Earlier today a Bloomberg reporter named Ben Penn published one of the more dishonest mainstream media attacks I’ve ever read. It was an extraordinary hit piece on a recent Trump Labor Department appointee named Leif Olson. To make a long story short, he took Facebook posts that Olson obviously intended as insults and mockery of the alt-right and then cast them as actually anti-Semitic. In doing so, he omitted a segment of the Facebook thread that made the sarcasm and mockery crystal clear. Olson’s targets were Paul Nehlen and Breitbart, not Jews.
To get a full sense of the sheer obvious bad faith of the attack on Olson, I’d urge you to read Michael Brendan Dougherty’s excellent piece on our home page.
All this would be bad enough, but it gets worse. Olson is now out of a job. After Penn’s inquiries, the Department of Labor accepted Olson’s resignation “effective immediately.” An unfair journalistic hit has now cost a capable attorney his job. It’s absurd. Cancel culture has reared its ugly head . . . again.
But wait. Why did he leave? Perhaps there are personal reasons for the resignation that aren’t apparent from any of the public reports. If that’s the case, then we should accept his decision and focus our attention on Penn’s terrible report. But if the Labor Department tossed him overboard on the basis of Penn’s report alone, well then that’s a different situation entirely. Penn has no power over the Labor Department. It could have easily stood by its man, and it would have had a legion of defenders — and not just conservatives.
For example, writing in Vox, Dylan Matthews said this:
You do not need a PhD in linguistics to correctly identify this as obvious sarcasm — another commenter on the thread praised the post’s “epic sarcasm.” Conservatives, especially ones of a neoconservative bent on foreign policy, have made sarcastic jokes like this about what they perceive as (and what sometimes, as in the case of Nehlen, is) anti-Semitic criticism of neoconservatism, a movement primarily founded by Jewish intellectuals.
Here was Jonathan Chait:
I'm not endorsing Olson or his policies, and I'm sure he has all kinds of objectionable beliefs. But firing him as an anti-Semite over this post strikes me as terribly unfair.
— Jonathan Chait (@jonathanchait) September 3, 2019
Within hours of his terrible report, Penn was on the defensive, not Olson. Yet Olson has no job, and Penn is still employed.
And that brings me to a fundamental reality of cancel culture — neither the media nor the online mob can actually “cancel” anyone. They can’t fire a single person. Cancel culture requires two to tango. First, the media prints the smear, then the employer responds to the smear. All too often the employer acts hastily, sometimes in response to a controversy that may well blow over in a matter of hours. There is no single answer to cancel culture, but here’s at least one thing that employers, schools, and government agencies should do: stop canceling. Push back when appropriate, let the controversy blow over, and move on with your life.
Last month, I wrote an essay that generated a good bit of pushback calling for conservatives to show more courage in response to intolerance and public attacks. Regarding the Labor Department, I’d say that this case is a perfect example — except that standing by Olson actually required zero real courage at all. Assuming we know the relevant facts, it just required a few days of basic fortitude. The administration stood by other appointees in the face of far worse public campaigns and far more serious allegations. It’s mystifying.
The fight against cancel culture has two fronts. First, continue the campaign against those who publish dishonest hit pieces or try to destroy the public reputations of good men and women. Second, encourage those who hold the actual power in the situation to stay strong in the face of unfair attacks — even when those attacks contain explosive allegations. In fact, given the culture and incentives on Twitter (and the desperate desire for clicks), it may well be ultimately easier to defeat cancel culture by fortifying the relevant institutions — by depriving the attackers of the scalps they seek.