There have been many strange scenes in this era of coronavirus pandemic, anti-racism unrest, and woke recriminations, but perhaps none have been stranger than one that took place on Zoom late last month, when 115 people, appearing in little squares on computer screens, held a kind of trial, a somewhat secret one at that, closed to the press, its participants barred from talking about it to outsiders afterwards. The episode illustrates the tense workings of cancel culture preoccupying an American institution.
In the dock, and visible in his own little square, was Carlin Romano, a writer, philosopher, book critic and, off and on for 35 years, a member of the executive board and former president of the National Book Critics Circle, known for the prestigious literary prizes it gives every year.
The Zoom meeting's purpose was not to award Romano a lifetime achievement award; it was to debate and vote on a motion to expel him from the critics’ board.
Eighteen people spoke over the course of the two-hour Zoom meeting. Twelve of them argued that Romano should be ousted from his elected position because he lacked “collegiality”; his behavior was “intimidating”; he'd threatened to sue; he made people “uncomfortable.” Romano said his personality and “blunt” manner of debate have been known for decades, and weren't the real reason he was under attack.
In fact, the attacks on Romano went back to some criticisms he forcefully expressed three months earlier of some parts of an anti-racism pledge drawn up for the critics circle to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. In a series of private emails among board members, Romano said the pledge went too far in finding the entire publishing industry, and the critics group itself, deeply implicated in the American system of “white supremacy and institutional racism.”
In other words, what Romano did was offer some criticism, which is what critics in an organization of critics are generally expected to do, and what he was being asked to do as the draft of the anti-racism pledge was circulated for members' comment. The fact that he was soon raked over the coals for “racism” led many people to bemoan an especially blatant incident of “culture cancelation.” Even though the vote fell just short of the two-thirds majority needed to expel a person from the board, 62% of the voting members did favor ousting Romano, who, for the three months preceding the Zoom event, had been subject to a steady barrage of attacks – for “blatant racism” and “misogyny” – all because he dissented from a certain orthodoxy on the trinity of race, class, and gender.
The funny thing about the affair, but also telling, is that the 66-year-old Romano has for his long professional life been a quintessential liberal intellectual. He's critic-at-large for the Chronicle of Higher Education and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. He was book critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 28 years and wrote “America the Philosophical,” a maverick interpretation of American thought noted for its breadth and inclusiveness – the Wall Street Journal called it “a roll call for identity politics.”
So the vilification of Carlin Romano is a useful case study in the galloping and enforced intolerance on the left for dissenting points of view. In fact, it shows several things.
One of them is the trend, originating in the academic world but now spreading to the other elite institutions of American life, to ferret out “microaggressions” – the unintentional impression left by words and actions that offend a member or members of an underrepresented group (at least one person invoked that word to criticize Romano during the Zoom trial).
The episode also signaled the repudiation of an honored and admired intellectual archetype – the curmudgeon. I'm not a close friend, but, as a book writer and former critic myself, I've encountered Romano over the years, and I'd describe him as something of a throwback to an earlier era, when a crusty, Socratic, erudite style carried with it a certain charm. But that's one of the ways Romano seems no longer to fit in. One critics circle board member, Columbia University professor John McWhorter, an African American, agreed with him on the substance of the anti-racism pledge, but told the website Vulture that Romano's way of expressing his dissent was a bit tone-deaf. He “was not being a modern person in the way he responded” to the anti-racism pledge, McWhorter said, perhaps referring to Romano’s charge that some of the arguments of the anti-racism pledge were “absolute nonsense.”
But the Romano incident also highlighted another, perhaps more far-reaching, aspect of the ongoing culture wars, namely how the “woke” left seems to be devouring old school liberals. While liberals and conservatives still battle on the largest political stage, the Critics Circle fight illustrates the arcane factional struggle within the left, in which the radical faction takes on comparatively easy targets like Romano because they are accessible and vulnerable in a way that actual racists and other non-insiders are not.
Here's what happened: After the death of George Floyd on May 25 while in police custody, the critics circle’s board of directors created a committee to draft an anti-racism pledge, headed by Hope Wabuke, a Ugandan-American poet, essayist and assistant professor of English and creative writing at the University of Nebraska. “White gatekeeping stifles black voices at every level of our industry,” said a draft, circulated internally to the board members and asking for their comment. “We [members of the critics group] admit our culpability in this system of erasure of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous People of Color] voices in the cultural and intellectual conversation.”
The statement cited a 2019 survey that found just 5% of the staff in the entire publishing industry to be black and only 4% of on-staff reviewers. “This is a system of white supremacy and institutional racism,” the statement said.
There were a number of comments on the draft, but Romano seems to have been alone among the board's 24 members to object to phrases like “system of white supremacy” to characterize the whole publishing industry or to accept the notion of critics’ “culpability in the system of erasure of BIPOC voices.” In an email to other members that was supposed to be internal and confidential, he wrote, “Equating American book publishing with American police departments, as this claim suggests, is ridiculous.” He supported Black Lives Matter, he said, but the draft statement was unfair to the “white publishers that have been working to elevate Black writers, and Black voices, for years.”
The response was furious. Wabuke posted Romano's email on Twitter even as she announced her resignation from the board because, as she put it, “it is not possible to change these organizations from within, and the backlash will be too dangerous for me to remain.” Soon thereafter, 15 of the board’s members resigned, some out of solidarity with Wabuke, but others apparently did so because of their disillusionment with what seemed to be the organization's unstoppable descent into acrimony, and to the fact that Wabuke had herself violated the group's customary procedures by making the emails public.
Soon emails began calling for Romano's resignation. Twitter went wild with accusations of racism and bigotry against him. A change.org petition was started by a freelance writer, Emma Eisenberg, who cited Romano's “racist remarks” and his “sustained campaign of targeting black people and women” at the Critics Circle, demanding that he be fired from his Annenberg School of Communication teaching job at the University of Pennsylvania.
All of this might suggest Romano is more a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan than simply a dissenter to portions of the anti-racism pledge. What he found to be “nonsense” wasn't the pledge's citing of surveys showing the dominance of whites in publishing; it was the suggestion that these whites are exemplars of “white supremacy,” when, in fact, American publishing has been a traditionally liberal institution, and over the decades, many editors have been in the forefront of efforts to find, publish, and promote black writers. “I once spent a day with James Baldwin in which he endlessly praised his old friend, first editor, and high-school buddy Sol Stein, and subsequent editor Jim Silberman, for all they’d done for him,” Romano wrote in an “open letter” to the Critics Circle before his “trial.” “I watched as Toni Morrison took her ‘white gatekeeper’ John Leonard to the Nobel Prize ceremony, and appreciated her white gatekeeper editor Robert Gottlieb at Knopf.”
“It seemed to me,” he continued, explaining his reasons for his criticism of the anti-racism pledge, “that a few Board members drafting these claims remained too ignorant of real-world publishing history to get their generalizations right.”
Complaints about cancel culture tend to focus on the idea of freedom of speech, the John Stuart Mill idea that nobody should be silenced for their views, no matter what they are. But the Romano matter shows that the real harm is to the suppression of ideas and arguments that might actually be true. For example, the anti-racism pledge cited a survey showing only 5% of the staff in the publishing industry to be black, but it ignores the fact that an additional 19% of jobs are held by Asians, Latinos and other people of color.
As for the National Book Critics Circle, actual facts and statistics show something more subtle than simple “culpability in the system of erasure of BIPOC voices.” The anti-racism pledge itself acknowledges that last year 30% of the finalists and winners of the six critics circle book prizes were minorities, up from 22% in 2008.
In the seven years since it began awarding the John Leonard Prize for best first book, five winners have been people of color -- two black women, two Latinas, and one Native American man.
Perhaps this is not enough, and some board members, disappointed over the reaction to the anti-racism pledge, have tried to explain the way subtle biases are at work inside the group. The writer Yahdon Israel, who resigned from the board well before the Romano furor, told the website Lit Hub that during the group’s book prize deliberations, “any time race became the central focus of a book, it became the very thing that undermined the integrity of the book itself.”
But once the charge of racism is leveled, civil debate is over, which is what happened once Romano's comments had been made public and the inevitable outrage emerged. Almost immediately, a move to expel him from the board gathered momentum, and that led to the Zoom meeting to consider the ouster motion. At the direction of a lawyer hired by the group (reportedly paid $10,500 in fees), the meeting was closed to the press and a gag order on discussing it with outsiders afterwards was imposed. When Romano asked the lawyer, Steven Hunter of the Chicago firm Quarles & Brady, before the meeting why an organization dedicated to the free exchange of ideas should adopt such restrictions, Hunter responded by asking Romano where he went to law school.
When Romano repeated his question, Hunter repeated his response.
I was provided access by a source on condition that this person not be identified, and was under none of the secrecy strictures imposed on members. Though a former book critic myself, I have never been a member of the NBCC.
A few people at the meeting defended Romano and defined the issue as one of free speech. One of them, Dan Cryer, a former book critic for Newsday, said, “I'm very much concerned with the party line being established by the NBCC.” Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press and a book reviewer for the Washington Times, said, “The organization should stand for open differences of opinion.”
Surprisingly, none of the anti-Romano speakers, who included all of the younger members, even mentioned the anti-racism pledge. Instead, their main focus was complaints that Romano was “not collegial,” that he was “intimidating,” or that he made people “uncomfortable.” It seemed at times as if the demand made on college campuses for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” to protect people from hearing views that might offend them had spread to an organization of literary critics, whose very stock in trade, as Romano pointed out, was to be critical.
Several also argued that Romano should be expelled for saying he might sue the board if it dismissed him. "Threats of lawsuits to nonprofit volunteer board members are egregious,” said Lisa Von Drasek, the curator of children's literature at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. “This is certainly cause for removal."
Romano countered by saying, “People go to a court to make sure that rules are observed. ... People do that when they feel others are attacking them, or treating them unfairly.” Indeed, one Romano supporter noted that when women have sued organizations over unequal treatment, they too might have made people “uncomfortable,” but they were right to do what they did.
Many of the statements made at the meeting were convoluted and hard to follow, but there seemed to be among some members an assumption that the Twitter vitriol about Romano's alleged racism was based in truth, or even if it wasn't true, keeping him on the board would tarnish both the Critics Circle's reputation and the reputations of its members. One speaker, Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers, who does book reviews for several publications, said that Romano's “position as director to deliver personal remarks about political and cultural issues ... directly threatens my ability to do my work and be part of that cultural conversation as a book critic.” The poet Rebecca Morgan Frank said, “How can I convince my diverse young people to come to this organization when we have leadership like this?”
“The main bad stuff,” Romano said in response, speaking of the consequences if he were expelled, “would be the stigma on the NBCC as a censorious organization that cannot bear a dissenting voice.” In the actual voting at the meeting, 72% of the 115 attending voted to remove him from the board. But Romano had collected proxy ballots from other members before the meeting and carried the day, by just a few percentage points. Romano will remain on the board for the duration of the current term, until 2022.
Some people on Twitter and other forums were pleased that the expulsion vote failed, but the loudest opinions were of anger and outrage. Some members declared their intention of resigning from the organization because Romano would remain in it. “Carlin Romano is racist garbage” read a tweet from writer Julia Cohen: “Wow,” she wrote. “What does the award mean to anybody if we know a blatant racist is on the board?”
The irony here is that supposed efforts to “intimidate” the board were one of the chief reasons cited by Romano's detractors for favoring his ouster. But the accusations of racism and misogyny so freely and casually bandied about seemed pretty intimidating in themselves, and suggest that, whatever the outcome of the vote, the cancel culture won this battle. Certainly it will be more difficult for people in the liberal press, universities, and the nonprofit world to express doubts about what has emerged as the mandatory view on racism — that it is “systemic,” that it is the abiding and chief feature of all American history and life, that we are all culpable in it, and that to deny that culpability is itself racist.
“What struck me as distinctive about this, as opposed to other cancel culture incidents, is the NBCC is an organization of critics,” Romano said in a phone interview with RCI. “This is not a friendly book club whose members only say nice things to each other. We're critics. We're supposed, by definition to say, 'That's not true; that's not good.' If you can't have criticism in a critics' organization, where can you have it?”