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The emptiness of open letters With enough signatories, any demand will be fulfilled

He's no Diderot. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

He's no Diderot. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

July 23, 2021   6 mins

“We are not interested in debate,” declared the authors of a recent open letter to the Danish Academy of Arts. Instead, “let us together break down what these walls have built”. But what did the walls of the Danish Academy of Arts build, exactly? Prior to the letter, a bust of Frederic V, the man who founded the Academy, had been tossed into the ocean on the assumption that the construction work was financed by slave trade. Not only was it not — it was financed by trade with China, where no Danish colonies ever sat foot — this statue-toppler was later found to be a Head of Department within the academy itself.

Lettered demands of such a kind are not too rare. In just the past two months, some 140 academics at Oxford University signed a statement saying that they would boycott students at a college with a statue of Cecil Rhodes; journalists at America’s leading newspapers called on their industry to stop obscuring “the systemic oppression Palestinians”; and England’s football manager wrote an impassioned letter defending his players taking the knee.

So far, so uninspiring. Yet that hasn’t always been the case. The most famous open letter is arguably J’Accuse by Émile Zola. Published in 1898 by L’Aurore, Zola launched an epistolary missile against the French authorities’ decision to sentence Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French artillery officer, to lifelong penal servitude. The decision was made following suspicions of Dreyfus having treasonously crafted and leaked a bordereau containing military secrets, to the Germans. What Zola did was to prove that no such evidence was present. By means of a larger epistolary campaign, Zola managed to mobilise broad public support for his cause. Dreyfus was released from his Penal Colony and rehabilitated.

Just as effective at utilising the open letter for political means was the ardent satirist Jonathan Swift, who in the years 1724 and 1725 wrote the not-at-all-satirical Drapier’s Letters. In a similarly prolonged epistolary crusade, Swift managed to mobilise much of Ireland against the nobility and the fraudulent, debased coins of a certain William Wood — and the Irish needed mobilising, for, according to Swift, “no people ever appeared more utterly void of what is called public spirit”. Wood’s patent was withdrawn, and Swift’s epistolary success quickly earned him the title “darling of the populace”.

Later, Thomas Mann, the great German novelist, fell back on the open letter when in 1937, after his excommunication from Germany, The University of Bonn “obliged to strike your [Mann’s] name off its roll of honorary doctors”. Mann encouraged the Dean to advertise Mann’s letter on the bulletin board, as it may give a student “a brief revealing glimpse of the free world of the intellect that still exists outside”.

And it was the intellect of his homeland, rather than a petty honorary position, that Mann sought to address. He foresaw what would happen to the Germany he loved, and he hoped to inspire broadly — with the Dean merely a proxy — the whole nation to reconsider its nationalist socialist parade. That Mann addressed the whole of the German nation becomes clear near the end of the letter. “I had forgotten, Herr Dean, that I was still addressing you.”

Dreyfus was falsely accused, John Wood did indeed attempt a nation-wide scam and we all know what path the German nation was on in 1937. In Zola’s, Swift’s and Mann’s cases, they risked careers to turn open letters into truth and justice. It was direct democracy at its most appropriate. How, then, did the open letter lose its way?

Perhaps we should admit, before advancing, that the open letters of today share one thing in common with the earlier epistolary triptych — a reverence of the letter as a tool of direct democracy. In March, for example, the economic historian Gregory Clark was deplatformed with an open letter because the title of his presentation, For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls, was “recognised as offensive” by prospective attendees.

The letter was effective at achieving its goal, just as Zola was. What was missing — contra Zola, Mann, Swift — was the obvious truth of the argument present in the letter. The democratic function of the letters of Zola, Mann, and Swift was a product the sheer brilliance of argument and fact presented in the letter. No signatories were needed. The letter spoke for itself. The Clark letter, as well as any other contemporary letter, is quite a different beast.

It was a game of signatories; given enough signatories, any demand may be fulfilled, however base, and modern letter writers have realised this. With only one signatory, there is nothing but the naked argument. With a million signatories, the argument stands in the shadows of numbers. Zola, Mann, Swift revolted against a specific, particular case, and relied on fact and argument to present their case. Our letters of today retreat from such a practice.

It all started with Erasmus of Rotterdam, who sought to unite the Catholic south and various reformations in the North by popularising the letter as a road to inner reflection and rediscovery of a true, forgotten nature of ancient times. However, the unifying project of Erasmus and the Renaissance humanists did not entirely succeed. As the Roman Orthodoxy met the North and its various reformations of the church, the unity of the republic of letters began to deteriorate. The scholastic north wanted to break with the humanist south and sought to use the epistolary form not so much as a window into the soul or to a forgotten past of complete unity, but as a means of scientific, precise communication across borders.

Indeed, by the time of the Enlightenment some centuries later, what united a new, emerging Republic of Letters was no longer common ancestry, but common respect for the pursuit of knowledge and nature. In a distinctly demonstrative move to swiftly dispense of the humanists’ reverence of the ancients, the new scholarly community switched from Latin to French as their favoured language of correspondence.

But while the humanist letter was no longer a respected means of communication, other forms of writing made headway. As such, printed journals and pamphlets entered the scene and travelled not only across Europe but also across the Atlantic, where a lettered spirit was also starting to flourish. In France, Diderot and D’Alembert published the famous EncyclopediĂ©, collecting texts from over 130 writers, mostly scientists, and in Holland, in 1684, Pierre Bayle began publishing his newsletter Nouvelles de la RĂ©publique des Lettres.

Alongside the emergence of pamphlets, newsletters, and encyclopedias, which united scholars across the biosphere, the density of the network of private correspondences also intensified. According to Voltaire, in his Letters on England (1733), “there never was a more universal correspondence kept between philosophers than at this period”.

The first organised break with the Republic of Letters and scholastic community occurred in the pietist Germany, a country which didn’t have a firing squad of philosophes and who, scientifically and economically, lacked behind France, Holland, and England. The attack was to be called Romanticism. As Marc Fumaroli put it, for the Romantics, per the end of the 18th century, “all that was left was hell, the interim millennium during which the arts were interrupted”.

This was to change, and the letter would once again be a means of artful introspection. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin, in his book, The Roots of Romanticism (1965), sees the Romantic movement as deeply rooted in the pietists “contempt for learning, contempt for ritual and for form, contempt for pomp and ceremony, and a tremendous stress upon the individual relationship of the individual suffering human soul with her maker”. Romantic figures such as J.G. Hamann, Herder and Giambattista Vico revolted against the general, scientific systems of the French philosophes on the account that it betrayed the uniqueness of the individual. The letter was again to be a window into the soul, and the novel to be seen as a respected medium for inquiries into truth. “A man
 in knowledge of all the sciences which the Encyclopedists had recommended — such a man would be a form of death in life,” Berlin notes.

For the romantics, authenticity, not generality, was the heart of human affairs. Each man, each culture, at all times, must be treated with care, to reach its utmost, authentic expression. In some sense, the Romantic movement represented a radical individualism of self-expression where any attempt at generality would be an unnecessary reduction of the fullness of life. But according to this logic, a nation is also an individual which must strive to fulfil its utmost expression.  The nation, in the form of “ethnotypes” became an open letter, or a novel, to be read on its own terms and not to be interfered with.

There is an echo in our time of Renaissance Humanism and Romantic thought in our reverence of the open letter. The Romantic movement saw any nation, any culture, any group, as having the right to sign a letter and have their voice be heard. Correspondence was risky, for it would interfere with the authenticity of and respect for the individual. The last few years has witnessed a rise in such understanding of the convenience of a certain type of open letter. It has foreseeably been accompanied by much talk about “lived experience” from politicians. Overwhelmed by fictions and disinformation, we retreat into what we know — ourselves. One can put a signature on one’s lived experience and values. No one can deny it, just as no one can really confirm it.

Our new Republic of Letters is also deeply its own. The Romantics would have despised the game of signatories. It hollows out the voice of the single individual, they probably would have said. The Enlightenment Republic of Letters would have also despised it, arguing that no good can come of favouring personal signature over correspondence and dialogue.

Likewise we can, and we should, reject it. The success of a society can be partially measured by, accelerated and decelerated by, the letters it writes. And so far, for us at least, it’s not looking too promising.

Daniel Skipper Rasmussen is a Copenhagen based journalist.

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tim williams
tim williams
2 years ago

Fine.I agree. But the academic insult that is the open letter from academics is missed. Normally we would expect an academic who is considered to have erred to be responded to academically. So an article would be answered by another article, both based on reason supported by evidence. Now a twitter frenzy or an open letter seems enough to get academic journals to withdrawn and even delete published academic articles. Surely we should just point out to the editors of such journals that all they need do is ask the complainants to do an academic riposte to an academic piece. And that riposte should itself be peer reviewed. Why this is not happening speaks eloquently of the collapse of standards we are seeing in university culture in the Western World, though not I believe in Asia. We currently have the dumbest elites in the history of civilisation.

Peter Francis
Peter Francis
2 years ago

Thanks, Daniel Rasmussen, for a highly readable history of the open letter. How many readers remember “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”, published in July, 2020? Signed by 153 “notables”, it complained about the growing “intolerance of opposing views”. Transgender activists claimed that this was transphobic, social justice warriors claimed it was anti-BLM and liberals claimed that it was just a dig at political correctness. I could go on, but the final irony was that some signers wanted their names removed when they realised that some of the other signers had right-of-centre views.
So despite the open letter’s condemnation for the “vogue for public shaming” and “the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”, those tendencies have continued apace.

Last edited 2 years ago by Peter Francis
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Shaky premise, I think.

I see the issue as in the past we had ‘Greats’, very respected thinkers and achievers that were known as that, and therefore their signature commanded at least reviewing their argument.

Today we have Celebrity, and then lots of Politicals, but no one who commands, popular, actual, respect as a thinker, and some ‘Experts’, but we think they all have an agenda of some kind..

That is why the Open Letter – they wish to show an entire class of people with some level of authority are collectively saying something.

That they inevitable end up being some loons all just flocking together further undermines what they are trying to promote.

July 2021 saw The Lancet “Over 1,200 doctors and scientists condemn UK COVID-19 policy as “dangerous and unethical” in a hysterical movement to keep lockdown. This suited the agenda, so they won.
This was one of a great many of scientists writing group signed open letters advocating a multitude of different things.. almost all pushing for Lockdown, that crazy form of ‘Self Harm’ which the Young of the West will be crushed paying for.
The best open letter was

“Great Barrington Declaration
The Great Barrington Declaration is a statement advocating an alternative approach to the COVID-19 pandemic which involves “Focused Protection” of those most at risk and seeks to avoid or minimize the societal harm of the COVID-19 lockdowns. Authored by Sunetra Gupta of the University of Oxford, Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University, and Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University, it was drafted at the American Institute for Economic Research in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and signed there on 4 October 2020″

And it did no good, may as well have not bothered, as it was correct – but was contrary to the Political Agenda, and so dismissed by the MSM, Social Media, and Government, the WHO, and the Medical Industrial Complex.

Anyway – that is the evolution of the open letter – the individuals are no longer of caliber to command respect in today’s systems (and deservedly so) – so groups try to manage by numbers, but that does not even matter – because today, with agenda driven Social Media Tech, MSM, Gov, algorithms, censoring, banning, we are powerless against the Swamp.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

The main problem with the Barrington declaration is that their argument was not convincing. They never gave good reason to believe that their policies would actually work as advertised. Protecting the very most vulnerable (who all need lots care and help from others) while everybody else around them got sick did not sound feasible – and would leave the slightly less vulnerable, like the over-60’s exposed. Protecting everyone over 60 was obviously impossible. Meanwhile the sick and dead from the less vulnerable – a small fraction of a very large number – would still weigh on the health system, the long-term consequences of COVID would still fall widely, and people would be unlikely to keep going to raves and restaurants while everybody got sick around them – we are not all fanatical libertarians. A very likely result of the Barrington policies would be that the measures for protecting the vulnerable would fail, and everybody would get sick, with death counts and hospital overfilling to match – but meanwhile the restaurants would stay open and nobody would be out to inconvenience.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

The Swedish example argues against the need for stringent government imposed lockdowns, and that of some US states as well. However none of this virtue signalling saying how much we cared about the elderly and vulnerable actually meant we protected them at all, as in care homes. I agree it is fundamentally difficult, but I would not say impossible, with thorough testing of staff, special facilities where staff would live in etc. The point is though that in neither Sweden, France, Spain, Italy, New York or the UK were the elderly meaningfully protected by the policies that they actually adopted. Shielding was effective, but precious little support was offered.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Accidental duplication. Removed

Last edited 2 years ago by Rasmus Fogh