March 20, 2022
The subject of this book is the current political moment in which identity politics, cancel culture, and academic freedom loom so large. It originated in “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” that Harper’s published in 2020. The letter, signed by prominent public intellectuals across the political spectrum, decried the excesses of cancel culture. In the ensuing controversy, my name cropped up, not, however, as a victim of cancel culture but, it was said, of corporate culture. My publisher at the time proposed that I join the debate with a short book. He anticipated, it seems, that I would decry the hypocrisy of the decriers of cancel culture, many of whom, it might fairly be supposed, reacted with indifference (if not glee) to my own cancellation. Hypocrisy was rife, for sure. But the indisputable fact remains that “woke” politics are intellectually vacuous and politically pernicious. I endeavor to demonstrate this in Part I by parsing the ur-texts of “woke” politics, and then by dispelling the dense mist that shrouds that ultimate “woke” product—the Obama cult. In Part II, I critically assess what’s become an article of faith in “woke” culture: that in the classroom a professor should teach only his own and not contending viewpoints on a controverted question; that he shouldn’t strive for “balance.” The last chapter of the book situates my own cancellation in broader perspective. It would be miraculous were my ego so invincible that I didn’t occasionally wonder whether my alleged incivility was valid grounds for denying me tenure and ultimately banishing me from academia. I therefore decided to probe, with the maximum judiciousness humanly possible, this question. If this book is laced with vitriol, that’s because so much of “woke” culture deserves contempt. If nonetheless a large amount of space is devoted to dissecting this nonsense, that’s because it’s not immediately obvious why it’s nonsense. Where, on the contrary, a historical or contemporary figure is deserving of reverence, it is duly accorded, and where an argument contains genuine content, it is treated with the measure of seriousness it warrants. Finally, a “trigger-warning” to readers: professional advance comment on this book has in the main been savage. A Henry Holt & Company senior vice-president said of the manuscript: “There’s altogether too much of everything in the book, too many digressions, too many quotes, too many illustrations, and most important too much score settling, often personal. So instead of an argument, there’s a tirade; instead of an analysis, there’s an attack.” In another bilious response, Tariq Ali of Verso said that the book is “incoherent” and “ineffective,” and then, in a seemingly desperate plea, implored me for my “own good” not to “throw a tantrum and be tempted by self-publishing.” It’s as if Franz Kafka and Max Brod in reverse: I want to publish my book; they want me to burn it for my “own good.” In any event, readers can decide for themselves whether the ensuing pages are devoid of argument, analysis, and coherence—or whether these rejection letters are just humdrum instances of cancel culture silencing too much truth when it touches too close to home.