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Anti-Woke-Off Breaks Out at Harper’s

Publisher and president John R. MacArthur considers Walter Kirn’s accusation that the magazine terminated him to appease young leftists an outlandish slur

An epistolary anti-woker-than-thou standoff over Harper’s was sparked by just 23 words in a Wall Street Journal interview with writer Walter Kirn, who wrote for the magazine’s storied Easy Chair column between 2016 and 2018. One of his last was titled “Illiberal Values” and recounted admiring conversations with Trump voters whom he called “freethinkers” and “remarkably, far-out folks” who were more closely aligned with his baby boomer, counterculture values than the “liberal puritanism” he was seeing on late-night TV shows and Twitter. Then, as the article by Tunku Varadarajan published the Friday after Thanksgiving reads, “The magazine terminated his contract shortly after, in ‘a one-minute phone call’ in which Mr. Kirn says he was ‘not allowed to speak.’” To Harper’s president and publisher, John R. “Rick” MacArthur, these 23 words were a public slur that could not go unchallenged.

MacArthur took time during the Thanksgiving break to promptly send The Journal a response which was published this past Monday, November 30. “It borders on the absurd for Mr. Kirn to play the martyr to left-wing orthodoxy at Harper’s, since the magazine’s reputation for defending liberalism and criticizing political correctness and ‘wokeness’ is now world renowned,” MacArthur wrote. “The two Easy Chair columnists who followed Mr. Kirn, Lionel Shriver and Thomas Chatterton Williams, have been much tougher on the censorious, intolerant left than Mr. Kirn ever was.” And, for good measure, he added that Kirn was terminated for poor performance, not ideological heresy. “We did not renew his contract—after he wrote two more columns—because his copy was consistently late and he was complaining about a crushing book deadline,” he wrote.

At 5:09 p.m. that day, several hours after MacArthur’s response was posted, Kirn fired off his reply, which The Journal published on Thursday. “Mr. MacArthur’s account of why my contract was not renewed at Harper’s is news to me,” he wrote. “I have only the very brief phone call from the managing editor, Ellen Rosenbush — in which Mr. MacArthur did not participate — to go on. As I said to The Journal’s interviewer, no conversation was permitted in the call. Its tone was decidedly chilly and none of the issues with my performance that MacArthur brings up were mentioned. Also, in point of fact, I wrote only one column, not two, as he states, after the column that drew readers’ ire, as evidenced by several negative letters the magazine chose to publish.” Rosenbush was, in fact, editor of the magazine at the time, and Kirn’s author page at Harper’s website shows two columns published after “Illiberal Values,” although that does not account for when Kirn wrote them.

(Disclosure: This reporter was an intern at Harper’s in 2016 when the magazine started publishing Kirn’s columns.)

The Easy Chair column at Harper’s has been described as “the oldest column in American journalism,” stretching back at least as far as the October 1851 issue, but the magazine’s reputation for brawling with leftists is of much more recent vintage. Five months before Kirn’s “Illiberal Values” column, the magazine published Katie Roiphe’s essay, “The Other Whisper Network: How Twitter feminism is bad for women,”which set off waves of indignation both at the magazine and among its readers and, as he claimed, led to the firing of then-editor James Marcus. Two years after Kirn’s column, this anti-woke reputation was further bolstered ahead of the 2020 elections when Harper’s published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,”which was widely criticized for connecting that summer’s protests against police brutality with “ideological conformity” and “the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.”

The magazine’s recent reactionary drift has primarily been driven by MacArthur. “I consider myself a leftist, but I’m not a woke leftist,” he told Off the Record. “So this was funny for Walter to be playing the conservative-critic-of-a-left-wing-woke act.” He described the framing of the magazine in Kirn’s interview as a “grotesque caricature.” Part of what prompted the fervency of his response may have been a sense of personal betrayal. “It’s just a shock for it to be coming from Walter,” he said. “I’ve always been very friendly with him. I’ve known him for 30 years.” He added, “His interview made it sound like we fired him because of that column, right away. Absolutely crazy. … It was so off the wall and so unfair. Institutionally, we have to answer something like that.”

MacArthur sees his current political position as part of a larger realignment. “Mostly in my career, I’ve been hit from the right,” he said. “It so happens that a lot of the people who are most intolerant and most censorious are left-wingers, but it used to be the case that you got more of it, or at least as much of it, from the right. And it’s shifted.” He argued that Kirn’s column was very much in line with the magazine’s direction. “In a way, it fits with our whole position,” he said. “We publish a lot of pieces critical of woke and politically correct orthodoxy. You could consider it in a long line of pieces that were very critical of the prevailing sentiment.”

Reached by Off the Record, Kirn said his time working with Harper’s was too long and complicated to go into detail on, but he was willing to boil it down: “The sum total of those editorial experiences, which included pretty constant and very frustrating challenges to my writings of a distinctly ideological tone, combined with perhaps the coldest and most impertinent phone call I’ve ever had the displeasure to receive in my career — a termination phone call that made no mention of the problems Mr. MacArthur now brings up — left me to conclude as I did that my point of view was unwelcome there,” he wrote in an email. “That I’d just published a controversial piece which the magazine ran many letters against, but none in defense of — which hadn’t happened before to me there — only strengthened this impression.”

As for MacArthur’s assessment of his job performance, Kirn has never made a secret of his lack of fidelity to deadlines. On the same day MacArthur’s letter was published, Kirn tweeted, “I’ll be releasing a new Substack essay in about an hour. I promised it yesterday. This may be as close as I’ve ever come to meeting a deadline.” And he laid out his mid-’90s working methods as part of a tribute to the late magazine editor John Homans on New York Magazine’s Intelligencer. “Say the deadline was 10 a.m. on Thursday,” he wrote. “About 2 p.m. on Thursday, [Homans would] call me in Montana to remind me I had a deadline. No pressure, he was just calling to remind me. Most likely, I had finished reading the book by then and started to type something out. Back in New York, he would send me telepathic encouragement for a few hours. Then he would call again, transformed. ‘We really fucking need this now,’ he’d say. ‘We actually have a magazine to publish.’ I would write for another two hours or so, then fire off my sloppy copy, sometimes with missing topic sentences flagged by the letters ‘TK.’”

But there are signs of amity on the horizon following this spat. Ten minutes after Kirn sent his initial acerbic email, he sent Off the Record a follow-up with a more concessional tone: “It’s Mr. MacArthur’s magazine,” he wrote. “He has a privileged view of what goes on behind the scenes there as well as the right to speak for people and about people who work for him. I didn’t and don’t.”

And MacArthur told us something that he had left out of his letter to The Journal: Harper’s has been asking Kirn to contribute ever since he left the Easy Chair column. “Both [current editor] Chris Beha and I have made a point in the last three years, since Walter stopped writing his column, to invite him to write for us. He’s had a standing invitation,” MacArthur said. “We thought we left on good terms, and we’ve gone back to him and said, ‘Would you like to write for us? Don’t forget us.’” Asked whether Kirn would be allowed back into the magazine after this heated public exchange, MacArthur said that he would leave that up to the editors but described the magazine’s general principles on forgiveness. “We don’t close the door on anybody forever. It’s not like — remember the play Twentieth Century, co-written by my great-uncle Charles MacArthur? In the movie version, John Barrymore says to his ex-friend, ‘I close the iron door!’ Of course, it’s utter bullshit. So, no, we don’t close the iron door.”

Kirn said Beha’s invitations struck him “as a pro forma diplomatic move in response to my lingering and conspicuous disgruntlement with all that had gone on.” But, in the end, a grudging diplomacy prevailed. “I’ll leave off with a peace offering,” Kirn told Off the Record. “If indeed they welcome my point of view, maybe you’ll see me there again!”