One of the new fashionable phrases has become “cancel culture,” the idea that ideas, institutions, and people of the present as well of the past must be overturned and dethroned from legitimacy and acceptance in society, so as to expunge the injustices, cruelties, and insensitivities existing in current life and lingering over from history. The question is: what exactly is the culture in America that is to be cancelled?
Elements of the “cancel culture” mindset and movement have been seen in the tearing down of statues, demands for removing from buildings and other monuments the names and imageries of various people, and the ostracizing of certain individuals, living or dead, who are accused of and condemned for racist, sexist, and other politically incorrect words or deeds at any time during their life.
White racists of the past used to say that “one drop of black blood” disqualified any person from having status as a member of the “superior” white race, and, instead, relegated you to the lower category of being an inferior being. Now we see another variation on the same type of theme: One word or deed, no matter how innocent or innocuous, no matter how long ago or in the context of an earlier less “enlightened” time, and no matter how much of a “higher consciousness” you have had ever since, or how publicly apologetic you may be for that “sin’” of the past, none of this can save you from banishment, seemingly for all time, from good “woke” society.
You are cast out to the nether regions of human existence. Erased from the record of humankind. And all because everything “American,” past and present, should be seen as the essence of all things evil and immoral. Because what the country has stood for and done represents the worst in human history.
Racial Bigotries and Cruelties of the Past
Of course, endless examples and instances of such racist attitudes and behaviors can be offered from the pages of American history. For instance, historian John B. McMaster (1852-1932) detailed the racist actions of white prospectors and fortune-hunters in California, following the gold discoveries in 1848, in his History of the People of the United States 1850-1861, Vol. 8 (1913):
“Hatred of the ‘greaser’ was early and strongly developed, and in the northern and central mining regions Chileans, Peruvians, even Frenchmen were driven from the placers. Here and there some resistance was made; but in most instances they quietly submitted and went off to the valley of the San Joaquin. Germans, English, Irish were not disturbed, for it was against the dark-skinned races, Malays, Kanakas, Spaniards, and above all Mexicans and South Americans that feeling ran high . . .
“The greasers having been driven from the State, the wrath of the native Americans fell next on the Chinese . . . At first the Celestials, the China boys, met a warm welcome, and in San Francisco on more than one occasion were the object of public attention . . . In the mining camps, on the other hand, the feeling against the Chinese ran high, and meetings were held, and resolutions passed calling for their expulsion . . . A few days later some sixty American miners came down the north fork of the American River, drove away two hundred Chinese, and destroyed their tents.” (pp. 60-63)
The classical liberal author and essayist, Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945), penned a piece that appeared in the American Magazine (February 1913) on, “What We Stand For” (reprinted in, The State of the Union: Essays in Social Criticism by Albert Jay Nock ) He asked what America was really about when a black man could be dragged from a hospital bed by a mob, and then burned alive:
“On Sunday evening, August 13, 1911, at the hour when churches dismiss their congregations, a human being named Zack Walker was taken by violence out of a hospital at Coatesville, Pennsylvania, where he lay chained to an iron bedstead, in the custody of the law, suffering from a shot-wound, apparently self-inflicted.
“The bedstead was broken in half, and the man, still chained to the lower half, was dragged half a mile along the ground, thrown upon a pile of wood, drenched with oil, and burned alive. Other human beings to the number of several hundred looked on in approval. When Walker with superhuman strength burst his bonds and tried to escape, they drove him back into the flames with pitchforks and fence-rails and held him there until his body was burned to ashes. Those who could get fragments of his charred bones took them off as souvenirs.” (p. 139)
Nock wondered what this told us about human beings in modern, supposedly civilized society, whether in America or anywhere, who would act in such ways?
America is Not a Lie, But an Ideal of Liberty in Progress
The cancel culture proponents, and most certainly the more “activist” and radical among them, would insist that such episodes tell us all we need to know about America, and that the America of the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, about which historian, John B. McMaster, and essayist, Albert Jay Nock, wrote, is the same America today.
Is that what American culture is, and always has been about? I would beg to differ. If it was, let me suggest that we would not have seen the improvements in racial and social circumstances and conditions that have happened over the last century. Segregation laws are long gone, and, if anything, laws have been introduced to impose and police compulsory integration under federal anti-discrimination laws.
Employments, professions, and occupations that had been long reserved for “whites only” went out with the Jim Crow statutes in the South, and to the extent that “social distancing” was practiced by many whites due to personal and peer-pressure prejudices, over the last half century these have radically disappeared in an amazing array of social and interpersonal settings.
The civil liberties expressed in the Bill of Rights no longer apply to some while not to others. Where violations, abuses, and any other willful acts may occur, legal defenses, advocacy groups, and general public opinion in the age of mass and social media try to limit or turn a bright light onto such conduct in most instances today; and pressures are made for the introduction of reforms that would make such behavior less frequent, if not impossible, and not to go unpunished.
I have no wish to sound Panglossian, that the world we are in is the best of all worlds. It is certainly not. And as a classical liberal who believes in and cares deeply about the rights and dignity of the individual human being, all such infringements, denials, and abuses are unacceptable affronts to what I consider the moral principles upon which any good and decent society should and can be based.
Liberty is a Single Tapestry of Civil and Economic Liberty
Classical liberalism is not simply a political philosophy of economic freedom. The right to honestly acquired private property, the right to freedom of association in the competitive marketplace of supply and demand, the right to produce, buy and sell whatever individuals choose to on the peaceful and non-fraudulent terms to which the participants agree, are essential elements to any consistent practice of liberty in society.
But for most classical liberals and libertarians, the starting premise and principle from which economic liberty is derived is the broader right of the individual to be viewed as having the most basic and fundamental property right: to himself. Each individual is a self-governing person, having “sovereignty” over his life, liberty, and the external properties that he has acquired with either his own direct efforts of production or through the free and honest exchange entered into with others.
Freedoms of speech, the press, and of religion; the right of association for any and all peaceful purposes, to be secure in one’s person and papers and other properties from those in political power without legal warrant and due process of equal and impartial rule of law; these and other such rights captured in the U.S. Constitution and complementary legal bases, means the of securing and protecting the civil liberties and rights that are inseparable threads along with economic freedom in the tightly woven single tapestry of human liberty. To abuse or abridge any one of them is a threat and a warning signal to all other sides of liberty.
This is what makes the principles and founding documents of the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution impossible to be viewed as defenses of slavery or legal segregation and discrimination, or institutional racism. The American founding runs counter to all such conduct in its vision, hope and promise for a society based on the sanctity, dignity, and respect for the individual and his rights from the violent betrayal of either private persons or those in political power.
Justice David Brewer on Free, Self-Governing Americans
David J. Brewer (1837-1910) served as an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court for 20 years, from 1889 to 1910. He strongly advocated equal rights and respect for women, worked for equal opportunities for black Americans, and supported freedom of association among workers. In a series of lectures delivered at Yale University on American Citizenship (1902), Justice Brewer explained what it meant to be an American in terms of defining beliefs and ideas:
“This is a government of and by and for the people. It rests upon the thought that to each individual belong the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It affirms that the nation exists not for the benefit of one man, or set of men, but to secure to each and all the fullest opportunity for personal development. It stands against the governments of the Old World in that there the thought is that the individual lives for the nation; here the nation exists for the individual . . .
“Far be it for me to affirm that we have lived up to our ideals. I am making no Fourth of July speech. On the contrary, our history has disclosed many shortcomings. We have not been free from the weaknesses of human nature. But, notwithstanding all our failures, nowhere has there been a closer living to the ideals of popular government, and nowhere are the possibilities of future success greater.
“If, therefore, the chief object of national existence is to secure to each individual the fullest protection in all inalienable rights and the fullest opportunity for personal advancement, and if this nation has come nearer than any other to the realization of this ideal, and if by virtue of its situation, its population, and its development, it has the greatest promise of full realization of this ideal in the future, surely it must be that the obligations of its citizens to it are nowhere surpassed.” (pp. 14, 17-18)
The obligation of an American citizen was to live up to this ideal of a land dedicated to the liberty and rights of each and every individual. To strive to practice what was preached. Clearly, to overcome those weaknesses in human nature that resulted in a failure to fully respect and live by the idea of human freedom, a society in which the government exists to protect the individual in his rights and not to make the individual a subject to those in political power for their own purposes, whether those in power was one, or a few, or even many.
Hans Kohn, Austrian Historian Who Found a Home in America
Sometimes, moments of great political and ideological crisis place things in more essential defining clarity. Certainly, the rise of totalitarianism in the years between the two World Wars was such a time, which reached its climax in the Second World War. In the eyes of many, the crisis of that time was between two conceptions of man, society and government. Communism and Nazism represented a reactionary turn toward a comprehensive and cruel collectivism that would envelop and crush the individual in the rush for making “new men” based on Marxian-imagined social class or National Socialist biological race.
On the other side was the ideal of free men in a free society, without human beings reduced to cogs in the wheels of political tyranny and social terror. America, in the eyes of many at that time, represented the alternative to the totalitarian threats. One of them was historian Hans Kohn (1891-1971), a recognized leading scholar on the idea and history of nationalism in the modern age.
Born in Prague in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, he became a determined Zionist in his 20s. Kohn served as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army when the First World War began in 1914, but was captured by the Russians in 1915 on the Eastern Front, and spent five years in Russia as a prisoner of war, witnessing both the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the three years of bitter and brutal Civil War that followed before in Russia before returning home to Prague.
Kohn spent several years in Palestine in the 1920s but became disillusioned with a political and nationalist Zionism that showed little regard for the rights of the Palestinians with whom the immigrant European Jews were increasingly living. He came to the United States in the early 1930s and remained in America for the remainder of his life, devoting his scholarly efforts to analyzing and understanding the nature and consequences of nationalism versus the liberal and free society in general.
America as the Liberal Ideal of the Free Society
In Hans Kohn’s view, in that world crisis between freedom and liberalism versus totalitarian tyranny, America held a unique philosophical position. He explained this in one of his wartime works, World Order in Historical Perspective (1942):
“All the great currents of the Western liberal development of the 17th and 18th centuries were able to ripen to fruition under the especially favorable circumstances of the English colonies in North America and in the wake of their revolutionary movement.
“Here, more than anywhere else, emerge the Western man; not as a race, because he was a mixture of many races, but as a social and intellectual type, professing a deep faith in man and his potentialities, and trying to build a civilization on the basis of rationalism, optimism, and individualism. The American society more than any other is a product of the 18th century, of the faith in freedom and in ultimate harmony; a typical middle-class society with its ultimately pacifist ideal . . .
“No wonder that Europeans looked longingly toward the vast spaces of North America, where they saw the possibility of establishing a society without kings or nobles, a society founded upon the philosophy of the century. Though the Americans had come from Europe, they seemed to be changed men, as if the air of America were filled with liberty and were able to transform men’s minds and hearts . . .
“Among the realities of national life, the image which a nation forms of itself and in which it mirrors itself is one of the most important. Though the everyday reality, in many ways, does not correspond to the image and falls far short of its ideal perfection – sometimes even contradicts it in the countless and conflicting trends of the complex actuality – nevertheless, this image, woven of elements of reality, tradition, imagination, and aspiration is one of the most influential agents in forming the national character. It helps to mold national life; if it does not always act in a positive direction, it acts at least as a constant brake.” (pp. 9-10, 17-18)
This inspiration and aspiration of a society of free men, based as Kohn said, on rationalism, optimism, and an individualism of liberty was and is real. It has not been a fabrication, a “false consciousness” to hide a reality of oppression, discrimination, and racism. There have been oppressions, discriminations and racisms. But the fact that they ran contrary to what the country has stood for in terms of its own image of what an American is supposed to be and stand for, and which has been that mirror, as Kohn suggested, that reflects back on the actualities of men’s words and deeds, that has made Americans, however slowly and sometimes grudgingly, move more in the direction of those ideals, without which there really is no reason or rationale for an “America.”
That racism was a deep and deadly wound in the American reality was not lost or deemphasized by Hans Kohn. In a contribution to the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1938) on “Race Conflicts,” he said and warned that racial inequality and mistreatment, epitomized by the brutality of the lynching of black men was, “conducive not only to the destruction of democracy and liberty, but also to the undermining of justice and law.”
“Cancel Culture” Would Destroy America’s Memory and Hope
The “cancel culture” radicals, made up of the “politically correct,” the “identity politics” warriors, and “democratic” socialists, who all are dreaming dreams of a new tribal collectivism of mind control, political planning, and the social engineering of their own versions of a “new person,” want to wipe out any knowledge, memory, or belief in that American ideal about which people like Justice David J. Brewer or historian Hans Kohn attempted to explain both what it was and to argue its importance for Americans and all of humankind. (See my articles, “The Meaning and Mind of an American” and “Ad Hominems Against Freedom” and “Liberty is the Theme of the American Spirit”.)
If the cancel culture destroyers win, then America will be no different than the rest of the world; a world filled with racial genocides, religious bigotries and wars, plundering despotisms, and political paternalisms that reduce human beings to expendable pawns on a great chessboard manipulated by others who arrogantly believe they know how we all should live and what each of us “really” deserves.
When the famous 19th century sociologist and laissez-faire liberal, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), visited the United States in 1882, he said to an American news reporter:
“As one of your early statesmen said, ‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.’ But it is far less against foreign aggressions upon national liberty that this vigilance is required than against insidious growth of domestic interferences with personal liberty . . .
“The fact is, that free institutions can be properly worked only by men each of whom is jealous of his own rights and is also sympathetically jealous of the rights of others – will neither himself aggress on his neighbors, in small things or great, nor tolerate aggression on them by others. The republican form of government is the highest form of government; but because of this it requires the highest type of human nature – a type nowhere at present existing. We [the British] have not grown to it, nor have you [the Americans].”
But how can we hope to grow more into that type of person who is respectful and jealous for his own liberty and protective of that same liberty that rightfully belongs to all others – including to be free from racist bigotries and political injustices that may flow from it – that American culture of individualism, and personal, social, and economic liberty, and the ideal of a government of impartial rule of law devoted to securing each person’s individual rights, if it is all “cancelled” through the destruction and the repression of all knowledge and understanding of the country’s history, the good and the bad? How shall that history be an inspiration and an aspiration for the next generations if it is all torn down and cast away? And most importantly, the denial and distortion of its founding ideals of a morality of a free people?
It is why all possible effort must be made to resist and rationally respond to a “cancel culture” that would erase the history and memory of America from the minds of humankind.
Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.
Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.
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