Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 12, 2020

Pecksniff and the Harper’s Open Letter

Filed under: Harper's Open Letter — louisproyect @ 10:42 pm

Although I have run into very few supporters of the Harper’s Open Letter on Facebook and even less on Marxmail, I was still trying to figure out why there were any. The consensus was that no matter how hypocritical the signers were, it was still necessary to defend free speech. You’d have to wonder what people would make of an open letter in defense of world peace that was signed by Henry Kissinger, John Bolton, George W. Bush, and Madeline Albright. After all, it can’t hurt. Right?

My guess is that most people would not support that letter because the reputation of the four named above precedes them. On the other hand, the Harper’s letter has some good people signing it like Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, and Gloria Steinem. Maybe, that was all it took for someone posting their endorsement of the letter on FB, where superficiality reigns supreme.

From what I have seen, the main explanation for such gullibility is a lack of familiarity with some truly awful signers who have the same relationship to liberal principles that Henry Kissinger has to world peace. For a professor who has been steeped in his or her narrow scholarly bailiwick for their entire career, it might be understandable that the lofty sentiments expressed in the letter might take precedence over the signatures of people who showed contempt for them in practice. It could also be a function of youthfulness. Some people in their 20s might not have any clue what George Packer represents except being the author of a biography of Richard Holbrooke that got mixed reviews.

I belong to neither category. I am neither a cloistered professor, nor am I young. Over the past thirty years since I got on the Internet at Columbia University, my exposure to a variety of Pecksniffian figures has made my antenna highly sensitized to their pretensions. If the term Pecksniffian does not ring a bell, it comes from Charles Dickens’s “Martin Chuzzlewit”. A character named Sam Pecksniff is a greedy architect who pays his staff about the same that Scrooge paid Cratchit, and, even worse, passes their work off as his own. This is how Dickens characterized Pecksniff:

His very throat was moral. You saw a good deal of it. You looked over a very low fence of white cravat (whereof no man had ever beheld the tie for he fastened it behind), and there it lay, a valley between two jutting heights of collar, serene and whiskerless before you. It seemed to say, on the part of Mr Pecksniff, ‘There is no deception, ladies and gentlemen, all is peace, a holy calm pervades me.’ So did his hair, just grizzled with an iron-grey which was all brushed off his forehead, and stood bolt upright, or slightly drooped in kindred action with his heavy eyelids. So did his person, which was sleek though free from corpulency. So did his manner, which was soft and oily. In a word, even his plain black suit, and state of widower and dangling double eye-glass, all tended to the same purpose, and cried aloud, ‘Behold the moral Pecksniff!’

If I had more time, I’d like to prepare a much longer dossier than this but if by some chance you still take the open letter seriously, you should at least consider the records of some of the worst signers. You have to keep in mind, after all, that ignorance is not a defense in the court of law, nor in the moral judgements of the left.

Martin Amis—Best friend of Christopher Hitchens who shared his Islamophobia. In a 2007 interview, he said, “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan.”

Anne Applebaum—This historian and journalist is an unreconstructed cold warrior. In her review of Robert Harvey’s “Comrades: the Rise and Fall of World Communism”, she begins: “Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Ceausescu, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Salvador Allende, Mengistu, Castro, Kim Il-sung: the list of murderous communist leaders is long, diverse and profoundly multicultural.” Salvador Allende? Murderous communist leader? WTF?

Roger Berkowitz—He’s a Bard College professor that runs the Hannah Arendt Center. He wrote an article that charged Occupy Wall Street with racism since Atlanta protesters refused to allow Congressman John Lewis to speak. As you can see, he was on the lookout for cancel culture before the term existed. As it happens, the protesters were in no mood to listen to any Democrats, especially one who used his civil rights credentials to legitimize his corporate connections.

Paul Berman—During the war against Nicaragua, Berman used to write a weekly column in the Village Voice that frequently called for the overthrow of the Sandinistas. When Adam Hochschild instructed Michael Moore to publish a Berman article in Mother Jones, Moore refused and then got fired. Cancel culture strikes again. Later on, Berman became a supporter of the invasion of Iraq and wrote a book titled Terror and Liberalism that was a polite version of what Martin Amis said.

David Bromwich—Highly acclaimed Yale professor who spent much of the last 8 years defending Bashar al-Assad in various high-toned magazines.

Ian Buruma—Another Bard professor of ill-repute. He was fired as editor of the New York Review of books after publishing an article by the Canadian talk show host Jian Ghomeshi, who had been acquitted in 2016 of one count of choking and four counts of sexual assault. Over twenty women complained either to the police or the media. When asked why he decided to publish the article, Buruma said, “The exact nature of his behavior—how much consent was involved—I have no idea, nor is it really my concern.”

Todd Gitlin—He chastised radicals in 1968 for not supporting Hubert Humphrey and had a particular animus toward Ralph Nader for running as a Green and then as an independent.

Malcolm Gladwell—He is a New Yorker magazine contributor. In “Talking to Strangers”, he argues that Sandra Bland, a young black woman who committed suicide in a Texas jail after a pointless traffic infraction, was the victim of a “failure to communicate”. Racism wasn’t to blame. Instead, since she and the policeman were strangers to each other, they couldn’t bridge a social divide.

Adam Hochschild—Fired Michael Moore for refusing to publish Paul Berman (see above.)

Michael Ignatieff—He was one of the most vociferous supporters of the invasion of Iraq in 2002. His 2003 book Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, argued that America had to create a “humanitarian empire” through military force.

Laura Kipnis—She was a FB friend I had to let go because she kept trolling me. She is also celebrated some for writing articles claiming that date rape incidents on college campuses were overblown and for criticizing Ian Buruma’s firing.

Nicholas Lemann—Dean emeritus of the Columbia Journalism School who derided net-based citizen journalism in a New Yorker article.

Mark Lilla—Another Columbia professor. His claim to fame is writing a book urging the Democrats to dump “identity politics”. Katherine Franke, a Columbia law professor compared Lilla to David Duke and charged him with “underwriting the whitening of American nationalism, and the re-centering of white lives as the lives that matter most in the U.S.” Maybe he signed the letter because she “canceled” him.

Yascha Mounk—He teaches at Johns Hopkins and is best-known for his book The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It that some regard as a swipe at “cancel culture”. He has created a website devoted to these ideas called Persuasion. The New Republic that published an excellent article critiquing this trend even before the Harper’s open letter appeared also published one that asked whether his website was “obsessed with cancel culture.”

Cary Nelson—Nelson is a professor emeritus at the U. of Illinois. In 2013, its board of trustees sent Steven Salaita a letter stating they were hiring him for a job teaching American Indian studies. Behind the scenes, Nelson and major donors connected to the Israel lobby had already begun a campaign to persuade the board to rescind the offer because of Salaita’s pro-Palestinian views. He had already resigned a tenured position when the board caved into Zionist pressures. That left Salaita unemployed. Today he drives a school bus and will likely never teach again.

George Packer—Like Paul Berman and Michael Ignatieff, this New Yorker magazine writer was gung-ho for the invasion of Iraq.

Steven Pinker—Pinker is arguably the worst person who signed the letter. My interest in him was focused on his reactionary sociobiological theories that I described as a mixture of Hobbes and Pangloss. I also recommend a new Jacobin article titled “It’s Official — Steven Pinker Is Full of Shit”. I guess Jacobin was guilty of cancel culture.

Michael Walzer—Despite being a social democrat and long-time Dissent Magazine contributor (or maybe because he was so connected), he was another supporter of the invasion of Iraq but argued more Talmudically than the others.

Sean Wilentz—Like Walzer, he has been associated with Dissent for decades. Recently, he has been leading the charge alongside the WSWS sectarians against Project 1619. (Some people commenting on the Harper’s letter question its timing, as it implicitly connects all of the tumult about white bias in the media as cancel culture.) He also hates radical history, both Howard Zinn’s, and the film that Oliver Stone made with Peter Kuznick.



  1. Excellent piece. Thanks for taking the time to let us know exactly who signed this letter. I see that Zadie Smith, an acclaimed novelist, signed. She said she had to be free, even to make mistakes. I wondered what she meant by this. What mistakes could she mean? Novelists might have repellent characters in their book, people with racist, fascist, misogynist notions. They can be murderers, thieves, you name it. But this isn’t a mistake on the author’s part. So, can anyone help me out? What is she talking about?

    Comment by Michael D Yates — July 13, 2020 @ 12:04 am

  2. Just goes to show how ultimately reactionary the Harpers Letter is that even Ted Cruz makes an argument identical to the signatories captured in this Texas Tribune headline: “Ted Cruz said his Nike boycott was exerting free speech, but says people boycotting Goya Foods are silencing speech” https://www.texastribune.org/2020/07/10/ted-cruz-goya-boycott-ceo-praise-trump-after-nike-boycott/

    Chomsky, who by the end of 1990 was for “Sanctions Against Iraq” when I met him at Bowling Green State University, also thinks every communiist besides Allende was a murderer too. I wonder if he considered Abraham Lincoln a murrderer from 1861-65 because there’s lots of Confederate flag wavers who do?

    Steinem was always a bourgeois liberal so she never became friends with the real minds in the Feminist movement who were far to the left of her — plus she can never be forgiven for her stint as a degenerate CIA agent.

    Atwood, well she admits she was “never an actiivist” and if she were a serious environmentalist she’d have put in a good review of “Planet of the Humans” by now but she hasn’t so shame on her.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 13, 2020 @ 12:41 am

  3. I find it emblematic how the so-called Marxist left has become so divorced from democratic thinking that even the likes Pinker and Nelson among all the others you’ve exposed can see the attacks on democratic rights posed by “cancel culture” more clearly than you. Perhaps it is because you don’t consider women’s rights and the fallacious “trans rights” activism to rise significantly enough for you as antiracism and much of the clearly misogynistic nature of this exposure of racist “Karen’s” and “Beckys” (you know, as opposed to the Darrens and Brians). Guilt by association may work for ignorant Facebook gossip culture but it’s unconscionable that a purported unrepentant Marxist would not be able to see this kind of cancel politics for what it is. Just because millennials and gen Zers engage in struggle doesn’t absolve them of silencing women, threatening them and deplatforming women because women have a different point of view regarding the advent of men invading women’s spaces because men think they are women. Exposing racists should not also mean engaging in stalking women to promote “moral justice”. The antiracist movement is currently at a crossroads where it is likely to be coopted into the Democratic Party and many of the demands for abolishing the police are descending into vigilante “justice” while liberals usurp the movement into “reform”. Canceling people if much more palatable if it can be couched as antiracist activism or “trans rights”.
    Really disappointing at this gossip approach to analysis. It so far beneath you, Louis

    Comment by mtomas3 — July 13, 2020 @ 1:14 am

  4. Just because millennials and gen Zers engage in struggle doesn’t absolve them of silencing women, threatening them and deplatforming women because women have a different point of view regarding the advent of men invading women’s spaces because men think they are women.

    Uh-oh. Dipping into the JK Rowling. Sad.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 13, 2020 @ 1:29 am

  5. tomas, I concur. gossip approach, and spit for spat, post modernism, liberalism vs intersectionality or whatever. In a New York state of mind…

    Comment by mike — July 13, 2020 @ 2:24 am

  6. Yeah, and all them men in dresses invading real women’s spaces. If they gotta pee, they should go into a men’s bathroom and do it there. Maybe they can keep a spare pair of pants and polo shirt that they can change into in the woman’s bathroom. Oops. Forgot they can’t go in there. Maybe they should just stick with the men’s identity even if it is unbearable. 40 percent try suicide at one point or another in their lifetime. They should get over themselves.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 13, 2020 @ 2:43 am

  7. The letter itself is so vaguely worded as to be nearly meaningless. As far as I could tell, the words “cancel culture” don’t even appear in it–it merely announces a sinister “atmosphere of intolerance” that has seeped in everywhere somehow and is causing unspecified damage to the Wise and the Good and how dare you question the Signatories? I gather that this has something to do with excessive “resistance” to Donald, Trump, whom the writers specifically deplore while seeming to suggest that opposition to him could be carried too far.

    It is really one of the worst-written, most comically over-general, and least persuasive communications I have ever read. It recalls the worst hypocrisies of the military-industrial-academic-CIA establishment in the Sixties–all that crap from committed Platonic liars and agents of international mass murder about “freedom of speech,” and “civility.” That also suggests that the purpose here is to create a broad front for repression of the left–the vagueness and dare I say stupidity leaves the Authorities maximum elbow room to wield their blackjacks and rubber truncheons once Biden and Rahm Emanuel (or equivalent) get going on their new Red Scare and campaign of–gosh, we really didn’t think we’d have to do this–neoliberal austerity.

    Pinker himself injected the phrase “cancel culture” when he indulged post-letter in an orgy of self-pity based on the fact that 500 alleged “linguists” signed a different letter demanding his removal from his fellowship in a national linguistic association. (That letter failed and Pinker was not removed.) That was the specific matter that got Chomsky involved, although Pinker has also paid homage to Chomsky’s ideas about rationalism and human nature.

    I have no idea about the merits of the anti-Pinker letter, which has been rubbished in Mother Jones and a range of other forums. Was Pinker deliberately using racist “dog whistles” on Twitter? If not, then clown that he is, I suppose he and Chomsky might have a point.

    But the anti-Cancel Culture topos is already rightwing property. Donald Trump used the phrase at Mount Rushmore. Is Pinker now on Trump’s side–indeed, has he always been? Apparently when Governor Cuomo commanded the BLM protesters–and the socialist left specifically, because I believe that is the subtext–to “pivot” to “reconciliation” there would be hell to pay from him and his ilk when they didn’t. This may portend a campaign of righteous punishment, as in the Salaita affair, under a new Democrat presidency.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — July 13, 2020 @ 3:54 am

  8. For years leftists battled against the “open shop” south. Now they want people to be fired for their jobs and airbrushed out of history for committing thought crimes. The letter in question is right and most normal people know it. You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Not everyone who opposed the war in Vietnam was a dyed in the wool communist. It didn’t make them any less correct on the matter.

    Comment by Tanaka Ueno — July 13, 2020 @ 5:15 am

  9. Not everyone who opposed the war in Vietnam was a dyed in the wool communist. It didn’t make them any less correct on the matter.


    What the fuck are you talking about, you moron? Does Cary Nelson really support the ideals defended in the Open Letter? Did Bari Weiss, who went on a crusade against people like Edward Said when she was a student at Columbia University? Or Adam Hochschild and Rick MacArthur who fired editors for having different ideas?

    As for the war in Vietnam, you’re fucking right that I would have gone on the warpath if an open letter in support of “Peace in Vietnam” had been signed by a bunch of Democrats who voted for war appropriations.

    Are you always this stupid or did you take an extra stupid pill this morning?

    Comment by louisproyect — July 13, 2020 @ 11:48 am

  10. Thanks for this, Louis. You’ve been studying most of these fools for decades. I predict a lot of people are not as informed about the signers. I wouldn’t be either if it wasn’t for your writing over the years, and still there are ones I didn’t know.

    The liberal independent journalist, Matt Taibbi, in a recent tirade remarked that if “You’re looking at a letter and agree, then you sign it. It doesn’t matter who else signs it.” I can understand some leftists (beyond just Chomsky) that think they need to blindly support the letter, in spirit, as a pedagogical exercise, since not everyone watching knows who these people are. However, the nuance of who wrote it matters. It’s classic “freedom for me, but not for thee.” It’s an empty gesture that wishes to preserve their intellectual nobility and silence any criticism. Further, the sirens against “cancel culture” also help to gin up blind support for their side by painting the opposition of conducting asymmetrical warfare with censorship.

    The letter is terribly written and vaguely describes events which probably aren’t instructive going forward. I still welcome the letter, and also support skewering the signers as you’ve done. You often cite Lenin’s writing on the “prestige” of German Social Democracy intervening in “every protest against tyranny…in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, …”. In the future, I hope the open letter will serve as a petard to hoist these people. Given the history of Salaita, Kovel and Churchill that seems naive on my part.

    Comment by Aaron — July 13, 2020 @ 10:06 pm

  11. I don’t think Chomsky is “blind” here–i think he signed the letter because he was spooked by that other letter, signed by 500 linguists, requesting that Pinker be removed from his fellowship in what seems to be the big linguistic academic professional association in the US. Pinker was accused of using racist “dog whistles” in tweets. That doesn’t really sound like Pinker to me, no approbation implied, but I think Chomsky could have read the Harper’s letter more carefully to say the least. It’s the Faurisson reflex.

    I think that the Harper’s letter is a beard for a broad repressive assault on the socialist left by the Democratic Party–and of course also by the “good’ Republicans–not only the thoroughly corrupt and reactionary Romney but also eg Mattis and the obscene Bolton–who are currently bestowing bukkake on the Democratic Party power brokers, who never saw an “Intelligent Conservative” they didn’t want to fuck.

    Imagine, after this, objecting to Biden giving a major brief to that foul-mouthed, violent member of a foreign military, Rahm Emanuel. They’d kill you.

    I doubt that Chomsky considered any of this when he signed.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — July 14, 2020 @ 2:42 am

  12. Believe it or not, but you can actually agree with someone on a particular matter without subscribing to their entire political position and world outlook. I am an atheist. I am against the death penalty. The Catholic Church is against the death penalty. So we agree on that, if nothing else. Surely you can understand how that works, with your clearly superior intellect.

    Comment by Tanaka Ueno — July 17, 2020 @ 8:44 am

  13. I have the feeling that every person on your list above is someone who passed on a submission of yours.

    Comment by Sara Prosser — July 22, 2020 @ 12:01 pm

  14. You fucking idiot. I have zero interest in submitting anything I write to Harper’s or any other top-tier magazine. Mainly because I prefer the give-and-take of blogs and social media. This gives me the opportunity to tell a troll like you where to get off. You had an opportunity to defend the Open Letter but instead decided to hurt my feelings. I have no feelings, which might have been apparent if you knew anything about my hard-scrabble life.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 22, 2020 @ 12:07 pm

  15. No reason except local politics in Vancouver BC. A token trans rep of the governing party, provokes and promotes attacks, death threats against women’s (only) rape relief shelter of long standing reputation — staffed by volunteers. Try supporting that..

    Comment by mike — July 29, 2020 @ 2:45 am

  16. I echo Karl’s comments about Gloria Steinem. Here is an old video of her discussing her CIA days in the 1950s and talking about how the people she knew in the CIA were “enlightened, liberal, non-partisan” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4HRUEqyZ7p8 ).

    Insofar as Chomsky, as Louis said, the content of the letter is innocuous for the most part, it is the context and many of the signers which make it what it is. In addition to that, on previous occasions Chomsky has said he thought some of the efforts to cancel right-wing provocateur speakers on campuses were tactical errors, so that probably played a role in signing. I don’t really see a shift from his stance over the past few decades, I don’t think he cares much about whatever Twitter arguments are going on over all of this this month and I doubt the signature was in the context of that.

    Comment by Adelson — July 30, 2020 @ 4:05 am

  17. Charles Dickens would turn in his grave at this incredibly arrogant misappropriation of Mr Peckinsniff. Were the culture cancellers at work in Dicken’s day we would never have had Oliver Twist nor half of Dickens’ characters. Whoever is hiding behind the Peckinsniff moniker is making one unfounded assertion after another pontificating from his own social media ivory tower.

    Comment by Russell Pollard — August 26, 2020 @ 9:52 am

  18. I just stumbled on this due to your other piece about Harper’s today, so forgive the late reply, but as you are unusually open-minded and thoughtful I wonder whether this piece is entirely fair.

    you do, in fact, point out some of the more egregious excesses of many of the right-wing signers of the letter.

    but for those of us on the left, do those excesses explain or allow us to dismiss the signatures of people whose basic alignment with the left is much harder to question? Not just Chomsky, whose motivations for signing it are worth thinking about (I do not think he’s said much publicly that would provide an explanation), Samuel Moyn, Zephyr Teachout, Federico Finchelstein, Paul Starr–not to mention the relatively diverse group of Black writers & thinkers who signed it, including not just some well-known conservatives like John McWhorter but major figures like the great historian/sociologist of slavery Orlando Patterson, Gerald Early, & longtime thinker on these issues Loretta Ross? (I’m just skimming from a list I found, at an earlier point I went through more carefully).

    For that matter, what does it do when you look at complex and certainly *generally* left figures like Walzer, Cary Nelson, and Wilentz, and identify them solely by one event in their careers you did not agree with? Does that one event somehow align with your opposition to the letter–is there a causal link between support for the Iraq War and signing this letter? Or Wilentz’s criticism of the 1619 project? What exactly is that link?

    From those I know, half the signers of this letter are idiots and worse. But half aren’t. It appears the signers did not know who else was signing when they signed it, which is a tactical error at best. But what seems to be happening here, and you were by no means alone in it, is pretty close to ad hominem: “these are bad people, so their argument is false.” But no matter how you slice it, and even if that were a valid form of argument, a lot of those who signed it are not “bad people.”

    You also say that “For a professor who has been steeped in his or her narrow scholarly bailiwick for their entire career,” there might be an “understandable” hospitability to the “lofty sentiments” in the letter. But a lot of what the letter hints about is directly about things that happens on college campuses and in college classrooms. Some of the ad hominems directed at the professors on Twitter about this letter was remarkable.

    Just to take one serious example, having read Orlando Patterson, and having read a lot of what people say today about slavery and having experienced a lot of it in the classroom, it is entirely conceivable to me that Patterson routinely encounters people telling him he is a white supremacist, or doesn’t understand slavery, or doesn’t know history, and shouldn’t be in the classroom. It is entirely conceivable that these people won’t even read Patterson’s work. Is it not at all worth worrying about what someone like Patterson worries about?

    Because as someone who does teach in the higher ed world, though nowhere near Harvard, I can tell you that I would not *dare* to teach Patterson, or many other figures in the history of the US and of slavery, today, out of fear for being hauled up on charges (that would, to be clear, get dropped eventually–but the DEI parts of the university are terrifying, and meant to be). In fact, most of the scholarship produced prior to about 2015 is getting routinely excised from “acceptable” syllabuses–and this is being done by people who have not read a page of it. the stuff I have seen/heard you would not believe. and it worries me that the “bad people” who signed this letter are making it impossible for many like you to see that the “good people” who signed it had very serious reasons for doing so.

    Comment by mr punk — July 20, 2021 @ 3:52 pm

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