Reviewed By Roger D. Harris
May 7, 2021
CANCEL THIS BOOK: The Progressive Case Against Cancel Culture by Dan Kovalik, 216pp. Hot Books (April 27, 2021). ISBN: 1510764984
Dan Kovalik, professor of International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, is the accomplished author of books skewering US foreign policy on Venezuela, Russia, Iran, international human rights, and interference in elections abroad. His latest, Cancel This Book, takes aim at the domestic progressive scene and its “cancel culture” aberration.
His is a from-the-ground view based on 26 years as a lawyer for the United Steelworkers union and from other personal experiences, including demonstrating for Black Lives Matter and his friendship with anti-war activist Molly Rush, to whom the book is dedicated.
After a courageous lifetime of service to peace and justice causes, the octogenarian Molly Rush tweeted a statement in favor of non-violent protest, which was unfairly construed as racist. For this supposed transgression, she was “canceled” by former comrades, devastating her and the peace movement in Pittsburgh.
Being canceled entails anything from public shaming to losing one’s means of livelihood for expressing an unpopular opinion. “Cancelling,” Kovalik describes, “is not to educate or to advance the cause of social justice, but to punish and ostracize.”
Cancel culture is a form of intolerance that privileges form over substance and often substitutes a narrow identity politics to the detriment of the underlying issue of class. Kovalik argues that it is on the basis of class that working people of all races can unite in common struggle. This element is “conspicuously missing” from the cancel culture discourse.
The main victims of cancel culture are the genuine left, and the main beneficiaries are the establishment powers. Kovalik comments: “the left of the political spectrum are excited about the new round of censorship being imposed by corporate giants such as Facebook and Twitter” against Trump and his supporters. “This type of censorship,” he adds, “will be mostly turned against the left…. But sadly, many on the left in this country have not learned this lesson and are calling for measures that will ultimately lead to their own suppression.”
“The biggest danger,” Kovalik admonishes, “is that people will simply self-censor rather than discuss issues, though of critical importance, for fear of getting themselves into trouble.”
Not one to be intimidated for expressing dissident views, Kovalik is critical of the efficacy of diversity training and how the pandemic lockdowns were implemented. “Conservatives tend to be more open-minded,” based on his experience, “than liberals.” The BLM protests initially showed “great promise” but ultimately “represented a huge lost opportunity.” And anarchists are often part of the problem when they individualistically engage in adventurist activities that may endanger the larger movement.
In his personable and anecdotal style, Kovalik compellingly revisits some of the better-known excesses of cancel culture. High school senior Mimi Groves, for instance, posted a 3-second Snapchat using a taboo word four years ago. For that youthful mistake, she has now been publicly humiliated, physically threatened, and forced to withdraw her application to college.
Cancel is full of gems unearthed by Kovalik, such as his exegesis on Mark Twain. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Twain is among the most canceled books, because of its use of the contemporary idiom of the pre-Civil War period in which it is set. Quite notably, Twain, in his essay Complexions, wrote: “Nearly all black and brown skins are beautiful, but a beautiful white skin is rare…. Where dark complexions are massed, they make the whites look bleached-out, unwholesome, and sometimes frankly ghastly.”
The penultimate chapter of the book is on the arguably most virulent manifestation of cancel culture, the silencing for voices advocating for the rights of Palestinians. It is a testament to Kovalik’s equanimity that the dustjacket of the book features a blurb by Alan Dershowitz, a self-described Zionist who claims: “The suffering of Palestinians, which does not compare to the suffering of many other groups, has been largely inflicted by themselves.”
Kovalik is a dedicated leftist critical of the Democratic Party. “We as the American electorate,” he observes, “are never given anything but the choice between sociopaths for President.” Kovalik comments further: “I for one am quite alarmed to think of what a Biden policy of ‘getting tougher’ with Russia would look like, and what kind of catastrophe it could bring about…. It simply boggles the mind how the mainstream media and the Democratic Party elite are willing to compromise world peace and public health all in the interest of political gain.”
Kovalik takes particular umbrage about the tendency epitomized by Hillary Clinton’s comment about the “deplorables,” which renders the entire white working class in the US as dumb and racist. The dismissive condescension by more affluent and better educated whites – associated with the Democratic Party by Kovalik – explains a large part of the blowback of the white working class and its attraction to right populism.
He favorably quotes historian Thomas Frank, author of Listen, Liberal: “liberalism has become a politics of upper-class bullying and of character assassination.” Kovalik documents how the liberalism of the Democratic Party has drifted into a full-throated support of imperialist war. The promotion of Russiagate by the Democrats has “captivated liberals for years and won over their hearts and minds to the idea that the CIA and the FBI were the defenders of democracy and liberty in our country.”
Cancel This Book describes the lamentable rise of the cancel culture and the degeneration of liberalism. I look forward to the next book from the perceptive and prolific Dan Kovalik, which could go further and illuminate the dynamics of the underlying forces rising at this historical junction associated with the bankruptcy of liberalism and the failure of neoliberalism to serve its constituents. The first step in addressing the problem of cancel culture is understanding why it came about at this time.
Roger D. Harris is with the human rights organization Task Force on the Americas.