Is there a more embarrassing column on the internet than the Publisher’s Note at Harper’s? This is where you can find the addled musings of John “Rick” MacArthur, the mercurial proprietor of what was once one of this country’s most influential liberal magazines but in recent years has taken a reactionary turn in response to the social justice movements on the left—specifically the #MeToo movement, of which MacArthur is an outspoken opponent, but also identity-based politics more broadly. MacArthur was the proud publisher of the so-called Harper’s letter last summer, which came as protesters around the country were demonstrating against the police killing of George Floyd. Many people, myself included, viewed the letter as a critique of identity politics dressed up in banal paeans to the sanctity of free speech.
Normally it would not be worth paying attention to the Publisher’s Note, unless you get a perverse joy (as I and some of my colleagues do) from the daft histrionics of a 64-year-old heir to assorted fortunes. But I feel compelled to call attention to his most recent column, in which he takes the opportunity of a controversy at The New York Times over a racial slur to use that very word himself—a telling act that implicates both Harper’s and those who subscribe to its position on free speech.
MacArthur’s columns, which he has been writing for more than a decade, are almost Greenwaldian in their looping logic, the despised enemy often being some liberal cause or other. Here you will find MacArthur comparing the ostracization of Roman Polanski to the persecution of Alfred Dreyfus and attacking the “disgraceful mendacity” of Ronan Farrow, one of the star reporters of #MeToo. (Many of these columns were originally written in French, published in the Quebecois newspaper Le Devoir, then rendered back into English by a translator.) There are also scenes from MacArthur’s life, such as the essay in which he reminisced about cosplaying a spy from a Le Carré novel. My personal favorite is the column where he settled scores with his business partners for leasing their store, Book Culture on the Upper West Side, to The Strand. “Pulling the rug out from under me four days after I buried my mother, herself a lover of books, is too much to let pass unremarked,” MacArthur huffed.
He is, in other words, a crank, and the editors at Harper’s know it. The Publisher’s Note, not unlike the column of a certain former owner of The New Republic, is treated like a fart emanating from an ancient family member at the dinner table, with everyone going about their business as the offensive odor envelops them. The column is buried on a website that does little but showcase what has been published in the magazine’s print edition. (MacArthur is an avowed hater of digital journalism and the internet in general, which he has described as a “gigantic Xerox machine.”) MacArthur frequently invokes the specter of “cancel culture,” an obsession he shares with the Trumpian right, but he is living proof that some people cannot be canceled. He owns the place, after all, leaving his editors no choice but to hope that no one notices the fact that their rich, entitled boss publishes batty drivel on the regular.
But MacArthur’s latest column, “The New McCarthyism,” is an especially egregious case. It is a defense of the reporter Don McNeil, who resigned earlier this year from the Times after it was reported that he had used the n-word in discussions with a group of students. I am not here to relitigate the McNeil affair but to object to MacArthur’s own use of the n-word in his column, which I don’t think Harper’s can possibly defend.
MacArthur takes issue with the Times’ initial (and later retracted) stance that intent doesn’t matter when the slur is uttered. Indeed, intent does matter, and MacArthur’s intent in using the word is clear. It is flung at the reader as a provocation—in quote marks, but unobscured in any way. (He also sneeringly puts quotes around “the n-word,” as if he could not use such an expression with a straight face.) The standards of decency around this word are changing, and rapidly, but MacArthur uses this hateful and disgusting word precisely in a hateful and disgusting way: to flaunt his scorn of the whole notion that a Black person or anyone else might object to its usage. His feelings on the matter are explicit. McNeil’s critics are not to be sympathized with at all. They are compared to McCarthyists, Mao’s Red Guards, Stalinists. MacArthur goes on to say:
Obviously, this is not to say that a New Stalinism is on the rise. Nevertheless, the normally healthy call for racial justice and equality has been contorted by incessant appeals to “diversity,” a word that has been drained of any meaning these days. Will establishing quotas for such and such a number of Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and women improve the sorry state of American journalism? Does an excellent journalist who happens to be white and male deserve to be sacrificed for the advancement of minorities? While the mainstream media scramble to augment their “diversity,” our industry is sinking dramatically in the face of the real danger: [Big Tech’s] massive theft of our content and our advertising revenue.
Are we really to believe, after this diatribe, that MacArthur’s use of the n-word is innocent? Or is it not the purest expression of his stated contempt for the claims of identity politics, which he believes has encroached on his superior claims of free speech?
There may be instances when this word must be spelled out in its entirety, but surely it is unacceptable for a white man of inherited privilege to use this word to taunt and denigrate the very people who have cause to be hurt by it. The bald use of this word is not only a blemish on Harper’s but a test for the argument contained in the Harper’s letter. Do the signatories believe that this is an appropriate act of free speech? Do they believe this an acceptable use of this deeply racist word? Do the editors of Harper’s magazine believe it is? Are there any limits at all to what a person can write? I genuinely would like to know. Harper’s has to stop praying that people ignore its publisher and start addressing what he has to say.