Strawberry Letter #23 is a soul music classic. Brothers Johnson sings the version that I know.

I know every word of this song. I also have no idea in the hell what the song is about.

I had a similar feeling about another letter. You know the one. It is in Harper’s Bazaar recently. Many people signed it. Everyone is talking about it. I will not rehash it here.

I read The Letter. I knew all the words, even the big ones and the very particular ones. At the end of knowing and understanding all the words, I had no idea what the thing was about.

I know a lot about the things The Letter professes to be about: higher education, culture, public life, technology, platforms and discourse. Here is what I can tell you.

There is an entire world of higher education where people are being cancelled and where freedoms are being curtailed. Academic freedom is being strangled by Google mail and Microsoft university contracts and contingent faculty contracts and “skills based” curriculums and “job ready” programs that eschew intellectual inquiry for a million short-term gains. Social justice warriors are the least of our concerns out here in the rest of higher education.

Higher education is more than Yale or Princeton or Brown or Harvard. From out here, we see workers cancelled because they are sick or because they do not have health insurance. You know, cancelled cancelled. The kind where you do not come back.

I also know that for the vast majority of public intellectuals, the real Twitter mobs aren’t the people asking you to use their pronouns. The actual mobs of illiberalism are the millions of accounts, some tied to actual people and others created just to sow discord, that make life a living hell for women in gaming and queer people in public. The platforms created these fake public spaces that are, in reality, market capture. By monetizing the tools of outrage, the social media platforms that are threatening the professional security of our secular faculty — the thinkers, writers, columnists — ended liberalism five software updates ago.

I also know that this is the most diverse and democratic era of U.S. public life that has ever existed, ever. People are speaking for themselves, with different degrees of articulateness, about the issues they care about. This phenomenon can annoy, but it is never a distraction from liberalism. It is the very liberalism that The Letter declares endangered.

These public actions are also more than liberalism. They are radical. That is good because these radical speech acts educated enough people to flood streets in big cities and small towns and exurbs and map dots all over the country for almost two straight months. Actual people have been doing direct democratic action, radicalized by people speaking directly to people. It is messy, and it is better than the alternative where we debate free speech but never use it.

I have been on the internet a long time. Because of this, I know the difference between cancelling and unsubscribing. The Letter is confused about the distinction. It is important. Maybe those folks should spend more time on the internet.

This week on Hear to Slay we talked to Nana Gyamfi about Black immigrants and essential work during COVID. Nana had one of my favorite lines of the season so far: the Census is not therapy. Check Black and work out your feelings about it later. I loved it.

This week, check Black somewhere and just work your feelings about it out later.

I also read the t-total saddest story about a food blog. No, seriously. Something about a woman’s life work being so visible and so vulnerable speaks to me. Someone please save Lynne Olver’s work.

Sociologist. Writer. Professor. MacArthur Fellow. Books, speaking, podcast: