Many on the left believe that “free speech” is exclusively a right-wing concern. In June 2018, Justice Elena Kagan famously declared that conservatives had “weaponized the First Amendment,” a charge that was dutifully picked up on the front page of the New York Times the following week and echoed by many liberals since. This insidious notion is so ingrained in the modern-day left that today, when a liberal becomes a victim of cancel culture, they suddenly find themselves branded as right-wing. Call it a sort of political Doppler effect: Just as stars moving away from an astronomer appear redshifted, so too do canceled liberals shift from politically blue to red.
Consider the fate of Jodi Shaw, a feminist former administrator at Smith College. Shaw spoke up in defense of service workers who had been falsely accused of racism by one of Smith’s students. The college’s own internal investigation vindicated the workers, but Shaw was still marked for having spoken up. Now she is falsely typecast as a right-wing hero who ran afoul of cancel culture.
To be sure, this political Doppler effect has always been a favorite tactic of fanatical and intolerant groups seeking to stamp out dissent within their ranks. During the Salem witch trials, the devout Puritan minister George Burrows was hanged as a witch for daring to stand up to “his own side.” During the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, fanatical Communists who raised questions about Stalin’s motives were shot for being ‘reactionaries.’ In Franco’s Spain, fascist coup plotters were condemned for being communists, even though they had far more in common with their accusers than with communists. In the Ayatollah’s Iran, fanatical mullahs found themselves defenestrated on the charge of being spies for the CIA. In all of these cases, intolerant extremists sought to maintain ideological purity by accusing any allies who dared to speak up against them of belonging to the enemy camp.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Consider the case of former New York Times reporter Donald G. McNeil, who served at the grey lady for 45 years. Despite harboring a belief system that appears to be a collage of left-wing platitudes, McNeil was forced to resign for using a racial slur, even though he did so in a conversation about the harmful effects of racial slurs.
Nor are the examples of Shaw and McNeil atypical. There is also the case Erika Christakis, erstwhile holder of the quondam title “Associate Master” at Yale. This left-leaning feminist scholar took issue with a notice from the school’s Intercultural Affairs Council that urged students to exercise sensitivity in choosing their Halloween costumes, writing in an emailed reply: “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” Her message so offended Yale’s elite students that Christakis, an avowed liberal, was pilloried as a dangerous right-wing bigot and pressured to resign.
For yet another case of “dopplering,” look to the distinguished Harvard Law School Professor Ronald Sullivan, who followed in the steps of John Adams by fulfilling his moral obligation as an attorney to defend an unpopular defendant: Harvey Weinstein. Defenestrated by a cancel mob that was enabled by an invertebrate Harvard administration, Sullivan lost his post as dean of a residence college and is now treated as if he were an apologist for workplace sexual harassment, which he most emphatically is not.
As the microphone in today’s public square is dominated by an intolerant segment of the left, the political Doppler effect makes everyone who gets canceled appear farther to the right than they really are. This has lulled many on the left into the complacent illusion that cancellation is only a problem for the right. It isn’t. Any freethinking liberal in America today would do well to ask themselves: Will I be the next victim of my tribe?
John Londregan is a professor of politics at Princeton University and a founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance. The views in this column are his own.
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