The Harper's Letter and Cancel Culture

Reckoning with niche nonsense.

First off - I realize that this newsletter may be getting filtered away into your Promotions tab or spam now that I’ve switched to Substack, so I’ve changed up the e-mail name so it look like it’s coming from me – hopefully that helps!

You might therefore have missed that I’ve put together a pretty quick survey about this newsletter that I hope you’ll take. I’ll use your answers to tailor the content of this newsletter – ask, and ye shall receive!


Possibly you’ve heard about or encountered the latest agita among the extremely online: The Harper’s Letter. A collection of writers, researchers and journalists got together to sign a short statement warning against cancel culture, and cite the hurt feelings of professors who can’t bring themselves to stop saying the n-word in class as a problem on the scale and urgency of far-right authoritarianism. People got, understandably, pretty upset: on Twitter, and then in any number of response pieces.I love a good Twitter blowup! It’s an engaging distraction from creeping fascism, pandemics, and ecocatastrophe. The Daily Beast has a great catch-up on the particulars.

But this week I hope you’ll read Jessica Valenti’s piece: she runs down the specific incidents cited in the letter (though if you want even more detail, check this piece out), and explains why “cancel culture” is bullshit: “facing consequences for what you say and do is not a free speech violation”. If you publish Tom Cotton’s exhortation to use the military on U.S. civilians, or finding yourself apologizing for publishing a rapist by saying “The exact nature of his behavior — how much consent was involved — I have no idea nor is it really my concern”, and you get fired — that’s on your idiot, racist, and sexist ass. If the letter had been calling for unionization in media or other labor reform to limit at-will employment, that would have been at least interesting. Instead it’s just boring whining from racists, and the dupes who coddle them.

I want to be clear, too, because I’ve cited (either here or in-person) at least a dozen of the signatories of the letter as people whose work I respect and admire. The most prominent among these are the physician Atul Gawande, the historian Anne Applebaum, Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, Zephyr Teachout, and the columnist Matt Yglesias. I sincerely hope they did not realize what incidents they were defending, or that they were co-signatories with anti-trans activists like Jesse Singal or J.K. Rowling, war criminals like David Frum, or all-around dipshits like David Brooks (more on him next week). I am also hoping for retractions or second thoughts from these people, or even to read about some grand conspiracy where they were all hoodwinked somehow – but have seen none.

No gods, no masters, no heroes.

PS: If you’re looking for more, Osita Nwanevu has the definitive piece on this issue, and, mercifully, it was written before the letter.