Politics

The Harper’s Letter Is What Happens When the Discourse Takes Precedence Over Reality

Civil society is more than the feelings of professional writers and academics.

Donald Trump smiles with Mount Rushmore visible behind him.
Donald Trump at Mount Rushmore on July 3. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

These are dangerous times for dissenters in America. Critics of the government’s immigration policies have been targeted for arrest and deportation. Protesters challenging violent and racist policing have been gassed and beaten and maimed with projectiles by police. On July 3, at the foot of Mount Rushmore, the president of the United States gave a speech denouncing the protesters and those who support them as part of a “left-wing cultural revolution … designed to overthrow the American Revolution” and promised to respond to their tearing down of statues by “deploying federal law enforcement to protect our monuments, arrest the rioters, and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law.”

On Tuesday, the website of Harper’s Magazine published a document signed by more than 150 journalistic, academic, artistic, or literary figures declaring that the liberal tradition of discourse is in peril (it will be published in the October print issue, and in other magazines around the world). The open letter briefly touched on Donald Trump and the fact that right-wing “forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world,” but its central message was a repetition of the president’s own warning from Mount Rushmore. The document described the problem:

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.

Here was how Trump put the same idea:

In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.

Trump’s aim in making the speech was simple enough: It was a distraction. The president is facing plunging reelection poll numbers in a country wracked by multiple crises that he has either caused or made worse, so he was trying to convince his remaining supporters that there was some other, greater danger coming for them, and that he stood against it.

What were the Harper’s signatories trying to accomplish? For a document announcing an emergency, their letter (addressed, as the writer Luppe Luppen pointed out, to no one) was studiously vague about exactly what it meant to warn the reader against. It presented a nonspecific and mostly pluralized litany of complaints:

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.

At least one item—”a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed study”—did seem to have an identifiable antecedent: David Shor, a researcher at the consulting company Civis Analytics, tweeted out a study concluding that voter backlash against violent protest in 1968 had tipped the presidential election to Richard Nixon and was fired after people denounced the tweet. There seems to be fairly broad agreement, among people who would even know about this incident, that Civis was wrong to fire him, and the incident does look like a classic example of a company sacrificing an innocent for “panicked damage control.” But this pattern of targeted pressure and overreaction is not a new crisis. It has been established for years by now, in right-wing and left-wing outrage campaigns alike, and the fault lies with the institutions that still haven’t figured out how it works, not with the generalized, newly ascendant cultural revolution that the Harper’s letter or Trump wishes to raise the alarm about.

Yet, rather than defending Shor and criticizing Civis by name, the letter anonymized his case and stuck it next to a complaint about powerful people losing their jobs “for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes”—a rickety construction that leaves the reader wondering if it’s supposed to cover the times that aren’t just clumsy mistakes, or how one is to decide which mistakes are more than just clumsy. Also, which “journalists are barred from writing on certain topics”? In June, two Black journalists were prohibited from covering the Black Lives Matter protests by the owner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but the letter admonishes the reader that “resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion,” while the Post-Gazette is in the hands of a passionate Trumpist.

Generalities can mean whatever a person wishes them to mean. Donald Trump complains all the time, through the world’s largest megaphone, about being censored and suppressed. A reading of the Harper’s signatories turns up a number of principled supporters of free discourse in all directions (including one of my colleagues) but also an identifiable cohort of figures who have gotten in trouble for substantive misbehavior and a few (including the publisher of Harper’s) who have fired people or sought to get them punished for expressing themselves in a way they find offensive. From a certain angle, measured by the positions of key names attached to it—particularly the names of J.K. Rowling and a handful of other writers who’ve gotten into public brawls over their dismissal of trans identity—the letter looks like its own performance of censoriousness, one that treats criticism as abuse and accountability as victimization. For all the bipartisan rhetorical gestures, one of the document’s creators has said it was first conceived as a complaint against the left, with the mentions of Trump and the right added in later. It was precisely what Osita Nwanevu had identified the day before, in the New Republic, as “reactionary liberalism.”

“The way to defeat bad ideas,” the letter says, “is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” In the study of argument, this is called “begging the question”—assuming one’s desired conclusion as the starting point, a basic fallacy. History and current events are not kind to the belief that debate is the only legitimate or effective way to persuade the public. For instance, the bad idea that municipal police budgets were untouchable had been exposed and argued against for years and years, but it took an on-camera killing and a Minneapolis police precinct going up in flames to persuade people to consider alternative ideas.

“Persuasion” is also the name that one of the letter signers, the Atlantic writer and former Slate contributor Yascha Mounk, is using for a newly launched “intellectual community,” whose announced list of members overlaps heavily with the Harper’s names—particularly, the core group that the New York Times credited with having written the Harper’s letter. The mission statement of Persuasion closely tracks the Harper’s letter too: “Companies and cultural institutions fire innocent people for imaginary offenses; prominent voices alternate between defending cancel culture and denying its existence; and an astonishing number of academics and journalists proudly proclaim that it is time to abandon values like due process and free speech.”

Over the weekend, Mounk also tweeted that the destruction of a Frederick Douglass statue, by parties unknown, showed “it’s a terrible idea to encourage people to remove statues without due process.” But what is due process, for a statue? People were trying to get rid of Confederate monuments and Christopher Columbus statues for years, through argument and legislation, and the statues kept standing—defended by new layers of law, with state governments overruling local decisions. So then people just rose up and tore them down, and now they’re gone.

And this is where the carefully circumscribed worldview of the letter betrays its own limitations. Like too much First Amendment discourse, it mistakes writing and argument for politics. Civil society is more than the feelings of professional writers. Focusing an open letter on the threats to writerly expression is a choice—a choice that turns energy and attention away from the promise and danger of the political moment happening in the streets, right now.

It was shocking and shaming at the same time, early in the George Floyd protests, to see the police repeatedly caught targeting reporters with pepper balls or rubber bullets. Most everyone was horrified by the assault on people trying to practice one of our favorite fundamental liberties. But the right not to be shot at or gassed is no less foundational for the people protesting than it is for the media covering the protests. Freedom of assembly is inscribed right there in the First Amendment with freedom of the press. Yet in practice, riot cops have felt free to drive protesters out of the public square by force. Until this year, when such violence went nationwide and included journalists, it was widely accepted as normal.

Ordinary restrictions against protesters would be indefensible if they were applied to the press—if TV stations were temporarily shut down because too many people wanted to watch the news, or newspapers were restricted to distribution in off-site Newspaper Zones when a national political convention came to town, or websites needed a police permit to publish. But these are the standard conditions of protest, enforced by cops in riot armor.

That official violence is not far in the background of the Harper’s letter. And however sympathetic the signatories of the letter may consider themselves to the purposes of the protests, the focus on journalistic and academic rights undercuts the more immediate threats to the protest movement. The most vocal signers of the Harper’s letter, and its most self-satisfied defenders, have made it clear that they regard the resignation of James Bennet as the New York Times opinion editor to be a self-evident case of the mob having gone too far. Bennet lost his job because his section solicited and published, without his having read it, an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton calling for federal troops to put on an “overwhelming show of force” against “rioters and insurrectionists.” The defenders of pure discourse noted that Cotton explicitly said in the article that he rejected “revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters.” People who’d been out in the streets, seeing demonstrators obstruct traffic or violate hastily issued (and unconstitutional) curfew orders, understood that Cotton—who’d tweeted that troops should give “no quarter”—was avoiding the central, material question of what the troops would do about protesters who peacefully refused to abide by the law.

Whose essential freedoms were put at risk by the Bennet-Cotton episode? In the world of the Harper’s letter, the threat that mattered was the one to the careers of veteran editors—not the threat that had bullets and bayonets behind it, a threat that the president himself would offer again in his Independence Day remarks. The promoters of the letter cast themselves as persecuted heroes, putting their names on the line to defend an embattled conception of liberty. The people putting themselves in front of police lines have a more expansive vision of what freedom means, and what risks they’re prepared to take for it.

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