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On July 7, Harper’s Magazine published an “Open Letter” signed by around 150 luminaries from the fields of academia, writing, music and more. Its abstract title, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” and relatively short length did not suggest it would become such a controversial piece of writing. Yet, within 24 hours, it had ignited a heated debate in liberal circles.
A week later, one of the letter’s signees, Bari Weiss, publicly resigned from her position as an editor and opinion writer at The New York Times. While the two events were ostensibly unrelated, Weiss’ resignation letter expressed a clear link: resistance to illiberal attacks on open debate in liberal spheres.
Harper’s letter on justice and open debate
An open letter in Harper’s Magazine would not be an obvious cultural flashpoint, especially among younger generations. Launched in 1850, Harper’s is the longest-running “general-interest” monthly magazine in the United States. While its history includes countless notable contributors, its current circulation numbers don’t even put in the top 500 magazines in the country.
But on July 7, when “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” appeared online, it created a firestorm on social media. On the face of it, the letter’s content doesn’t appear especially controversial.
The letter starts with positive recognition of the current “overdue demands for police reform,” as well as “equality and inclusion across our society.” The letter also criticizes President Donald Trump as “a powerful ally” of “the forces of illiberalism” in the world.
The controversy begins as the first of three paragraphs ends with a call to “speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.” The next paragraph warns that while the “radical right” can be censorious, such resistance to free speech is spreading across the political spectrum.
“It is now all too common,” the letter states, “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.”
The letter’s authors express dismay that writers, artists, journalists, professors, researchers and others are refusing to take risks or question liberal orthodoxy because of “the threat of reprisal.”
In the final paragraph, the letter cautions against a “stifling atmosphere” that will invariably hurt “those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.”
It 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.”
Who signed the Harper’s letter?
While many of the letter’s signees are academics who lack widespread name recognition outside their field, the full list represents a cross section of some of the biggest intellectual and creative names in the US and beyond.
On the list is philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky, feminist icon and journalist Gloria Steinem, bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and renowned jazz trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, to name just a few.
A few well-known novelists are on the list as well, including the author of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood and J.K. Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter series.
Rowling’s inclusion on the list is one of the reasons the letter stirred up so much controversy.
The successful British author has recently been on the receiving end of heated criticism for statements that have been deemed transphobic. Rowling has stated she does not believe transgender people are the gender they identify as, but says she still supports them.
In support of transphobia?
Some interpreted the Harper’s letter in light of Rowling’s recent controversies, with the vagueness of the language providing an indirect defense of transphobic views.
Vox critic Emily VanDerWerff tweeted her response to the letter the day it was published. VanDerWerff is a trans woman and her colleague at Vox, Matthew Yglesias, was one of the signees of the Harper’s Letter. Her response was a letter written to the editors at Vox.
VanDerWerff says she was “deeply saddened” to see Yglesias had signed the open letter because the letter was signed by “several prominent anti-trans voices” and contains “many dog whistles toward anti-trans positions.” VanDerWerff adds that, while she respects Yglesias’ right to share his opinion and doesn’t want him to face any retribution for it, she is still concerned.
“I am used to hearing them [anti-trans opinions] from people who believe my own lived experiences pale in comparison to their own momentary social media discomfort. I’m sorry to find Matt among those voices.”
A few of the letter’s signees expressed regret after the controversy arose. The author Jennifer Finney Boylan tweeted on July 7, “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.”
Other critics of the Harper’s letter have said that there is some irony that some of the people with the largest publishing platforms in the world are expressing concerns over censorship.
Bari Weiss resigns from The New York Times
Among the other prominent signees was Weiss, who, since 2017, had been an editor and writer for The New York Times. On July 13, she posted her resignation letter to the Times on her website. She addressed it to A.G. Sulzberger, the paper’s publisher.
Weiss’ resignation letter cites recent incidents at the Times as her reason for leaving, including the apparently forced resignation of an editor, James Bennet, after the publication of a roundly decried op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton. To many readers, Cotton’s piece appeared to be advocating for the use of military force to quell public protests across the nation.
While the piece remains up, it now includes a disclaimer: “After publication, this essay met strong criticism from many readers (and many Times colleagues), prompting editors to review the piece and the editing process. Based on that review, we have concluded that the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published.”
Weiss states such recent editorial decisions show a lack of courage.
“If a piece is perceived as likely to inspire backlash internally or on social media, the editor or writer avoids pitching it. If she feels strongly enough to suggest it, she is quickly steered to safer ground.”
Bari Weiss’ brief career at the Times
Weiss has been a controversial figure in her time at the paper, regularly criticizing progressives and taking questionable positions in her op-eds, such as arguing in favor of cultural appropriation.
She also wrote a much-maligned criticism of the #MeToo movement, which erroneously saddled the movement with the phrase “Believe All Women.” The actual expression is “Believe Women” and refers to giving serious credence to complaints of sexual harassment and assault, not assuming women always tell the truth.
Weiss, who is Jewish and the author of a book entitled “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” also criticized the founders of the Women’s March protest because of their connection to Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan is the leader of the Nation of Islam and is known for having anti-Semitic views.
Weiss’ decision to leave, she says in her resignation letter, is not meant to be taken as a criticism of the journalists at the Times. It is, instead, a direct response to the “illiberal environment” at the paper. She believes that environment is the result of the leadership being unwilling to stand up for unpopular opinions.
“I’ve always comforted myself with the notion that the best ideas win out. But ideas cannot win on their own. They need a voice. They need a hearing. Above all, they must be backed by people willing to live by them.”
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