Read: A deeply provincial view of free speech
They look cowardly—even when they are not. One reason to forgo the pleasure of a solitary righteous stand is safety in numbers. If you are one name among many, and the other names include Salman Rushdie, Katha Pollitt, and Margaret Atwood, how wrong could you be? Open letters mean the most when their signers accept risk by signing. Few of the signers of the Harper’s letter risked much, and some who did take on risk were not aware of the risk, and caved, comically, upon realizing the risk they had accepted. The most ignored open letters and petitions are the ones that require nothing of the signers—no time, no effort, no risk of reputation or of life. That is why no one particularly cares about the counter-letter that circulated in response to the Harper’s letter. No one who signed that counter-letter is in danger of anything but congratulations from the fellow leftists who signed it. I assume the signers will receive the usual deluge of email sewage from random hate-filled losers, but don’t we all? (Readers regularly email to invite me to fellate or kill myself. I welcome the correspondence. If it takes more effort for them to find my email address and compose a message than it does for me to read the message and click the trash-can icon, I win.) I would hate to cheapen a good point by making it in unison with 150 other people. Whatever safety their numbers gave me would not be worth it.
They are contagious. If you sign one open letter, others show up at your door. One reason I am writing this jeremiad against open letters is to stand, like a heavily armed St. Louis attorney on the porch of my metaphorical domicile, and warn those clutching petitions and letters to get off my lawn. One cannot endorse every worthy cause. I can name dozens that I hope someone, somewhere, is pursuing monomaniacally. But my own manias are plenty, and I can wish others well without joining them. Sign one open letter, though, and your failure to sign the next one will be interpreted as opposition.
Read: The intimate, political power of the open letter
Finally, I can think of one good reason to sign open letters—which is to demonstrate to others that they are not alone. The Harper’s writers allege that a silent poison is permeating liberal institutions, spreading undetected like a carbon-monoxide leak at magazines, newspapers, and universities. That poison is the belief that getting your enemies to shut their mouth is a victory for you. I associate this delusion with the right, and to see it seep into the left is disturbing. You want your enemies constantly probing your defenses, exposing your weaknesses, and reminding you to reinforce them. The traditional arrangement of liberalism has recognized this value, and presumptively encouraged rancorous debate for the good of all. This arrangement is also more fun. All great universities and magazines (with the exception of The Atlantic, which is a sea of tranquility) employ colleagues who hate one another’s guts and remind one another of that hatred constantly.
Many of these institutions have leaned left for so long that the reasons for this arrangement have been forgotten. The Harper’s letter at least tells those who remember the arrangement, and those who would defend it, that they have allies ready to join them in that defense. One way to encourage them is to write your name at the bottom of a letter. A better way is to write a letter of your own. That is what you are reading now.