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In these dog days of summer, in the midst of the world’s worst pandemic in a century, as many of us welcome the largest protest movement in American history, while others fear for their jobs in what already is a devastating economic downturn, everything feels weirdly out of joint.

On July 6, America’s Department of Homeland Security abruptly announced a draconian new rule for international students. The rule would have forced many to leave the United States if their classes were all online because of the pandemic. After lawsuits protesting the rule were filed by Harvard and MIT and joined by over 100 other universities, including The New School, the government rescinded this perverse directive.

But not before terrifying countless international students — including several who are on the staff of this publication.

For anyone who works in a university, it now feels as if our world has been turned upside down and then flipped right side up — all amid the fears and wild hopes inspired by an uprising, a plague, and soaring unemployment.

Not to be outdone, the talk of the town among journalists this week was about the abrupt resignation, almost simultaneously, of two highly visible — and controversial — pundits. Both held views widely deplored by right-minded progressives. In a letter announcing her resignation to New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger, columnist Bari Weiss complained of a “woke” culture of shaming and what she regarded as unconstrained anti-Semitism at the Old Gray Lady. Then, in a series of tweets posted later the same day, Andrew Sullivan, a former editor of the New Republic, suggested that similar problems among the staff at New York magazine had led him to resign too. 

Naturally, these announcements were greeted online with catcalls and nasty tweets, the milk of human kindness being in notably short supply these days, both on the left and on the right.

This latest media row came in the wake of “The Letter,” a hugely controversial document published on July 7 by Harper’s and signed by 153 artists, writers, and intellectuals from across the political spectrum. The signatories (some of them controversial themselves) raised their voices in a somewhat anodyne defense of free speech, but at the same time, they decried a fresh outbreak of bullying from the left, aimed, they argued, at silencing dissent in elite cultural institutions. 

As if to prove (however inadvertently) that such worries might be warranted, The Letter, too, was swiftly denounced online and in social media by critics on the left. Some savaged it as an elitist document, the work of privileged intellectuals, who, they argued, gave aid and comfort to the right by praising free speech while at the same time casting aspersions on the perfectly just demands of Black protesters and racially minoritized faculty at institutions still suffering from the same kind of structural racism that had led to an epidemic of police violence against people of color.

Since our own Claire Potter was one of the signatories of The Letter — and since all of us at Public Seminar are fiercely committed to making our publication “a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion,” to borrow the words of Times publisher Adolph Ochs in 1896 — this week we invite our readers to follow the debate raging currently over free speech in the media and academia.

We begin with a piece from historian Nicole Hemmer, who laces into The Letter, and finds its claims profoundly misleading: “looked at through the lens of those with less power,” she writes, “the letter’s worries about a shrinking sphere of public debate has it backward. In many arenas, what we have seen in the past several years has been, on the whole, an explosive widening of the realm of speech, not a constriction.”

We follow with a more ambivalent contribution from Robert Boyers, the founder and editor of the literary quarterly Salmagundi, who explains why, out of an overriding sense of solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives, he refused to sign The Letter

And we end with a “Declaration of Independence,” a piece that has sparked furious debate since it first appeared over a week ago. Written by Joshua T. Katz, a professor of classics at Princeton, and originally published online by the Australian online magazine Quillette, this “Declaration” was a response to an Open Letter about racism at Princeton, signed by over 350 professors, and posted on July 4. The Open Letter issued 48 anti-racist demands, including one that instructed the university to convene a faculty committee “that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.” Katz called the proposed committee “a star chamber.” Katz’s critics, including Princeton’s president, in turn, denounced him for abusing his right to free speech by resorting to inflammatory hyperbole and slanderous exaggeration. 

Meanwhile, back at the White House, President Trump was busy tweeting out threats to punish universities for “radical left indoctrination,” and instructing the Treasury Department to re-examine their tax-exempt status. 

Besides offering a platform in this week’s issue to several sides of this raging debate over free speech, we are also featuring two substantial essays on other topics.

The first is by Roy L. Brooks, a professor of law at the University of San Diego, whose piece explores the logic of collective responsibility, collective apologies, and a reciprocal request for collective forgiveness. With specific reference to the current debate over Black Lives in America, Brooks concludes that sometimes saying “I’m sorry” just isn’t good enough. This essay is a preview of a forthcoming online conference on Apology organized by our friends at Social Research, where Brooks’s complete paper will appear next fall. 

One of our youngest contributors is Sergio Infante, a polymath born in Bogotá, raised in Houston, educated at Yale and Cambridge, and currently an assistant editor at Foreign Affairs. In this week’s essay, he explores the temporality of the pandemic — and the appearance in the modern world of what Michel Foucault once called “the epoch of simultaneity.”

Elsewhere, we offer our customary mix of commentary on current political events from many different perspectives, with contributions from literary scholar and New School President Dwight McBride on the welcome recission on July 14 of the Department of Homeland Security’s July 6 rule on international students; political scientist William E. Scheuerman on why some kinds of violence are defensible in protest movements; journalist John Stoehr on the Roger Stone pardon and the conspiracies of the Trump administration; historian Steven Stoll on a racist monument in West Virginia; international politics analyst Vijay Prashad on how the United States and the UK are destroying international institutions; and commentator Sonali Kolhatkar, who argues that the United States should get out of Afghanistan, rather than worry about Russian bounties that may have been offered to the Taliban.

These are challenging times for scholars and journalists, especially those of us who remain committed to the overriding values of open inquiry and free expression. It’s in this spirit that we invite our readers, as always, to join the debate about the pressing issues of our times, by sharing your own thoughts about where America’s universities and the media are now headed in these worst of times that are also — potentially — the best of times.    

  • James Miller, July 17, 2020