The Coddling of the Elites

Free speech for whom, exactly?

Hamilton Nolan July 7, 2020

"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. 

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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