Hannah Giorgis distills the critiques of The Letter down to the essentials, and it’s a must-read for anyone who remains unclear on what’s the big deal. Or, at least, for anyone who is unclear and who is operating in good faith.
There’s something darkly comical about the fretfulness of these elite petitioners. It’s telling that the censoriousness they identify as a national plague isn’t the racism that keeps Black journalists from reporting on political issues, or the transphobia that threatens their colleagues’ lives. The letter denounces “the restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society,” strategically blurring the line between these two forces. But the letter’s chief concern is not journalists living under hostile governments, despite the fact that countries around the world impose draconian limits on press freedom.
Emphasis mine, because if you read the Thomas Chatterton Williams interview I mentioned earlier today, you know that he as The Letter’s shepherd tried to justify just this blurring.
MARTIN: As I said, there have been these lengthy responses posted, and people can easily find them if they want to read them in their entirety. But I’m just going to summarize and say I think the criticism falls into three buckets. You know, some people are saying, well, you’re equating repressive government with a repressive culture, but there’s a difference between people being horrible on Twitter and being hauled into jail or tortured for what they write. And what would you say to that?
WILLIAMS: Sure. Well, you know, we have signatories that have been hauled into jail and tortured in other countries, in Iran for one. We have refugees on the list. We have at least two signatories who have lived for extended periods of time with fatwas on their head. So you can say there’s a distinction between kind of outrage mobs and that kind of state oppression. But these are people that signed that believe that the line is quite fine and the boundary is porous and that we should be always in defense of liberal principles so that we don’t fall down that slippery slope.
Emphasis mine again, as this argument strains credulity. This sophistry apparently is something of Williams’ calling card, at least if we go by what Giorgis notes.
In addition, the Harper’s letter tacitly conflates the president’s raft of anti-media practices and open disdain for the press with the signatories’ own irritation at the prospect of being ratioed on Twitter or fired because of the “woke” brigade. The author Thomas Chatterton Williams, who spearheaded the letter, told The New York Times that some of the events that inspired the statement echoed the actions of Donald Trump, whom he dubbed the “Canceler in Chief.” But Trump would more accurately be described as a violent demagogue and a mendacious racist. He is not, as Williams seems to suggest, dangerous simply because of his interest in stifling free expression. Even this comparison is revelatory. Amid a worsening pandemic and ongoing protests against lethal state violence, using glib internet-speak to describe the president of the United States betrays a deep detachment from the carnage wrought by his policies and ideology. It is important to remember: The president is not merely a Twitter troll, but the leader of an awesomely powerful government security apparatus.
Emphasis mine, still. Williams there is not someone seeking a good-faith discussion of either debate or justice. This is not someone who in any serious discussion of either should be taken seriously.
Which brings me back to Alan Jacobs, who posted a followup to his earlier post which sparked my rolling series of posts today.
Every good thing in this world, without exception, is commended by at least some people of impure motive and gross sin. Love is celebrated by the cruel, justice by the sexist, kindness by the rapacious.
In a sense, this simply restates something Williams himself said in that interview (about agreeing with a bigot that the sun is shining), but the real point should be achingly clear: that a bigoted person can say something true nowhere obligates the rest of us to associate ourselves with them.
The moral obligation to shun the cruel, the sexist, and the rapacious remains intact, lest some utopian delusion of liberal socializing across any and all boundaries lend such people any undue credence or credit even from our mere transitory proximity.