[Publisher's Note] Toe the Line, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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“I get impatient reading too many points of view that are similar to my own.”
A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on July 5, 2021. Translated from the French by Elettra Pauletto.

Over the past three years, Harper’s Magazine has developed a controversial reputation with regards to the #MeToo movement and woke culture, especially due to our publication of provocative articles by Katie Roiphe, John Hockenberry, and Thomas Chatterton Williams. After last summer’s publication of the so-called Harper’s Letter—a manifesto against ideological conformity—more and more readers have demanded (not always politely) a clear explanation of our editorial line. These demands often came with some bizarre implications. Are we allies of the neo-fascist right? Are we secretly Trumpists? Are we taking advantage of the white privilege that is so reviled by social-justice activists? Do we practice a “nice racism,” as Robin DiAngelo has titled her new book, which, according to the press release, maintains that “white progressives cause the most daily harm to people of color”?

My contributions to journalism and charity clearly don’t fit in with right-wing, racist, or sexist conspiracies. My record, which is mostly leftist, and my projects to defend the rights of the wrongfully convicted, especially those who are black, are all over the Internet, as are my writings, including four books. So far as I know, they do not contain any clandestine plans to ensure male or Caucasian domination of the earth. As for Harper’s, the matter is more complicated, given the lifespan of the magazine. It’s impossible to sum up in a few words a 171-year history. But it’s clear that a liberal (in the Anglo-Saxon sense), tolerant, democratic, and independent spirit has informed the sensibilities of the editorial staff since 1850. Our unofficial motto: beware of those who want to promote disingenuous opinions or the interests of those in power. I admit that in my 38 years as the publisher of Harper’s, my political commitments have had an influence on the magazine’s editorial content, but much less so than one might think. On the one hand, I’m beholden to history—for example, there’s no way one can turn what is fundamentally a literary magazine into leftist political propaganda. On the other hand, I get impatient reading too many points of view that are similar to my own. I often disagree with our writers, and I love surprise and irony in our pages. A perfect example: the brief article in the January 2019 issue by Michel Houellebecq called “Donald Trump Is a Good President,” which sparked a storm of negative, even violent comments on Twitter—as if Harper’s had suddenly switched sides and started to support an incompetent, corrupt president. It’s up to readers to decide for themselves, but just let me say that Houellebecq’s argument is far more nuanced and satirical than those of his attackers. And, of course, Harper’s has in no way become a pro-Trump publication.

That said, the truth is that Harper’s does have an editorial position. It’s not ideological, but it is solid, though I struggle to explain it and do so without much success. For my part, it is inspired by the writings of the great literary critic Lionel Trilling, particularly Sincerity and Authenticity, the collection of lectures he gave in 1970 at Harvard University. These lectures are where I look to find a possible resolution to the infernal dispute between traditional left-wing liberals and self-proclaimed leftist neo-radicals, and possibly quieting my critics.

Trilling was a literature professor at Columbia University until his death in 1975. He is worth reading in any era, but President Trump’s insincere and inauthentic tenure has made it essential. In his Harvard lectures, he discusses the works of Shakespeare, Rousseau, Molière, Diderot, and Freud, among others, in order to sum up the origins of and paradoxes in the words “sincerity” and “authenticity.” In Trilling’s view, these two words, which are essential to me, are not interchangeable, and the contemporary status of “sincerity” has greatly diminished: “If we speak it, we are likely to do so with either discomfort or irony. In its commonest employment it has sunk to the level of a mere intensive. . . ” As such, Trilling laments the loss of sincerity’s significance, referencing Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a masterpiece of the battle between falsity and integrity, deception and honesty: “The extent to which Hamlet is suffused by the theme of sincerity is part of everyone’s understanding of the play.”

As Trilling suggests, “Authenticity” can step in where “sincerity” falls short. “Authenticity” might represent, he says, “a more strenuous moral experience than ‘sincerity’ does.” But they’re both part of my philosophy in equal measure.

At the risk of oversimplifying, my response to Harper’s’ harshest critics is to ask them to display the same level of sincerity and authenticity that we require of our staff and our writers. That is our editorial position. Are you critics up to the challenge?

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