Cancel Culture & Harper’s Magazine: On the Letter

Political News


J. K. Rowling in New York City, 2016 (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

I thought it right to congratulate John MacArthur and Harper’s magazine on putting together an open letter in defense of intellectual liberty — including the liberty to make mistakes — as a necessary component of social justice. And further congrats on assembling its broad church of signatories.

MacArthur and Harper’s have always occupied an interesting position in the intellectual firmament, and probably find themselves as surprised as anyone to be defending their left flank in 2020. Harper’s has won scrapes in this fight recently when a preemptive pre-publication strike was made against their contributor Katie Rophie and her article questioning some shibboleths of the MeToo movement.

At first, I thought this open letter was a futile gesture against the inevitable. My expectation was that the “free speech” liberals would be routed and overwhelmed in the trend-leading institutions of media such as the New York Times and The Atlantic.

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But now I’m not so sure. These seem like battle lines being drawn among the cultural and intellectual forces of the left ahead of the Biden years. And the longer I stare at the list of signatories, the more impressed I am. Are we really going to cancel the likes of John Banville, Salman Rushdie, and J. K. Rowling?

Possibly! I think much of cancel culture is driven by revenge of mediocrities. Many of the “cancelers” are tragic; the adults and institutions that were charged with giving them a decent moral and academic education in their childhoods just failed utterly or abandoned the work. And so the cancelers are totally unequipped to deal with things like mature disagreement, bearing wrongs patiently, and negotiating with adults who don’t give them what they want the moment they cry or scream for it. Because it is born of a bottomless hole of insecurity, it should have bottomless energy.

But for the first time in a long time, it looks like there is some resistance where it matters.


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