Readers of The Giving Review will be familiar with what’s come to be known simply as “the Harper’s letter.” Taking on the threat typically described as “cancel culture,” it appeared on the magazine’s website on July 7. In fellow editor Mike Hartmann’s words, it was “signed by more than 150 prominent, mostly left-of-center writers, academics, artists, and activists—basically calling for the free and vigorous expression of ideas, asking for courteous and respectful debate about them, and lamenting quite-excessive reactions against dissenters from reigning orthodoxies.”
It comes as no surprise that the letter was immediately assailed by the ultra-progressive activists who were its thinly veiled target. The counter-charge was that the pillars of liberal culture who signed the letter have long had things entirely their own way within social discourse, and that their reaction against so-called cancel culture was simply inspired by fear of other voices suddenly demanding to be heard. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it to the signatories, “Odds are you’re not actually cancelled, you’re just being challenged, held accountable, or unliked.”
Perhaps more surprising is that the letter’s defense of free speech drew fire from some prominent conservatives. Yoram Hazony pointed out in The Federalist that the letter was “messed up” because “too many of the signatories have spent years systematically trying to stifle reasonable public debate by delegitimizing conservative voices and creating a context in which it’s too costly to engage with them in a public way.”
Conrad Black went even further. He argued in American Greatness that
[a]dded to all their posturing is the problem that a number of the signers of the Harper’s letter have heaped praise on despotic and totalitarian regimes of the last 75 years. To cite only the most egregious case, Noam Chomsky was the foremost apologist and idolatrous promoter in the Democratic West of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. And neither he nor many of his cosignatories have shrunk from trying to throttle those who differed with them with defamatory attacks.
However true the conservative indictments might be, I would advise patience. The Harper’s letter should be understood as just the first step in the process of refreshing the intellectual resources of American conservatism. History has shown that many outstanding conservatives are recruited from within the ranks of radicalism itself.
The most effective political opponents of the Soviet drive into Western Europe after World War II, for instance, turned out to be often-Socialist labor unions familiar with the unhappy fate of independent workers’ groups wherever Communism came to power. The intellectual counterattack for the West was spearheaded by disillusioned former Communists like Louis Fischer, Andre Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, and Richard Wright—all contributors to The God that Failed, Richard Crossman’s landmark essay collection published in 1949.
In its earliest days, National Review’s most-impassioned and -articulate writers were often former Communists, including Whittaker Chambers, Willi Schlamm, John Dos Passos, Frank Meyer, and James Burnham. In the 1960s, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, Martin Diamond, Norman Podhoretz, and other prominent intellectuals migrated from the anti-Stalinist left into the movement that became known as “neoconservatism.” Later in the ’60s, David Horowitz and the late Peter Collier left the editorial board of the radical journal Ramparts to become the most-effective critics of the New Left.
In all these cases, the struggle against totalitarianism was fueled by an earlier experience of its oppressiveness, and a thoroughgoing familiarity with its techniques. Jay Lovestone, a former Communist who became the point man in American labor’s effort to blunt the Soviet thrust into Europe, put it this way: “I couldn’t have been a good anti-Communist if I hadn’t been a good Communist.”
So how might this familiar dynamic play out in contemporary circumstances? It’s unlikely that any of the prominent liberal signatories of the Harper’s letter, no matter how vilified by radicals, will move into the ranks of conservatism. For one thing, as their progressive critics have pointed out, they themselves are probably too well-established to be reached by cancel culture.
But younger, less-prominent activists on the left enjoy no such luxury. If you’re an untenured assistant professor, a newly hired journalist, or a budding television producer, it’s pretty clear what are the acceptable political opinions around the office, if you wish to pursue a career within the culture’s largest institutions. No doubt many young people today have no problem subscribing to the main tenets of progressivism. But it’s difficult to be part of any political movement without, at some point or another, entertaining some doubts about its ends or means.
Yet the consistent message of a century of radicalism has been: keep such reservations to yourself. Dissent only weakens the movement and serves the interests of the decadent establishment. And if you dare raise your voice, you will discover that there is, indeed, such a thing as cancel culture.
One of the signatories of the Harper’s letter, Bari Weiss, subsequently resigned her position as opinion editor and writer at The New York Times because cancel culture is indeed alive and well there. If the lessons of her experience weren’t clear enough for younger staff members, especially “independent-minded young writers and editors paying close attention to what they’ll have to do to advance in their careers,” she spells them out:
Rule One: Speak your mind at your own peril. Rule Two: Never risk commissioning a story that goes against the narrative. Rule Three: Never believe an editor or publisher who urges you to go against the grain. Eventually, the publisher will cave to the mob, the editor will get fired or reassigned, and you’ll be hung out to dry.
Unlike Weiss, some—perhaps most—targets of cancel culture will dutifully abase themselves, confess their sinful thoughts, and seek absolution (which, by the way, is seldom if ever forthcoming). Several of the less-prominent signatories of the Harper’s letter have already chosen this path.
But some dissenters will begin to wonder if the suppression of speech isn’t indicative of larger problems with the cause. Some will proceed from a rediscovery of the virtue of unfettered expression to a renewed appreciation of other rights that seem to be secure only within a liberal, property-based regime. That’s precisely the path to the right that has been followed by generations of leftists in the past.
For all the reasons indicated by Hazony and Black, it is asking a lot of conservatives to cheer a letter that is at great pains to keep its distance from them. That, too, has always been the case.
Traditional conservatives are still smarting from the migration of former leftist neoconservatives into the movement’s leadership in the 1960s. As the “tradcon” Stephen Tonsor memorably put it, “It is splendid when the town whore gets religion and joins the church. Now and then she makes a good choir director, but when she begins to tell the minister what he ought to say in his Sunday sermons, matters have been carried too far.” Paul Gottfried’s recent volume of essays, The Vanishing Tradition: Perspectives on American Conservatism, suggests that the traditionalist animus against neoconservatism has yet to abate.
Ironically, the neoconservatives themselves were a bit uncomfortable when former New Leftists began seeking shelter on the right. Collier and Horowitz visibly signified their break with the radicals of their day with a conference held in 1989, entitled “Second Thoughts: Former Radicals Look Back at the Sixties.” One panel featured several prominent neoconservatives who, it turns out, were less than fully welcoming. Irving Kristol wearily noted that as an editor for 40 years, he must have “rejected at least 50 articles of second thoughts—that is, of people who have now broken with the left … [and] who are convinced that they have a story to tell.” (Clearly, he didn’t think it was much of one.)
Fellow panelist Hilton Kramer was disturbed by the moral revolution of the ’60s, lamenting “the wreckage in family life and sexual life and academic life, in the whole structure of Western culture.” Taking direct aim at the former New Leftists in attendance, he maintained that “you were all immoralists and we are now all paying the price for the social agenda that your immoralism let loose.”
In spite of that hostility, Collier and Horowitz went on to rally many other former New Leftists to the conservative cause.
What does this have to do with philanthropy? As it turns out, in the acknowledgments for the published collection of conference speeches, Collier and Horowitz noted that the gathering had been “made possible by grants from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the John M. Olin Foundation.”
This suggests a critical role for conservative philanthropy in encouraging the migration of the next generation of dissidents from left to right. We at The Giving Review call this “other-side giving.”
As were Bradley’s Mike Joyce and Olin’s Jim Piereson, conservative philanthropic leaders should be constantly on the lookout for young people deep within the heart of progressivism who are beginning to realize that, however noble its ends, its means always turn out to be illiberal and oppressive. And our donors should take a risk and fund these dissidents early on—while they’re still just awakening from wokeness, and before they’re crushed by cancel culture—in hopes they too may tread the familiar path of disillusionment from left to right.
A future conservatism may well begin simply as a reaffirmation of what had been, a few years before, conventional American political beliefs, like the commitment to free speech. That is, it won’t look very much like fully developed conservatism, at least at the outset. That will, in turn, invite another round of disdain from more established thinkers on the right who will, once again, make it difficult for the new kids on the conservative block.
But Irving Kristol, after heaving his world-weary sigh about second-thoughters at that conference in 1989, went on to affirm the necessity of the process. “Every generation,” he observed, “seems to go through this bloody ritual again and again … of demanding of the world more than it can give, finding the world as it is not just unsatisfying but intolerable in some respect, and reacting.”
For conservative donors, this suggests that no amount of funding for pro-market, pro-civic-virtue projects—however ubiquitous, clever, or attuned to the times—will ever be enough. Some portion of each new generation is destined to go through the process of attraction to and disillusionment with the utopian expectations cultivated by progressivism.
As was the case with neoconservatives and former New Leftists, this produces second thoughts. That’s valuable, but not enough, for Kristol. For him and his fellow apostates, he goes on, “You start out as a Communist; your second thought is you are an anti-Communist,” but “you have to go beyond that; you have to understand something about Communism. You have to understand, above all, why Communism appealed to you, why it still appeals to people, why the Left is the Left, why the culture is on the left.”
As Kristol’s life demonstrated, those who have been on the left are uniquely equipped to understand its appeal, to explain it to others, and to develop ways to counteract it. They have undergone the “bloody ritual” of disillusionment with utopian expectations and have come out the other side deeply knowledgeable about ways to turn that disillusionment into a more-realistic program of achievable reform.
Especially at this moment, when the progressive tide is rising, conservative donors should clear out some space within their stale grantee list of bloated, ineffective D.C. think tanks and nonprofits. They should make room for unorthodox potential allies far behind progressivism’s lines, who are just beginning to question its means, and then possibly its ends. For the past century, that’s been one of the primary ways conservatism has renewed itself.