Why “Justice” and “Open Debate” Don’t Fit Together in Trump’s America
“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” (aka “The Letter”) published in Harper’s online edition of 7 July 2020, has become the latest, and perhaps worst, instance of celebrities thoughtlessly piling on to sign a ridiculous, ill-conceived, attention-getting “Open Letter.” Some are already regretting signing it. To his credit, when approached to sign, Pulitzer-Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen declined. He said that the letter was described to him as being a “liberal letter,” and that he “wasn’t a liberal.” Good for him. But he also did not sign it because it’s a horrible letter.
“Liberal letter” does not to justice to the document. It might be better described as “in your face, aggressive, and shaming” liberalism that somehow manages to be illiberal in its true nature, at least when you read it as a political document. It is signed by a group of prominent “liberal” celebrity intellectuals — the mixture of which seems almost hallucinatory: Martin Amis, Greil Marcus, Margaret Atwood, Yasha Mounk, Wynton Marsalis, Noam Chomsky, Orlando Patterson, Katha Pollitt, J.K. Rowling, David Brooks, to name just a few. A true liberal celebrity salad. But the list of names and the exercise in trying to phantom what draws them together proves to be more entertaining and potentially rewarding than the letter itself.
These learned and famous people open their letter thus: “Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial.” Shades of the start of the Communist Manifesto. Their chief concern is the appearance of “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion — which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.”
What are they talking about, exactly? It is the fact that, according to them, it is: “all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.”
Now as any teacher of composition will tell you, the real sin here is the universal use of the passive voice. There are no subjects to these verbs — implying that some mysterious force is on the loose. But worse still is the fact that we simply have to guess the real events to which they refer. This is beyond irresponsible fear-mongering — it actually removes the letter from “open debate” — how can anyone debate such a set of examples unsecured by solid facts? The evasive nature of the letter belies its claims to honesty and its appetite for real debate. There is no there there.
Note that the Letter speaks only of “cultural institutions,” thereby evading the question of the actually existing political situation we find ourselves in. In doing so they replicate Donald Trump’s current argument — we are in the midst of a “culture war.” I believe something more serious is going on, something that demands a commensurate response if Justice is indeed to survive. The key to the letter-writer’s argument is that “intolerance” exists on “all sides.” This is the liberal intellectual’s simply-flipped version of Trump’s comparing the white supremacists who murdered Heather Heyer with the anti-racists and anti-fascists who stood against the racist mob and saying that there were “good people on both sides.” That the letter blithely equates Trump’s practice of assaulting daily all those who oppose his fascist regime, or simply do not like him, with the practice of aggressively protesting racist, sexist, trans-phobic practices as commensurate acts of intolerance is the very antithesis of working for justice. The letter writers act as if the difference in the acts one is intolerant of is not a matter of concern. This proves fatal to their claim to wish for Justice, for it is precisely in adjudicating the difference between what is tolerable and what is not that Justice takes place.
The only way to explain this inability or unwillingness to judge two entirely different sets of practices is that the signatories of “Justice and Open Debate” reside in a liberal space where civility and politeness are acceptable in the face of the worst racial, environmental, and economic violence we have seen in our lifetimes. It would not be inaccurate to call the Trump regime fascistic — in fact a few of those who signed the letter have used precisely that language.
To argue for polite debate with a fascist regime seems at best illogical, and at worse reckless, for it places the emphasis on the value of conversation for its own sake and not the harsh reality of the inhumane actions taking place, acts that demand to be curtailed and stopped by even “uncivil” means if “Justice” is going to have any real purchase. For example, we not only deplore the fact of concentration camps at the border, we wish to dismantle its operations and deny its operatives the comfort of “debating” them within codes of civility as they carry on their unspeakable acts of cruelty upon the most vulnerable. One does not bring an etiquette book to a knife-fight. Sometimes one has to put one’s body against the gears of the machine, as Mario Savio put it.
As Aleksandar Hemon noted in 2018, “Fascism is not an idea to be debated, it’s a set of actions to fight”: “The practice of fascism supersedes its ideas, which is why people affected and diminished by it are not all that interested in a marketplace of ideas in which fascists have prime purchasing power.”
The evils we face today demand a political will to see them for what they are, and to stop them, whether in polite terms or not. Appeasement of an authoritarian figure has been shown not to work.