A gagged man, prevented from speaking.

A gagged man, prevented from speaking. Credit: Getty Images/istock

A pitched political drama unfolded last week in which ideology and tribal allegiances prevailed over reason, supposedly smart people made nonsensical arguments, and those who went against the mob were threatened with excommunication. And I’m not even talking about the battle over Donald Trump’s impeachment.

The drama that riveted many in the progressive community had to do with a book that promotes progressive values — specifically, defending the humanity of migrants crossing the border from Mexico — but has been deemed offensive because of who wrote it and how. The novel, “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins, is a best-seller. But Cummins’s book tour has been canceled due to reported threats, and people who have endorsed the book — from Oprah Winfrey to prominent Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros — have been under pressure to withdraw their support.

What’s the problem? Mainly, it’s that Cummins is a white woman (though with a Puerto Rican grandmother) writing about the experiences of Mexican migrants — specifically, a woman who is forced to flee for her life with her young son after her journalist husband is slain by a drug cartel. Cummins, who apparently spent a lot of time doing research, has been accused not only of cultural insensitivity and inaccuracy, but of exploiting oppressed people of color for prestige and profit.

The “American Dirt” backlash is a disturbing example of what some have called “cancel culture” on the left: a climate in which people whose speech or art has crossed certain ideological lines are denounced and ostracized.

The lines are arbitrary and ever-shifting. A worthy effort to use one’s privilege to bring attention to the plight of the oppressed can be easily labeled “white saviorism.” A sensitive portrayal of human tragedy can become “trauma porn,” an actual accusation lobbed at Cummins. Dealing with the reality of sexual violence can lead to charges of defining female characters as rape victims. Well-meaning words can be given a sinister twist: Cummins’ comment in the foreword that “we” often perceive Latino migrants as a “helpless … faceless brown mass” has been indignantly cited as dehumanizing migrants, rather than protesting their dehumanization. The novel’s rare mentions of a brown person’s skin tone (a total of three, as culture writer Kat Rosenfield reports in the online magazine Arc) have been presented as a skin-color obsession.

Yet cultural sensitivity is very much in the eye of the beholder. Cisneros, for instance, insists that the book is wrongly accused of stereotyping Mexicans. Meanwhile, most of the people trashing “American Dirt” as disrespectful use the trendily gender-neutral word “Latinx,” which butchers the Spanish language and, according to a recent poll, is preferred by only 2 percent of Latinos and Hispanics in the United States.

Progressives who scoff at the term “cancel culture” argue that criticism and pushback are being equated with censorship and silencing. But there’s a difference between criticism and denunciation, and what’s happening to Cummins and her book is definitely the latter — often from people who haven’t read the book. The novel has been attacked as “harmful” and “an atrocious piece of cultural appropriation.” More than 80 writers have signed a petition urging Winfrey to rescind her decision to pick “American Dirt” for her book club; that call has been joined by some prominent commentators, such as Boston Globe columnist Renee Graham.

Unlike the politically correct police in totalitarian regimes, American culture warriors don’t have the power to literally silence their targets. But they can, and do, create a toxic climate that, in its own way, is as dangerous as the Trumpian loyalty cult on the right. Both are the enemy of independent thought.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.


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