On Tuesday morning, Harper’s Magazine published a joint letter from 153 prominent writers, academics, and entertainers, ranging from Noam Chomsky to David Brooks, J.K. Rowling to Wynton Marsalis, Salman Rushdie to Gloria Steinem, expressing concern that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.”
The 532-word document is a direct response to the remarkable past six weeks or so at American media and cultural institutions, which have experienced a wave of firings, resignations, and castigations over purportedly harmful words, deeds, and sometimes costumes.
“It is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought,” the signatories contend. “More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.”
The list of writers crosses ideologies and oceans, ethnicities and religions, sexual preferences and genders, though the group tilts decidedly left—Vox‘s Matthew Yglesias and The Nation‘s Jeet Heer were the two names that surprised me most. There are also a whole lot of Reason contributors here, including Deirdre McCloskey, Cathy Young, Jonathan Rauch, Jonathan Haidt, Emily Yoffe, Jesse Singal, Kmele Foster, Katie Herzog, John McWhorter, Kat Rosenfield, Nadine Strossen, Laura Kipnis, Wendy Kaminer, Francis Fukuyama, and Malcolm Gladwell. (On it, too, are recent Reason interview subjects Meghan Daum, Coleman Hughes, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Steven Pinker, Bari Weiss, and Garry Kasparov.)
Arguably the most striking feature of the exercise, though, is not the breadth of the participants, nor the urgency of the campaign, but rather how the Very Online Left greeted this anodyne expression of free speech sentiment: with a withering, acidic contempt.
“The letter…is about Open Debate only to the extent that people who make very healthy salaries arguing in public for a living seem to have a bizarre aversion to being argued against,” spat Gawker alum Hamilton Nolan at In These Times (other choice Nolan adjectives included “pathetic,” and “almost intolerably exasperating”). “We have entered a brave new world in which those waving the banner of ‘Free Speech’ accuse their opponents of being unable to take criticism while waging a histrionic campaign against anyone who dares to criticize them.”
It takes a certain willfulness to ignore the plain words of a statement that’s all of three paragraphs long, but judging by the reactions on Twitter, Nolan’s pampered-crybabies-whining-about-criticism take was as common as goose turds by a pond. Yes, there are people on the list who are probably agitated at having been the target of public shaming campaigns—the Linguistic Society of America went after Pinker just this month, and Lord knows Rowling has had quite the 2020 arguing with transgender rights activists.
But one clearly stated intent among this comparably affluent, tenured, and independent set was to pry open more expressive space for those with less protection.
“We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement,” they write. “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.” (Emphasis mine.)
In his masterful 1993 book Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, and especially in his 2013 afterward, Rauch (who is a signatory) made the persuasive point that those in society with the least power have the most to gain from a legally and culturally robust arena for speech and debate.
“For politically weak minorities, the best and often only way to effect wholesale change in the world of politics is by effecting change in the world of ideas,” wrote Rauch, citing the long and sometimes hopelessly uphill battle to achieve legal equality for gay Americans. “Our position as beneficiaries of the open society requires us to serve as guardians of it. Playing that role, not seeking government protections or hauling our adversaries before star chambers, is the greater source of our dignity.”
In his terrific Clear and Present Danger podcast, Jacob Mchangama hammers home a similar point: Free speech is a potent and historically rare weapon for the powerless; blasphemy and other hate-speech laws are the crutches of authoritarians.
The handful of people on this list who I count as friends are motivated by a sincere worry that the walls of debate are closing in on people who don’t have the benefit of their comparative advantages. “Sometimes you author a letter to defend yourself. Sometimes you write a letter to protect others,” tweeted my longtime collaborator Kmele Foster. “In this case, I think we’re doing a bit of both.”
That doesn’t mean their assessment of the situation is right, of course. But it does suggest that there are easily accessible avenues for discovering some of the motives of the petitioners, beginning with the language of the petition. So very many critics are just not interested in even that minimal gesture. Instead, it’s yet another herding exercise—send these 150 people into the ever-growing “coven of fools,” even if we used to like that Zephyr Teachout or whatnot.
“No seriously,” wrote Ken “Popehat” White, a longtime critic of the culture-of-free-speech argument that the signatories embrace, “now I wonder if the letter was crafted to make its point not in its text but through the anticipated reactions. Good Lord above people.”
The essayist Freddie de Boer had a kind of I-break-with-thee reaction to the negative response. “What does it say when a completely generic endorsement of free speech and open debate is in and of itself immediately diagnosed as anti-progressive, as anti-left?” de Boer wrote.
How can someone object to an endorsement of free speech and open debate without being opposed to those things in and of themselves? You can’t. And people are objecting to it because social justice politics are plainly opposed to free speech. That is the most obvious political fact imaginable today. Of course Yelling Woke Twitter hates free speech! Of course social justice liberals would prevent expression they disagree with if they could! How could any honest person observe out political discourse for any length of time and come to any other conclusion?
But there is a more generous and thought-provoking reading, one offered frequently by Popehat, and more extensively in a recent essay by Osita Nwanevu in The New Republic. Which, in a nutshell, is: Freedom of association is crucial, too, man.
As someone who has long been on the opposite side of Popehat in those culture-of-free-speech debates (my best attempts are probably here and here), I nonetheless acknowledge the basic fuzz around the standard. Yes, I want the parameters of expression jimmied open ever wider. No, I don’t want to hang out professionally or personally with Nazis and/or race/IQ obsessives. Is there some kind of contradiction there?
I think less so than meets the eye. The problem with the would-you-publish-a-Nazi hypothetical is that it’s almost always hypothetical because—happily!—America still hates Nazis after all these years. I can think of exactly one case where a person who is in my professional and ideological orbit—who I once did a paid journalism seminar for—was revealed via thorough reporting in 2019 to have been ringleader of a literally pro-Hitler “Morning Hate” email group in which mostly young Washington types engaged in racist and anti-Semitic one-upmanship.
Here’s what happened when Nazi-LARPer John Elliott was unmasked: Every right-of-center organization cut ties with the racist bastard. Honorable conservative commentators like the Washington Examiner‘s Timothy P. Carney wrote pieces with headlines like, “It’s time to create a conservative ecosystem that doesn’t welcome racists,” arguing that: “Conservatives don’t give it enough attention, but one of the greatest evils in the U.S. today is rank racial inequality….Conservatives ought to make it a priority to fight for the fundamental dignity and equality of racial minorities who have been denied that dignity and equality.”
So the Nazi hypothetical isn’t that hard to work through when the evidence is that thick. How does that compare to the last six weeks of people losing their jobs after their bosses, under duress, chose to no longer associate with them? Let’s just look at the comparative wrongdoing and due process in three recent cases Reason has mentioned:
* A 54-year-old government contractor was fired after the Washington Post outed her in a 3,000-word article as having attended a Halloween party two years prior in a blackface costume satirizing Megyn Kelly’s racial views.
* A San Diego Gas and Electric Co. employee was fired days after a stranger took a picture of him in his truck making with his fingers an “OK” sign that was interpreted as a white power gesture.
* A 28-year-old political scientist was fired from his Democratic consulting firm days after tweeting respectable research indicating that violent protests are less effective at changing policy in the preferred direction than nonviolent protests.
Were these examples of exercising freedom of association? Well, sure, but—not unlike racist speech!—these are bad exercises of that freedom. If we can be negatively judgmental about speech, surely we can also be negatively judgmental about associative behavior, particularly when it’s a panicked attempt to chase off a due process–hating mob.
Look, I get it: Successful people are annoying, particularly on the East Coast. There is something inherently ridiculous about joint statements of concern. If you are a moderately heavy consumer of public discourse it’s literally impossible to not have been irritated by several people on this list. I do not doubt some track records here contain personal hypocrisy on the issue in question, and there is no shortage of other malignancies to rally against in July 2020.
But here is where Freddie de Boer and I are close to being on the same page: The vast majority of public-facing writers and intellectuals I see scoffing at “cancel culture” and dismissing as a single tiresome monolith a grouping that includes Katha Pollitt, Martin Amis, Shadi Hamid, Margaret Atwood, Greil Marcus, George Packer, Michelle Goldberg, Randi Weingarten, and Zaid Jilani, are at some point just telling on themselves. You do not want to hear left-of-center thinkers bemoaning the free speech “illiberalism” on the left, and you are not curious whether at least a handful of people you have previously respected might have a legitimate concern or two about an issue you claim to hold dear. Noted.