A chorus of luminaries has excreted an open letter in Harper’s Magazine arguing against a “new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” The letter’s signatories are numerous — and, as they have taken to pointing out with a degree of fixation approaching fetishism, diverse. Indeed, the list of signatories runs the full gamut, from state school professors to Ivy League professors, from writers to authors to columnists to critics to playwrights to biographers to podcast hosts.
At issue is “the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides” — that is, ‘cancel culture’ — which has caused the “free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, [to] daily becom[e] more constricted.”
This all sounds very serious — the constriction of lifeblood! And the disease is apparently already presenting. What are the symptoms?
Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.
As should be clear by now, the letter is expressly and unambiguously a statement of class solidarity of, by, and for the intellectual elite. It claims the banner of liberalism, and perhaps it is liberal. But it is not democratic. It is the opposite. It is a statement of principles for, and a rallying cry in defense of, the intellectual aristocracy. It is nauseating.
In the moral imagination of the letter, there is little room for you and me, either as beings of agency or as political actors. People — as intentionally set apart from “writers, artists, and journalists” — have little role to play except as faceless members of the “forces of illiberalism.” Indeed, the letter portrays democracy as nothing more than a gift, given to the lowly mob by the intellectual brilliance of its signatories: “The restriction of debate . . . makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.” Woe to she who thinks that she can vote without first hearing what Bari Weiss has to say.
In this formulation of society, what matters is what generates a “culture” that leaves “us [writers] room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.” A little dabble of transphobia to get the blood flowing, as it were. A letter more attuned to material reality might observe that, for most people, there is little, if any, “room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes” in modern society. Most Americans are an unexpected medical bill or car crash away from bankruptcy. Black people, in particular, need not even actually engage in any “experimentation, risk taking, or mistakes” for their lives to be ruined, or taken from them. What was Tamir Rice’s mistake? Breonna Taylor’s? But the ability of non-writers to make mistakes without being ground to dust by the economy and the state is not “the lifeblood of a liberal society.” People are not the lifeblood of the letter’s ideal society. No, it is J.K. Rowling’s tweets that are the lifeblood of society. Not, you know, actual lives or actual blood.
I can already hear the cries of whattaboutism. But limiting one’s review of the letter to the arena of expressive activity does not redeem it in the slightest. Once more, the moral agency of mere normals is ignored outright. The letter opens with passive-voice praise of “[p]owerful protests for racial and social justice.” By the letter’s reckoning, these protests may as well be a naturally occurring phenomenon. There are “protests.” Missing are the protestors. Missing are the expressions of concern about the “dire [and decidedly non-professional] consequences” of the violent reactionary response to the protests: the countless protestors beaten, run over, shot, chemically attacked, and jailed. Protestors, after all, are not the “lifeblood of a liberal society.” And, it follows, that attempts to mow down protestors (and attempts to legalize the act of running over protestors) are not a threat to the lifeblood of society. It’s Matt Yglesias’s posts that are the lifeblood of society, and making fun of how bad they are that is the threat.
When we reach the section of the letter listing the dire consequences of cancel culture, even the mob is stripped of its moral agency. No, the real target of the letter’s opprobrium is those feckless “institutional leaders” (what a phrase) who, “in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.” It is not the people who are the problem. The problem is the failure of the learned elite in positions of power to rightfully cast aside the cries of the mob.
Then we get to the rotten pit at the heart of the letter: the passage of examples block quoted above. “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces.” Let’s examine, for a minute, this obvious reference to James Bennett’s firing after the New York Times published an op-ed from Sen. Tom Cotton calling for the military to suppress anti-police violence protests. Of course, what Bennett was actually fired for was a repeated pattern of editorial failures, culminating in the revelation that he had not even read the Cotton piece — again, a piece by a sitting United States Senator calling for the military to quell domestic political protests — prior to its publication. But that’s neither here nor there, really. What’s of note here is what the letter places in-bounds and what it places out-of-bounds. In-bounds is the decision to publish an op-ed (by a man who once intentionally blocked the confirmation of a minor Obama appointee who had cancer until she died “to inflict pain” on the president) calling for the military to suppress protestors. Out-of-bounds is the attempt to assign professional consequences to such advocacy.
That is: the use of the military to attack you and me for exercising our First Amendment rights is a subject of legitimate debate. Even though one might even say this piece advocates for a “culture” that fails to “leave room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes,” it’s something that Tom Cotton and James Bennett get to say. They get to say that a member of the United States Armed Forces should do war crimes against you, if you engaged in those much-lauded “powerful protests.” But to call for the Times to fire Bennett for failing to do the most basic part of his job is a bridge too far. What’s the difference? Well, Bennett’s the opinion editor of the New York Times, baby, and his brother is a Senator, and you’re just some asshole.
Anyway, there are a billion other things that are stupid about this letter. Bari Weiss, a signatory and longtime Thought Leader In This Space, has infamously attempted to attach “dire professional consequences” to people who say things with which she disagrees. She’s never really answered for this glaring hypocrisy — indeed, she’s never even been asked to do so, despite being interviewed or appearing on panels constantly. (At least Bret Stephens apparently had the shame not to attach his name.) Other signatories have done much the same. And should my reading of the letter as fundamentally exclusionary seem uncharitable, one signatory (the venerable “podcast host”) has already dismissed most criticism as “rank envy” at not being asked to sign.
In its final paragraph, the letter boldly offers: “We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.” If this platitudinal ejecta is the best that the greatest minds and defenders of liberal society have to offer, then we may be in deeper trouble. The statement is nonsensical. Of course you can have freedom without justice. You can have freedom for Bari Weiss and Olivia Nuzzi and Steven Pinker and Ambassador Frances D. Cook and J.K. Rowling, without any justice for the rest of us. It’s far from clear that the letter’s authors would have any problem with that.