Andrew Sullivan's Free Speech Hypocrisy

A false narrative of cancel culture is promoted by those indifferent to actual cases of free speech being curtailed.

In 1776, the great Tory essayist and moralist Samuel Johnson delivered a quip against the American Revolution that still carries a bite: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Johnson’s words often come back to me as I survey the debate over so-called cancel culture: how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for free speech by people quick to censor others?

One thinks here of Bari Weiss, a fierce and committed opponent (she claims) of cancel culture who, as Glenn Greenwald has documented, was active “in numerous campaigns to vilify and ruin the careers of several Arab and Muslim professors due to their criticisms of Israel.”

Andrew Sullivan is another loud yelper. Over the last few years, he has written interminably about free speech, offering a tossed verbal salad that throws everything in: the Salem witch trials, the French terror, Stalinism, Hitler, McCarthyism, the Cultural Revolution etc, etc.

But watch what happens when in a free speech case involving someone Sullivan doesn’t like. The NC Policy Watch reports that journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones is losing a tenured position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that both the faculty of the journalism program and the chancellor of the university wanted to offer her because of Board of Trustee opposition.

According to NC Policy Watch, “UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media pursued Hannah-Jones for its Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, a tenured professorship. But following political pressure from conservatives who object to her work on “The 1619 Project” for TheNew York Times Magazine, the school changed its plan to offer her tenure — which amounts to a career-long appointment. Instead, she will start July 1 for a fixed five-year term as Professor of the Practice, with the option of being reviewed for tenure at the end of that time period.”

The downgrading of at tenured position to a contract job was done as a way to circumvent the Board of Trustees, who have no veto power over a limited job.

The UNC Board of Trustees violated a fundamental principle of academic freedom. As Case Western Reserve historian Peter Schulman notes, “And to be clear—trustees universally *do* have the final say. But they should only reverse a decision that has moved from a department to a school to a provost to a president under extraordinary circumstances—and not liking the politics of the candidate isn’t one of them.” The journalist William Bunch helpfully contextualized the spiking of the tenured job as part of larger pattern in North Carolina of Republicans using their control of the state government to stifle campus free speech.

New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb correctly pointed out the case will have a profound chilling effect: “The UNC BoT decision to deny tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones is wildly intimidating to junior scholars working on topics of race without the protection of tenure. This is about the freedom to produce critical scholarship in an alleged democratic society.”

But of course “critical scholarship” is exactly what Andrew Sullivan opposes. He wants scholarship (or rather pseudo-scholarship) that affirms existing racial and gender hierarchies. His Bible is The Bell Curve. The very word critical (as in “critical race theory”) has the talismanic effect of driving Sullivan bonkers.

Sullivan’s previous interaction with Hannah-Jones is instructive.

In an essay for The 1619 Project, Linda Villarosa wrote of 19th century doctors in the slave South: “They believed that black people had large sex organs and small skulls — which translated to promiscuity and a lack of intelligence — and higher tolerance for heat, as well as immunity to some illnesses and susceptibility to others. These fallacies, presented as fact and legitimized in medical journals, bolstered society’s view that enslaved people were fit for little outside forced labor and provided support for racist ideology and discriminatory public policies.”

Sullivan inexplicably decided to zero in on the point about “large sex organs” and translated that in his imagination to a claim about Black penises. Sullivan wrote to Hannah-Jones as editor of The 1619 Project and asked what her proof is that African-American men didn’t have large penises.

As Sullivan explained, “she decided to include what she calls a ‘myth’ about ‘large sex organs’ among African-Americans. As a test to see just how fact-checked these essays were, I merely asked her what sources she had that this is indeed a ‘myth.’” Responding to Sullivan on Twitter, Hannah-Jones wrote, "you questioned whether black men really do have larger penises than other racial groups. That is all needed to know about you."

Sullivan in turn retorted, “I would argue that it is, in fact, racist to ignore these small but relevant differences, because it would lead to worse medical diagnoses and treatment for African-Americans. But in critical race theory, biology is dismissed as a socially constructed racist myth.”

By Sullivan’s logic, the real racists are those skeptical of 19th century race science which was explicitly used to justify slavery. Further, he seems to believe this 19th century race science deserves to be tested again and serve as the research agenda for modern medicine. And Sullivan also seems to think that somehow critical race theory is what is preventing the crucial question of Black penis size from being investigated.

Sullivan later claimed, utterly unconvincingly, that he was just being “mischievous” when he badgered Hannah-Jones about Black penis size, while also decrying that this important subject (Black penis size) was being marginalized. This two-sided argument is typical of his joking-not-joking approach. The whole exchange has convinced me that Sullivan thinks Blazing Saddles was a documentary. (For anyone with a stomach for nonsense, this blog post does a good job of detailing the controversy).

Given this history, one wouldn’t expect Sullivan to be fair to Hannah-Jones when she’s the victim of an injustice. And indeed his response to the UNC situation is to pooh-pooh the whole affair: “The faculty should decide. But this is not a huge scandal or a cancellation it seems to me”

Free speech, if it means anything, means defending speech of people you disagree with. As it happens, Nikole Hannah-Jones is someone I have my share of disagreements with. Her politics are too centrist for my taste. Her contribution to The 1619 Project framed the story of slavery in America in a nationalist narrative that I find wrong-headed.

But that’s all irrelevant for the UNC case. She’s a very accomplished writer, having won a Pulitzer Prize and a McArthur Fellowship. The 1619 Project has been a milestone in transforming popular debate about slavery in American history. She is more than qualified for a tenured position. The cancelling of the job is a free speech scandal. The cancellation follows the pattern common in American history of conservative Trustees trying to limit academic speech.

Unfortunately, Andrew Sullivan can’t see that because he’s too busy yelping about other things.

Postscipt

This exchange also illuminates Sullivan’s complacency about this case:

Postscript

Andrew Sullivan wrote a tweet demanding a correction:

On these points: 1) I had misunderstood the twitter exchange as implying a private correspondence. So to be clear: Sullivan upbraided NHJ in public on question of Black penis size. 2) Sullivan “opposed” Board of Trustees action in a handwaving way, as I think the quotes above show. 3) No one as far as I know has ever asserted “that there are no physical differences at all between human populations.” That’s an absurd strawman.

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