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Republicans are trying to outlaw wokeness. Literally.


The Harvard University campus.
Darren McCollester/Newsmakers via Getty Images

How the right is trying to “cancel” left-wing speech.

We’re in the midst of something like a moral panic over so-called “cancel culture.”

As I noted a few months ago, there’s a rising contingent of thinkers — on the left and right — who believe a culture of censoriousness has engulfed intellectual life over the last few years.

To state the obvious upfront, it’s a genuine problem, although I don’t think it’s quite the existential threat some have suggested. And I consider it a debate not so much about the right to speak, but rather about where to draw the boundaries and what sorts of social sanctions are permissible when those boundaries are transgressed.

But when the topic is broached, it’s almost always framed as a left-wing problem. This is somewhat misleading. The left, of course, has its excesses, and there are very real efforts to not only suppress unpopular speech but also to punish violations of new orthodoxies.

There is, however, an emergent cancel culture on the right, one that is every bit as pernicious as what we’re seeing on the left, only it hasn’t received nearly as much attention. Whereas the left is mostly exercising cultural power on campuses and social media, the right is introducing legislation (here and here and here) intended to stifle left-wing speech in public schools across the country.

To highlight just one example, a recent bill in Iowa has proposed banning materials derived from the New York Times’s 1619 Project from being taught at community colleges and other schools under the control of the state’s Board of Regents. Whatever you think of the 1619 Project, and it’s not without problems, that’s an extraordinary step and an outright attack on academic freedom.

Jeffrey Sachs, a professor of politics at Acadia University, calls it “The New War on Woke,” and it’s a disturbing escalation in the spiraling speech wars. I reached out to Sachs, one of the more clear-headed voices in this debate, to talk about the latest developments and the dangers of inviting the government into the censorship business.

A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

What’s your current panic level over cancel culture, Jeff? Is it a great threat or the greatest threat ever?

Jeffrey Sachs

In the grand scheme of threats that currently face America or Western civilization, it is clustered somewhere around zero. I will say, though, that I’m more concerned now than I was a year ago or six months ago. There are problems that the left has allowed to fester and grow, in part because we often feel ourselves to be in a defensive crouch.

However, the concerns over cancel culture are so regularly and excessively blown out of proportion. And because the scope of the problem is so exaggerated, I feel it’s important to just encourage people to take a deep breath and look at the evidence, and not let passionate rhetoric sway them.

Sean Illing

I’m a little surprised to hear you use the word “we” just now. Do you consider yourself on the left?

Jeffrey Sachs

Yeah, I guess I’m what you’d call a mainstream liberal, and I care deeply about classic liberal norms like free speech and academic freedom. There’s rarely an occasion where I think the mission of the academy is better served by increased censorship. In that sense, I probably don’t align with a lot of the more egregious positions that I associate right now with the liberal left.

Sean Illing

The left definitely has its problems and lots of ink has been spilled on it, but here I want to focus on the right, which gets less attention. Why do you think so much of the opposition to cancel culture has focused on the left and ignored what’s happening on the other side?

Jeffrey Sachs

It’s one of the very strange ways that liberal bias manifests itself. There are incentives and opportunities to hold the left to a higher standard than the media holds the right. If you look, it’s pretty clear that the left occupies a lot of the commanding heights in culture and media, and one of the consequences of that is that it places issues that are salient to liberals very high on the radar of commentators. It gets our issues out there. It helps us to create pressure.

One of the ways this hurts liberals is that the people who comment on culture tend to be much more familiar with the issues and concerns of liberal institutions than they are with conservative institutions. When a problem arises, when an issue emerges within a liberal space, you’re going to get lots of commentary on it, much more so than you will on the right.

A good example of this are all these anti-speech bills I’m writing about. These are bills that have been percolating for months now among strong opponents or critics of the left that have escaped all notice from the vast majority of our free-speech commentariat. I don’t necessarily attribute that to any kind of intentional double standard. I think it’s because most people are just not aware that these bills were being debated or that momentum was being put together to promote them.

Sean Illing

Let’s talk about those anti-speech bills, one of which is under debate in New Hampshire. What’s this about?

Jeffrey Sachs

It’s a House bill that was just voted out of committee on a party-line vote. The bill would forbid the state of New Hampshire, or any agent or anyone who contracts with the state of New Hampshire, from promoting, teaching, instructing, or encouraging belief in a “divisive concept.”

Sean Illing

A “divisive concept”? What the hell is that?

Jeffrey Sachs

The kind of divisive concept they have in mind is something like the notion that the state of New Hampshire or the United States is racist or sexist. Or basically any claim that people, by virtue of their race or their sex, have certain characteristics, traits, values, or qualities. It would be forbidden or illegal under this bill to promote such “divisive” concepts.

And anyone who teaches any of these divisive concepts, if they’re a university professor or [an] agent of the state, they might have their funding cut or their contract revoked. If you are a contractor, you might be forbidden from bidding on future contracts with the state. We can describe it a few different ways, but let’s just be honest: The bill is an attempt to target what critics derisively described as “critical race theory.”

Sean Illing

It won’t be lost on our dear readers that a phrase like “divisive concept” is comically vague and that the boundaries between divisive and non-divisive will never be containable. I’m surprised the proponents of these bills can’t see how easily laws like this would be turned against them.

Jeffrey Sachs

Well, that’s the thing about government censorship. Everybody who supports government censorship has a very clear vision in mind of the kind of speech that will be targeted. In reality, it never ends up being the people that you hope or expect will be censored.

These sorts of things always operate in unpredictable ways because it’s just as easy, for instance, for someone on the left to argue that the ideas of the right are divisive as it would be for those on the right to argue that the ideas of the left are divisive. It really takes a stunning level of naïveté to believe that getting the government into the censorship game is in any way a good idea.

Sean Illing

What other bills like the one in New Hampshire are currently being introduced elsewhere?

Jeffrey Sachs

The New Hampshire bill is very much based off of President Trump’s executive order forbidding the use of diversity and equity training for federal contractors and federal agencies. It borrowed that language and then stuck it on a lot of other things, like universities and colleges and so forth.

Other states have also done that exact same cookie-cutter approach. We’ve seen bills in West Virginia, in Oklahoma, in Iowa, and Arkansas. None of them are quite identical. They all have a slightly different scope. For instance, Iowa’s bill, which is probably the most carefully written of all of them, does not apply to colleges and universities. It only applies to K-12 and to federal contractors. West Virginia’s applies across the board to any agent of the state, any state agency, including universities, colleges, and K-12.

Sean Illing

Apparently there’s a bill under consideration in South Dakota that would bar schools from using any content “associated with efforts to reframe this country’s history in a way that promotes racial divisiveness and displaces historical understanding with ideology.”

Jeffrey Sachs

That bill is part of an effort that you’re seeing in several states to prohibit the use of any material from the New York Times’s 1619 Project. That bill in South Dakota is part of a family of bills that we’ve seen in Iowa, Mississippi, Arkansas, and other states that would prohibit either K-12, or in some cases even public colleges and universities, from referencing or drawing from any of the curricula based on the 1619 Project.

Sean Illing

But these bills don’t really want to ban an ideological reading of American history, they want to enforce their preferred ideological reading of American history.

Jeffrey Sachs

Exactly. The real irony of that South Dakota bill is that it would prohibit the use of any material designed to promote an ideological view of history, but simultaneously Gov. Kristi Noem has proposed or has requested $900,000 to overhaul the state’s history curriculum in order to promote the idea that “the United States of America is the most special nation in the history of the world.”

So the governor is very flagrantly trying to introduce an ideological valence into the way history is taught in the state. The fact that that idea in her brain, or the brains of the public and legislators, can sit so easily alongside this ban on ideology in history courses says a lot about the motivations behind this legislation.

Sean Illing

It’s dumb and probably a distraction to quibble over whether the left or the right’s censorship efforts are more dangerous, but I will ask how you weigh the relative threats on each side.

Jeffrey Sachs

Yeah, I’m not comfortable either saying that one side is more dangerous than the other. What I will say is that the threats from the left tend to involve informal mechanisms of sanction, and they are no less censorious for that informality. They can do enormous damage, and it’s a significant problem that can be addressed if more college and university administrators grow a backbone and stand up to that kind of behavior.

Whereas the censorious instinct on the right is largely coming from off campus, and it involves much quieter tools that escape the notice of many commentators. It’s a more organized form of censorship, and it’s very powerful. But there are also these conservative groups like Turning Point USA that are very effective at ginning up outrage and putting pressure on universities to crack down on their faculty or their students.

Sean Illing

It’s fine to condemn the illiberal left (I have), but overstating the threat, treating it like an extinction event for democracy, is both wrong and gives cover to these sorts of extreme measures on the other side.

Jeffrey Sachs

When the media or any commentator uses existential language to describe the threat of critical race theory, regardless of whether you like or dislike critical race theory, that kind of extreme level of language gives permission and a very strong incentive for political actors to come crashing down on the academy and on academic freedom.

I mean, who wouldn’t use every tool in their arsenal to save Western civilization? Who wouldn’t use every legal recourse, if they could use it, to stop the rise of Stalinism or Maoism, two terms that are frequently used to describe the current climate on American colleges and campuses? That kind of rhetoric isn’t just inaccurate, it does a real disservice to anybody who should and does care about academic freedom or free speech.

You’re giving cover to those who will abuse their power and ultimately destroy this thing that you claim to care about.

Source: Republicans are trying to outlaw wokeness. Literally.

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