Closing out the week: The Harper’s letter calling for freedom of expression demonstrates that no one is ever “woke” enough, and that any institution that tries to make peace with the perpetually aggrieved eventually becomes dysfunctional; the value of Hamilton as a litmus test of the limits of cancel culture; Colin Powell throws a lot of cold water onto the “Russian bounty” story; and a warning about whether we are staying on top of the potential threat of terrorism.
The Battle of Harper’s Letter
In case you missed it, a whole bunch of big names, mostly on the left side of the political spectrum, signed a letter defending freedom of expression, declaring:
it is now 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 Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a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. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.
The majority of the letter’s signers can be characterized as progressives; many conservatives would argue they were pretty far to the left: Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale; Noam Chomsky, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem, Zephyr Teachout, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, and Sean Wilentz. There are a handful of letter-writers who could be characterized as right-of-center — Francis Fukuyama, David Brooks of the New York Times, David Frum of The Atlantic.
Another signee was J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, who is now apparently a progressive enemy because she believes that transsexual men-turned-women are distinct from biological women. Her critics are finding it infuriatingly difficult to “cancel” the woman who is arguably the most famous and successful author in the world.
The letter generated exactly the phenomenon it decried; Vox contributor Emily VanDerWerff wrote a letter to Vox management — and publicly posted it for all the world to see — that the decision of her colleague, Matt Yglesias, to sign the letter “makes me feel less safe at Vox and believe slightly less in its stated goals of building a more diverse and thoughtful workplace . . . Matt’s signature on a letter like this makes it do make my job slightly more difficult, as would-be readers do mistake my position for his.”
(Oh, really? Someone else at your publication having a different opinion makes readers mistake that colleague’s position for yours, huh? Try working with Conrad Black on one side and Jay Nordlinger and Kevin Williamson on the other and see how often your views get mischaracterized! My day just isn’t complete until I’ve been accused of being a MAGA-head drone and a NeverTrump extremist in the same hour. What VanDerWerff is complaining about isn’t a decision by Yglesias, it’s a reality of political journalism — lots of people don’t really pay attention to what you’ve written in the past, and you’re lucky if they have a vague sense of who you are and what you believe. I’m fairly certain people have had entire conversations with me believing that I’m Jim Treacher, Jim Pethokoukis, or Jim Scuitto — although thankfully, not Jim Acosta. It’s a good day when I’m not mistaken for Jim Beam.)
VanDerWerff characterized the letter as “a broadside against many disadvantaged communities, but it is _particularly_ a broadside against trans people.” Click through and read it for yourself. The only mention of “trans” is in the word “transgressions.”
The furious denunciation and blatant mischaracterization worked in some cases. Author Jennifer Finley Boylan retracted her signature, declaring: “I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well-meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company. The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.”
Vox’s foreign editor, Jennifer Williams, reacted: “The Harper’s letter is revealing a deeper issue: Do we judge opinions/arguments on their merits or on who makes them? Does signing a letter mean you endorse the letter? Yes. Does it mean you also endorse the opinions of those who also choose to sign it? That’s the question here.” In other words, if you sign a letter, and someone else you’ve never met, and maybe even have never heard of, signs the same letter, are you endorsing all of their other opinions?
To most people, that is idiotic. By this standard, all vegetarians have signed on with Hitler. (Yes, yes, Hitler ate meat every now and then, and apparently most self-described vegetarians have the same lenient perspective.)
Judging an opinion based upon who holds it is a formula for chaos and muddled thinking, because all it takes is one “bad” person to come along and hold the same opinion to invalidate or weaken it, and then “good” people have to abandon that opinion, regardless of the facts or merits. We may joke that if [insert hated person here] says the sky is blue, then we would believe that the sky must be some other color. But most of us have picked up the (sometimes hard-learned) wisdom that a broken clock can be right twice a day, so even the person you can’t stand the most could be right about something.
If conspiracy theorist Alex Jones goes on his program today and launches into a furious tirade about how New York Jets’ head coach Adam Gase is a terrible at his job, I am not changing my opinion of Gase just because Jones agrees with me. (In all likelihood, my assessment would be driven by Gase’s record, play-calling, excuse-making, and reported difficulties with players, and Alex Jones would object because Adam Gase is one of the lizard people. Let me be clear. I am not saying that Adam Gase is a lizard person. I am saying that if Adam Gase was an excellent coach who could get the Jets to the Super Bowl, I would not care that he is a lizard person.)
These critics of the Harper’s letter have to be the most dangerous and unhinged — okay, second-most dangerous and unhinged — bunch of critics that Salman Rushdie has ever encountered.
For those who are into inside-baseball of Washington journalism, the hints on Twitter that Matt Yglesias is not allowed to say what he thinks, on orders from Ezra Klein are delicious because it demonstrates how the woke mentality is destined to inevitably lead to dysfunction. No one’s objection or concern can be dismissed as nutty or silly, even if it is nutty or silly. Every organization gets sand in the gears as every slight, every disagreement, every perception of insufficient respect turns into a grand cause that must be adjudicated by human resources department. No one in authority is ever allowed to say, “I’m not paying you to complain about each other, I’m paying you to do your job, so do it.” And no one is ever woke enough; there’s always some deviation from the ever-evolving orthodoxy.
You can be the most widely praised creative mind in the country and still be denounced as insufficiently woke as the ground shifts beneath your feet. As Kyle Smith observed, “Since it debuted on Broadway in 2015, Hamilton has already become a relic of a different age. It would take considerably more courage to launch it today: black and brown Americans singing, dancing, and rapping in praise of white Americans, several of them slaveholders?”
Lin-Manuel Miranda recently said that critics of the musical made valid points, but that addressing what they felt was missing would have made the musical unworkable. “The sheer tonnage of complexities and failings of these people I couldn’t get. Or wrestled with, but cut. I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5 hour musical.”
(Lin-Manuel Miranda would never characterize himself as a conservative, and the musical Hamilton is too big, complicated, different, and surprising to be shoehorned into a simple political label. But there’s a reason that a lot of conservatives such as Dick and Lynne Cheney ended up loving Hamilton. The musical has a lot of themes, but some big ones are how special the United States of America is, what makes immigrants from around the world want to come here — “In New York you can be a new man” — how lucky we are to be here, how extraordinarily — if also extraordinarily flawed — our Founding Fathers were, and how important it is that we appreciate and preserve the freedoms their struggles helped establish. Lin-Manuel Miranda loves this country, and it is not surprising that many conservatives adore a phenomenally popular work of art that celebrates America.)
Colin Powell: That Russian Bounty Story Wasn’t That Important to Our Military
Whoa! Colin Powell — who is no friend of Donald Trump, and who endorsed Barack Obama twice — throws a lot of cold water on the “Russian bounty” story during an appearance on MSNBC:
Our military commanders on the ground did not think that it was as serious a problem as the newspapers were reporting and television was reporting. It got kind of out of control before we really had an understanding of what had happened. I’m not sure we fully understand now. General [Kenneth] McKenzie, [commander of U.S. Central Command] who was the CINC, as I call him in the military, he was commander-in-chief, he has indicated that he did not think that this was of that level of importance to us. Remember, it’s not the intelligence community that’s going to go fight these guys. It’s the guys on the ground, it’s our troops. It’s our commanders who are going to go deal with this kind of threat, using intelligence that was given to them by the intelligence community. But that has to be analyzed, it has to be adjusted. And then you have to go find out who the enemy is. And I think we were on top of that one, but it just got — it got almost hysterical in the first few days.
ADDENDUM: Yes, we have a full plate right now, but is our system for keeping an eye on terrorists still up to snuff? The recently departed head of the National Counterterrorism Center doesn’t think so:
Information technology funding isn’t the world’s sexiest topic. But in NCTC’s case, it could have life-or-death consequences. That’s because the Center’s analysts have to organize and analyze information from a head-spinning variety of sources — U.S. intelligence agencies, allied foreign governments, social media companies, and more. They can’t maximize the value of all that material if their IT system isn’t up to the task. And as of now, [Russell] Travers said, it isn’t.