A major critique of the illiberalism of the Left

July 7, 2020 • 1:15 pm

This letter, or statement, was just published today in Harper’s, Le Monde, Die Zeit, La Repubblica, and El País.  It’s a really good piece of work, calling out the Right for censoriousness, but, importantly, the Left (most of the signatories seem to be on that side), for restricting debate. I’d like to quote the whole thing, but I’ll reproduce about a third of it because you need to look at the signatories, too. Click on the screenshot to read.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. 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. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. 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.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. . .

This paragraph is sandwiched between two others. I bet you could name an example of every action mentioned here (e.g., editors being fired = James Bennet; journalist barred from writing on certain topics = Andrew Sullivan, professor fired for quoting literature in class = Philip Adamo, and so on).

And the signatories are well known, far more credible than the many outraged students who went after Pinker the other day.  Here are just a few I know of (note that they are by no means all “old white men”):

Martin Amis
Noam Chomsky
Roger Cohen
Malcolm Gladwell
Rebecca Goldstein
Jonathan Haidt
Randall Kennedy
Laura Kipnis
Wynton Marsalis
John McWhorter
Steve Pinker
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Katha Pollitt
J. K. Rowling
Salman Rushdie
Judith Shulevitz
Gloria Steinem
Nadine Strossen
Bari Weiss
Garry Wills
Emily Yoffe, etc.

And there are many more. Publicize this letter on social media, and adhere to it in spirit, as I do. Even if we’re fish too small to be on the letter, we can endorse it all over the place. I don’t know who organized this effort, but it’s international and impressive.


52 thoughts on “A major critique of the illiberalism of the Left

  1. Thank you. We were just sitting around the lunch table discussing Woke suppression of scary ideas and asking ourselves what we could do. You, and the signatories, have done it for us. Thanks again.

    1. The letter is fine, but, really, do we have to get in some obligatory diss of Trump? And in the first paragraph for heaven’s sake.

      Is that simply an easy virtue signal of one’s neo-liberalism?

      When it comes to the issues of open debate Trump is not the problem, or even tangential to the problem. I’d say the debate about Trump is about as wide open as you can get. Trump hasn’t de-platformed or cancelled anybody, last I looked. He’s lost court cases, and failed to get legislation passed, and hasn’t tossed political enemies into prison or given a pass to political enemies who SHOULD have been in prison, unlike, say, the previous administration

      A threat to democracy? Puhleez. Why don’t we just drop the niceties and compare him to Hitler?

      1. Including tRump in this letter serves a very important purpose. It points out exactly the kind of person who will be implementing the “cancelling” being called for by illiberals. It is not “easy virtue signaling”.

      2. In my opinion, Trump represents the most serious threat to our democracy, certainly in my lifetime.

        His flouting of law, calling into question the legitimacy of our elections (and all of our other institutions), his attempted judicial meddling, his ignoring of subpeonas, his choice of yes-men, his inviting foreign powers to meddle in our elections, his kissing up to dictators, his pining after a third term, his threats to use the military against peaceful protestors, his trying to silence critical books, his refusal to adhere to historical standards of conduct for POTUS, his daily violation of the Presidential Records Act.

        No need to compare him to Hitler.

        History will be very harsh on Mr. Trump. (Worst president in US history. Most corrupt administration since Harding’s.)

        1. Yeah, but…. tRump is the product of decades of Republican Party political strategy. I fear his removal without a complete flushing of the religious right that his regime rests on.

      3. When it comes to the issues of open debate Trump is not the problem, or even tangential to the problem.

        You mean the guy who just tried to suppress the publication of two books critical of him, the “prior restraints” doctrine of the First Amendment be damned? Or the guy who recently proposed making flag-burning a crime punishable by a mandatory one-year term of imprisonment (settled First Amendment jurisprudence be damned again)? Trump’s “not the problem,” my ass.

        You don’t like the first paragraph, pick up a pen, write a letter of your own.

        1. The thing that burns my bacon is that tRump, Miller, and whoever else helps him with his hate, know full well his pronouncements are unconstitutional. But, they also know that their base has no idea, and assume whatever he says will become law. They love this stuff. It’s BS, but it serves it’s subversive purpose.

        2. Trump is a diversion. The problem of repression of ideas and independent thinking exists in many thousands of places – campuses, newsrooms, boardrooms, the heads of almost all who belong to the professional educated middle class. I don’t mind Trump being ritually excoriated in that first paragraph if it gives cover to intellectuals who don’t want to be found in his company. However, if the problem emanated from him it could soon be solved. This problem is hydra-headed, and most of the heads abominate Trump.

          1. Difference between them and him is (as Blaze Foley would put it) “He’s the President,” with all the power that entails, and with the hardcore support of around 40% pf the American public that gives not a shit about anyone’s free speech but their own, as is always the case with reactionaries:


            Ol’ Blaze wrote that tune during the Reagan era, but if you change “movie star” to “teevee star,” it applies with even more vigor to Donald Trump.

            1. Sure, the knuckle-draggers of the right mock the pointy heads and all that, but they don’t go in for all that shaming, firing, and forced confession of sins. They didn’t do that even in the days when I lived in a small very conservative city in west Texas. A certain kind of leftist prof might be considered unsaved, eccentric, or even politically suspect, but more in pity than in anger and not worth attempting to hound out of a job or publicly humiliate. That’s not really the style of those who don’t inhabit the world of ideas and therefore don’t get too excited by them. (And, of course, if such a prof, even one who had attended an ivy league school, spoke well of Texas, almost any unsoundess in other matters would be forgiven.) No, whatever the pathologies of the right or the damage inflicted on the Republic by Trump, excommunication and sending to the gallows for deviations from the gospel is a sickness of the intellectual classes. The letter in Harpers willl help to fight the fever. On that we are agreed.

      4. It’s so hard to tell these days, so please forgive me, but is this satire?

        If not you have a near perfect performance. Nearly everything you claimed directly and by implication is inaccurate.

  2. Thanks. It’s a depressing time, and, while I don’t think this letter will change minds, it’s important that we recognize that as liberals were not alone.

    1. Yes, it’s easy to feel outnumbered and that the entire culture has changed when it’s not necessarily so.

  3. This letter is quite welcome because it is an attempt to stop extremism in its tracks. I am impressed that it is published in Harper’s, a very liberal publication. It is a clarion call for intellectual freedom, free from intimidation from the both the far left and far right. I recognize about half the signers, many of them liberal. I hope the letter has the effect of severing the attempt by the right wing to associate liberals with the ilk of petty authoritarians that attempt to smear Pinker and many others. The latter may be on the left of the political spectrum, but they are not liberals. At last, the long overdue pushback has emerged. Perhaps the letter will stiffen the spine of those who cave in at the merest whimpering of the young and the ignorant.

    1. Indeed. “Liberal” is now used as an epithet on the left. Much to my surprise and consternation. At least among the woke in my area who end up blathering on local NPR.

      1. This has been the case for quite a while. Republicans used the word as a slur for a very long time which led many Democrats to avoid the label. In part this led to the resurrection of the old word “progressive” as a way of proudly staking claim to views that are left-of-center. I personally claim both words.

      2. Glad to hear that. If right and left are now both using “liberal” as a derogatory term then they are damning themselves.

  4. Some of the names on the list were unexpected, at least to me, including those of Chomsky, Pollitt, and Steinem. And there may be other pronouncedly leftist thinkers on it whom I just don’t know. In any event it is a badge of honor and intellectual honesty that with those political commitments they not only signed the letter but joined their names to many who are definitely out of favor with the woke left. It makes me look at them in a different way. It also suggests that there are others on the left who are also appalled by these repressive manifestations of wokeness but lack the integrity or the guts to step forward.

    1. Whatever one might think about Chomsky, he’s always been very consistent on his “free speech absolutism” as it is often called (and derided, sometimes).

  5. What a breath of fresh air! That is indeed an impressive list, and the list of people perpetuating the BS are probably unknowns.

  6. There’s an interesting point in Arthur Miller’s filmscript for The Crucible (though not in the original play) where Danforth, who has shown himself willing to believe any accusation Abigail Williams makes, warns her off when she over-reaches and accuses the wife of an allied minister: “You are mistaken, child. You understand me?” Maybe some people who have gone along with this nonsense until now are beginning to see how dangerous it is.

  7. I don’t know what to make of the signatories list. It includes Jennifer Finney Boylan, who is a trans woman and writes what is essentially a social justice column for the New York Times. She penned this recently


    in which she excoriates J. K. Rowling using the same kind of deliberate misreading and Twitter quote mining that the Harpers signatories decry. Makes me wonder how many of the signatories really care about these issues, or can see themselves when they look in the mirror.

      1. Ha excellent I didn’t see Rowling in that list!

        I guess it’s possible that JFB had a change of heart, and she really does believe in an exchange of views with JKR and other feminists over what it means to include trans women with other women for some purposes but not others. I hope so – that would be a positive outcome.

    1. We know this how? And who’s this “we” anyway — somebody got a mouse in his pocket or practicing phonetic French?

      PS – Tell “Freddy” to learn how to use “literally.”

  8. That’s the most heartening missive I’ve read recently (not that it’s had a lot of competition of late).

  9. I agree with this letter completely, and thank you for re-publishing it. If there’s anything that’s important to rescuing our country from it’s terrible current predicament, it’s the free expression of opinion on all sides. I said as much when the New York Times was roundly criticized for publishing Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed weeks ago.

  10. For once I can say “I agree completely with Noam Chomsky!” I was also heartened to the great cultural critic Greil Marcus among the signers.

    Of course this document has already caused much gnashing of teeth on twitter. Some fool argued the letter provided no concrete examples of cancel culture going too far. Did he miss the stunningly obvious reference to the researcher “fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study”? But at least letters like these will make the enemies of free speech stand up and show themselves.

    Another criticism from the keyboard warriors is that none of the signers have been cancelled. This would be news to Salman Rushdie, who had the honor of being personally cancelled by an Ayatollah, but even if it wasn’t true it wouldn’t matter. If some of the signers are secure in their jobs, they are giving support to those who share their beliefs but haven’t spoken out because they are in less secure positions and fear the repercussions.

    1. Another criticism I read on Twitter is that many of the signers are millionares. Remember, don’t engage the argument, only attack the person making the argument.

      1. That’s sort of their modus operandi because the argument is secondary to who’s making the argument and their entire lives experience based on their identity.

  11. Good to see Chomsky signing alongside Pinker, after refusing to sign the letter to the Linguistic Society of America.

  12. I didn’t see Dawkin’s name there, surprisingly.
    And were *I* a more famous writer I’d like to think they’d ask me. 🙂

    Good job defending Pinker yesterday, btw, that whole train wreck with the MLA was shocking.
    D.A., J.D., N.Y.C.

    1. Actually, Boylan is still a signatory, but apologized for signing.

      She is a trans woman, and JK Rowling signed it…..so……..

  13. The letter is fine but why did they publish it on continental European countries, given it relates to the USA?. Furthermore, in many European countries liberals are clearly on the right side of the political spectrum: they favour freedom of trade and exploitation of workers and are against social progress.

    1. Or alternatively, why did they make some of the language US-centric when the problem goes so far beyond the USA and some of the signatories with the highest profiles (Rushdie, and Rowling, for example) are not from the USA? We have the same problem here in Australia, and they certainly have it in the UK. I’ve also seen it come up in countries like France, though I don’t have a good sense of how bad it is there. That was my only problem with it: the US-centric spin on an international problem was unnecessary and distracting. That said, it’s a very good letter, and if I’d been a bigger fish, and had been invited to sign it, I’d have gladly done so despite that one reservation.

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