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A tale of two letters

A call for free speech ignites a firestorm of criticism

Author and Harper’s letter signatory Margaret Atwood Associated Press/Photo by Alastair Grant (file)

A tale of two letters

It’s hard to imagine that a few years ago a gauzy public statement in favor of free speech, boasting signatures from a host of left-wing luminaries such as Noam Chomsky, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem, and Fareed Zakaria, would have caused much of a stir. But last week, when Harper’s Magazine released a letter warning, “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” the backlash was swift and sharp.

Signed by more than 150 writers, professors, and intellectuals, the letter censured no trend and criticized no cause beyond “an intolerance of opposing views” that is leading to “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism.” Yet, many high-profile critics accused it of indirectly targeting everything from transgender ideology to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Do you each understand that the ‘different opinions’ of many writers on that list very literally and directly endangers the lives of trans people,” tweeted Vox culture writer Aja Romano, whose colleague Matthew Yglesias was among the signers. Transgender television critic Emily VanDerWerff echoed the sentiment, saying, “[Yglesias’] signature being on the letter makes me feel less safe at Vox.”

Within days, another group of journalists and academics issued a counterstatement claiming that the letter’s unstated aim was to solidify the cultural capital of elites (particularly “white, cisgender” elites) at influential institutions. What the Harper’s letter perceives as cancel culture is oppressed people banding together to dismantle entrenched power structures, the second statement claimed.

“In truth, Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people … can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially; this seems to be the letter’s greatest concern,” the critics wrote. Although a significant portion of the Harper’s signers were minorities, the critics went on to accuse the letter of being “a caustic reaction to a diversifying industry—one that’s starting to challenge institutional norms that have protected bigotry.”

Los Angeles Times culture critic Mary McNamara gave voice to perhaps the most popular rejoinder to the Harper’s letter—namely that it improperly favors free speech over another important liberty: free association. “The folks addressed by the letter—the supposed cancelers—have little or no institutional power,” she argued. “All they have is the influence of the collective.”

John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, said he agrees that freedom of association is as important as freedom of speech, but Stonestreet added that one right doesn’t cancel out the other.

“Our founders understood that those things shouldn’t be in opposition,” he said. “This isn’t an either-or or a zero-sum game. Associate all you want. Make the case all you want. But don’t steal public debate, particularly on things that offend you that haven’t been culturally decided.”

There is, however, one area where Stonestreet’s thinking aligns with the letter’s critics. He, too, believes that many of them have shown hypocrisy when it comes to welcoming open debate. As an example, Stonestreet pointed to Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale: “[She’s] the reason we have so many protesters now dressing as Puritan women. She would say that debating abortion is beyond the pale. She would never actually take seriously a conversation with a pro-lifer, and she’s proved that in how she has written.”

Yet, even while he believes a number of the Harper’s signers helped to create cancel culture, Stonestreet said he’s still happy to welcome Atwood and others like her to the cause of free expression.

“What they’re pointing out is still the right thing to point out even if they are being hypocritical,” he said. “I’m glad I still get to sign onto things and say things from Scripture that I’ve been hypocritical on.”

Several events since Harper’s released the letter seem to bolster its claim that fear of reprisal is squashing open debate. Once the backlash began, one endorser asked for her name to be removed. Another, author and New York Times’ opinion writer Jennifer Finney Boylan, immediately apologized for her involvement: “I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company.”

The implied bad company likely was Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who has recently come under fire for defending biological women against the transgender movement.

Then, on Tuesday, Times’ opinion writer Bari Weiss, who frequently has faced the ire of her coworkers for her essays defending conservative and libertarian ideas, resigned. She cited a “new consensus … that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few” as her reason, adding, “Twitter has become [The New York Times’] ultimate editor.”

Harvard and Yale battle in New Haven, Conn., last fall.

Harvard and Yale battle in New Haven, Conn., last fall. Associated Press/Photo by Arnold Gold/New Haven Register (file)

Sports on the chopping block

The coronavirus pandemic has left college conferences with some tough calls to make about what to do about sports this fall. Last week, several Power Five conferences canceled non-conference competition, and the Ivy League postponed all sports until at least the start of 2021. Colleges at lower levels of NCAA competition also have canceled fall sports.

The Power Five includes the wealthy, heavy hitters of Division I sports: the Big Ten, Pac-12, Big 12, Southeastern, and Atlantic Coast conferences. So far, the Big Ten and Pac-12 have announced their schools will play only conference games. But even those are on shaky ground as varying state and local health regulations and the increasing number of COVID-19 cases and deaths make definitive scheduling impossible.

The decision to cancel fall football could have long-term consequences for other sports, as well. The major conferences may permanently ax sports like field hockey, swimming, wrestling, or golf if their football teams stop bringing in revenue from television contracts and ticket sales. The Ivy League sports are safer, as the schools’ billion-dollar endowments make them less dependent on football money.

As of Wednesday, Division I, II, and III college sports programs throughout the country have cut a total of almost 160 teams as schools struggle to maintain students and finances during the pandemic. Stanford cut 11 of its 36 sports programs due to financial woes brought on by the coronavirus.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 decisions hit non-conference schools hard, especially smaller colleges. Bowling Green in Ohio was counting on $2.2 million for its trips to play the Big Ten’s Ohio State and Illinois. “It’s every league for themselves right now,” Bowling Green athletic director Bob Moosbrugger told The Wall Street Journal.

Additional cancellations and conference announcements likely are on the way. —Sharon Dierberger

Harvard and Yale battle in New Haven, Conn., last fall.

Harvard and Yale battle in New Haven, Conn., last fall. Associated Press/Photo by Arnold Gold/New Haven Register (file)

Back to the basics

CNN host Don Lemon should have fact-checked his understanding of Christianity before his conversation with fellow host Chris Cuomo about removing monuments across the country. Arguing that we shouldn’t put America’s past on a pedestal, Lemon said, “Here’s the thing, Jesus Christ, if that’s who you believe in, Jesus Christ, admittedly was not perfect when He was here on this earth, so why are we deifying the founders of this country?”

In a tweet, retired NFL coach Tony Dungy reminded Lemon that Jesus’ perfection was the reason He came. Franklin Graham quipped, “Even though he’s a news reporter by profession, Don Lemon is missing out on the Good News.”

In 2011, Lemon wrote about going to a Baptist church and attending Catholic private school while growing up in Baton Rouge, La. But he noted that coming to terms with his homosexuality had a greater influence on his spirituality than his Christian upbringing. —Collin Garbarino

Harvard and Yale battle in New Haven, Conn., last fall.

Harvard and Yale battle in New Haven, Conn., last fall. Associated Press/Photo by Arnold Gold/New Haven Register (file)

Helping hands

The man not only sings, but he also washes the dishes.

Rock star Jon Bon Jovi didn’t hesitate to help at his Red Bank, N.J., non-profit community restaurant JBJ Soul Kitchen when its volunteer staff needed an extra hand. For a while, he worked in the kitchen almost daily. His wife, Dorothea, snapped a photo of him with his hands in the sink, captioning it, “Do what you can.”

Bon Jovi, whose rock band has canceled its summer tour due to the coronavirus, wrote a song called “If You Can’t Do What You Do, You Do What You Can.” He asked fans to send him verses about what they had missed because of the pandemic.

Bon Jovi’s restaurant recently reopened to dine-in customers after serving more than 7,800 take-out meals for the needy. —S.D.

Megan Basham

Megan is a former film and television editor for WORLD and co-host for WORLD Radio. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman’s Guide to Having It All. Megan resides with her husband, Brian Basham, and their two daughters in Charlotte, N.C.



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