Harper’s Magazine is an American publication founded in 1850. In the 21st century, amid the disruption of journalism and media, the magazine has had a revolving door of editors, leading to a number of questionable decisions that have affected the publication’s reputation.
“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”
In 2020, Thomas Chatterton Williams led the effort to draft a letter decrying “illiberalism” with help from Robert Worth, George Packer, David Greenberg, and Mark Lilla. They then sought signatories without divulging who had signed. Because it “was passed among circles of activists and writers,” it is an excellent example of what The Transphobia Project hopes to reveal.
It’s one of the best recent examples of what Julia Serano calls “the Dregerian narrative” in which some elitists claim they are being persecuted or silenced by the minorities they exploit. The list featured an unusually large proportion of “gender critical” mainstays.
Elliot Ackerman, Saladin Ambar, Martin Amis, Anne Applebaum, Marie Arana, Margaret Atwood, John Banville, Mia Bay, Louis Begley, Roger Berkowitz, Paul Berman, Sheri Berman, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Neil Blair, David W. Blight, Jennifer Finney Boylan, David Bromwich, David Brooks, Ian Buruma, Lea Carpenter, Noam Chomsky, Nicholas Christakis, Roger Cohen, Frances D. Cook, Drucilla Cornell, Kamel Daoud, Meghan Daum, Gerald Early, Jeffrey Eugenides, Dexter Filkins, Federico Finchelstein, Caitlin Flanagan, Richard T. Ford, Kmele Foster, David Frum, Francis Fukuyama, Atul Gawande, Todd Gitlin, Kim Ghattas, Malcolm Gladwell, Michelle Goldberg, Rebecca Goldstein, Anthony Grafton, David Greenberg, Linda Greenhouse, Kerri Greenidge, Rinne B. Groff, Sarah Haider, Jonathan Haidt, Roya Hakakian, Shadi Hamid, Jeet Heer, Katie Herzog, Susannah Heschel, Adam Hochschild, Arlie Russell Hochschild, Eva Hoffman, Coleman Hughes, Hussein Ibish, Michael Ignatieff, Zaid Jilani, Bill T. Jones, Wendy Kaminer, Matthew Karp, Garry Kasparov, Daniel Kehlmann, Randall Kennedy, Khaled Khalifa, Parag Khanna, Laura Kipnis, Frances Kissling, Enrique Krauze, Anthony Kronman, Joy Ladin, Nicholas Lemann, Mark Lilla, Susie Linfield, Damon Linker, Dahlia Lithwick, Steven Lukes, John R. MacArthur, Susan Madrak, Phoebe Maltz Bovy, , Greil Marcus, Wynton Marsalis, Kati Marton, Debra Mashek, Deirdre McCloskey, John McWhorter, Uday Mehta, Andrew Moravcsik, Yascha Mounk, Samuel Moyn, Meera Nanda, Cary Nelson, Olivia Nuzzi, Mark Oppenheimer, Dael Orlandersmith, George Packer, Nell Irvin Painter, Greg Pardlo, Orlando Patterson, Steven Pinker, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Katha Pollitt, Claire Bond Potter, Taufiq Rahim, Zia Haider Rahman, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, Jonathan Rauch, Neil Roberts, Melvin Rogers, Kat Rosenfield, Loretta J. Ross, J. K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Karim Sadjadpour, Daryl Michael Scott, Diana Senechal, Jennifer Senior, Judith Shulevitz, Jesse Singal, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Andrew Solomon, Deborah Solomon, Allison Stanger, Paul Starr, Wendell Steavenson, Gloria Steinem, Nadine Strossen, Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., Kian Tajbakhsh, Zephyr Teachout, Cynthia Tucker, Adaner Usmani, Chloé Valdary, Lucía Martínez Valdivia, Helen Vendler, Judy B. Walzer, Michael Walzer, Eric K. Washington, Caroline Weber, Randi Weingarten, Bari Weiss, Sean Wilentz, Garry Wills, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Robert F. Worth, Molly Worthen, Matthew Yglesias, Emily Yoffe, Cathy Young, Fareed Zakaria
A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate
A letter countering it appeared shortly after that discussed the original’s “gender critical” aims:
The letter reads as a caustic reaction to a diversifying industry — one that’s starting to challenge institutional norms that have protected bigotry. The writers of the letter use seductive but nebulous concepts and coded language to obscure the actual meaning behind their words, in what seems like an attempt to control and derail the ongoing debate about who gets to have a platform.
In fact, a number of the signatories have made a point of punishing people who have spoken out against them, including Bari Weiss (who made a name for herself as a Columbia University undergrad by harassing and infringing upon the speech of professors she considered to be anti-Israel, and later attempted to shame multiple media outlets into firing freelance journalist Erin Biba for her tweets), Katha Pollitt (whose transphobic rhetoric has extended to trying to deny trans journalists access to professional networking tools), Emily Yoffe (who has spoken out against sexual-assault survivors expressing their free speech rights), Anne-Marie Slaughter (who terminated her Google-funded organization’s partnership with a Google critic), and Cary Nelson (whose support of free speech, apparently, does not extend to everyone) — just to name a few. What gives them the right to use their platforms to harass others into silence, especially writers with smaller platforms and less institutional support, while preaching that silencing writers is a problem?
Rowling, one of the signers, has spouted transphobic and transmisogynist rhetoric, mocking the idea that trans men could exist, and likening transition-related medical care such as hormone replacement therapy to conversion therapy. She directly interacts with fans on Twitter, publishes letters littered with transphobic rhetoric, and gets away with platforming violent anti-trans speakers to her 14 million followers.
Jesse Singal, another signer, is a cis man infamous for advancing his career by writing derogatorily about trans issues. In 2018, Singal had a cover story in The Atlantic expressing skepticism about the benefits of gender-affirming care for trans youth. No trans writer has been afforded the same space. Singal often faces and dismisses criticism from trans people, but he has a much larger platform than any trans journalist. In fact, a 2018 Jezebel report found that Singal was part of a closed Google listserv of more than 400 left-leaning media elites who praised his work, with not a single out trans person in the group. He also has an antagonistic history with trans journalists, academics, and other writers, dedicating many Medium posts to attempting to refute or discredit their claims and reputations.
It’s also clear that the organizers of the letter did not communicate clearly and honestly with all the signatories. One invited professor, who did not sign the Harper’s letter, said that he was asked to sign a letter “arguing for bolder, more meaningful efforts at racial and gender inclusion in journalism, academia, and the arts.” The letter in its final form fails to make this argument at all. Another of the signers, author and professor Jennifer Finney Boylan, who is also a trans woman, said on Twitter that she did not know who else had signed it until it was published. Another signatory, Lucia Martinez Valdivia, said in a Medium post: “When I asked to know who the other signatories were, the names I was shown were those of people of color from all over the political spectrum, and not those of people who have taken gender-critical or trans-exclusionary positions.”
Under the guise of free speech and free exchange of ideas, the letter appears to be asking for unrestricted freedom to espouse their points of view free from consequence or criticism.
Jeff Yang criticized the letter:
It’s hard not to see the letter as merely an elegantly written affirmation of elitism and privilege.
Each has also, in the face of resultant backlash, dismissed rebuttals and positioned themselves as beleaguered victims of the current culture, turning their support for open debate and free expression into an example of stark hypocrisy or sly gaslighting.
That’s because even if the letter were warranted — even if it weren’t an off-note, Olympian statement that reads as self-interested and elitist at best — it’s sure to be used by serial bad actors on the list as a shield against legitimate criticism.
July 7, 2020 A Letter on Justice and Open Debate Harper’s Magazine https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/
Yang, Jeff (July 10, 2020). The problem with ‘the letter’ https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/10/opinions/the-letter-harpers-cancel-culture-open-debate-yang/index.html
Ellefson, Lindsey (July 9, 2020). Editor Who Led Harper’s Letter Says The Cancel Culture It Warns of Drove Backlash The Wrap https://www.thewrap.com/harpers-letter-cancel-culture-backlash-thomas-williams/
McNamara, Mary (July 9, 2020). Column: ‘Cancel culture’ is not the problem. The Harper’s letter is. Los Angeles Times https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2020-07-09/cancel-culture-harpers-letter
Giorgis, Hannah (July 13, 2020). A Deeply Provincial View of Free Speech. The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/07/harpers-letter-free-speech/614080/
[Consensus statement] (July 10, 2020) A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate The Objective https://www.objectivejournalism.org/p/a-more-specific-letter-on-justice