It was at this point that he [Bertolt Brecht, German playwright and refugee from Hitler] said in words I have never forgotten, ‘As for them [the doomed defendants in Stalin’s show trials], the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.” I was so taken aback that I thought I had misheard him.
“What are you saying?” I asked.
He calmly repeated himself, “The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.” . . .
I was stunned by his words. “Why? Why?” I exclaimed. All he did was smile at me in a nervous sort of way. I waited, but he said nothing after I repeated my question.
I got up, went into the next room, and fetched his hat and coat. When I returned, he was still sitting in his chair, holding a drink in his hand. When he saw me with his hat and coat, he looked surprised. He put his glass down, rose, and with a sickly smile took his hat and coat and left. Neither of us said a word. I never saw him again.
The narrator of that modest domestic but morally significant moment in 1935 is the late and much-lamented Sidney Hook in his 1985 memoir Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century. The two men, Marxists of different kinds at the time, were dining in Hook’s New York apartment. Brecht’s remark was an expression of his determination to remain loyal to the Soviet Communist Party through all its murders while affecting small “ironic” displays of independence from it. It has the form of an epigram and the reality of corrupt subservience. Hook’s straightforward moral decency cuts through the irony, and his genuine independence of mind puts an uneasy Brecht to flight.
Though that moment is a heaven-or-hell one, I don’t believe I had thought of it for years. But it’s been running through my head in recent days as I’ve read some of the critical responses to the Harper’s “Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” signed by 153 intellectuals including Fareed Zakaria, Martin Amis, Stephen Pinker, Noam Chomsky, and J. K. Rowling. The statement itself seems to me to be a good one. It accurately describes the growing hostility to freedom of speech we all sense as a drive for “ideological conformity” that produces “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” It proposes an admirably sensible response to disagreements and disputes: “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” Both description and prescription suit me.
Inevitably, I found a few reasons for mild annoyance in it. For instance, there was the ritualistic claim that threats to free expression come from both left and right. Perhaps right-wingers would like to threaten free expression, but their social power to do so in universities, the media, publishing, Big Tech, and wherever else these conflicts are raging is so minuscule that they are being canceled with greater ease and less publicity than are liberals and moderate leftists. But that’s a quibble, because the principles defended in the letter are ideology-neutral and would protect heretics of all kinds. On first reading, my sense was that the letter was written in a way that made it very hard to raise objections to it.
That was, of course, a rash error. Angry and indignant objections have been raining down on its authors’ heads since the day after publication. A handful of signatories have withdrawn their support for it; other collective letters have been organized to dispute its arguments; and columnists have been denouncing its authors as little better than privileged right-wingers.
Now, I haven’t made an exhaustive study of these responses, but I’ve read a good number and I think I detect three themes that run through them.
The first dismisses the authors’ concerns for free thought and free speech as almost eccentric interests at a time when a pandemic is raging and mass social protests for racial justice are spreading through America. That invites the retort: If that’s so, why are you taking an equal amount of trouble to sign a counter-petition or write a column questioning their set of priorities? Why are you not taking up nursing or handing out Black Lives Matter petitions on street corners? They might be doing those things, to be sure; but so might the signers of the Harper’s letter. Considered coolly, moreover, the objection is a silly one: a claim that you can’t defend freedom and chew gum at the same time. Its intent, though, is more sinister. It hints that some discreditable motive prompted their letter. What might that be?
Well, the second theme is that the Harper’s authors are protecting their own positions and ability to write what they wish rather than helping lesser-known writers from disadvantaged social groups, including some who have been blocked or persecuted, to gain access to good jobs in literature or journalism. But the principles advanced in the letter, if they were generally accepted, would go a long way to achieving those ends. Protection of free speech is more important to striving newcomers than to established authors or scholars. For the writers who are least likely to be subject to cancellation in practice are those who are wealthy and popular enough to defy Twitter mobs and corporations nervous of Twitter mobs — i.e., writers like those who signed the Harper’s letter. In defending free speech, they were acting altruistically at least as much as selfishly and giving greater protection and opportunities to others.
That’s so even though there’s no obligation on someone entering a trade or profession to demand its reordering to create jobs for applicants from particular social groups, let alone make personal sacrifices to do so. That might be a virtuous thing to do. And there are in fact any number of prizes, scholarships, and special programs for young, minority, and women writers in publishing and the media. But it might also be a quixotic enterprise if the group is less represented because most of its members aren’t particularly interested in working in that trade. You don’t find many Norwegian-American hip-hop artists, for instance, and a special recruitment program would probably either fail to recruit any or encourage worse hip-hop. Just so when it comes to getting and keeping a writer’s job: It’s not enough to be young, a member of a minority, a woman, a trans person, or a radical progressive; you should have talent too.
The third theme is, quite simply, that there’s no such thing as “cancel culture” and no threat to free speech except the failure of the mainstream media to provide more employment to minority, female, and radical voices. Charles Blow of the New York Times gives it straight: Anyone is free to write what he wishes, and if he voices conservative views, his disgusted readers quite properly have the right to stop reading him. Sure, he’ll have to go into another line of work — but that’s accountability.
Except that isn’t quite how it works, and if it’s accountability, to whom is the writer accountable? Kevin Williamson was not driven out of The Atlantic by appalled readers. They didn’t have the chance to reach a verdict on his literary skills or political views because he was driven out of the magazine by a grim regiment of feminists among the junior staffers who took exception to pro-life views he had expressed elsewhere earlier. Since the editor had hired Williamson because he wanted a provocative writer of a conservative disposition, it’s reasonable to conclude that his hand was forced when he fired him. Bari Weiss resigned her position as an editorial-page editor on the New York Times semi-voluntarily in a dignified letter to its publisher that made it clear she had been subject to intimidation and bullying by her colleagues in what was plainly a hostile working environment. And Andrew Sullivan resigned in his last column for New York magazine, giving a rather grand (and entirely justified) version of the song “I’ve Been Thrown Out of Better Joints Than This” as he left the building, announced the revival of his blog, The Dish, and saw its readership rise gratifyingly.
All three are writers of talent — the criterion I mentioned above — but their employment was made subject to the approval of a Jacobin editorial collective which itself made compliance with left-wing Woke ideology the main condition of employment. And the signs from corporate America are that enough members of its managerial elite have imbibed Wokeness at good schools and colleges that they too will enforce this same condition of employment — call it Revolutionary Correctness — on both its workers and job applicants. My one difference with Ms. Weiss is that I see Twitter less as an agent than as an internal system of corporate communications in James Burnham’s managerial revolution. Its effect nonetheless is to impose an industry-wide and nationwide system of left-wing ideological conformity.
It should be clear from what I’ve written so far that I regard the contributors to the Harper’s letter as right in detecting and opposing a cancel culture that threatens freedom, and their critics as wrong in raising false, sinister, and absurd objections to them — and I haven’t mentioned some of the most ridiculous complaints. If it really is the case that journalists on papers and magazines such as the NYT and New York are made ill by the presence of Ms. Weiss and Mr. Sullivan, who might well be thinking odious liberal thoughts only a few desks away, then either they are unsuited to journalism, which often involves things much more rough-and-tumble than that, or they are themselves hiding other and more worrying thoughts of their own. And that’s why the remark of Bertolt Brecht came into my mind as I was reading them.
One could not avoid noticing that in addition to the specific objections to the Harper’s letter, its critics were animated by an unusually strong, almost personal, animus to the letter-writers. They constantly brought up the fact that they were wealthy, popular, liberal, and non-minority — even when they weren’t. Much of it was ideological hostility, of course, but it seemed also to be allied to a kind of class hatred, and perhaps to a sense of inferiority of some kind too. There’s a long and impressive tradition of rhetorical viciousness on the Left; Marx himself had a real talent for invective, and Brecht too. And eventually I thought I sensed what they were saying behind the formal arguments:
The more talented they are, the more they deserve to be silenced.
There were variations on this theme, of course: the more successful they are, or the wealthier they are, or the more liberal they are — liberal being sometimes attached to some idea of higher status. But all these things were mixed up together, and they were mostly driving emotionally to the same urge: the more they deserve to be silenced.
It’s hard to know where this mentality comes from. In the case of Brecht, my speculation is that Hook confronted him with a choice: He could continue to live a life of Communist privilege as the servant of an imperial ideology with a license to jest, or he could choose truth and liberty. Making the right choice would have meant a public humiliation at the hands of his fellow Communists at the very least. He therefore made the wrong choice and lived in comfortable corruption thereafter. But he left “uneasy” that night in 1935. And one wonders if that uneasiness ever lifted.
Many of those who have embraced the imperialism of Wokeness must sense that they are making the wrong choice too — after all, they’re usually well-educated in a formal sense — and they know where that choice led in Russia after 1917, Germany after 1933, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary after 1945, China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc., etc. So they shout louder, demand more aggressively, and condemn more harshly in order to signify their revolutionary correctness and perhaps to quell their own doubts and even their own fears that talented liberals will not be the last to be silenced or bullied into pleading forgiveness and begging to be reeducated.
How will it end this time? I doubt Wokeness will triumph in the United States or anywhere in the English-speaking world where democratic and liberal traditions are deeply rooted, if at present very far from flowering. Those traditions will almost certainly be strong enough to contain a Woke regime long enough for an election to punish its preordained chaos, failure, and authoritarianism. But we can already glimpse what the ideological control of writing by collectives and commissars is likely to produce in imaginative writing (plays, novels, poems, screenplays) from what it is already producing in journalism. From the NYT’s 1619 Project through the mainstream media’s ruthless downplaying of violent rioting across America to the pushing of Williamson, Sullivan, Weiss, and others away and into the still-free enclaves of opinion (which are themselves starting to be threatened too), we see that Woke journalism elevates revolutionary correctness and/or partisan political interest over truth in the most basic journalistic sense: Who did what, where, how, and to whom when? You can’t trust what such journalists write — and increasingly, the public doesn’t.
As for the consequences of literary correctness, we know exactly what that would mean for writers and readers from an old Soviet joke (told to me by the historian Tibor Szamuely):
A regional commissar in the Union of Soviet Writers was delivering his annual report on the rising production of literature in his province.
“I am proud to announce,” he said, “that this year’s literary output has been outstanding. We have no fewer than 385 novelists working full-time for the proletariat whereas in backward Czarist times, we had only one.”
Given what the critics of the Harper’s letter think about its contributors, however, they might not get the punch line.