Cancel culture comes to the Heartland: HeartlanderNews contributor’s talk canceled by library

I had long heard that Fredonia, New York, was as close to Chicago as it was to New York City. So I checked. It’s not, but not by much. By car, it takes an hour longer to get to Chicago. 

That said, Fredonia could be anywhere in mid-America. It is an amiable, white bread town of 10,000 located in a largely rural county — Chautauqua by name — that gave Trump large margins in both 2016 and 2020. 

What is happening in Fredonia could happen in any small town. In and of itself, the incident is hardly tragic. No one has been hurt or will be. No money will be lost, but as a harbinger of things to come, it’s ominous.

For my wife Joan and me, Fredonia’s great advantage is its climate. Although brutal in the winter, the average summer high runs on average about 10 degrees less than it does in Kansas City. Plus, my wife is from the area. We have been spending our summers here for 35 years.

I write about this area in my new book, Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America’s Cities. Having grown up in the Roseville section of Newark, New Jersey, I watched my neighborhood collapse around me. This is one reason why, even in winter, I have always appreciated Chautauqua County.

“When I first visited [Joan’s] humble hometown in western New York,” I write in Untenable, “I was taken aback by the very constancy of her world. Many of her friends remained in place. Others who had gone away were home for the holidays. They gathered in the same bars they had always gathered in. They ate at the same restaurants, shopped at the same shops, attended the same churches.

“I found myself envying Joan and all the young people across America who could go home again. By 1970, I and my friends from Roseville could not. There was no longer any home to go home to.”

I had planned to speak about this contrast in my talk at Fredonia’s Darwin Barker Public Library scheduled for Sept. 9. This was my 17th book, the 13th to be presented on C-SPAN’s Book-TV.

A friendly librarian had taken a liking to my first book, a novel, and placed it on the shelves. Upon seeing it, Joan recommended that I thank the librarian. I did. One thing led to another, and she invited me to come speak about my new book.  

In an email to Joan from an acquaintance, a member of the library board, I learned what happened next. “So, very soon after our website posting which announced Jack’s appearance at the Barker,” he wrote, “we began to receive numerous correspondence ranging from general disbelief to adverse protestations from within the local community.”

Now for the fun part: “Oddly, all of this response came from women. Even odder is that I was unaware that Jack was your husband.” There was nothing “odd” about the female skew on the response. We call these whiners “Karens” for a reason.

Joan, a recently retired and much-honored professor of English, uses her maiden name for professional reasons. What surprised this fellow, I assume, is that a professor could have a husband who sees the world differently than professors typically do.

“Sadly, in today’s world, situations such as this can rapidly escalate from controversy and result in confrontation and conflict,” he concluded before thanking Joan for her support of the library. “In this specific case, we have elected to not to expose our patrons and employees to the threat of any of it.”

Unaware of the backstage hand-wringing, I was surprised to receive a lengthy email from the library director on Aug. 8. As much as Graham Tedesco-Blair appreciated my “willingness to engage,” he felt obliged to “disinvite” me from my scheduled library appearance.

My mistake was in thinking the Orwellian Jiu-jitsu he offered as an explanation was limited to university administrators. No, it has filtered down to small town libraries, even in the heartland. Beware.

“We believe that the diversity of perspectives is crucial in creating a rich and informative dialogue at our library events,” he began before fretting about how my diverse views would affect “our diverse audience” and “the inclusive and welcoming atmosphere we strive to foster within our library community.”

I would have an easier time deciphering the Rosetta Stone than I would this gibberish. So I will leave that task to the reader. In the interim, I have to thank Tedesco-Blair and the other library worthies for exposing county citizens to the inner workings of small town democracy.

As I am seeing, small towns still work. As news of my disinvite spread, angry citizens started sending scorching emails to Tedesco-Blair. I’ve seen some of them, several from women who have apparently never learned to pull a punch. Emails that begin “You small, small man” would have the average Joe looking for the next train out of Dodge.

As I was writing this I received a more welcoming email. “The Totally Engaged Americans — TEA Party — would love to have you speak about ‘Untenable.’” Prompting the invite was, in their words, my “Barker Library adventure.” The email concluded with pitch-perfect irony, “And you will not be uninvited.”

Speaking of irony, the book that initiated this brouhaha was my novel 2006: The Chautauqua Rising published in the year 2000. The novel tells the story of a nonviolent grassroots uprising in Chautauqua County that in many ways anticipated the Tea Party movement.

Protagonist T.J. Conlon initiates the “rising” with a speech that begins, ”The natural progress of things, Jefferson tells us, is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.  We are here tonight to restore the rightful order of things, to have government yield, to help liberty gain ground.”

In the heartland, risings like this are still possible. People have not given up on liberty. Time will tell whether their voices will be heard over the caterwauling of the Karens.


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