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Four years ago, I accidentally canceled Alice Walker. In December 2018, I was attending a seminar for journalists at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, and was supposed to be on a break from writing. But then the New York Times published an interview with Walker, the celebrated author of The Color Purple, in which she recommended a cartoonishly anti-Semitic book to readers, and the paper printed her approbation uncritically. The book, And the Truth Shall Set You Free, was written by conspiracy theorist David Icke. It mentions the word “Jewish” 241 times and the name “Rothschild” 374 times. These citations are not compliments. Among other pearls of wisdom, Icke claims that the Jews bankrolled the Holocaust and secretly control neo-Nazi groups and the KKK, all while approvingly citing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
I wrote a piece laying out this bigotry in painstaking fashion, but I did not expect it to go anywhere. That’s because, as I noted in the article, Walker had a long history of anti-Jewish prejudice, and the literary world had a long history of looking the other way. For years, she’d recommended books by Icke in media appearances and on her blog. She’d even published a bizarre anti-Semitic poem about the Talmud, which she said she’d learned about “by Googling.”
Given that none of this had prevented Walker from being feted on the fanciest stages, I didn’t expect my piece would either. But through the dark alchemy of social-media virality, this time was different.
My article about Walker’s bigotry in the Times became one of the most read and shared pieces I’d ever published. It was rereported by pretty much every major media outlet, from the Washington Post and The Guardian to Vox and the Times itself. It spawned a week of think pieces. And when it was all over, so was Alice Walker’s unchallenged career as a public persona.
She largely dropped off the speakers’ circuit, and her interviews and other appearances became fewer and farther between. The rare occasions when she slipped through the cracks, as when she appeared on a New York Times podcast, were followed by swift apologies.
Like most “cancellations” of too-big-to-fail personalities, Walker’s didn’t quite stick. Her journals are set to be published next month by Simon & Schuster, with rapturous promotional material that makes no mention of her unrepentant anti-Semitic views. At the same time, many venues remain wary of hosting her, and this past week, she was disinvited from Berkeley’s Bay Area Book Festival, where she had been slated to be the headliner.
As the person who inadvertently set these events in motion, I’ve watched them unfold with much ambivalence, even as I retain my disgust for Walker’s abiding anti-Semitism. In essence, the public has responded to her prejudice by either completely sidelining her over her bigotry or completely ignoring that bigotry. I don’t think either of these approaches is constructive, and not just in this case.
What would a better response look like?
It would start by recognizing two principles. First: Human beings are complex and broken, and can rarely be reduced to their best or worst attributes. This means that great wisdom can coexist with great ignorance, and we should try to access the former while discarding the latter. Second: Accountability requires actually confronting the offense, rather than avoiding it.
In practice, this means that organizations and outlets should not deplatform Walker. Instead, they should refuse to give her an uncritical platform. Every time she appears at a public event or is interviewed by a publication, she should be asked at the outset to account for her anti-Semitic utterances. These questions should be posed in specific and concrete terms, making explicit reference to the ugly ideas she has written and recommended. If she is unwilling to submit to this line of questioning, she can withdraw from the engagement herself. If she is willing, audiences will be made aware of her profound flaws and be able to take them into account when consuming her other output. They will be better equipped to tap into the good in Walker’s work while rejecting the bad.