By Craig J. Cantoni
A review of The Canceling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott, 2023, Simon & Schuster, New York, 443 pages.
The Canceling of the American Mind appears to have been written in a hurry and could’ve used some editing and wordsmithing. But it’s worth reading for its many examples of how colleges and other institutions have been captured by people who are not only illiberal but completely bonkers.
Warning: You might have to be slightly bonkers yourself, or at least masochistic, to endure reading example after example of America’s version of China’s Cultural Revolution. It’s difficult to read the examples without becoming infuriated and pessimistic.
Anyone who claims that the danger of wokeness and cancel culture is right-wing hyperbole will be disabused of the notion after reading the book, assuming that the person’s mind has not been sealed shut or shrunk to the size and density of a golf ball from spending too much time on shallow news media or even shallower social media—or from getting a degree from a college of illiberal learning.
The authors of The Canceling of the American Mind are not right-wingers, conservatives, or Trumpers, or white supremacists, or racists, or fascists, or election deniers, or climate deniers, or vaccine deniers, or deplorables, or jingoists, or any of the other pejoratives used by the cultural revolutionaries to silence opposing views—the same revolutionaries who claim to deplore racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender stereotypes.
Author Greg Lukianoff is a self-identified classical liberal and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a nonpartisan organization devoted to free speech that, among other endeavors, rates colleges on their commitment to free expression and their aversion to ideological orthodoxy. Coauthor Rikki Schlott, a member of Generation Z and a research fellow at FIRE, is a classical liberal with libertarian leanings.
Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt authored the 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind, which was based on their 2015 article by the same title in the Atlantic, which is certainly not a conservative publication.
In the interest of fairness, Lukianoff and Schlott lambaste illiberal conservatives who try to ban speech they disagree with or try to cancel speakers. For sure, Trumpers won’t like what they say about the former president. But most of the book focuses on the illiberalism on the left, because that is where the most egregious violations of free speech can be found, especially on college campuses, where Democrat faculty far outnumber Republican faculty.
To that point, the book cites studies that give the ratios of Democrat to Republican professors in academe. The overall ratio is eight to one, but in most disciplines, it is much more unbalanced. For instance, no Republicans could be found in anthropology. Engineering and chemistry are the only disciplines where Republicans outnumber Democrats.
At the same time, one in four professors identifies as socialist. It’s doubtful, however, that they will be giving up their tenure, short hours, and cushy working conditions to show solidarity with the proletariat.
Again, the book abounds with examples of how unhinged mobs have stopped speech that was counter to their worldview, kept those with different views from speaking, viciously attacked ideological heretics with verbal abuse and threats of physical violence, and destroyed the heretics’ careers in the process.
The revolutionaries come across as morally superior, thin-skinned, self-absorbed, and self-righteous. They have a childish take on complex issues, have temper tantrums like spoiled brats, and claim that their safety and very identity are threatened by views that differ from their ideological uniformity. Having made it to Volume II of a twelve-volume set of knowledge and wisdom, they believe that they are fully educated, have nothing new to learn, and are far smarter than those who have made it to only Volume I.
Even the ones who are students at prestigious and obscenely expensive colleges parrot in unison all of the voguish clichés, banalities, and sophistries about undefined minorities continuing to suffer from White privilege, patriarchy, racism, oppression, and colonization. They ignorantly believe that Whites are homogeneous, come in one skin shade, don’t have wide variations in ethnicity and socioeconomic status, and have not suffered from injustices.
Projecting their own sheltered childhood experiences onto all Whites, the wealthiest and most preppy among the revolutionaries are the most neurotic about White guilt and the most eager to embrace discriminatory and exclusive forms of diversity and inclusion.
It’s impossible to have rational conversations and constructive debates with the revolutionaries, as illustrated by an example from the book, an incident you may have heard about when it happened in 2015 at Yale.
The hullaballoo was triggered by Halloween costumes, of all things. It began when administrators at the university issued guidelines on appropriate and inappropriate costumes. Erika Christakis, the associate master of Yale’s Stillman College, took exception to the guidelines in a community-wide email, saying that while she deplored insensitive costumes, she didn’t think that a bureaucratic, paternalistic decree was the proper way to handle the matter. Her preference was to trust that students were mature enough to self-police to address any insensitive fellow students and handle any conflicts in a way that would be a learning experience for everyone.
She had overestimated the maturity of Yale students. They became outraged over her email. She was excoriated in a letter signed by 700 students, faculty, and alumni. The letter said: “To ask marginalized students to throw away their enjoyment of a holiday, in order to expend emotional, mental, and physical energy to explain why something is offensive, is–offensive.” The letter concluded with the bizarre statement that the signers simply wanted their “existences not to be invalidated on campus.”
Marginalized students? Yale is one of the world’s most expensive, selective, and prestigious universities, a university where graduates go on to become captains of industry, investment bankers, senators, presidents, Supreme Court justices, and so on.
Invalidated existences? If an email disagreeing with a policy on Halloween costumes can invalidate a student’s existence, the individual needs counseling or needs to go to parts of the world where people worry about having enough to eat to continue their existence or worry about their existence being ended by extremists killing them in their sleep.
The persecution of Erika Christakis continued after the letter. Students engaged in a three-hour confrontation with a Yale College dean while making outrageous demands. Some students demanded that they be warned before Christakis entered the dining hall. Others demanded the firing of not only Erika but also her husband, Nicholas Christakis, who also was a Yale professor.
An angry mob of about a hundred students would go on to surround Nicholas in a courtyard, demanding his apology and cursing at him. Graduating students would later refuse to accept their diplomas from him. Erika would eventually leave Yale, and Nicholas resigned from Stillman College but stayed at Yale as a professor.
In 2022, FIRE ranked Yale near the bottom in free speech, a lowly 198th out of 203 colleges. Yet the university has more applicants than ever, and parents are more desperate than ever to do whatever it takes to get their children into Yale and other Ivy League schools, as was seen in the tuition bribery case of a couple of years ago. Once admitted, students run little risk of not getting good grades and not graduating. And after graduation, they are almost certain to have a life of privilege, power, and wealth.
This Halloween incident is just one of many examples in the book of the tactics of the cultural revolutionaries, not only the revolutionaries in academia but also the ones in media and industry.
The authors advise on how to fight the cancel culture constructively and how to deal with ad hominem attacks without resorting to the same tactics in self-defense.
I agree with the advice and have followed a similar strategy for years. But I’m not optimistic that it will change anything, given that two generations of Americans have been steeped in the precepts of the cultural revolution, and that the thinking permeates just about every American institution.
The revolution will have to run its course until the revolutionaries get devoured by the political monster they’ve created.
Look on the bright side: It took only ten years for China’s Cultural Revolution to end. On the other hand, it took 70 years for the Soviet Union to collapse and end the Bolshevik Revolution.
As we move through 2023 and into the next election cycle, The Prickly Pear will resume Take Action recommendations and information.