US President Donald Trump in front of Mt. Rushmore on July 3 2020. Picture: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER
US President Donald Trump in front of Mt. Rushmore on July 3 2020. Picture: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER

A spectre is haunting Western democracies. No, it is not the surging pandemic, mass death or catastrophic unemployment. It is, if you believe Donald Trump and some of his critics, the end of free speech and the advent of “cancel culture”. 

Trump defined the new menace to civilisation in his Independence Day speech at Mount Rushmore, claiming that far-left fascists are “driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees”.

Days later, a group of well-known writers including Salman Rushdie and JK Rowling published an open letter in Harper’s magazine agreeing that the forces of “illiberalism” are rampant on the left as well as the right, and that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted”. 

Given the bizarre timing and nature of the complaint, it does not feel rude to ask: “What are they on about?”

Institutions and businesses have long been able to fire employees at will. A few may have acted even more hastily in recent months out of fear of being publicly shamed, or the desire to appear in tune with the anti-racist zeitgeist.

But the handful of firings on political grounds, which neither Trump nor his critics care to specify, are dwarfed by the immense human tragedy unfolding before our eyes: hundreds of millions of people losing their jobs and dignity for no fault of their own.

Moreover, free speech has never been more widely available than it is today. So much so that the cacophony of voices liberated by digital media too frequently drowns out well-informed and sensible opinion. Trump, who blurts out several hot-takes every day, is himself an example of the verbal incontinence enabled by Twitter in recent years.

It is also true that historians, economists and sociologists are able to hold Twitter discussions of a quality that shames much of what appears in the pages of major newspapers and magazines.

The picture that Trump and highly prominent writers draw of narrowed and darkened intellectual horizons seems wholly unrecognisable

This is not to say that speech has become restricted in the traditional media. After nearly 25 years of publishing in a broad ideological range of mainstream journals and specialist periodicals, I can attest that conversations about almost everything, from political economy and international relations to literature and gender relations, have never been more vibrant.

Nor have they featured such a wide range of voices, from the East and South as well as the West and North.

Back in the 1990s, when I started out, African-American writers and thinkers were hard to find in mainstream periodicals and there were hardly any voices from India, let alone the non-anglophone parts of Asia. One or two writers resident in the West were tasked with articulating the experiences of whole nations, even continents (as in the New York Times’s praise for Rushdie: “a continent finding its voice”).

Today, conservative as well as liberal and left-wing outlets feature a multiplicity of opinion and analysis. Much more variety is still needed — human experience is always growing — and many book and magazine publishers are sincerely trying to achieve it.

Given this necessary progress, the picture that Trump and highly prominent writers draw of narrowed and darkened intellectual horizons seems wholly unrecognisable, even paranoid.

Could it be that increasingly diverse voices and rich conversations are a threat to their free speech — more accurately, the prerogative of famous and powerful people to speak at length on all sorts of things without interruption or disagreement? For instance, Rowling seems intent on tweeting her disapproval of transgender people. Certainly, a closer examination of the critics of cancel culture confirms the suspicion that many of these self-appointed defenders of free speech prefer monologue over dialogue.

Trump, who routinely advocates sackings and boycotts of his detractors, is the world’s leading exponent of the very thing he attacks. But commitment to liberal values is also not widely upheld among the anti-Trump signatories of the Harper’s letter.

They include writers who have campaigned against academics on political grounds (Bari Weiss, Cary Nelson); a human-rights professor (Michael Ignatieff), who outlined “permissible” forms of torture; journalists (Paul Berman, David Frum, Anne Applebaum) who championed the illegal war on Iraq; a political scientist (Yascha Mounk), who hailed the recent military coup in Bolivia as a triumph of democracy; and a novelist (Martin Amis), who proposed a “Muslim ban” (including strip-searches and mass deportations) much harsher than the one enforced by Trump.

If those culpable for today’s abysmal moral and political climate sense anger and frustration against them among younger people, it is because they have never been held accountable. Nor are they likely to face any professional consequences in the future, notwithstanding their overheated claims that cancel culture is another pandemic.

Trump might be voted out in November. The writers, journalists and academics guilty of cruel blunders and terrible misjudgments will remain as entrenched as ever.

No doubt this networked minority will continue to protect its privileges by invoking various dangers to free speech. But no-one should mistake its fear of obsolescence and irrelevance for any kind of liberalism.

Bloomberg

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