“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published in Harper’s earlier this month, contains 151 signatures and is 532 words long, seeking to reorient public discourse to its original principles of “free exchange of information and ideas” against an increasing “zeal in agreement” that leads to the former’s suppression. As with any brief statement, it is the seed from which whole vines of verbiage for and against it grow. The divisions in the responses are entirely predictable. Critics pounced at the document to deny the reality of “cancel culture,” while a more detailed responsorial letter offered context on the original letter’s vague allegations, showing how cancel culture exists on a case-by-case basis. Others saw it as a tribalist gesture of pampered authors grasping at their privileges and platforms. Those condemning the condemnations, on the other hand, saw only sour grapes. Others saw the letter as useless but which proved its point by the vitriol it inspired. Still others very publicly feigned detachment from the letter entirely. And so on and so forth.
My own response to the piece was initially general approval. A document so broadly worded on humanist principles is hard to contest unless you’ve acquired enough antihumanist theory (structuralism, deconstruction, etc.) to go fishing for the cultural dominance predators that swim beneath the lake of “freedom.” But this response gave way to a skepticism that was long-ingrained yet difficult to articulate while the heat of the debate was on. Over time, my objection to the letter cohered into two interrelated points.
First being that, while the insinuation of platform-hoarding is too crude, the letter nonetheless placed a premium on the “public intellectual” as an institutional reality. What at first read like advocacy of universal ideals for all citizens of a healthy society began to read more and more like a covenant for cerebral warriors. By virtue of placing the greatest belief upon these principles, the letter suggests, we deem ourselves the elect of the American mind and the knights errant of free expression. The privileges you complain of are not, in fact, privileges but the spoils of battles well-fought, and which are always won because in free debate there are no winners as such. This point was difficult to argue until Thomas Chatterton Williams, the letter’s prime spokesman, admitted that Glenn Greenwald’s name was kept off the letter at the insistence of other signatories.
Second being that the model of “public intellectual” espoused in the letter is a very specific kind born out of specific circumstances. This is evidenced as much by the signatories as by the letter’s contents itself. The furor has focused on current lightning rods like Williams, Matthew Yglesias, Bari Weiss, and J.K. Rowling. But the letter’s true heft comes from its old guard endorsers: Margaret Atwood, Garry Wills, Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, John Banville, etc. These names conjure a well-documented and long-glamorized golden age of the open letter, of lively banter with Tom Snyder or Dick Cavett, and the power of elegant sentences to propel action or to unveil what wants to stay hidden. It’s a model that leaves a strong, intimidating impression upon all who come in its immediate wake, but one that has recently found itself in a state of flux amidst a more chaotic media atmosphere.
The advent of the 20th century American intellectual culture unfolds like a creation myth. Victory in World War II put the United States in a position of unprecedented global influence. Having split the atom and made a weapon out of it, we now had both the power to level entire cities and the time to debate the ethics of doing so. The New Republic and Partisan Review gave way to Politics and Encounter, Esquire and Playboy, The Liberal Imagination and The End of Ideology, Invisible Man and Lolita, James Baldwin owning William F. Buckley at Cambridge, and William F. Buckley calling Gore Vidal a “queer” on live television. The United States had entered what was, in essence, its Victorian era. Ideas had power, and people who had ideas were given, relatively speaking, as much prominence as movie stars and politicians. It was a model based on magazine work, roundtable appearances, book parties, essay collections, occasional professorships, and public feuds. All the while there was a feeling that cleverness in and of itself conferred, at the very least, the perception of having the attention and respect of people of action.
The model’s glamor proved compelling. People who were not “creative” or “attractive” or who lacked “adequate social graces” in the conventional sense could move to New York City, Washington, DC, or, God forbid, Los Angeles and make something of themselves with a savage book review of an old guard member on the way out as a calling card. It was hardly a secret society, but it was not the bar from Cheers either. This was an age when the editor was as much of a powerbroker as a lobbyist or a lawyer. Their magazines were gateways to prominence without the need for hard credentials. The deflating of this power and the narrowing of the gateway is integral to the current conflict and an unspoken but very obvious factor of the open letter. Indeed, an effect of reading the letter was something akin to sitting through cover band night at a college bar, trying and failing to drown out a histrionic rendition of “Even Flow” or an especially pathetic version of “Closing Time” with a flat, warm two-dollar pitcher of Natty Ice. This feeling carries over into some of the intellectual realm’s most talked-about writers today. I will focus on two.
Though I’ve been told more than once that the publishers aren’t thrilled about essay collections, Jia Tolentino’s collection Trick Mirror has proved to be a runaway phenomenon. The popularity of her New Yorker pieces combined with celebrities posting selfies with advanced copies, not to mention her utterly superfluous appearance on one of the Fyre Fest documentaries, assured her not a little bit of that ever-rarer dose of literary fame. Such hype did not require comparisons to Joan Didion, but there are 63,800 Google hits for “jia tolentino joan didion” as of this writing. It came as the culmination of a long-dormant dream that an ethereal female truth-teller might again walk the earth, even though Joan Didion is not actually dead. It’s not something that’s encouraged by Tolentino, and for good reason. First because it blatantly commodifies Tolentino and second because she hardly fits that model anyway. Try as people might, Didion’s style is inimitable, an uncommon compound of high church Episcopal gloom and arid California expanse. Even her most cliched line “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” has a sublime candle-light-and-incense smokiness to it that has no equal. Tolentino, a low church Texan, is more self-conscious and down-to-earth. Many of her essays are trend pieces spiked with MFA fluoride. Her attempts at Restoration Hardware coaster wisdom, however, are offset by what I’m going to assume are her attempts at comic observation:
One day I was at a [yoga] studio in the west side of town when a woman next to me queefed a thick, wet queef while sinking deep into Warrior II. I held back my laughter. She kept queefing, and kept queefing, and queefed and queefed and queefed. Over the course of the hour, as she continued queefing, my emotions went fractal—hysterical amusement and unplaceable panic combining and recombining in a kaleidoscopic blur.
Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society is probably not as popular as Trick Mirror, but it’s a book that is nonetheless talked about and well-reviewed. It’s a jeremiad against a cultural climate that at once fears and welcomes civilizational decline. “Douthat provides an enlightening diagnosis of the modern condition,” the cover matter exalts, “how we got here, how long our age of frustration might last, and how, whether in renaissance or catastrophe, our decadence might ultimately end.” What seems to some as world-shattering, or at least eye-opening, is a reverberation of an earlier model, one more eagerly, or maybe solemnly, acknowledged by the author. “Famous 1970s-era texts such as Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism […] seem entirely relevant to American culture today.” That Lasch’s dense tome of Americanized Frankfurt School cultural analysis became a bestseller in 1979 bespeaks of the desperation of that moment. Douthat is not the only one who wants to chase that thinking, given that much of what he foresaw then is more apparent today. But Lasch’s heirs lack the components that make him interesting, such as his political unpredictability, his immense interdisciplinary learning, and the undercurrent of anger that his erudition concealed. Douthat is a fluid and ideologically principled but not stubborn writer, yet he tends toward the mournful rather than the furious, centered by a core of almost shrugging reasonableness. Douthat pays his debts on time, but dares not match his creditor.
Tolentino and Douthat are representative of the present trend of cultural criticism that seeks to articulate, in Tolentino’s words, “systemic dread bubbling up,” like those who’ve come before them. Valuable as that might be, these reverberations of despair and angst, of pointing out the cracks in our cultural moment, are tethered to a self-confidence of the culture’s ultimate resilience. Angst and sorrow come from within, and don’t interfere with the agency of those who opt to affect them. They are passing qualities that rely on an exterior stability of trains still managing to run on time. It is the same wishful thinking that drives many of Trump’s deluded COVID pronouncements. Something like fear is imposed from without, it is not easy to convey into writing and that it is even possible now is not certain.
The model of the postwar American intelligencia has been fracturing for a little over two decades. Many blame the dominance of the internet for breaking the gates editors have been so long in keeping, though I think it goes back to empty strivers like Stephen Glass gaming the media patronage system for all it was worth regardless of the reputations leveled in the process. Whatever the case, the public writer has declined in authority, the audience dominates and they are going elsewhere. In Kiara Barrow’s and Rebecca Panovka’s editorial for their new magazine The Drift, the condemn the “literary world’s capacity for navel-gazing” and find greater intellectual substance in podcasts:
In an age of screenshots and cherry-picked quotes, podcasts are largely immune: it’s difficult to take an audio clip out of context and cancel it; you’d have to listen all the way through and transcribe. Maybe this is why podcasts tend to be freer than magazine articles—looser with facts and opinions. But it’s also partly because their hosts tend not to take themselves too seriously.
But even if podcasts are not a fad as some like to think, they are not enough for me, personally or culturally.
One point in the Harper’s letter that I took the least issue with was the need for a cultural “that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.” I agree. In fact it has been pointed out to me more than once how well I manage at least two of the those three things. But this is how it always was. Most public writing is reactive writing, and circumstances shape writing as much as, sometimes more than, the writer. This is a truism, but one that’s forgotten in the quest for pitches and “storytelling,” let alone the diagnosing of “our cultural moment.” I don’t even need to defend it because someone with the impulse to write will do it regardless of what anyone says, because the means are there and the occasion calls for it.
The ideals espoused in the letter are utterly disconnected from the moment they want to describe. The humanism they take as granted and the rational prose with which they defend it does little to assuage me of my own fears; they actually reinforce them. Uncertainty is not a buzzword for me. Each day nothing happens is another day I reflect on how I spent none of it preparing for the bottom—whatever it may be—to collapse right underneath me. I do not expect these writers to aid me with their clarifications or debates. What good is “free exchange of information and ideas” when it’s done amongst a heap of rubble? If you send a letter of “resignation” to an abyss, does the abyss put you on furlough anyway?
Assuming prose has any value in this present atmosphere, the prose would hinge less on argument. Its manner of thought would be horrific—absorbed in the unthinkable and the impossible; it’s manner of expression would be metallic—forceful, flexible, and alien to compromise.
Concrete examples of this prose are extracted from a despairing, hellacious excursion of history. The interwar period is especially rife. Karl Kraus wrote The Third Walpurgis Night immediately after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. It was an expansive, excoriating polemic against the media and cultural atmosphere that allowed public speech to make peace with state violence, and opened with the famous, if misunderstood line, “As to Hitler, I have nothing to say.” Kraus completed and typeset the text but declined to publish it for fear of repercussions against his Jewish readers. The first complete English translation was only made available this year. Nathanael West’s 1939 novel The Day of the Locust is Depression era satire of disappointment that degenerates into mass madness; it obliterates rather than subverts the “American dream.”
Perhaps the chief example is Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Conservative lore prefers Burke as a chivalrous, heavily Anglicized prudence-monger rather than the eruptive Irish outsider that he was. Reflections is a difficult text less for its historical context or for its dense analytical prowess than it is for its volatile structure. Burke did not so much relish argument as he allowed himself to be utterly overcome by the stakes of his position. “He exults in the display of power,” William Hazlitt wrote, “in shewing the extent, force and intensity of his ideas […] He was completely carried away by his subject.” It allowed for unexpected leaps into bitter invective and funereal rhapsody:
This king, to say no more of him, and this queen, and their infant children (who once would have been the pride and hope of a great people) were then forced to abandon the sanctuary of the most splendid palace in the world, which they left swimming in blood, polluted by massacre, and strewed with scattered limbs and mutilated carcasses.
Burke’s vision of political violence in France was outrageous and speculative at that point, and he did not possess the firmest grasp of the facts on the ground. Some even thought he’d suffered a mental breakdown. Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine railed against the book; but it was his friend Philip Francis who laid the harshest criticism. The text, Francis wrote to Burke, was “very loosely put together” and over-reliant on “jest and sneer and sarcasm” while being negligible in “grave, direct, and serious” persuasion. “I wish you would let me teach you to write English,” he helpfully suggested.
Few remember Francis’s forceful but narrow “Junius” letters. Burke’s Reflections on the other hand refuses to go away for all of its enduringly human attributes: not the sobriety of judgement, steadfastness of morality, or mastery of logic but for their failures in the face of upheaval. It is a work that cannot contain its fear. But sometimes writing truthfully means unlearning English.