Brooklyn street mural, June 19, 2020. Photo credit: Audley C Bullock / Shutterstock.com.
The now famous Harper’s letter signed by 153 intellectuals has understandably stirred furious debate. Though I declined to sign it when asked, I disagreed with nothing in the letter, and I knew that I would continue to have misgivings about my decision.
After all, the letter is informed by a concern for tolerance, and fears about a growing illiberalism in the progressive circles where I have spent my entire intellectual life. Indeed, I myself published a book about these fears last year. In The Tyranny of Virtue — Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies, I analyzed various examples of groupthink, public shaming, and identity politics that I had found troubling. As a result, many of my friends were puzzled to see my name missing when the Harper’s letter appeared online.
Why did I decide not to sign the letter?
My feeling was — and continues to be — that this is the wrong moment to be circulating such a document. This is, after all, a moment when Black Lives Matter has become a national movement — by some measures, the largest mass movement of protest in American history. On the street where I live in largely white Saratoga Springs, New York, several porches display signs in support of Black Lives Matter. Protest marches in cities all over the country feature a wide assortment of people, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-generational. A growing consensus now accepts that we do, in fact, continue to have a problem with racism and that we ought to bend our will to collectively promoting dramatic changes in several precincts of American life.
Though many of us have long and rightly resisted the notion that racism alone explains all of our problems, we understand not only that there is much to be done in the area of race relations, but that many Americans are now prepared to join political coalitions spearheaded by the kinds of voices animating the Movement for Black Lives.
Nothing in the Harper’s letter denies that there is work to be done. Nothing in the letter suggests that the police violence we have all seen for ourselves in recent years is less than appalling, though I would have liked to see a much stronger and more sustained statement of the goals articulated by responsible spokespersons for Black Lives Matter.
Instead, what the letter seemed to me to imply, given the context, was that the recent signs of intolerance and illiberalism in the media and on campuses were in some sense linked to, if not caused by, the Movement for Black Lives. The fears and cautions sounded in the letter, entirely reasonable in themselves, were sure to be taken — so I felt — as a preemptive criticism of BLM at a time when the movement has never seemed so promising.
Of course, there have been troubling statements issued now and then by people speaking on behalf of BLM. But what political movement is not marked by internal division and strife, and what prospect of meaningful political activism would there be if we offered our support only to parties or movements without troubling features?
My middle son Zack, who lives with his family in St. Louis, tells me that on the family’s nightly marches downtown, hundreds of people are on hand, and that many of them are becoming more active in community and corporate organizations committed to furthering major changes in the way business is done in that city. What he sees in his city is a movement willing to make common cause with people who don’t agree with one another on every issue and whose interests are some of the time widely divergent.
On occasion, Zack also says, when the marches are over and people are dispersing back to their homes and apartments, people with no interest in or connection to marches, or to the organized resistance they represent, come out into the downtown neighborhood and commit acts of vandalism or mayhem. This, he says, is of course deplorable. And yet he and his friends who are in this struggle for the long haul refuse to confuse the peripheral mayhem with the heart of the movement, and do not see the Movement for Black Lives as authorizing or instigating the mayhem.
Like my son Zack, I believe that the Movement for Black Lives represents a promising turning point in American politics. For that reason, I will work as hard as I can not to feel entirely disillusioned as a result of the irrational or incendiary utterances of some people loosely linked to the movement who, if they persist, will succeed only in driving away from the coalition people they will need to accomplish our common goals.
For intellectuals, needless to say, it will always be essential to speak up, and to avoid adopting a party line. Those who signed the Harper’s letter were doing what seemed to them the wise and necessary thing, calling attention to real dangers that have destroyed or corrupted earlier political movements. Many of them will have had in mind, when they decided whether or not to sign the letter, the classic statements of conscience issued by intellectuals who understood that the radical movements to which they had offered their allegiance were turning into instruments of oppression intent on punishing and devouring dissenting voices in their ranks. We need think only of Czesław Miłosz, and George Orwell, and Victor Serge, and Milan Kundera, and Richard Wright, and Arthur Koestler to remember what happened to twentieth-century movements for radical change that ended up by shaming, exiling, or murdering their own. My own decision not to sign the Harper’s letter was hard, because for well over half a century I have read and taught and written about those thinkers and writers, and I too worry over tendencies that have a way of corrupting even the most promising political movements.
In fact, some of the fury directed at the Harper’s letter, and at those who signed it, fully confirms the fears informing the letter. Which fears? Those having to do with the way that participants in what they take to be a righteous cause may take special pleasure in efforts to shame or cancel opponents. Fears that a movement with real prospects for becoming a broad national movement that can bring us together will devolve into an engine for name calling and ideological posturing. Fears, in fact, that varieties of idiocy worthy of our current president and his party will, albeit in different form, take hold of persons speaking for the movement in which so many of us are now investing our hopes.
To what do I refer? How about an article in a venerable progressive magazine arguing that the signatories of the Harper’s letter — that includes columnists for the Nation and a number of the bravest and most original thinkers we have — are “the worst people in the world of public intellectualism”? The thoughtlessness on display there is staggering, and of course it is by no means a reflection on the Movement for Black Lives, though it is a reflection of the penchant for reading out of the “respectable” progressive cohort anyone who dares to go against the grain of the currently accredited progressive consensus.
Or what of the argument, sounded at a virtual faculty meeting at a New York City university recently, that white people cannot possibly play a central role in the present political moment, because they are “constitutively white,” and also implicated as beneficiaries of institutions that are demonstrably and systematically racist. So much for efforts to create a truly national, and multi-racial, coalition to join the Movement for Black Lives.
And what of the recent, astonishing, and disturbing letter of July 4 signed by more than 100 Princeton faculty members demanding that the university set up what amounts to a faculty star chamber to vet, approve, oversee and — the implication is clear — suppress the research and writing of their colleagues if it is found to be in any way incorrect?
The only things missing from the Princeton letter of July 4 are the obvious: one, that those found “guilty” of proposing or publishing anything deemed by the righteous members of the faculty oversight board to be “offensive” or disturbing will be called out, punished and if possible dismissed; and two, that the signatories have abandoned any pretense of support for academic or creative freedom and signaled their investment in something that, if widely adopted, would mark in effect the end of the university as an institution dedicated to the core liberal values of tolerance and open inquiry.
Let us hope that none of these alarming developments among academics and intellectuals slow the progress of the Movement for Black Lives. On its success rests what Abraham Lincoln once called “the last, best hope” for achieving a more perfect union.
Robert Boyers is editor of Salmagundi magazine, professor of English at Skidmore College, and author of The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies.