“Hard times are coming,” she said, “when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom...”
To further emphasize this point, when the address was published in Le Guin’s last collection of nonfiction, Words Are My Matter, it was—it is—titled “Freedom.”
Le Guin’s speech concentrated on commerce: on the commoditization of literature and commercial censorship. (Her epic words—“We live in capitalism, it’s power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings”—transcend her subject.)
Perhaps her most chilling phrase is “writers who can remember freedom...” The assault on this kind of freedom was and is ongoing, and in the seven years since, it has gotten worse. Commercial censorship (actual and de facto) continues, and the banning of books has gone from an accelerating danger to a trend. The most prominent and vicious cases are driven by racial fearmongering and cynical rabid right politics. But elements of the left, or education bureaucracies trying to interpret sensitivities, are also guilty of going overboard with censorship.
Censorship takes away access to creative contributions to our understanding, and often the textures of history. It also discourages free expression in the first place, by means as complex as shaming and self-censorship, as well as economic intimidation.
“...as the mind recaptures its capacity to create/and the soul may regain its freedom,” wrote the African American poet and painter Jesse Murry. It includes the individual soul of the one who creates, but also the soul of the one who apprehends the creation, and ultimately the soul of the community, in small or at large.
But freedom to create and the freedom of access is also related to a freedom under even greater assault in 2021: freedom to seek, discover and speak the truth, or even all the uncertainties that sometimes are the best we know.
Elements of the rabid right, led by or playing into the hands of white supremacists, are using the largely phantasmal specter of critical race theory to prevent a generation from learning about racism and racial history in America. At their behest, teachers are fired, curricula changed and books banned.
But extremists on the other side are playing right into their hands with their own broad brush of censorship and personal destruction known (and this time, I’m afraid rightly known) as cancel culture.
In an article published in the LA Progressive entitled “Cancel Culture Hits Berkeley,” professor of medical anthropology Nancy Scheper-Hughes wrote: “To negate or ‘cancel’ Alfred L. Kroeber is to censor and defame one of the most distinguished anthropologists in America.”
She notes that the decision was based on a report “prepared hastily and secretly.” It was not shared with the anthropology faculty, but some of those who made the decision “clearly knew little or nothing about” Kroeber’s legacy or contributions, “and even less about Kroeber’s lifelong relations with Native Californians who worked closely with him to create one of the largest archives in America on the indigenous languages and cultures of California.”
Kroeber’s cancellation came at the behest of some academics and activists (including some Native Americans) who made various accusations about his work with California Indians and specifically the man known as Ishi, believed to be the last member of the Yahi tribe in the early 20th century.
Scheper-Hughes, who has solid credentials and expertise in these matters, goes into great detail about Kroeber, Ishi and the various issues involving Native Californians. While she finds serious fault in some areas, and does not spare the anthropology department in general, especially for its treatment of Native remains, she finds that many of the accusations are overstated when they are not untrue.
She also provides instances that show that this damning critique of Kroeber is by no means shared by all California Indians—especially not by elders who knew him. She quotes an official statement from the California Council of Indians in 1950, shortly after Kroeber’s death, expressing gratitude for his work and friendship, “and in later life our greatest hope for long-delayed justice.”
Her lengthy article, with links, footnotes and citations, may contain assertions open to debate. But at least she provides the basis for debate. She writes that the report against Kroeber however consisted of undocumented accusations. Nevertheless, Berkeley decided to mollify the accusers by erasing Kroeber’s name from their campus, which he helped put on the map. Then again, unlike the namesakes of other buildings, he wasn’t a big donor.
Cancellation in this case threatens to wipe out a legacy. In others it ends careers and reputations. As justified as it might be—or at least feel at the time--it is very much akin to capital punishment without trial, rules of evidence or presumption of innocence. There is no balance or proportion or context.
Which makes one wonder: if this had happened in Le Guin’s lifetime, would she have been free to imagine those worlds?
Because it also sends out ripples of fear. In his time, Alfred Kroeber did the unconventional. He documented and helped to save Native languages that the rest of society were happy to see die. He was friends and collaborators of individuals that many of his peers considered savages. He took risks and made mistakes, but he was far ahead of his time in his beliefs and his search for justice and truth.
Yet in 2021, from the right and the left there is this assault on the very idea of truth. The far right has gone so far as to deny facts of which there is visible and audible evidence from a thousand cell phones in Washington on January 6. My generic Google news aggregator every day posts “fact checks” painfully debunking the most viral and preposterous assertions and conspiracy theories claiming to be facts. In a throwaway comment in a book review, a writer this week asserted what is apparently a common observation: “Posts on social media aren’t expected to be strictly truthful by their billions of users.”
It’s bad enough that the rabid right, now running a major political party with apparently great success, values successful trolling over truth, to the extent that truth to them is a concept without content. Facts are just agents of manipulation. More basically, facts are judged according to how they comport with positions and prejudices. At bottom they are expressions of displaced emotions—usually from the dark side of the unconscious. It doesn’t take long for them to be multiplied as expressions of group emotions: of a mob.
But now elements of the left are reportedly joining in this assault. In support of “White Accountability,” some scholars have prepared lists of qualities and behaviors that are White vs. those that are of non-Whites. (Eric Levitz in New York Magazine reproduces one of these lists.) As Levitz points out, they may have some validity as cultural abstractions or tendencies in specific contexts, but not as blatant racial characteristics. As such, they are in themselves racist, tragically lending validity to a typical rightward charge of racism against whites.
Perhaps worse is their misuse. If calling for evidence and logic are White, and therefore don’t apply in, say, accusations of racial “micro-aggressions,” then we are once again left with no basis for ascertaining fact. One can understand the force of grievance. But there must be arbiters, and there must be standards of evidence, or there is no justice possible for anyone.
In some of its manifestations, cancel culture expresses frustration with a justice system that bottom to top is rife with corruption, bigotry and the law of money. But denying the very basis of justice invites a vicious circle of tyranny.
A healthy society can’t just erase the history it doesn’t like, or believe it is repudiating it by selecting scapegoats. Taking down statues may be right and cathartic but hardly sufficient. Evaluation and judgment using the conceptual tools we’ve paid for so dearly are needed. Historical context is a vital opportunity for learning. Freedom to explore it is crucial. For one thing, such inquiry is the basis for knowing what should be changed, and therefore of political and institutional action.
With the Supreme Court set to end a woman’s right to choose and send this nation hurtling towards the previously fantastical vision of A Handmaid’s Tale, freedom of expression is hardly the only freedom under mortal assault.
But when we are relegated to one of two increasingly extreme and rigid camps, with money as the only common executive in chief, freedom to search for, discover and express truths is being overwhelmed, and a new Dark Age approaches with the seeming inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Freedom in this spiraling down no longer defines the society—the “free society”—but becomes just another word for nothing left to lose.