By David Flemming
Harper’s Magazine, a long-running monthly magazine of literature, politics, culture, finance and the arts is hardly what you would call a “politically neutral” publication. In 2004, it published “Tentacles of Rage: The Republican Propaganda Mill, a Brief History.” But last week it published one of the most thoughtful written pieces of 2020 entitled, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.”
It was signed by over a hundred nationally recognized writers. Many of those writers are decidedly on the left-wing side of the political spectrum: Margaret Atwood (author of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which has become a feminist manifesto), Noam Chomsky (a philosopher who once suggested communist Pol Pot’s genocide numbers were exaggerated), Gloria Steinem (the de facto leader of the early American feminist movement), Zephyr Teachout (the 2016 Democratic candidate for New York’s 19th congressional district), Randi Weingarten (president of the second largest teacher’s union in the country), and Sean Wilentz (a history professor who is a long-time friend of the Clintons).
The letter begins as a typical leftist manifesto might: “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 it quickly shifts gears: “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 … democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.”
The authors describe the perilous environment for free expression: “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. … Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics. … 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.”
It goes on to say:
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.
The letter is a challenge to the supposed consensus that American society can only progress with the permission of cultural gatekeepers, who get to decide which ideas are acceptable. At its core, the letter is a manifesto for free speech. And while the loudest voices may come from racists and Marxists who seem to be abusing their right to free speech, their radical ideas will lose in the end. Some of us who are more conservative may have assumed most everyone on the left would silence themselves in order to ensure that Donald Trump would not be re-elected. This letter suggests that there are still highly influential voices on the left who have broader and nobler ambitions beyond making sure Trump doesn’t get elected. Perhaps instead of exclusively seeking out like-minded allies, we should seek to create allies across the political aisle based on a willingness to say “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” There is an extremely broad range of opinions between the far right and far left. In order to find the best policy solutions, we must make sure all voices feel heard.
Read the letter in its entirety here.
David Flemming is a policy analyst for the Ethan Allen Institute. Reprinted with permission from the Ethan Allen Institute Blog.