American Dirt: ‘Cancel culture’ embraces book burning in the digital age

You don’t need fire to burn books in 2020. A raging social-justice mob will suffice, ginned up by authors unwilling to fight back against censorship.

Sound hyperbolic? Consider the case of Jeanine Cummins. The author’s new book, “American Dirt,” seemed like the next literary sensation.

The novel follows a bookstore owner in Mexico whose family is killed by a drug cartel. The character flees the country with her surviving son, making the arduous trek to the U.S. border for safety.

Stephen King sang its praises. Oprah Winfrey added it to her illustrious “Book Club” list. The company that helped bring Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule” to theaters gobbled up the book rights.

And then all heck broke loose.

Activist/author Myriam Gurba dubbed “American Dirt” problematic — and then some — in her December review titled, “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck.” (Author Guy Winslow had favorably compared “Dirt” to “Grapes of Wrath.”)

Gurba told The Guardian: “I hope this makes people realize how conservative publishing really is,” as if that, in and of itself, is a thought crime worthy of punishment.

Next, a group of 121 authors demanded that Winfrey remove the book from her official list, the digital flames growing hotter. “In a time of widespread misinformation, fear-mongering, and white-supremacist propaganda related to immigration and to our border, in a time when adults and children are dying in U.S. immigration cages, we believe that a novel blundering so badly in its depiction of marginalized, oppressed people should not be lifted up,” the letter said, shining a light on the ideological nature of the attacks.

Consider how liberal movie critics razed 2019’s “Last Blood” as “racist” for implying a border wall might be needed after all. 

Next, Cummins’ book tour got shelved after just five stops. The reasons why will sound familiar to anyone well-versed in the left’s dog-eared playbook — “specific threats to booksellers and the author.” According to Flatiron Publishing’s Bob Miller, “We believe there exists real peril to their safety.”

Violent threats against “problematic” artists is hardly new. Phelim McAleer’s stage production of “FBI Lovebirds: UnderCovers” had to find a new venue last year after threats forced the first theater to cancel its contract with McAleer’s team. The play upended the left’s narrative surrounding President Donald Trump, and thus it became a target.

A church similarly faced violent threats after it scheduled a screening of “The Rise of Jordan Peterson” last year. The Canadian professor is routinely attacked by the far left for his opinions. The screening went on as planned, but with tighter security to keep everyone safe.

The Hollywood community has been virtually silent about these attacks on free speech, along with similar assaults happening on campuses nationwide, and they’ll probably stay mum on “American Dirt,” too. More importantly, why aren’t King, Winfrey and Winslow defending Cummins’ right to tell her story, her way?

Don’t count on King for help, apparently. He recently backpedaled after suggesting art should be judged based on its quality, first and foremost. His apology tour culminated with a hard-left op-ed in the Washington Post, saying that the Oscar race lacks diversity.

He got woke, quick, and the social-media mob backed down.

Winfrey says she’ll produce a special for Apple TV about the “American Dirt” debate. Why not write a check to provide security for Cummins’ book tour?

Shouldn’t our most powerful artists take a stand against the violent mob? Isn’t free speech worth it?

Part of the fury against Cummins involves identity politics. The author is Irish and Puerto Rican, which apparently wasn’t authentic enough for her critics. Even worse, her publisher boasted that she is the wife of an undocumented immigrant; turns out her beau is Irish, so he checked the wrong undocumented immigrant box. The publisher tried to play the Woke Card and got busted.

It gets worse.

Once again, it’s suggested that only Latino artists can tell stories from their community from a pre-set narrative. Never mind that Cummins spent five years researching the themes explored in her book.

Cummins addressed the controversy a on Jan. 22, recalling the Mexicans she interviewed who inspired “American Dirt.” In her words: “… the people who I met along the way, the migrants who I spoke to, the people who have put themselves in harm’s way to protect vulnerable people, they showed me what real courage looks like. They made me recognize my own cowardice. When people are really putting their lives on the line, to be afraid of writing a book felt like cowardice.”

Cowardice is the right word: We’re seeing plenty of it in the creative community, including some of the biggest figures in pop culture.

For argument’s sake, let’s take the book’s critics at their word. What if “American Dirt” stereotypes its Mexican characters? What if it embraces a right-leaning worldview?

So what? Criticism is always fair game. Their critiques should be heard and considered. Readers can then decide if they want to read “American Dirt” or not. Perhaps the debate can enlighten everyone on hot-button issues involving race, representation and immigration.

That’s not the goal here, obviously. The mob wants to dictate who tells which stories, and what angles they will share.

And, should you cross them, violence may follow.

Christian Toto is editor of the conservative entertainment site and host of the weekly “Hollywood in Toto Podcast.”

Tags American writers Book publishing Cancel culture Donald Trump Flatiron Publishing Jeanine Cummins left-wing protest Oprah Book Club Oprah Winfrey Social justice Social media Stephen King

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

More Technology News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video