Celebrities, Famous Pundits Put the Discourse at the Center of the Discourse

Everyone from J.K. Rowling to Noam Chomsky agrees that open debate is good, and they signed an open letter to say so.
July 8, 2020, 5:49pm
J.K. Rowling

Yesterday, 150 or so well-known people published an open letter in Harper's, long America's most prestigious venue for a certain kind of writerly journalism and more recently the kind of place where a publicist can assign a contrarian essay on the #MeToo movement over the staff's objections. Signed by celebrities ranging from Noam Chomsky to Wynton Marsalis to J.K. Rowling, the letter advanced the uncontroversial position that open debate is good.

Why this issue was so compelling to the signatories wasn't made exactly clear in the text of the letter itself, which was anodyne and much longer on ominous generalities ("The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted," etc.) than on specifics. In all, the point was that free thinkers must be allowed to speak publicly without fear of being canceled even if their ideas are bad. What was important, though, was less what was being said than who was saying it: not just celebrities like Salman Rushdie, who famously had a bounty put out on him for publishing a novel, but a motley crew of prominent academics and journalists, many the sort who write ponderous articles and books with variants of the word "liberal" in the title. If the letter didn't make an especially convincing case that the principles underlying a free society are under assault, it did make clear that such worthies as former New York Review of Books editor Ian Buruma and Harvard professor Steven Pinker are willing to bravely defend them.

The most interesting thing about the letter was probably the question of who organized it and why, especially after some of the signatories began disavowing it. (Historian Kerri Greenridge tweeted that she did not endorse the letter and had asked for a retraction of her name, while author Jennifer Finney Boylan tweeted, “I did not know who else had signed that letter. 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.”) Even after the New York Times reported that the letter was "spearheaded" by the essayist Thomas Chatterton Williams and grew out of his discussions with a small group including Columbia professor Mark Lilla, Rutgers professor David Greenberg, Atlantic writer George Packer, and Times Magazine writer Robert Worth, though, the answer remains mildly unclear.

Yesterday, Motherboard emailed Greenberg, having heard he was a driving force behind the letter. He emphatically denied it. "I was happy to sign it, and I asked some friends to sign," he wrote. (This was technically true.) Motherboard also emailed Lilla, having heard that he was a driving force. He replied, "There were so many cooks stirring the pot that we designated Thomas Chatterton Williams to field all questions for us." When asked who "we" was, he said, "The undersigned." (This was definitely not true.)

Williams was happy to discuss the letter. "Starting about a month ago," he said in an email, "several of us were having an informal conversation about organizing a response to what many feel to be the censorious and sometimes punitive atmosphere affecting our media and cultural institutions. We reached out to friends and contacts we knew or wanted to include (though there are many more that we could have included that we missed for a variety of reasons, it wasn’t scientific) and the list grew organically from there. It was really about responding to a mood, not about any one specific incident or event."

The haziness of the letter can probably be attributed in part to that origin in a mood, a feeling on the part of a few professors and writers for some of America's most powerful institutions that censoriousness is one of the great problems of the day. It could also perhaps be attributed to the process by which the letter was composed—it was first written by the small group, then repeatedly crowdsourced, with nearly two dozen people contributing language. Among the feedback was that a version of the letter focused solely on the threat to the discourse posed by the left would perhaps not have the desired effect.

"This is where you get tonal differences as the letter becomes something that 150 ideologically diverse writers and intellectuals need to feel comfortable with," Williams said. "The critique is against censoriousness and so after realizing that the letter would be incomplete by solely focusing on the left, we felt it was necessary to be absolutely clear that Trump is the canceller-in-chief."

(A lacuna here is that it's not entirely clear how Williams became the spokesperson for the group. Lilla, after claiming that Williams spoke for the undersigned, subsequently said that he spoke only for "those of us who tried to herd some wayward cats" and did so because they'd drawn straws and he lost. According to Williams, "We all thought I might have the most energy for it at this particular time." In any event, what people involved describe as a collaborative project ended with him being credited for spearheading the effort in the Times.)

The people Motherboard talked to generally expressed bewilderment at our interest in the mechanics of how the letter was drawn up and how the campaign was organized, stressing the great principles at play. "One of the points of the letter—lost on the Twitteristi—was to defend the position that people can agree on X and not have to agree on Y, that it’s not about persons but about arguments," said Lilla. " It doesn’t matter who formulated the statement; what matters is 150+ people signed because they agreed with the argument."

This of course seems a bit disingenuous, and not just because the letter didn't advance much of an argument at all; an anonymous letter on these lines wouldn't have been published in Harper's, and wouldn't have drawn any interest if it did. The persuasive force of the letter is entirely bound up in who signed it, in whose mood it's expressing. To that end it seems notable that the driving force behind it includes, for example, Lilla, a Columbia professor who just a couple of years ago published The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, based on his Times article "The End of Identity Liberalism." In a lengthy interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick discussing the book, he criticized the Black Lives Matter movement for using "Mau Mau tactics to put down dissent." His lack of fealty to the doctrines of the woke social-justice mobs doesn't seem to have done him much harm.

Most of the signatories Motherboard spoke to about the letter didn't have much to say about it other than that they think open debate is good. "I agreed with it and signed it," said Noam Chomsky, and that was a typical reaction. One, though, exasperated by some of the criticism the letter has received, mounted a vigorous defense.

"I don’t agree with the assessment that the letter is about people in cushy positions saying they shouldn’t have to be held accountable for their beliefs. I also don’t think it’s fair to say that this is a group of people who have never faced consequences for their work or attempts to be silenced," they said, noting Rushdie in particular. "I think it’s a form of silencing to dismiss anyone you disagree with as a racist, or transphobic, or, less seriously, as an out of touch elite."

The elites seem at little risk of being silenced. Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker congratulated himself for signing a document alongside people he disagreed with; Bari Weiss of the Times announced that she stood proudly with J.K. Rowling; and Yascha Mounk of Johns Hopkins and the Atlantic decried unspecified "crazy attempts to shame and fire people for signing this reasonably anodyne letter." (The closest thing to shaming that went on was probably Vox writer Emily VanDerWeff posting a perfectly civil note to her editors expressing disappointment at her colleague Matt Yglesias having signed the letter; it's unclear who called for anyone to be fired.) So the wheel spins. A vague open letter from a group of America's most prominent and most exasperated thinkers is probably not going to put paid to the censoriousness they are certain has gripped the culture. It will, though, do something to keep the discourse at the center of the discourse—a good thing, all can surely agree.

Additional reporting by Anna Merlan and Maxwell Strachan.