November 2, 2022

Andres Spokoiny responds to ‘We’re all Just Waiting to Get Fired’

To the Editors:

Like all issues of SAPIR, the cancellation issue sparked many thoughts and ideas. All the articles are incredibly valuable. But the one by Felicia Herman struck a chord in me as the CEO of a Jewish organization. The sad paradox is that the realities that Felicia describes (CEOs and communal professionals afraid of “saying the wrong thing”) doesn’t affect those on the extremes but those of us who try to “hold the center” and defy the dogmatism of both sides. Being a centrist leader today is extremely hard because the ideologues demand total alignment.

But I wanted to add an angle that might enrich the conversation. Analyzing this through the prism of left and right misses a key point. Having lived and worked in five countries, I see something particularly American about “cancel culture,” something inscribed in a long history of censoriousness. At the core of the American ethos lies a contradiction: on the one hand, America is the “land of the free,” the open frontier where everything is possible, the country of iconoclasts and rebels that enshrines freedom of thought and conscience. But on the other, America is, and has always been, the country of witch-hunts, militant puritanism, judgmentalism, prohibition and “temperance.” 

Much of our “cancel culture,” especially around issues of gender, race, and ethnicity, has its intellectual origins in what is known as the French School, those philosophers and intellectuals from Foucault onwards who gave us post-colonial and post-modern philosophy. And yet today, French intellectuals, including many proponents of the French School, see with amusement or horror the way in which its ideas are weaponized and converted into dogmas of repression in American academic circles. For them, those ideas weren’t a program of social re-engineering, but a way of provoking intellectual debates; the kind of debates one has while sipping a good Beaujolais on a Parisian terrace. While French intellectual debate can be robust, there’s nothing in it like the cancellation fever we see in America.

The same goes for other countries: Israelis are notoriously argumentative, but nothing like American cancellation is taking place there – and when it was attempted, it rarely held. In countries with a rich tradition of censorship, like my native Argentina, once state censorship was lifted, the debate became irreverent and rich. Somebody said that what explains the difference between Italian and German Fascism is that Italian fascists were Italians before being fascists. American cancelers on the right and left are, above all, Americans: they draw from the same well that has watered American intolerance since the Salem witch hunts. There’s a lot of the Puritan prophet in the way left-wing intellectuals chastise their fellow academics who stray from the dogma. There’s a lot of Prohibition-era moralizing in the way conservatives fear the expression of dissenting views on gender, race, and sex. There’s a lot of “frontier justice” in the way offenders are dealt with on both sides. And in America, social condemnation was always stronger than the censorship of the state.

Perhaps we should examine what in the American ethos makes us so prone to canceling others. Perhaps it’s our Protestant tradition. Perhaps it is something in the historical and sociological processes that gave birth to modern America. Either way, the distinction between left-wing and right-wing cancellation is misleading. It’s like the useless distinction between right- and left-wing antisemitism. Ultimately, there’s antisemitism in America, and therefore, both the left and the right weaponize it. Thinking in this way may help us get beyond a competition of victimhood and grievance, so that we can deal with the culture that forms us both, in which cancellation has been an ever-present force. 

Andres Spokoiny

Jewish Funders Network, New York, NY