No retraction. Margaret Atwood's name remains on the now controversial Harper's letter

July 10, 2020   5 mins

Is it possible to re-establish the bare minimum rules of political disagreement in the internet age? Latest developments at the front line of the culture wars would suggest not.

Earlier this week a group of 150 writers appended their names to an open letter published in Harper’s Magazine (note to British readers — this is not the same thing at Harper’s and Queen, which would be a stranger home for such a declaration).

The contents were, as at least one signatory admitted, fairly anodyne. The letter spoke of “the free exchange of information and ideas” and of how this constituted “the lifeblood of a liberal society”. It went on to criticise the current vogue for ‘cancelling’ people because of their expressed opinion, stating that “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.”

All of which seems eminently reasonable, almost to the point of something so bland it hardly needs to be said. What is more, the organisers of the letter were clearly careful to signal that they were based in the dead-centre/centre-left of the political culture wars; its opening paragraph spoke of the “forces of illiberalism [that] are gaining strength” and which have, according to the letter, “a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy”.

This latter offering probably made good political sense to the writers. After all, the last four years have increasingly seen ‘free speech’ being depicted as some kind of ‘alt-right’ issue. If you are in favour of free speech but would like to be seen as politically respectable then it is crucial that you clear your throat by denouncing the US President as an equal threat (at least) to the illiberal Left. Otherwise your peers may have too easy a time presenting you as yet another tiki-torch-wielding racist.

The signatories of the letter were well chosen. There were plenty of women among their number; not all of the signatories were white. And there was even – rarest of all — a degree of political diversity among the signatories. As well as people like Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and J.K. Rowling — all figures identifiably of the political Left — the letter was also signed by David Frum, former speechwriter to George W Bush and ardent ‘never-Trump’-er.

In a way this cut-off point only a millimeter to the Right of the political centre told its own story about the extent of political diversity. If you are to get a large group of Left-wingers to sign a letter, even a letter in support of a fundemantal liberal principle like free speech, one must be careful not to contaminate them by proximity to anyone further to the Right than David Frum.

So much for the bravery of the Harper's letter

By Freddie Sayers

Alas even this cautious positioning did not entirely work. J.K. Rowling may be the most successful author of her generation, perhaps of all time, and a woman whose political views have always denoted her as being of the political Left. But in recent months an author idolised by millions of young readers has asserted that biological sex exists and that, while trans people should be afforded the same rights and dignity as everyone else, nevertheless they are not quite the same thing as born-women.

For expressing this view J.K. Rowling has come to be viewed by a certain type of activist as to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from Donald Trump or Steve Bannon. So the Harry Potter creator affixing her signature to the Harper’s letter was already going to be a provocation too much for some sensitive souls, while the inclusion of even one solitary figure — Frum — from the centre-Right made the whole affair too toxic for others to bear.

From the moment that the letter was published its critics were inadvertantly revealing why it needed to be written in the first place. Many asserted that cancel culture did not exist, that it was another example of the interminable ‘gas-lighting’ or ‘dog-whistle’ claims of an increasingly marching Right. Many of the activists making this claim were, of course, also arguing that signatories of the letter should be cancelled, for proximity to transphobia, among other thought-crimes. Vox’s Matt Yglesias was denounced by his own colleague because, of course, political opinions threaten safety; this, again, proved the point of the letter.

Elsewhere, and perhaps even more enjoyably, there were those who objected to the idea that in a letter purporting to span the political divide there should be people on the list who, er, spanned the political divide. One of the signatories, a little-known author called Jennifer Finney Boylan, even issued an apology within hours of the letter’s publication. “I did not know who else had signed that letter,” she wrote: “I thought I was endorsing a well-meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company. The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.”

It must be an awful thing to discover, that. You wake one morning believing that you have just signed the usual “well-meaning, if vague” letter alongside a genocide-denier and other reputable Left-wing authors, only to discover that a former speechwriter to a Republican president is on the same list of names as yours. What a lot of weight that must be to bear. Almost intolerable in its way.

Of course, others did not even reach the great point of bravery achieved by Jennifer Finney Boylan. Some authors revealed that the letter had come across their desks but that they had given it a pass, among them someone called Kaitlyn Greenidge, who announced on Twitter that the letter had been passed to her a week before.

“I was so mad about it when I read it and have been angry about it for days,” she tweeted. She then copied in the email she had written to the organisers in which she wrote that she did not think that ‘cancel culture’ was a real threat. “Or, at least, I do not believe being asked to consider the history of anti-blackness and white terrorism when writing a piece, after centuries of suppression of any other view in academia, is the equivalent of a loss of institutional authority.”

In a way the reaction to the Harper’s letter neatly demonstrates the impossibility of the task it sought to achieve. A letter calling for unity across political divides showed up the great political problem of the era, which is not intolerance in the general, but the absolute unwillingness of the political Left to tolerate the political Right. In trying to be inclusive it was accused of including people accused of bigotry; in attempting to find a common cause for writers to unite around it was accused of providing cover for ‘white terrorism’. In attempting a ‘hang together’ ethic it found some of its number hanging apart within hours of lift-off.

It is bad news, this. It suggests the difficulty of finding any ethic around which our societies might unite. For all the decency of their stand, the Harper’s organisers could not reach out in any real way. They dared not, for instance, reach out to any figures who are supportive of the current President of the United States, a figure who, while divisive, happens also to have been elected. Why were Roger Kimball, Conrad Black or Victor Davis Hanson not among the letter’s signatories, for example, if the aim was to show that liberal society offered a wide spectrum of debates that could be reasonably argued?

And yet, even in a letter whose lines of delineation were chosen with exceptional, unrepresentative care, the wider, clamouring crowd could not be satisfied. Is it the worst thing in the world that the Harper’s letter met such an opposition? Obviously not. Is it a bad sign? Absolutely.

Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.