Just after the Fourth of July last year, a group of writers, journalists, artists and academics issued a letter in support of free speech and other classically liberal ideas. It was printed in Harper’s Magazine and soon became known simply as “The Harper’s Letter.”
What’s striking about it is that it was necessary at all. But, truth is, basic liberal values are under attack in America from both the extreme right and left. I wrote about this the other day, prompted by a recent incident in Madison.
The passage that I thought was most relevant to my blog about the dust up over innocuous comments made at a Madison committee meeting was this, “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.”
Anyway, I think the Harper’s Letter is so important, that I wanted to share it with you in its entirety.
A Letter on Justice and Open Debate
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. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. 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 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. 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. 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.
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.
Saladin Ambar, Rutgers University
Marie Arana, author
Mia Bay, historian
Louis Begley, writer
Roger Berkowitz, Bard College
Paul Berman, writer
Sheri Berman, Barnard College
Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet
Neil Blair, agent
David W. Blight, Yale University
Jennifer Finney Boylan, author
David Brooks, columnist
Ian Buruma, Bard College
Noam Chomsky, MIT (emeritus)
Nicholas A. Christakis, Yale University
Roger Cohen, writer
Ambassador Frances D. Cook, ret.
Drucilla Cornell, Founder, uBuntu Project
Meghan Daum, writer
Gerald Early, Washington University-St. Louis
Jeffrey Eugenides, writer
Federico Finchelstein, The New School
Richard T. Ford, Stanford Law School
David Frum, journalist
Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University
Atul Gawande, Harvard University
Todd Gitlin, Columbia University
Michelle Goldberg, columnist
Rebecca Goldstein, writer
Anthony Grafton, Princeton University
David Greenberg, Rutgers University
Rinne B. Groff, playwright
Sarah Haider, activist
Jonathan Haidt, NYU-Stern
Roya Hakakian, writer
Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution
Jeet Heer, The Nation
Katie Herzog, podcast host
Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College
Adam Hochschild, author
Arlie Russell Hochschild, author
Eva Hoffman, writer
Coleman Hughes, writer/Manhattan Institute
Hussein Ibish, Arab Gulf States Institute
Zaid Jilani, journalist
Bill T. Jones, New York Live Arts
Wendy Kaminer, writer
Matthew Karp, Princeton University
Garry Kasparov, Renew Democracy Initiative
Daniel Kehlmann, writer
Khaled Khalifa, writer
Parag Khanna, author
Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University
Frances Kissling, Center for Health, Ethics, Social Policy
Enrique Krauze, historian
Anthony Kronman, Yale University
Joy Ladin, Yeshiva University
Nicholas Lemann, Columbia University
Mark Lilla, Columbia University
Susie Linfield, New York University
Damon Linker, writer
Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
Steven Lukes, New York University
John R. MacArthur, publisher, writer
|Susan Madrak, writer|
Phoebe Maltz Bovy, writer
Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center
Kati Marton, author
Debra Mashek, scholar
Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago
John McWhorter, Columbia University
Uday Mehta, City University of New York
Andrew Moravcsik, Princeton University
Yascha Mounk, Persuasion
Samuel Moyn, Yale University
Meera Nanda, writer and teacher
Cary Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Olivia Nuzzi, New York Magazine
Mark Oppenheimer, Yale University
Dael Orlandersmith, writer/performer
Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University (emerita)
Greg Pardlo, Rutgers University – Camden
Orlando Patterson, Harvard University
Steven Pinker, Harvard University
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Katha Pollitt, writer
Claire Bond Potter, The New School
Zia Haider Rahman, writer
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, University of Wisconsin
Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution/The Atlantic
Neil Roberts, political theorist
Melvin Rogers, Brown University
Kat Rosenfield, writer
Loretta J. Ross, Smith College
Salman Rushdie, New York University
Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment
Daryl Michael Scott, Howard University
Diana Senechal, teacher and writer
Jennifer Senior, columnist
Judith Shulevitz, writer
Jesse Singal, journalist
Andrew Solomon, writer
Deborah Solomon, critic and biographer
Allison Stanger, Middlebury College
Paul Starr, American Prospect/Princeton University
Wendell Steavenson, writer
Gloria Steinem, writer and activist
Nadine Strossen, New York Law School
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., Harvard Law School
Kian Tajbakhsh, Columbia University
Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University
Cynthia Tucker, University of South Alabama
Adaner Usmani, Harvard University
Helen Vendler, Harvard University
Judy B. Walzer
Eric K. Washington, historian
Caroline Weber, historian
Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers
Sean Wilentz, Princeton University
Thomas Chatterton Williams, writer
Robert F. Worth, journalist and author
Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Emily Yoffe, journalist
Cathy Young, journalist
Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.
To be fair, there was a lengthy rebuttal letter, which you can read here.
11 thoughts on “The Harper’s Letter”
Well done. Deserves to be widely read; I had not seen it before. Thanks.
Here’s a lesson from my high horse. 🙂
Dave wrote, “But, truth is, basic liberal values are under attack in America from both the extreme right and left.”
Since these are basic values for all so why not write “But, truth is, basic values are under attack in America from both the extreme right and left”?
From our previous conversation on this, I understand that you’re using the word liberal* in its classily defined manner, but in todays deeply divided times the implications of how you use the word liberal can come across as insulting to those that don’t consider themselves a Liberal**. Until you can learn to better moderate your use of the word liberal* as an unneeded adjective to describe the noun that follows try stop using it or predefine exactly how you are using right up front so it is perfectly clear to your readers.
Example of how to do this using your own words:
• Just after the Fourth of July last year, a group of writers, journalists, artists and academics issued a letter in support of free speech and other classically liberal* ideas.
• But, truth is, basic liberal* values are under attack in America from both the extreme right and left.
• The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal* society, is daily becoming more constricted.
• I served two terms as mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, as Liberal** a college town as there is.
• These days I’m thought of as a moderate in these parts though I’d still be a Liberal** in much of the country and probably a Marxist in Oklahoma.
To be completely fair and using your biased opinion of Okies, even if you predefined your usage of liberal there will still be some like those Okies that you appear to be biased towards that would probably still take offense to your usage because they don’t consider themselves “liberal” but they have a very high regard for individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise which they perceive as Conservative ideals and they perceive Liberals** as trying to suppress those ideas. These ideals you talk about are actual core commonalities that you have with those Okies that you appear to be biased against.
Lesson from my high horse is now complete. 😉
I’m not sure many Oklahomans would be offended by my comment that I might be considered a Marxist there. I probably WOULD be considered a Marxist there.
Dave wrote, “I’m not sure many Oklahomans would be offended by my comment that I might be considered a Marxist there. I probably WOULD be considered a Marxist there.”
I didn’t say the Okies that you appear to be biased against would be “offended by [your] comment that [you] might be considered a Marxist there”. You misunderstood me. Please reread what I actually wrote.
I used as one of my examples above “• The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal* society, is daily becoming more constricted.” These were not Dave’s words as I stated they were from the Harpers Letter, I’m sorry for that unintended misrepresentation.
Dave wrote, “But, truth is, basic liberal values are under attack in America from both the extreme right and left.”
I’m going to take the liberty to define those liberal* you speak of based on what I’ve read in this and other threads;
*liberal: adjective, 1. willing to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas. 2. relating to or denoting a political and social philosophy that promotes individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise.
I’ve seen dozens and dozens of reasonable examples of how many people that actively align themselves with the political left have been trying to suppress individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise of those they disagree with and I’ve written about it extensively on my blog Society’s Building Blocks, Critically Thinking About Things That Change Society but I’m seriously lacking in finding corresponding examples of how the extreme right is doing this. Since Dave literally stated that basic liberal values (individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise) are being attacked by both the extreme right and left, I’d like to see a nice listing of how the extreme right is attacking these things. Dave made the claim, now it’s time for Dave to support the claim.
Well, sure. Donald Trump spent four years attacking all kinds of classically liberal ideas. He called the free press “enemies of the people” and did not discourage taunts and even physical threats toward reporters at his rallies. He openly suggested that protesters at his rallies not be just silenced but attacked. His affronts to the rule of law are endless. He saw the Justice Department as his personal law firm and hit squad, all but ordering it to go after his political enemies. He had open disdain for science and reason, denying climate change, disputing his own public health experts on pandemic management, espousing snake oil remedies, etc. I could go on, but to suggest that Trump’s GOP has not attacked classical liberal ideas is just not tenable.
Dave wrote, “to suggest that Trump’s GOP has not attacked classical liberal ideas is just not tenable.”
Dave I think that’s an unfair misrepresentation of what I wrote. I wrote, “I’m seriously lacking in finding corresponding examples of how the extreme right is doing this.” I did not say it that the GOP has not engaged in it, just that I’m seriously lacking in corresponding examples. This may come as a big surprise but I’m truly not the keeper of all knowledge. You extrapolated what I wrote to an unfair misrepresentation.
As for your list; I really didn’t expect you to go off on a short anti-Trump rant but that’s what I feel I got, so I’ll address what you actually wrote.
First and foremost; Donald Trump is not the GOP in the same way that President Biden is not the Democratic Party.
Dave wrote, “Donald Trump spent four years attacking all kinds of classically liberal ideas. “
That’s a place to start but then you have to follow that up with examples, you didn’t bother to show examples of any of attacking these classic liberal ideas: individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise.
Dave wrote, “He called the free press ‘enemies of the people’ “
This is not an attack on classic liberal ideas. Also; isn’t President Trump welcome to have and share his own opinion about the press?
I’ll let my blog post Propaganda Is Destroying Trust In The Fourth Estate and Wreaking Havoc On Society do my talking on the topic of free press and enemies of the people.
Dave wrote, “and did not discourage taunts and even physical threats toward reporters at his rallies.”
Not doing something is not the same as attacking liberal ideas Dave. This is not an example of attacking classic liberal ideas: individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise.
Dave wrote, “His affronts to the rule of law are endless.”
If they are “endless” then it really shouldn’t be hard for you to provide a few good examples where these affronts are attacking classic liberal ideas like individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise.
Dave wrote, “He saw the Justice Department as his personal law firm and hit squad…”
How the heck do you know how President Trump saw the Justice Department, you’re not Karnack the all knowing.
Dave wrote, “…all but ordering it to go after his political enemies.”
You just openly acknowledged that President Trump did not order the Justice Department to go after his political enemies so why did you bother to use that in this example listing, not doing it is certainly not an attack on classic liberal ideas like individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise?
Dave wrote, “He had open disdain for science and reason, denying climate change, disputing his own public health experts on pandemic management, espousing snake oil remedies, etc.”
Disagreeing with others is not an example of attacking classic liberal ideas: individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise. Donald Trump is an unethical loose cannon mouthed narcissist individual that speaks just about anything that comes to his mind and has a bad habit of punching down. None of that is an attack on individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise.
I really think you can do better than what you did Dave. Let me simplify this; how is the political right (not just Donald Trump) attacking individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise. Remember that differences of opinion about these things is NOT attacking these things.
Dave wrote, “To be fair, there was a lengthy rebuttal letter, which you can read here.”
That rebuttal was full of ad hominems and rationalizations. The rebuttal authors haven’t learned yet that it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak/write and remove all doubt.