There’s an article worth reading in a recent issue of Areo Magazine. It’s by Izabella Tabarovsky, a former immigrant from the Soviet Union identified as “a scholar with the Kennan Institute (Wilson Center) and contributing writer at Tablet” (see also here).
Click on the screenshot to read the article (from May of this year):
Although the article seems to be about censorship in America and its comparison with the censorship in the U.S.S.R. experienced by Tabarovsky before she came to America, it’s really more about censorship culture: the political and sociological climate in the U.S. that makes people afraid to speak out.
But it begins by comparing Soviet government censorship of books like Doctor Zhivago and The Gulag Archipelago with information “bans” in the U.S., or the downplaying of what Tabarovsky considers important stories by the mainstream media. Official Soviet censorship, says the author, severely stunted her cultural awareness, so when she came to American she began a binge of reading novels, watching movies, and absorbing other information that she couldn’t access in the U.S.S.R., including political information like the nature of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. She’s a lot more aware now and with a much richer background of culture, but still chafes at the American form of censorship:
Over the past year, as I have watched instances of American censorship multiply, and extend to speech, books, movies, opinions and plain facts, memories from those early years of my American life, when I first began to grapple with the consequences of living under censorship, have resurfaced. I have been flabbergasted to watch the staff of publishing houses become enraged over the publication of authors they disagree with, designate those works as harmful and demand that they be “cancelled.” I have been utterly perplexed to discover that some California schools have banned venerable classics such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, because of concerns about their use of racial slurs and stereotypes. Of course, we don’t want children to read racist literature. But believing that these particular works propagate racial hatred requires the same mental contortions that Soviet censors exercised when they laboured so hard to imagine all the ways a work of art might lead citizens astray.
Now you can argue, and Tabarovsky realizes this, that “censorship” by publishers, libraries, and schools isn’t at all like Soviet censorship. After all, children can still get access to these works, though they can’t read them and discuss them in schools. That wasn’t true in the USSR. And while it’s true that some books by American authors simply don’t get published because they’re ideologically unpalatable, there’s always self-publishing, and most “rejected” books eventually get published somewhere. But I think most of us can agree that it’s worth reading the three books she mentions, for they’re only banned for one reason: the use of the “n” word. I strongly believe that they can still be taught with sensitivity and awareness of the racial climate obtaining when these classics were written. Let’s face it: banning these books does not eliminate children’s exposure to racism and racial slurs, and there is much in these novels that is good.
As I said, Tabarovsky realizes the differences between Soviet and American censorship:
Of course, America is not the Soviet Union, and American governmental bodies aren’t the ones doing the censoring. Nor have the clampdowns on dissent been all-encompassing. But they are still enormously effective, partly because so many groups and individuals now depend heavily on privately owned internet platforms to reach their audiences. The conservative social media platform Parler was effectively silenced when Big Tech wiped it off the internet. The New York Post’s audience was massively curtailed when Twitter froze its account in response to its publication of a damaging story about Hunter Biden on the eve of the US presidential election. (Twitter then tagged the story as “harmful” and joined Facebook in preventing people from sharing it.) For a year and a half, people were ridiculed and kicked out of polite company for suggesting that Covid-19 may have originated in a lab in Wuhan as social media muzzled debate on this crucial subject. Today we are learning that this is a highly realistic hypothesis.
Actions like these have far-reaching consequences. Suppressing stories of national significance doesn’t stop them from continuing to develop and affect people’s lives. Soviet censorship didn’t stop Soviet troops from being maimed, murdered and defeated in Afghanistan. The untold stories of Stalin’s repressions came back to haunt us decades later—and still haunt many of us today. American activist journalists and politicians who are now engaged in shaping narratives to benefit their end of the political spectrum should worry that their reading public will later get blindsided, suddenly finding things out that they had previously been prevented from learning. For example, how does it serve the Democrats if those who voted for their candidates continue to believe that last year’s Black Lives Matter protests were “mostly peaceful”—the received dogma that by far outweighed scant reporting on how badly they affected immigrants and minorities? How does it benefit their party to ignore the fact that it is minorities again that are most likely to suffer from the thinning police presence in some cities as a result of those protests? How does it help the Democrats to fail to say out loud that their party’s racialized messages don’t necessarily resonate with members of racial and ethnic minorities? Have they considered that these stories might come to light at a politically inconvenient moment, such as the eve of some future election?
And she still feels that Americans aren’t sufficiently aware of the perils of censorship and “the absolute value of free speech.” With this I agree. During every orientation period of students entering American colleges and universities, or even earlier, there should be a unit on free speech. I am not aware of any of these, though there are plenty of other topics on which new students get indoctrinated, particularly in maters of racial sensitivity and sexual harassment. Those are fine, but please add a bit on the First Amendment or the Chicago Principles!
Here’s another comparison I found instructive, and we all know about stuff like this:
A couple of weeks into last summer’s protests, I got a message on Twitter from someone I followed but had never interacted with. She summarized her (incorrect) assumptions about my political beliefs, then told me that she had scrolled through several weeks of my Twitter feed and noticed that I had failed “to voice outrage about police brutality or the death of yet another unarmed Black individual.” (“Please correct me if I’m wrong,” she added.) She concluded with a brief lecture on the politics of the moment and exhorted me to join her in condemning white supremacy.
This message stunned me. It was the first time since I’d left the USSR that someone had demanded that I engage in ritualistic political expression. In its author’s brash and invasive tone I heard the voice of Soviet communist league activists who believed they had a right to demand that everyone around them march to the same tune. But there was more to it than that. The message felt intimidating. All around me, people were losing jobs, careers and reputations for what was characterised as voicing wrong opinions, sharing wrong content or failing to convey enough enthusiasm for the new, still nameless ideology that was now sweeping through our lives. A long forgotten fear crept up my spine. My great-grandfather had been murdered by the NKVD in 1941 because of four short phrases he’d used over the course of eight months, which a friend reported to the police. I knew how easy it was to weave together a destructive narrative about a person using disparate pieces of information.
Tabarovsky’s first instinct was to explain herself and apologize, to reveal that she was a Jew and wrote about the Holocaust, which are her bona fides, but she decided that wasn’t the way to go: she was not going to let herself live in fear.
Her message becomes clearer when she goes after “cancel culture”, using as an example the attack on Steve Pinker that I wrote about in July of last year, when a big group of people circulated a petition to strip Steve Pinker of his honor of being a fellow of the Linguistics Society of America. That petition is still online, and has now been signed by 638 academics. But as I showed in my post about this fracas, the entire mess was generated by a few Pecksniffs, out for blood, taking five tweets and one passage from Pinker’s work out of context and distorting the whole shebang to make him look like a racist and sexist. He is neither. And of course that campaign went nowhere.
At least the signatories gave their names, but, as Tabarovsky reports, the New York Times approached the signers, including some well known people, and nobody wanted to comment on the record. This is from the NYT article:
The origin of the letter remains a mystery. Of 10 signers contacted by The Times, only one hinted that she knew the identity of the authors. Many of the linguists proved shy about talking, and since the letter first surfaced on Twitter on July 3, several prominent linguists have said their names had been included without their knowledge.
Clearly a bunch of yellowbellies—at least the ones who did sign the document. Now Pinker notes that, as a tenured Harvard Professor, he’s not in any danger. It’s not people like Pinker whom we’re kvetching about being “canceled”. Instead, it’s the 62% of Americans who “say the political climate these days prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.” How can we have a national discourse, how can we engage in discussion of sensitive issues—which are often the most important ones—if nearly two out of three people are cowed into silence?
Tabarovsky is confident that “censorship culture” will come to an end, as it largely has in Russia. I’m not as sanguine, for I want it to end in my lifetime, and I don’t have long before the Earth reclaims my clay.
In the meantime, Tabarovsky does have some good advice, based on her experience in the USSR, on how to combat the climate of censorship:
So it is on all of us to do what we can to resist this culture, no matter how pervasive and intimidating it feels.
How can you do this? Master your fear: if you are reading this from the US or elsewhere in the democratic west, remember that you are a free person living in a free country. Become well informed: read across the aisle. Question everything—especially if it comes from a source whose ideology is close to your heart. Assume that the other side holds grains of truth—and look for them. Add shades of grey to your thinking on every issue. Align your speech with your true self: resist falling into lockstep. Refuse to speak in slogans. Do not say things you don’t mean. Say only things that are true for you in the moment. Do not let others dictate what you should think or feel. And, for heaven’s sake, sign only those group letters that you are ready to defend personally, and on the record.
I’ll add this: USE YOUR REAL NAME. Stand behind the things you say by showing who said them. It is cowardly to to sign group letters anonymously.