Cancel Culture Spells the Demise of Academic Freedom

When reasoned debate exits stage left.

Many academics of the libertarian or conservative bent have learned from experience that it is better to keep one’s thoughts and voice to oneself. We self-sensor reluctantly and only out of necessity. In these troubled academic times rank no longer has its privileges regarding first Amendment rights on campus. Failure to follow publicly the progressive academic orthodoxy can bring one trouble in the form of being canceled.

Before canceling became de rigueur on campus and throughout the academy, opposition was largely confined to voicing opinions in the academic public square. With the rise in the popularity and power of neo-Marxism, canceling has become the new academic armament. Neo-Marxism emanated from Marxist theory in the 1970’s and 80’s as a framework for explaining the repressive functions of the capitalist state; its adherents could be found in political science, philosophy and public policy. Fifty years later it has birthed young scholars from economics to medicine and the STEM subjects, who think nothing of censoring or discarding people and texts they find objectionable.

The Neo-Marxist cancel culture has been most readily demonstrated in the violent protests against visiting campus speakers like Charles Murray, Christina Hoff Summers, Ben Shapiro, Heather Mac Donald and myriad others. Even in academic meetings like the American Political Science Association, U.C. Berkeley Law Prof. John Yoo, who had served in the George Bush Justice Department, was disrupted while speaking. As contradictory as it may seem, even an ACLU executive was prevented from speaking at two different university gatherings.

Less apparent is that the academy is not just banning free speech, but also written expression. Some of you may be familiar with Bruce Gilley, Professor of Political Science at Portland State University and a member of the Board of the National Association of Scholars. His academic work is erudite and compelling, teaching evaluations are excellent and the fact that he is a tenured full professor means that his university and departmental colleagues honor and respect his academic work.

Sadly, the academy can’t stop eradicating his important scholarship in a most rapacious way. A brief history will explain. On September 8, 2017 an article by Gilley, “The Case for Colonialism,” was published in the academic journal, Third World Quarterly. The article was very well researched, written and documented; I found it enlightening as I think most of you would as well! He begins his article by saying, “For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name. Colonialism has virtually disappeared from international affairs, and there is no easier way to discredit a political idea or opponent than to raise the cry of ‘colonialism’.”

Within days of the journal issue’s release, there was harassment and even death threats by academics across the country crying “colonialism” against the journal’s editorial members and, of course, Gilley himself. To stem the threatened violence, the editor, with Gilley’s approval, withdrew the article.

The crime Gilley committed against the academy was providing a compelling case with evidence that many countries including Hong Kong and India actually prospered under western colonialism and would have been much worse off without it. In fairness, he also details corrupt colonization efforts like Spain’s efforts in the Americas as exploiting the natural resources and its people that were much worst off for it. He ends with a thought experiment to help make his case:

“Suppose that the government of Guinea-Bissau [a poor African nation] were to lease back to Portugal the small uninhabited island of Galinhas that lies 10 miles off the mainland and where the former colonial governor’s mansion lies in ruins. The annual lease would be US$1 so that the Portuguese spend their money on the island and the Guinea-Bissau government is not dependent on a lease fee. Suppose, then, that the US$10 million to US$20 million in foreign aid wasted annually on the country were redirected to this new offshore colony to create basic infrastructure. As part of the deal, the Portuguese would allow a certain number of Guinea-Bissau residents to resettle on the island each year. Portuguese institutions and sovereignty would be absolute here for the term of the lease – say 99 years, as was the case with the mainland parts of Hong Kong. A small European state would grow up on the African coast. At 60 square miles, Galinhas could, over time, easily accommodate the entire population of Guinea-Bissau. If successful, it would attract talent, trade and capital. The mainland parts of Guinea-Bissau would benefit from living next to an economic dynamo and learning to emulate its success, while symbolically escaping from the half-century anti-colonial nightmare of Amilcar Cabral. The same idea could be tried all over the coastlines of Africa and the Middle East if successful. Colonialism could be resurrected without the usual cries of oppression, occupation, and exploitation.”

Only an ideologue of the neo-Marxist bent would argue against impoverished, third-world nations benefiting from benign efforts of this ilk. But in the academy, one only need to utter the word “colonialism”, and reason, the exchange of ideas and debate exit stage left.

One would hope that academic publishers, a capitalistic enterprise aiming to sell as many books to as many people as possible, would consider in an enlightened way, a book series on the subject of colonialism. Last Monday, Lexington Books, the academic imprint of publisher Rowman & Littlefield, canceled Gilley’s new biography, The Last Imperialist: Sir Alan Burns’ Epic Defense of British Empire, just two weeks before the book was scheduled to ship. The book had already passed peer review with Lexington Books in December and received rave reviews, especially from two of the scholarly giants in the field of colonial history and was in pre-sales.

The new book series Problems of Anti-Colonialism, with Gilley as co-editor, of which Gilly’s The Last Imperialist was the first offering, was also canceled. The book series too had undergone successfully a thorough peer review process. Its aim is to reignite debate through a critical examination of the anti-colonial, decolonializing, and post-colonial projects and weigh better these various viewpoints and encourage anti-establishmentarian responses to the cancel culture wave sweeping academe. As Bruce Gilley has argued, “The overwhelmingly left-wing makeup of university faculties, combined with the rise of ideologically driven university bureaucracies, has destroyed the freedom necessary for the liberal arts and scientific inquiry.” It turns out that professors are only part of the problem; we now have a national cadre of academic administrators who are tone deaf to the need for First Amendment rights and viewpoint diversity at their respective universities. As Warren Treadgold, Professor of Humanities &  Byzantine studies has argued, “Campus leftism has been much less concerned with helping the supposedly oppressed than with demonizing the supposed oppressors.”

As an academic for 42 years, I too have seen and written about the demise of freedom of speech and thought in America’s universities. I sadly agree with Bruce Gilley that the academy has been commandeered by leftist political interests, and can only be made whole through the exercise of political power against this novel academic censorship.

Loyd Pettegrew is a Professor Emeritus of Marketing Communication at the University of South Florida.


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