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[dc]"A[/dc] Letter on Justice and Open Debate" dated July 7, 2020, is slated for publication in Harper's Magazine, signed by prominent writers including J.K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky, Malcom Gladwell, Michelle Goldberg, Bari Weiss, Matthew Yglesias, and Olivia Nuzzi, and multirole people that include Wynton Marsalis and Fareed Zakariah.

harper's letter

Here's an excerpt from the Harper's Letter:

"Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

Neither artists nor intellectuals can accept constraints that force creativity and inquiry into an eye of a needle through which society's camel must pass.

"This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other."

A term has come about to label this "thing" about which they are cautioning. It is "cancel culture." Why that, instead of something more accurate, like "social wave pop censorship," or "woke conformity," we don't know. Perhaps these additional excerpts from the letter are more enlightening:

"The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted," the letter said. "While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty."

The daily "Reliable Sources" e-newsletter by Brian Stelter was on it Tuesday night. Their feature includes these two points:

"As NYT's Jennifer Schuessler and Elizabeth Harris reported, 'On social media, the reaction was swift, with some heaping ridicule on the letter’s signatories...'"


"Kerry Flynn emails: After the letter published, historian Kerri Greenidge tweeted that she was 'in contact with Harper's about a retraction.' Harper's spokesperson Giulia Melucci told me the signees 'read and approved' the letter before it was posted and that 'no one is required to be in full ideological agreement with the other 150 (or so) signers.' But Harper's did end up removing Greenidge's name..."

Read the full multi-author letter here.

I find myself in agreement with the Harper's letter and its signers.

By default, that means I am prepared for criticism by the new movement that demands a singular perspective and finds multiple viewpoints intolerable.

Why am I jumping into the fray? Because there is no room for regimented, exclusionary "acceptable ideas" in the arts, my usual arena, and the arts reflect the highest aspirations of our species.

This has been coming for some time. This entire trend of sanitizing every aspect of culture to make it inoffensive to a lowest common denominator of the hypersensitive; it produces snowflakes incapable of seeing any other viewpoint. The sudden withdrawal of Aunt Jemimah pancake syrup and Uncle Ben's rice, when neither brand had a demeaning image, and in fact sold well because the products themselves were good, is illustrative. It's also a test, choosing those examples, to see who just got outraged.

Pulling-down a bust of Ulysses Grant, as happened last week, is likewise representative. Grant was the man who militarily won the Civil War for the Union and thereby ended slavery in the Southern slavocracy. So attacking him seems utterly incongruous. But look into it, and it illustrates the same new intolerance of puritan conformity.

Those who chose to deprive the public of that monument are enraged that "Grant had a slave!" Had they inquired at all, they would have learned that Grant was humiliated when given a slave by his father-in-law. Grant in turn embarrassed his in-law when he worked alongside the slave, in fact doing the same work, until he gave the man his freedom. And Grant did that, despite the fact that he desperately needed money and the emancipated man could have been sold for an appreciable sum.

The pulling-down of Confederate statues, though more complex, brings another example of a requirement for singular viewpoint. The accompanying rhetoric -- necessary to destroy any argument -- is suddenly, "These people committed TREASON against the United States and it is unacceptable that any image of them remain!"

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No less than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi emotionally evoked the "treason!" line last week when referring to righteously making ex-Confederates disappear.

Given the current climate that the Harper's letter "outs," it is scant wonder that no historian has risked objecting to the sudden one-size-fits-all label of "treason!"

In fact, that question was settled at the time, when surrendering Confederates were neither tried nor executed for treason.

The one man who was tried and executed was the commandant of a prisoner of war camp where those penned-up perished of hunger, disease, brutality and abuse. And that wasn't a trial for treason. Otherwise, that charge was used only in the trials of non-military conspirators for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Not only did ex-general Robert E. Lee become president of a university where he could influence the minds and loyalties of the impressionable young, but other former Confederate officers fought in the uniform of the re-United States in the Spanish-American War. This new requirement to paint with a broad brush and make every Confederate a reviled traitor is intellectually dishonest and denies the history of how those who defeated them treated them at the time.

The notion that the Confederacy is synonymous in all regards with slavery is likewise dishonest. The overwhelming majority of those who wore the grey or butternut uniforms never held another human being in bondage. Most were independent subsistence farmers who worked their land only with their families, or they were clerks or other townsfolk whose occupational experiences were indistinguishable from those who wore blue.

True, Southern macroeconomics were based on plantation agriculture that was built on a slavocracy. But the current demand for one viewpoint actually deprives us of considering the massive wealth disparities between the South's rich exploiters and the masses of poor. That would resonate in today's America if we could discuss the historical aspects without being shouted-down for trying.

In fact, even calling the conflict "The Civil War" has always been problematic for American history, because a true civil war is an insurrection against a government aimed at overthrowing it. The seceded states individually, and collectively as the Confederacy, never had any intention of overthrowing the government of the United States. They were separatists. Moreover, the Constitution as it stood at the time actually supported the argument that a state could secede -- and what state had already made that point, decades earlier? Try Massachusetts.

But modern writers are terrified of calling the conflict of 1861-1865 a failed war by separatists who wanted to establish their own nation and who, however imperfectly, saw their cause in the same light as the American Revolution.

Making such a statement is suddenly heretical, regardless of its historical validity. It will bring rabid attack and accusations that the one saying such a thing is either deluded by the myth of "The Lost Cause," and/or, an obvious racist. And the latter attack is almost guaranteed because arguments no longer ratchet-up based on evidence and exchanges. They immediately default to the nuclear option because outrage is the only criteria.

To which we counter, did any of those intolerant singularities of criticism ever see the award-winning, acclaimed-by-academics, Ken Burns' documentary series? In fact, it is doubtful that series could be made now, at all. Surely somebody would be offended that the names of Southern "traitors" were being glorified because of military prowess, when such names must never be spoken again within the hearing of the righteously outraged.

That comes with consequences. We deprive ourselves of making decisions to right wrongs -- things like taking the names of Ku Klux Klansmen off bridges and other public facilities -- when we revert to the Ancient Egyptian practice of chiseling names off everything that mentions them. In a larger sense, we will have no business being surprised when a younger generation is ignorant of how things got to be the way they are, if we seek to erase history by sanitizing it to remove our ability to consider and understand things.

These examples go beyond the generalities of the Harper's letter. But they are representative of why the letter was necessary and why so many prominent chroniclers signed it.

The Constitution itself beckoned future generations to pursue "a more perfect union." And there was plenty of reason to do so. But none among those authors -- the esteemed nor the scoundrels -- advocated a singular viewpoint as the only acceptable way that everyone must think. Want proof? Freedom of religion.

Demanding conformity without dialog, and with actual or anticipated reprisal if conformity is questioned, is fascism, plain and simple.

Consider it another way: take those participating in any given protest. Is everyone there for exactly the same reason? Is it fair to assume everyone is subscribing to the same agenda, with no allowance for diverse reasons that may, in fact, form the mosaic of motivations that cause individuals to become a crowd?

If there is resentment when certain conservatives attempt to claim protesters and looters and arsonists are the same singularity, then why isn't there consistency? Where is the resentment when equally ludicrous singularities are used to exclude the true range of diverse factors that are in play? Whether or not some pseudo thought police will allow recognition and consideration of the full picture isn't just intellectual honesty. It determines whether solutions are delusions.

Neither artists nor intellectuals can accept constraints that force creativity and inquiry into an eye of a needle through which society's camel must pass.

When free range, broadly exploratory inquiries are possible without offense, we will be an intellectually free society. It will enable us to default to evoking science and fully examining our foibles. Until then, we are constrained by fear, and deprived of voicing -- and acknowledging that we are dangerously pursuing -- free thinking.


Larry Wines