In Harper’s Magazine on July 7th, Greil Marcus joined dozens of authors and historians by signing the following:
…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…
Read the full text here.
The problem is, this letter will not, nor is it designed to, advance the causes of open debate or freedom of speech. This letter is designed to protect badly behaving elites by telling the rest of us to sit down and shut up, all allegedly in the name of free speech. I’m willing to believe that Greil Marcus didn’t clue into that and took the letter at its apparent face value. But that’s still what it is.
The idea that the letter “is designed to protect badly behaving elites” contradicts the common criticism that the signers of the letter are well-off show-offs and protected from any consequences of “cancel culture.”
Both criticisms rely on a bad faith reading of the motives of the letter’s readers and signers. Many of the signers and drafters, including Marcus, might have motivations similar to those of Richard Thompson Ford, who told the Washington Post, “I’ve witnessed too many cases of ferocious takedowns for defensible if ideologically unorthodox views or relatively minor breaches of political etiquette. This is more true of Trumpian conservatives than anyone, but it is also true of some progressives…I was not told who else had signed, but I’m not sure why that should matter. I signed the letter; I did not sign a pact to endorse or defend everything everyone else who signed has said, written or done, nor would I imagine the other signatories have implicitly endorsed everything I’ve written.”
“The idea that the letter “is designed to protect badly behaving elites” contradicts the common criticism that the signers of the letter are well-off show-offs and protected from any consequences of “cancel culture.””
No, I think both things can be true. As for the motives of the signers–I dunno where the readers come into it–I don’t have firsthand knowledge of them and I don’t find it an important aspect of the situation. The important thing is the results, and the results so far look pretty… pretty much like what I’ve said. I mean, look what’s happened to Jennifer Finney Boylan already when she broke ranks.
Anyway, this probably isn’t the best place to argue the matter.
Where in the letter itself do you see evidence that it was designed to tell others to “shut up”? I’m not talking about the uproar around the letter. I’m talking just about the letter itself. I don’t see that suggested in any language anywhere in the letter. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m a firm believer that reading into the biographical details of who signed cannot be read into the character, substance, and values of what’s on the page. Are we reading the letter, or the uproar around the letter here?
Isn’t the whole point of this letter to say “no one should tell anyone to shut up?” Or are you arguing that the article is telling others to “shut up telling us to shut up?” To me, the main point here is that telling anyone to shut up, whether powerful or not, is incredibly dangerous for a healthy democracy.
No, it’s not in the letter itself. It’s in the letter’s interaction with its context.
If we pretend that there is no context, or that the context doesn’t matter, then we can conclude that the letter is entirely innocent. But why would we do that?
The editor of the NYT Op-Ed section getting fired after repeatedly running pieces filled with glaring inaccuracies, and then one by a US Senator advocating for the use of military force against civilian protesters, which the editor claimed not to have read before it was printed, doesn’t qualify as “hasty or disproportionate,” nor does it “steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without fear of reprisal.” And if one’s definition of free speech is broad enough to include Tom Cotton publishing his fascist opinions in the paper of record, it damn well better be broad enough to include people express their opinions, mostly on social media, that the editor who ran it should be fired. Right wing “demagogues” aren’t exploiting the language of protest, to gain power. They are exploiting the access given to them by respectable institutions like newspapers and universities to lend credibility to fringe ideas, and to normalize them as worthy of debate.
But then, there are so many straw man arguments being made in this letter that I think an entire pasture of horses died of malnutrition while I was reading it.
The signers of the letter fell into a trap designed to disarm the resistance to fascism. That they are too blind to see it raises many concerns about the state of intellectuals in our country today.