Here are two rival explanations of what is going on around us. First, that nothing has changed. Alan Dershowitz, an emeritus professor at the Harvard Law School, begins his latest book: ‘Cancel culture is the new McCarthyism of the “woke” generation.’ What he learned about McCarthyism then stands us in good stead now. Indeed, an historian might go further back, and argue that McCarthyism itself was only the Communist-era version of a persecutory and intimidatory American culture that can be traced to its Calvinist origins in the New England colonies, a culture which had its Anglophone origins in England and which reached its persecutory extremes in Scotland and in Ulster.
Second, that everything has changed. Since McCarthy, Soviet Communism has collapsed and US society has become significantly secularised. In this account, wokery is a very recent phenomenon with very recent causes. We might look for the causes in other places, like the decline of the ideology of class war; the frustration of the material ambitions of Western 1960s cohorts in the face of the globalised competition of the 2010s; the spread of the ideology of universal human rights and the rise of the culture of victimhood that this has permitted; the proliferation of social media and the ease with which the opinions of hate-filled nobodies can now be mobilised.
Dershowitz, who remembers McCarthyism, reminds us of the similarities, especially (for a lawyer) the denial of due process and free speech
But which? Dershowitz, who remembers McCarthyism, reminds us of the similarities, especially (for a lawyer) the denial of due process and free speech; the erosion of the presumption of innocence; the anonymity of the accusers; and the threat to ‘constitutional rights’ (he adds Stalinism for good measure, though how this distant phenomenon feeds into US culture is not so clear). All these things manifestly take place, even in universities. But why do they occur?
Perhaps an historian might respond to Dershowitz’s heartfelt book by suggesting that both the major alternatives are true, in a modified sense.
Ultimately, the ‘nothing has changed’ model distracts us from the ‘why?’ question. That model’s implicit answer is: ‘it was always like that’. More than explanations, Dershowitz presents case after case of individuals who really have been unjustly cancelled (and he includes himself). The heart of the matter is an Appendix listing 147 cases of mostly recent persecution in the US.
But there is a suggestion of an explanation here. ‘Among the questions raised by cancel culture is why racism and sexism are more influential in cancellations than anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and other bigotries.’ Dershowitz contends that ‘cancel culture creates its own new hierarchy … based on race, gender, and other statuses related to identity and “privilege”’: the implication (though not developed) is that woke practitioners are consciously self-servers.
The element of activist self-interest duly emerges in this book. Dershowitz cites Eric Hoffer: ‘Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.’ How far down this road has that linked phenomenon – the universal human rights movement, the cancel culture movement, the victimhood movement, the woke movement – reached? A long way, the author suggests.
How is it to be resisted? Dershowitz argues that ‘We should offer better approaches in the marketplace of ideas’: excellent, but undeveloped. No more persuasive strategy emerges than to display the cancel culture’s malign nature. Given the largely monochrome composition of universities on both sides of the Atlantic, it is hard to escape the conclusion that this book is a lament at a war already lost.
Dershowitz does call for ‘the creation of a cancel culture court’, an ‘informal’ body, a ‘court of public opinion’ applying ‘a single standard of outrage, accountability, and cancellation’. But he does not propose such a standard. Would such a code, centrally imposed, be a cure worse than the disease? His main argument even pulls in the opposite direction: ‘One of the most daunting challenges to protect freedom of speech against the excesses of the cancel culture is the constitutional reality that cancel culture may itself be a form of First Amendment protected expression.’ It is so protected, Dershowitz concludes, and should be, just as attorneys should defend even guilty clients. He adds, again rightly, that all historical figures (apart from mythologised heroes) had both vices and virtues, so that it would be merely destructive to condemn them for their vices. But where does that leave Dershowitz’s desire to set up ‘a single standard’?
The book mostly reacts to cancel culture, rather than to wokery in general, and only in the United States
On reflection, Dershowitz presents the cancel culture as a part of ‘the broader “woke” or “progressive” movement’. What, then, is the larger phenomenon? In his pages it is an attempt ‘to dismantle the entire structure of meritocracy’, which he thinks was introduced in the USA ‘to replace the European hierarchy based on nobility, bloodlines, class, religion, and other identities’. Hence ‘Cancel culture’s effort to replace meritocracy with identity privilege is the woke mirror image of the discredited hierarchies of the past … the very concept of meritocracy , regardless of how it is measured, is seen as inherently hierarchical, racist, sexist, and unwoke’. Historians might question his history. Commentators might question whether wokery has additional targets (and so other causes) than this euphemistic one.
The book mostly reacts to cancel culture, rather than to wokery in general, and only in the United States. It is a nostalgic defence of the ‘American dream’, of American exceptionalism; but Dershowitz’s admission that the dream did not work for ‘some groups’ which ‘have had greater difficulties overcoming historic and legal barriers … To be sure, there is a place for diversity over pure, blindly graded talent’ gives the game away.
Why, so recently, did some campaigners seek to replace meritocracy by group identity? What else is involved? The book does not say. And this is a pity, since wokery is a problem with transatlantic reach and demands transatlantic solutions. Dershowitz’s catalogue of the reality and injustices of cancel culture is convincing; his account of wokery’s causes is only a start.
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