Before sides were picked and bizarre and disgusting accusations leveled, a new Woody Allen movie was an event. They were a big deal, and his movies became cultural touchstones. Even the opening sequence to Manhattan, scenes aligning with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, was magical. Or the iconic scene on the movie line in Annie Hall, where Marshall McLuhan appears to shut up the smug Columbia professor. Classic, but only one of hundreds.
Then it all crashed.
As readers surely know, that happened after Farrow found out about his relationship with her (but not his) adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, now his wife, who was then 21. Farrow subsequently accused Allen of sexually molesting their adopted daughter Dylan Farrow, who was then 7, during a 1992 visit to her Connecticut country house.
Did he do it? He has always categorically denied it; he has never been charged with doing it; and two formal investigations, one by the Yale-New Haven Hospital and another by the New York State Department of Social Services, exonerated him. For her part, Dylan insists the accusation is true, as does Ronan, who calls it “a credible allegation, maintained for almost three decades, backed up by contemporaneous accounts and evidence.”
None of us will ever know the truth for a certainty. Those inclined to believe Dylan should, at the least, read the firsthand account of her older brother, Moses Farrow. By the same token, those inclined to believe Allen should read Justice Elliott Wilk’s ruling denying Allen custody of Moses, Dylan and Ronan.
Cathy Young has been over the allegations more than anyone I know, and remains unpersuaded. But even more significantly, recognized well ahead of others how the Woody War wasn’t about facts, or even Woody, but “believing the survivor.” Note the date, 2014, well before the simplistic mantra became a bedrock of woke ideology.
Woody, one-time beloved cultural icon turned child-snatcher and lousy husband to odd, if not abusive, former waif, Mia, wrote a book, which Hatchette announced it would publish. Too soon?
Hachette Book Group announced that it would publish Woody Allen’s memoir, “Apropos of Nothing.” In that bygone era when people had thoughts on subjects other than the coronavirus, this caused an uproar. The journalist Ronan Farrow, Allen’s estranged son (assuming he is his son — but that’s another story), denounced the decision and said he would end his own lucrative relationship with the publisher. Hachette employees staged a walkout from company offices in New York and Boston.
It took Hachette just a few days to cave. “After listening, we came to the conclusion that moving forward with publication would not be feasible for HBG,” the publisher said through a spokeswoman. Notice how often these days the work of the cancel culture is accomplished in the emollient language of “listening.”
Cancel culture claimed another victim? Was it the walkout by
replaceable children employees, who hadn’t read the book they found intolerable, not because of content but the (ugh) awfulness of its author? Or was it the loss of a satchel full of money from Ronan’s writings?
Brett Stephens read the book before writing his NYT column. He thought it was good, very funny, but no To Kill A Mockingbird, woke or broke version. Still, a book worthy of being read. So what was the significance of Hatchette canceling it?
The answer isn’t censorship: Hachette is a business that must take account of its market, while Allen is still free to shop his book to another publisher. Nor is the answer that the memoir is some priceless literary treasure that must see the light of day. Much as I enjoyed it, it isn’t.
It matters because cancel culture threatens our collective well-being in multiple and fundamental ways: The banishment of unpopular people; the unwillingness to examine contrary threads of evidence and entertain opposing points of view; the automatic conflation of accusation with guilt; the failure of nerve by people entrusted with preserving the institutions of liberal culture; the growing power of digital mobs; the fear these mobs instill in any would-be contrarian or gadfly who thinks to venture a heterodox view. These threats go to the heart of what it means to sustain the habits of a free society.
The “why” is well explained, but fairly obvious, particularly at this point. But the first line, with apologies to the Godfather, is that this isn’t personal, but business. If that’s so, and it is, then what did Hatchette fear, as a business decision, would happen as a consequence of publishing the book? Would all its employees quit? Would it lose Ronan Farrow from its stable? Would the book fail to sell? Would Hatchette become a publishing pariah for publishing a pariah?
How much influence do the SJWs wield that their disapproval was sufficient to compel a publisher to kill a book? Or to get a television network to kill a show or its star? Or venues to refuse to let comics on their stage? That colleges are comprised primarily of students and academics provides an easy explanation of why heterodox thinkers are canceled or protested; that’s the audience on campus, and while they aren’t the only consumers of the “product,” they make enough noise and do enough damage to exercise their heckler’s veto.
But when it comes to media, any media, outside the extremely insular community of the Academy, do they still dictate the economics? Do businesses like Hatchette fear they will eventually be a malignant growth of sufficient size to kill their business?
To the extent one can gauge the extent of their influence, since the noise they make tends to be very loud, but that only puts them in squeaky wheel territory, consider what they’ve accomplished politically, with the intersectional candidate Elizabeth Warren a distant third on the very progressive party before she dropped out, and the socialist-lite candidate Bernie Sanders a non-viable second to the oldest white man ever to stand a chance on his third try for the nomination. In the fishbowl where their power and influence is at its peak, they can’t manage to pull off a win. Or to put it less kindly, under the absolute best circumstances they will ever enjoy, they were rejected by their own.
Had Hatchette published Woody Allen’s book, would somewhere in the vicinity of the 20% of the most radical of Democrats have been very angry with them? Is that what they believe to be a sound business decision? The woke minority might scream the loudest, but even if they’re lost as potential purchasers, so what? To let your decisions be dictated by the smallest and most dictatorial cohort isn’t just bad business, but bananas.