Earlier this week, a motley assortment of about 150 sententious bourgeois liberals, joined by a couple of Chamberlain conservatives, diminished whatever public standing they had by choosing Harper’s magazine, your grandmother’s favorite periodical, to publish an ungainly group letter that, they would like us to believe, is an impassioned defense of free speech in these parlous times.
On its merits, this should not be controversial or even necessary. Until about ten years ago, free speech was a sacrosanct element of the American Republic. It was lovingly enshrined in a Constitution that was still universally respected, assiduously defended by courts that interpreted rather than made laws, and taught as a fundamental right to every schoolchild, or at least those still fortunate enough to be instructed in what used to be called ‘civics’ without having to listen to some C-student with a BA in education drone on about how civil rights are really a tool of white male oppression.
Now, as the signatories correctly point out, free speech is under brutal assault, not merely in our (their?) ‘cultural institutions’, but in fact everywhere. Contrary to their feigned even-handedness, qualified by an obligatory dose of superfluous anti-Trump rhetoric, the blame goes entirely to the jejune American left, of which they used to be a cherished part.
Who are these people, and why do they suddenly care? To call them dispassionate observers acting out of high moral principle would be blind ignorance. Apart from a small subset of celebrities among them who are either rich (J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood) or ancient (Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem) enough not to face any consequences for expressing dissent from their camp’s orthodoxy, most of them are leftist Stepin Fetchits who have at some point been singed or even burned by the fires of a revolutionary movement that they failed to foresee and that, to their even greater chagrin, refuses to take direction from them. (Ever see an antifa fanatic with the latest issue of Harper’s tucked under her black-clad arm while she hurls a brick at Zephyr Teachout’s local Starbucks?)
‘We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences,’ they sanctimoniously conclude. ‘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.’
Sadly, the sallow leftism they have long cultivated has alienated a public that barely knows or cares who they are, and a state that is unable to defend them even if it wanted or had any reason to. If the French Revolution sent Lavoisier to the guillotine declaiming that the revolution had no need of scientists, this revolution – if it is one – has no need of public intellectuals, if that is what they are.
Perusing the signatories, one finds disgruntled journos like Ian Buruma, ousted from the New York Review of Books after publishing an essay by a Canadian comedian who had been acquitted of sexual assault; alongside New York Times opinion writers David Brooks, Roger Cohen, Bari Weiss and Michelle Goldberg, whose page editor was just defenestrated for greenlighting a US senator’s op-ed that Times newsroom malcontents found ‘dangerous’, and which Goldberg, now apparently a free-speech advocate, just a couple of weeks ago denounced as ‘fascist’.
Bland New Yorker writers Dexter Filkins and Nicholas Lemann are there, signing in the shadow of their much more famous non-signatory colleague Ronan Farrow, who has made a career ‘exposing’ sex crimes and other violations of liberal shibboleths, often, as has been recently alleged, without much foundation in fact.
The Dutch-Lebanese journalist Kim Ghattas joined the effort, despite having made no public comment about the violent dispersal in 2017 of a peaceful student protest on the campus of the American University of Beirut, of which she is a trustee, and which is now a defendant in at least two major civil rights lawsuits about which Ghattas has also maintained a hypocritical silence.
Yascha Mounk, who also straddles journalism and academia, has a new ‘centrist’ web newsletter to push, largely populated by well-meaning dolts who write for the Atlantic, like signatory George Packer, a frustrated writer who recently scared professional urban moms with a dreary tale about having to send his children to a New York City public school.
Academia is represented by Harvard law professor Ronald Sullivan who, together with his otherwise inoffensive wife, was bounced from his post as faculty dean of Harvard’s Winthrop College after joining Harvey Weinstein’s legal team in a country where even the foulest criminal suspect is at least nominally still entitled to legal representation.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, formerly dean of what was until last week called the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, signed up, along with her less talented husband, the political theorist and sometime opera critic Andrew Moravcsik.
Columbia’s Mark Lilla is there, four painful years after earning opprobrium from people who matter to him for pontificating to his fellow liberals that clinging to scabrous identity politics might not be such a great idea.
Michael Ignatieff signed but, perhaps prudently, omitted his affiliation as president and rector of Central European University, which has been all but thrown out of its original base in Hungary. (Nor did he identify himself as the former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, which he led to inglorious defeat in 2011).
And who could forget Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis, who became the godmother of anti-Title IX advocacy – after she found herself among the accused — but nevertheless still supports #MeToo, provided she personally finds women who invoke its principles to be ‘credible’? (Full disclosure: after I criticized the letter on Facebook, Kipnis posted a passive-aggressive comment and then — horror of horrors! — defriended me. So much for ‘good-faith disagreement’.)
After mostly standing idly by for about a decade while large numbers of people unlike themselves were thrown to and devoured by the wolves, the Harper’s crew now has every reason to fear what may come if the jacquerie du jour reaches their suburban fastnesses and Upper West Side enclaves. In their post-#MeToo/George Floyd torpor, they resemble so many pathetic Mensheviks still solemnly intoning the principles of the Russian Revolution while mining salt in the gulag. Some are already distancing themselves from the letter, perhaps hoping to be spared fates worse than Twitter embarrassment.
An obscure American Studies ‘lecturer’ called Kerri Greenidge withdrew her signature. Someone called Jennifer Finney Boylan, whose latest intellectual achievement appears to be a book about pet dogs, abjectly apologized for associating herself with people of whom others disapprove. Vox writer Matthew Yglesias has expressed a desire to move on after a transgender colleague denounced him as disappointing.
You can easily imagine this bunch rolling along in tumbrils alongside the Girondists, those befuddled moderates of the French Revolution, who made a great show of singing La Marseillaise on their way to the guillotine, or hiding in their offices with square communist apparatchiks after struggling to be hip in about 1988. Not one of them has the wit or the wisdom to realize the revolutions — if this is one — devour their own children. Let’s enjoy the show while we wait for Thermidor.