- - Wednesday, July 15, 2020

American public intellectuals, those self-appointed arbiters of good taste and morality, are not exactly an honest collection of people. By and large, they reverse their positions depending on the winds of public opinion, always making sure to be on the correct side of fashionable debate. When they are not playing the grifter, they are attempting to set the terms of American civility by hectoring the public on their version of right and wrong, true and false, noble and ignoble. To observe these phenomena, read a New York Times editorial any day of the week.

But it just so happens that sometimes, in their mania to police thought, American public intellectuals gravely misstep. Sometimes, American public intellectuals lose control of the narrative they birthed and their creation turns on the creators. Witness, for instance, the termination of New York Times Opinion Editor James Bennet, who had the “audacity” to publish a condemnation (by a sitting U.S. senator!) of the excesses of the Black Lives Matters protests-turned-riots, who argued the military should be brought in to restore order. The loudest cries of criticism — and calls for his defenestration — came from the very own newsroom he created.


In what could cynically be interpreted as a pre-emptive defense against the left’s cancel culture from within, this past week, Harper’s Magazine published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” signed by scores of journalists, college professors, think-tankers, writers — good old American public intellectuals, all of them.

Readers will recognize the majority of the names on the list, for no reason other than they are, some of them, strident social-justice warriors. The below language, then, is a bit curious. The signatories, note “Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands ” then add “But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second.”

There is, in the totality of the letter, zero admission that the collective behaviors of the signatories or the organizations that employ them, are responsible for the “censoriousness” that has led to “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.”

This lack of self-reflection — and ownership — would be astounding, if it were not so sadly predicable. It’s hard not to interpret the Harper’s letter as anything more than an attempt by the so-called moderate left to immunize themselves from the radical furies they’ve awoken from within their ranks.

A much more powerful letter would have been one where accountability was taken. Where pledges were made to proactively curb the excesses of cancel culture, to speak up for anonymous civilians when their lives are made playthings by political pundits and the media, like what The Washington Post allowed — even pushed — to happen to Sue Schafer, a private citizen who, years ago, wore blackface (cluelessly, not maliciously) to a Halloween party hosted by the Post’s Tom Toles. The story, for some incredible reason, ran on the front page of the “Style” section. Thanks to the 2018 incident, Ms. Schafer lost her job. Her life is in ruins. The Harper’s signatories better believe that if this could happen to a private citizen, it could — and will — happen to them.

As it reads, the “Letter” is nothing more than an attempt at self-preservation. An attempt at preservation that, with every canceled American citizen, becomes less and less secure.

The “Letter” concludes, “We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.”

Let’s see if the signatories keep their promise.

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