Editor’s note: Tommy Schacht responds to this piece in “A Tale of Two Liberalisms,” published in the Oct. 9th issue of the Herald.
The forces of illiberalism are at work. Our ability to organize, discourse, and engage is threatened. The cresting wave of neoliberalism crashes toward right-wing authoritarianism in places as diverse as Hungary, Brazil, Israel, the United States, and India. This summer, the President of the United States threatened to turn the weapons of war on Americans in full force for protesting police brutality — and indeed, the tear gas and bullets (rubber and actual) still being fired at Black Lives Matter protestors constitute a violation of the Geneva Convention.
These are not the topics at hand in the much-tweeted-about letter published in Harper’s Magazine, entitled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” In fact, many of the letter’s 153 signatories would balk at my diagnosis. The signatories are academics, journalists, and intellectuals from across the political spectrum, ranging from Noam Chomsky to Fareed Zakaria (BK ‘86), Gloria Steinem to Bari Weiss, and Michael Walzer to Deirdre McCloskey.
The sheer ideological breadth represented here explains why the letter is so bland. A mere 400 words, the letter speaks out against “right-wing demagogues” and an “intolerant climate,” and requests epistemic humility in favor of “intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” Divorced from context, the letter feels difficult to disagree with — inspiring, even.
Beneath this veneer of humility, however, the letter betrays its own arrogance. The Harper’s signatories represent an elite class, not merely academics or journalists or intellectuals, but odds-defiers who managed to have visible careers while gaining cultural relevance and financial stability. Among the Yale affiliates listed, all but one hold endowed professorships. In short, the enlightened bunch at Harper’s is by no means representative of their industry’s precarity. Neoliberal deregulation and unjustified austerity have rendered an artificial divide between class status and cultural influence in higher education. It didn’t have to be this way. As universities have become more corporate, they have rejected core labor protections for faculty and staff alike, including unionization, quality healthcare access, and enough tenure-track positions to match the number of Ph.D. students they churn out en masse. The exceptionalism over at Harper’s is bitingly apparent. The letter reads like a condescending lecture from your Boomer parents.
Yet it is clear that the signatories intend to discuss threats to free speech that are more substantial than social media shaming. The letter reads:
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.
Twitter users are correct that this letter is about “cancel culture.” But it’s very clearly about multiple forms of cancel culture — some of which merely lead to a good tweetstorm, and others that have real, material consequences. The Harper’s letter exemplifies the reality that, while many people are quick to call social media “toxic,” this toxicity spills too easily into the lives of real people.
Two weeks ago, the left mourned the loss of David Graeber, an American anthropologist who spent the bulk of his career in academic exile in Europe. Graeber, an anarchist, was on track for tenure at Yale in 2007 when the university refused to renew his contract, a decision widely attributed to Graeber’s support of Local 33, Yale’s still-unrecognized union of graduate student workers.
After Graeber’s death, I reflected on student efforts to “cancel” professors in the Yale Daily News by emphasizing the vulnerability of most academics. Some highlights: a 2016-17 report from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences indicates that nearly half of faculty at Yale are “instructional,” meaning that they are not on the tenure track. (These numbers have most likely increased since the report was released.) Non-tenure track faculty are often paid per course, meaning that the goal for most non-tenure track faculty is to scrape together three courses for a meager $27,000 annually. They’re also on one-year contracts that expire in June, meaning that the summer months are rife with anxiety and instability. These educators are forced to prepare job applications and other contingency plans in the event that they are forced by the university to uproot everything. As I wrote, “COVID-19 has meant that these faculty will face even more instability: Graduate students across the country have been protesting insufficient pay and healthcare, programs have been refusing admission to any Ph.D. candidate, and non-tenure track faculty face devastating cuts at universities all over the country.”
The problem, though, is that the academics who signed the Harper’s letter are not these faculty members. They’re names we recognize, folks that have clambered to the top of the corporate university ladder against all odds. If there are two classes of academics — an ever-shrinking, disproportionately white, disproportionately male tenured (or tenure-tracked) class that has “academic freedom,” and an ever-growing non-tenure track, economically insecure underclass — the Harper’s signatories know which group they represent.
The attempts at accountability that we have collectively termed “cancel culture” have fused with the tightening grip of neoliberal capital to produce economic inequality and institutional bureaucracy. The nation’s cultural leaders have thereby been split into two camps: those who cannot be held accountable, no matter how hard we try, and those who are treated as disposable, with one mistake leading to unemployment. And because American capitalism ties employment to healthcare, to freedom from debt, and to food and housing security, pursuing accountability for members of that second camp poses an existential threat. In a status quo sans-Medicare-for-All, sans-jobs guarantee, sans-loan forgiveness, we cannot deny people their jobs without also denying them fundamental justices that they need to survive.
Still, many of the people who signed this letter are immune from this so-called accountability. J.K. Rowling, who was widely condemned for transphobic tweets just weeks before the letter dropped, was the first fiction writer to become a billionaire due to the success of her Harry Potter series. Nicholas Christakis, the former Master of Silliman College who went viral in 2015 after being confronted in the courtyard, was awarded a Sterling Professorship — Yale’s highest academic honor — by the university after he was “canceled.” And Bari Weiss chose to cancel herself, penning a melodramatic resignation letter after being mocked for her inflammatory and poorly sourced columns in the New York Times — hardly a statement for free speech. (It should be noted that Weiss can’t even play by her own rules, having spent her college years attempting to get Arab professors fired for their “antisemitic” support of Palestine.)
Indeed, what makes the letter ironic is that its target — essentially, college-educated, East Coast residents who know the signatories’ names — are actually the people, if anyone, who should be writing the letter. Twitter is wrong that the letter is just about social media users; it’s partially about them, but it’s actually about what happens when online outrage becomes outrage in the rest of the public sphere.
And more than anything, it’s about what happens when an elite, bourgeois class finds themselves under threat.
The day before the Harper’s letter dropped, Osita Nwanevu published a piece in The New Republic entitled “The Willful Blindness of Reactionary Liberalism.” In it, he responds to critiques of “cancel culture” and “identity politics” head-on. His thesis is damning:
The tensions we’ve seen lately have been internal to liberalism for ages: between those who take the associative nature of liberal society seriously and those who are determined not to. It is the former group, the defenders of progressive identity politics, who in fact are protecting—indeed expanding—the bounds of liberalism. And it is the latter group, the reactionaries, who are most guilty of the illiberalism they claim has overtaken the American Left.
Liberalism itself, Nwanevu writes, cultivates the disagreements we’ve seen play out on social media, or in the unending culture war. Parties “emphasize different liberal freedoms” in their disputes, together forming a culture of argument and disagreement that naturally emerges from a society that emphasizes diversity, individualism, and moral crusading.
Reactionary liberalism, then, is a rejection of the values of liberalism itself. Free speech, it claims, is when everyone accepts what I want to say. It’s the presumption that people are entitled to speak without objection or consequence. It’s the presumption that, because right-wing extremists such as Milo Yiannopoulos want to speak at universities, we should let them — the entire premise of Yale’s own William F. Buckley, Jr. Program — and because political leaders like Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK) want to write racist drivel for the New York Times, the New York Times must oblige. But that’s not how liberalism works. It’s not merely spewing your ideas at an unconsenting audience like a presumptuous man on a bad first date. It’s a recognition that while you may have the right to speak, others have the equal right to object to what you say and deny you a platform.
This is what makes the Harper’s letter so insufferable. Not only are the signatories removed from the material consequences of public reckoning, they’re intent on chastising the readers of Harper’s, most of whom, have nothing remotely resembling the signatories’ financial stability and cultural influence. Instead, the letter represents a breach in the liberal order it claims to defend, a deeply reactionary attempt to cling to power in the face of public criticism. This doesn’t mean that all the signatories are reactionaries in the right-wing sense, or that they all have these explicit motivations. (Indeed, most people questioning Noam Chomsky’s reason for penning his name would likely turn to McCarthyism, rather than class status, as a rationale.) But the Harper’s letter is deliberately written and signed by more than one person of more than one ideology. As a collective, the signatories are projecting that they know they’re not forced to reckon with the consequences of their own actions. But they know that massive cultural pushback means they could be.
The Harper’s letter does not sound the death knell for liberalism. Instead, it merely indicates that the Overton window is shifting, rapidly. While the left drives discourse, the right digs in its heels, bemoaning “identity politics,” “cancel culture,” and the “Oppression Olympics.” But the right, ever-enabled by the center, is a powerful adversary. The resurgence of right-wing power in the midst of this cultural reckoning illustrates that while consensus is crumbling, neoliberalism has yet to do so.
And more than anything, Harper’s indicates that we’re still obsessed with discourse. But discourse, imagination, and theory have no value unless they are brought to the outside world. It indicates that the elites know they’re elites. It indicates that they know they’re being threatened.