July 9, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Vindman got canceled and no one noticed
Where are the champions of free speech?
We all of us owe a great debt to Alexander Vindman. The former official at the White House National Security Council told the country that Donald Trump had asked the president of Ukraine for help in winning the 2020 presidential election, indeed, extorted him into a criminal conspiracy to defraud the American people. More than that, he exposed what might have been the biggest lie of them all—that it wasn’t the Russians who attacked our sovereignty, it was the Ukrainians; and that it wasn’t Trump’s campaign that conspired with foreign saboteurs; it was Hillary Clinton’s.
That last bit was the “false narrative” that finally compelled the former Army colonel, who announced his retirement Wednesday, to testify before the US Congress during House impeachment hearings. He came forward because Trump contravened virtually everything the American intelligence community had concluded about the Kremlin’s “active measures,” conclusions that were enshrined by a Senate panel in a bipartisan report released months after his testimony. While on the phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Vindman caught Trump in the act of fabricating a monstrous lie, an effort to cast himself as the original victim of a witch hunt and ultimate hero in his vindication. It was a monumental effort to erase history.
The open letter in Harper’s is an exercise in gaslighting.
It might have worked, too, if not for Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. His patriotism, however, has been costly. According to his attorney, the president led a campaign of “bullying, intimidation, and retaliation” in a bid to force Vindman to choose “between adhering to the law or pleasing a president, between honoring his oath or protecting his career.” His attorney added: “LTC Vindman’s patriotism has cost him his career.”
In other words, he got canceled.
Cancel culture—no quotes—is real. Our history is larded with examples of people attempting to speak truth to power only later to get stomped. Out-groups fighting their way into the American franchise have used the blessings of citizenship—free speech, free assembly, free press, and so on—to argue for greater justice and greater equality. Those arguments were typically yoked to a set of values, such as loyalty and patriotism. It worked sometimes, more often it didn’t, and when it didn’t, it was because people in power found ways of using those same blessings against them.
Vindman is no social reformer, far from it, but he now has a place in the unofficial hall of American heroes driven by conscience to speak out when few others had the guts to speak out. Yet Vindman is only a recent example. There are, right now, unsung heroes at work in this country speaking out against police officers breaking the law, administrators bending the rules, and corrupt officials seeking to hold power but escape accountability. And most of them time, these unsung heroes remain unsung.
They get canceled. They lose their jobs, they lose their reputations, or worse. You’d think critics of cancel culture, such as the scores of distinguished signatories of a recent letter condemning it, published by Harper’s magazine, would be all over cases like these. You’d be wrong, though. They are not attuned, as they might otherwise be, to the asymmetries of power, asymmetries of risk, characterizing true cancel culture.
Why? Probably because they have a lot of power. All of them are well-known, well-connected, influential. Many were born into affluence. All have places waiting for them in the highest platforms available. And like human beings do when they grow accustomed to the privileges of power, they feel threatened, often quite easily, and when they do, accuse critics of doing things they themselves are doing. Like in-groups have done to out-groups for the entirety of American history, they are gaslighting.
They accuse critics of being intolerant of liberal values like free speech, but what they refuse to recognize, probably due to their station in life, is that their critics are putting liberal values into action. Counter-speech, in other words, is free speech. This is the most important, and mostly unnoticed, aspect of the Harper’s letter. Signatories claim that they are standing against bullying, shaming and authoritarianism, and to a certain extent, I take them at their word. But what they are also doing, consciously or not, is standing against free speech itself, and in standing against free speech, they are in fact bullying, shaming and enabling authoritarianism. This is textbook gaslighting.
Alexander Vindman wasn’t gaslighting. He was gaslighted, though. He was loyal to the United States, the Constitution and the flag. For that, he was called disloyal. He was a true patriot. For that, he was called a traitor. He was hounded out of the White House, denied a deserved promotion, and driven out of a United States Army he dedicated his life to. When we talk about cancel culture, this is what we should be talking about.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.