On the trend to “depublish” books

June 8, 2021 • 9:15 am

A new article in the Guardian provides a useful summary—though not much new information—about how publishing companies are beginning to refuse to publish books, or are pressured to refuse them, that are written by the Unsavory, with that group generally determined not by the older editors but by younger workers at publishing houses. Click on the screenshot to read:


Here are some canceled books, books published over staff objection, or authors who refused to publish with companies that put out books by the Unsavory.  I don’t by any means agree that all these books should have been published, but in general I think that a good publisher will put out a range of topics and views, some of which they don’t agree with. There is no right of “free speech” when it comes to publishing manuscripts, but in general if a book is interesting and will stimulate discussion, and will sell at least reasonably well, it should be published. Many publishers put out books they know won’t recoup the advances as a public service, hoping that the big best sellers will compensate for the losses.

  • Milo Yiannopoulos’s book dropped by Simon & Schuster
  • Simon & Schuster agree to publish Mike Pence’s book over staff objections
  • Ronan Farrow stopped publishing with Hachette when the company announced it would publish Woody Allen’s memoirs (they were later picked up by another company)
  • Hachette’s impritng Little, Brown canceled a contract with Julie Burchill (the cause: her “Islamophobic tweets”)

Here are a few quotes from the article that I found intriguing:

First, how the system usually works, as described by an anonymous junior editor:

“Editors have the privilege of predominantly working on books that they have chosen – if they’re doing their job properly, they should feel confident in their acquisition. Assistant editors and editorial assistants don’t often have that privilege,” she says. “There’s a difference between working on a book that you think is a bit rubbish and working on a book that you find repulsive, that makes you angry, or genuinely upsets you. This framing of ‘young people should work on books that they hate’ seems so stupid and reductive to me. Do we just have to wait for all the people making dodgy editorial decisions with no integrity to retire?”

Another junior staffer said they were “slightly bemused by the fact that freedom of speech is so often being equated with the right to a book contract”, adding: “Those in senior positions are forgetting that there is surely a duty of care to their staff that must be considered when asking them to work on books by authors with views that might potentially directly oppose their identity and existence”.

My response would be that, as a junior editor, you always have the right to point out what you consider offensive to your boss. But your boss makes the decision, and if you are so hurt by the “violence” of a proposed book, you should work for another publisher.

And some changes about what is considered offensive:

The truth is, publishers have always walked this tightrope. “Publishers, while knowing that controversy sells, have always exercised the right to reject problematic books,” says Rupert Heath of Dean Street Press, pointing to “innumerable cases of publishers refusing to publish a book, from Schuster with Sheer, to HarperCollins cancelling Chris Patten’s contract over his book’s anti-China line in 1998, at a time when Murdoch was seeking a deal in China. In a recent episode of her podcast, bookcareers.com founder Suzanne Collier recalled working in a junior sales role on David Hamilton’s 1995 controversial photography book, The Age of Innocence. Collier and other staff raised concerns with management over the age of girls included in the book, but the book was still published.

But social media means concerned voices can be louder, and can find strength in numbers through petitions and open letters. “This has always been around, but I believe it’s grown in visibility,” Collier says.

Heath agrees: “The big difference we see now is in publishing staff, in many cases relatively junior staff, trying to dictate company policy, using their influence to block the publication of books already commissioned by their own firms – this is something, as far as I know, without long-term precedent in publishing history.”

The Pence memoir, Heath believes, “will be an important test case – if it is withdrawn, it could open the floodgates for similar action. And in the wake of BLM, #MeToo and other recent, empowering social movements, publishing executives may increasingly feel it behoves them to fall into line with the wishes of their staff.”

Much as I don’t want to read Pence’s memoirs, and won’t, I think they should be published for the historical record. After all, they’re still publishing Mein Kampf, even in Germany, for similar reasons. It would be sad if senior editors started capitulating to their offended or woke staff, for that would lead to the homogenization of literature ( most publishing staff are liberals).


h/t: Ginger K.

John McWhorter favors affirmative action, but based not on race but on disadvantage, not race; also says that there’s little evidence that racial diversity improves schools and education

June 3, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Every time I say I favor affirmative action for minorities as a form of reparations, someone makes a counterargument that makes me examine my position. I haven’t changed it, but this new piece by John McWhorter, while also favoring affirmative action, favors affirmation based not on race but on “disadvantage, not melanin.” Further, he argues that diversity as an “innate good” that improves universities turns out to be an unproven assumption, and in fact has been disproven, depending on your definition of “improves”. Only a black man could get away with writing such a column, but it does make one rethink one’s views, and points to some research that I didn’t know about.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here are McWhorter’s two points, and his quotes are indented.

1.) Affirmative action should be based on the disadvantages faced by a student, not by their ethnicity. Fifty years ago race-based affirmative action was a useful thing; now it’s not.

I do not oppose Affirmative Action. I simply think it should be based on disadvantage, not melanin. It made sense – logical as well as moral – to adjust standards in the wake of the implacable oppression of black people until the mid-1960s.

When Affirmative Action began in the 1960s, largely with black people in mind, the overlap between blackness and disadvantage was so large that the racialized intent of the policy made sense. Most black people lived at or below the poverty line. Being black and middle class was, as one used to term it, “fortunate.” Plus, black people suffered open discrimination regardless of socioeconomic status, in ways for more concrete than microaggressions and things only identifiable via Implicit Association Testing and the like. In a sense, black people were all in the same boat.

Luckily, Affirmative Action worked. By the 1980s, it was no longer unusual or “fortunate” to be black and middle class. I would argue that by that time, it was time to reevaluate the idea that anyone black should be admitted to schools with lowered standards. I think Affirmative Action today should be robustly practiced — but on the basis of socioeconomics.

A common objection is that this would help too many poor whites (as if that’s a bad thing?). But actually, brilliant and non-partisan persons have argued that basing preferences on socioeconomics would actually bring numbers of black people into the net that almost anyone would be satisfied with.

I’m no odd duck on my sense that Affirmative Action being about race had passed its sell-by date after about a generation. At this very time, it had become clear, to anyone really looking, that the black people benefitting from Affirmative Action were no longer mostly poor – as well as that simply plopping truly poor black people into college who had gone to awful schools had tended not to work out anyway. It was no accident that in 1978 came the Bakke decision, where Justice Lewis Powell inaugurated the new idea that Affirmative Action would serve to foster “diversity,” the idea being that diversity in the classroom made for better learning.

McWhorter has a point, for “black” or “Hispanic” is almost automatically acquainted with “disadvantaged” these days, but the correlation is not perfect. However, if you conceive of affirmative action as reparations for centuries of race-based oppression, as I do, then “disadvantage” becomes less important, as there are advantages in divers in sociopolitical views, life experiences and the chance to know people from different backgrounds that provide compensatory advantages. Whether this warrants McWhorter’s recommended change in affirmative action is a question above my pay grade. Remember, the Bakke case approved a form of non-quota affirmative action based on the inherent advantages of racial diversity, not as a form of reparations.

2.) But does affirmative action really “make for better learning”? McWhorter says that the evidence is thin. And again, I must plead ignorance of the literature and let you follow McWhorter’s references. He does cite one recent case that seemed to show a genuine educational advantage to diversity, but rushes past it, counterbalancing the data with other references claiming to show that diversity has no substantive effect. To wit:

Of late, we hear that when standards are “adjusted” to be more “holistic” (ahem) to get more black law students editing law schools’ law review journals, the journals’ articles are cited more widely – i.e. that diversity among the editors creates a better publication. This is a weird result but we must accept it – while still asking whether even this justifies basing Affirmative Action on “diversity” overall. Law review editorship is but one thing. How will diversity enhance learning how to do differential quotients or mastering the mechanics of immunology?

Our question is whether diversity is important enough, to enough classes, to justify lowering standards for black kids. To never really ask that question is terribly, terribly fake, and is much of why the nation never comes to any real conclusion about Affirmative Action despite endless starry-eyed perorations about diversity.

And his data:

Students themselves do not seem to find diversity terribly important to their classroom experience. Minority graduates of the University of Michigan law school from 1970 to 1996 were surveyed as to what aspects of their education they most valued. Of the seven aspects given as choices, “ethnic diversity of classmates” was at the bottom. Mitchell J. Chang examined whether diversity affected GPA, social self-image, intellectual self-image, likelihood of graduating, general satisfaction, whether one talked about race, and whether one spent time with people of different races. Surprise – only the last two mattered. The first five are the kind of thing diversity is supposedly so good for – but this study showed that they apparently aren’t. Stanley Rothman, Seymour Lipset and Neil Nevitte showed that on 140 campuses, the more diversity there was, the less satisfied students were with their college experience.

So maybe the idea is that these students are just naïve, or closet racists, or closet self-haters if black, and we must impose diversity upon them as a kind of medicine because it makes them learn better? But the thing is, it does not seem to. Alexander Astin compared degree of racial diversity with grades, test scores, graduation rates and admission to graduate programs at 184 schools. Diversity had no effect on these things.

Or, remember when the University of Michigan was on the griddle about racial preferences for undergraduates and in its law school twenty years ago? You might recall a certain “Gurin Report” that supposedly proved that diversity enhances learning. There was an Amen chord on the soundtrack whenever this Gurin Report was brought up. But did you ever actually read the thing? It was, frankly, a joke.

It asked students whether they exhibited 11 traits which, in fact, no sentient member of human society would disavow having — such as whether they thought about the influence of society on other people, whether they thought they had a greater desire to achieve than the average person their age, etc. Patricia Gurin scored positive answers as evidence that “diversity” had made the subjects “better students.”

The National Association of Scholars rightly answered:

Nowhere in society – not in graduate school admissions, college rankings, job recruitment – do we measure a student’s academic success by asking him how much he personally values artistic works or whether he enjoys guessing the reason for people’s behavor. Very few parents would be likely to accept a transcript that reported not grades but their child’s self-rating of his abilities and drive to achieve.

And finally, black undergrads regularly bridle at the idea that they are on campus to be “diverse.” I recall a good line in an undergrad-penned Black Guide to Life at Harvard a generation ago — “We are not here to provide diversity training for Kate or Timmy before they go out to take over the world.” Yes, that was a while ago, but black students’ feelings about this have not changed about who we might now call Chloe and Jacob.

I’m not sure that last paragraph makes sense, as black students want to be on campus not to be a component of “diversity”, but because they feel they deserve to be there. Yes, we often hear minorities say that they don’t want to enact the “emotional labor of anti-racism—though they don’t seem to tire of that readily—but that’s irrelevant to McWhorter’s point.

McWhorter’s article didn’t change my mind, though I can see that one could add to affirmative action a “hardship” score independent of race. I think some schools already do that, using criteria based on poverty, first-generation status as college students in a family, and so on.

McWhorter’s book, to be published by Portfolio, will be out October 26; click on the screenshot to see the Amazon site.

Dawkins converses with Tyson

May 30, 2021 • 9:30 am

Here’s a 54-minute conversation, one on one, with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins. The title is “Combatting Anti-Science with Richard Dawkins,” but the conversation goes further than this. There’s no need for me to summarize the discussion between these two well known science writers, so I’ll just highlight a few points.

Tyson first blurbs Richard’s new book, called Books Do Furnish a Life: An Electrifying Celebration of Science Writing (link to Amazon site), a collection of Richard’s book reviews and other miscellaneous pieces. I must read it, and I’m told one of the chapters is a review of my book Why Evolution is True (this is my blurb). Richard also reveals that he has two more books on the way, one about flight called Flights of Fancy; he doesn’t reveal the other one.  Tyson, who, curiously, says that he’s read only three of Richard’s 30-odd books (he names them) asks which of them was the best selling volume. I bet you can guess.

They discuss how their writing has changed, and what tips they’d give other sciences writers (Tyson’s revelation is “most people don’t read”, which conditions how he writes). Tyson also tells us why he follows his own social media, despite it often being toxic.

They then change to the topic of reason, with Tyson asking Dawkins about how he persuades people whose views aren’t based on reason. They discuss their differing views about how to deal with religion. Tyson has always been more of an accommodationist, while Richard, who’s an explicit anti-theist, is peeved because he thinks that even if people don’t inflict their religious views on others, they are depriving themselves of missing out on the true wonders of the world, including the Big Bang and evolution.

Other questions that come up:

Can you be religious and a secular humanist at the same time?

Can you base ethics on secular humanism?

Why are people religious?

Is religiosity really decreasing, or is it being replaced by stuff like woo?

Note that at 32:25, Tyson says that there’s evidence that “ducks can be superstitious”. Actually, it’s not ducks but pigeons, and you may know about this “superstitious” behavior involved with pigeon treats and Skinner boxes.

Things slow down a bit after 40 minutes, but at 52 minutes Tyson asks Richard to reprise his epitaph, which is apparently the last section of Books Do Furnish a Life. You won’t be surprised, and I won’t reveal it, but it’s a take on Dawkins’s view about how lucky we are to be alive, which you may have seen in his books.

Voilà: the discussion:

h/t: Bryan

McWhorter’s book is done and in press: he calls it “the most pro-black book” he’s ever written

May 24, 2021 • 2:45 pm

As John McWhorter just announced on his website (click on screenshot), his book on anti-racism as a religion enacted by “The Elect” is in press. Click on the screenshot to read:

Here’s part of McWhorter’s announcement:

[The] manuscript will be released as a book by Portfolio (also a Penguin Random House imprint) in October. It will be published under a new title: Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.

I should mention that the often sharp and insightful subscriber comments, as well as the brilliant editorial counsel of Bria Sandford at Portfolio, have already made Woke Racism significantly different from the The Elect excerpts. Woke Racism will express what the Substack excerpts did and then some. It will still analyze Third-Wave Antiracism as a religion. It will still make legions of black people see me as a race traitor. It will still make legions of white people see me as a tragically deluded white supremacist with brown skin who merits dismissal and ostracization.

And amidst all of that, it will still represent what I consider the most pro-black book I have ever written.

But this does mean that from now on, my Substack “newsletter” will be exactly that. I am glad many of you have enjoyed my posts here beyond the The Elect excepts, and they will continue, at the rate of once or twice (and I hope, more often, twice) a week. I have loved communicating to you as well as the feedback I get. Let’s keep this going.

Only: get “The Elect” as a real book, Woke Racism, around Halloween. Here, get my take on things as they happen, unfiltered.

I’ve read the excerpts so far, and am sure it’ll do fantastically well, bought by people on the fence, anti-racists who want to see what they’re up against, and, of course, bigots themselves, who will see in McWhorter not his genuine attempt to forge true equality between groups, but a denigration of African-Americans.

Pence book deal opposed by Simon & Schuster employees, company tells protestors to get stuffed

May 24, 2021 • 1:00 pm

There are three reasons for publishing companies to put out books by political or public figures who are widely disliked. The first is that these figures may have something to say that illuminates history or other areas, regardless of who they are. Mein Kampf is such an example, for it pretty much laid out the political agenda that Hitler later enacted.

Second, these books are often big sellers, bringing in profits that allow companies to publish substantial books that may not sell as well. Many companies are committed to publishing books that they know won’t turn a profit, because they’re proud of bringing out good work. One of these companies is my own publisher, Viking/Penguin/Random House.

And not least important is freedom of the press. People should be allowed access to books written by people who are widely hated. How else can we see what they really believe (or say they believe)?  While rejection of a book by a publisher doesn’t violate the First Amendment, many publishers are deeply committed to free discussion, and enact that view by publishing books on a wide and diverse range of topics.

All of these reasons apply to Simon & Schuster’s decision to publish the two-voume memoirs of former VP Mike Pence. The reaction, which is more or less what you might expect, is described in this Wall Street Journal Article (click on screenshot).

I mentioned this in April, but there’s more now.

Of course there was an immediate petition, signed by over 200 members of the staff (14% of the total) along with 3,500 other outraged people, all demanding that the memoir deal be canceled.  An earlier WSJ article gave some content of the petition:

The petition accused Mr. Pence of advocating for policies that were racist, sexist and discriminatory toward LGBT people, among other criticisms of his tenure as a public official. The petition also calls on Simon & Schuster to cut off a distribution relationship with Post Hill Press, a publisher of conservative books as well as business and pop culture titles.

And this article adds a bit more:

Publishing the book, some staffers said at the session, would be a betrayal of the company’s promises to oppose bigotry and make minority employees feel safe.

It is the familiar argument that publishing memoirs like this makes employees feel “unsafe” that make me think those employees are, well, lying. It is surely, at least in large part, pretend harm and pretend “unsafeness.” Seriously, can you imagine any employee coming to work the day after Pence’s memoirs come out, crying and shaking at their desks? Unsafe? Unsafe how, exactly.

There’s a bit more.

It said Mr. Pence advocated for policies that were racist, sexist and discriminatory, and that publishing the book would be “legitimizing bigotry.”

No, because publication of a book by a reputable press does not equate to endorsement of what’s in the book (and at any rate this book will be fact-checked).

To the credit of the company, its CEO, Jonathan Karp, pushed back and refused to cancel the deal:

In an interview, Mr. Karp said he respects that some employees have a moral objection to the memoir deal, but that the company is committed to publishing a broad range of views. “We don’t want to be a niche publisher,” he said. “The former vice president who got 74 million votes is representative of a broad range of people.”

He said Mr. Pence’s role in one of the most tumultuous periods of U.S. history will make for compelling reading. More broadly, he said, the publisher can treat its employees with respect and also publish authors with views they find anathema. “Those two realities don’t have to be in conflict,” he said.

And that is true, but the protesting chowderheads seem to be oblivious to the point. What they want, pure and simple, is censorship: they want NOBODY to publish Pence’s memoirs because they supposedly “legitimize” his views. This is what I mean when I call such people the Authoritarian Left.

Thank Ceiling Cat for publishers like Karp who have principles (and of course there’s also a bottom line to consider), and who refuse to cave in to employees on the specious grounds that a publisher tacitly agrees with the content of all the books it publishes. I have news for you: most publishers want quality books and books that sell, and aren’t trying to propagandize the public.

h/t: Ginger K.

Richard Dawkins’s new book

May 8, 2021 • 12:00 pm

Reader Luke sent me this notice, and no, I didn’t know of Richard’s new book. The cover is below along with the Amazon blurb, to wit:

Including conversations with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley and more, this is an essential guide to the most exciting ideas of our time and their proponents from our most brilliant science communicator. Books Do Furnish a Life is divided by theme, including celebrating nature, exploring humanity, and interrogating faith. For the first time, it brings together Richard Dawkins’ forewords, afterwords and introductions to the work of some of the leading thinkers of our age – Carl Sagan, Lawrence Krauss, Jacob Bronowski, Lewis Wolpert – with a selection of his reviews to provide an electrifying celebration of science writing, both fiction and non-fiction. It is also a sparkling addition to Dawkins’ own remarkable canon of work.

Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site:

Luke also wrote this and sent me a screenshot:
You may know this already, but Richard Dawkins’ new book Books Do Furnish A Life was published yesterday (in the UK at least). I was delighted to see that the last chapter before the epilogue is his glowing review of WEIT!
You can see Richard’s entire review of my book, called “Heat the Hornet” at this link. And don’t think I wasn’t immensely pleased with his encomiums!

Philip Roth’s biography pulped after its author is accused of sexual assault

May 2, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Well known author Blake Bailey‘s new biography of Philip Roth, which has received great reviews, has been pulled from sale by publisher W. W. Norton, though I notice it’s still on Amazon. If you still want to read it after you read this post, best to get it now, as the publisher, W. W. Norton, has decided to stop selling it.  The story can be read in the New York Times or, in shorter form, at the Washington Post Book Club page (click on the screenshots below):

The explanation from the NYT:

Now, allegations against Mr. Bailey, 57, have emerged, including claims that he sexually assaulted two women, one as recently as 2015, and that he behaved inappropriately toward middle school students when he was a teacher in the 1990s.

His publisher, W.W. Norton, took swift and unusual action: It said on Wednesday that it had stopped shipments and promotion of his book. “These allegations are serious,” it said in a statement. “In light of them, we have decided to pause the shipping and promotion of ‘Philip Roth: The Biography’ pending any further information that may emerge.”

Norton, which initially printed 50,000 copies of the title, has stopped a 10,000-copy second printing that was scheduled to arrive in early May. It has also halted advertising and media outreach, and events that Norton arranged to promote the book are being canceled. The pullback from the publisher came just days after Mr. Bailey’s literary agency, The Story Factory, said it had dropped him as a client.

Bailey denies the allegations, calling them “categorically false and libelous”. One of them is a flat-out rape accusation, the others involve him “grooming” or behaving inappropriately towards middle school students.

Now normally I would say that accusations alone are not sufficient to warrant this step: there must be either a conviction or convincing evidence. The presumption of innocence still applies. And, after all, publishers all have a “morals clause” in their contract that allow them to extricate themselves if an author is guilty of gross transgressions, even if not criminally convicted.  But absent a conviction, I’d normally say, “it’s not time to pulp the book yet.”

BUT.  . . .

There does seem to be something more here than a mere accusation. One involves an email that Bailey sent to Eve Peyton, the woman who accused him of rape when she was a graduate student at another school. And this doesn’t look good for Bailey:

In an email reviewed by The Times, Mr. Bailey apologized to Ms. Peyton for his behavior days after the encounter, and asked her not to speak to others about it. She last heard from him in the summer of 2020, when Mr. Bailey wrote her again, in a message also reviewed by The Times, in which he alluded to “the awfulness on that night 17 years ago” and said he was suffering from mental illness at the time.

If I saw that email, and I take the Times‘s word for its authenticity, that would be enough for me, for it’s a tacit admission of guilt. A conviction isn’t needed if there’s an admission.

In the end, then, I don’t see this as censorship based on a mere accusation, but a fairly credible accusation, and I think Norton did the right thing. (They’ve also said they’ve paused selling the book, leaving open the door that if he were exculpated, sales would resume.)

Others may disagree with me and argue that even the worst criminal’s book should be published if it contains something in it worth reading. There is, after all Mein Kampf, by one of the worst mass murderers in history (granted, Hitler doesn’t get royalties, but the book also provides an insight into a historical figure). Likewise, Bailey’s book is supposed to be a good account of Roth’s life and work. Should it be removed from sale because of the author’s criminality?  Surely the author should not be allowed to profit from his work if he did indeed do what he’s accused of, just as O. J. Simpson cannot profit from his creepy book If I Did It, for the proceeds go by law to the Goldman family.

Upshot: I would do what W. W. Norton did, but there should be some way to make Bailey’s work available to scholars and the public if he’s found to be guilty or is credibly guilty. I can’t envision scholarship being “disappeared” completely.

Any ideas?

A time-travel game

April 26, 2021 • 11:00 am

I was reading Anthony Grayling’s new (2019) history of philosophy last night. I’m only 70 pages in, and had to plow through all those boring pre-Socratic philosophers (he deals at the end with philosophy outside the Western tradition), but Anthony is smart enough and a good enough writer to make it all interesting. I’m looking forward to reading all 500-odd pages (click below to see the Amazon link):

And while I was reading about the early conception of atoms, I fantasizd about going back and telling people like Democritus that yes, there are atoms, but they are different from what he thought they were, and that they combined in molecules, and so on.  And then I thought about how much I could impart to the ancient Greeks if I had just one day to tell them what we’d learned by the 21st century. But then I realized that it would be useless, for I don’t speak ancient Greek and they wouldn’t understand English. It would be a futile exercise, and they’d probably kill me as a demon. Besides, there’s that effect of altering the future by imparting such stuff, an effect that was the subject of a science-fiction story I read as a kid but whose name I can’t recall.

But I also thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to be in the agora in Athens and actually see Socrates engaged in a dialogue with someone?” He was described by Grayling as ugly, snub-nosed, and with bulging eyes, but I’d want to see that for myself. And I’d want to see Pericles and the whole of Athens in full flower. I’d love 24 hours in Athens around 440 B.C.

And so I propose a game, similar to one I’ve proposed before, but this one restricted to human history. Here are the rules:

1.) You are given 24 hours to be any place in the world during human history, but you have to specify a place and a date (or an event). You cannot go further back than ancient Egypt.

2.) You will be invisible, so you can run around at will and observe everything, but you cannot interact or communicate with anyone.

3.) You cannot have a tape recorder or a camera, but you are allowed a notebook and a pen to record what you want. You will not be able to understand the language unless you’ve learned it beforehand or already know it.

4.) At the end, you’re transported back to the present.

There are two ways to regard your journey: as a way to gather information about the past that is missing to historians, or as a way to satisfy your own curiosity. What you do is up to you.

Now think of all the choices! Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (how did his voice sound?). The death of Julius Caesar! Charles Darwin, either on the Beagle or at home in Downe. Watch Michelangelo paint the dome of the Sistine Chapel. See Shakespeare at work! The possibilities are endless.

Think about this for a few minutes, and put your answer below. Although I’m drawn to Darwin, I couldn’t talk to him but could only see and hear him. And the idea of seeing Socrates (would I be able to know who he is?) still entices me. . . .


Short take on a book: Dennett vs. Caruso in “Just Deserts”

April 19, 2021 • 10:15 am

This is not a book for everyone, for it’s rather hard-core philosophy (albeit written in an accessible way), and is about one question: do we have free will or not? Since a lot of us have engaged in free-will debates here over the years, it’s appropriate for many of us. I’m really glad I read it.

And so to the Rumble in the Ivory Tower:

In one corner is Gregg Caruso, described on his page as “Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Corning, Visiting Fellow at the New College of the Humanities (NCH London), and Honorary Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University. He is also Co-Director of the Justice Without Retribution Network housed at the University of Aberdeen School of Law.”

In the other corner is Dan Dennett, whom most of us know; he’s “the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University.”

Both men have published extensively on free will. Caruso is a self-described “free will skeptic”; he thinks that because none of us can control our actions in a way that would change what we do at any given moment, we are not morally responsible for our acts, though we are “answerably responsible” or “causally responsible”. That is, if we do something good or bad, then we must be held accountable by society for our act in some way. Caruso adheres to a “pubic health” model of punishment: if you transgress, you are quarantined for possible cure and to keep you from hurting other people. You are not quarantined to deter others, as we don’t do that with carriers of infectious diseases. Ergo Gregg doesn’t see deterrence as a valid reason for “punishment” (or “quarantine”).  Caruso also sees no concept of “free will” that makes any sense, much less the historical one of “dualistic” free will—the one in which at any time we could have willed our choices and behaviors to be other than what we chose.

Dennett, like Caruso, is a determinist, agreeing that at any moment we have no free choice about what we do. However, he believes in a form of free will different from the traditional one; a form that, he argues, is the only kind of free will worth wanting. He thus sees his form of free will as compatible with determinism, so he’s a “compatibilist.”

What is Dennett’s form of free will? For him “freedom” consists of what we do when we’re members of the “Moral Agents Club”: that group of citizens who have been properly brought up and are responsive to reason and guidance by other responsible people. So for Dan, though free will isn’t “free” in the traditional sense, he sees it as “the concept of responsible, reliable self-control.”  In other words, people do things—make “choices”, if you will—that conform to the strictures of society. And so Dan says members of the Club have “moral responsibility.”

The screenshot below links to the Amazon order site.

I’ll briefly describe the Battle of the Heavyweights. You already know whose side I’m on! But let me say first that I greatly enjoyed the book, as it shows two top-notch philosophers arguing about a topic dear to my heart, and although the back and forth is civil (it’s a conversation, with each person writing between a paragraph and a few pages before the other person responds), it’s also hard-nosed, with each man querying and parrying the other, trying to find holes in their defense. 

As the title says, the argument is about “Just Deserts”, which to Dan means that people deserve to be praised or blamed for their actions because those actions are taken in a state of moral responsibility. Gregg sees no real reason for people to deserve their praise or blame, and so praise and blame must be allotted according to whether these actions help society or not (with some limitations). Blame should be limited, though, as it’s not really deserved; and “quarantine” rather than moral shaming is the best way to proceed.

In general, both Caruso and Dennett are consequentialists: they think the system of reward and (especially) punishment are largely justified by the consequences these systems have on society. To Dan, punishment is warranted by its effect on sequestering bad people and preventing them from hurting others, by its ability to help effect reformation of the criminal (if that’s possible), and to deter others from committing similar acts. Caruso, however, differs from both Dan and me in arguing that deterrence should not be a goal of punishment, because it uses people as means to control other people’s behavior, which he sees as fundamentally immoral. For example, one might say that in Dan (and my) society, even if someone is innocent of a bad deed that’s been committed, you might want to frame them to deter others from doing that deed. But that doesn’t seem right, does it? My answer would be that the consequences of punishing the innocent would be detrimental in general. But perhaps they need not be! The issue of deterrence is one I’m still thinking over.

So what is the difference between Dan’s views and Gregg’s? Gregg in fact spends almost all his time trying to answer that question, and he presses Dan on whether Dennett’s views are retributivist (which both men abhor: punishing someone simply to get back at them for bad deeds). But Dan sometimes comes close to saying that with his view of “moral responsibility”. At one point, frustrated by Dan’s apparent rapid changes of view during the conversation, Gregg compares Dan to a slippery eel. (There are moments of palpable frustration like this, though both guys behave civilly, like members of Dan’s Moral Agents Club.)

In the end, I would say Gregg won, simply because Dan doesn’t seem to make a good case for people deserving the punishment or praise they get just because they’re member of the “Moral Agents Club”. As Gregg (and I) have pointed out before, you have no choice about whether you’re a member of the Moral Agents Club: circumstances beyond your control have determined whether you are responsive to reasons and adhere to the social contract that makes you “morally responsible.” You might not have had the right upbringing, for instance.  Both Dan and Gregg agree, though, that strenuous prison reform is needed, and largely along similar lines. So to me, the debate either comes down to a difference in semantics or to an opacity of views on Dennett’s part that makes parsing his ideas very difficult.

But it’s great to see these two intellectual heavyweights slug it out. There are no knockouts, but I judge Caruso the winner on points.  And I have to do some thinking about deterrence. Right now I still think that deterrence is a valid aim of punishment.

Regardless of whether you’re a compatibilist or a free-will skeptic (or somewhere in the middle), this book will stimulate your thinking. Do read it if you’re interested in the free-will debate that’s occupied so much of our time. And I really do wish that we could have more debates like this: real back-and-forth conversations in more or less real time. That’s one reason I’m debating Adam Gopnik on whether science or its methods are the only way of gaining knowledge.

Oh, and after you read the book, you can vote on who you think made the best arguments; the voting site is here. Do not vote unless you’ve read the book!

The American Library Association’s “challenged book” list for 2020, censoriousness of the Right, and much more about race and less about LGBTQ issues than previously

April 12, 2021 • 10:00 am

The American Library Association (ALA) issues a yearly list of “most challenged” books: those books that people most often ask to be removed from schools or libraries. This year’s list (2020) showed only about half the number of challenges than the year before, but a much higher concentration of books dealing with racism than with LGTQ issues compared to the 2019 list. This shows that race has not only become a much bigger flashpoint of censorship than sexuality, but that the challenges seem to come largely from the Right, so that the Left has no monopoly on these attempts at censorship.

The ALA keeps track of these requests to demonstrate what people want to censor, though the number of challenges is relatively small (156 last year and 377 in 2019). Further, the ALA suggests that most book challenges—estimates range between 82% and 97% of them—are never reported. Apparently there is no efficient reporting mechanism for these challenges; the ALA says that “lists are based on information from media stories and voluntary reports sent to OIF [the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the ALA] from communities across the U.S.”

Below are the last two lists (with the reasons given for the attempted banning), followed by my assessment of which end of the political spectrum objected.

Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020

Find more shareable statistics on the Free Downloads webpage.

The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 156 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2020. Of the 273 books that were targeted, here are the most challenged, along with the reasons cited for censoring the books:

      1. George by Alex Gino. Reasons: Challenged, banned, and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content, conflicting with a religious viewpoint, and not reflecting “the values of our community”
      2. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds. Reasons: Banned and challenged because of author’s public statements, and because of claims that the book contains “selective storytelling incidents” and does not encompass racism against all people
      3. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, drug use, and alcoholism, and because it was thought to promote anti-police views, contain divisive topics, and be “too much of a sensitive matter right now”
      4. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Reasons: Banned, challenged, and restricted because it was thought to contain a political viewpoint and it was claimed to be biased against male students, and for the novel’s inclusion of rape and profanity
      5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and allegations of sexual misconduct by the author
      6. Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin. Reasons: Challenged for “divisive language” and because it was thought to promote anti-police views
      7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a “white savior” character, and its perception of the Black experience
      8. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and racist stereotypes, and their negative effect on students
      9. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Reasons: Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and depicts child sexual abuse
      10. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Reasons: Challenged for profanity, and it was thought to promote an anti-police message

Of these books, I’d say only two would represent challenges by the Left (To Kill a Mockingbird for use of the “n-word” and Of Mice and Men for “racist stereotypes”). Challenges from the Right would seem to be involved in the other eight, given that their content is anti-racist, anti-police, or pro-LGBTA. Eight of the ten were challenged at least in part because they deal with race, two of them (noted above) for being racist and the other six for, surprisingly, being anti-racist. This represents palpable pushback against anti-racism.

While I’ve read only one of the books singled out for antiracism (The Bluest Eye), I found it not only good, but also not anti-racist of the Critical Theory genre. I of course don’t favor attempts to censor any of these books. All should be available at libraries and schools, though librarians or teachers may want to put age limitations on them. Censorship is never justified, and thank Ceiling Cat for the good librarians who realize that.

Here’s the list from 2019, which is substantially different from last year’s:

Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2019

View the Censorship by the Numbers infographic for 2019

The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 377 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2019. Of the 566 books that were targeted, here are the most challenged, along with the reasons cited for censoring the books:

      1. George by Alex Gino. Reasons: challenged, banned, restricted, and hidden to avoid controversy; for LGBTQIA+ content and a transgender character; because schools and libraries should not “put books in a child’s hand that require discussion”; for sexual references; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint and “traditional family structure”
      2. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin. Reasons: challenged for LGBTQIA+ content, for “its effect on any young people who would read it,” and for concerns that it was sexually explicit and biased
      3. A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss, illustrated by EG Keller. Reasons: challenged and vandalized for LGBTQIA+ content and political viewpoints, for concerns that it is “designed to pollute the morals of its readers,” and for not including a content warning
      4. Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth. Reasons: challenged, banned, and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content; for discussing gender identity and sex education; and for concerns that the title and illustrations were “inappropriate”
      5. Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack, illustrated by Stevie Lewis. Reasons: challenged and restricted for featuring a gay marriage and LGBTQIA+ content; for being “a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate young children” with the potential to cause confusion, curiosity, and gender dysphoria; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint
      6. I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas. Reasons: challenged and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content, for a transgender character, and for confronting a topic that is “sensitive, controversial, and politically charged”
      7. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Reasons: banned and challenged for profanity and for “vulgarity and sexual overtones”
      8. Drama written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier. Reasons: challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and for concerns that it goes against “family values/morals”
      9. Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. Reasons: banned and forbidden from discussion for referring to magic and witchcraft, for containing actual curses and spells, and for characters that use “nefarious means” to attain goals
      10. And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson illustrated by Henry Cole. Reason: challenged and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content

In contrast to last year, 8 of the ten were challenged for their LGBTQ content, almost certainly by the Right (these books clearly are not anti-LGBTQ people!). I’m not sure who would object to The Handmaid’s Tale, but almost certainly the Right because it’s an anti-patriarchal book. And then there’s Harry Potter, a series again is more anathema to the Right than the Left. (Witchcraft and wizardry, oh my!)

Again we see concrete attempts to censor from the Right, showing that, at least in this smallish sample, the Right has its own “cancel culture”.

All of this goes to show that freedom of speech is not an issue of either Right or Left, because both sides, had they the power, show a censorious streak.  It also shows that, probably because of the George Floyd killing, race has come much more to public attention this year, but in this case the reaction has been to call for removal of antiracist books. Again, while I may object to what’s in some of them, I would never call for their banning or removal.

The Guardian‘s article on this year’s list gives more detail about attempts to censor the books. I read it after I drew the conclusions above, but those conclusions are so obvious that the Guardian and I reached them independently:

“Two years ago, eight of 10 books were challenged for LGBTQ concerns,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, OIF director, told School Library Journal. “While George is still No 1, reflecting the challenges to LGBTQ materials that we see consistently these days, there’s been a definite rise in the rhetoric challenging anti-racist materials and ideas … We’re seeing a shift to challenging books that advance racial justice, that discuss racism and America’s history with racism. I think the list is reflecting the conversations that many people in our country are having right now, and it’s a reflection of our rising awareness of the racial injustice and the history of racial injustice in our country.”

Well, it’s more than a reflection of “conversations” and “rising awareness”: it’s an attempt to stifle conversation, especially conversations that call people’s attention to bigotry. We can’t have a conversation if you can’t access books by one side of the issue.

Fie on all these censors; let a thousand books line the library shelves!

h/t: Ginger K