Letter from New York: On affirming dissent, and other discourse surrounding the Harper's letter

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Recently an open letter published in Harper's intensified the debate over free speech and "cancel culture."

More than 150 mostly liberal writers and academics signed the letter, including Noam Chomsky, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and Malcolm Gladwell, bringing attention to a conflict that has been brewing in the academy, journalism and on social media. It's a battle that is taking place amidst political polarization and great social unrest in the larger world.

The letter warned about an effort on the left to "weaken our norms of open debate," and "a vogue for public shaming and ostracism." And it argued that imposing limits on speech is dangerous and has created a paranoid atmosphere that leaves people reluctant to share their views for fear they will lose their jobs. Signed by mostly older people, some famous with long established careers (attacked as "privileged" by people who don't like the letter), it created a furor. Another letter responded attacking the Harper's letter signatories for failing to recognize those "silenced for generations." The signers of this second letter were, in the main, younger and a larger proportion of them were black. However, though there is some truth in their letter's assertion, it doesn't follow that the intellectuals they view as failing to actively change the dominant racist culture ( including the letter-signers and more vulnerable writers) merit attacks that do more than criticize — sometimes calling either for shunning or loss of a job.

Given a broken economy, millions unemployed, an-out-of -control pandemic and a federal government run by an ineffectual and authoritarian racist who has cost the nation many lives for failing to properly deal with COVID-19, these debates might be viewed as minor footnotes to what's happening in the world outside of the social media and intellectual and cultural institutions. I understand that, and don't want to magnify their significance, but this is my world I am writing about, and being able to protect writers and journalists, especially those who break from the current young intellectual consensus, is very important to me as a writer, and to what's left of our democracy.

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We are talking about a world where words matter.

I remember in the late 1960s almost losing my job because of a wrongheaded, innocent complaint of an old left academic when I tried too abruptly to turn his lecture on Gramsci toward its relevance to my students' political lives. It was a foolish time when relevance was all, and colleagues were pilloried who didn't quite toe the line on language and attitudes that were seen as racist and sexist, I should never have intruded on his expert academic lecture, as he in turn shouldn't have complained to a right-wing Board of Higher Education member about what he saw as my undermining his lecture. I almost lost my job then because I was seen by the board member as a wild new left radical with little tolerance for free speech. (Whatever my limits, that was just a caricature of who I was.)

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I had other close calls, because of words and ideas I was usually (though not always) wrongly identified with during that period, when fervor sometimes superseded reflection, and acting out made one a student hero. However, after the passions of the '60s receded, I never again tried to monitor the opinions of colleagues, who I may have thought were in the wrong. My colleagues and I continued to argue over course curriculum, teaching methods, and foreign and domestic policy and politics, but I never thought a person should lose his job over his or her political or intellectual opinions nor would I ever intrude on their classroom.

Some critics see the Harper's letter as anodyne, merely "upholding the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters" — a sentiment hopefully few on the left would disagree with. And given that the real threat to our country's existence comes from the right and its media acolytes, the question could be asked: Why bother with Twitter mobs, and job intimidation, however unpleasant?

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Of course, infrequently people do lose jobs and are bullied to the point they must leave — like New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss, who just criticized the paper for capitulating to criticism on Twitter, and for not supporting her when she was bullied by her colleagues. I'm certain Weiss, who is an ardent Zionist and a provocative personality whose politics are slightly to the right of most of the Times' staff, has indeed been under critical attack. I don't know all the dynamics involved, but I do know that nobody should feel they should lose their job because their opinions are seen as unacceptable. Of course, that is, unless Weiss is just indulging in self-aggrandizement and paranoia about what occurred. Being criticized is a different experience from being intimidated, and I would hate to discover the latter is what happened to her.

So the purpose of the Harper's letter is to refuse the "false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other." From my vantage point the enemy is not Bari Weiss or the older Andrew Sullivan (who just resigned from New York Magazine under somewhat similar circumstances), but the megalomaniacal, clownishly dangerous Donald Trump and the large corporations that truly rule America.

To spend time attacking people who are mostly anti-Trump simply because they differ with aspects of left ideology is self-defeating. You don't counter the demagoguery and conformity of the right by aping them.

Leonard Quart can be reached at Cinwrit@aol.com.


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