Why they will never cancel Foucault


Imagine if a political philosopher from outside the hard Left — John Rawls, say, or Karl Popper — was credibly alleged to have abused small boys. He would disappear from the curriculum, mainstream publishers would drop his books, and his ideas would circulate only in samizdat form.

But cancel culture is nothing if not selective, and we may be sure that Michel Foucault, who has a pretty good claim to be the godfather of modern identity politics, will remain as fashionable as ever, despite claims that he habitually raped Arab children.

If you conjure the image of a 1960s French intellectual, the chances are that you’re thinking of someone very like Foucault. The structuralist philosopher had a fondness for polo necks and publicity and was involved with all manner of left-wing campaigns. His prose was abstract and theoretical, flashes of rhetorical brilliance appearing in the middle of almost deliberately dense passages.

It has now emerged that, while living in Tunis, Foucault used to pay boys as young as nine to meet him for sex in a local graveyard. Guy Sorman, who said he was one of many French writers and journalists who witnessed Foucault’s sordid behavior, noted that he “would not have dared to do it in France.” For a certain kind of wokeist, the racial aspect is almost worse than the pederasty: “There is a colonial dimension to this,” Sorman said, “a white imperialism.”

So, why won’t Foucault be canceled? There are, it seems to me, two rules that dictate cancel culture. First, the offense needs to be some kind of abuse of power, or at least a violation of modern sensibilities around minorities. No one gets canceled for tax fraud, adultery, or affray because they do not touch on identity politics.

Roman Polanski’s Macbeth is deemed by some to be tainted because its producer fled accusations of sexual assault on a minor. But no one has suggested that, say, Heathers is similarly tainted because Winona Ryder was convicted of shoplifting. Dr. Seuss’s And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street has been withdrawn because it contains a picture of a Chinese man in robes eating from a bowl with chopsticks. But you would sound utterly deranged if you suggested withdrawing the tracks “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” or “River Deep, Mountain High” on the grounds that they were produced by Phil Spector, who was found guilty of an actual murder. (“Talented but flawed producer Phil Spector dies aged 81” was how the BBC headlined his death in prison earlier this year.)

There is a second rule, though, more powerful even than this curious hierarchy of offenses. Cancel culture is almost always directed rightward. Being on the soft Left does not offer much protection, as Woody Allen, J.K. Rowling, and, indeed, Dr. Seuss himself show. But Foucault occupies a far more important place in the social justice warriors’ pantheon than these milksop liberals, for it is his theory of truth and power that defines the woke world view.

Foucault was obsessed with hierarchies, seeing truth as an expression of social structures. Many of his works had to do with prisons and lunatic asylums, places to which, as he saw it, you might end up being confined if you challenged the prevailing values of bourgeois society. He never explained how he had avoided this fate, but he gave modern culture warriors all the tools they needed to see everything, including truth itself, as part of an endless struggle between oppressors and oppressed.

When people claim that airports, farmers markets, white turkey meat, or Dr. Seuss cartoons are oppressive, they are echoing the master: “I believe that anything can be deduced from the general phenomenon of the domination of the bourgeois class.”

Foucault, more than anyone, popularized the notion that what mattered was not so much what you said as where you were coming from. “D’ou parles-tu, camarade?” was the sloganeering question of the 1968 student rioters, and it has been asked in an increasingly menacing tone with each passing year.

When, to pluck an almost random example, anti-racist campaigners dismiss data showing that ethnic minorities outperform white children in education on grounds that statistics matter less than “lived experience,” they are channeling Foucault. When Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, makes patently false claims, calling them “my truth,” she is doing the same. Two generations on, the dissolute philosopher’s theories have spilled off campus and infected the population.

In fact, the notion that works of art might be tainted by the actions, let alone the opinions, of their authors is absurd. Foucault’s books are not tarnished by his depravity. Rather, they should be thoughtfully and definitively rejected on the grounds of their own absurdity.

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