On Being Canceled Early On - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
On Being Canceled Early On
University of Chicago (Jacob Boomsma/Shutterstock)

Despite some welcome pushback from Elon Musk at Twitter, cancel culture continues to be all the rage. There are many ways of canceling someone apart from banning them on Twitter and all of them and some have been tried on Trump by his political enemies ever since he declared his candidacy for president in 2015. Now that Musk has undone most of the Twitter bans, the cancelers are vainly and pathetically trying to cancel him — Don’t buy a Tesla! Sell your Tesla stock! — but he is one of the chosen few, such as J.K. Rowling, who at least so far is too big to cancel. What a pity.

My own unnoteworthy cancellation happened so long ago that I seldom think about it anymore, but it certainly seemed painful enough at the time. Many people are under the impression that this cancellation thing is something new, but, actually, it’s as old as the hills. In universities in particular, it has been going on for a long time, but only in recent times, when the cancelers feel that they have the upper hand and are invincible, have they been bragging about and reveling in their dastardly deeds.

When I was a graduate student, I once attended a seder in the home of David Landes, a professor of history at Harvard. A couple of us at the table were in the last stages of finishing our PhDs and were looking with dismay at the academic job market, which at that time was rapidly drying up. As you can well imagine, this development was invoking considerable anxiety among dissertation scribblers and at one point became the topic of conversation at the dinner table. Landes, who was a very kindly man and solicitous of the prospects and general well-being of the up-and-coming generation, outlined what he considered to be a strategy for candidates seeking jobs in the academe to get in the door and stay there. I can’t remember the exact details of what he said, but basically, as a candidate for an entry-level job as a lecturer or assistant professor, one would have had to have finished one book at the time of application, published a second around the middle of one’s first contract well before coming up for tenure, and in the meantime published several articles in learned journals and presented at several conferences. The only part of that formula that he neglected to mention was that if you did all of that, you would have done more than most tenured professors do during their entire careers right up until the day of retirement!

The periodic scarcity of jobs only exacerbated what in the academe has always been a feature and not a bug. Universities have always had the propensity to be insulated and inbred institutions with strong tendencies for self-replication rather than diversification and expansion of thought. This is not the least bit surprising: Why not hire someone who will follow in your footsteps rather than set out in a different direction and perhaps even challenge you at every turn?

There have, however, been some universities at certain periods of history that were diverse and dynamic communities of intellectuals. That was the case at the University of Chicago during my undergraduate years. However, when I enrolled there, my intention was not to become a professor but rather a great actor. Nevertheless, I had convinced myself, irrationally, that getting a good education would be very useful for working as an actor — and besides, my parents had a rather dim view of the acting profession. But Chicago was such an exciting and dynamic intellectual milieu and I felt so at home and welcome there that I changed aspirations and decided instead to become a professor.

That being said, I was naïve about the undercurrents of university culture. All of the professors whom I studied with were models of civility and curiosity. Most were members of the Great Generation who had served during World War II and a couple of them were Holocaust survivors. By virtue of their real-life experiences, they were a very different breed from those who now dominate the universities. Foolishly and fatefully, I was attracted to the fields of sociology and education because I admired the work of classical social theorists such as Émile Durkheim and Max Weber and because my undergraduate thesis adviser was a terrific role model in the field of education. Given the present political climate of educational corruption, it may be hard for some people to believe that there was a time not so long ago when departments and schools of education contained a significant number of accomplished teachers and scholars. How was I to know that my chosen fields of learning would be among the first disciplines to go down the toilet?

There have been great minds outside of universities and also some within. The academe has been home to the likes of Sir Isaac Newton as well as those, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, who were both serious scholars as well as creatives. But intellectuals outside of the university such as the Bloomsbury Group generally had a dim view of the academy and George Orwell famously criticized certain university thinkers for unbounded stupidity.

My own political leanings have always been classically liberal, but that was anathema in the education and sociology departments, which had gone floridly radical by the time I applied for positions in them. It is no accident that domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, a leader of the Weather Underground, when looking for a welcome home to rehabilitate his image, ended up in a school of education, a cornerstone and staging ground of the radical agenda to transform America through indoctrinating students.

The university is almost unrecognizable from the days when I aspired to become a part of it. When Hannah Arendt published her controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem, for a long time she was widely shunned by her colleagues despite the fact that she was always prepared to freely and openly debate her theses. Moreover, by that time, she was well known to be a super-smart humanist. And yet today Ibram X. Kendi, a stupid, hateful racist and author of the garbage book How to Be an Antiracist, is almost everywhere welcomed as a brilliant star.

Toward the end of my graduate studies, knowing how tight the job market was and the ideological direction where universities were heading, my undergraduate thesis adviser wrote to me to “be deliberate” in navigating the shrinking and distorted academic job market. And another of my professor friends from Chicago when passing through Cambridge looked me up, took me to lunch, and advised me to “hang on.” I did my best to follow their advice and also that of David Landes. By the time I came to the end of my job search, I had fulfilled all of Landes’ formula for success, but to no avail. In the end, a couple of years after having tenuously hung on, when one sociology department couldn’t be bothered to even acknowledge my letter of application and two others short-listed but declined to interview me, I decided to throw in the towel.

And that’s how I was canceled early on, frozen out as it were. But life goes on and I don’t consider myself to be a victim but rather a survivor. For some people, especially well-established journalists such as Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald, being canceled may actually be a blessing in disguise. It gives them complete freedom to do exactly what they want, have a greater impact, and still, presumably, earn a decent living.

Being canceled is bad, but there are worse things that can happen to people. The revolution that we are experiencing in which all of our institutions have been captured is not yet in the final revolutionary phase and hopefully will never get there. If history is any lesson, then in the final phase, they don’t merely cancel you, they actually kill you.


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