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Patrick Luciani: Cancel culture is a two-way street

Commentary

In the latest Hub book review Patrick Luciani unpacks The Canceling of the American Mind by Gregg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott (Simon & Schuster, 2023) and provides his reflections on the state of university and college campuses today.

In a recent Harvard CAPS/ Harris poll, 84 percent of Americans sided more with Israel in the war with Hamas. When broken down by age, those between 18 and 24, 51 percent said historical Palestinian grievances justified the killings. Why the broad support for Hamas’s indiscriminate, murderous rampage by a cohort that only yesterday ran for cover at the slightest psychological trigger warning? 

The first clue came in Allan Bloom’s 1987 best-selling book, The Closing of the American Mind. Where once the role of teachers was to protect students in their charge from the “deforming forces of convention and prejudice,” students are now left to their own devices to see and judge the world as they please. According to Bloom, educating the young is made all the more difficult when students come to university with two well-fortified beliefs: that truth is relative and that equality, however vaguely conceived, trumps all. 

Seeing the world from that perspective, students hold that the real danger is someone without these fixed ideas that lead to wars, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and sexism. Students with this mindset argue against the very notion that historical mistakes can be corrected unless their perception of reality underpins them. 

What bothered Bloom was that these beliefs weren’t arrived at with an understanding of history or enlightened thought; they just appeared without any doubt that they could be wrong. The problem is further compounded by a university administration tolerating and indulging their belief system. Rather than think hard about Bloom’s warning that little good can come from this pandering, we’ve reached the point where teaching and education are no longer the prime roles of higher learning but rather are accommodations.

Almost thirty years later, and honouring Allan Bloom’s foresight, Jonathon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff wrote The Coddling of the American Mind, reinforcing the problems Bloom articulated in the 80s. Not only have students come to class with preconceived ideas of truth, justice and fairness, but by the time they graduate, they’ve deepened those ideas with three untruths: that what doesn’t kill you will make you weaker, that feelings are superior to evidence and science, and that the real battle is between good people and evil people. Haidt and Lukianoff have exposed that elite schools—and here I include those in Canada as well—have become breeding grounds for what they euphemistically call “unhelpful worldviews.” 

The last book in the American Mind triptych is the recently published The Canceling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott, who follow the logical progression and conclusion of the first two books: that free speech and open minds are a danger to be avoided at all costs. Added to the three untruths listed above is the fourth, “that only bad people have bad opinions,” with the apparent conclusion that all ideas mustn’t be engaged with tolerance, respect, or debate. 

Too many students, particularly in the humanities, social sciences, and the arts, believe history and the ancients have little to teach them. Instead, they turn to radical thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and Herbert Marcuse, once darlings of the 60s and 70s radical movements popular in political theory classes. 

Fanon glorifies the attributes of supreme violence against colonial oppressors by the oppressed as the only way to cleanse and retrieve their dignity. He writes, “Life for the native can only spring up again out of the rotting corpse of the settler.” At the same time, Marcuse teaches that free speech is too precious a gift that only the righteous can exercise while denying it to those who think otherwise. He is the inspiration for “canceling” anyone following the principle that evil thoughts come only from bad people. 

Lukianoff and Schlott trace the rise of cancel culture from 2014 when canceling appeared uncontrolled in academia, the media, and the sciences if anyone put a political foot wrong, all supercharged by easy access to social media. Academic cancellations in the U.S. now outnumber professors fired during the red scare in the McCarthy years.  

But something has changed since October 7. Student reaction, mainly from elite schools throughout the U.S. and Canada, was shocking enough, but the collective reluctance of their administrators to identify real evil is worse. Part of the answer was fear of committing themselves and watching how the political winds blew. They were trapped in revising their anodyne statements as the opprobrium flowed in. 

But it may be too late. The backlash has already started at Ivy League Schools as donors demur and elite Canadian schools feel the pushback. Some law firms have threatened not to hire Toronto Metropolitan University Law School graduates after 74 students posted a letter supporting Hamas. Schools will also suffer the consequences as their alumni close their wallets. Schools of higher education have quickly discovered that cancel culture is a two-way street. 

Howard Anglin: We know what Hamas means by ‘resistance.’ So why are progressives so eager to parrot terrorist talking points?

Commentary

The saintly editors here at The Hub have agreed to my request to produce one of my two monthly articles for the site as a monthly transatlantic diary. For those readers not familiar with the format, which is more common in British journalism, the diary is a grab bag of short items, sometimes on a common theme, but often not. In my case, what they have in common is that they are either too inconsequential to merit a full article or I can’t be bothered to come up with more than a knee-jerk reaction or a flip comment. This is October.

’In Paradise, the fruits were ripe the first minute, and in Heaven it is always autumn.” I can’t speak for paradise, but Donne’s apothegm has certainly applied to Oxford’s heavenly autumn this year. The sun has stayed its sentence on the year long enough to keep October bright and warm and the wet river mist away. The leaves are only lately turning brown and gold, as though the brick terraces of North Oxford have donned a tweed coat in reluctant concession to the season. 

One advantage to spending the fall in England is the smell of burning leaves. I don’t know when or why we stopped backyard burns in Canada, but whatever smug gains it has secured cannot compensate for the loss of the most evocative smells of fall. Burning leaves are to October what pine needles are to December. It’s a smell that runs through human history. Bonfires have been beacons, warnings, and celebrations since man mastered fire, and their banishment is one more way we have cut ourselves off from the past, one more thing we no longer share with our ancestors. 

* * *

As idyllic as Oxford has been this fall, it hasn’t been insulated from worldly cares. The outside world intruded this month in the form of ragged mobs parading through the city cheering Hamas’ “resistance.” I heard the rabble from my desk in the library at All Souls, a soaring neoclassical oasis in the heart of Oxford that is usually so quiet the briefest chair-squeak or scrupulously suppressed cough echoes through the sepulchral hush like the opening cannonade at Austerlitz. On this day, the muffled rhythm of protest chants penetrated the thick walls, and I ventured out into Radcliffe Square in time to hear the chants of “From Oxford to Gaza, long live the intifada.” The parade, which was organised by an outfit called the Socialist Worker Student Society, was dominated by young progressives. I sincerely hope none of them know that the main weapon of the last intifada was 140 suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians and that calling for intifada in Oxford is a call to kill Jews here too. I say I hope, but…honestly, these days.

Even considering the pitiful education these students have received, youthful ignorance or general stupidity can be no excuse. The now-routine refrain “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” is, in this context, a call for antisemitic genocide. I don’t care what you think you are saying, if you repeat those words immediately after a Hamas massacre, you can’t complain if people take it to mean what it means in Hamas’ Charter, which is the end of the state of Israel: “Hamas rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea.” Similarly, if “resistance” sounds suspiciously like a euphemism for the slaughter of civilians, it’s because that’s what Hamas means by it. Again, I don’t care what you think you’re saying, right now for “resistance” can reasonably be understood to mean what Hamas means by it: “Hamas rejects any attempt to undermine the resistance and its arms.” If you mean something else, then I suggest choosing words that aren’t lifted verbatim from the playbook of a listed terrorist organisation that hunts down and kills Jews in their homes. For now, “resistance” means what we saw on October 7th, as several prominent organisers have been good enough to make clear

How did so many of the best-educated young people in the West come to believe the world’s only Jewish state is illegitimate? It is clear that social media, and especially TikTok’s algorithms, are shaping the worldview of our youngest and future citizens. Effectively, this means the Chinese Communist Party is taking control of public opinion. Why we haven’t shut down this weapon of cold war manipulation is a mystery. It doesn’t help that our schools have reduced the teaching of history to Lenin’s crude dictum, “Who? Whom?” producing a generation that conflates relative power with absolute morality. The elevation of victimhood to the highest good makes it inconceivable to many students that the side of might could be in the right, or that weakness can corrupt every bit as much as power. Why we surrendered control over education policy to university education faculties—the least intellectual and most ideological part of our education system—is baffling. Why even putatively conservative governments are doing nothing to push back is inexplicable.  

* * *

Towards the end of the month, I popped down to London for dinner at the House of Lords. When I worked in the PMO, two of the prints in my Langevin office were replicas of the monumental Daniel Maclise paintings that grace the two long walls of the Royal Chamber, one of Wellington meeting Blücher after the Battle of Waterloo and the other of the death of Nelson at Trafalgar. It was a rare treat to see them in person. The room, however, looked like a builder’s site with great rolls of blue carpet stacked haphazardly in preparation for His Majesty’s first opening of Parliament as King next month. This follows the prorogation of Parliament this month, before which several bills received royal assent for the first time since 1951 with the words “Le Roy le vault.” After buying my first Charles III stamp and receiving my first Charles III coin as change this month, this really drove home the fact of the royal succession. Now, barring unthinkable calamity, it will be “Le Roy” for at least the next 75 years. How comforting it is to know the next two heads of state so far in advance; few peoples in history have been able to look so far into the future with such assurance. 

Dinner itself was lively and both expectedly and unexpectedly amusing. Our host’s quick wit and charm were expected, but the unexpected came when the conversation turned to the state of Britain’s global influence. I was bemused to hear that the delusion that attends sententious Canadian discussions of “our role in the world” extends to the British variation on the theme. According to one guest—a blustery cove with the stentorian confidence of an Englishman accustomed to life on an ex-pat pay packet in one of the lesser former colonies—the imminent eclipse of the gerontocratic American empire is the opening Britain has been waiting for to reclaim the title of Top Nation. Of course, Britain has greater enduring relevance than we do—it helps that they have a mostly-functioning military—but on that dubious foundation this chap would construct a neo-imperialist vision of such burlesque hubris that I half expected him to propose that we sail that night from Greenwich, armed with our bread knives and a barrel of Lords’ vintage port, to reconquer Mesopotamia. The performance reminded me of Frederick Lee, the last Secretary of State for the Colonies, who must have continued to file his reports, sharpen his pencils, and flirt with the tea lady, carrying on as his predecessors had done for two centuries, naggingly aware that there were no more colonies out there beyond his office door, waiting for someone to turn out the lights (as the government finally did on that office in 1966, though news of it has apparently yet to reach my whilom dinner companion). 

I don’t know if it’s reassuring or not to learn that the stubborn unreality with which our government and their panel-show courtiers face the world is not an exclusively Canadian problem. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic seem to be taking their cue from the late General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett: “If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through.” I suppose it “worked” in the killing fields of France. Eventually.