Chris Hedges: Cancel culture, where liberalism goes to die
The Rev. Will Campbell was forced out of his position as director of religious life at the University of Mississippi in 1956 because of his calls for integration. He escorted Black children through a hostile mob in 1957 to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School. He was the only white person that was invited to be part of the group that founded Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He helped integrate Nashville’s lunch counters and organize the Freedom Rides.
But Campbell was also, despite a slew of death threats he received from white segregationists, an unofficial chaplain to the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He denounced and publicly fought the Klan’s racism, acts of terror and violence and marched with Black civil rights protestors in his native Mississippi, but he steadfastly refused to “cancel” white racists out of his life. He refused to demonize them as less than human. He insisted that this form of racism, while evil, was not as insidious as a capitalist system that perpetuated the economic misery and instability that pushed whites into the ranks of violent, racist organizations.
“During the civil rights movement, when we were developing strategies, someone usually said, ‘Call Will Campbell. Check with Will,’” Rep. John Lewis wrote in the introduction to the new edition of Campbell’s memoir “Brother to a Dragonfly,” one of the most important books I read as a seminarian. “Will knew that the tragedy of Southern history had fallen on our opponents as well as our allies … on George Wallace and Bull Connor as well as Rosa Parks and Fred Shuttlesworth. He saw that it had created the Ku Klux Klan as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That insight led Will to see racial healing and equity, pursued through courage, love, and faith as the path to spiritual liberation for all.”
Jimmy Carter wrote of Campbell that he “tore down the walls that separated white and black Southerners.” And because the Black Panther organizer Fred Hampton was doing the same thing in Chicago, the FBI — which, along with the CIA, is the de facto ally of the liberal elites in their war against Trump and his supporters — assassinated him.
When the town Campbell lived in decided the Klan should not be permitted to have a float in the Fourth of July parade Campbell did not object, as long as the gas and electric company was also barred. It was not only white racists that inflicted suffering on the innocent and the vulnerable, but institutions that place the sanctity of profit before human life.
“People can’t pay their gas and electric bills, the heat gets turned off and they freeze and sometimes die, especially if they are elderly,” he said. “This, too, is an act of terrorism.”
“Theirs you could see and deal with, and if they broke the law, you could punish them,” he said of the Klan. “But the larger culture that was, and still is, racist to the core is much more difficult to deal with and has a more sinister influence.”
Campbell would have reminded us that the demonization of the Trump supporters who stormed the capital is a terrible mistake. He would have reminded us that racial injustice will only be solved with economic justice. He would have called on us to reach out to those who do not think like us, do not speak like us, are ridiculed by polite society, but who suffer the same economic marginalization. He knew that the disparities of wealth, loss of status and hope for the future, coupled with prolonged social dislocation, generated the poisoned solidarity that give rise to groups such as the Klan or the Proud Boys.
We cannot heal wounds we refuse to acknowledge.
The Washington Post, which analyzed the public records of 125 defendants charged with taking part in the storming of the Capital on January 6, found that “nearly 60 percent of the people facing charges related to the Capitol riot showed signs of prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades.”
“The group’s bankruptcy rate — 18 percent — was nearly twice as high as that of the American public,” the Post found. “A quarter of them had been sued for money owed to a creditor. And 1 in 5 of them faced losing their home at one point, according to court filings.”
“A California man filed for bankruptcy one week before allegedly joining the attack, according to public records,” the paper reported. “A Texas man was charged with entering the Capitol one month after his company was slapped with a nearly $2,000 state tax lien. Several young people charged in the attack came from families with histories of financial duress.”
We must acknowledge the tragedy of these lives, while at the same time condemning racism, hate and the lust for violence. We must grasp that our most perfidious enemy is not someone who is politically incorrect, even racist, but the corporations and a failed political and judicial system that callously sacrifices people, as well as the planet, on the altar of profit.
Like Campbell, much of my own family comes from the rural working class, many espousing prejudices my father, a Presbyterian minister, regularly condemned from the pulpit. Through a combination of luck and scholarships to elite schools, I got out. They never did. My grandfather, intellectually gifted, was forced to drop out of high school his senior year when his sister’s husband died. He had to work the farm to feed her children. If you are poor in America, you rarely get more than one chance. And many do not get one. He lost his.
The towns in Maine where my relatives come from have been devastated by the closures of mills and factories. There is little meaningful work. There is a smoldering anger caused by legitimate feelings of betrayal and entrapment. They live, like most working class Americans, lives of quiet desperation. This anger is often expressed in negative and destructive ways. But I have no right to dismiss them as irredeemable.
To understand is not to condone. But if the ruling elites, and their courtiers masquerading as journalists, continue to gleefully erase these people from the media landscape, to attack them as less than human, or as Hillary Clinton called them “deplorables,” while at the same time refusing to address the grotesque social inequality that has left them vulnerable and afraid, it will fuel ever greater levels of extremism and ever greater levels of state repression and censorship.
The cancel culture, a witch hunt by self-appointed moral arbiters of speech, has become the boutique activism of a liberal class that lacks the courage and the organizational skills to challenge the actual centers of power — the military-industrial complex, lethal militarized police, the prison system, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the intelligence agencies that make us the most spied upon, watched, photographed and monitored population in human history, the fossil fuel industry, and a political and economic system captured by oligarchic power.
It is much easier to turn from these overwhelming battles to take down hapless figures who make verbal gaffes, those who fail to speak in the approved language or embrace the approved attitudes of the liberal elites. These purity tests have reached absurd and self-defeating levels, including the inquisitional bloodlust by 150 staff members of The New York Times demanding that management, which had already investigated and dealt with what at most was poor judgment made by the veteran reporter Don McNeil when he repeated a racist slur in a discussion about race, force him out of the paper, which management reluctantly did.
Too often the targets of the cancel culture are radicals, such as the feminists who run the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter and who do not admit trans people because most of the girls and women in the shelter have been physically assaulted and traumatized by those with male bodies. None of the critics of these feminists spend ten or twelve hours a day in a shelter taking care of abused girls and women, many of whom were prostituted as children, but fire off screeds to attack them and cut their funding. The cancel culture, as the Canadian feminist Lee Lakeman says, is “the weaponization of ignorance.”
The cancel culture was pioneered by the red baiting of the capitalist elites and their shock troops in agencies such as the FBI to break, often through violence, radical movements and labor unions. Tens of thousands of people, in the name of anti-communism, were cancelled out of the culture. The well-financed Israel lobby is a master of the cancel culture, shutting down critics of the Israeli apartheid state and those of us who support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement as anti-Semites. The cancel culture fueled the persecution of Julian Assange, the censorship of WikiLeaks and the Silicon Valley algorithms that steer readers away from content, including my content, critical of imperial and corporate power.
In the end, this bullying will be used by social media platforms, which are integrated into the state security and surveillance organs, not to promote, as its supporters argue, civility, but ruthlessly silence dissidents, intellectuals, artists and independent journalism. Once you control what people say you control what they think.
This cancel culture is embraced by corporate media platforms where, as Glenn Greenwald writes, “teams of journalists at three of the most influential corporate media outlets — CNN’s ‘media reporters’ (Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy), NBC’s ‘disinformation space unit’ (Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny), and the tech reporters of The New York Times (Mike Isaac, Kevin Roose, Sheera Frenkel) — devote the bulk of their ‘journalism’ to searching for online spaces where they believe speech and conduct rules are being violated, flagging them, and then pleading that punitive action be taken (banning, censorship, content regulation, after-school detention).”
Corporations know these moral purity tests are, for us, self-defeating. They know that by making the cancel culture legitimate — and for this reason I opposed locking Donald Trump out of his Twitter and other social media accounts — they can employ it to silence those who attack and expose the structures of corporate power and imperial crimes. The campaigns of moral absolutism widen the divides between liberals and the white working class, divisions that are crucial to maintaining the power of the corporate elites. The cancel culture is the fodder for the riveting and entertaining culture wars. It turns anti-politics into politics. Most importantly, the cancel culture deflects attention from the far more egregious institutionalized abuses of power. It is this smug, self-righteousness crusade that makes the liberal class so odious.
Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist who created the comic strip “Kudzu,” which featured a Campbell-inspired character called Rev. Will B. Dunn, brought Campbell to speak at Harvard when I was there. Campbell’s message was met with a mixture of bewilderment and open hostility, which was fine with me as it meant the room swiftly emptied and the rest of the night Marlette, Campbell and I sat up late drinking whiskey and eating bologna sandwiches. Marlette was as iconoclastic and acerbically funny as Campbell. His cartoons, including one that showed Jesus on Good Friday carrying an electric chair instead of a cross and another that portrayed Jerry Falwell as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, provoked howls of protest from irate readers.
Campbell’s memoir, “Brother to a Dragonfly,” is not only beautifully written — Campbell was a close friend of Walker Percy, whose novels I also consumed — but filled with a humility and wisdom that liberals, who should spend less time in the self-referential rabbit hole of social media, have lost. He describes America, which routinely employs murder, torture, threats, blackmail and intimidation to crush all those who oppose it at home and abroad, as “a nation of Klansmen.” He refused to draw a moral line between the American empire, which many liberals defend, and the disenfranchised and angry whites that flock to racist groups such as the Klan or, years later, would support Trump. The architects of empire and the ruling capitalists who exploited workers, stymied democracy, orchestrated state repression, hoarded obscene levels of wealth and waged endless war were, he knew, the real enemy.
Campbell remembers watching a documentary by CBS called “The Ku Klux Klan: An Invisible Empire,” after which he was invited to address the audience. The film showed the murder of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, the castration of Judge Aaron in Alabama, and the deaths of the four young girls in the Birmingham Sunday school bombing. When the film showed a Klan recruit pivoting right when the drill master shouted, “Left face,” the audience erupted in “cheers, jeers, catcalls and guffaws.” Campbell writes that he “felt a sickening in my stomach.”
Those viewing the film were a group convened by the National Student Association and included New Left radicals of the sixties, representing Students for a Democratic Society, the Port Huron group, young white men and women who had led protests at campuses across the country, burned down buildings, coined the term “pigs” to refer to police. Many were from affluent families.
“They were students in or recent graduates of rich and leading colleges and universities,” he writes of the audience. “They were mean and tough but somehow, I sensed that there wasn’t a radical in the bunch. For if they were radical how could they laugh at a poor ignorant farmer who didn’t know his left hand from his right? If they had been radical they would have been weeping, asking what had produced him. And if they had been radical they would not have been sitting, soaking up a film produced for their edification and enjoyment by the Establishment of the establishment — CBS.”
Campbell, who was asked to address the group following the film, said: “My name is Will Campbell. I’m a Baptist preacher. I’m a native of Mississippi. And I’m pro-Klansman because I’m pro-human being.”
Pandemonium erupted in the hall. He was shouted down as a “fascist pig” and a “Mississippi redneck.” Most walked out.
“Just four words uttered — ‘pro-Klansman Mississippi Baptist preacher,’ coupled with one visual image, white, had turned them into everything they thought the Ku Klux Klan to be — hostile, frustrated, angry, violent and irrational,” he writes. “And I was never able to explain to them that pro-Klansman is not the same as pro-Klan. That the former has to do with a person, the other with an ideology.”
“The same social forces which produced the Klan’s violence also produced the violence in Watts, Rochester and Harlem, Cleveland, Chicago, Houston, Nashville, Atlanta and Dayton, because they are all pieces of the same garment — social isolation, deprivation, economic conditions, rejections, working mothers, poor schools, bad diets, and all the rest,” Campbell writes.
And these social forces produced the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests after the police murder of George Floyd and the storming of the Capitol by an enraged mob.
Campbell never asked any of the members of the Klan he knew to leave the organization for the same reason he never asked liberals to leave “the respectable and fashionable organizations or institutions of which they were a part and party, all of which, I was learning, were more truly racist than their Klan.”
This radical love was the core of Dr. Martin Luther King’s message. This love informed King’s steadfast nonviolence. It led him to denounce the Vietnam War and condemn the US government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” And it saw him assassinated in Memphis when he was supporting a strike by sanitation workers for economic justice.
Campbell lived by his oft-quoted creed, “If you’re gonna love one, you’ve got to love ‘em all.” Like King, he believed in the redemptive and transformative power of forgiveness.
The ruling elites and the courtiers who trumpet their moral superiority by damning and silencing those who do not linguistically conform to politically correct speech are the new Jacobins. They wallow in a sanctimonious arrogance, one made possible by their privilege, which masks their subservience to corporate power and their amorality. They do not battle social and economic injustice. They silence, with the enthusiastic assistance of the digital platforms in Silicon Valley, those who are crushed and deformed by systems of oppression and those who lack their finely developed politesse and deference to linguistic fashion. They are the useful idiots of corporate power and the emerging police state. Cancel culture is not the road to reform. It is the road to tyranny.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper.