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Hello, Left. Now Do You Believe There’s Cancel Culture?

There’s plenty to deplore when some on the left coddle Hamas. But harassing people you disagree with is no substitute for debate.

Harvard University students show their support for Palestinians in Gaza
Harvard University students show their support for Palestinians in Gaza at a rally on October 14.

“We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” Thus spake 34 signatories of the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Groups on the Situation in Palestine on the night of Hamas’s October 7 massacre of 1,400 unarmed civilians. Now the undersigned have gone underground. You can still find the letter on the website of The Harvard Crimson, but not any sign of which groups endorsed it. The Crimson explains: “This statement was co-authored by a coalition of Palestine solidarity groups at Harvard. For student safety, the names of all original signing organizations have been concealed at this time.” The Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee, meanwhile, is blocking public access to its own website.

It’s a depressing sign of the times that when your public statement causes offense, you can retract authorship in lieu of retracting the statement itself (though “at least” five signers, the Crimson reported, retracted the old-fashioned way by renouncing their endorsement). Another sign of the times is that trying to hide the names of groups that previously went public with a controversial statement isn’t very effective. It’s a big internet, and one can still, with a little effort, locate that list. I was curious to know which student organizations signed on because I wanted to see whether they included any I belonged to during the late 1970s, when I was a Harvard undergraduate. They did not. What would I have done if they did? Registered private annoyance, probably, and left it at that. Possibly I’d have sought an opportunity to argue, publicly or privately, with the student organization in question, though I’m already on record stating my own, very different, view of Hamas’s Jew-killing spree.

What I absolutely would not have done is try to leverage any influence I might have (virtually none, in this instance, but set that aside) to punish the student groups, or the individuals within them. That’s what conservatives call “cancel culture,” a phenomenon that many on the left pretend doesn’t exist. But it does exist, and it’s being deployed right now with a vengeance against that portion of the left that’s trying to explain away the events of October 7 as a blow for resistance and freedom.

A dozen business leaders have demanded, Joe McCarthy–style, that Harvard release the names of students who belong to the organizations that signed the Hamas letter, “so as to insure that none of us inadvertently hire any of their members,” according to Bill Ackman, CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management. Moreover, Ackman wrote, “the names of the signatories [i.e., the individual students, not the student groups] should be made public so their views are publicly known.” He said all this on the social platform formerly known as Twitter.

Ackman’s position is outrageous, for a couple of reasons. First, blackballing a bunch of college students based on their political views is abhorrent. The reasons should be obvious, but I’ll state them anyway:

a) They’re college students, for Christ’s sake.
b) Even if they weren’t, they’d have a right to express their opinions.

Are there limits to what potential employers should tolerate? Should Company X refuse to hire Person Y because he’s made overtly antisemitic or racist or similarly toxic statements outside the workplace? Company X has that legal right, but it should be exercised with extreme reluctance. That’s not what’s been happening lately. The high-profile cases tend to be left-wing witch hunts, but the more common cases are right-wing witch hunts. A childhood friend of mine, for instance, got fired by Goodwill Industries for being a Communist. Even the worst political associations should be considered in context. Recall that Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd served their country honorably despite their youthful (and much-regretted) participation in the Ku Klux Klan.

Another reason Ackman’s demand is outrageous is that it’s hypocritical. “I have been asked by a number of CEOs if Harvard would release a list of the members,” Ackman tweeted. Who are these CEOs? Why should these big shots enjoy anonymity when, if Ackman had his way, Harvard students would not? We know these corporate vigilantes number one dozen only because that’s what the New York Post reported, based on responses to Ackman’s tweet that it found on X and elsewhere. Here are their names:

Jonathan Newman, CEO of Sweetgreen
David Duel, CEO of EasyHealth
Ale Resnik, CEO of Belong
Jake Wurzak, CEO of DoveHill Capital Management
Michael Broukhim, CEO of FabFitFun
Stephen Ready, CEO of Inspired
Hu Montague, founder of Diligent
Martin Varsavsky, tech entrepreneur
Michael McQuaid, head of decentralize finance at Bloq
Art Levy, head of strategy at Brex

That’s actually 11, including Ackman, but never mind. Duel went the extra mile, posting individual student names online, prompting LinkedIn to suspend his account. Duel told Fox News he was unrepentant: “We need to make sure these students pay a price and that their neighbors, friends, and employers know that they harbor these beliefs.” The right-wing group Accuracy in Media hired a “doxxing truck” to drive around Harvard Square billboarding the names of student members of the organizations that signed the Hamas letter under the words “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.” Whatever happened to picking on somebody your own size?

That wasn’t the end of it. The shipping magnate Idan Offer and his wife, Batia, who have donated, according to their spokesperson, “substantial funds” to the university, quit the executive board of Harvard’s Kennedy School because they didn’t like Harvard’s response to the massacre. The university’s statement was a little slow in coming, as former Harvard president Larry Summers pointed out two days after the massacre. But cut Harvard President Claudine Gay a little slack. She was installed only three months ago, and after the prod from Summers she released one statement that distanced Harvard from the student statement and condemned “terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas” and then a second statement condemning Hamas’s “barbaric atrocities.” The Wexner Foundation, a Jewish philanthropy that had funded a multimillion-dollar Kennedy School program for Israeli government officials, followed the Offers’ lead.

Not to be outdone, seven congressional Republicans who were Harvard alumni sent Gay a letter Friday condemning her for producing “too little too late.” As Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland and a Harvard alum, told the Crimson, these same Republicans who are in such a hurry to denounce Harvard’s too-weak response to the Hamas raid couldn’t bring themselves to “condemn the violent insurrection that overran the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.”

These Republican members of Congress weren’t trying to cancel Gay, exactly, because they know they lack that power. They were just grandstanding to reassure their hard-right constituents that they aren’t those type of Harvard graduates. But if “to cancel” means “to bully to the point of causing real harm,” then the 11 business leaders—especially Ackman and Duel—are cancelers, and so are the Offers and the Wexner Foundation.

So are various University of Pennsylvania donors, including Marc Rowan, chief executive of Apollo Global Management, and Dick Wolf, producer of TV’s Law and Order, who are calling for the resignation of President Liz Magill because she didn’t speak out about Hamas quickly enough to suit them. They were also enraged by a September festival on Palestinian culture that the university hosted (but didn’t sponsor). Before the festival, Magill acknowledged (in response to a letter from the Anti-Defamation League) that several of the speakers held views about Israel or about Jews that were “deeply offensive.” But she also pledged, appropriately, “Penn’s commitment to open expression and academic freedom.” That may cost her her job.

Ronald Lauder hopped on the bandwagon this week, saying, “Let me be as clear as I can: I do not want any of the students at The Lauder Institute, the best and brightest at your university, to be taught by any of the instructors who were involved or supported this event.” Let me be clear as I can: Whoever teaches students at the Lauder Institute, a management and international studies program at Penn’s Wharton School, is none of Lauder’s goddamned business. He’s a donor, not a dean. So far as I know, Lauder has not called for Magill’s resignation, but his temper tantrum put Magill’s job in peril. So did a related decision this week from the wealthy former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., to cut off donations to Penn. Magill is reduced to issuing a series of escalating apologies that don’t seem to do her any good.

The impulse to cancel also surfaced at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where, The New York Times reported last week, an award ceremony to honor the Palestinian novelist Adania Shibli was (quite literally) canceled “due to the war in Israel.” Shibli’s novel Minor Detail apparently is based on the true story of a 1949 rape and murder of a Palestinian girl by Israeli soldiers, and the ceremony was going to celebrate the book’s winning a prestigious German book prize. Now the ceremony will be delayed until the Frankfurt Book Fair is over. As the Times’ Pamela Paul observed Wednesday, “taking a side in a war does not require taking positions on a work of fiction,” and the decision not to host the ceremony “amounts to demonizing a fiction writer and stifling her viewpoint.”

“Cancel culture isn’t real,” Sarah Hagi wrote four years ago in Time. “It’s time to cancel this talk of cancel culture,” A.J. Willingham wrote for CNN two years later. Cancel culture is “a myth,” Kathryn Lofton wrote this past March in The Yale Review. I don’t understand this fashionable denialism. The truth is that speech is being suppressed on all sides by organizations that are either insanely ideological (read: red state school boards) or terrified of controversy (read: every university in America). Yes, it’s worse when state government does it. And yes, the term “cancel culture” gets abused by the hard right, which uses it to shield hateful utterances that somehow became more socially acceptable after Donald Trump became president.

But people are getting ostracized or bullied into silence, and it’s got to stop. If you don’t like this article, go ahead and argue with it. But please don’t question my character, or endanger my safety, or try to get me fired, just because you disagree. It’s especially urgent not to apply such tactics in a university setting, because that’s where ideas come from. Let’s have more discussion, please, and less shouting. We might learn something.