For some reason an open letter “On Justice and Open Debate” appearing in Harper’s Magazine has been getting a lot of attention.
I say “for some reason” because the letter is short and doesn’t say much of anything. It’s been praised for being signed by names from across the political spectrum, but that spectrum is actually quite limited. Insofar as the letter has a political point of view it is anti-Trump, who is said to be a “powerful ally” of the “forces of illiberalism.” Given Trump as the bogeyman, it’s not too surprising that Noam Chomsky and Francis Fukuyama would find themselves on the same side.
As far as the rest of the letter goes, the message is (as some signers were quick to admit) anodyne. This is often what you get when you write by committee. The letter inveighs against “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments,” which is presumably referring to today’s “cancel culture.” Apparently such censoriousness has long been a staple of “the radical right” but has since spread. In any event, and in conclusion, “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.”
No, it’s not quite J’accuse.
I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wouldn’t sign on to such a banal pseudo-declaration. Still, some people did take exception. Richard Kim, a director at HuffPost, said he didn’t sign “because I could see in 90 seconds that it was fatuous, self-important drivel that would only troll the people it allegedly was trying to reach — and I said as much.”
More criticism has been leveled at J. K. Rowling’s name appearing. This is because Rowling herself has recently been the target of the “new set of moral attitudes and political commitments.” Oh well.
(An aside: I don’t know why people like Rowling are on Twitter. Just keeping her name out there? I really don’t understand. She has nothing to gain, and no good can come of it.)
Of course when I said that “for some reason” the letter was getting attention I was being deliberately obtuse. The reason the letter is getting attention isn’t for its statement of principles, whatever they are. It’s getting attention because of the roll call of prominent people who signed on to it. The vacuous letter wasn’t nearly as important as the function served by presenting us with a who’s who of media people whose opinions matter. It’s not even virtue signaling so much as celeb signaling: politics as a form of bird-watching.
I only wish some of the people whose opinions I am being told matter had opinions worth paying attention to.
Instead, one gets the sense that the letter was motivated less by an urge to declare some vague political position rather than as an exercise in celebrity brand management and collective self-preservation. As Billy Bragg put it, it’s “a howl of anguish from a group that has suddenly found its views no longer treated with reverence.”
Many of those who attached their names to the letter are longstanding cultural arbiters, who, in the past, would only have had to fear the disapproval of their peers. Social media has burst their bubble and they now find that anyone with a Twitter account can challenge their opinions. The letter was their demand for a safe space.
The mob has claimed many heads already and there probably isn’t a name on the list who isn’t worried that it might be coming for them. Indeed, with even Rowling being pilloried who could consider themselves safe from being canceled? Time to nip this #Movement in the bud.
I’m no fan of cancel culture, and I think its excesses will likely result in some nasty political backfire to go along the already considerable collateral damage it’s caused. That said, I can’t abide this self-interested moral posturing against it.