The Courage of Our Convictions
The values of a free society are under threat. The time to defend them is now.
The core values of a free society are more imperiled now than they have been at any point since World War II.
The primary threat to liberal democracy is posed by the populist right. From Brasilia to Warsaw and from Delhi to Washington, authoritarian populists are attacking free speech, stoking the ugliest passions of bigots and racists, and concentrating power in their own hands. To safeguard the great cultural and political progress of the past half century, those of us who believe in the values of a free society need to rise to the fight of a lifetime.
At the very moment when it would be most important for those who oppose an emboldened far-right to speak with confidence and conviction, these same values are losing their luster among significant parts of the left. Companies and cultural institutions fire innocent people for imaginary offenses; prominent voices alternate between defending cancel culture and denying its existence; and an astonishing number of academics and journalists proudly proclaim that it is time to abandon values like due process and free speech.
It would be easy, and not altogether wrong, to point the finger of blame for the erosion of democracy at its sworn enemies. But the truth is that part of the reason why these values are vulnerable is that so many of their defenders have themselves fallen short.
Too often, those of us who are committed to a free society lack convincing answers to pressing political questions, including the persistent disparities of race and class. Too often, those of us who seek to defend democracy against its enemies are deeply enmeshed in an establishment that gives people good reason to rebel against it. And too often, those of us who seek to mount a case for philosophically liberal values do so in an overly apologetic or unimaginative way.
This is why I have grown convinced that we need to build a new community of thinkers, activists, and citizens that is committed to defending and reinvigorating the values of a free and fair society. That is the goal of Persuasion.
A remarkable collection of prominent writers, activists, and intellectuals has already pledged to form the core of this community. We will publish regular articles that will help to refine and embolden our commitment to a free society. And we have already planned some amazing events and book clubs that will allow members of this new community to debate the most important issues of the day—and build friendships with other people who are deeply passionate about this cause along the way.
So please join our community if you, too, share our founding values:
We seek to build a free society in which all individuals get to pursue a meaningful life irrespective of who they are.
We believe in the importance of the social practice of persuasion, and are determined to defend free speech and free inquiry against all its enemies.
We seek to persuade, rather than to mock or troll, those who disagree with us.
A free society is worth fighting for. And the best time to start is now.
Persuasion is both a publication and a gathering space. Please sign up now to receive regular articles from me and some of the world’s leading writers directly into your inbox. Even better, become a paying subscriber to gain access to our exciting live events and book clubs.
You can learn more about our articles, podcasts, live events, and book clubs on our about page.
Finally, please take a moment to meet our distinguished Board of Advisors and other members of the team.
Thank you for the work in creating Persuasion. I have put a question about the project in this comment, and would love to see an FAQ where questions could be posted.
I signed up for Persuasion for two reasons. The first is I ideologically agree with your thesis and ideology. I like to read ideas that agree with my model of the world.
The second is more worrying. I felt I had to support the project because other similarly "liberal" publications have become first and foremost about winning the culture war. In that goal, they seem to be slowly throwing away their limiting principles, and doing and saying whatever they can to win.
You are someone who I have seen trying to thread this needle. Both holding the liberal position without throwing away values I see as fundamental to the position. I believe in you, and that has been enough of a reason for me to give my own money.
But what are your plans to allow Persuasion to maintain this position? What processes and incentives will you put in place to prevent the organization from being pulled towards "winning the culture war"? This answer may be as simple as "hire the right people", but I worry this may not be enough.
One example of a process could be asking people to sign up for longer subscription cycles. This allows people to not be able to immediately cancel when they get an emotional rush. Another could be having explicit counter argument essays, forcing people to confront the strongest positions against the liberal position (and there are many).
Thank you for your work,
>>> all individuals get to pursue a meaningful life irrespective of who they are.
With respect, politely, and hopefully persuasively, I will suggest that this is a grossly inadequate core value. It is actually just a statement of fact. All individuals, even those imprisoned in poverty, or actually in prison, are free to pursue a meaningful life. And society has no obligation to make outcomes equal - to make everyone a millionaire. But one of the most critical problems in our society is that a huge fraction of our populace does not have a reasonable prospect of success in pursuing a meaningful, happy, fulfilled life because of conditions outside their control - the relative wealth of their parents, their race, their ethnicity, their gender or orientation, etc. I have joined because I think I understand where you are trying to go, and I am willing to support well-intentioned efforts even if I am not in agreement with every detail. But if you want to keep me long-term, I'll have to be convinced that the group's core values include crafting a society where all individuals are not just "free to pursue" but have a reasonable opportunity to actually *achieve* a life of meaning, happiness and reasonable material success. Historically (and you do a good job of making this point) liberal society has extolled the values of freedom, free thought, intellectual debate while turning a blind eye to inequalities of opportunity. One of the great challenges of our age is how to continue to promote these liberal values, but to refuse to accept that the price of these values is a society without equal opportunity. "Free speech" is a wonderful value to have when your stomach is full, when your child can go to college, when your dad can get the surgery he needs. If your children do not have the opportunity to live a meaningful life, cannot get into or afford good higher education, and are systematically oppressed, "free speech" is really pretty worthless. To be clear, I believe in a fairly absolutist version of free speech. But it't not enough for a society to guarantee everyone free speech if we can't also guarantee they have a chance of achieving whatever they consider the good life to be.