Who the Harper’s Letter was Written For

Clockwise from top left: Bill T. Jones, Gloria Steinem, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Salman Rushdie, Wynton Marsalis and Margaret Atwood. Credit…Clockwise from top left: Brad Ogbonna for The New York Times; Celeste Sloman for The New York Times; Mamadi Doumbouya; Joel Saget/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; Maridelis Morales Rosado for The New York Times; Arden Wray for The New York Times (Collage courtesy of the New York Times)

The new cultural elitist left that are the main purveyors of “cancel culture”

are called many things by their critics: Social Justice Warriors, The Woke Mob, or, as John McWhorter has titled them, “The Elect.” Whatever you want to call them, they have managed to garner the most bipartisan coalition of opposition anyone could have dreamed of in this country, with their opponents ranging from conservatives like Ben Shapiro and Andrew Sullivan, to liberals such as the aforementioned John McWhorter and Cathy Young.

The most famous rebuke of cancel culture and its excesses is the Harper’s Letter. The letter, titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” was written primarily by author Thomas Chatterton Williams, contained only 531 words, and was signed by more than 120 different people from different professions and backgrounds, including authors (J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood), musicians (Wynton Marsallis), academics (Noam Chomsky, Malcolm Gladwell), journalists (Yascha Mounk, David Frum), and new media (Katie Herzog, Jesse Singal). The height of culture and intelligentsia, most of them left leaning, thought that cancel culture and its stifling of other opinions was a dangerous movement that needed to be dealt with. The backlash was immediate and overwhelming. Some signatories publicly rescinded their attachment to the letter, either in order to save face or in protest of other names at the bottom of the letter. While there were plenty of different critiques of The Letter, the one that was repeated the most was that the people who signed the letter had controversial opinions and yet they had not been cancelled yet (though not for lack of trying). But The Letter wasn’t written and signed by people that need protection from cancelling. J.K. Rowling, whose opinions are more mainstream than you think, has been a target of the cancellers for years now and she is still one of the most well known and wealthy women in the UK. The Letter was written for regular people that don’t have the social capital to withstand the storm of angry tweets, emails, and letters sent to a person’s employer, social media, and even their homes.

One prominent liberal who is concerned about the illiberal actions of the cancellers is Bill Maher. In a searing monologue on his show Real Time with Bill Maher, called out these cultural elitists for how unbelievably far some of them have gone in their crusade, and implored other Democrats to “Stand [Their] Ground” against the rising tide of illiberalism. Maher also brings up the example of Emmanuel Cafferty, a San Diego Gas and Electric employee who was fired for allegedly making a “white power” hand gesture while driving near a Black Lives Matter rally over the summer. The “White Power” gesture that is being referred to isn’t some overt gesture like a Nazi salute; it’s the “OK” symbol. You know, making a circle with your thumb and index finger and the other three fingers out? The same symbol you get your friends to look at below your waist so you can punch them in the arm? Apparently some people co-opted it as a white power thing and now, according to the leftist cultural elite, that’s the only meaning it has. The picture was taken while Cafferty was in his car by a man in the car next to him at a traffic light. The man who took the photo and posted it on Twitter has deleted his account since, but by that time Cafferty’s fate had been determined. A single snapshot in the entire life of this man is what ended up deciding his fate. The man who took the picture, presumably, did not know Cafferty, but felt that based on a chance glance to his right that he knew everything about him. So, armed with the knowledge of Cafferty’s entire being, the man posted the picture calling out the blatant and obvious white supremacy in order to show the world (or at least his followers) that racism is alive and well in San Diego. But what this person didn’t know, among countless other things is that A) Cafferty was cracking his knuckles and B) Cafferty is Hispanic. So unless we have a Clayton Bigsby situation on our hands, Emmanuel Cafferty is quite clearly not a white supremacist. But the man who snapped the photo didn’t know that Cafferty was Hispanic so he didn’t make that assumption. (Ironically, not seeing race is now seen as racist by Third Wave Anti-Racists, so it’s surprising the man wasn’t cancelled himself for not seeing race).

Another story I see as similar to this one is that of Carson King. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because his 15 minutes of fame came well before the pandemic, in September of 2019. King, at the time a student at the University of Iowa, gained fame by holding up a sign at the popular sports pregame show College Gameday that read “Busch Light Supply Needs Replenished ~Venmo~ Carson-King-25.” As there are dozens of signs at Gameday every Saturday, King probably assumed that this one would get lost in the sea of posterboard. But the sign was seen on Twitter and went viral. King’s Venmo was inundated with payments that eventually ended up being over one million dollars. With enough money to buy more than 10,500 shares of Anheuser-Busch InBev at the time, King decided to donate the money to Iowa City Children’s Hospital. Even at a school and student body that is known for its work with children’s hospitals, this was something that was, and still is, extraordinarily generous and kind. Anheuser-Busch, Busch Light’s parent company, pledged to match his donation. King, who quickly became a celebrity in Iowa, was soon profiled by the Des Moines Register, one of the largest newspapers in the state. The piece did a good job of introducing us to King, someone who had the moral compass to do something that I’m not sure I would have done (he decided to donate the money when it reached $600). However, the author, Aaron Calvin, thought it would be prudent to end the article with a “gotcha”. Calvin, in what he called “a routine Twitter search” found “two racist tweets” from when King was 16 years old in 2012. The tweets, which I want to emphasize were from 2012 when King was 16, were described by Calvin as “comparing black mothers to gorillas and … making light of black people killed in the holocaust.” King deleted the tweets before the profile was published, so we don’t know what the tweets were, although Calvin has since revealed that the jokes were in reference to jokes made by comedian Daniel Tosh.

But King wasn’t cancelled. It’s nice to know that even with the cancellers that there is a line they won’t cross. No, the person who was cancelled after this whole debacle was Aaron Calvin, the reporter who interviewed and wrote the profile on Carson King. As it turned out, Calvin had his own history of offensive tweets that were dug up after he did the same to King. Calvin, for both his tweets and his hypocrisy, was dragged by the internet at large and was being fired by the Des Moines Register. The greatest irony of this whole situation wasn’t that he received the treatment he almost wrought unto King; it was that the people who were so against cancel culture were very quick to join the cancellers when it was someone they disagreed with. I remember feeling a sense of justice and vindication when it was Calvin that was fired and ostracized instead of King. It felt like a strike back at the cultural elites that had finally received their just comeuppance. But one has to ask: “how were we, those against cancel culture, any different than the people doing the thing we so vehemently oppose?” Sure the guy was a hypocrite, but he wasn’t fired for being a hypocrite: he was fired for having offensive tweets. Why was I, and so many others, so quick to cheer this man’s firing? Calvin wrote an explanation of everything as well as the aftermath in the Columbia Journalism Review two months after the saga, detailing how he, his family, and his coworkers at the Register received death threats and other messages of hate for his reporting. He also recounts how he lost his job at the register:

After two days of media furor, representatives from Gannett, the Register’s parent company, called me at the home of a friend, where I was staying out of fear for my safety. Gannett, they told me, had determined that my tweets had compromised my credibility as a reporter. The company gave me two options: quit the paper, or be fired with no severance. On the phone, in my friend’s bedroom, I chose to be fired.

Other than the ridiculous cancellations of the two men, what is the similarity between the two? Sure, they’re both men, but the comparisons end there. They seem to be two random and unimportant people, at least outside of their immediate circles. And that’s the similarity: they are two random and relatively unimportant people in the grand scheme of things. They aren’t celebrities, they aren’t athletes, they aren’t politicians. They are a gas and electric worker and a journalist from Iowa. Emmanuel Cafferty and Aaron Calvin are the people that are at the crux of the Harper’s Letter. The letter wasn’t written for people like J.K. Rowling or Tom Brady that have enough money, power, and influence to weather the mob of wannabe Jacobins or Red Guardsmen (or Guardspeople). It was written for people that don’t have those social luxuries.

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