The case of Carlin Romano gets a perfect score on the cancel culture checklist (and that’s not a good thing)

August 24, 2020

Today at 5 PM, Carlin Romano’s professional fate will be decided. The National Book Critics Circle is having a special meeting to decide if Romano should stay on its Board of Directors after he disagreed with other members over the content of a statement supporting Black Lives Matter. That decision could have serious ramifications for Romano’s job as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. It could also have serious ramifications for free speech culture. 

It all started on June 10. NBCC’s board was finalizing a statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and protests around the country. Among other things, it stated that the publishing industry “operate[s] with the full benefits of white supremacy and institutional racism,” that the NBCC had to “do better” in its awards (30% of which were awarded to BIPOC in 2019) and elsewhere, and that the members “admit [their] culpability in this system of erasure[.]

Romano, an NBCC board member (who later noted he is pro-BLM), sent an internal email objecting to, and directly challenging, a number of these views. He questioned whether 30% was really underrepresentation given census statistics and expressed his opinion that white editors had, in fact, worked for equity in publishing for years. In response to the call to admit culpability, he stated, “I do not admit any culpability. I do not see any erasure. And I don’t think our prize lists are too white.” 

As an organization nominally devoted to literary expression, NBCC should be interested in preserving a culture of free speech.

The next day, Hope Wabuke, a member of NBCC’s board and the primary author of the BLM statement, shared Romano’s email in a twitter thread announcing her resignation and condemning Romano. Wabuke also condemned NBCC president Laurie Hertzel for saying she “appreciates” Romano’s perspective and describing his points as “valid” without acknowledging “racism and anti-blackness” in Romano’s statement. 

In the aftermath of the twitter thread, fifteen of the then-sitting members of the 24-member board resigned in protest, some protesting Romano’s statement, others protesting that Wabuke had breached the confidentiality of the board’s deliberations. (Disclosure: one of the resigning board members is FIRE’s advisory council member John McWhorter.) 

In response to this controversy, a local nonfiction writer started a petition to get Romano fired from the University of Pennsylvania, where Romano teaches. Among the signatories of the petition are alleged former students and a former NBCC board member. After internal discussions, the filling of then-vacant board seats in ways Romano contests, and a legal threat from Romano that he would sue board members if they failed to follow procedure or defamed him, NBCC announced a meeting of its members set for August 24. The only agenda item is the discussion of Romano’s removal.

To be clear, this is not a FIRE case. NBCC can choose who it wants to have as a board member. To the extent NBCC appears to have corporate governance issues, those issues are beyond our interest or expertise. We are in no way suggesting what NBCC is compelled to do, or not do. 

What we are saying is this: as an organization nominally devoted to literary expression, NBCC should be interested in preserving a culture of free speech. And whatever structural decisions it makes with respect to its board rules or makeup, it has started down this course because some of its members want to punish Romano for his questions.

In short, NBCC is holding a meeting to invite its members to participate in cancel culture. If its members value free expression, they should reject that invitation.  

I know that people (including free speech luminaries like Ken White) object to the term “cancel culture.” But as I said in my debate with Ken, cancel culture is real, and there are lots of examples. People on the right agree; many people on the left agree, as well; hell, even former President Barack Obama agrees that cancel culture is a problem.

So the threshold question: is Romano being canceled, or is this just governance drama?

The best checklist that I’ve seen for whether or not someone is being canceled comes from the great Jonathan Rauch, and here are his factors:

  1. Is the goal of the critics punitive? Yes. 
  2. Is this de-platforming? Yes, particularly because NBCC’s action is likely to influence the effect of the petition to have Romano fired from his faculty position. I’ve seen this happen before — the fact that a professor was kicked out of a professional association is used as evidence that he should lose his job as well.
  3. Is the effort organized? Clearly.
  4. Are there secondary boycotts? The call for Hertzel’s head for failing to immediately condemn Romano is a great example of a secondary boycott. 
  5. Is there moral grandstanding? Examples abound in the replies to NBCC’s tweeted statement of support for BLM, and their follow-up tweet apologizing for Romano’s email.
  6. Are the allegations more truthiness than truth? Carlin’s critics have successfully gotten him called racist in an NPR article. His racist act was arguing that there were serious and ongoing efforts to be inclusive in publishing before July 2020. While I usually am hesitant to offer my opinion on the content of criticisms, I will here: identifying inclusion efforts is not racist.

Keep in mind Rauch considers something a cancellation if it fulfills two of those criteria. By my estimation, this situation satisfies all six.

I predict, unfortunately, that the NBCC will remove Carlin, and thus score another victory for cancel culture. However, my fingers are crossed that I’m proven wrong. Maybe the NBCC will decide it’s useful to have a dissenter like Carlin among their fold and refuse to remove him. It would send a strong signal that maybe this season of cancel culture doesn’t have to last forever.