Free Speech, Top Stories

Why I Signed the Harper’s Letter

In 1996, the late great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami was on stage taking questions at the Lincoln Center in New York City after the premiere of his film Through the Olive Trees, when someone asked why he had used classical music (a piece from Concerto for Oboe and Strings by Domenico Cimarosa) in a movie that was set in a small village in northern Iran? Kiarostami turned to me, his translator for the hour, and said, in his soft voice and even softer manner, “Tell him classical music has long ceased to belong to the West. It belongs to the world now.”

That exchange, the way Kiarostami disabused the audience of the notion that music knew borders or that great ideas, once invented, remained the “property” of one nation or region, was on my mind when I signed the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” which ran in Harper’s Magazine last Tuesday. What I saw at the heart of the text was a defense of American democracy, which no longer belongs solely to America. For every activist on the streets of Hong Kong, every feminist in the prisons of Saudi Arabia, and every interned Uighur in China, America and its democracy remain, for better or worse, the last hope. Are they naïve and misguided? Right or wrong? It does not matter. Those who are suffering under tyrannies around the world, who are trying to imagine a different future for themselves and their fellow citizens, do not dream of Moscow, Beijing, or any nation in Europe. Just as little girls in the far corners of the world who do not even speak English want to dance like Beyoncé, and just as the youth living under prohibition in the Middle East huddle together to secretly watch bootlegged copies of Hollywood films, activists everywhere look to America, and dream of this democracy.

Moscow clamors to undo America’s elections. Tehran hacks our cyberspace. Along with its cheap goods, China is exporting its freedomless capitalism to the world as an alternative to America’s liberalism. These are only a few of the many threats from avowed enemies to our American way of life from outside. Of the lesser powers that once appeared to be on a democratic path only a few embers glimmer in the ash heap that remains. The overwhelming majority of the “revolutions,” whose outbreaks glued us to our television screens in the past decade, failed: Egypt, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, and Hong Kong… 1,200 protestors were killed on the streets of Iran in the span of two weeks last November. But that was not the injustice Iran’s supreme leader, foreign minister, or president tweeted and spoke about last month. Rather, it was George Floyd. Any day that America is shamed is a holiday for every tyrant anywhere.

It is against the backdrop of this onslaught on democratic principles outside of the United States that any threat from within must be viewed. It is in this broader, precarious global moment that the barring of speakers from academic and scholarly venues takes on an alarming meaning. It is in this light that the firing of editors for running “non-factual” or “dangerous” opinions cannot be justified in the name of public safety, as if any autocrat who ever locked up a dissident did so in any other name. With America’s democracy under a ubiquitous siege, not least from inside its own White House, everyone must ask why publishers are suddenly worried that the readers of their opinion page cannot see through a politician’s truth-bending propaganda disguised as opinion—the kind that the Putins, the Zarifs, and other such distinguished thugs have been printing for many years.

Of all the indignities that have ever been leveled at Americans, the one about their narcissistic ways is most evident in much of the criticism that has thus far been leveled against “The Letter.” Reduced to tabloidism, these detractors cannot look past the who’s who, who’s worth how much, or who hankers for whose attention. Vladimir Lenin is rumored to have said, “When it comes time to hang the capitalists, they will sell us the rope.” He was right about Americans having no qualms about paving the way of their own demise for the right price. But if these navel-gazing critics are any indication, it will not be capitalism, which every authoritarian superpower has embraced, but liberalism, which they have not, that will be gasping for air in the noose.

America’s racial inequities, of which police brutality is only a minor part, must end. They are what disfigure her and undermine her promise of the nation that is to be “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” But this long overdue transformation must be done according to the blueprint that James Baldwin, among his other enduring gifts, has left for us: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” It must all begin with the love of America and with the fundamental commitment to its founding ideals and the work of making her better. Because if America’s democracy—racially unjust and highly imperfect as it is—fails, the hope of freedom will vanish. Domenico Cimarosa will be confined to Europe again. And there will, surely, be less music in the world.


Roya Hakakian’s memoir, Journey from the Land of No, has been named among the Guardian’s Top Ten Books on Iran. Her forthcoming book is called A Beginner’s Guide to America for the Immigrant and the Curious (Knopf, 2021). You can follow her on Twitter @RoyaTheWriter.

Photos supplied by the author


  1. “The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy.”

    This is a sentence in “The Letter”. If you replaced the words “Donald Trump” with “Joe Biden”, then I would sign this letter.

  2. I appreciate that the author signed the Harper’s Letter, a right and courageous step, especially in today’s political climate. For this she has my respect and my gratitude.

    Nevertheless, I would like to draw attention to one point of criticism. I find it regrettable that the author takes part in the unfortunate and inappropriate narrative of the supporters of cancel culture of presenting our society as ‘deeply racist’.

    America’s racial inequities, of which police brutality is only a minor part, must end.

    America’s democracy—racially unjust and highly imperfect as it is

    People from all over the world are trying to immigrate to Western countries, either legally or by crossing the border illegally at the risk of their lives. Subsequently, many of them become much more successful here than they would have been in their countries of origin. Is that something you would expect from a “racially unjust and highly imperfect” society? In that case, shouldn’t it be exactly the other way around: That all these PoCs would try everything to get out of here to find the land of their dreams? Oh wait, that’s exactly why they came here?

    I assume that you will find few societies, both past and present, that are less racist than ours. As is usual nowadays, reality can best be described by satire:

    WASHINGTON, D.C.—During a press conference earlier this week, Representative Ilhan Omar called on the nation to dismantle the oppressive, racist system that allowed a Somalian refugee to become a citizen and get elected to the highest legislative body in the land.

    She delivered her scathing comments on national media outlets that happily provide a platform for the woman who came from a war-torn country and was welcomed into the United States to ascend to state and eventually national office.

    “Now that I have climbed to the top of the ladder, I am calling on the ladder to be kicked down for its systemic prejudice against oppressed women of color,” Omar said. “I am hereby using the power and platform afforded to me by the incredible opportunity available in this country to call on my countrymen to bring the whole thing crashing to the ground.”

    “The whole thing is racist – dismantle it all,” she added before heading to a dinner party for elites in Washington.

  3. While your points of comparison are more or less valid, you failed to actually support your claim:

    Having met quite a few refugees and immigrants from war torn nations, I’m pretty sure the biggest difference between Western Europe and the US for most of them is a matter of geography.

  4. There are people who sincerely believe that the welfare state can absorb unlimited amounts of new refugees and immigrants with no strain on existing taxpayers. They also believe Mass Migration with the population explosion it causes has no deleterious impact on the environment or quality of life. It’s hard to believe such people exist.

  5. The critical response to the Harper’s Letter has demonstrated why it was necessary. The criticism is mostly based on guilt-by-association (the letter was signed by a transphobe!), whataboutism (how can you worry about people losing their jobs when cops are murdering black men?), and a demand for absolute ideological purity. Most of the signers are liberals (in both senses of the word) who lent their support in defense of liberal values:

    “The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.”

    The signers share many of the political goals of the people who are condemning them but believe that the intolerant attitude and illiberal actions of the social-justice mob are betraying their own cause. The critics demand complete fealty to the tenets of the Woke religion, and accuse anyone who doesn’t accept the maximalist claims of activists of giving aid and comfort to their opponents. In other words, if you’re not Woke you’re a closet reactionary. This is, of course, absurd.

  6. Yes it is absurd, but this is also the place where this “culture war“ needs to be fought. Libs vs the Far left. This is, after all, a monster created in your laboratory, and there’s a far better chance that the message will sink in coming from you than from me.

  7. Agreed. I hope the letter morphs into a movement. Capitulation only feeds the appetite of the Woke monster and causes it to grow. Center-left and center-right liberals (small-l) need to unite against the illiberal excesses on both the far-left and far-right.

  8. “Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion… blah blah… Trump… blah blah”

    These pathetic liberals don’t stand a chance - calling on their Maoist comrades for respect is just signalling weakness to the enemies of freedom.

  9. One of the things that bothers me most about the “letter” is just the incredible smugness of people on the left. Regardless of circumstance, they cannot help themselves but to condemn “right wing demagogues” who go unnamed. Trump is accused of being some sort of general “threat” to democracy when the claim is ridiculous. If Trump is not reelected and refuses to leave office peacefully then I’ll believe this claim. Otherwise, just hating the guy in office doesn’t not make him a necessary “threat to democracy”. But the left always wants it both ways. The “letter” is basically stating that, the right is inherently wrong and everyone will see that if only our more extreme elements would quiet down. What’s even worse is that many of these “liberals” are terrified of the thought that any of the excesses of the extreme left might give “ammunition” to the evil “right” because they find it absolutely inconceivable that there could ever be any valid critique of their leftists ideas without the benefit of their wise counsel. They honestly believe that they are so perfectly and completely correct and morally superior that if only all people would shut the hell up (even their own fringe elements) and just listen to them, then everything would be fine and the world will return to “normal”. What they seem to misunderstand is that throwing the entire “right” under the bus in such an off-handed and callous manner is yet another leftists dismissal of any thought or idea that may run contrary to their faith.

    I am happy to see the schism. I hope it will destroy the left and leave them even more disorganized than before. No, not because I am a right-wing demagogue, but because I am tired of the very notion that having any conservative beliefs automatically puts me into the same corner as Mussolini. It doesn’t. But the left cannot help themselves.

    Theirs is the true religion, and this letter makes it clear. Any other thought is heresy.

    I will die contented in my apostasy.

  10. I agree entirely.

    I am really getting bored with the “Donald Trump is a threat to democracy” stuff. I have a lot of liberal colleagues and friends who will swear up and down to me that Donald Trump is the most unintelligent man who has ever inhabited the White House. Of course, they can never explain how a system that is supposed to be as robust as American democracy can be under such existential threat from someone so “dumb.” The answer is pretty simple: He’s not much of a threat at all. He just threatens THEM and any threat to THEM must, by necessity, be a threat to everyone because as we all should know by now, leftist thought-leaders are the only leaders that matter. What threatens them must automatically threaten all of us… The entire planet hangs in the balance if, God forbid, the New York Times, Harvard and TED Talks are no longer the dominant kingmakers of the Western world… they, and only they hold the keys to the kingdom.

  11. I have an apple tree that had not produced fruit for years. This spring, like every other spring, I searched its branches for the nub of apple. Finally, one day I spotted an apple, then another and another and suddenly realized the tree was full of fruit.

    It’s kind of like the news. I never really paid attention to the obvious bias - but once I spotted it, I saw it in every word.

    But I had to ask myself, was this just me looking so hard for dog-whistles and secret words that I saw them everywhere?

    Not after 2016, it wasn’t.

    The alphabet networks and newspapers have gotten so obvious and egregious with their over-the-top bias that I have given up on them.

    What bothers me most is their ham-fisted approach to Trump. I mean, gosh, there is so much to criticize the guy about, why do you have to make things up, tell half-truths and out-right lies?

    I think they do it on purpose. I suspect newsroom staff’s earn status-points with their peers for being the most outrageous.

  12. For now, yes, because there is no chance I will vote for Biden or Democrat right now. We always hear the “both sides are bad” argument, like in the video @Geary_Johansen2020 posted above with Stephen Fry. But both sides are not calling the other side irredeemable deplorables and trying to get people fired or worse. Only one side is doing this. Only one side is anti-democratic and anti-Free Speech right now. I don’t see the crazy coming from the right. Sorry, it just is not there. Wanting secure borders is something even the left claims to be on board with.

  13. Sounds as though the accusations are baseless smears:

    “We are doing this because we believe in the rights of all Columbia students to dissent without fear of abuse. Yes, this means for conservative students as well as left-wingers, for Zionists as well as anti-Zionists. . . . Criticizing professors does not violate their academic freedom or stifle debate. It only adds to it.”

    Don’t get me wrong- people should have the right to criticise Israel, just like any other country- but to deny it’s right to exist in its current location and defend itself from violent protesters and terrorists, is nothing but anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism.

  14. So it’s really just him saying/tweeting ridiculous things on the spur of the moment that makes him a threat to democracy? I thought I must be missing something.

  15. The signatories of the Harper’s letter undermined their own argument by being partisan. The point of the letter was ostensibly to push back against censorship and cancel culture. Instead it became about virtue signalling.

    If one is for freedom of expression and against cancel culture then certainly Trump and his supporters are entitled to these things as well.

    American democracy is not under seige from inside the White House. It is under threat from violent Anarchists and Black Identity Extremists pushing Marxist ideology down people’s throats. All of this is being aided and abetted by the universities, the corporations, the lawless Democrats as well as the oligarchs.

    You and I are living in alternate realities.

    Who in this day and age supports police brutality or racism? Is there racism in the United States? Certainly there is, but it’s not systemic. It’s not institutional. It’s the actions of individuals or groups, many of whom are not white.

    Are there racist laws, directives, protocols, procedures, etc.? Present them so we can see them. Are the statues of Christopher Columbus and Abraham Lincoln the cause of racial inequity? Is the American flag the reason for this inequity? Perhaps it is the national anthem.

    Are blacks not allowed to apply for certain jobs? That’s unlikely given there is a quota system in place to ensure that blacks receive preferential hiring and promotion. Blacks receive positive discrimination when applying for college as well, just ask the Asians.

    Are disparate outcomes caused by racial inequities? Some claim they are but don’t offer any proof and refuse to consider alternative, and much more likely, explanations.

    I’m not trying to be obtuse but I’m not seeing these overarching racial inequities that can be ascribed to “America”. America, while not perfect, is easily the best game in town. Why try to destroy it?

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