New book offers leftist critique of cancel culture, identity politics

Dan Kovalik’s leftist credentials are unassailable.

He is a lifelong peace activist, a committed anti-racist, a harsh critic of U.S. foreign policy, and a longtime lawyer for the United Steelworkers.

But while his previous books have critiqued American imperialism and militarism, Kovalik’s latest offering examines the way cancel culture and identity politics are dividing the political left and preventing it from achieving meaningful gains.

“My concern, as a progressive and leftist, is not only that such tactics ruin individual lives quite unnecessarily, many times over a slip of the tongue or incorrect turn of phrase, but that they undermine the left movement and progressive causes, as well,” he writes.

Cancel This Book: The Progressive Case Against Cancel Culture provides numerous examples of well-meaning, left-leaning people whose careers and reputations were destroyed because of relatively minor transgressions.

One such case is that of Molly Rush, to whom Kovalik dedicates his book.

Rush, an elderly woman with a long and distinguished track record of activism for peace and civil rights, was “cancelled” for sharing a Facebook post that featured a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. and the words: “Looted nothing, Burned nothing, Attacked no one, Changed the World.”

The post was condemned by some as racist, prompting Rush to delete it and apologize.

But the die was cast.

Rush was publicly denounced by her fellow activists and shunned from the activist communities she helped build. When her children and grandchildren tried to defend her, they were called “white trash.”

Kovalik also draws attention to the rise of “woke” witch hunts on campus.

He writes: “Lest one believe, as apparently many do, that a ‘cancel culture’ targeting professors does not exist, the National Academy of Scholars (NAS) is tracking the numerous examples of this culture in action. As the NAS has concluded, ‘cancel culture within higher education has reached an extraordinary level. Indeed, many colleges and universities have become progressive seminaries.'”

The examples cited by Kovalik include an accounting professor who was fired for refusing to award lenient grades to Black students after George Floyd’s murder, and a medical professor who was demoted for publishing an article questioning the “merits and effectiveness of racial preferences” in school admissions.

He observes that, in many cases, the goal of cancelling someone “is not to educate or to advance the cause of social justice, but to punish and ostracize; it is not a means to an end, it is the end.” Hence his frequent description of so-called social justice warriors as members of the “ostensible left.”

Despite its title, Kovalik’s book is not simply about cancel culture.

It is a broader examination and indictment of identity politics, the suppression of free speech, and the atomization of the political left into smaller and smaller sub-sections based on race and other personal characteristics.

Class-consciousness, once a foundational and unifying component of the left, is an afterthought, Kovalik observes. So too is the building of broad progressive coalitions that can truly make a difference.

Denouncing larges swathes of the population as “deplorables” based on their identity, or because they aren’t sufficiently woke, is a losing strategy, he argues.

“If the goal of activism is to win people over to a cause in order to organize protest and to win reforms and change, it is the softer approach — rather than an approach of finger wagging, shaming and cancelling — that is more effective,” he says.

“There is indeed empirical evidence for this,” he continues. “For example, a 2020 study of 700 interactions between liberal campaign activists and potential voters demonstrated that ‘the practice of having non-judgmental, in-depth conversations with voters was 102 times more effective’ in actually convincing these voters than brief, ‘drive-by’ interactions.”

Published by Hot Books, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Cancel This Book draws attention to a growing problem that, if left unchecked, could develop into an existential crisis for the left.