The Rich Can Afford a Graceful Cancellation: A Response to David French
In his Sunday column, the conservative commentator David French considers Hugh Freeze, the new head football coach at Auburn University. Freeze has been through a series of scandals involving both recruiting and his ties to an escort service; Freeze is, like French, a married evangelical Christian.
Freeze is also, like many, frustrated with the cancel culture that came for him (albeit with limited success, given his lofty new position.) French quotes the Auburn coach’s lament about his past: “I said I was wrong. I’ve paid a price. My family paid a heck of a price. When can we move on?”
It’s been three years since the coach’s escort service scandal. David French finds it unseemly that Hugh Freeze pleads to “move on” so quickly. French argues that those who fall from grace should instead accept that comebacks aren’t possible:
No one is entitled to be a pastor or a politician, and there are times when the continued quest for those positions is itself a sign that a person simply doesn’t understand the price they should pay when they’ve committed a serious wrong. Powerful people should not seek a second chance at the prestige they once possessed.
Emphasis is mine. French cites approvingly the case of John Profumo, the famed British war hero, Member of Parliament, and Secretary of State for War. Profumo resigned in disgrace in 1963, after it was discovered he had been having an affair with a much younger woman — a woman who was also sleeping with a Soviet military attaché. As French relates, and as several films have depicted, Profumo never attempted a political comeback. Instead, he chose a penitential life, raising money for the poor, and even washing dishes in a hostel. By the time he died, Profumo had become widely admired for the humble way in which he accepted his permanent exile from politics. He was awarded the Commander of the British Empire by the Queen, and upon his death in 2005, was the subject of laudatory obituaries.
David French tells us that those of us who make serious moral errors should be more like John Profumo and less like Hugh Freeze. We should accept cancellation with a humility defined by our resolve never to seek our old status.
David French leaves one teensy thing out about John Profumo, but the latter’s Wikipedia entry sums it up. Describing how Profumo supported himself after his resignation, we are told “All this work was done as a volunteer, since Profumo was able to live on his inherited wealth.”
It is always easier to accept disgrace when that shame is not also accompanied by hunger or homelessness. I made that same point last year, in a newsletter about Charles Van Doren. Van Doren, the central figure in the “Quiz Show” scandal, gave up an academic life after his fraud was exposed, and became a quiet editor of other people’s manuscripts. When it came time for Robert Redford to make a movie about his life, with Ralph Fiennes playing the handsome cheat, Van Doren refused any money for his story. Even decades later, he didn’t want to profit from his own bad behavior. Laudable indeed — but Charles Van Doren, like John Profumo, lived off inherited money. His shame was agonizing; his embarrassment real, but these dreadful emotions were not closely attended by the even more awful prospect of being unable to provide for himself and his dependents.
Profumo (left) and Van Doren, redeemed men, rich men, men of a different age.
It has been nearly a decade since I lost my teaching job. I lost it publicly and pitiably, and I hurt and embarrassed a great many people. Though there is some money in my extended family, there was not enough to cushion my fall or allow me to devote myself to penitential charity while living on a comfortable annuity. I did end up homeless for a year, sleeping in my car. I did skip meals in order to save money. I worked multiple manual labor jobs, wearing my body and my nerves past the breaking point. And I grew very, very tired of the lectures about how I had to accept that I could never, ever, be trusted with a teaching position again. I had Charles Van Doren and John Profumo held up to me as exemplars, and I was told that if I considered myself even half the gentleman as these two worthies were, I would accept my permanent exile from the classroom with grace.
Um, there’s a slight difference in circumstances.
I would of course rather be a John Profumo than a Coach Freeze. I would rather be a Charles Van Doren than the Southern Baptist pastors that French mentions, the sort of men who tearfully admit sexual misconduct in March and ask for restoration to the pulpit in July. It is true, too, that I have long since given up any hope of going back to the classroom, and I am clawing out a little living in grocery stores and ghostwriting. (The latter gig has been going better as of late.) I wish I could say I am as consistently penitent as Profumo or Van Doren; I wish I could say I did not often pull a Coach Freeze in front of my mirror, tearfully asking the image, “How much longer must I be remembered chiefly for my transgressions?” I do try to make the best of what I do have, to counsel others who have fallen into scandal, and to let go of any hope of restoring my public image.
At the same time, I bristle when the well-connected and well-published suggest that the model for how to cope with disgrace was a man who stood upon money as upon an island. Next time, Mr. French, tell us about the guy who lost everything in a scandal, and who had hungry children and no savings, and use him as your exemplar for how to live well after cancellation.
UPDATE: A friend points out that in 2022, Profumo would never get a chance to work with a hunger charity. Even if he showed up to do dishes, the press would hound him, and the cancellers would tell the charity heads that they were being used to whitewash a scoundrel’s reputation. If Redford tried to make Quiz Show today, the studio would can it — Van Doren would come off too charming, too self-effacing. The film would be focused solely on those whom Van Doren hurt, and the lead character would be a one-dimensional caricature of white privilege run amok. In the age of the cancellers, we don’t even allow quiet redemptions. I think my friend is largely right.