Social media is abuzz with talk of a group of academic and artistic elites who say they are standing against the outcry of millions in order to close ranks in support of one of their own. More than one hundred of these establishment figures signed on to an open letter published in Harper’s. Entitled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” or simply, “the letter”, it decries a growing culture of ‘illiberalism’. They pin blame for this on US President Donald Trump, and, in the same breath– decry what they term to be left-wing ‘cancel culture’, or “resistance… harden[ing] into its own brand of dogma or coercion
This letter wasn’t drafted because of some Charlie-Hebdo style atrocity, or mass murder of outspoken free-thinkers under a brutal dictatorship. This letter was drafted as a general unity statement because some people have been feeling the heat for their bad opinions on social media. Take, for example, the signatory JK Rowling. The billionaire liberal, controversy-magnet and former children’s author decided she wanted to use her social media following on Twitter to conduct a debate about the validity of the identity of Transgendered persons in society, specifically, Transgendered women.
More than a hundred artists, journalists and academics spoke up, effectively bolstering the defence of a billionaire, who picked a fight she couldn’t win on Twitter. That’s right, unprecedented social problems be damned, the real threat to democracy is Transgendered people “bullying” billionaires on Twitter.
Rowling has been accused of being a ‘TERF‘ or Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist. That is, a feminist who believes that Transgendered women are not, in fact, women. TERF is frequently used as a pejorative term because it is viewed as a shameful political position for any supposed “progressive” person to hold. It is wholly incompatible with other progressive ideals and is the domain of anti-Gay bigots, conversion therapy advocates and opponents of what is termed “gender ideology”.
Rowling has tweeted, amongst other things– a repeated denial that Transgendered women are women, openly mocked gender identities and even suggested some vague link between Trans-rights activists and pedophilic activity. These are shrill and hateful dogwhistles the way only a white Karen can do it, positioning herself as the victim in any exchange.
Signatories to the open letter include Malcom Gladwell, Salman Rushdie, Wynton Marsalis, Noam Chomsky and the Canadian author Margaret Atwood.
Tellingly, the letter opens with a call for police ‘reform’, a position which deliberately omits the existence (let alone the validity) of widespread calls for police abolition. They’re liberal elites offering token reforms to the gaping jaws of insurrection at a time of widespread and brutal injustice. Those are the same talking points as Joe Biden. This should tell you everything you need to know about ‘The Letter.’
Society is in the throes of a revolutionary iconoclasm. It is also in the midst of a global crisis. Fascism has ascended to the highest offices, while its jackbooted thugs channel the worst angels of their nature onto the very streets. In the midst of a global pandemic biological class warfare is the new normal.
What Harper’s published, is a letter bearing the names of an aging counter-revolutionary intelligentsia actively and publicly clutching their pearls over ‘cancel culture’ (see: consequences) after one of their ‘made men’ (Rowling) got taken down in a very justified blaze of ignominy for offering, and then doubling down on, a garbage opinion and then a series of garbage opinions. If it could happen to one of them, it could happen to any of them. And it probably will, now that they’ve marked themselves as hostile combatants in the rapidly intensifying civility war.
And it’s worth pointing out: The same mechanisms that “canceled” Rowling also “canceled” Harvey Weinstein. Not to promote carceral solutions, but they sent him to jail. Does anyone believe the police or courts would have lifted one finger against him without that groundswell of mostly online outrage? That was justice from the people, but it is a good guess that the concept of true justice makes this select of the progressive aristocracy nervous. We know where they stand. Justice, in practice, isn’t something that society dispenses because it has a benevolent duty to do so. Justice isn’t being dispensed by courtrooms or the crown. It never was. Justice happens when external pressure removes the persistence of injustice as a viable outcome.
Little people are taking justice into their own hands. They’re fighting back. Nobody needs increasingly irrelevant philosopher kings pontificating about how out of line we all are. It’s a goddamn revolution out there. People are rising up, and justice can certainly be a shocking, ugly, poorly articulated and imprecise tool in the hands of the proletariat. That doesn’t mean it’s not justice. You can’t publicly tone-police the revolution and simultaneously avoid positioning yourself as its antagonist.
In speaking out against ‘ostracism’, in favour of democracy, these philosopher kings further reveal their hand. While it is a convenient buzz-word describing a thing that people don’t like, there are those who certainly would prefer it remain forgotten that ostracism as a practice was a cornerstone of Athenian democracy which allowed for the many to hold the few to account. Voting people off the island is a mainstay of public participation. Maybe you don’t get to be both a Twitter transphobe and a billionaire children’s author? The high-handed response to people’s pursuit of justice against the incomprehensibly powerful and well-connected is tragicomic in its implication.
The same mechanisms that “canceled” Rowling also “canceled” Harvey Weinstein. They sent him to jail.
Artists, academics and writers are supposed to lead and inspire the peoples’ revolutionary ideals, not chide the public for resisting when they espouse positions on Twitter that disappoint their fans, fuel the flames of discrimination and expose real people to online and offline harassment and violence. It is honestly very surprising such an illuminated group of writers isn’t aware that their words are magic and that words have power, because words and the ideas we communicate impel change in the physical world.
If the esteemed members of the Arts and Letters club are surprised that people are getting upset on Twitter or that people are calling for boycotts on creative works because of patently harmful personal opinions their creators have expressed publicly– they haven’t seen anything yet. Tens of millions are unemployed, hungry and being evicted. The iconoclasm is just getting started. We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: the scaffold looms.
It is predictable that those afraid of ‘cancel culture’ usually reveal themselves to have something, a secret, a belief or activity, worth canceling them for. If you reject a rising trend of “illiberalism” in a populist, left-wing movement, it is because your interests are those of the liberal establishment, the wealthy, and the powerful. You are the sell-out. Making it easier for people to be oppressed– by word or deed, puts you on the wrong side from the people.
It’s also no surprise that Rowling’s twitter meltdown and this well timed concern letter are both hitting their crescendo the same week Jordan Peterson returned like the mythological Zarathustra from his slumbering self-imposed exile. Presumedly the world’s most notorious anti-Trans and “free speech” activist’s return to “his regular self” the same week as “The Letter” isn’t a complete accident. Subsuming the progressive establishment by feigning injury and positioning himself as a victim was always his best strategy.
To the content of the letter, equivocation was never a good look, it was always the domain of cryptofascists and collaborators. Trump did it after Charlottesville, pointing out that there was violence on “both sides”. “A pox on both houses” is a tired trope which absolves a person from responsibility when confronted with evidence of injustice. And there is injustice, make no mistake.
In an era of unprecedented economic collapse, social decay, rising political violence and the spectre of civil war, we see now where people with money and status really stand on ‘justice’ when the curtain is pulled back. They aren’t working to make the world better, or to call for justice for anybody but themselves. That’s what they used their platform for, while they had it. Only for themselves and never for you. Their priority isn’t actually justice, it’s simply protecting their own.
In the Canadian context, Atwood is a celebrity sponsor for a free speech nonprofit which fired an employee over a letter criticizing Israel’s killings of protestors and journalists. Here, Atwood is decrying ‘editors getting fired for controversial pieces’ when she has personally given money and used her own personal brand to support an organization which was widely and publicly condemned for doing precisely that.
The photograph used by the Associated Press (AP) and Canada’s state broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) to highlight their reportage on the Harper’s letter communicates an obvious dog-whistle. The photo presents an equivocation via Atwood between JK Rowling (called out on Twitter for verifiable transphobia) and Salman Rushdie (subjected to a fundamentalist fatwa backed by hardline Iranian clerics because he penned irreverant and allegedly blasphemous things).
JK Rowling’s art isn’t what got her canceled. This comparison isn’t just bad logic; or inaccurate reporting, it is plausibly hateful and, it is undeniably biased.
Make no mistake, this image selection explicitly connects Transgender advocacy with fundamentalist Islam. The implication? They (Rowling and Rushdie) are connected in victimization by an ideology (Islam and “gender ideology” respectively) and have mutually suffered for their art. The connection of gender and ideology is discussed by Human Rights Watch as a harmful and hateful myth. This is egregious media bias and the visual framing alongside the piece exploits both anti-trans sentiments and Islamophobia. They used Atwood’s face to do it. She is apparently happy with this look. It looks like she’s saying “These are the same”.
Go ahead. Cancel her. Cancel them all.
They gleefully put their names on this steaming pile.
The barbarians at the gates are making them nervous. Watching billionaire colleagues they looked up to, implode on Twitter, is making them nervous. Sleepy Uncle Joe’s poll numbers relative to the popularity of burning police precincts are making them nervous. So, the gang got together on a zoom call, their publicists chatted, emails were exchanged, drafts were circulated. Apparently nobody bothered to ask “Is this the hill we want to die on? Really? Of all the women? Of all the issues?”
To elucidate: Did this select group write and publish an impassioned collective open letter about free speech when Colin Kaepernick was ‘canceled’ from the NFL for kneeling with intent? Did they speak out in full-throated unison two weeks ago when there were over 400 recorded press freedom violations during ongoing black-led protests in the United States? So many worthy causes, so little time. Why is JK Rowling’s transphobia suddenly the apparent cause célèbre of the progressive aristocracy?
The events that get people writing and the issues that get them speaking in unison belie their true agenda, revealing everything that the public, and history, will ever need to know about who they really are.