperial crimes.
The campaigns of moral absolutism widen the divides between the liberal elites and the white working class, divisions that are crucial to maintaining the power of the corporate elites. The cancel culture is the fodder for the riveting and entertaining culture wars. It turns anti-politics into politics. Most importantly, the cancel culture deflects attention from the far more egregious institutionalized abuses of power. It is this smug, self-righteousness crusade that makes the liberal class so odious.
Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist who created the comic strip “Kudzu,” which featured a Campbell-inspired character called Rev. Will B. Dunn, brought Campbell to speak at Harvard when I was there. Campbell’s message was met with a mixture of bewilderment and open hostility, which was fine with me as it meant the room swiftly emptied and the rest of the night Marlette, Campbell and I sat up late drinking whiskey and eating bologna sandwiches. Marlette was as iconoclastic and acerbically funny as Campbell. His cartoons, including one that showed Jesus on Good Friday carrying an electric chair instead of a cross and another that portrayed Jerry Falwell as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, provoked howls of protest from irate readers.
Campbell’s memoir, “Brother to a Dragonfly,” is not only beautifully written — Campbell was a close friend of Walker Percy, whose novels I also consumed — but filled with a humility and wisdom that liberals, who should spend less time in the self-referential rabbit hole of social media, have lost. He describes America, which routinely employs murder, torture, threats, blackmail and intimidation to crush all those who oppose it at home and abroad, as “a nation of Klansmen.” He refused to draw a moral line between the American empire, which many liberals defend, and the disenfranchised and angry whites that flock to racist groups such as the Klan or, years later, would support Trump. The architects of empire and the ruling capitalists who exploited workers, stymied democracy, orchestrated state repression, hoarded obscene levels of wealth and waged endless war were, he knew, the real enemy.
Campbell remembers watching a documentary by CBS called “The Ku Klux Klan: An Invisible Empire,” after which he was invited to address the audience. The film showed the murder of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, the castration of Judge Aaron in Alabama, and the deaths of the four young girls in the Birmingham Sunday school bombing. When the film showed a Klan recruit pivoting right when the drill master shouted, “Left face,” the audience erupted in “cheers, jeers, catcalls and guffaws.” Campbell writes that he “felt a sickening in my stomach.”
Those viewing the film were a group convened by the National Student Association and included New Left radicals of the sixties, representing Students for a Democratic Society, the Port Huron group, young white men and women who had led protests at campuses across the country, burned down buildings, coined the term “pigs” to refer to police. Many were from affluent families.
“They were students in or recent graduates of rich and leading colleges and universities,” he writes of the audience. “They were mean and tough but somehow, I sensed that there wasn’t a radical in the bunch. For if they were radical how could they laugh at a poor ignorant farmer who didn’t know his left hand from his right? If they had been radical they would have been weeping, asking what had produced him. And if they had been radical they would not have been sitting, soaking up a film produced for their edification and enjoyment by the Establishment of the establishment — CBS.”
Campbell, who was asked to address the group following the film, said: “My name is Will Campbell. I’m a Baptist preacher. I’m a native of Mississippi. And I’m pro-Klansman because I’m pro-human being.”
Pandemonium erupted in the hall. He was shouted down as a “fascist pig” and a “Mississippi redneck.” Most walked out.
“Just four words uttered — ‘pro-Klansman Mississippi Baptist preacher,’ coupled with one visual image, white, had turned them into everything they thought the Ku Klux Klan to be — hostile, frustrated, angry, violent and irrational,” he writes. “And I was never able to explain to them that pro-Klansman is not the same as pro-Klan. That the former has to do with a person, the other with an ideology.”
“The same social forces which produced the Klan’s violence also produced the violence in Watts, Rochester and Harlem, Cleveland, Chicago, Houston, Nashville, Atlanta and Dayton, because they are all pieces of the same garment — social isolation, deprivation, economic conditions, rejections, working mothers, poor schools, bad diets, and all the rest,” Campbell writes.
And these social forces produced the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests after the police murder of George Floyd and the storming of the Capitol by an enraged mob.
Campbell never asked any of the members of the Klan he knew to leave the organization for the same reason he never asked liberals to leave “the respectable and fashionable organizations or institutions of which they were a part and party, all of which, I was learning, were more truly racist than their Klan.”
This radical love was the core of Dr. Martin Luther King’s message. This love informed King’s steadfast nonviolence. It led him to denounce the Vietnam War and condemn the U.S. government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” And it saw him assassinated in Memphis when he was supporting a strike by sanitation workers for economic justice.
Campbell lived by his oft-quoted creed, “If you’re gonna love one, you’ve got to love ‘em all.” Like King, he believed in the redemptive and transformative power of forgiveness.
The ruling elites and the courtiers who trumpet their moral superiority by damning and silencing those who do not linguistically conform to politically correct speech are the new Jacobins. They wallow in a sanctimonious arrogance, one made possible by their privilege, which masks their subservience to corporate power and their amorality. They do not battle social and economic injustice. They silence, with the enthusiastic assistance of the digital platforms in Silicon Valley, those who are crushed and deformed by systems of oppression and those who lack their finely developed politesse and deference to linguistic fashion. They are the useful idiots of corporate power and the emerging police state. Cancel culture is not the road to reform. It is the road to tyranny.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show “On Contact.”
This column is from Scheerpost, for which Chris Hedges writes a regular column twice a month. Click here to sign up for email alerts.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
Lots of deserved love for Mr. Hedges here, and I will add my thanks to the chorus. I have been extremely moved by both the article and the comments. Would that we were governed by such thoughtful people.
Appreciate it, but it could do without the constant excusing. I do not condone this, I do not condone that.
We never go out of our way to state we don’t condone god knows how many misdeeds when we speak of society’s high and mighty. I’m not one for wokeism, but I do think this habit betrays a deeper problem.
… the preachers of the Great Awokening—those who most ardently and eloquently articulate the principles of Wokeness—obtain status because they (a) signal the possession of desired traits and (b) promulgate a powerful narrative that legitimizes the status disparity between white elites and hoi polloi [i.e. the deplorables]. The elites, according to these preachers, are morally righteous and therefore deserve status, whereas hoi polloi are morally backward and deserve obloquy and derision.
The Preachers of the Great Awokening, by Bo Winegard and Ben Winegard, Quillette, September 21, 2018
Lamenting the loss of proper language certainly reverberates in through the West
I have shared this widely as “probably the best political article you’ll read this year.”
Thanks for your knowledge and decency, Chris.
Brilliant and timely. Thank you.
In going over this inspiring essay that, for me, asks that we examine our biases. Those we recognize, and those that remain unconscious, unrecognized. While I am inspired and challenged, I also find that I must question the following:
“Like King, he believed in the redemptive and transformative power of forgiveness.”
Based largely on the work of Judith Lewis Herman (Trauma and Recovery), I have come to think that we ignore and forgive immoral behavior at great cost to both the perpetrator and the recipient. I have pondered this for many years and have at this time come to believe that we must be held accountable for any harm we do. The challenge is to do this in a restorative process that both assumes that personal growth and change are possible and responds in ways that enhance this possibility.
Thus I am suggesting that there is a legitimate need for accountability and this is best accompanied by compassion for the individual who has caused harm to another. This compassion expressed through the process of restorative justice.
Just some thoughts for what value they may have in the context of this insightful, inspiring and challenging essay.
see: IS CIVIL DISCOURSE DEAD? .youtube.com/watch?v=uwT0od_bVbE
Wow! I read this yesterday, twice. Last night I had a dream, very unpleasant. I dreamed of a giant serpent coiled around the north American continent.
A serpent being attacked by smallish devils who were spearing it’s body. Little CIA devils as it were.
The scales of the serpent were filled with faces of terror and pain.
Each time the serpent was speared it bit at that location very violently attacking its self.
The devils attacks driving the serpent to destroy its self as the faces vanished.
Some might say it was a fitting end, to be cancelled in such a violent manner.
Thank you Chris Hedges and CN
Loved this and thank you!
A rational response to Jan.6 and the Trump phenomenon would be to ask why so many people are so upset and full of anger at the Washington establishment. Find the reasons and address them honestly instead of accusing them of insurrection and condemning them.
This would require hard work, compromise, and the abandonment of corruption.
I agree that the grievances against the system are economic. It is clear that those at the middle and bottom levels of the private sector have the most to complain about.
A timely and excellent piece of journalism. There is a reason why the Chair of Poetry in leading universities is also the Chair of Social Justice. You can have poetry or you can have social justice, but the second is likely to cancel out the free operation of the first. Cancel Culture is an attempt to apply the lash to those who remain unwilling to work the fields of late-stage Capitalism. Well done, Chris Hedges.
Excellent writing. Keep going as long as you can. You will influence many you will never meet. I hadn’t heard about Will Campbell. He had it completely right.
Wow. What an awesome article. Thank you Chris, you keep hope alive.
I think Hedges’ analysis is really right. It goes to the real goal of what different factions in the US political scene really want. The charge is often made that the MAGA supporters of Trump want social divisions and white supremacy, but the case for that is rather weak. Some do, but most are far more energized by an exasperation with the “Washington-New York Establishment” which has steadily destroyed their lives since the 1970s. It is far more demonstrable that democrats want a divided and warring society in some misguided belief this will help them in their quest for power in government. The democrats of today — Pelosi, Clintons, Schumers, and so on — are really the representatives of affluent white people connected to Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
I think Hedges’ call to recognize the humanity of people on all sides is exactly the right place to start. That’s because the troubles in American society are not race but class. Of course the two intersect powerfully, but you can’t address the problem of race without addressing the problem of class. Since the 1970s, the US elites have been committed to the ideology of neo-liberalism, the doctrine of Hayek and Friedman which was designed to structure the economy so that the top 1% grew in wealth at the expense of everyone else. We are at the crisis stage in wealth inequality. Trump’s MAGA supporters are victims of neo-liberalism just as much as African Americans. On the issue of class, they have a lot more in common than in opposition.
The oligarchs in world history have always understood the tactic of divide and conquer. Keep the under-class fighting among themselves and you can control them. Turn one faction against another, that that other will fight the one faction and not the oligarchs. This is what is happening in “cancel culture.” One faction is attacking another faction. BLM is just as guilty of this any any group.
Thanks to Hedges for calling out this destructive divisiveness.
” The charge is often made that the MAGA supporters of Trump want social divisions and white supremacy, but the case for that is rather weak. Some do, but most are far more energized by an exasperation with the “Washington-New York Establishment” which has steadily destroyed their lives since the 1970s.”
What confuses me is that Donald Trump is also part of the “New York Establishment”.
you hit the nail on the head – thanks for the insight
Hear, hear! Chris Hedges understands fully what is going on. And here is one of his very best.
Chris, you reached deep into my southern-born heart with the story of Dr. Campbell. I never knew him but as a southern school teacher, I suspect we walked in step. You explained my puzzling feelings of compassion on Jan 6. Thank you for pointing out what my late friends Mike Ruppert and Gary Webb amd so many other independent journos have been telling us. The Umbrella Lady
This article is one of the best renditions explaining cancel culture that you’ll likely find anywhere. I shall be passing it on far and wide and hopefully it might penetrate the inner sanctum of those that are afflicted with this vile disease.
Thank you Mr. Hedges once again for your perseverance. And for keeping us sane.
This essay is a very constructive contribution, perhaps the best yet, in response to the ever worsenng crisis. Hedges has resurrected an almost cancelled, but deep rooted tradition in America. It unites some of the founders, the Abolitionists, Martin Luther King, Cambell and now Hedges. It was called Christianity.
Thank you Chris Hedges for such an informative article on the real causes that have plagued human society for thousands of years and your continued effort to inform the public of the “real enemies” of the common people. I love your program on RTAmerica as well!
And too Carolyn: Your words are so touching and in my opinion, you truly are a poet of the highest order! Thanks!
A bow of thanks to you Frank for your encouraging words to me. Perhaps you are a poet too. Whatever your work, I am with you in the spirit of solidarity, as we are with Chris Hedges and community. blessing, Carolyn
US liberalism died in the 1990s. The bourgeoisie just didn’t notice. No question, years of work went into successfully pitting us against each other by class and race. Since 2019, when the Democrats announced that “climate change” was their 2020 campaign theme, liberals have been doing their “environmental racism” thing. Why race? To keep attention off of the appalling consequences of the Democrats’ ongoing war on the poor. The majority beaten and killed by cops have been white, and liberals stress that they”care” only when white cops attack POC. After all thee years,there’s really not much left to say about it.
Speaking of cancelling, I am constantly baffled that the media continues to completely ignore allegations that the ‘leader’ of Proud Boys was allegedly an agent provocateur working with the FBI.
How is that his efforts do not ‘cancel’ any or all of the allegations against the group?
Thank you Chris Hedges,
Your article moves me to tears and rejoicing at your compassionate heart. Your talents as a writer and experience in journalism, plus your observations from childhood in Maine (and your war correspondence work), knowledge of American civil rights history, plus your training for ministry ….all of these sources you drew upon to write the best article I’ve ever read. I forwarded it to several friends. (In my up and coming book of poems, I try to express compassion for all. You help me and I’m sure many others to feel less alone. Thank you for standing beside those who are suffering (as you explain because of debts, poverty, loss of jobs, etc.) Your voice reminds me of Christ the Good Shepherd! Your grandfather would be so proud of you. May you feel his spirit near. Sincerely, Carolyn Grassi M.A. Political Science (retired community college part time teacher and poet) Pacifica, California
And behind and within all our woes stands ‘The Corporation’. Rid ourselves of this monster and a beautiful new culture may just emerge.
The middle class are dependent on those corporations for their jobs.They certainly aren’t going to “rise up” against them.
Rise up, and against them —— need not be a violent insurrection.
Workers can call out injustices in the working place and in the pay check.
Getting the high & mighty to pay attention Is the purpose of protests , boycotts and term limits …
In some cases standing up to the corporate culture can be done just by walking away. I did it in the late 90’s. While it cost me monetarily, it was worth it. My replacement in 1996 is still in the position and it pays 319K annually (state position so salary is public information). This is over 6x our current household income. We make it work by growing most of our own food; not owning a vehicle; not flying since 2004; and doing most of the remodeling of our modest home ourselves. It is likely a higher quality of life than that of my successor. It is the best way to “rise up” in my opinion.