Matt Bai: “We are witnessing the most direct assault on free expression in my lifetime”

From an opinion column in the Washington Post by Matt Bai headlined “Are we all being canceled?”:

There’s a trend in the left-leaning political media whereby anyone who faults both parties in a debate is immediately bullied for “false equivalence” or “whataboutism.” The idea is that the left clearly occupies the moral high ground, and anyone who can’t acknowledge this fact is just fetishizing balance at the expense of truth.

Sometimes that’s fair — but not in the case of the culture war over free expression. Here, the plain truth is that both parties are acting recklessly….

We know what Republicans are really doing here, because it’s the main play they took away from the Trump era: Try to divide the country between traditional White voters and everyone else, and hope that no one notices you’ve ceased governing entirely.

One of the frustrating realities of our politics, however, is that whenever one party stakes out the extreme side of an issue, the other immediately retreats to the opposite pole.

And so the overwhelming leftist response to Republican hysteria has been to say that there is no such thing as “cancel culture,” no actual threat to free expression. It’s all just a lot of Trumpian nonsense, propagated by racists and sexists.

This isn’t true, and it isn’t helpful.

The first time I heard the term “canceling” was when no less a liberal than former president Barack Obama assailed it during an interview in 2019. Obama warned, presciently, that “wokeness,” at its worst, could lead to a rigid policing of language and thought.

This illiberal retribution has only intensified since, and it’s reaching a critical point. A culture of self-censorship pervades media and the arts — a fear that using the wrong word or recommending the wrong book can derail a career.

We are, in fact, witnessing the most direct assault on free expression in my lifetime, mainly because a loud segment of younger activists view free expression as a convenient excuse for perpetuating oppression.

Opposing this worldview isn’t Trumpian or conservative. It’s what we used to call ACLU-style liberalism.

Most sensible liberals I talk to — in politics, news, entertainment or academia — understand this. But there’s a palpable fear of getting on the wrong side of the woke mob, and it doesn’t seem worth the risk….

This burgeoning cultural revolution — and yes, I use that term knowing full well the allusion — won’t blow by like a cloud, either. And if principle isn’t enough to persuade the White House and leading Democrats that they will need to take on the threat at some point, then self-interest ought to be.

Because you can send out all the stimulus checks you want, but if 2022 rolls around and the primary image of Democrats is of a party trying to impose on the country an acceptable code of language and imagery, you will very likely lose your reed-thin majorities.

Are Republicans ridiculously overhyping the dangers of cancel culture for their own cynical reasons? Of course they are.

But Democrats know the problem exists. And sheepishly waiting it out will come with a cost.

Matt Bai, a Washington Post contributing columnist, is a journalist, author and screenwriter. He spent more than a decade at the New York Times, where he was the chief political writer for the Sunday magazine and a columnist for the newspaper, and five years as the national political columnist for Yahoo News.

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