For the new moralists of cancel culture, there is no context.
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE
n his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke took aim at Lord George Gordon, who had led the anti-Catholic riots that bore his name. By the time of the Reflections, Gordon resided in Newgate Prison, convicted of libel and unable to afford the security the judge demanded for his freedom. In the interim, Gordon had converted to Judaism. Burke took note. Gordon should stay in Newgate, Burke suggested, to “meditate on his Talmud” until France bought his freedom “to please [the Jacobins’] new Hebrew brethren.” Burke continued, referring to the church lands the French revolutionaries had seized:
He may then be enabled to purchase, with the old hoards of the synagogue, and a very small poundage on the long compound interest of the thirty pieces of silver, . . . the lands which are lately discovered to have been usurped by the Gallican Church. Send us your Popish Archbishop of Paris, and we will send you our Protestant Rabbin.
Perhaps excepting Jeremy Corbyn, no British politician would speak this way in 2020. The caustic use of Gordon’s conversion and the characterization of Jews as heirs of Judas are unmistakably tinged with anti-Semitism.
As one of those heirs, I cringed the first time I read the passage. But it has never induced a sense of profound offense or inhibited me from calling myself a Burkean or from writing about Burke. The passage is otherwise unremarkable, though it does contain a priceless bit of Burkean wit. After referring to the Gordon rioters as a “mob,” he apologizes parenthetically: “Excuse the term, it is still in use here.”
But in a 280-character world, Burke would be reducible to one label — anti-Semite — and, to the extent that is an offense to the avatars of cancelation, canceled. The accusation consumes a few characters. A handful more words of quotation wrenched from context, a pile-on of denunciation, and a tweet hits its limits. There can be no overall assessment of a scholar-statesman’s body of action and writings. There is no space for noting Burke’s eloquent parliamentary defense of the Jews whom British troops looted on the West Indies island of St. Eustatius, or his rousing defense of the rights of India against British imperial abuses. In her history of Judaism in British thought, The People of the Book, Gertrude Himmelfarb recalls the Gordon passage as well as the St. Eustatius speech, concluding that the latter may not qualify Burke as “a philososemite,” but that it was also an honorable defense of the Jews when no one else offered one.
There is a Yiddish saying: When a man wears a white coat, a speck of dust makes it look dirty. That is true enough, especially if one lives in a world devoid of nuance, where heroes are spotless and sinners can never be redeemed. When Horatio told Hamlet that his father was “a goodly king,” the prince replied: “He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.” The passage on Gordon is troubling. But taken for all in all, Burke was a great and admirable man. The cancel caucus would be unable to see it, and Burke knew why. One of his insights, also in the Reflections, was that “those who are habitually employed in finding and displaying faults are unqualified for the work of reformation. . . . By hating vices too much, they come to love men too little.” The result is that they can destroy but not build.
Which brings us to the nearly surreal, yet pending, cancelation of Abraham Lincoln. After the toppling of General Grant in Golden Gate Park, I predicted in this space that Lincoln’s turn in the dock would come. That was rhetorical. But if any one trend characterizes our era, it is the convergence of satire and reality. So Lincoln’s time is upon us.
The Freedmen’s Memorial, financed by formerly enslaved people and dedicated by Frederick Douglass, shows Lincoln in too physically superior a position. Lincoln signed off on the hangings of 38 Dakota warriors convicted of atrocities, including two convicted of rape. One doubts that those warriors were tried fairly, but the cancelers are not much on due process anyway: Accusation suffices for conviction. Lincoln gave clemency to more than 250 other Dakota who had been sentenced to death, a nuance that inhibits fixation on the alleged sin.
And then there are the Lincoln–Douglas debates, in which Lincoln said he did not favor full social equality for African Americans. And his famous letter to Horace Greeley stating that his priority was winning the war, not freeing the slaves.
Accused, ergo convicted: Lincoln was a racist. There is no record, to my knowledge, of him ever having treated any African-American with whom he came into contact with anything less than total dignity. He first met Frederick Douglass when the former slave showed up unannounced at the White House to upbraid Lincoln for, among other things, the Union’s inaction on retaliatory Confederate executions of African-American soldiers. Douglass left with some but not all of what he sought and pronounced himself “not entirely satisfied with [Lincoln’s] views” but “well satisfied with the man.” Receiving Douglass at the White House after his second inauguration, Lincoln told him that “there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”
But for the new moralists, there is no man to be taken all in all, much less one upon whose like we shall not look again. Nor is there context: If Lincoln had not equivocated on equality, he would have had no political future. If he had not won the presidency and preserved the union, slavery would have persisted, perhaps for decades longer, in an independent Confederacy. His first meeting with Douglass took place amid a constant battle to placate border states including Missouri and Kentucky as well as northern Copperheads who would, in a moment, have cut the Confederacy loose and doomed millions to indefinite servitude.
“No one is innocent after the experience of governing,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whom many cancelers have also targeted, remarked. “But not everyone is guilty.” There is a difference. A statesman must choose, and rarely among a buffet of unvarnished goods. He cannot live untainted unless he lives indecisively, which is itself a sin in fateful moments. But guilt implies malignant intent, reckless imprudence, or perhaps a career that, taken all in all, does more harm than good.
The defining feature of cancel culture is not the rush to offense. Nor is it simply measuring historical episodes by contemporary standards. It is, rather, the inability to take things all in all, and it is simply the mirror image of a jingoistic, moralized patriotism that says America’s heroes were blameless all the way down. Both of these are juvenile versions of history. They are more appropriate to Schoolhouse Rock than to adult life in which complexity ought to be more familiar.
Cancelation is not an attempt to add nuance and detail to a national memory that has, in fact, often excluded sins and suffering. It is a project to replace one Manichean story with another, to exchange heroes for victims. The ultimate victim is the fading idea that, however we arrived at this moment — on the shoulders of generations who were not innocent but were not all guilty either — Americans might be in this together.
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