Graeme Wood: The cowardice of open letters
No, nobody is going take away J. K. Rowling’s millions, or strip Todd Gitlin of tenure. But the truth is that the penalties for getting out of harmony with the zeitgeist are a lot tougher on the left than on the right these days. The Harper’s letter includes signatories who have indeed found themselves defamed and excoriated in ways far worse than their colleagues on the right. Maybe at Liberty University the threats to free thought come from the right; at most universities and in most newsrooms, they emerge from the other side of the spectrum.
Courage in the public square is very rarely about unearthing an epic wrong and seeking to right it—finding a pit of dastardliness and uncovering it for all to see. It is never about making those on your own side feel more smugly confident about the rightness of their views. It is, rather, about speaking the hard truths that, as my university’s motto has it, will make you free. And it is usually about speaking a pretty obvious but awkward truth to your own side, and reaffirming inconvenient principles that in less fevered times would meet unquestioning acceptance.
It has been a bad time on the right, and will stay so for some time. The poisons that Trump-style obscurantism, ethno-nationalism, and cruelty have brought to the surface will not swiftly disperse. The Republican Party may indeed be ruined beyond repair as even that once unshakeable optimist Bill Kristol has ruefully acknowledged. But it is also very bad on the left. Cancel culture is real, and it is not going away, and that makes the Harper’s letter both honorable and useful.
The lesson the Never Trumpers can share is that after taking your stand, you can expect either sneering hostility or irrelevance for quite some time. At the end of it, you may not get a great deal of gratitude either, certainly not from your own side, and possibly not from those on the other. When the tide turns, they may prefer to recall your previous thought sins rather than your moments of integrity; more likely, they will prefer to pretend the whole unpleasantness never happened. And you may very well find yourself alone, adrift from associations that had been part of your life. For a small minority, it could cost you a job.
Read: The last anti-Trump Republicans are biding their time
It’s still not the same thing as going to jail, getting tarred and feathered, being force-fed castor oil, or getting beaten up. All, or almost all, of the signatories of the Harper’s letter will be fine from a financial and even social point of view. But to remain true to themselves, they are going to have to continue administering doses of truth to their own side, and take the abuse that comes with it.
Good for those signers. Aside from a few craven recusants, who will now forgo both respect and self-respect, they will be glad they did it, and should be. And they will find, as I did, that once you have emancipated yourself from some of your previous affiliations and orthodoxies, you can think more freely and creatively than before. Which, after all, is what the life of the mind is all about.