The self-cancelation of militant tolerance

 

I finally read the Harper’s Letter and can report that I was satisfied by what I found. What did I find satisfying in a missive that has annoyed so many critics? Consider the following passage:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.

This passage might seem suitable and proper for most liberals who read it. Only a disturbed individual, a sadist, would embrace intolerance, who would shame and ostracize others based on a spurious moral certainty. Nevertheless, I find the passage very improper since the writers reveal themselves as deaf to the performative contradiction that defines the Letter as a whole. As a performative, an act that attempts to alter the world. It counsels the audience that reads it to never censor, shame or ostracize those who hold opposite positions. The letter asserts a norm. It seeks to prohibit actions meant to achieve certain results. It seeks to interdict the range of actions for its intended audience. Yet the Letter as written contradicts the norm asserted by the performative since it would censor, shame or tacitly ostracize those individuals who read (or hear it) but who also disagree with the norm or its applicability to the current situation. The Harper’s letter thus offers a self-excepting argument. It excludes the writers from the normative requirements it prescribes for others. The writers-signers of the letter stand apart from the public debates in which they want to intervene. They act as judges certain of their judgment. But not as participants in a debate.

The signees of the Letter can choose this position if they want. That is their right. But we might wonder what makes them so special that they need not observe the norm they prescribe for others? A God might enjoy this authority, but humans are fated to stand with other humans, and should address them as such.

Now consider the following: What if the current social and political moment requires decisive and timely action which liberality in practice would undermine? What if eggs need to be broken, lines in the sand drawn and defended, enemies and friends identified? If, today, a social and political revolution might be a remote possibility, a pipe dream or artifact of an acid trip, that makes a revolutionary event no less desirable given the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Hope is given for the sake of the hopeless, as Walter Benjamin once averred. We must look towards hope since it is not as though really-existing-liberalism currently provides us with feasible options, a path we can take without strain, meant to address the ecological crisis; the emerging depression; 500 years of genocide, ethnic cleansing and racism; war-making without end; the rapid emergence of an active authoritarian regime in the United States (which might replace the inverted totalitarian system now in place); the waning of nature’s bounty due to the super-exploitation of the planet; etc. In fact, liberal modernity is complicit in each of these harms. Why, for instance, should a self-aware left reject a political project that ends with the utter defeat of its political opponents? Because that project would be intolerant? What do we owe the Gates and Bezos, the Saudis, the Trumps and Bibis of the world? Should we concern ourselves with scoundrels like Obama and the Clintons, Biden and Gore, Pelosi and Schumer? What morally defensible claims do these men and women have on the wealth and power they hold? Why reject radical action (be it reform or revolution) when the political opponents of the left seek (and have achieved) the utter defeat of the left and who willfully participate in the endgame of human civilization, a goal in which they are joined by erstwhile leftists who offer compliance in place of a counter-liberal, anti-systemic project? I found reading the Harper’s Letter satisfying because it delivered what I expected: Bunk in defense of the status quo. As such, it is irrelevant when evaluating what is possible. The Letter was that predictable that I could have written it myself even though I would not endorse its content. I would counsel others to be clear about our current situation, which is dire. For once, the wolf is at the door, pounding loudly. We ought to answer in kind.

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