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The Week When Liberalism Fought Back
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The Week When Liberalism Fought Back

The forces of free speech take aim at cancel culture.

One of the fascinating aspects of the modern political realignment is the way in which former rivals have become allies, and former allies have become rivals. And it’s deeper than the normal “strange new respect” that each side always gives the ideological or political dissidents on the opposing team (“Wow, Jonathan Chait agrees with me. He’s more clever than I thought!”) 

A true political realignment often occurs outside the rhythms of normal political debate. Since I’m a nerd—and since this is my newsletter—I’m going to use a Battlestar Galactica analogy. Battlestar Galactica (the reimagined version) is of course one of the four greatest television shows of all time, and its four-season arc produced multiple memorable moments. 

Here’s one below. The story is complicated, but I’ll make it as simple as possible. After a devastating attack from the Cylons (a race of intelligent machines), the human fleet is reduced to a mere two capital ships, the “Battlestars” Galactica and Pegasus. Because those ships are full of humans, and humans have a tendency to fight, the two ships reached a point where they were on the verge of coming to blows. Then, suddenly, the ships’ sensors picked up what they thought was a Cylon contact, and this happened:

It’s a great visual. The instant they perceived the Cylon threat (they were mistaken, but bear with me), the feuding ships locked into formation and immediately addressed the greater danger. And, critically, they would remain (relatively) united so long as the greater danger persisted. 

Ok, now let’s leave BSG and get real again. Time and again, I’m experiencing new alliances with old rivals. At different times and in different spaces it’s dawned on us that we’re experiencing an intellectual and political threat to the constitutional and cultural structures of our republic. 

Here’s what I mean: For a long time our culture war has been fought largely within a set of agreed procedural and systemic norms. One side or the other might seek a greater or lesser scope for free speech, or for due process, but they were going to strongly agree that free speech and due process should exist and should be robust. 

That consensus created an inherent stability in our system. We could disagree—very strongly—on the outcome of any given policy question, but a political loss on the policy did not make us question the system itself. In other words, if I lost a debate, I did not think that the answer should be to silence my opponent so that only my voice should prevail. If a jury returns a negative verdict, the classical liberal’s response shouldn’t be “abolish juries.” 

Indeed, through the long, slow advance of American liberty, the cry of America’s marginalized communities hasn’t been, “Overthrow the system!” but rather “Make us part of the republic. Let us join the system.” 

But now, on the left and the right, we’re increasingly seeing powerful people and powerful institutions question the system itself. Liberalism itself is under attack. I was at the epicenter of one of those conversations last year, when the very idea that some Americans would exercise their free speech rights to host a drag queen story hour led other Americans to reject cornerstones of classical liberal free speech doctrine. 

On college campuses, the desire to see a specific desired case outcome (more men held responsible for alleged sexual assault) led to an attack on due process itself, including calling into question some of the most hallowed aspects of American adjudication, including the right of cross-examination.

Cancel culture—including not just terminations, but also attempts at intimidation—puts our nation’s free speech culture under siege, and raises the prospect that our national disputes will become decided less through efforts at debate and persuasion and more through exercises of raw power. 

In fact, it’s important to talk for a moment about the difference between liberty and power. Right-wing integralists will often speak glowingly of the “liberty of the church.” But they are really seeking to enhance the power of the church, often at the expense of the liberty of other faiths. Yet the exercise of power is not the exercise of liberty. Instead, liberty is designed to exist regardless of your power and often in defiance of power. 

Cancel culture, by contrast, is often an exercise of raw power. It declares, we will not debate. We will silence. 

Different liberals draw different lines on when power ends and liberty should begin. But the key is that the line exists, and the line should give relatively broad room for inquiry and debate. Liberty doesn’t just need legal protection (though that’s indispensable, and the first responsibility of our constitutional government); it needs cultural protection as well. Lose the culture, and you’ll eventually lose the law.

Now back to this week. On Tuesday, a broad range of (mainly) left-leaning academics, pundits, authors, and other public figures published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s Magazine. This was not your standard coalition of civil libertarians for free speech. It not only included arguably the most famous living novelist (J.K. Rowling), it included a range of leftist luminaries, such as Gloria Steinem and Noam Chomsky. Here is the key (long) paragraph:

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. 

Yes, and amen. Now I know and hear the conservative critique. The letter singles out the right for special scorn. Some folks who signed have hardly been stalwart defenders of free speech (especially from conservatives) in the past. But that’s missing the forest for the trees. The truly significant aspect of the letter is that a group of largely left-liberals are directly confronting both right and left-authoritarians.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Each wing of American authoritarianism thrives on attacks from ideological opponents. It has a much more difficult time confronting critics from within. That’s why cancel culture is so often (though not always) aimed at erstwhile allies. For example, the vast majority of recent cancellations have represented, politically speaking, blue-on-blue fratricide. 

The cynic responds, “Oh, so now they’re worried, when their ox is finally gored.” The better response is to say, “Welcome to the struggle, friend. This is exactly how things change.” 

And if you doubt for a minute the cultural necessity of the letter, just follow the backlash. It’s been extraordinary. This New York Times report, headlined “Artists and Writers Warn of an ‘Intolerant Climate.’ Reaction Is Swift,” sums up the response nicely. In fact, the reaction was so intense that it caused one signatory to remove her name and another to question her participation:

Amid the intense criticism, some signatories appeared to back away from the letter. On Tuesday evening, the historian Kerri K. Greenidge tweeted “I do not endorse this @Harpers letter,” and said she was in touch with the magazine about a retraction. (Giulia Melucci, a spokeswoman for Harper’s, said the magazine had fact-checked all signatures and that Dr. Greenidge had signed off. But she said the magazine is “respectfully removing her name.”)

Another person who signed, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in an effort to stay out of the growing storm, said she did not know who all the other signatories were when she agreed to participate, and if she had, she may not have signed. She also said that the letter, which was about internet shaming, among other things, was now being used to shame people on the internet.

Now, what does this have to do with realignments? After all, didn’t I just say that left-liberals are most effective at combating left-authoritarianism and right-liberals are most effective at combating right-authoritarianism? Doesn’t that maintain the standard left-right divide? But when push comes to shove, the most important operative words in our American cultural confrontation shouldn’t be “left” or “right,” but rather “liberal” or “authoritarian.” 

Our nation was built from the ground up as a liberal republic, held together by liberal procedural values that were designed to accommodate pluralism and to protect debate. The flaw of the founding was the failure to fully keep that American promise. Our nation was liberal for some, authoritarian toward others. In a pluralistic nation, however, instability flows from authoritarianism like blood from a wound.

Or to put it more bluntly, it’s liberalism—and only liberalism—that will keep our republic. Yes, maintain the strenuous conversations and debates that differentiate left from right, but one eye must always be on the scanner—after all, the Cylons might jump into our space.  

One small favor … 

I got a note from my publisher telling me that Barnes & Noble is in the process of determining how many of my books to order, and every single pre-order helps them make a better and better decision. So, if you were considering buying my book (no pressure!), a pre-order from Barnes & Noble would help greatly!

The book is called Divided We Fall, and it sounds an alarm—if we continue down the path of polarization and authoritarianism, this great country could indeed split apart. And it describes exactly how it could happen. It’s a bit different from the normal political book. Publisher’s Weekly called it “incisive” and “moving.” 

I’ll try not to be annoying about it. I promise. But if you’re interested, here’s the B&N page.

One last thing … 

My son just introduced us to the comedian John Mulaney. (I know, I know, I’m late to the party—but there’s a lot of pop culture to follow.) Anyway, I loved this bit about the cost of college. Perhaps it’s because I’m looking at paying my son’s college tuition bill for, well, mostly Zooms. (Language warning.) Enjoy:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.