Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 30, 2020

Harper’s Magazine and the culture wars

Filed under: Harper's Open Letter — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

Dinesh D’Souza: the original adversary of cancel culture (and frequent guest of Bill Maher)

Although the term “culture wars” did not get coined until 1991, when sociologist James Davison Hunter came out with “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America”, I’d argue that its origins were in the Reagan presidency. His hatchet men began to demonize the left as intolerant and out of touch with the values of everyday Americans. It is no surprise that the conflict was sharpest in academia where newly tenured 60s radicals had the nerve to defend Marxism in classrooms. While most of the fire was directed at them, postmodernists also took a beating for their “relativism”.

Throughout the 1990s, there were books that defined the turf being fought over. Dinesh D’Souza, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a former domestic policy analyst in the Reagan administration, wrote “Illiberal Education”, a book that grew out of an Atlantic Monthly article of the same title. Despite Atlantic’s reputation as a liberal magazine, they saw fit to publish this crap in 1991:

Each fall some 13 million students, 2.5 million of them members of minority groups, enroll in American colleges … At the university they hope to shape themselves as whole human beings, both intellectually and morally. Brimming with idealism, they wish to prepare themselves for full and independent lives in the workplace, at home, and as citizens of a democratic society. In short, what they seek is a liberal education.

By the time these students graduate, many colleges and universities will not have met their need for all-round development. Instead, by precept and example, they will have taught them that all rules are unjust and all preferences are principled; that justice is simply the will of the stronger party; that standards and values are arbitrary, and the ideal of the educated person is largely a figment of bourgeois white male ideology; that individual rights are a red flag signaling social privilege, and should be subordinated to the claims of group interest; that all knowledge can be reduced to politics and should be pursued not for its own sake but for the political end of power; that convenient myths and well-intentioned lies can substitute for truth; that double standards are acceptable as long as they are enforced to the benefit of minority victims; that disputes are best settled not by rational and civil debate but by accusation, intimidation, and official prosecution; that the university stands for nothing in particular and has no claim to be exempt from outside pressures; and that a multiracial society cannot be based on fair rules that apply to every person but must rather be held together with a forced rationing of power among separatist racial groups. In short, instead of liberal education, what many American students are getting is its diametrical opposite: an education in closed-mindedness and intolerance—which is to say, illiberal education.

If there’s a significant difference between what D’Souza wrote in the Atlantic nearly 30 years ago and the momentum behind the Harper’s Open Letter, I can’t see it.

As someone who has subscribed to Harper’s since the early 1980s, it is disconcerting to see this development. Months before the Open Letter, I sent the editor a brief note of complaint over Thomas Chatterton Williams defense of his memoir “Self-Portrait in Black and White” against a cutting review in BookForum. It was so filled with Pecksniffian self-regard that I felt motivated to do something I rarely do, send a letter to an editor. Now that I know that the editor of Harper’s shares Williams’s centrist politics, I can now see it was a waste of time. The very wealthy owner of Harper’s, John “Rick” MacArthur”, is using his power to turn his magazine into a bully pulpit for the same message Atlantic conveyed in 1991.

Starting in the September issue, Harper’s unfurled its culture wars banner and will likely keep it flying from now on. Once you get this bee in your bonnet, it tends to drill straight through to your brain and take over what’s left of your intelligence.

Taking his marching orders from Rick MacArthur, editor Christopher Beha told readers that he was not happy about the NY Times firing James Bennet who had authorized the publication of an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton urging military strikes on out-of-control BLM activists. This didn’t sit well with NY Times employees, both Black and white, who took to social media to condemn the op-ed and those responsible for approving it. For Beha, this was in line with the cancel culture that the Open Letter attacked. He referred to unnamed people who were “worried that the paper of record was becoming a place of ideological conformity.” As was the case with the Open Letter refusal to give examples of cancel culture, the use of “unnamed” left open all sorts of questions. Who were these unnamed people? Tucker Carlson? Bill Maher?

The rest of the article is a defense of Harper’s Magazine’s ideological diversity. If they can be so open-minded, why can’t some transgender woman be just as tolerant to JK Rowling on Twitter? Beha refers to a forum he organized in Jerusalem with both Israeli and Palestinian speakers. I’ll give him credit for admitting: “I am not suggesting that our Forum made a difference in the conflict.”

In the same vein, the September issue included an article by Cornell University Comparative Literature professor Laurent Dubreuil “Nonconforming: Against the erosion of academic freedom by identity politics”. With a title like that, you knew you were straying into D’Souza territory or at least a leftist version. He complained about trigger warnings, student objections to being assigned texts by racist or homophobic authors, and all the other challenges to professorial authority that get called out regularly on Fox News. Identity politics has even been appropriated by neo-Nazis, according to Dubreuil:

Stormfront, the largest English-language online forum for neo-Nazis and white supremacists, promotes “true diversity” and the interests of the “new, embattled, White minority.” White straight males are already a minority in the United States (though one that enjoys disproportionate representation in power). For many voters, Trump’s affirmation of a wounded white identity is central to his appeal, and, unfortunately, to that of his likely successors.

This is obviously tantamount to saying that Richard Spencer and Malcolm X were both trafficking in racism. In fact, this is exactly what many liberals said when George Lincoln Rockwell tried to create a united front with the Nation of Islam. It turns out that the Nazi did meet with the NoI at one point, a function of the separatist mindset of both he and Elijah Muhammad. It didn’t go very far and Rockwell got a frosty reception at the one meeting he addressed.

Like fellow Harper’s contributor Thomas Chatterton Williams, Dubreuil asks us to pay heed to Ralph Ellison, the author of “Invisible Man”, who rejected “identity determinism”. Ralph Ellison had many interesting insights in this novel that I read forty years ago but I never found his other writings as relevant to the American situation as James Baldwin. Always prioritizing aesthetic individualism over African-American solidarity, Ellison began to resemble Saul Bellow who was his housemate when they both taught at Bard College in the late 50s. During the Vietnam war, Ellison joined Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Ralph Ellison, James T. Farrell, John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos in supporting American intervention in Vietnam.

In a NY Times article dated February 28, 1999, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley reported:

According to Charles Tyroler, a Democratic strategist who recruited prominent writers to sign pro-war manifestoes at Johnson’s behest, Ellison agreed to help the Administration in 1967. ”He told me about his own merchant marine service and how disgraceful he thought it was for peaceniks and draft dodgers to denounce our boys in ‘Nam,” Tyroler said in an interview. ”And he thought it was disastrous for the civil rights movement to hitch its future on the antiwar diatribes of H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael.”

Showing that he has been as much of a victim of Blacks, gays or women, Dubreuil recounts the persecutions he endured growing up:

Have I been ridiculed for being too white, owing to the paleness caused by my chronic asthma? Yes, and incidentally this abuse always came from white people, including far-right extremists. Was I bullied in elementary and middle school by other kids for being fat? Yes, I gained weight after recovering from a near-fatal case of hepatitis at age eight, and the hassle lasted for five years. Have I been bullied for other reasons? Oh yes, many: because I sucked at sports, because my parents were poor, because I did well in school, and so on.

I read such blather and wonder how this nitwit ever managed to get a 4,000 word article published in Harper’s. Oh, I know. It satisfied Rick MacArthur’s culture wars appetite with a most tasty dish.

Turning to the current issue, you get Beha defending the Open Letter with this self-congratulatory note: “Indeed, in the days after we published the letter, I received an overwhelming number of messages from young freelance journalists, graduate students, and adjunct professors—the kinds of people who are not insulated by tenure or staff positions—expressing relief that the letter had spoken on their behalf.” Should I be expecting this kind of preening from the editor on an ongoing basis? I love Harper’s cryptic crossword puzzles but might have to make the ultimate sacrifice to avoid this sort of ideological narcissism.

Turning to the five-star general of the culture wars at Harper’s, we find Thomas Chatterton Williams comparing transgender people writing mean tweets to JK Rowling with Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery” that describes a small town’s yearly ritual sacrifice of one of its citizens. In his eyes, this was just such an irrational act of savagery:

We all remember the case of Justine Sacco, back in 2013, perhaps the Ur-cancellation of the Twitter age. Sacco was an unknown public-relations director who, before boarding a flight from London to Cape Town, tweeted a tasteless joke: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She had only 170 followers, yet by the time her plane landed, her bad tweet had gone viral and her life was in tatters. She had become a world-famous racist—and lost her job. A common paradox of any debate around cancel culture is that those who insist it is not a problem oscillate between dismissing it as a made-up phenomenon and asserting that anyone who has endured such a fate deserved it. If Sacco was in fact canceled, the feeling was, she had it coming.

As it happens, there are only about a dozen atrocity tales that keep getting recycled by Williams and his co-thinkers. I dealt with this one in a post titled “Bill Maher puts down the red carpet for Bari Weiss and Thomas Chatterton Williams”:

As Maher tries to eke out what Williams and Weiss mean by cancel-culture, they are hard-pressed to identify any of those humble souls who worry about being fired for saying the wrong thing. Williams refers to Justine Sacco as a virtual martyr to today’s version of the Salem Witch Trials. Sacco was a top executive of IAC, a holding company with over a hundred media and internet companies, including Vimeo, where I have a channel. (I didn’t say a word about her.) When Sacco was on a plane in 2014, she passed the time trying to be funny on Twitter. Visiting family in South Africa, she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” You’d think after all the people who have gotten in trouble on Twitter, there’d be more caution. This tweet and other stupidities cost her job. Since she was the company’s PR director, how in hell did she think she’d be able to get away with this? The answer. If you want to make racist wisecracks, get a job with the police department. Well, maybe not more recently.

Later on in the article, Williams writes, “Cancellation operates with the logic and velocity of a sucker punch: you can’t protect yourself, and don’t even know where the attack is coming from until it has already landed.” You’d think that someone knowledgeable about the bullets fired into Breonna Taylor’s body by trigger-happy cops would be a little bit more circumspect about harping on surprise attacks. As it happens, Williams practically said that she had it coming in a Tweet:

This is appalling. Breonna Taylor’s ex-boyfriend wasn’t in the apartment that night. She had broken up with months earlier. Who makes amalgams between her and Glover, besides Thomas Chatterton Williams, you might ask. None other than Tucker Carlson, an even bigger white supremacist than Donald Trump:

“They told us that Taylor had nothing to do with her drug dealing ex-boyfriend, who police were investigating,” Carlson said. “That’s why they were there. In fact, intercepted jailhouse communications suggest that Taylor was warehousing that man’s drug money.”



  1. Three names you will never hear the cancel culture gang mention: Christian Smalls, Maren Costa, and Emily Cunningham. All fired by Amazon for organizing — either for Warehouse worker safety, or against Amazon’s behemoth damage to the climate.

    Comment by Keith Danner — September 30, 2020 @ 11:33 pm

  2. I unsubscribed from Harper’s in 2018 after MacArthur fired the previous editor James Marcus over the Katie Roiphe controversy. Chatterton Williams is the intellectual continuation of those events.

    Comment by Aaron — October 1, 2020 @ 5:31 am

  3. I was one of seven people who held a sit-in protest at the Harpers Magazine office in 1970, over that magazines vile homophobic articles Of course no left wing group offered solidarity or took part in the protest then. But it is no surprise that fifty years later, that this magazine as so many supposed “allies”, keep promoting views to place those non-white, non- hetero males – in their place as “being lesser”. The hip and chic smiling liberals, represent the privileged in a very oppressive class based society. None want to be called bigots these days – and all deny they are, as they try to evade recognizing their privilege and reliance on a corrupt system of class exploitation and harm.

    Comment by john O'Brien — October 1, 2020 @ 7:38 am

  4. D’Souza is a liar, a fraud, and a criminal: he is a person of no character and no intellect who has never in his life told the truth when a lie would do, and is conspiring to promote the Cancel Culture nonsense–a prominent part of Trumpism–as a coded call for the mass extermination of the left which d’Souza’s rightwing friends as well as the neoliberal liars of the Democratic party are already attempting to bring about. This is what Harper’s Magazine, by associating itself with filth like d’Souza, stands for, and what gentrification and the religion of Property, however pseudoliberal–seek to bring about. These vampires need to have stakes driven though their vicious hearts and their ugly heads cut off so their filthy mouths can be stuffed with garlic.

    I can never forget listening to an audio tape of the execution of Ceausescu and his subhuman Fury of a wife. Right up to the last moment they continued to cry out in rage and command their executioners to desist. Then the squawking lessened in volume as they were led out to the stake. Then the shots rang out in mid-squawk. Then blessed, wonderful silence. How beautiful that was–and would be in the present context in America.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — October 2, 2020 @ 3:44 am

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