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The First Amendment vs Cancel Culture

We are joined by journalist and president of Harper’s, John R. “Rick” MacArthur, for a lively and sometimes contentious discussion about the First Amendment and “cancel culture.”

John R. MacArthur is the president of Harper’s, a journalist, and the author of several books, including Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the 1991 Gulf War.




“There is this asymmetry between being very concerned about bad words, but not concerned about the discriminatory, vicious, horrific behavior on the ground.”

Ralph Nader

“The same people today who take umbrage, oftentimes legitimately, at ethnic, racial, and gender slurs were opposed to my Green candidacy. Not by rebutting it, which is certainly their right and privilege, but by demanding that I drop out of the presidential race. In other words, by saying ‘Do not use your freedom of speech, assembly, and petition.’ All three are part of any political candidacy.”

Ralph Nader

[On renaming sports teams in response to cultural criticism] “I think it’s foolish. It’s pointless.”

John R. MacArthur, president of Harper’s

“I’m talking about an atmosphere… of intolerance that’s developed, that is now verging on McCarthyite. I think it’s McCarthyite. And hysterical.”

John R. MacArthur, president of Harper’s


  1. Bruce K. says:

    Very impressed with David’s objections, expressed clearly, strongly and very well. Thanks for bringing some sanity to this discussion. Hope you are not fired for mouthing off! 😉

    • Vince says:

      Fired as in canceled.???… No, he won’t be. Mr. Nader, unlike Dave, would not stoop so low as to abrogate someone’s ideas just because they differ from his.

  2. Donald Klepack says:

    I enjoyed the debate between John R MacArthur and David about the firing of Donald McNeil. He apologized and was fired anyway. The New York Times proved they are pushing biased behavior by not publishing the opinion from Tom Cotten . David, did the New York Times meet with the teenagers and their Parents with John McNeil in the room? Also, you have to admit the New York Times is no longer the pro free speech newspaper.

  3. Mike Bailey says:

    David Feldman’s constant incendiary interruptions, and unreasonable prolonged questioning on an irrelevant tangent, was disappointing and an unwelcome distraction from the program’s usual intelligent manner. This was representative of such illogical rants often heard on David’s own podcast where it is his prerogative to destroy that content as he wishes, but it should not be allowed on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour. I hope I never hear this repeated.

    • mvonballmo says:

      I came here to say this. Thank you for your eloquent formulation. I stopped the podcast after several minutes of David’s haranguing showed no signs of ending.

    • Dogface says:

      So much for censorship!

      One thing I do know by experience is in trying to bring a different prospective or some valuable information to the table and how it can be deadly. I was always taught to speak truthfully and never lie. Wow!

      This statement now sounds so childish in its writing and it is not what I have faced in my lifetime. To tell the “truth” as we know it can get one in so much more trouble than just plain being stingy with the facts.

      However, in doing so when you begrudgingly get up the next morning and are looking in the mirror you can see the true reflection of a person to whom you greatly respect and admire. Hopefully, that trait will carry you safely throughout your life.

    • Tara Carreon says:

      As far as I’m concerned, this behavior by David was him saying, “Please let me go, I’ve had enough.” This is outrageous behavior by David, and I’ve had it with being on the show. Get rid of him! He’s not even civil. He’s aggressive and angry and pushy and unprofessional.

    • Mary Niesluchowska says:

      Totally agree. I just listened to the podcast and am sorry I can’t post my own comment because it was so long ago but yours was so articulate. Kudos to MacArthur for allowing Feldman to constantly interrupt him while David himself kept saying “Let me finish!” I think he knew he was outmatched as he “mysteriously lost his Internet” in the middle of the discussion, the final tool for a losing argument. I was sitting in a traffic jam as I was listening and for once was not annoyed…PS Didn’t know Feldman had his own podcast as well…..

  4. vince says:

    David Feldman is proof that wokeness is nefarious, counterproductive, and undemocratic. He probably misses the good old Soviet Union and Pravda. Cancel culture is real and won’t go away until we push back. Thank god Mr. Nader hasn’t fallen for it and sees through its fake concern for the downtrodden.

    • Eric says:

      It is interesting that you chose the Soviet attacks as they were just referencing how cancel culture is similar to “The Red Scare”. Are you implying that only Russians censored people? Americans have had many free spech attacks within the United States past. If anything, I might say cancel culture is a product of capitalism and having a democracy.

      • Bruce K. says:

        > I might say cancel culture is a product of capitalism and having a democracy.

        Or another lame twisted excuse by the Right to try to undermine the only avenue available to punish bad actors/corporations, by calling them out by identity, and censuring them for specific bad behavior.

        Frame that as “cancelling” and spin “cancelling” as Lefty abuse and you can push Trumpism ever farther.

  5. Barb Sliger says:

    I don’t understand (but I may be intellectually challenged, who knows?): To date I’ve seen lots of Polanski movies here in the U.S., The Pianist, The Ghost Writer, Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby and the not so good Frantic. Why can’t we see An Officer and A Spy? If his films are being banned because he’s a sexual predator (or whatever), how is it that we can see any number of his earlier films here? Polanski is a great director in my opinion. I think even his victim has forgiven him.

  6. Francisco Pizarro says:

    David Feldman sounds like an old-style bolchevique bent on suppressing anything he doesn’t like. He would thrive in China or Cuba.

  7. Jay says:

    If we spent as much time addressing challenges that face Native Americans when it comes to the material conditions of their lives: health care, housing, education, access to living wage jobs, etc., as we do on names of sports teams, I think Native Americans would be better off.

    Symbols are not unimportant but, they divert us from resolving more destructive problems and improving peoples’ lives. It requires less work and costs less to be righteous about symbols instead of coming up with workable policies and tax support that can have a positive impact on peoples’ lives..

    • Mark Hughes says:

      Excellent comment. Indeed America, exactly like the Democratic Party, is about slogans, chiches, identity politics and virtue signaling and not at all about meaningful change to material conditions of the daily lives of all people, as you correctly stated.

  8. Afdal Shahanshah says:

    Oof, I really wish people would stop using Oliver Wendell Holmes quotations as an argument from authority in support of government censorship. Holmes was an utter hypocrite who led the charge in the greatest attack on speech in the US since the 18th century. Every time people use quotations like “fire in a theater” or “clear and imminent danger” it needs to be understood that these phrases were uttered by Holmes in episodes of jaw-dropping inconsistency, where he would deprive people of their freedom and civil liberties for the exact sort of things the 1st amendment was designed to protect in one case and then in the next with no real change in circumstances devise an arbitrary line saying this time speech can’t be infringed. Holmes didn’t set some awesome noble standard for acceptable speech, he rolled it backwards with the legitimization of garbage like the Espionage Act and did a 180 in later cases after it became apparent what a nightmarish slippery slope he himself had polished by supporting censorship laws in the first place. The “clear and imminent danger” was dissenting against the draft. The “fire in a theater” was people doing as little as making a speech arguing that conscription was a violation of the 13th amendment. Here’s a good read for people who might be interested in the context and jurisprudence of these quotes:

    And Ralph, corporations… “supporting communist regimes”? Trying to come up with what in the world Ralph might have been referring to with this bizarre remark and I have no idea. You know communists don’t like corporations, right?

    David’s remarks expose an important core of the “cancel culture” debate that I would guess isn’t immediately obvious to people like both John and David himself because they don’t live in fear of losing their immediate livelihood by being fired: What kind of people have the comfort to fight back against mob justice? How many people have the financial stability to afford to file a multi-million dollar lawsuit against a powerful employer with legions of lawyers? There is an important element of class in this debate and it’s very interesting to observe which kinds of people sit on on which sides of the fence and which don’t care much at all about it. The fact that anyone can be deprived of their livelihood by mispeaking or by simply being smeared by a mob is a screaming indictment of the system of capitalist wage labor. The whole reason this debate exists at all is because we live in a system where a small minority of the population has the power to make the rest of us go homeless and starve. I think “cancel culture” ultimately represents an insidious tactic for cracking worker solidarity that every boss delights in.

    • Brian Lacy says:

      China has no problem with corps ….

      • Afdal Shahanshah says:

        And also no problem with billionaires and profit-driven capitalist mode of production. It’s almost as if China doesn’t have anything that can even remotely be described as communism.

    • vince hamon says:

      Actually, communists do love corporations. Look at China.

  9. Eric says:

    The probem here is with a capitalist society, people have the right to pick and choose what they want to distribute. There are time’s to employ boycots. I believe if it is truly impotant and critical to the educational process to show this have this movi at library or not. I agree there are nuances and not everythng is absolute. What about boycotting a compay like Hobby Lobby, by not buying en masse, we are showing that this companies practices should change. I think this is much more complicated than just right or wrong as David said. We protest when we do not like when someone does something, is that also considered a type of cancelling? This far more complex than a blanket statment of cancel culture bad. Anything can be labeled cancel culture nowadays, I would have to agree that there is far more nuance involved here.

  10. Mark Hughes says:

    This endless bickering with each other on the left over what amounts to semantics is tedious.

    The whole discussion of purchasing Polanski’s “Dreyfuss Affair” as a movie distributor versus purchasing, let’s say the same thing (forget Mein Kampf for a minute, that muddies the waters), for public schools and libraries completely misses a gigantic point that religiously gets ignored by the left during this age of identity politics, cancel culture, etc: capitalist profit.

    Every movie distributor company purchases movies to make money (something MacArthur specifically mentions in the Wrap-Up, starting his argument as such), for the sole purposes of capitalist profit that largely goes into the wallets of execs. There is no ‘public good’ for which capitalists operate any aspect of their businesses. Zero. That’s where (responsible) government comes in; to force capitalists to operate according to the public good but I digress. And capitalists will alter movies, books, or other materials to maximize said profit ,and do so sometimes without telling you. The very design is profit.

    However, when government purchases these same materials, regardless of what’s specifically being bought, it’s done without the profit motive in mind. At least, not in theory but that’s another discussion for another day. It’s done for the public good. Whether in schools for young students, or in public libraries for use by the general public without either the student (or their parents) or the general public making a separate purchase for use of said materials, movies, books, etc. The public sphere (theoretically) operates for zero profit, unlike what MacArthur seems to believe. The very design here is public domain.

    When your motives are different, that matters. So when David brings up the term “public domain”, which he was correct in doing, it sounded as if that went completely over MacArthur’s head. Of course we live in a hypercapitalist society so it’s understandable when people don’t really “get” public domain usage (education) versus that of the private (entertainment). Hell I don’t sometimes; that’s how much capitalism has captured our society. So stop with this notion of a movie distribution company (private) doing something for educational purposes (public). Those two forces are in perpetual conflict with each other and should not be glommed together.

    MacArthur’s should have began his argument with governments buying materials instead of a corporate movie distributor, but no he started off as such but quickly began mouthing “educational” stuff without completely severing his argument’s tie to the corporate sector. It’s also clear that MacArthur, in his mind, has long glommed the need to “make money” with public sector finances. David was in the right in all of this.

    So there’s one of your nuances.


    Re Donald McNeil’s firing, as someone who’s actually worked for a living I strongly believe McNeil was fired for BS reasons. It was stated that he was close to retiring, and many (not all) older, veteran employees normally go with the flow as their final days approach. However, sometimes they’re more outspoken, sometimes they slack off some. That happens, and it’s ok by me considering they’re still powerless and execs are far more slack than any worker. Plus execs make far more disastrous decisions on a daily basis, yet they’re never held accountable.

    Furthermore, people are usually fired because they’re simply not liked, as a person, by management. I’ve seen highly productive, policy-adhering people being escorted out the door while simultaneously seeing management promote the worst qualified, or outright ignorant, candidates. While McNeil technically wasn’t fired, he was forced to resign. Keyword being “forced”. That happens across all industries. Usually what happens is the employer doesn’t have too much of a case against you, so they offer you a (piddly) severance package on the grounds you don’t sue. This is particularly true when there’s a management change, whether due to internal promotion of aforementioned worst-qualified candidates, or due to a merger that issues decrees to fire people en masse (which happens after every merger). So was McNeil in the wrong, or was NYT? Don’t know for sure but in cases where facts are vague at best, I choose the side of the employee.

  11. John says:

    I disagree with the content and format of Mr Feldman’s disagreement. First, I’m surprised Mr Feldman commented that if people feel they’ve been unfairly canceled in some fashion, well, those individuals can just sue. Which of course plays into the hands of those with means, and out of the hands of those without. Second, I question Mr Feldman’s equating of devil’s advocacy with provoking people. While clearly there can be overlap, the former does not necessarily and is most often nothing about the other. Devil’s advocacy often is a useful tool used by reasonable people to broaden their perspective on an issue. Third, I’d like to know if Mr Feldman’s format (perhaps I ought to have found a different word) was appropriate. He introduced forcefully a hypothetical that naturally he thought worked for his side, and demanded it be answered, bristled at being interrupted or not dealt with. Then, surprise, there was little additional time for this topic. Didn’t Mr Feldman effectively shut down reasoned, level-headed discourse here?

    On this topic, which had its preview on the Ralph Nader Show when Frank Luntz was a guest sometime around summer 2020, I would love for the Ralph Nader Show to have another hour featuring the brother of the late Christopher Hitchens, Peter Hitchens. Is a widely published author and writes for The Mail On Sunday. Would not disappoint.

  12. Leonard Alvarez says:

    The guy from Harpers was arrogant in his manner, tone and comments. He was dismissive in fact. He spoke so much like a person raised in privilege. Thanks to David Feldman for bringing some measure of respectful and reasoned disagreement to the program this week.

    • vince says:

      Feldman respectful? Talk about a low bar. As for accusing somebody of privilege, it’s a baseless woke assertion.

    • jon raes says:

      David was NOT respectful to David. Period!
      I felt sympathy for Ralph, who had to endure David’s “rant”
      The clincher was when he wouldn’t allow Roman Polanski’s film to be aired in the States but would allow Mien Kampf to be sold here.
      Good going David, that’s real logical.
      I LOVE Ralph and everything he stands for.
      Thank You from the bottom of my heart.

  13. Sapana Jay says:

    I enjoyed this talk because there were truly two sides going out to bat for their ideas— and it’s always nice to see conviction, but yes, David’s manner got a bit too aggressive towards the end; and I more or less tended towards his side!

    It’s a brilliant topic and hearing sides is riveting bc it truly is grey area. Sometimes we just don’t know, and a good reminder that we don’t live in a vacuum and times are always a-changing.

  14. Dave Carlson says:

    Things got pretty contentious especially considering we are all a bunch of liberals! One thing is clear…. We need to find a way to talk to each other when we don’t agree…. We tend to get defensive when people don’t agree with us!…. Why?…. How we could we all possibly see the world in the same way?.. I get a lot of of your show and also Tim Regan on KPFA’s Talk it Out Radio program…. Would it make sense to do an episode together?….. Thanks for all of your great work and efforts!

  15. Sparagmite says:

    Yes, David needs to vomit up the Kool-Aid. His repetitious demands for an easy binary answer to complexity reminded me of the question, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” But, that’s where IP/PC leads, like it or not. Maybe David’s afraid of being cancelled, and there could be good reasons for that fear. It could happen to anyone who doesn’t police the borderlines of their own language. That’s the distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism: one suppresses the subject, the other requires that the subject repress itself. Didn’t think I’d hear that on this show.

    • vince says:

      Feldman would be much happier in a dictatorship where speech is heavily regulated on behalf of the “proletariat.”

  16. Clayton Blackburn says:

    Appreciated David Feldman’s objections to the inconsistency in the Harper’s president’s positions and statements.

  17. Tara Carreon says:

    Never believe a man who says that he will be quiet. Like David Feldman, who used that phrase so often during his hostile interrogation of guest John MacArthur that he sounded like a cop beating up someone while shouting, “Stop resisting!” As a practical matter, MacArthur never had a chance to answer any of Feldman’s questions, because he followed each question with a soliloquy, proving himself both rude and insincere in a single crass gesture.

    Feldman’s interrogation was a masterpiece of passive aggression, beginning with the provoking statement that he disagreed with “95%” of what Ralph and MacArthur had been saying. Of course, he promised to be quiet after he said his piece. His piece, however, was such that it could never be fully stated, because he never stopped talking. But why should he? His spiel was contrived of the latest woke wisdom, that now embraces the rule of the media elite. Thus, the New York Times’ firing of Donald McNeil for offending the Phillips at Andover boat-shoe crowd with ethnic insensitivity, was for Feldman an act of unassailable corporate deliberative wisdom, backed by the criticism-free cadre of “Black African American women reporters.” Wow, not only African, but black, too! But that was mere airy posturing. When he showed his teeth, it actually got scary. Repeatedly thrusting a dangerous question at MacArthur like a loaded gun, making a real threat: “That’s how you refer to your writers, as “a mob?””

    He might as well have said, “Are you ready to have me tweet your answer all over hell and Vegas? Cause if so, you might not be the editor of Harpers tomorrow.”

    That was distasteful, but when Feldman convicted McNeil of bigotry because he didn’t sue the New York Times, I realized he was suffering from diminished capacity. Must have been something he ate. Twinkies, maybe. Whatever, he should not eat it again.

    A correct transcript is here:

    • Bruce K. says:

      Seems exactly on point to me, not to mention correct: ( from transcript )

      > David Feldman: No, no. Because you’re talking about the First Amendment, none of this
      > applies to the First Amendment. This is corporate branding. These are privately held
      > companies. They can decide whom to fire and why they’re firing them. And if Mr.
      > McNeil thought he was being mistreated, he should have sued the New York Times.
      > You know, our guest, Mr. McArthur, was president of Harper’s. And he knows as well as
      > everybody else that nobody is privy to the inner machinations of his organization. And
      > when you fire someone, people always sue and lawyer-up, and we get a trickle of
      > information if it’s a famous person being fired.

      And with non-disclosure agreements we know even less about any given situation

  18. Tara Carreon says:

    Your comment merely reiterates David’s statement, which becomes no more credible with repetition, and is frankly wrong. New York is an at-will employment state, and firing a reporter for any doggone reason the newspaper pleases is A-Okay, and a lawsuit against a publisher by a reporter is a great way to blow your retirement savings.

    >Newsweek fired reporter Jessica Kwong last week for writing an inaccurate story about Donald Trump’s Thanksgiving plans. Kwong reported that the president would spend the holiday “tweeting, golfing, and more.” In reality, Trump made a surprise trip to visit troops in Afghanistan. He ridiculed the story by tweeting, “I thought Newsweek was out of business.”

    >Can Kwong sue the publisher for wrongful termination? Two New York-based employment lawyers spoke to TheWrap about whether or not Kwong has a case. Both agreed she doesn’t.

    >Emre Polat, an employment lawyer in New York, says it’s not a case of wrongful termination since Newsweek was — as far as he can tell — taking accountability in its own way by firing an employee in an at-will state where it’s legal to fire someone for any reason besides discrimination.


    Maybe next time, you’ll listen to the lawyers and publishers on the show about legal issues affecting publishers, and let the comedian tell jokes. Or you can do what I did, and click the first link when you Google” reporters suing newspapers for wrongful termination”