Artillery Row

A series of unfortunate cancellations

Has the vanguard of wokeism taken over the realm of academic publishing?

On 30 September Rowman & Littlefield, once a respected American publisher, tersely tweeted that its scholarly imprint, Lexington Books, “has cancelled its planned book series ‘Problems of Anti-Colonialism’ effective immediately.”

No publisher ever returns the rights to any book unless something is seriously wrong

Bruce Gilley, one of its editors and a professor of political science at Portland State University in troubled Portland, Oregon, had an even ruder awakening when he learned that the series’ first book, a biography he had written of the forgotten twentieth-century British colonial official Sir Alan Burns, had vanished from Rowman & Littlefield’s website just two weeks before it was scheduled to ship. Receiving no explanation in response to inquiries about the book’s bizarre disappearance from the publisher’s website (at this time of writing it remains listed on Amazon, though noted as “currently unavailable”), Gilley believed, not unreasonably, that his book had been “cancelled” and requested a return of the rights. Rowman & Littlefield apparently obliged.

As an investor with media interests that include a publishing company, I can assure the gentle reader that no publisher ever returns the rights to any book – especially not at the last minute and after months of preparation and publicity costs – unless something is seriously wrong. Just days before this épopée, someone called Joshua Moufawad-Paul, a self-described Maoist and “contingent faculty member” who claims to teach philosophy on an adjunct basis at York University in Toronto, and who has published books with titles like The Communist Necessity, decided that Gilley’s work was not up to snuff and posted a Change.org petition calling on Rowman & Littlefield to eliminate what he called his “shameful” series. By the time the petition reached 800 signatures, Rowman & Littlefield cancelled the series, allowing Moufawad-Paul to declare victory.

What is the problem with a book series about “problems” of “anti-colonialism?” Apparently, from the point of view of Moufawad-Paul and his supporters, anything that opposes “anti-colonialism” ipso facto observes some sort of “good” in colonialism and is therefore unacceptable and even “white nationalist” in perspective. He further accused Gilley of being unqualified to write about colonial history, though Moufawad-Paul himself appears to have no training of any kind in History, Africa, colonialism, the British Empire, or anything other relevant subject. Tellingly, Moufawad-Paul also noted that Rowman & Littlefield previously published a number of anti-colonial scholars and argued that no honest publisher could publish work that might disagree with theirs. Hello, groupthink, but hardly anyone has observed the grating and most colonial irony that a subject of Her Majesty the Queen effectively caused the cancellation of an American publication.

I never have been and never will be moved by cancel culture or the revolting sensibilities that enable it

Gilley’s cancellation quickly went viral, with sympathetic articles appearing in the London Times and elsewhere. Two senior scholars who endorsed his book affirmed its quality and bemoaned his critics. Gilley himself took to Twitter, where he compared Moufawad-Paul and his supporters to the Taliban, and to the Wall Street Journal, in which he published a lengthy op-ed bewailing his fate and calling for more freedom and diversity of opinion in his toxic profession. A rival online petition collected more than four thousand signatures to vindicate Gilley’s scholarly reputation and called upon Rowman & Littlefield to apologize. As of this writing it has not done so, but rather maintained, however unconvincingly, that its removal of Gilley’s book from its website was merely for “review” purposes, and that the series was cancelled only because there were allegedly no other books yet submitted in it.

But hope and good fortune arrived. Gilley himself hinted at a silver lining in his Wall Street Journal op-ed, confessing a “ghoulish satisfaction” in the vastly greater publicity the scandal would bestow upon an otherwise obscure book by an obscure college professor about an obscure colonial official. Prior to the cancellation, a scholarly biography of this type might have attracted tens of readers or fewer. Now it might get a few hundred.

Gilley’s foresight was justified. Having read his op-ed, and subsequently encouraged by the Free Speech Union, I immediately stepped forward with an offer to publish his book as soon as Christmas Day, just as my company last year picked up and quickly published the intelligence researcher James Flynn’s book on free speech and universities after its original British publisher dropped it at the last minute for purported legal reasons. I also offered to adopt the rest of Gilley’s cancelled series, assuring him that I never have been and never will be moved by cancel culture or the revolting sensibilities that enable it. After receiving and verbally agreeing on a contract, however, Gilley less than professionally accepted a later offer from another as yet unidentified publisher. The fate of the rest of his cancelled series remains unknown, but I sincerely hope his book does not get cancelled yet again in an industry that is in the vanguard of wokeism and happily breaks even signed contracts to bow down before it. In today’s climate, work and scholars like Gilley are rapidly running out of welcoming homes.

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