“The Judgement of Helen Levitt,” the fourth episode of this season of Revisionist History, is the story of a couple, Helen and her husband Al, who get caught up in the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s. The Levitts were communists. To be more precise, they were Stalinists. And during the McCarthy era, they—and others in Hollywood like them—were called before Congress, fired from their jobs, exiled from their friends, and prevented from working in Hollywood. If the Levitts were living today, we would say they were canceled. And since being canceled has become commonplace, it seems like a good time to share the Levitts’ story—to talk about another period in American history when, as in our own period, we chose to ostracize those whose views we disagreed with.
And why did I want to weigh in? Because I got incensed recently over the case of a young woman named Alexi McCammond.
A few things, before I start in. This is unusual for me. I don’t typically get incensed over much. Gladwells are a pretty chill bunch. Second thing, I don’t know Alexi McCammond. I’ve never met her and had never heard of her before the controversy broke. But for some reason, what was done to her resonated with me.
McCammond is Black, mid-twenties, a rising star in journalism circles. Earlier this year, she was offered the editorship at Teen Vogue, one of the magazines run by Condé Nast, the most prestigious magazine publisher in the world. She accepted. But then things quickly fell apart.
It came to light that when McCammond was 17, she got a bad grade on a math test. She then posted a series of complaints about the teaching assistant who graded her paper on Twitter, in which she made a series of derogatory comments about Asians. Those tweets first resurfaced in 2019. She had apologized for them then. Deleted them. The executives at Condé Nast knew about the tweets when they offered her the job, and they accepted her apology. But the staff of Teen Vogue did not. When McCammond’s appointment was announced, the tweets surfaced again, and 20 members of the staff posted a complaint on social media about her hiring. McCammond apologized again. It wasn’t enough. The iron hand of social media took over. Two advertisers at Teen Vogue threatened to pull their campaigns. And McCammond resigned, before she had even started. As I said, the whole thing incensed me. I went a little nuts on Twitter.
What struck me then—and continues to strike me now—was how it never seemed to occur to any of those aggrieved by McCammond's tweets to forgive her. It was almost as if her antagonists felt that they only had two choices in responding to her youthful indiscretions: First, to ignore her problematic comments, and as such, implicitly condone them. Or, second, to denounce her comments and move to permanently separate her from their institution.
The third option—that they could find a way to evaluate and accept her apology—seemed off the table. Why? I still don’t understand it. Is our moral vocabulary now so impoverished that we no longer have room for the possibility of redemption?
The amateur psychologist in me was also dumbfounded by the assumption that the adult version of Alexi McCammond ought to be judged by the behavior of the teen-aged Alexi McCammond, as if both versions of her were identical. That seemed really really weird to me. Whatever happened to the understanding that human beings are capable of growing and changing?
Now do I blame the staff for having these responses? Not entirely. This was a revolt by a group of young people who had, above them in the Condé Nast hierarchy, a group of experienced adults who presumably should have known better. Where were they in all of this? As someone who worked at Condé Nast for many years, I feel entitled to make this criticism. The reason we have managers in organizations is because sometimes employees need managing. I repeat. Where on earth were they??
To give you a sense of just how much this whole episode got under my skin, I even composed—largely for my own benefit—a speech that I wish the editors of Teen Vogue had given to their staff, in the midst of the McCammond controversy. Imagine me, for a moment, as the Vogue doyenne, Anna Wintour, resplendent in her Dior and Chanel, standing in front of her assembled employees.
I don't think it's too much to ask of intelligent adults who run a multinational corporation, that they can say something like that to their employees. Do you?
And if they were not willing to prepare the ground with their employees in that way, they should’ve never offered McCammond the job in the first place. This is what made me so angry at Condé Nast’s management. For goodness sake, you are a journalism company. You make your living expressing ideas and thoughts to a broad audience. And you can’t summon the energy and the gumption to explain yourself to your employees—in defense of a young woman whose reputation is being savaged on social media? Shame on you.
But! (And there’s always a “but,” isn’t there?) Upon reflection, I realized I had a second issue with the McCammond case. And that has to do with the question of punishment.
It should come as no surprise to those of you who are familiar with my work that I’m not a big fan of punishments, of virtually any kind. In my book David and Goliath, I wrote at length about all the holes that have opened up in the notion of deterrence — the idea that punishment for an offense deters the guilty person and others from causing harm again in the future. Does threatening to throw the book at a criminal discourage that person from committing a crime? Probably not. (It is really hard to read deeply into the literature on deterrence and not come away convinced that prison is a really, really dumb, pre-medieval idea that we ought to get over.)
It ought to be possible for us to denounce another person's actions without taking the second step of casting that person out — without concluding, in other words, that the only way to prevent similar offenses in the future is to punish the offender as harshly as we can. Forgiveness is option one: I wipe your slate clean. Clemency is option two: I will continue to disapprove of what you did, but I’ll accept your apology and give you a second chance. But in the McCammond saga, her critics didn’t want to take either option. They wanted to punish and remove her. Shame her on social media. Take away the job she had earned through her own talent and effort. To hold her—to use that most overused and misunderstood and odious of contemporary euphemisms—”accountable,” by shutting her out. Why?
This is what led to the story of Helen Levitt. I had stumbled across an interview with her, from years ago, conducted by the historian Larry Ceplair. It ran for hours, and it was riveting. She was an intelligent and sophisticated person who nonetheless managed to be a fan of Joseph Stalin, up through the middle of the 1950s. Do I understand why so many of her fellow Americans were outraged by her views, during the McCarthy era? Of course I do. As I explain during the episode, I was just as outraged by her views as her contemporaries were. What gave me pause, though, was hearing—in her own words—about the consequences of her ostracism. She was cast out of the community to which she belonged, by virtue of her beliefs, and the experience was nearly unbearable. Listening to her describe her life on the blacklist made me realize how cavalier we are about imposing these kinds of exclusionary punishments. Cancelations hurt.
Here is Helen Levitt talking to the historian Larry Ceplair about what it felt like to be blacklisted:
Was Alexi McCammond, lonely, lonely, lonely when she went home after losing out on the Teen Vogue job? Did people she thought of as friends stop taking her calls? I don’t know. I do know that she must have suffered. And I do not understand why any of us would wish that kind of suffering on anyone else.