The Harper’s Letter Is Really A Case Against Open Debate

July 16, 2020

Cultural and intellectual elites are trying to save themselves from accountability, not protect your free speech.

Cultural and intellectual elites are trying to save themselves from accountability, not protect your free speech.


The Harper's Letter Is Really A Case Against Open Debate

Story Transcript

Jacqueline Luqman: “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.”

This is how a short but intellectually and historically insulting letter begins that is published in Harper’s Magazine, unironically titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” This letter, published by Harper’s Magazine contributor Thomas Chatterton Williams, and signed by a 160 people who I guess we’re supposed to be impressed with because of their intellectual and professional credentials, begins with an opening statement that is so dishonest that it undermines the entire argument – the idea that the cultural institutions represented in the letter are “OURS.” Whatever cultural institutions these people believe are being threatened by the renewed – for the umpteenth time in the history of this country – demands for justice and equality for marginalized people, they are decidedly NOT OURS. THOSE cultural institutions were not created by us or for us. We may have been allowed access into those cultural institutions of higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts, but we don’t run them, we aren’t the decision-makers, our contributions to them are still challenged and whitewashed to suit the sensibilities and opinions of the intellectual elite who run them, and the very existence of this letter basically proves that point. Now on to the rest of this mess.

What “new set of moral attitudes” in regard to justice for police terrorism and for centuries of perpetual discrimination and exclusion has “intensified… that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity?” The loose moral attitudes that allowed the continued worship of a bunch of white men who slaughtered Native Americans, enslaved, tortured, and then marginalized African Americans, objectified and relegated women to second-class status, criminalized gueer and trans people, and act as if the disabled don’t exist or deserve to live at all are the moral attitudes and norms we are fighting. So what is it about the absolute right to equality and justice for every human being is there that still needs an open debate? For too long, we who believe in freedom have tried to reason with those enlightened liberals on our demands for justice, only to have our continued oppression intellectualized as something that couldn’t be addressed right now, so fast, this way, or with the attitude we had. It was allowing open debate to become the only activism that so many were willing to participate in, while the issues that were debated about that impacted our lives changed not one bit. But you got your robust debate, though, and you got to go home feeling good about how well you defended your augment, while we got to stay home and suffer and die.

In a particularly offensive turn, this letter includes the dubiously Trumpian admonition “The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.” The people who crafted, published, and signed onto this letter had the gall to use THEIR vaunted positions in these cultural institutions that are not our ours to look down upon us and tell us that we are just as bad as the people who have worshipped white supremacist idols, gave the police and white vigilantes carte blanche to kill us without real accountability, allowed the rich to get infinitely richer off the backbreaking and exploitative work of the working class while allowing the same people to pay politicians to codify their greedy practices into law, all while telling us that it’s Black people who are violent and Latinos who are lazy and Asians who are diseased and gays and trans who are amoral and abnormal. Just whose side are these supposedly super smart and super talented people on? It doesn’t look like yours or mine.

They further claim that “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society,” but when has that ever happened in this society? OUR HISTORY, the history of the Black and Chicano and Native and Queer and Trans and disabled struggle and working-class and poor in this country was never freely given and the information about it was always ALWAYS false or watered down or just not told. This is why these monuments are coming down now – because people have finally learned the truth about the people the statues honor, and will not continue to allow monuments to lies, genocide, slavery, imperialism, and exploitation to stand. For example, most people were supportive or at least understanding of monuments to Confederate generals being taken down by the people, but as soon as the statue of Ulysses S. Grant was toppled, some people pointed to this as a result of the ignorance of the protesters and an example of the effort to remove the monuments going too far because Grant was one of the good guys because he fought for the Union! When president, he signed the 15th Amendment, giving black men the right to vote, and the Ku Klux Klan Act to curb anti-Black violence in the South! But the fact that those same people did not know that Ulysses S. Grant, who claimed to want to pursue peace between Indigenous people and white settlers, also used military force and violence to push Native people onto reservations to clear land for settlement and development points not only to their ignorance, but the danger of these cultural institutions and the false narratives they’re indoctrinated us with. Grant’s policies resulted in the Modoc War in California, the Red River War in Texas, the Nez Perce conflict in Oregon, the Black Hills campaign by Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The very institutions these people are defending from being  “attacked” – higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts – helped perpetuate the lie that Ulysses S. Grant was a “good guy.”

The worry expressed in the letter of “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” that is being attributed to those seeking a more just society now, as it has been expected to come from the right, is really the epitome of hypocrisy, considering all of the so-called liberals who offered up academics, intellectuals, artists, and activists for standing in solidarity with Palestine, accusing them of anti-Semitism when they challenged Israel’s apartheid policies.

I mean, aside from her beloved books and adapted movie series, JK Rowling is famous not only for her transphobia, but also for accusing Jeremy Corbyn of being an anti-semite in a Twitter thread that I suppose she meant to be clever, but was just disgusting. Another signer, Bari Weiss, also accused Corbyn of not only being an anti-semite, but also waged a campaign against Arab and Muslim academics who criticized Israel to try to get them fired and ruin their careers.  So when the author of this letter bemoans all the professionals who are “punished” for expressing unpopular ideas, understand that so-called liberals already did this to LEFTISTS who challenged Israel or zionism.

But the hypocrites among signatories of this letter are not limited to staunch supporters of Israel and all of that government’s crimes. There are also defenders of THIS government’s crimes on the list, too! David Frum literally came up with the phrase “Axis of Evil” that helped get this country mired into a war in Iraq that was based on complete lies, and he had a hand in the continued disaster that is the US intervention in Libya, but he’s mad that people are mean to rich capitalists and politicians who make their money off warmongering and maybe say mean things to them on Twitter? I’m curious to know who among those people concerned about “cancel culture” that they are decrying actually lost their livelihoods making other people’s lives miserable because people called them out them on Twitter.

And I know that for a lot of people on the left, the fact that venerated intellectual Noam Chomsky signed this letter immediately legitimizes it, and few who see his endorsement as such will take the time to examine the weaknesses in the letter’s content. I will just say that I find it ironic that people who believe that their right to disagree and debate is being trampled on in the current climate, are some of the same people who will refuse to consider that maybe the signature of their favorite intellectual doesn’t legitimize bad ideas. And would even attack YOU for suggesting that maybe this time, Chomsky is wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.

In truth, the arguments in this letter are as old as white supremacy itself, none of them are anything we haven’t heard before from so-called well-meaning people who claim they want the same things we do, but they just disagree with the way we go about getting them. For example, where the letter states, “This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time,” that just sounds to me like another version of “You’re going to turn people off from your cause.” And noting that  “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” is insulting to people who lack power because people who lack power can’t stop you from saying whatever you want. When has that happened in this country? And worse, the letter browbeats readers with, “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

What do these people think we’ve been doing for the past 500 years? People have pointed out the lies told about the history of this country, have challenged the narratives, have peacefully protested and sang and prayed and pleaded and forgave, have testified at hearings and gave speeches and wrote think pieces and protested peacefully some more and asked nicely for justice and equality over and over and over again. People have debated and argued and tried to make the intellectual case to win others over to “our cause.” Only to arrive at this moment once again when the author and signers of this letter to make the argument that it is those of us who are fighting for our very lives who have to continually bear the burden of listening to people argue against what we’ve been fighting for in every polite way imaginable. These people who continue to intellectualize the resistance to justice are really just the white moderates that Martin Luther King Jr. warned us about in his Letter From The Birmingham Jail. And yes, not every signer of the letter is white. White supremacy is tricky like that – give some oppressed folks enough money and status, and it will have them upholding the very system that uses them to keep the rest of the oppressed in line.

Finally, the author closes with this: “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 this letter were written in good faith, that might be a valid argument. But I don’t believe that it was.

It is possible that if the arguments in this letter were not framed to be directed at those currently fighting for justice and it were not published in this moment, it might seem less like a smackdown from the liberal elite comparing the unwashed masses yearning to truly be free to the selfish and greedy right-wing who wants only the freedom to exploit the marginalization of others for their own profit. But when you look at the arguments in it in the context of the uprisings happening around the world right now, the claims that there needs to be any more debate about justice and equality that people are demanding not only ring hollow, but they are insulting. And then when you read the list of neoconservative, warmongering, anti-Palestine, ideologues who are among the signatories, the tone and the intention of the letter takes a much more dark and dangerous turn. So this letter isn’t a plea for civility in discourse and a call to cancel “cancel culture.” It is a demand to stop criticizing those people who sold us the lies we are dismantling in these streets in the first place.

People have every right in the world to express whatever opinion they have. But regular folks on social media and in real life have every right to challenge those opinions, especially when those opinions are a threat to their lives. And honestly, no one has to sit on social media and go back and forth all day with people who want to argue against everyone having equality and justice. So cancelling someone on Twitter or boycotting or protesting institutions or calling out despicable arguments that are harmful to people is not stifling anyone’s speech. You can still espouse your bad ideas. We really just don’t have to listen to them anymore.

And we’re not going to.