The historical amnesia of culture warriors

Jul 14, 2020 by

by Dorian Lynskey, UnHerd:

Work that’s cancelled for being ‘of its time’ was probably objected to, at the time.

[…] For many progressives, this unknowing is indeed a kind of generational vanity: only we, in the early 21st century, have the moral clear-sightedness and mettle to reprimand behaviour that our predecessors let slide. There is a whole click-friendly genre of journalism dedicated to scolding “of its time” art in the tone of a disappointed schoolteacher, while oblivious to the fact that many of their points were made at the time.

For their opponents, meanwhile, chronocentrism magnifies the danger of current challenges to free speech: the mob is at the gates, the clock is ticking and the survival of liberalism itself hangs in the balance. Novelty inspires urgency. It doesn’t help them to point out that conservative writers were routinely warning against “liberal fascism” and “a new McCarthyism” 30 years ago, nor that some of them simultaneously endorsed censorship of work that offended them. Both versions of the fallacy imply that, roughly between the peak of the Enlightenment and the launch of Twitter, it was plain sailing.

This narcissism of the present became a little grotesque in the response to last week’s instantly notorious open letter to Harper’s, ‘A Letter on Justice and Open Debate’. Critics caricatured the signatories as a bunch of pampered, out-of-touch gatekeepers who are unaccustomed to criticism or challenge, as if decades of literary feuds, brutal reviews, boycotts and controversies had never happened.

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