Ever been fired? I have. It’s a soul-crushing experience. It hollows you out, makes you question your self-worth. The time I lost my job, I was so dazed and flustered that I left my favorite tie at my workplace, and I still miss it. It was yellow, made of woven cotton, squared-off at the bottom. Like the ones Alex P. Keaton wore. Did I mention this was 1984, and that the job in question (manning the till at the local mini-mart in East Longmeadow, Mass.) paid $3.35 an hour? No matter. Thirty-seven years later, the injustice still stings. True, I mishandled the register — hit the wrong button or something — and a long line of seething customers formed as I tried to figure it out, but this was my second week on the job, and I feel I should have been given another shot, and I didn’t know some regional manager was one of the people in the line and . . . and . . . and . . .
I exaggerate only slightly the pain I suffered by being knocked off a very low perch. Now imagine what it feels like to get fired from a high-profile job in the public eye, with thousands of people commenting on your defenestration and many of them mocking and insulting you on your way down: This is what happens when someone in the media or entertainment sector gets fired. It must be devastating. If it happened to you, you’d feel like crawling under your blankie for a week with several gallons of ice cream and several more of vodka.
Most of us wouldn’t dispute that cancel culture is necessary: If you’re a white supremacist, you’re a horrible person, and if someone should find out and publicize it, you shouldn’t be surprised if your employer decided it didn’t want you on its payroll anymore. But last week two prominent people in the media had their lives upended after what appeared to be, at worst, writing inappropriate tweets.
Will Wilkinson, a liberal columnist and vice president of policy at the Niskanen Center, a centrist think tank, was canned after writing a tweet that referred to lynching Mike Pence. No serious person can believe, however, that Wilkinson was actually “calling for” the summary execution of the outgoing vice president. Wilkinson was instead making a dark joke about why the much-discussed ideal of “unity” is unlikely to happen, using irony to point out that just about the only person who seemed equally reviled by figures on the left and the right these days was Pence. Wilkinson apologized and deleted the tweet in question, and that should have been an end to it.
Meanwhile, Lauren Wolfe, who was on contract to the New York Times as an editor, lost that gig seemingly because of a single word: “chills.” Wolfe said on Twitter that she had chills when Joe Biden landed in Washington, D.C., preparatory to his taking the oath of office. Quite a few people flagged her tweet as a gotcha, but there was nothing surprising about it. If anything, it was refreshing to see someone associated with the Times admitting to an emotional attachment to the Democratic Party. (The Times denied that she was fired over “a single tweet” but declined to elaborate. She also falsely stated in another tweet that outgoing president Trump had refused to provide a military plane for Biden the day before the inaugural, but she deleted it after learning that Biden had opted for a private flight to Washington.)
Wolfe’s “I have chills” tweet didn’t do anything to alter perceptions of the Times; if you want to know which way its biases go, you need not dig into the psychology of its employees because it’s all right there in the headlines. January 21, 2021: “‘Democracy Has Prevailed’: Biden Vows to Mend Nation.” January 21, 2017: “Trump, Sworn In, Issues a Call: ‘This American Carnage Stops.’” January 20, 2021: “Biden Plan Gives 11 Million a Path to U.S. Citizenship.” January 20, 2017: “Trump Arrives, Set to Assume Power.” The editor of the Times admits to allowing himself to be edited by the Biden team. In 2016, the Times’ lead Hillary Clinton chronicler admitted to breaking down in tears when Clinton lost, said this in an edited book that took months to assemble rather than in a spur-of-the-moment tweet, and remained employed by the Times. The problem isn’t that Times employees occasionally tell us who they’re rooting for; the problem is that they are nearly always clearly rooting for Democrats.
Both Wilkinson and Wolfe, as it happens, had given hostages to fortune by disputing the existence of cancel culture, laughing merrily along as progressives wielded it to chase distinguished writers and editors such as Andrew Sullivan and James Bennet from their jobs at, respectively, New York magazine and the Times — not to mention to get my friend Kevin Williamson fired from The Atlantic after one day at work. As long as cancellation was a punishment inflicted only on those who deviated from left-wing orthodoxy, it could not have been real. “It’s hilarious this refrain of ‘cancel culture,’” Wolfe wrote on Twitter on August 24. “As if it is actually anything. Virus? Jobs? Nah.” “Cancel culture, LOL,” Wilkinson wrote on March 12. Moreover, applying the “no violent rhetoric” logic used to justify sacking Wilkinson, Niskanen’s boss should have cancelled himself. When a St. Louis couple brandished firearms outside their home during a protest last summer, Niskanen Center chief Jerry Taylor wrote on Twitter that if he had been present, “I’d like to think I’d rush them and beat their brains in. And I wouldn’t apologize for it for one goddam [sic] second.” Unlike the Pence tweet, Taylor’s wasn’t an ironic joke and was therefore much worse.
Still, pointing out hypocrisy doesn’t get you very far when it comes to the underlying problem: Though some fail to take a social malady seriously until it’s too late, the malady itself should still trouble us. Columnist Adam Serwer of The Atlantic is blaming the Right for firings carried out by progressive bosses, claiming that Wilkinson and Wolfe were fired “for making conservatives mad.”
It seems more likely that, as an avowedly nonpartisan institution, the Niskanen Center simply found it embarrassing, and damaging to its brand, to continue to be associated with a tweet that mentioned lynching a public official. Ironic though it was, some might consider that bad taste. And since when does the New York Times allow the Right to influence its staffing choices? If the Paper of Record were slightly concerned about conservative viewpoints, it would undertake to hire a couple of hundred right-of-center writers and editors to help balance out the 1,500 or so editorial staffers whose politics range from left to far left. If it had even microscopic traces of concern, it would have vigorously defended Bennet, a left-of-center editor, against its own staff for publishing a Tom Cotton op-ed calling for the National Guard to quell unrest last summer in much the same way it was called to D.C. to quell potential unrest this month. Instead, the Times sacrificed him to the prog mob. Funny thing about mobs: The more you listen to them, the more power you give them.