The Meta Letter

What could possibly be controversial about a letter entitled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate“? When I first read it and read through the many names of the famous and important signers, two things bothered me about it. First, it struck me as taking needless political potshots that were wholly irrelevant to its putative purpose, promoting free speech and thought. It seemed counterproductive to engage in political posturing when the point is that the concept of open debate isn’t a tit-for-tat political problem.

The second issue I had was that, while most of the signatories were people who had lived their support for open debate, some were leading voices in political correctness and silencing debate. It was like Richard Spencer signing onto a letter telling people to be nice to black people. It didn’t quite compute.

There was a third concern, although it wasn’t one that concerned me greatly. Just as the freedom to speak one’s mind is a cherished value, so too is the freedom to disapprove. If that disapproval takes the form of mob criticism, attacks and silencing speech, cancel culture in other words, why is that conceptually less protected speech than the original speech? Yet, this concern was a distant third for me, as the ability to express ideas with neither government nor mob retribution is, at this moment, primary. Without it, we never get to the secondary or tertiary levels. And, at this moment, primary speech is at huge risk.

So I was persuaded that the cause of the letter was the overarching point, and that a coalition had been built from people of hugely diverse views was what mattered most. While I expected the reaction to be the usual stages of grief, what swiftly happened was even more shocking than the need to write this letter, to sign onto this letter, in the first place.

One of the signers, history prof Kerri Greenidge, bailed due to the reaction to other signers holding positions that she, or members of the mob attacking her for signing a letter co-signed by heretics, found intolerable.

Another signer was Vox’s Matt Yglesias, who then became the subject of a letter by Vox writer Emily VanDerWerff, which she posted to twitter for the world to see.

According to the VanDerWerff letter, Yglesias signing the Harper’s letter made her “feel less safe at Vox.” She subsequently twitted that her purpose was not to get Matt Yglesias fired, although it’s hard to see any purpose to her performance if not to whip up a pro-trans mob to cancel him while maintaining plausible deniability, although it allowed her to attack another signer, by whom Yglesias was tainted for signing, which no doubt made her feel vindicated.

I wasn’t asked to sign the letter, and there’s no reason why I would. I’m just a trench lawyer, not a famous writer like J.K. Rowling, or public intellectual like Noam Chomsky, or brilliant musician like Wynton Marsalis. There were complaints about how the signers were rich, as if that was a strike against their coming out for free speech. But then, many were neither rich nor famous. There were complaints that they were old and didn’t reflect the pain suffered by the young, but the names, from Michelle Goldberg to Kat Rosenfield, proved that false.

And then there was the contention that no one on the list had ever been silenced. Salman Rushdie has a fatwah to prove otherwise.

It was an impressive array of people, whether you agree with anything or everything they’ve ever said. The letter wasn’t the one I would have written, but that’s the nature of signing onto a group letter. It’s a matter of compromise for the greater good. The same is true of the people who co-sign, with whom you may share no view other than the virtue of being able to express a view. Yascha Mounk, who is emerging as one of the foremost voices for the exchange of free speech and ideas, expressed the meta irony of the backlash to the letter.

Unlike philosophers, academics and the unduly passionate, I try to avoid framing anything in terms of such vagaries as morality, decency, dignity, and, sadly, “truth.” Truth once meant accurate facts. It now means the correct view, as if one view is “correct” and others are not.

And for anyone who thinks it’s a fault of the right, the left, or whoever poked your personal sacred cow, this is a game anyone can, and pretty much everyone does, play. We know what we want the outcome to be and put all our effort into coming up with some rationalization to get there. Often, it’s unavailing and silly, unreasoned and unpersuasive, although if the ends are chiseled in stone, a matter of blind faith, then no amount of reasoning is going to change our views.

People tell me all the time that they don’t “always” agree with me. Some hate me when they don’t and find me intolerable. That’s cool. Whether you agree or not is entirely up to you, and of absolutely no interest to me. On the other hand, the reason why, presented in a congent and modestly comprehensible fashion, might persuade me to come to your way of thinking. Or at least recognize that while I disagree with you, your view is sound.

Most of my Tuesday Talks try to frame issues in such a way as to offer an opportunity to argue one way or the other, with neither being “right” per se, but subject to debate. Sadly, few of you use TT in that way, although the few who do make me think I’m not completely wasting my time here.

The reaction to the Harper’s Bizarre Letter, however, has caused me to revisit some of my ideas. I’ve been chastised, if not attacked, for being politically incorrect, under the presumption that if I can occasionally come out on the right side of an issue (meaning that the woke child agrees with my outcome), I must have the limited intellectual capacity needed to sit near God’s children and only use the words, express the ideas, that are approved by the righteous. To some small extent, I try to do so in order to avoid creating needless side conflicts when the use of a word or expression of an idea isn’t central to the larger issue.

After seeing the reaction to the letter, one overarching idea comes to the fore: fuck you. I’ll say what I want. I’ll think what I want. And if that displeases you, tough shit.

25 thoughts on “The Meta Letter

  1. John Barleycorn

    Signing is easy but adopting an esteemed F/U to the Molly Mob Groupies is another ball game all together in this Twitter Universe you have “accepted”…

    I got fifty bucks says at least a handful of the signatories back out before the end of the day.

    P.S. Does this mean you are gonna start using some of that cool font that Harper’s uses in some of its print edition articles and just how many TT explainers can one do?

  2. Hal

    Hey Scott,

    This is a little long, a personal story, and not precisely on point, so feel free to edit as you see fit (not that you need my permission).

    My father worked w/ a guy who’d fought in the Abraham Lincoln brigade during the Spanish Civil War and been captured by Franco’s forces who held him prisoner (for ten months, IIRC) until the war ended and then deported him. He told Dad that while being a POW sucked it probably saved his life as he’d never have survived the purges that were going on w/ in the Republican ranks. Simply travelling across the ocean, enlisting, and fighting on the front lines was an insufficient demonstration of loyalty, one must also demonstrate a level of ideological purity and espouse a doctrinally correct devotion to the cause.

    Dave von Ronk relates a similar story in his biography “Mayor of MacDougal Street”. The timing and geography are such that it’s, if not likely, certainly plausible that this was the same fellow.

    My point is that there seems on the part of some Leftists (though I’m not suggesting this phenomena is limited to Leftists) an astonishing propensity toward intellectual cannibalization in pursuit of the approved narrative. There’s an irony that so many of the very people who proclaim “Diversity is strength” are so intolerant of diversity of opinion.

  3. B. McLeod

    Not a single Peeps Diorama artist in the whole list of signatories. “Harper’s Bizarre” indeed. I can’t feel comfortable even reading such a missive when it has so obviously been shat out in complete disregard of the possible views of the Peeps Diorama community. I am confident that I speak for the entire Peepacy in declaring, “Hawks on all their spouses!!”

  4. Richard Parker

    Jennifer Finney Bolyan won’t be making the next edition of “Profiles in Courage”. Which book, incidentally, defended and praised one ex-Confederate slave owning planter: Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar.

    1. SHG Post author

      She’s not taking it well.

      1. John Barleycorn

        I see Steven Pinker signed. He can muster up some wit now and then so he might come up with an esteemed F/U as 536 signers recently attempted to cancel him from the Linguistics Society of America.

        Then again maybe not….

        BTW, If Bidden does not nominate a six-foot-six-inch transvestite with a three-foot afro, who is a Terry Gilliam fan, to be his VP I am gonna cancel him, so if any of your readers would like to sign that letter let me know.

        P.S. Unless people start posting up photos of themselves mooning the horizon, with twitter screenshots pasted on their butt cheeks, I don’t think any of this is going to blow over until Netflix makes cocaine and Silly Putty fashionable again,

  5. Richard Kopf

    SHG,

    “In their obsession with the left and cancel culture, Mounk and his fellow travelers [signers of the Meta letter] are dangerously close to suggesting that the free society we enjoy is as much under attack from the left as from the right.” Alex Shephard,The Problem With Yascha Mounk’s Persuasion, The New Republic (July 8, 2020). In other words, cancel the right ’cause right is wrong.

    How blindly ironic. Mr. Shepard and those of his ilk, who attack folks like Mounk, refuse to recognize their peculiar affectation for one side and pure hatred for the other. While the Meta letter was tame, it struck deep into the heart of lefties. That may be the one and only value of the otherwise inconsequential letter that otherwise causes thoughtful people simply to mutter, “Duh.”

    All the best.

    RGK

      1. Richard Kopf

        Your deep understanding of the culture of the “woke” culture is astonishing. I salute you.

        I admit, with deep shame, that, unlike you, I remain stuck in the awful past. “Huzzah for good King George and Parliament!”

  6. Kathryn M. Kase

    Paul Cambria summed up constitutional free speech protections long ago when he said that the First Amendment isn’t meant to protect those who praise Chevrolets and Mom’s apple pie, but those who say that Chevrolet makes terrible cars and Mom’s apple pie tastes terrible. He might have added that there are no exceptions for speech that triggers those who love Chevys and pie.

  7. Solon

    Maybe the real purpose of the letter was as some sort of performance art: making its point not so much in the subject matter, but in the reaction to it. (I also thought the political pot-shots unnecessary, but think they might have been necessary to bring some of the signers on board by establishing the political leaning of the letter.)

  8. Erik H

    “I’ll say what I want. I’ll think what I want. And if that displeases you, tough shit.”

    Not only does it not “displease” me (and I suspect most folks) but it’s why I keep reading.

  9. Pedantic Grammar Police

    This letter was signed by the evil J.K. Rowling who tweeted unapproved words about trans people. Anyone who signed it is thus infected by evil and must be cancelled with extreme prejudice. Likewise anyone who defends anyone who signed it, anyone who defends any of that group, etc. The only way to forgiveness is to prove your solidarity by having your genitals surgically removed.

    1. Erik H

      I am most amused about the whole “if you add 25 different references to trans with a red pen, you can make it sound like the letter is anti-trans” thing.

      How is it possible nobody has mocked that yet, by making an “anti-BBQ” letter or something equivalently amusing?

  10. Jake

    My open letter was barely a blip on the radar of people who really should have paid attention at the time. I guess I should have asked J.K. Rowling to sign it instead of a room full of digital strategy nerds at a conference in the EU.

  11. Scarlet Pimpernel

    When asked, I tell friends and family I tend to be a free speech fundamentalist BECAUSE I find some of their speech offensive. It does tend to confuse some of them.

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