In its Letter on Justice and Open Debate, Harper’s magazine proves itself, with finality, to be mired in John MacArthur’s narrow definition of traditional liberalism. Stubbornly adhering to these dictates without interrogating the (biased) history of liberalism reproduces the same errors, essentially resulting in a ‘color blind’ defense which supports the status quo. It should be no surprise that forward, progressive motion in society results in this sort of backlash — -by definition, ‘backlash’ implies certain attempts to regain homeostasis — but it is somewhat surprising that a group of people previously considered ‘liberal’ or ‘lefty’ would perceive this attempt at homeostasis as an objective attempt to maintain freedom and equality.
This vague and nebulous letter simply repackages traditional ‘liberalism’ which is functionally conservative, using a persuasive moniker to gaslight the reader about the truth. There’s nothing progressive about finding more persuasive ways to support the same status quo of white supremacy; it is deceptive in the vein of traditional conquest as outlined by Macchiavelli. Not surprisingly, a number of these signatories promote the concepts of ‘persuasion’ and the ‘republic’ in apparent admiration of Hannah Arendt without acknowledging her deep investment in the same deceptive parameters delineated by ‘liberalism’ and white supremacy. That is, Arendt was embedded in the same traditional liberalism that blinded itself to its own significant prejudices.
Rapidly proving himself to be the reigning king of the gaslight, Thomas Chatterton Williams — not surprisingly, a fan of the Arendt Center at Bard College — is one of the people who spearheaded this letter. A quick perusal of the names will indicate the deep-seated cronyism likely involved in getting this letter signed; as a casual writer in another profession, I am immediately aware of the names associated with Bard and with a long history of ‘traditional liberalism’. As Tobi Haslett observes in his essay on Williams’ most recent book, “Anecdotes and dazzling inanities draped over an individualist common sense — this is the technique favored by the scramblers of our discourse.”
“Anecdotes and dazzling inanities draped over an individualist common sense — this is the technique favored by the scramblers of our discourse.”
It seems as if Williams and these writers embrace incoherence as a method of debate; he manages to embrace a fundamentally color-blind stance as favored by many a ‘liberal,’ not to mention a number of conservatives, in his presumptively liberal defense of ‘free speech,’ and he does so by saying almost nothing at all. The phrases are so worthless despite the proliferation of words that I was forced to consider the motive behind such significant incongruence: why use so many words to say nothing at all?! Choosing to be anchored in ‘traditional liberalism’ is an active choice to stay anchored in white supremacy.
As Charles Mills notes in The Racial Contract, traditional liberalism is steeped in white supremacy. “Nonwhite subpersonhood is enshrined simultaneously with white personhood,” (p56) creating a situation in which whiteness is “ a cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social realities.” (p18). Traditional liberalism as developed by Kant, among others, was delineated as the sovereign existence of each human as an individual YET only counted 5% of the human race as ‘individual’ and ‘human’ in actuality (pragmatically). The other 90% of the human race was declared ‘subhuman’ and thus excluded from any consideration of individuality through a complex process of elitist dominance in multiple areas of (presumptive) expertise: Kant in philosophy; Galton in science; Hobbes — perhaps the most famous of all — in political science, to name a few. Hobbes is famous for claiming that life is ‘nasty, brutish, and short,’ and for promoting a ‘dog eat dog’ philosophy, the assumption of rugged independence. Yet, he did not simultaneously acknowledge that the powerful and privileged already have advantages that will automatically ameliorate — or perhaps even eliminate — any consideration of brutishness in their own lives. As Mills notes, ‘liberalism’ as we know it is “an agreement among white contractors to subordinate and exploit nonwhite noncontractors for white benefit.”
Philosophically, ‘liberalism’ established the humanity of white men, rendering the pragmatic results to others deeply exploitative: “an agreement among white contractors to subordinate and exploit nonwhite noncontractors for white benefit.”
Charles Mills, Black Rights/White Wrongs, p29
A fundamentally self-deceptive stance typical of conquest-oriented behavior underlies any assertion of ‘traditional liberalism’ as we know it. Assumed yet often unstated was the ‘fact,’ as perceived by this tiny group of elitist European men, that only European men qualified as ‘individuals.’ By racial proxy, white women were offered conditional acceptance — -conditional upon their subordination to the white man, who was defined as the real individual; on this basis, white women were superior to people of color but beneath white men (this priority is easily seen in the publishing business, where white women have supplanted white men as dominant, expressing absolutely no change in the context of white supremacy despite an alteration in gender representation.) Millions of other human beings from dozens of other countries were murdered as a result of this declaration by the European male — 5% of the human race — that they were the only true individuals and that white women could come along for the ride.
Traditional liberalism is forged in the fire of white supremacy, and many of these assumptions about superiority and inferiority still exist. The highly privileged behaviors of white men who often assert their superiority despite a lack of social contribution — -and the ‘Karen’ behavior we have witnessed from a wide range of white women at all socioeconomic levels — are two strong indicators that an assumption of superiority still exists.
The most effective tack, however, is not the dominance itself. Rather, it is the great lengths that many white people and others — -a group Mills calls ‘white signatories’ — will go to deceive themselves about their social privilege; that is, their unjust enrichment at the expense of others. Because this privilege exists in concretely-measured forms on a collective basis — in the form of statistics and data — signatories will shirk the value of these larger, social objective facts, despite their objectivity, in favor of ‘individualism.’ This distraction is achieved by framing a denial of grossly disparate social realities as irrelevant in the face of the apparently more relevant ‘individuality,’ which they frame as ‘liberalism.’ This distraction — a clear-cut attempt at gaslighting — denies utterly that brown, black, and indigenous people were not considered individuals or even humans AND that this assumption persists, to some extent, consciously and/or subconsciously.
As Mills points out, nothing is more effective than deceiving oneself about one’s privilege through ‘individuality’ and then calling it equality. It allows for (an admittedly thin) patina of decency while perpetuating the same narrow limits which traditional liberalism actually imposes on marginalized peoples: a long history of silencing, gagging, and otherwise subordinating through the centuries-long assertion that only white people (in the tradition of white/patriarchy/cis man) are truly humans.
Somewhat surprisingly, Hannah Arendt is often used as an example of noble individuality, presented as an alternative approach to deceptive Macchiavellianism and tactical conquest. Unfortunately, because she shares the same massive blind spot of ‘liberalism’ (white privilege) as did the other signatories to ‘liberalism,’ she failed to see that her approach didn’t differ in any significant fashion from any other dominant, conquest-oriented approach. She spoke of all people ‘meeting in the Republic’ to discuss their points of view, advocating for ‘persuasion’ and framing the concept of ‘persuasion’ as opposite that of violence.
But Arendt failed to see the forest for the trees: the concept of traditional liberalism — the concept of persuading others through discussion rather than violence — never included many people in America and a massive majority of the human race (c. 90%). Arendt didn’t acknowledge that only a very small group is allowed to meet at ‘the Republic,’ that only these privileged few were even allowed a voice. Her argument was fundamentally cyclical: she claimed to want to include all people, but by definition of traditional liberalism, only white people were actually people. As if this blind spot wasn’t enough to throw her theories into question when applied to reality, she was virulently racist in portions of her writing, asserting her belief in the inferiority of Black peoples. These statements only provide evidence for what is already obvious: she is steeped in a tradition of ‘liberalism’ specifically established to underline the individuality of white (European + Russian, 10%) at the expense of the rest of the colonized world (90%). Her blind spot keeps her from acknowledging that persuasion will not work if a large group of people aren’t given the opportunity to ‘persuade’ and meeting in the ‘Republic’ can’t possibly be representative of the population when much of the population isn’t allowed basic humanity.
At a fundamental level, the disagreement between the cancellers of cancel culture (the hypocrisy seems to escape them) stems from this basic, conservative assertion which cloaks itself in the phrase ‘traditional liberalism’ in order to hide its essential focus on maintaining the status quo. Most of these signatories assume that our baseline history — established in the last c. 500 years — is an appropriate baseline; this assumption is inherent in the attachment to ‘traditional liberalism,’ which appears to promote ‘open debate’ but which in fact maintains the boundaries of traditionalism.
People opposing this letter believe that traditional liberalism is mired in an ugly history that persists and promotes already-elitist people by allowing their insider cronyism, incestuous promotion of their similar views and each other, and long-standing privilege to continue to enrich them at the expense of a wide range of oppressed peoples. Granted, there are names of people from countries so badly damaged by authoritarianism that the trauma itself would be expected to provoke an extreme reaction. But this isn’t the main thrust of this letter, in which many POC’s names are cleverly used to distract from the central tactic: DO NOT ALLOW MARGINAL VOICES AN EQUIVALENT VOICE. KEEP OUR POWER. That is, maintain white supremacy. Thus, ‘cancel culture,’ itself a clearly biased term, reframing attempts at equality by marginalized people as negative when in fact, for the first time in centuries, marginalized people can push back against the overwhelming dominance which has silenced and crippled them for centuries.
Cleverly, this letter includes a number of signatures from marginalized peoples. Presumably, this tack is meant as a preemptive strike, to disrupt the expected reaction: that the conservativism is based on white supremacy and elitism. Presumptively, Williams seems to imply, a letter which includes marginalized voices will eliminate any criticism re: white supremacy.
Again, this is tactical maneuvering of the sort which characterizes white supremacy as conquest-oriented philosophy, a sort-of silent ‘So there! We’re not ALL white and cis.’ This is a form of distraction: it should be no surprise that some marginalized people will prefer to cleave to power rather than to justice, and many do, all the time. White supremacy is a worldwide, fascist, socio-political framework: it exists despite individual actions or beliefs. IN an individual for whom individual power is more important than social equality, the tendency will be to reach for power regardless of the implications. Mixed-race families such as mine produce a number of brown and/or mixed peoples who would much prefer to lean into places of power than to defend powerless people. Marginalized peoples may be more aware of their subordination than those with privilege — and in general, fewer of them are represented by traditional mores meant to hold up white supremacy — but they aren’t exempt.
Frankly, any individual who desires power intensely will move in that direction and then create justification for it, typically casting it in the moral arena. No amount of POC’s, transgendered peoples, or women as signatories to this letter should dissuade the reader from approaching this letter as it is: a paean to holding up the dictates of power and white (patriarchal, cis) supremacy. As Mills asserts: “’white ignorance’ will be shared by nonwhites to a greater or lesser extent because of the power relations and patterns of ideological hegemony involved.” Thus, for example, a POC with a white mother, a white wife, and blonde, blue-eyed children might find it more expedient to ‘ignore race,’ because this maintains a status quo in which his connection to his family is prioritized over any overarching sociopolitical disparities, even if the disparities affect millions of other people. That person picks himself and his own over larger contexts, allowing for continued widespread damage.
“’[W]hite ignorance’ will be shared by nonwhites to a greater or lesser extent because of the power relations and patterns of ideological hegemony involved.”
Charles Mills, Black Rights/White Wrongs, p57
Harper’s magazine, like ‘traditional liberalism,’ has long reached its expiration date. The magazine has struggled with leadership for over a decade although it maintains its relationship with John MacArthur and his stubborn adherence to maintaining the status quo. Its writers are almost always well-connected cronies, and it produces mediocre fiction at the behest of rich white men acting as cronies (see Jonathan Franzen and his promoted proteges). Arendt’s theories may have appeared valuable half a century ago, but at this stage, her obvious biases — as well as that of ‘liberalism’ — should be more than obvious.
Anchoring a discussion about individuality and the importance of individual voices in ‘liberalism’ refuses to acknowledge that the larger context of traditional liberalism has been — and still is — often widely discriminatory: simply a gaslighting term for ‘white supremacy’ congruent with the nebulous, vague statements that characterize this entire letter.
The signatories to the Harper’s letter, much like Mills’ signatories to ‘whiteness,’ need not be white, but they certainly must entertain some degree of ignorance — or, alternatively, covert tactical conquest maneuvering — in order to sign this letter in ‘good’ conscience.