Cockburn is long enough in the tooth to recall when it was uncontroversial to defend the ‘free exchange of information and ideas.’ Not so many moons ago, it seemed obvious to the point of boring to say that ‘the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.’
Not anymore. In 2020, that is edgy stuff, as the group of 150 writers who just wrote a joint letter to Harper’s have proved. Their letter, a defense of free expression, makes the perfectly clear and fair point that ‘as writers, we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.’
As inevitably as water boils over heat, the letter has triggered precisely the sort of hectoring media response and dire consequences which the writers were decrying. Progressive Twitter exploded in apoplexy at this provocative assault on the right to tell people to shut up.
The Vox writer Matthew Yglesias got it worst of all. He was rash enough to sign the letter and promptly faced a volley of angry replies from his junior colleagues on the very discrete and private medium of, yes, Twitter. The amusingly named Emily VanDerWerff, a trans woman ‘critic’ at Vox, went furthest fastest. She penned a hilariously obnoxious letter to her editors, which she then generously excerpted on social media.
‘I don’t want Matt to be reprimanded or fired or even asked to submit an apology,’ she wrote. ‘Doing any of the above would only solidify, in his own mind, the idea that he is being martyred for his beliefs.’
As someone who is sometimes a woman, Cockburn would like to take their hat off to VanDerWerff for her absolute masterclass in passive aggression. She should be promoted, perhaps given Yglesias’s job, if only to solidify, in her own mind, what Vox stands for. VanDerWerff continued to insist that she really didn’t want Matt to be punished. ‘Some acts require retribution; this is not one of them.’ Such compassion for the man she just threw under the social media outrage bus!
Other Vox staffers piled in against Yglesias. Cockburn can’t help but wonder if Vox shouldn’t rename itself Censura, or Restrictio, since censorship is what most of its staff seem most interested in doing. Where would you rather work — Harper’s, which published the letter, or Vox, which abhors it?
The letter caused conniptions elsewhere. Among a certain sort of blue-check progressive, it became instantly fashionable to accuse the letter writers of being predictable and — drum roll — fragile! Karen Attiah at the Washington Post, for instance, ventured that ‘too many folks…are afraid of losing power. Exhibiting symptoms of status anxiety because too many have refused to keep up with the times. Coddling intellectual laziness and harmful rhetoric is no longer a moral virtue.’
Gee — remember those days when coddling intellectual laziness was a moral virtue? Feels like yesterday. Cockburn can only sympathize with the poor sap at the Post who has to edit Karen’s copy.
The historian Kerri Greenidge, one of the letter’s signatories, felt the wind blowing against her and swiftly decided she did not in fact endorse the letter. She had her name withdrawn. It seems not all the authors knew which other authors would be co-signing with them. That has caused some resentment.
Thomas Chatterton Williams, the man who, Cockburn understands, orchestrated the Harper’s letter, must be wondering what furies he has unleashed. Still, his initiative has proved a valuable experiment in measuring where exactly we are in the battle for free minds.
Meanwhile, pity the poor writers who misjudge the social media mood. The authors of the epistle went to some lengths to clarify that they didn’t like Trump and that the forces of intolerance came from ‘the radical right’, too. ‘We aren’t bad people, see?’ the text screamed in vain. But that is not enough to save them from the bonfire of liberal values. Oh no.
Cockburn can only recommend you subscribe to The Spectator. We don’t beg for the right to express ourselves freely. We demand it.