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The 'Letter on Justice and Open Debate' Should Be Seen as a Stance Against Trumpian Authoritarianism

The suggestion that we can do with a little less censoriousness should be welcomed so that we can focus a bit more of our attention on the actual political work of defending democracy and defeating Trumpism.

Protesters marched in Manhattan in May of 2017 to protest a presidential visit. (Photo: Getty)

Protesters marched in Manhattan in May of 2017 to protest a presidential visit. (Photo: Getty Images)

The “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” that was published last week at Harper’s Magazinehas generated a firestorm of controversy. I’ve already weighed in, explaining why I would have signed: because Defending Freedom of Inquiry and Debate is Always Important, And A Proper Focus on the Danger from the Right Does Not Require Silence About Excesses on the Left. The issues raised by the debate are important ones. But as we face a deadly public health crisis, a crisis of “criminal justice,” and a crisis of constitutional democracy itself, I think it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture: the letter is advanced by a broad range of writers who are opposed to Trumpism, and in the service of this opposition.

Yes, the “Letter” was basically a vague statement that left much of importance unsaid and whose very vagueness allowed a wide range of otherwise very different people to sign. Yes, it was something of a “celebrity intellectual” statement, somewhat randomly circulated, and somewhat “empty” by virtue of its lack of connection to any specific political grouping or movement. And yes, it included some people who have said or done some pretty troubling things. And for this reason, while some people “on the left” signed it, many others could not and would not feel so comfortable. Fine. It is what it is. Or better, it was what it was. I think it’s time to move on.

But first, it’s important to recognize that something very important about the letter is being missed: that it begins by applauding “powerful protests for racial and social justice” and criticizing Trumpism as “a real threat to democracy,” and it ends with a general statement of the link between robust debate and democracy: “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 letter might be interpreted in many ways. One is that it was a kind of declaration that the people who signed, and others “like” them who might read it and sympathize, prefer to regard their interlocutors as people with different opinions, and even as political adversaries, but also as fellow citizens and in a sense political allies in the defense of liberal democracy at a time when it needs all the defense it can get. The “rightist” people who signed the letter actually signed on to a document that is pretty “left,” even if in very broad and vague ways. And the “left” people who signed were signifying that at this moment, they consider it necessary to publicly state their willingness to “accept” and even work with some people with whom they disagree on very important things, because there is agreement on this: we must defend liberal democracy.

Some of the right-wing signatories might actually think that Black Lives Matter, for example, is a danger to democracy (Mark Lilla, not a right-wing signatory, did criticize what he called “the Mau Mau tactics” of BLM in his 2017 book The Once and Future Liberal—something that I, among other, harshly criticized in reviewing his book). But that is not what the letter says. Indeed, the letter pretty much says the opposite: that the current protests are “progressive,” and that a certain kind of hyper-sensitive antipathy to alternative views, which I will call sectarianism, will “ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.”

Honestly, with the exception of a few individuals who are my friends, I do not care about any of the signatories of the letter, each of whom surely had their own reason for signing, and each of whom can “fend for themselves.” While, pace certain criticisms, the letter contains no “whining” or claims of “victimhood,” it is surely likely that some of the signatories have felt “harmed” by the harsh criticism of others who felt “harmed” by them. Some may be hypocrites who denounce the “thin skins” of others while actually being quite comfortable attacking and even punishing those others for criticizing them. (Bari Weiss, for example, has been mentioned in this connection. I’m not interested in any particular individuals here.)

I dislike hypocrites.

But, as Judith Shklar wisely argued long ago, hypocrisy, while it may be a serious intellectual deficiency, is an “ordinary vice” of liberal democracy, and it often makes it possible for otherwise very different people to coexist or work together, by “making believe” that they agree more than they do, and then acting together on the basis of apparent agreement. Most political alliances are of this kind: accentuating certain similarities, and diminishing certain differences, in the name of some perceived commonality.

The actual letter, and the list of signatories, matters much less than the way the letter performs the possibility of working together across differences right now in defense of democracy.

Take, for example, the case of Mark Lilla. As I’ve already said, I was harshly critical of his book and remain critical of his very centrist approach to liberalism. Others responded much more harshly to his book when it came out, some even calling him a “racist” and a “white supremacist.” I actually do not think this was fair. But others did, and they said what they said, and he did talk about “Mau Mau tactics,” and so he needs to take the heat. Fine. Again, I do not care about him as an individual.

But as a public figure, as a proponent of a kind of centrist liberalism that has many supporters within the Democratic party, he presents a challenge: if he is signing onto a statement like the “Letter,” which celebrates the current protests, does this perhaps mean that supporters of BLM ought to argue with him without employing a rhetoric of denunciation, and should be willing to work with him, across a real difference, so long as he is willing to work with them, in order to defeat Trumpism in November? A similar question arises with regard to some of the neoconservatives who signed the letter. Yes, they supported Bush and the Iraq war. Now they have quit the Republican party, called for its defeat, and announced that they wish to work to defeat Trump and elect Biden in November. Is “warmonger” the most meaningful, helpful, or appropriate way to respond to these moves? Or is something else perhaps more appropriate for those who care about improving our very decayed and depressed society?

This, to me, is the only important point of the “Letter”: that it would be better for broad public discourse and public intellectual debate, and for the promotion of further justice and democratization, for us to try to broaden the range of those we are willing to treat as fellow citizens who are perhaps adversaries but not enemies, and to dial down some of our political rhetoric, because failing to do so will only strengthen the far right and make things worse.

Mark Lilla can fend for himself. And he can endure being called a “racist” (though other, more junior people, might have a much harder time enduring such epithets). But does it really make sense to call him a racist when he is now avowing his support for racial justice, even if he is not thus buying into every demand being made by BLM activists? And does it not make more sense—morally, ethically, politically—to focus one’s attributions of racism on those who explicitly, and malevolently, support white supremacy– Trump and his supporters, who support Confederate symbols and extol police brutality and oppose the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act—rather than on those who oppose them?

The “Letter” may have all kinds of deficiencies and, in the end, it made no demand on anyone not a signatory to do anything. But it was a kind of speech act, a rhetorical performance. And while it is possible to read it as a performance of a sappy kind of “civility,” if one takes seriously its words, it makes more sense to read it as a performance of a kind of “agonistic respect” among people who disagree about many things, but who agree that democracy and justice are projects still to be realized, and that the clear and present danger to these projects is Trumpism.

This seems like an important and worthy message right now.

I seriously doubt whether any of those prominent public intellectuals of the democratic left who signed the letter cared whether or not the author of Harry Potter signed it, or even knew that she did. But I am confident that they cared very much about fighting racism, sexual discrimination and inequality and reaching across ideological divides in ways that strengthened rather than divided the opposition to Trumpism.

All those who support liberal democracy and human rights now need to come together in their defense. This is basically what the “Letter” says, as I read it.

This does not mean the cessation of argument, even heated and sometimes acrimonious argument.

But it does mean an effort to avoid a certain censoriousness that is increasingly common—and made so easy by the digital media that increasingly dominate our lives—and to practice a kind of ethical self-limitation.

Argue about whether we need “criminal justice reform” or “defunding” or “abolition” of the police, or whether we need “reparations” or universalistic, social democratic programs or some combination in order to address the legacies of slavery and the institutions of racism. Argue about whether universal access to quality health care requires a Medicare for All plan or a market-based alternative with a “public option.” Argue about whether LGBT people deserve equal rights because their identities are biologically determined or because they are chosen. Argue, even angrily. But try harder to avoid calling your interlocutor, or even your adversary, a “reactionary” or a “transphobe” or a “racist.” For these words reinforce division and emnity, and make collaboration difficult.

Such “agonistic respect” is not a universal tonic. There are real enemies that need to be named, denounced, and defeated (in a liberal democracy through non-violent means). It’s all a question of where you draw the lines. Read generously and constructively, all the “Letter” does is to declare that its signatories are now drawing these lines in a way that is capacious about “friends” and rather focused about “enemies,” and to hope perhaps others will follow this example.

Is this really such a bad idea right now? Really

The U.S. stands at a historic inflection point. Democracy itself will be on the ballot in November. If Trump and his supporters win, then xenophobia, white supremacism, and authoritarianism win. Period. 

The spirit of censoriousness and denunciation will not advance “the most vital causes of our time.”  But it will further strengthen the censoriousness, cruelty, and authoritarianism of Trumpism. And for this reason, the suggestion that we can do with a little less of it should be welcomed—so that we can focus our attention on the actual political work of defeating Trumpism, as a first step towards a more just and democratic society.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: Democracy in Dark Times (1998); The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline; and Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion.

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