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The Harper’s Letter

Harper’s just published on July 7 “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”. It has plenty of cheap slanderous attacks on the right, accusing Ameria of “racial and social justice” and coming to a “needed reckoning” and calling Donald Trump “a true threat to democracy” and alluding to “right-wing demagogues” who are “exploiting” the well-meaning but zealous progressives who resort to dogmatic coercion (I think they mean people like me who criticize people like them). An “intolerant climate” has set in “from both sides”. And it goes on like that, abusing the right. People like David Brooks, Nicholas A. Christakis, David Frum, and Anthony Kronman, to name some liberals for whom I have some respect, should be ashamed of signing something like this. It’s as if a bunch of southernern intellectuals in 1925 signed a letter condemning lynching because murder is unbiblical despite being an understandable reaction to the serious threat to white purity from violent blacks and the people who egg them on, but mainly because lynchings keep showing up in northern newspapers and make the South look bad. They’d pat themselves on the back about how brave they were to sign, but they’re not.

But slandering America is run of the mill for liberals. What is more interesting is what the letter *doesn’t* say. It doesn’t name names. Nobody gets blamed. Nobody gets supported either. It’s that despicable Mr. Nobody from the poem. I’ll post it here:

When we say Everybody is to blame, we blame Nobody.

Something similar goes for victims. “ What victim gets support from this letter? How can he know the signers are on his side, when it seems his only supporters are no-name guys from Fargo who tweet “Keep on trucking” and his persecutors are guys with titles like Dean and Chief Editor?

Of course, support can be anonymous, and often is— I know I had many supporters in my November kerfuffle who were anonymous, even using fake accounts, for fear of losing their jobs. I’d like to know how many of these signatories posted public support for victims. My guess would be 4 of the 152, but maybe I’m wrong– do tell me, and you’ll cheer me up. I think of Professor Christakis and J.K. Rowling. I’d like to know how many signatories posted public but anonymous support for victims, since anonymity is understandable these days even for rich and powerful celebrities. The bigger you are, the more money you have to lose from being principled, even though it is also true that the the bigger you are, the more money you have left over afterwards. It’s like the progressive income tax. My bet would be “zero” here.

Ok– how many of them have sent emails or letters or phone messages to victims, which would be a big comfort coming from someone famous like this? Here, I’ll amend my answer a little bit. It might be more like 30 of the 152 instead of 4. Intellectuals do sometimes give private support to personal friends when they’re attacked (though still seldom) even though they rarely give them public support. With private emails, the cost-benefit analysis is that since it’s secret support, and just words anyway, the cost is very low, whereas there’s also some benefit personally since your friend, who is probably powerful if he’s your friend, can do something for you later on— that’s how the favor bank works, and we all use it. And the favor bank is a fine thing, too– it’s just that making deposits in the favor bank doesn’t count towards being a defender of truth and justice.

Now look at the Harper’s Letter. It is full of stuff like, “We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.” Sure. But they don’t dare name any such calls. To be sure, they follow up with this:

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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.

The guys writing this are writers. Professional writers. They all know the rule “Don’t use the passive voice.” But they also know the rule, “Except for a good reason.” Here, the reason is obvious. It is safer to say, “editors are fired” than “John Doe fired an editor”; to say “books are withdrawn”, not “Joe Doe withdrew a book”;
“journalists are barred”, not “John Doe barred a journalist”. Note, too the use of plurals— “books”, “editors”, “journalists”— something else that every good writer knows is a way to soften and weaken your writing.

The signatories probably thought they needed to soften and blandify their writing as a way to avoid criticism by their comrades on the left. They are our modern Mensheviks and Girondins, or, perhaps more apt, they are like the the conservative coalition partners of Hitler who were pushed out so smoothly and easily that nobody even remembers their names. A big thing on the left are the two ideas of “guilt by association” and “dog whistles”. Rather than signing on to a statement because it is true or false, you sign to indicate whose side you are on. Lenin called it the “Kto, Kovo” principle: what matters is who is fighting whom, not what they’re fighting about. And what a statement says in its literal words doesn’t matter if it secretlyconveys something bad to the minds of bad people. Thus, you can’t say you agree with the Declaration of Independence without knowing who else thinks it is good and what sentiments it arouses in the minds of your enemies. A necessary consequence of this is that your public political views are constantly shifting. Today, good people agree with the Declaration, and bad people don’t hear it and think it supports evil, so I agree with it too. Tomorrow, good people are against it, and bad people read it in a crazy way that makes them happy, so I change to disagreement. It is really no different than the old Communist Party Line; it is a Leninist principle, after all. In 1936 Hitler is bad and the French Socialist Party is good. In 1940, Hitler is good, and the French Socialist Party is bad. In 1944, Hitler is bad and the French Socialist Party is good again. Kto, Kovo.

But there’s something more sinister at work here. If the signatories named names, they’d be criticizing their comrades, and would offend them. But maybe that’s not the only reason not to criticize them. Maybe the signatories actually like it when people get cancelled– if they’re the right people. One of them, not one of us. Suppose they don’t actually mind people like Harald Uhlig and Gordon Klein getting cancelled– nonpolitical people who aren’t part of the intelligentsia– but they’re worried about Our People getting cancelled. They are Girondins who like it when Royalists get axed, but are nervous about what their crazy friend Robespierre is going to do next with that guillotine thing he likes so much— or pretends to like, because he can’t be serious about using it. You’re just saying, “Hey, slow down here!”, not “Hey, cut it out!”.

So I’m not impressed by the Harper’s open letter, even just looking within the four corners of the document. I won’t even get into how some signatories have backed off and how the Left has attacked the letter for being too open to allowing dangerous opinions to be voiced.

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Coda. How about me? Am I any better? I saved that for the end because it doesn’t really matter, for most of you. I’m not important, and I’m not the current topic of discussion. Even if I am a complete hypocrite, my point still stands, unaffected. But I’ll mention some names. Dean Antonio Bernardo persecuted Lecturer Gordon Klein (UCLA). Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman persecuted Editor Harald Uhlig (the Journal of Political Economy). Provost Lauren Robel persecuted me, Professor Eric Rasmusen (Indiana U.). Chairman Michael Chwe persecuted Lt. Col W. Ajax Peris (UCLA).President Salovey persecuted the Christakis’s (Yale). Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg persecuted Kevin Williamson (The Atlantic). Publisher Rea. S Hederman persecuted Ian Buruma (The New York Review of Books). Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise persecuted Professor Steven Salaita (U. of Illinois). President Samuel Stanley persecuted Vice-President Stephen Hsu (Michigan State U.) (Buruma and Christakis signed the Harper’s letter, and JK Rowling has been cancelled too, though “persecuted” might not fit her case.) There are good guys and bad guys in this, where, of course, “good guy” doesn’t mean you’re good outside of these stories and “bad guy” doesn’t mean you don’t have some redeeming corners of your life.

There are too many of these situations for each person to address each one of them. What I have done is to pick controversies where I think I can be especially helpful and focus on those. I knew Gordon Klein from when we (and the chairman who suspended him) were young teachers together at UCLA in the 80’s, so I started a change.org petition to fire his cowardly superior, Dean Bernardo. Please go and sign right now. If you don’t, you’re part of the problem. I am an economist in a nearby state, so I emailed Harald Uhlig and gave him advice on how to deal with a hostile press and how to keep up your morale with things like maintaining a file of supportive comments, and prepared to pressure his department and my large network of economists in case of need (the bad guys backed down first, thankfully– and it’s not that I am so special; anybody in any vocation who keeps at it for 35 years like me has a large network he can make use of). I emailed Stephen Hsu and told him I could help with practical advice. I’ve donated quite a bit of money to Yale Philosophy student Sarah Braasch’s GoFundMe campaign. I gave advice, encouragement, and money to Ryan Mahoney, Scott Bryant, and Julie Roys when megachurch pastor James Macdonald sued them to shut down their muckraking effort. (My chief help was perhaps to tell them not to let Macdonald drop the lawsuit because it was a good thing for them, not a bad thing. The church ended up firing Macdonald and paying all their legal fees in the settlement, so I actually go my money back.) Note that the good guys won in a couple of these cases: it’s worth trying to help, even though evil usually defeats good, maybe even *because* evil usually defeats good.

Here is the July 7 “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”:

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified 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. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.
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The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. 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. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. 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.
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This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. 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. 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. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

2 replies on “The Harper’s Letter”

I found your blog from your Twitter comments about the Flynn case recently. I found your input on procedure in this case to be brilliant, educational as well as easy to understand for the someone who isn’t well versed in this area. I agree 100% with the opinion in this blog post on the insufferable weak Harper’s article. These people have experienced their own cancel culture creations and the only reason they wrote it is because of it coming back to cancel them. They are disingenuous and very insincere. I honestly can say I felt satisfaction at first when their own cane for them. It’s shocking how these signatories can be so self unaware & have no real concept of their hypocrisy & cowardice. As a conservative I can only hope that we hold these people accountable for stealing our voices of truth and trying to unperson us without regret or conscience

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