The Coddling of the Elites

Free speech for whom, exactly?

Hamilton Nolan

"Farewell, a Long Farewell, to all my Greatness," Caricature showing Andrew Johnson, dressed as a King, Crying, Illustration, Harper's Weekly Magazine, USA, March 13, 1869. (Photo by: Glasshouse Vintage/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The search for justice” isn’t easy. The raw politics of achieving it are complex enough. Trying to define it — to find its philosophical and moral underpinnings — is harder still. But there is one very simple rule of thumb that will make this job easier: Anyone who attempts to define justice” as Whatever allows me to maintain my position atop the cultural hierarchy unchallenged” is a fucking fraud.

Perhaps the long fight to democratize the power arrangements in these fields did not catch the attention of the letter’s signatories because all of them already have secure and prominent positions and therefore do not have to worry about such earthbound problems?

I say this, of course, in the context of today’s letter, published in Harper’s and signed by more than 100 of the worst people in the world of public intellectualism, titled A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The letter is certainly not about any reasonable definition of Justice,” and is about Open Debate only to the extent that people who make very healthy salaries arguing in public for a living seem to have a bizarre aversion to being argued against. This aversion, I’m afraid, now borders on the pathological. We have entered a brave new world in which those waving the banner of Free Speech” accuse their opponents of being unable to take criticism while waging a histrionic campaign against anyone who dares to criticize them. Accusing your opponents of doing exactly what you are yourself guilty of is a classic propaganda technique. It works well, unfortunately.

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial,” the letter begins. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy and the arts. 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.” Anyone who has spent the last several years reading the work of Bari Weiss (a signatory) or David Brooks (a signatory) or Jesse Singal (a signatory) or Mark Lilla (a signatory) will be able to fill in the rest of the dreary text. It is the standard issue argument for free speech” as wielded only by those who already have power. As always, the power that these people already possess is completely invisible to them, while each and every slight that they suffer amounts to an assault upon the noble ideal of freedom.

This entire spectacle of a letter, published in one of America’s most prestigious magazines, signed by dozens and dozens of famous writers and journalists and academics, declaring breathlessly that We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other,” is almost intolerably exasperating. Its very existence is a devastating counterargument to its central point. Would it be rude to point out to these esteemed thinkers that the fact that they were considered prestigious enough to be invited to sign this letter is proof that they are not, in fact, being silenced? That, rather, this collective wallowing in self-pity over censoriousness” by a group of people employed by Harvard and Princeton and M.I.T. and the Brookings Institution and The Atlantic and The New York Times and a host of other elite institutions is evidence that perhaps they doth protest too much? If being a billionaire best-selling author like J.K. Rowling or the dean of Columbia Journalism School like Nick Lemann is somehow indicative of being particularly at risk for public shaming and ostracism,” I would like to humbly volunteer to trade places with them. They may find a position of lesser power, money, and influence more to their liking.

It’s all so very pathetic. The list of signatories of this letter correlates to no quality more strongly than People who have been yelled at a lot on Twitter.” This would be a good thing to laugh at, if only it didn’t threaten to co-opt an actually important movement for justice that is happening in parallel to its mewling cries for approval. There is one area in which people working in journalism and academia are at a real risk of oppression: labor rights. In the past decade — the same period in which these cries of cultural oppression from the elites have grown loudest — thousands of low-paid journalists and freelancers and adjunct professors and grad student workers and other campus workers have fought, and marched, and organized, and sacrificed to unionize. They have done so because many of them did not earn a living wage; many of them suffered from racial discrimination or sexual harassment or other forms of institutionalized injustice; and all of them lacked the power to be able to negotiate fairly on their own behalf. These are the people who actually make up the creative underclass. These are the people who work in the knowledge industries who are unable to exercise free speech, because they often do not have the economic or social or cultural or labor power to do so.

None of that, for some reason, came up in this letter. Perhaps the long fight to democratize the power arrangements in these fields did not catch the attention of the letter’s signatories because all of them already have secure and prominent positions and therefore do not have to worry about such earthbound problems? We may never know. We can say, however, that the letter was not just published but also signed by Harper’s publisher John R. MacArthur, who fought hard against his own employees’ union campaign.

As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes,” the letter concludes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.” It must be quite magical to live in a world in which it is considered unfair to judge a writer by the quality of their writing. Conservatives like to say that unions will produce that sort of implausible world in which it is impossible to fire incompetent people — but in fact, that life is enjoyed only by the famous, secure, elite sort of people who signed this letter. I do not disagree with their assertion that The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion.” They are doing an excellent job of exposing themselves already. 

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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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