The open letter in Harper’s Magazine on the dangers of ideological conformity and the suppression of speech, signed by more than 150 leading writers and intellectuals, has been explosively controversial. Some of the signatories have expressed surprise that a short, anodyne statement of support for free speech and ideological heterodoxy was so incendiary. But the clout of many of the signatories (J. K. Rowling, Gloria Steinem, Malcolm Gladwell, etc.) all but ensured that the reaction would be swift and intense, especially at a time when open letters defending basic liberal principles are necessary.
Although the letter seeks to “uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters,” it’s clearly directed at the left. “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society,” the letter states, “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.” Asides like this, as well as attacks on President Trump and “right-wing demagogues,” who are “exploiting” the illiberal attitudes summarized above, reinforce the point.
You’d think that anyone who is interested in combating cancel culture and rising illiberalism in mainstream institutions would applaud the letter. Its diverse and influential list of signatories, who include Salman Rushdie, Francis Fukuyama, Margaret Atwood and Steven Pinker, might be cause for celebration. One of the most common complaints from people who are concerned about the rise of enforced wokeness and attempts to suppress speech in the name of tolerance, diversity and safety is that these illiberal attitudes have floated up from university campuses to the rarefied air of the intellectual elite in many other segments of society. Yesterday’s shrill second year Critical Theory students are today’s New York Times editors. The letter is evidence that there’s formidable resistance to these ideas across a wider swath of that elite than many may have realized.
For all these reasons, it is strange to see people who have been loudly criticizing cancel culture for years incensed about the letter. For example, Geoffrey Miller thought the observations about right-wing authoritarianism were merely an attempt to placate the very people the letter was criticizing: “This is fine, but why the gratuitous & irrelevant lines about ‘right-wing demagogues’ & Trump being ‘a real threat to democracy’? Signatories just signaling their liberal credentials in hopes that the woke death cult will be less likely to cancel them? Good luck with that.” Dave Rubin complained, “There’s a couple of people who signed this thing who’ve tried to cancel me! So, it’s nice, but ultimately it’s just a bunch of words.”
There were many other dismissive critiques along these lines. One representative attack was launched by Yoram Hazony, an Israeli political theorist and author of The Virtue of Nationalism. After acknowledging that “anyone defending free speech and viewpoint diversity right now deserves support,” he argues that “this statement is pretty messed up.” His first complaint echoes Rubin’s: “Many of the signatories (not all!) have themselves spent years systematically trying to stifle reasonable public debate—by delegitimizing conservative voices and creating a context in which it’s too costly to engage with them.” Neither Rubin nor Hazony specified which signatories they were talking about, but Hazony explained that “far too many” of them have “accused conservatives of being authoritarian and anti-democracy … compared us to Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin … said we’re theocrats, racists, sexists and Islamophobes, ‘enabling’ and ‘collaborating.’”
But none of these accusations constitute calls for censorship in and of themselves. Criticism can be aggressive without arguing that the person being targeted should be cancelled, fired or silenced. Just as Hazony doesn’t mention which signatories are responsible for trying to stifle public debate, he doesn’t mention which conservatives he’s defending. The observation that conservatives have been accused of all the charges he lists isn’t an argument against the accusations themselves—many conservatives have, in fact, been relentless defenders of an authoritarian, anti-democratic and bigoted president over the past several years. Criticism of these conservatives shouldn’t be conflated with attempts to shut down dialogue and debate.
“Too many of the signatories,” Hazony writes, “kept quiet or took part as conservatives were being delegitimized—but now that it’s *liberals* whose standing is in danger, suddenly they’ve realized they care immensely about free speech and viewpoint diversity.” Members of the Wall Street Journal editorial board have made a similar claim: “There is a significant layer of hypocrisy here; many free-speech liberals tolerate left-wing mobs when their furies are aimed at conservatives.” But a significant proportion of the letter’s signatories—Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, Yascha Mounk and many others—have been outspoken defenders of ideological diversity and consistent in their defense of free speech across the political spectrum. Haidt, for instance, is a cofounder of Heterodox Academy, an organization with the stated purpose of “increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement” at universities.
Hazony goes on to declare that the signatories “don’t get how messed up it is to collect 153 signatures for free speech and viewpoint diversity but to exclude conservatives from it.” This would be news to David Frum (an anti-Trump conservative and former speechwriter for George W. Bush) and David Brooks, both of whom signed the letter. But Hazony doesn’t just misrepresent the list of signatories—he declares that liberals should establish a “pro-democracy alliance with conservatives,” but not “an alliance with the NeverTrumpers that liberal outfits keep on their platforms so they can pretend to be dialoguing with the ‘other.’ Most of them aren’t conservatives and they certainly don’t bring the conservative public with them.”
Perhaps this is why Hazony didn’t mention the fact that Frum and Brooks signed the letter—in his political universe, to be a Never Trumper is a disqualification from authentic conservatism. This attitude reduces conservative thought to whatever impulses the “conservative public” happens to have at any given moment—it’s an appeal to populism, not conservatism. Conservatives like Frum often point out all the ways in which Trump isn’t a conservative figure, such as his hostility to longstanding democratic norms and institutions, contempt for the rule of law, etc. Trump is also an aberration from the principles and priorities that were widely held within his own party just a few years ago, such as the commitment to free trade and the system of alliances and international institutions that the US has led since the end of World War II.
Hazony’s view of the “conservative public” is especially strange at a time when Trump’s popularity in the United States is reaching all-time lows, while his incompetence and demagoguery ascend to new heights. Trump’s catastrophic mismanagement of COVID-19 and his attempt to distract voters with his well-worn strategy of inflaming cultural grievances and inciting as much division as possible are fraying Americans’ already thin patience. Is this really a time when liberals and those who share many of their values have to resign themselves to an “alliance” with conservatives who cling to a collapsing administration? Do these conservatives deserve to be called “pro-democracy” when they support a president who has made it abundantly clear that he won’t accept the results of the election if it doesn’t go his way—just as he did three months before the election of 2016?
According to Hazony, liberals are “trying to exclude conservatives from legitimate discourse (because conservatives are ‘the real threat’), while at the same time they’re granting ever more influence to the very neo-Marxists who are working to bring them down.” Like Miller, he thinks the signatories included the lines about Trump and right-wing demagogues to mollify left-wing authoritarians who “don’t believe in democracy,” “don’t believe in compromise” and “don’t share power.” He says “There’s blood in the water and no one on the Left is stupid enough to give in to these little liberal bribes now.” He argues that the signatories “think they’re going to get an alliance with the same neo-Marxists who are out to destroy them.”
But there are dozens of people on the letter who have spent years actively challenging authoritarianism on the left—why would they suddenly feel the need to appease the left-wing outrage machine at the very moment they’re attacking … the left-wing outrage machine? Where is the evidence that John McWhorter, Steven Pinker, Paul Berman, Yascha Mounk, George Packer, Shadi Hamid and Thomas Chatterton Williams are eager to strike a deal with a howling mob of “neo-Marxists”?
Hazony is furious about the “asinine anti-conservative swipes” in the letter and the fact that there were “no fewer than three (!) different side-comments aimed at delegitimizing conservatives.” He claims to have no problem with “vigorous disagreement,” but he appears to believe that the arguments against right-wing authoritarianism presented in the letter are outside the bounds of acceptable discourse. This despite the fact that the letter simply says that Trump has energized the “forces of illiberalism” in the world (he has), represents a “real threat to democracy” (he does) and that right-wing demagogues have been exploiting the “dogma and coercion” that have become increasingly common on the left (they have).
Even if you disagree with these claims, they in no way “delegitimize conservatives”—they’re perfectly defensible arguments about the effects of the Trump presidency, as well as a predictable consequence of cancel culture: its instrumentalization by certain factions on the right. Just watch a few minutes of Tucker Carlson and you’ll immediately see this dynamic in action. The idea that arguments somehow “delegitimize” conservatives (a word Hazony uses over and over again) sounds reminiscent of claims on the identitarian left about invalidating certain thoughts or experiences by criticizing the ideas of people who have been victimized. Which isn’t surprising, as Hazony is appealing to conservative victimhood. He informs us that “liberals need to grant legitimacy to conservatives,” but doesn’t explain how the letter does otherwise.
There’s a reason the names on the letter tilt toward the left: the whole point is to spur pushback against the emerging orthodoxies and illiberalism on the left. Even if the signatories had decided not to include any conservatives on the letter, what would be wrong with that? There’s nothing “messed up” about a group of people who share certain beliefs and principles appealing to others who may share those beliefs and principles.
Hazony makes it clear that the alliance he’s calling for won’t be with anti-Trump conservatives, which is why he’s so outraged about the criticisms of Trump and what he regards as the authentic right wing. He calls for the reestablishment of a “stable public sphere constructed around two legitimate political parties, one liberal and one consisting of actual conservatives.” Four months before the election (which Trump stands a good chance of losing), Hazony seems to think now is the time for liberals and pro-Trump conservatives to close ranks against what he considers to be the gravest threat of all: “neo-Marxists.”
But this is a deal liberals would be crazy to accept—it’s necessary to resist authoritarianism on the left and right at the same time, and not just because the two fuel each other. Trumpism poses a real threat to democracy, and right-wing authoritarianism has a lot more political power than left-wing authoritarianism around the world right now.
According to Hazony, “Liberals only have two choices: Either they’ll submit to the neo-Marxists or they’ll try to put together a pro-democracy alliance with conservatives. There aren’t any other choices.” You could put this another way: conservatives have only two choices—either they’ll submit to the populist, nationalist authoritarians or they’ll try to put together a pro-democracy alliance with liberals to help the country move beyond the blight of Trumpism.