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Collective Guilt is the Most Indefensible Form of Cancel Culture
PEN’s decision to disinvite Russian dissident writers from the World Voices Festival sets a dangerous precedent.
In January 1941, the world found itself in the darkest depths of World War II. Nazi Germany had conquered Poland and France. It remained allied with Japan and the Soviet Union, and now seemed on the verge of subduing the United Kingdom. The stakes were existential and the outlook increasingly bleak.
In the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt was pushing for America to come to the rescue of civilization. Against strong domestic opposition he supported Britain with the Lend-Lease Act and was readying the American armed forces for a potential entry into the war.
It must at the time have been tempting to condemn all Germans for the actions of the Nazis, who had after all gained power in good part because of their strength at the ballot box. But rather than ascribing collective guilt to all Germans—as, shamefully, his administration was soon to do in the case of Japanese-Americans—F.D.R. recognized the distinction between Germans who supported and Germans who opposed the Nazis. He courted exiled dissidents and, at the beginning of that fateful year, went so far as to invite one of the most famous of them for an overnight stay at the White House.
Thomas Mann, who had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929, courageously opposed the Nazis, and went into exile immediately after Hitler’s assumption of power. But he was, as some might say today, “problematic” in his own right. A fervent supporter of Germany’s actions in World War I, he had long defended the bellicose policies of King Wilhelm II. In Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, published in 1918, he favorably contrasted Germany’s rooted culture (or “Kultur”) with the rootless civilization (or “Zivilisation”) of his country’s perceived enemies. But as F.D.R. rightly recognized when he invited Mann to the White House, the thing that mattered in 1941 was neither Mann’s nationality nor his ideological past: it was his courageous and clear-eyed position in the great moral struggle of the day.
Mann was not the only German who was celebrated in the United States during World War II. Once America joined the war, Marlene Dietrich helped to sell war bonds and entertained the troops during two extended tours with the USO. Other German or German-born exiles, from Bertolt Brecht to Albert Einstein, also played a prominent public role in America’s struggle against the Nazis.
I revisit all of this widely-known and seemingly distant history today because it testifies to a simple yet important principle which liberal nations like the United States must never abandon: a person’s moral standing is not defined by their nationality. There can be no collective guilt by virtue of wrongful birth. When your nation does something evil, you may have a moral obligation to speak up; if you do, it is absurd to hold you responsible for the actions of people whom you oppose and abhor.
Sadly, this is a principle in which even organizations that are sworn to uphold liberal values appear to need a remedial lesson. Last weekend, PEN America—which is dedicated to defending and promoting free expression around the globe—canceled a panel in which dissident writers, including Russian journalists who have long been deeply critical of Putin’s regime, were going to present their work.
In the run-up to the event, two Ukrainian writers, who are currently serving as soldiers in the country’s army, made clear that they would cancel their own appearances at the World Voices Festival unless the Russian nationals were disinvited. Given Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine, I have some degree of empathy if many people inside the country are not in the mood to draw a distinction between individuals and their government.1 Given the immense suffering in the country today, it is also easy to see why the event’s organizers felt that it was impossible for them to “side with” their Russian over their Ukrainian invitees. And yet Masha Gessen, who was slated to moderate the panel, was right to resign as Vice President of PEN’s board of directors in protest against a decision that, however hard-wrung and well-intentioned, is deeply illiberal and profoundly immoral.
Two things make this episode especially notable in my mind, for both show how deeply the decline of liberal principles and the fear of moral contamination have now penetrated the mainstream. The first is that an organization of writers found itself unable to uphold the distinction between a person and the nation from which they hail. Who will defend the primacy of the individual and their conscience over the call of ascriptive identity and collective guilt if an organization of writers—who should be the first to recognize humanity in all of its glorious complexity—is unable to do so?
The second is that the people who made this decision are hardly members of the illiberal left (or, for that matter, the illiberal right). Suzanne Nossel, the organization’s CEO, has a principled commitment to free speech. Ayad Akhtar, the president of PEN and a wonderfully nuanced novelist, even had the courage to subtly push back against left-wing forms of cancel culture at the organization’s gala last year. I know and respect both, and I can only begin to imagine what kind of cross-pressure they must have been under for the past few days. But principles only matter if we are able to honor them when living up to them is difficult—and if even people as thoughtful and principled as Nossel and Akhtar are unable to resist the siren call of such an evidently unjust cancellation, then the culture as a whole is in deep trouble.
It would have been absurd to disinvite Thomas Mann and Marlene Dietrich from public appearances during World War II because of the nation into which they were born. It is no less absurd to banish exiled Russian writers who have publicly opposed Putin’s regime at great risk to their own safety today. But even at a time when there is starting to be some heartening pushback against the most flagrantly illiberal customs in establishment institutions, that sadly seems like a harbinger of the new normal—one in which the fear of moral contamination counts for more than liberal principle or the complexity of the individual.
Yascha Mounk is the founder and editor-in-chief of Persuasion.
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At one point, the Ukrainian writers claimed that “they could face being barred from returning to Ukraine or facing repercussions upon their return.” However, one of them also told The New York Times that “I think the only consequence would have been my guilt before all the people murdered and tortured by the Russian army.”