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Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Some thoughts on "Justice."

I'm a decades-long subscriber to Harper's Magazine. It remains primus inter pares among my favorite literary / topical periodicals.

Encountered this online yesterday:

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate
July 7, 2020
The below letter will be appearing in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue. We welcome responses at

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified 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.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted…

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. 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. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.
Read all of it. At the bottom of the letter is a signatory list of more than 100 prominent writers / journalists. The contentious phrase "cancel culture" wafts to mind.

Can we even come to a workable consensus on what constitutes "justice?" Would a "science of deliberation" even help? "Reinventing American Democracy?"
"Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but it is not merely so."

apropos, from The Atlantic:

…[T]he advent of social media has transformed the way that social and cultural orthodoxies are enforced. But the problem of egregious police killings has been thrust back into the national spotlight by video of the white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man––and the nation now faces complicated, consequential questions about who or what to fight. Americans are protesting not only killer cops, the colleagues who abet them, and the unions that protect them, but also policing itself, Confederate statuary, “white fragility,” neo-colonialism, microaggressions, systemic racism, neoliberalism, and capitalism.

As a hearteningly broad coalition embraces policing reforms, a distinct, separable struggle is unfolding in the realm of ideas: a many-front crusade aimed at vanquishing white supremacy, hazily defined.

That crusade is as vulnerable to mistakes and excesses as any other struggle against abstract evils. Some of the most zealous crusaders are demanding affirmations of solidarity and punishing mild dissent. Institutions are imposing draconian punishments for minor transgressions. Individuals are scapegoated for structural ills. There are efforts to get people fired, including even some who share the desire for racial justice…

UPDATE: "au contraire"
The Harper’s Letter Is What Happens When the Discourse Takes Precedence Over Reality
Civil society is more than the feelings of professional writers and academics.

Tom Scocca

These are dangerous times for dissenters in America. Critics of the government’s immigration policies have been targeted for arrest and deportation. Protesters challenging violent and racist policing have been gassed and beaten and maimed with projectiles by police. On July 3, at the foot of Mount Rushmore, the president of the United States gave a speech denouncing the protesters and those who support them as part of a “left-wing cultural revolution … designed to overthrow the American Revolution” and promised to respond to their tearing down of statues by “deploying federal law enforcement to protect our monuments, arrest the rioters, and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law.”…
Ordinary restrictions against protesters would be indefensible if they were applied to the press—if TV stations were temporarily shut down because too many people wanted to watch the news, or newspapers were restricted to distribution in off-site Newspaper Zones when a national political convention came to town, or websites needed a police permit to publish. But these are the standard conditions of protest, enforced by cops in riot armor.

That official violence is not far in the background of the Harper’s letter. And however sympathetic the signatories of the letter may consider themselves to the purposes of the protests, the focus on journalistic and academic rights undercuts the more immediate threats to the protest movement. The most vocal signers of the Harper’s letter, and its most self-satisfied defenders, have made it clear that they regard the resignation of James Bennet as the New York Times opinion editor to be a self-evident case of the mob having gone too far. Bennet lost his job because his section solicited and published, without his having read it, an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton calling for federal troops to put on an “overwhelming show of force” against “rioters and insurrectionists.” The defenders of pure discourse noted that Cotton explicitly said in the article that he rejected “revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters.” People who’d been out in the streets, seeing demonstrators obstruct traffic or violate hastily issued (and unconstitutional) curfew orders, understood that Cotton—who’d tweeted that troops should give “no quarter”—was avoiding the central, material question of what the troops would do about protesters who peacefully refused to abide by the law.

Whose essential freedoms were put at risk by the Bennet-Cotton episode? In the world of the Harper’s letter, the threat that mattered was the one to the careers of veteran editors—not the threat that had bullets and bayonets behind it, a threat that the president himself would offer again in his Independence Day remarks. The promoters of the letter cast themselves as persecuted heroes, putting their names on the line to defend an embattled conception of liberty. The people putting themselves in front of police lines have a more expansive vision of what freedom means, and what risks they’re prepared to take for it.
Hmmm... Read all of it as well. He proffers a serious point.
Notwithstanding Tom's well-deserved props, I guess my only minor quibble would be with the implicit "reality versus discourse" thingy ("the focus on journalistic and academic rights")—though, I doubt that the Trump-despised "rabble in the streets" will be elbowing each other aside, amid the chaos of pepper spray, flash-bang grenades, and rubber (or actual) bullets, rushing to erect barricades in defense of comfy clean-fingernails journalistic / literary elites.
If you're not confused, you've not been paying attention.


A commenter on author Tom Scocca's Twitter feed doesn't share my Jones for Harper's:
“Harper’s is exactly where this letter would land. It’s largely snuff porn for a sector of Boomers who write tendentious pieces about how the good things are ruined and can’t be fixed. Except the people in the streets and in the real world are proving that thesis false.”
LOL. Methinks declaring any verdict from "in the streets and in the real world" at this point might be just a tad premature.

…A forceful and sweeping case for free speech—again, a constitutional principle, not one governing private institutions or Twitter feeds—would require engaging with the history of discrimination in journalism, academia, and literature. But the brief and ambiguous Harper’s letter does not convey the complexity of the forces shaping open discourse today. Who has most often shared their ideas with impunity? Who is discouraged, even banned, from doing so? Who cannot afford to enter the field at all, because legacy publications such as Harper’s still do not pay their interns? Serious grappling with these issues, instead of virtue signaling, would actually help foster the conditions for more vibrant public dialogue. Instead, in their rush to fetishize civil disagreement, the would-be defenders of free speech reproduce the same circular logic that has powered elite circles for generations. Nobody needed an open letter to be reminded of that.
More to come...

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