Jon Haidt on a new book, the silence of university leaders, self-censorship, and America’s loss of confidence in higher education

October 19, 2023 • 9:30 am

UPDATE: See a positive review of this new book (as well as a related one by Yacha Mounk) at The Economist.

This week, Jon Haidt’s short Substack piece (click on title screenshot below to read it), does four things: he introduces a new book, explains why University leaders remained largely silent (or waited a few days) before giving public reactions to the Hamas attacks on Israel,  gives some of Jon’s thoughts about why self-censorship has spread beyond the campuses, and shows data indicating that Americans are losing confidence in higher education. I’ll give a brief bit on each of these, with Jon’s words indented.

a. The new book.  The Canceling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott, came out just two days ago, is selling well on Amazon, and has gotten good preliminary reviews. The title is a mirror of Lukianoff’s previous book with Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind, which was quite influential (see my summary here and be sure to read the authors’ Three Great Untruths that have infused modern college students).  This new book is largely about “cancel culture.” Haidt wrote the foreword.

Lukianoff is of course the president of FIRE, and Rikki Schlott is an author, journalist, and podcaster (one of her podcasts on cancel culture is here).

Haidt on the book:

An important book comes out today: The Canceling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff (my co-author for The Coddling of the American Mind) and Rikki Schlott. Greg and Rikki explain the long history of efforts to silence people by threatening them with social death, unemployment, or physical harm for questioning orthodox beliefs or proposing heterodox theories. They show how today’s version of cancel culture, which first arose on American college campuses around 2014, spread out from universities to many other fields including journalism, medicine, psychotherapy, and even the hard sciences. Greg and Rikki show the devastating effects of cancel culture on institutions that require viewpoint diversity to function, with universities being the pre-eminent example. (Cancel culture causes the condition I called “structural stupidity” in a 2022 Atlantic article.) They show how cancel culture takes a different form on the right, running through legislatures that try to dictate what can’t or must be taught in K-12 schools and even at universities.

It’s definitely a book I’ll be reading. A cute gif from Schlott’s site:

b. The curious silence of university leaders. 

The Canceling was a darn good book when I read a draft last spring, in order to write the Foreword for it. It’s an even better book now that the world has been treated to the shocking spectacle of so many university presidents remaining silent, or issuing only vague and cautious comments, in days after the October 7 terrorist attack on Israel. Their collective reticence stood in stark contrast to the speed with which so many had offered expressions of solidarity or shared grief whenever an election or court case went the “wrong” way in the years since 2014. (In general I think universities should embrace the “Chicago Principles” and commit to institutional neutrality. See Jeff Flier’s recent application of these principles to the current situation. But if university leaders made so many pronouncements on “controversial” issues before October 7, then they should have made a strong one on October 8.)

Why did so many leaders take so long to say anything strong or (seemingly) heartfelt about the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the holocaust? Why did so many wait a few days to see which way the wind was blowing before augmenting their initially tepid statements?

I see nothing to suggest antisemitism; I see everything to suggest fear. The kind of fear that Greg and Rikki explore and explain in The Canceling of the American Mind.

. . .  have spoken with many university presidents since 2015. Most of them have good academic values. They are trying hard to lead institutions that are becoming “ungovernable,” as one president said to me. I have also spoken with the leaders of museums, professional associations, and non-profit organizations. They face the same challenges from their politically active employees who use social media like a “dart gun” to intimidate leaders into making rapid pronouncements on the issues the activists care about, and to intimidate leaders into silence about issues and events that contradict their preferred narrative about victim groups and oppressor groups.

Of course my own position is that universities should be officially institutionally neutral, making no pronouncements on politics, ideology, and morality unless they’re on issues that directly affect the working of the school. The University of Chicago statement, which basically says “There’s a war on; people are concerned; here’s the resources where you can get help,” can be seen here.

If it were official policy for universities to avoid taking stands on stuff that didn’t concern them directly, there would be no need for suspicious administrative silences, balled-up statements that get walked back, and donors stopping their contributions.

We need a country-wide push for institutitional neutrality of the Chicago type, yet so far only three universities have implemented it. For some reason they can’t adopt this reasonable position, designed to avoid free speech being impeded by fear of hurting your prospects at school. This leads to self-censorship  Do universities really NEED to weigh in on politics and ideology, especially if it chills speech? I see no reason why, and this week’s parade of college presidents repeatedly “clarifying” their positions is a strong argument for institutional neutrality.

Of course if a school has a history of making such pronouncements, they are obliged to condemn Hamas for what it did to Israel, and to speak out about terrorism. But it’s best to avoid accumulating such a history, as then you have to weigh in on nearly every significant event.

c. The spread of self-censorship beyond campuses. 

In the five years since The Coddling was published, the disease has metastasized and spread far beyond universities. It now infects journalism, the arts, non-profits, K-12 education, and even medicine. Show me an organization where people are afraid to speak up, afraid to challenge dominant ideas lest they be destroyed socially, and I’ll show you an organization that has become structurally stupid, unmoored from reality, and unable to achieve its mission. In The Canceling of the American Mind, Greg and Rikki follow the story far beyond universities to show how deep the structural stupidity now runs. If we want to make our minds and our institutions work well again, we’re going to have to end the “crisis of self-censorship” that Rikki wrote about. This book [Lukianoff and Schlott] will tell you how we do that.

Can you think of “an organization where people are afraid to speak up, afraid to challenge dominant ideas lest they be destroyed socially” that has not become “structurally stupid, unmoored from reality, and unable to achieve its mission”?  I think this is a rigged question, actually, because if people are afraid to challenge dominant ideas, the organization has already become those things!

d. The waning respect for American universities. This is something that may hurt the Democrats in the next Presidential election.

The fact that higher ed lost the trust of most of the country before October 7 should have inspired soul searching and reform long ago. We can only guess how much lower the numbers have fallen since October 8, the day when so many university leaders failed to say or do anything.

Below is one graph showing this. (There’s another asking Americans whether colleges have a negative effect on the U.S.  In that one, Democrats haven’t changed much since 2012 but Republicans “yes” answers have gone up quite a bit. Independents weren’t surveyed).

The caption for this plot is “ Percent of U.S. adults with “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. Source: Gallup (2023).


Note that there’s a substantial drop in all three categories, but it’s very large (from 56% to 19% for Republicans, a drop of 66%!).  This is more or less a repudiation of “elitism” in that college create the “elite”, and the drop could play a role in buttressing Republicans next year.  Gallup doesn’t analyze why this has happened, but surely burgeoning left-wing authoritarianism (“wokeness”) plays a role, for universities are largely left-wing institutions. And the public, by and large, sees universities as absorbed with in this brand of crazy performative activity.

University of Edinburgh academics demand cancellation of book on sex and gender

October 12, 2023 • 11:45 am

One thing that seems clear, at least to me, is that Scotland is woker than England, for you see more stuff like this happening to the North of Blighty than from its south. But even if you disagree with my assessment, it’s hard to approve of the bad behavior of academics from the University of Edinburgh who are calling for the banning of a book on sex and gender. The article below comes is from the Times of London; click below to read, and if it’s paywalled you can find it archived here.

It’s a simple matter of ignorance and censoriousness, with the excuse that the book promotes “transphobia”—which means it has an honest discussion of trans issues.   An excerpt from the Times:

Academics at the University of Edinburgh have been accused of an “horrific” and “nonsensical attack” on free speech after calling for the launch of a book about gender politics to be cancelled.

Members of the University and College Union have written to an estimated 2,000 staff and research students calling for a protest at the event on Wednesday and told Sir Peter Mathieson, the university principal, it should be scrapped.

The union branch said essays in the book, Sex and Gender: A Contemporary Reader, reduce “trans people to an abstract anomaly or sinister cabal” and breached the Equality Act.

It told union members in a mass mailing of its “concerns about the launch of a transphobic book on campus” and said it would be holding a protest at the event. The claims were rejected out of hand by contributors to the book and by other academics.

UCU Edinburgh was previously criticised for preventing free speech after it twice supported demonstrations and stopped the screening of the documentary Adult Human Female, billed as a critique of “transgender ideology”.

Shereen Benjamin, a senior lecturer in primary education, and a contributor to the book, said the UCU’s claims were “outrageous”, adding that she was horrified by the email to academic colleagues.

Benjamin said: “The individuals in charge of the branch have used their position to try to suppress legitimate academic discussion where it challenges views they personally hold, by exploiting policies intended to make the university a decent, fair environment, and smearing anyone who disagrees with them.”

. . .In its letter to Mathieson, the UCU accused Benjamin, a founder of the Edinburgh branch of Academics for Academic Freedom, of “debunking” the rights of trans people.

I haven’t found the email from the Union, which is a student group, but the UCU Edinburgh is clearly deeply Pecksniffian, having stopped the screening of a movie that, while you may disagree with it, makes some good points and certainly doesn’t deserve banning. (You can see the whole movie free on Youtube.)

Of course if you say anything that’s not 100% in agreement with the assertions of trans activists, you’re going to get labeled a “transphobe”, even if you  simply disagree with the right of trans women to compete in women’s athletics. The way the ideologues control discourse is to make their opponents so fearful of being called names that the opponents shut up (it’s worked with critics of “indigenous ways of knowing” in New Zealand). If that fails, try to ban their books.

A form of this banning is the refusal of scientific journals to publish criticism of weak papers.  One example occurred when Colin Wright wrote to the editors of  Integrative and Comparative Biology asking if several of us could submit a critique of a dreadful paper they published, “Multimodal models of animal sex: breaking binaries leads to a better understanding of ecology and evolution” (see here and here for some criticisms).  Colin never got a response after writing the editors several times. This is reprehensible behavior on their part, and, worse, it’s their attempt to promulgate dubious science by simply censoring its opponents.  They want to avoid social media criticism: what a great excuse for suppressing scientific discourse!

But I digress. Edinburgh Uni has issued a statement saying what’s below, which is a bit self-contradictory:

Edinburgh University said it attached great importance to freedom of expression and academic freedom and “would not seek to influence any lawful events held on our campus”.

A spokeswoman added: “Given the size of our community, it is inevitable that there will be differing views and opinions. We always encourage respectful debate and discussion, and we remain steadfast in our determination to facilitate a safe environment where challenging topics can be explored. We also firmly uphold the right of people to take part in peaceful and lawful protest.

But an environment that explores challenging topics will be perforce deemed UNSAFE, so how do they deal with that? But I do trust that Edinburgh Uni will take no steps to censor or ban this book. It’s always the students who make all the noise.

But is the book “transphobic”? Have a look at the description of the book and title page here:

The title page:

I don’t see anything obviously transphobic here, but of course the Pecksniffs can find something in this lineup of sex and gender criminals to foster banning the book. Where is ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio when we need him?  Sadly, he can’t stop the circulation of this book, because the kerfuffle is in the U.K.

PEN America highlights attacks from the Left on books

August 30, 2023 • 10:00 am

The recent “cancellation” of my children’s book about an Indian man and his cats—with the sole reason given that I couldn’t write about India because I was white—has made me extra sensitive to the absurdity of a lot of cancellations based on such claims of “cultural appropropriation.”  Now of course it’s possible to write an ignorant and demeaning book about another culture, and publishers don’t have to put out every book they get; but I plead not guilty to cultural appropriation, and, indeed, most of the examples given by Cathy Young below are cultural appropriation of the right type: the enrichment of cultures by incorporating material from other cultures.

The “sin” of cultural appropriation goes only one way, of course: you are not allowed to “write down.” That is, members of nonminority groups (read: white people, especially men) are not allowed to write about minority groups, even if those groups are not oppressed or the subject isn’t oppression.  But the reverse action—members of minority groups writing about dominant groups—seems perfectly fine. This I don’t understand. If members of one culture supposedly can’t understand members of another, or treat their issues with sensitivity, then the ban should go both ways.  Why is it okay if someone from India writes about an American man who owns sweet shops and takes in stray cats?

Thus the new post by the estimable Cathy Young (click the screenshot below to read, but subscribe if you read regularly)—about a new PEN America report on freedom to write and publish—struck home. The theme, according to Young (I haven’t read the PEN report) is the suppression of literature deemed harmful (often because of “cultural appropriation”), an action taken mostly by the Left. The Right gets rid of books they find offensive by simply banning them from libraries or removing them, but what the Left does, preventing publication of books in the first place, can be seen as more harmful. For in the latter case, the book simply isn’t available to anyone.

Many of these campaigns are fueled by social-media pile-ons, often by people who haven’t read the book they damn. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll give quotes from Young about the tactics of the Left and some chilling examples of how they’ve worked.

First, what’s going on (Young’s text is indented).

WHETHER THERE EXISTS in American culture a left-wing illiberalism that threatens freedom of thought and expression under the cover of social justice has been a subject of heated debate in the past decade. At a time when right-wing authoritarian populism is on the rise, many people have viewed warnings about illiberal progressivism as a distraction. Liberal and centrist critiques of leftist intolerance, from the Harper’s magazine “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in the summer of 2020 to prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum’s Atlantic essay on “the new Puritans” the following year, have been met with purported debunkings and derided as moral panic or whining from people who don’t like to be criticized.

Now, a major liberal institution that has championed freedom of expression for over a century—PEN America, formerly PEN American Center and part of PEN International, the writers’ association whose notable figures have included John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood—has issued a lengthy report that strongly comes down on the side of taking illiberal progressivism seriously.

Booklash: Literary Freedom, Online Outrage, and the Language of Harm, written by the PEN America research team with a trenchant introduction by playwright Ayad Akhtar titled “In Defense of the Literary Imagination,” is a thorough examination of the chilly climate in publishing and the issues and controversies that have created it. Booklash is particularly valuable because PEN America really cannot be accused of having a right-leaning or even centrist bias: the organization enthusiastically champions racial and gender diversity and has strongly denounced censorship moves from the right, such as red-state policies facilitating school library book removals.

Indeed, the report acknowledges the context of rising right-wing authoritarianism but unabashedly, and correctly, stresses that this context makes it more important to acknowledge troubling illiberal trends on the left. . .

Booklash isn’t too long, and should be read, as should its appendix or companion piece, the famous and short “Freedom to Read” statement adopted in 1953 by the American Library Association and the Association of American Publishers. (It’s been amended in the version Young gives, but I’ve linked to the original.) It’s a passionate endorsement of the duty of publishers to put out books espousing all viewpoints, even if many people find them offensive, and the duty of organizations to avoid censoring or banning as taboo those views they don’t like.

But back to Young.  Here are only a few of the examples she and the PEN report give of attempts to ban “offensive” views:

*Online hate campaigns directed at books deemed “problematic” for one reason or another have resulted in books being killed when already in the final stages of publication. A prominent recent example, from this past spring, comes from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. After she announced on June 6 that her next book, The Snow Forest, would come out early next year, it was strafed with one-star review bombs. Its attackers were outraged that a book set in Russia was coming out at a time when Russia is waging a brutal war of aggression in Ukraine. Never mind that it’s not a present-day story: The novel is a partly fact-based tale of a Soviet-era family fleeing into the woods to escape religious persecution. By June 12, Gilbert had had enough: She released a video saying that she was indefinitely “removing the book from its publication schedule.”

*. . . OTHER BOOKS, AS BOOKLASH DETAILS, were not literally canceled but endured some degree of suppression. Initial positive reviews in key industry outlets such as Kirkus Reviews have been downgraded; books have been rewritten under pressure; book tours have been canceled, as in the case of Jeanine Cummins’s bestselling 2020 novel American Dirt, a sympathetic treatment of Mexican migrants that was savaged as exploitative “trauma porn.” Aside from the impact on the targeted authors (Cummins seems to have completely withdrawn from public life), there is also the larger chilling effect on publishing. In the case of American Dirt, the report said, “Despite the book’s commercial success, the episode left many within the literary world with the impression that books perceived to trespass across racial or cultural lines could be risky and undesirable.” Indeed, the report cites conversations with authors and editors who would speak only on conditions of anonymity to describe this overall climate of intimidation as well specific incidents in which books were canceled or revised.

*In 2018, the Nation issued an abject apology for publishing a white poet writing in the voice of a black homeless woman. The poem was allowed to stay up, but underneath a contrite statement that read, remarked Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, “like a letter from re-education camp.”

*In June 2020, the young adult novel Ember Days by Alexandra Duncan was at the center of a bizarre drama with two layers of cancellation. First, the novel was withdrawn at Duncan’s request because of complaints about chapters written from the perspective of a woman with Gullah Geechee heritage (African Americans from the Lowcountry regions of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida). Then, Publishers’ Weekly removed its story about the book’s withdrawal because of complaints that the story had led to “online abuse” toward Duncan’s chief critic, novelist Bethany Morrow, and replaced it with an apology and a pledge to ensure that “our articles will not cause harm in the future.” Obviously, the PEN America report couldn’t cover every such episode without massive sprawl, but these examples seem remarkable enough to merit a mention.

*Novelist, journalist, and Bulwark contributor Richard North Patterson recently wrote about the dispiriting experience of having his novel Trial “rejected by roughly 20 imprints of major New York publishers” despite having 16 New York Times bestsellers to his name. According to Patterson, many of the rejections came with glowing compliments but bluntly stated that the problem was race: the novel deals with racial injustice, and Patterson is white. (Trial was eventually published by a small press.)

There are many more examples, but you get the gist, and I bet you’ve heard of some of these before, like the American Dirt fracas described by Young in greater detail.

Now Young notes that the PEN America report, while conveying a strong message, is somewhat diluted by its occasional tendency to “balance their defense of intellectual freedom with their commitment to the values of social justice, bending over backwards to accommodate the latter.” While it’s okay to give a nod towards social justice, the “Freedom to read” mantra should extend to defending publication of all viewpoints, including those inimical to current versions of social justice.

Here’s Young’s indictment of the greater harm done by the Left than by the Right in censoring books. First, a quote from Jonah Winter, a children’s-book author who has been censored:

As [Winter] put it in a Dallas Morning News column:

Book-banning, the “cancel culture” of the right, doesn’t hurt a book or an author.

What hurts a book or an author is the far more effective cancel culture of the left, by which I mean the small but vocal subsection of illiberal ideologues who’ve commandeered both liberalism in general and the publishing world specifically, often using their power to attack well-meaning authors in the form of social media pile-ons and the resulting cancellations, both of which I’ve experienced.

And I’ll add this since it hits home: one of Winter’s books that was banned was a respectful biography of the great baseball player and humanitarian Roberto Clemente, outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates (I saw him play at Forbes Field), who died at 38 in the crash of a plane bringing relief to earthquake-devastated Managua, Nicaragua. Winter says this:

I’ve had two book contracts canceled because of my identity in relation to the subject matter. I am a white man. The irony of the big to-do being made over the banning of my Clemente book by conservative activists is that, were I to try and publish that exact same book today, I would not be able to get it published because of progressive activists.

And from Young:

There is another factor as well. When attacks on literary works come from the right, they are typically counteracted not only by progressive activists but by institutions that act as guardians of culture: public schools and teachers’ unions, libraries, universities, publishers, the mainstream media. When the attacks are from the left, the same institutions typically offer no objections, or even collude.

So what’s the solution? First, we have to recognize that if you’re on the Left like me, you have to indict your own side for this kind of ludicrous and harmful censorship. The cure begins with recognition, and that’s what PEN America has done.  Young also notes that Booklash has recommendations like preventing book-review websites like Goodreads from going after books that haven’t been read, or damning them on flimsy grounds. And publishers should issue “formal statements of principles.” (This is desperately needed.)

Young closes by arguing correctly that being on the Left does not conflict with arguing for free expression in books, nor does condemnation of censorship trivialize the arguments of social-justice advocates. It’s merely a way to enact the First Amendment through publication, for books are one of the most effective ways to make and to vet arguments:

Such a shift [in the present Leftist illiberalism about publishing] must also include much greater willingness on the part of authors and publishers to stand up to pressures, particularly when it’s a matter of just a few voices denouncing alleged bigotry and “harm” in works the vast majority of people from the supposedly injured group do not see as offensive. But this would also require challenging a key tenet of social justice progressivism: the belief that even to dispute a claim of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. is in itself “problematic,” and in most cases actively harmful. Such claims must be examined skeptically, especially when suppression of speech or other expression is at stake.

Pushing back against left-wing illiberalism in publishing need not entail a general dismissiveness toward the existence of racial or gender-based injustice and prejudice in American culture, particularly given the recent rise of overt white supremacism, misogyny, and homophobia on the far right and their seepage into more mainstream right-wing discourse. What it does mean, though, is understanding that “canceling” books and authors for transgressing progressive moral codes does nothing to counteract injustice and prejudice. Instead, it inhibits and silences important conversations and trivializes the very evils it supposedly protests.

h/t: Steve

Attacks on freedom of thought and expression in publishing: a piece by George Packer

August 9, 2023 • 10:30 am

This article from The Atlantic is probably paywalled, but appears to be freely accessible on the site below. Author George Packer is a journalist and novelist, and Wikipedia gives this description:

George Packer (born ca. 1960) is a US journalist, novelist, and playwright. He is best known for his writings for The New Yorker and The Atlantic about U.S. foreign policy and for his book The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq. Packer also wrote The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, covering the history of the US from 1978 to 2012. In November 2013, The Unwinding received the National Book Award for Nonfiction. His award-winning biography, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, was released in May 2019. His latest book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal was released in June 2021.

Click screenshot to read, and then click “continue reading” to see the whole article.

Packer begins by extolling a 1953 statement, “The Freedom to Read,” issued by the American Library Association and the Association of Book Publishers Council at the height of the McCarthy era of censorship and Red-baiting. Do read it at the link: it’s an eloquent defense of publishing and reading even offensive materials, allowing the public to judge for themselves. That 70-year-old statement should be mandatory reading for all college freshman in what I envision as a short unit on “freedom of expression and academic freedom.” An except from the 1953 statement.

Most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary individual, by exercising critical judgment, will select the good and reject the bad. We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. We do not believe they are prepared to sacrifice their heritage of a free press in order to be “protected” against what others think may be bad for them. We believe they still favor free enterprise in ideas and expression.

These efforts at suppression are related to a larger pattern of pressures being brought against education, the press, art and images, films, broadcast media, and the Internet. The problem is not only one of actual censorship. The shadow of fear cast by these pressures leads, we suspect, to an even larger voluntary curtailment of expression by those who seek to avoid controversy or unwelcome scrutiny by government officials. [Sound familiar?]

Such pressure toward conformity is perhaps natural to a time of accelerated change. And yet suppression is never more dangerous than in such a time of social tension. Freedom has given the United States the elasticity to endure strain. Freedom keeps open the path of novel and creative solutions, and enables change to come by choice. Every silencing of a heresy, every enforcement of an orthodoxy, diminishes the toughness and resilience of our society and leaves it the less able to deal with controversy and difference.

On its 70th anniversary in June, the whole statement was re-issued by the same organizations (see link above), but Packer finds that a wee bit ironic:

This past June, the library and publishers’ associations reissued “The Freedom to Read” on its 70th anniversary. Scores of publishers, libraries, literary groups, civil-liberty organizations, and authors signed on to endorse its principles. And yet many of those institutional signatories—including the “Big Five” publishing conglomerates—often violate its propositions, perhaps not even aware that they’re doing so. Few of them, if any, could produce as unapologetic a defense of intellectual freedom as the one made at a time when inquisitors were destroying careers and lives. It’s worth asking why the American literary world in 2023 is less able to uphold the principles of “The Freedom to Read” than its authors in 1953.

Here are the three attacks on intellectual freedom that are circumventing or eroding these principles. The first isn’t the fault of publishers. (Packer’s quotes are indented, heading are mine.)

1.) Attacks from state governments and schools.

First—and likely the main concern of the signatories—is an official campaign by governors, state legislatures, local governments, and school boards to weed out books and ideas they don’t like. Most of the targets are politically on the left; most present facts or express views about race, gender, and sexuality that the censors consider dangerous, divisive, obscene, or simply wrong. The effort began in Texas as early as 2020, before public hysteria and political opportunism spread the campaign to Florida and other states, and to every level of education, removing from library shelves and class reading lists several thousand books by writers such as Toni Morrison and Malala Yousafzai.

Given that states and school districts have a responsibility to set public-school curricula, not all of this can be called government censorship. But laws and policies to prevent students from encountering controversial, unpopular, even offensive writers and ideas amount to a powerfully repressive campaign of book banning, some of it probably unconstitutional.

2.) Attacks and censorship from “inside the house”—by editors and publishers themselves. We all know that some publishers are malleable to social-media campaigns that try to stop books from being published because the authors have done something considered immoral, because they are not of the right gender or ethnicity to tackle a book’s topic, or because the plot isn’t ideologically correct. I’m sure you remember some of these incidents:

A few cases became big news. Hachette canceled Woody Allen’s autobiography after a staff walkout, and Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth was withdrawn after publication by Norton, both following accusations of sexual misconduct by the authors (Allen and Bailey denied the accusations). Publishers have canceled books following an author’s public remarks—for example, those of the cartoonist Scott Adams, the British journalist Julie Burchill, and the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

In one particularly wild case, an author named Natasha Tynes, on the verge of publishing her first novel, a crime thriller, saw a Black employee of the Washington, D.C., Metro system eating on a train (a violation of the system’s rules). She tweeted a picture of the woman at the transit authority with a complaint, and immediately found herself transformed into a viral racist. Within hours her distributor, Rare Bird Books, had dropped the novel, tweeting that Tynes “did something truly horrible today.” The publisher, California Coldblood, after trying to wash its hands of the book, eventually went ahead with publication “due to contractual obligations,” but the novel was as good as dead. “How can you expect authors to be these perfect creatures who never commit any faults?” Tynes lamented to PEN. Most publishers now include a boilerplate morals clause in book contracts that legitimizes these cancellations—a loophole that contradicts tenets of “The Freedom to Read” that those publishers endorsed.

More are given, but you can see them at the site.

As Packer notes, these incidents may be few, but they create a chilling atmosphere that inhibits authors from writing about what they want:

A few cases became big news. Hachette canceled Woody Allen’s autobiography after a staff walkout, and Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth was withdrawn after publication by Norton, both following accusations of sexual misconduct by the authors (Allen and Bailey denied the accusations). Publishers have canceled books following an author’s public remarks—for example, those of the cartoonist Scott Adams, the British journalist Julie Burchill, and the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

In one particularly wild case, an author named Natasha Tynes, on the verge of publishing her first novel, a crime thriller, saw a Black employee of the Washington, D.C., Metro system eating on a train (a violation of the system’s rules). She tweeted a picture of the woman at the transit authority with a complaint, and immediately found herself transformed into a viral racist. Within hours her distributor, Rare Bird Books, had dropped the novel, tweeting that Tynes “did something truly horrible today.” The publisher, California Coldblood, after trying to wash its hands of the book, eventually went ahead with publication “due to contractual obligations,” but the novel was as good as dead. “How can you expect authors to be these perfect creatures who never commit any faults?” Tynes lamented to PEN. Most publishers now include a boilerplate morals clause in book contracts that legitimizes these cancellations—a loophole that contradicts tenets of “The Freedom to Read” that those publishers endorsed.

Not all publishers are susceptible to this kind of pressure, invariably coming from Twitter, and often by people who have never read the book. My own publisher, Penguin Random House, has a firm policy of publishing what it considers good, not what is ideologically correct. Sadly, as Packer reports, that publisher is bleeding senior editors because book sales are down.

Packer also levels some criticism at PEN and PEN America, too, literary organizations that promote free expression. PEN America has issued a new report, “Reading between the lines: Race, equity, and book publishing.”  And while Packer praises the courage of this report in today’s publishing climate, he also notes a contradiction. And that’s the contradiction—one we’ve discussed before—between promoting equity and promoting merit—literary merit in this case.

In “Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and Book Publishing,” PEN examined in detail how the American book business has always been and, despite recent improvements, remains a clubby world of the white, well connected, and well-off. It presented a damning picture, backed by data, of “the white lens through which writers, editors, and publishers curate America’s literature.” It called for publishers to hire and promote more staff of color, publish more books by writers of color, pay them higher advances, and sell their books more intelligently and vigorously.

The two reports are related, but the relation is fraught. The first showed the need for an intensified campaign of diversity, equity, and inclusion across the industry. The second argues for greater freedom to defy the literary strictures of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Is there a contradiction between the two?

While PEN labors to show that there is no contradiction, of course there is. Any pressure to be ideologically correct (and DEI initiatives often cross the line between “color blind standards of merit” and “a specific ideological take on DEI), is going to also constitute pressure against publishing certain kinds of things. Here’s what Packer says:

In our world, where DEI has hardened into an ideological litmus test, the effort to place social justice at the center of publishing almost inevitably leads to controversies over “representation” and “harm” that result in banned books. The first report presented DEI in publishing as an urgent moral cause. The second report takes issue with “employees’ increasing expectation that publishers assume moral positions in their curation of catalogs and author lists.” But those employees no doubt believe that they are carrying out the vision of the first report.

Social justice and intellectual freedom are not inherently opposed—often, each requires the other—but they are not the same thing, either. “The Freedom to Read” makes this clear: “It would conflict with the public interest for [publishers and librarians] to establish their own political, moral, or aesthetic views as a standard for determining what should be published or circulated.” That statement was written at a time when the cause of intellectual freedom was non- or even anti-ideological. Its authors advocated no other goal than the widest and highest-quality expression of views. But in PEN’s new report you can feel a struggle to reconcile the thinking of its earlier one, in which every calculation comes down to identity, with the discriminating judgment and openness to new and disturbing ideas that are essential to producing literature. As one editor told me, “There’s no equity in talent.”

Packer has a lot more to say, but in the end he makes a good case for publishers promoting the “widest and highest-quality expression of views.” That statement says nothing about ideology, gender, or race, just quality and viewpoint diversity. If viewpoint diversity of literary merit is promoted by publishing more authors of minority status, then that’s fine—no contradiction there. But, as publishing books becomes a more fraught endeavor, and fewer people buy books, it’s imperative that the industry stick to its guns of promoting quality and viewpoint diversity.  For when books have to hew to an ideological line to be acceptable, publishing is dead.

h/t: Leo

J. K. Rowling literally erased from Seattle Museum display of Harry Potter

August 8, 2023 • 12:40 pm

An exhibit about Harry Potter at the Seattle Museum of Pop Culture (which elected Rowling to its Hall of Fame some time ago), has now omitted any mention of the author of the Harry Potter books.  And you know why: J. K. Rowling is mistakenly seen as a transphobe.  No, she’s not a transphobe, and doesn’t hate or preach against trans people, but is simply protective of some “women’s spaces”, and that’s good enough to demonize her.

This shameful episode, a literal cancellation, is described in the Daily Fail (click below to read), but is supported by a crazy blog post written by exhibition project manager Chris Moore (post also below), who happens to be transgender.  The post calls Rowling “she-who-must-not-be-named” and “you-know-who”, which of course your mind immediately replaces with “J. K. Rowling”.  And Moore’s accusations are beyond lunacy: they are confected in a hateful way to make Rowling seem as odious as possible. I happen to think Rowling is courageous, and, although she’s rich and famous, has still been disturbed by vicious attacks by genuine haters who don’t seem to understand (or willfully misunderstand) her position. Of course attackers have free speech, and can say what they want (short of defamation), but that won’t stop us from thinking that they’re deeply misguided.

Click to read:


A Seattle Museum has airbrushed JK Rowling from its hall of fame and Harry Potter exhibition over her gender-critical views.

The Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) in Washington hit out at the famous author and accused her of holding ‘super hateful and divisive’ opinions.

It defended its decision to remove all references to Rowling, 58, in a lengthy blog post on Saturday.

The museum still has Harry Potter memorabilia on display but any mention of the author of the franchise has been airbrushed.

Rowling has faced criticism for her views on transgender issues after she argued women should not be fired for believing biological sex is real.

Some of the actors in Harry Potter movies have taken a stand against Rowling:

. . .[Daniel] Radcliffe who shot to fame playing Harry Potter in the film series last year said young fans had been ‘hurt’ by Rowling’s views on trans issues.

While Rupert Grint, who played Ron Weasley, said: ‘trans women are women, trans men are men’.

Emma Watson, who portrayed Hermione Granger, donated money to transgender lobby charity Mermaids in 2020 and asked her Twitter followers to do the same.

Rowling has received abuse online for her gender-critical views and in 2021 she said she received ‘enough death threats to paper my house’ after trans activists leaked her address online and staged a protest outside it.

She has spoken out about her concerns making it easier to legally change gender over the safety concerns of biological women.

The author was extremely critical of former Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s attempts to change the law to allow people to self-identify without a medical certificate.

A MoPOP spokesman said told The Telegraph: ‘MoPOP is proud to support our employees and unequivocally stands with nonbinary and transgender communities. In an increasingly divided world, pop culture can unite, inspire, and spark important conversations.

‘Education and creative expression are the heart of our mission and in our commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility, we strive to elevate those that are left out of the mainstream pop culture conversation, by amplifying voices and stories that are not always seen on museum walls.’

To wit (from the Fail):

Now, read this piece of agitprop by Moore published in the Museum of Pop Culture’s blog (click below).

An excerpt will give you the tenor of this unhinged and hateful piece. Bolding is Moore’s:

There’s a certain cold, heartless, joy-sucking entity in the world of Harry Potter and, this time, it is not actually a Dementor.

We would love to go with the internet’s theory that these books were actually written without an author, but this certain person is a bit too vocal with her super hateful and divisive views to be ignored. Yes, we’re talking about J.K. Rowling, and no, we don’t like that we’re giving her more publicity, so that’s the last you’ll see of her name in this post. We’ll just stick with You-Know-Who because they’re close enough in character.

Her transphobic viewpoints are front and center these days, but we can’t forget all the other ways that she’s problematic: the support of antisemitic creators, the racial stereotypes that she used while creating characters, the incredibly white wizarding world, the fat shaming, the lack of LGBTQIA+ representation, the super-chill outlook on the bigotry and othering of those that don’t fit into the standard wizarding world, and so much more. We’re going to be focusing on You-Know-Who’s transphobic views in this blog post because she’s really doubled down on them lately.

Fat shaming? Lack of LGBTQIA+ characters, racial stereotypes, the “white wizarding world”, and “othering”: this person is really trying to collect everything he can to throw at Rowling, hoping some of it sticks.  And so Moore then raises the possibility of genocide of trans people, which is insane:

While the Harry Potter series is a major player in the pop culture sphere, we wanted to give credit to the work of the actors, prop makers, and costume designers in our Fantasy gallery. We learned that You-Know-Who was a problem, which is why you’ll see the artifacts without any mention or image of the author. After all, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint are all incredibly vocal allies. Should we forget their work now that the original author is terrible? I’m not even talking about “separating art from artist” but giving credit where it’s due. I’ll never be able to purely enjoy Hagrid or Stephen Fry again because of their support of the author, but I’ll always be a wreck when Dumbledore… y’know. No spoilers. Besides, there’s plenty about Dumbledore that I’ll be a wreck about.

Even poor Stephen Fry is demonized for defending Rowling. According to the rest of the blog, the Museum is now trying to figure out what to do about Rowling’s earlier election to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.  For the nonce they’ve kept her in there while removing her name from the exhibit about the things that got her elected:

You-Know-Who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2018 before she became the face of trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERF). If you keep looking in there, you’ll see other figures with questionable if not downright disturbing pasts. But what does that mean? Are MoPOP’s hands tied on something that is in our building? Again, it’s complicated. For the time being, the Curators decided to remove any of her artifacts from this gallery to reduce her impact. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s what we were able to do in the short-term while determining long-term practices.

Odds are that they’ll find a way to remove her, but I’m betting that Rowling doesn’t give a rat’s patootie about this.

Article on gender dysphoria retracted, probably for ideological reasons

July 11, 2023 • 9:15 am

I’ve mentioned this result before, but only as an item in Nellie Bowles’s weekly news summary.  Now one of the authors of a controversial paper, J. Michael Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern who works on sexual behavior (and whose work up to now is well known and respected), has written extensively about how that coauthored paper was retracted by the prestigious journal Archives of Sexual Behavior. But it wasn’t retracted because the data were wrong, fraudulent, or plagiarized. No, it was retracted because the topic, “Rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD), has been rendered by activists too taboo to discuss, and because a mob of scientists attacked its publication—as well as attacking the editor who accepted it, Kenneth Zucker.

In light of this pushback, Springer, the journal’s editor, retracted the article. The grounds for retraction were very flimsy: that Bailey and his co-author, a pseudonymous mother of a girl who had what seemed to be ROGD, hadn’t obtained permission for the data of the investigated group to be published in this particular journal.  But in fact they had obtained permission from the subjects for their data to be published—just not in this particular journal.  That is a distinction without a difference. The paper was almost certainly rejected because one is simply not allowed to discuss ROGD in public. If you do, you get called a “transphobe”.

As Bailey notes:

Retraction of scientific articles is associated with well-deserved shame: plagiarismmaking up data, or grave concerns about the scientific integrity of a study. But my article was not retracted for any shameful reason. It was retracted because it provided evidence for an idea that activists hate.

If you’d like to see the original article, reader ThyroidPlanet has published a link to it below; the paper is here.

Click the screenshot to read his piece, which is in The Free Press. (If you think that places like the NYT or Washington Post would publish this, you’re living in a dream world):

ROGD, like the effects of puberty blockers, is one of those gender-related issues that really needs study since the phenomena are understudied but have very important implications for the study of gender and especially for how to deal with children or adolescents suffering from gender dysphoria. The taboo on discussing both of these issues is thus particularly unfortunate, but is part of the program of some gender activists who don’t want their views questioned or discussed.

You might remember that Abigail Shrier, whose book on the topic, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, was attacked viciously on social media for even talking about ROGD, with the odious ACLU gender-activist lawyer Chase Strangio saying that he wanted the book banned. (It was banned for a while at Target, but then reinstated.) Here’s Strangio’s tweet, which he’s now deleted. It’s beyond belief that an important figure in the ACLU would call for the banning of a book and its ideas (Strangio is transgender). This is censorship: the banning of Wrongthink.

But exactly what is ROGD? It is a postulated syndrome, involving social contagion, suggested to explain the recent rapid rise in girls asking to change their gender from female to male—that is, to become trans men. ROGD seems to be different from “classical” gender dyphoria and thus provoked a new explanation:

ROGD was first described in the literature in 2018 by the physician and researcher Lisa Littman. It is an explanation of the new phenomenon of adolescents, largely girls, with no history of gender dysphoria, suddenly declaring they want to transition to the opposite sex. It has been a highly contentious diagnosis, with some—and I am one—thinking it’s an important avenue for scientific inquiry, and others declaring it’s a false idea advocated by parents unable to accept they have a transgender child.

I believed that ROGD was a promising explanation of the explosion of gender dysphoria among adolescent girls because these young people do not have gender dysphoria as usually understood. Until recently, females treated for gender dysphoria were masculine-presenting girls who had hated being female since early childhood. By contrast, girls with ROGD are often conventionally feminine, but tend to have other social and emotional issues. The theory behind ROGD is that through social contagion from friends, social media, and even school, vulnerable girls are exposed to the idea that their normal adolescent angst is the result of an underlying transgender identity. These girls then suddenly declare that they are transgender. That is the rapid onset. After the declaration, the girls may desire—and receive—drastic medical interventions including mastectomies and testosterone injections.

There is ample evidence that in progressive communities, multiple girls from the same peer group are announcing they are trans almost simultaneously. There has been a sharp increase in this phenomenon across the industrialized West. A recent review from the UK, which keeps better records than America, showed a greater than tenfold increase in referrals of adolescent girls during just the past decade.

But there have been virtually no scientific data or studies on the subject.

ROGD is considered taboo for several reasons, mainly because it invokes social contagion as a cause of the desire to transition. This idea is apparently repugnant to those who think that the desire to transition is innate, not malleable to pressure from others, and, of course, must be “affirmed” through therapy, hormones, and possibly surgery. (This is my take on the issue; those who demonize ROGD don’t often talk about why they despise it.)

At any rate, Bailey wrote an article with a pseudonymous mother, “Suzanna Diaz”, an article called “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria: Parent Reports on 1655 Possible Cases.” It appears to be a load of self-reported case studies about the phenomenon, and at this stage a huge number of case studies is useful, particularly if there is any commonality in them.  Because they were self-reported, you can’t use their prevalence to show that social contagion is a primary cause of ROGD, but you can show, if the data be credible, that it is not vanishingly rare. And, of course, if you find no social contagion, that supports the thesis of gender activists.   So I think the studies are of value, and apparently the journal did, too.

Here are the findings, which implies something we already know: gender dysphoria is connected with psychological distress, and in this case, the distress often preceded the desire to transition, which appears to have been largely prompted by “gender specialists”.  More than half the parents reported that they felt pressured by the gender specialist to practice “affirmative care”: facilitating the gender transition.

Our article was based on parent reports of 1,655 adolescent and young adult children. Three-fourths of them were female. Emotional problems were common among this group, especially anxiety and depression, which many parents said preceded gender issues by years. Most of these young people had taken steps to socially transition, including changing their pronouns, dress, and identity to the other sex (or in some cases, to neither sex). Parents observed that after their children socially transitioned, their mental health deteriorated. A small number—seven percent of those whose parents answered Suzanna’s survey—had received medical transition treatment, including drugs to block puberty, or cross-sex hormones.

Disturbingly, those young people with more emotional problems were especially likely to have socially and medically transitioned. The best predictor of both social and medical transition was a referral to a gender specialist. Some 52 percent of parents in our study who had received a referral said they felt pressured by the gender specialist to facilitate some sort of transition for their child.

Note that the authors were explicit in their paper about the study’s limitations, particularly the cherry-picking of parents who responded:

Our study had two obvious limitations: the way we recruited parents guaranteed that only those who believed their children had ROGD would participate, and we had only the parents’ perspectives. We clearly acknowledged and discussed these in our paper, beginning with the words “At least two related issues potentially limit this research” followed by three paragraphs laying out the limitations.

These are rather serious limitations, at least insofar as assessing the prevalence of ROGD. There’s no mention in this piece, though perhaps there is in the article, about other social influences besides “gender specialists”.  But the fact that referral to a “gender specialist” was a huge predictor of social and medical transition needs to be studied further. So does the observation that social transitioning was injurious rather than salubrious for mental health.

Then the mob descended, forcing retraction. I don’t find Springer’s reason convincing, especially because I think the journal has been lax in enforcing the “consent” issue and, in this case, there was consent, which Springer deemed the wrong kind of consent.

On May 23 [the paper was published on March 29 of this year], we received an email from Springer informing us that they were retracting our article. The ostensible reason:

The Publisher and the Editor-in-Chief have retracted this article due to noncompliance with our editorial policies around consent. The participants of the survey have not provided written informed consent to participate in scholarly research or to have their responses published in a peer reviewed article. Additionally, they have not provided consent to publish to have their data included in this article. Table 1 and the Supplementary material have therefore been removed to protect the participants’ privacy.

We appealed after consulting a lawyer, but Springer retracted our paper on June 14.

Springer’s reasoning was preposterous and simply an excuse to retract an article they wanted to go away in order to stop the controversy. Springer accused us of not obtaining informed consent from the parents in our study. There are two aspects to informed consent in research: you should understand what you’re being asked to do, including any substantial risks and benefits, and you should be able to opt out. All parents completing Suzanna’s survey knew they were being asked questions about their children’s ROGD, and they decided to answer. Parents were promised privacy of personal information, and they got it.

Springer’s additional complaint was that we did not have consent to publish survey results. This is plain wrong. We did inform participants that we would publish their data. At the end of the survey participants were told: “We will publish our data on our website when we have a large enough sample. . . ”

My assessment: the journal used the “consent” issue as a confected reason to reject a paper whose thesis was ideologically unpalatable. (That’s what Bailey thinks, too.) While the paper may not be dispositive about the prevalence, presence, and causes of ROGD, it was worth publishing as an impetus to do a bigger and more thorough study.

And that is what Bailey and his co-author are about to do, although of course they’ll never find funding for it (and thus they appeal to the public below). Note, too, that the paper got a fair amount of approbation:

The campaign against our article, from the open letter to the final retraction, has generated immense publicity by academic standards, so far largely favorable. Our academic article has been viewed online more than 100,000 times in not quite three months, an astonishing number for an article of this nature. This reflects a thirst for knowledge about this important subject.

Speaking for myself, this episode has guaranteed that I will study ROGD until we understand it.

That’s why I am about to launch a large, long-term survey of adolescent gender dysphoria, in collaboration with Lisa Littman and Ken Zucker. We will survey both gender-dysphoric adolescents and their parents, following them for at least five years. Among other things, we’ll have better information about adolescents’ early gender dysphoria, mental health, and sexuality; about parents’ attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs; and about the correspondence between adolescents’ and parents’ accounts of the same phenomena.

I guarantee two things. First, it will be a huge, important study with the potential to establish the validity of ROGD. (And if ROGD is an incorrect idea, we will show and publish this.) Second, between the three of us—Littman, Zucker, and me, three previously cancelled scientists who are among the world’s foremost experts in what we are studying—we don’t have a chance in hell of receiving government funding for this project.

We’ll do it anyway. (You can help if you want.)

Censors have tried to stop scientific progress before. Now, as then, the pursuit of truth requires scientists and researchers who refuse to cow to puritans, ideologues and activists.

The one thing I do think is true is that gender dysphoria leading to gender transitioning, rapid or not, can be promoted by social pressure. I’ve seen some of the back-and-forth on the Internet showing how those who transitioned urge those who are questioning to follow in their “affirming” pathway.  If you’re in psychological difficulties that often accompany puberty and early teen years, the internet and one’s peers can provide a supportive and comforting environment that facilitates gender transitioning. It’s almost as if it’s “cool” to transition, while being gay is dull and boring.

The problems with this are twofold: most cases of gender dysphoria (I think around 80%) resolve themselves without medical intervention, often by the dysphoric child ultimately becoming gay—a much less dangerous and less medicalized outcome. Second, therapists have started mimicking this supportive environment: instead of exploring a child’s feelings, therapists who are “affirmative” simply agree with their patient’s notion that they’re in the wrong body and often prescribe hormones (including blockers) after just a visit or two.

The effect of social environment is plausible, but not scientifically tested. The data on resolution of un-“affirmed” dysphoria and eagerness of some therapists is already known (viz., the Tavistock Gender Centre in London). All, in all, this paper shows that there is a phenomenon that needs to be investigated more closely because of its huge implications for how to treat dysphoric youth. The Bailey and “Diaz” paper is just a start, and they’re prepared to accept and publish the fact that ROGD is a myth—if that’s what they find.  But they are immensely courageous to continue along this path.  Concern for young people demands that they do so.

After pushback from readers, Elizabeth Gilbert withdraws her unreleased novel because. . . . it was set in 1930s Russia

June 15, 2023 • 9:15 am

He we have a dramatic example of literary suicide by writer Elizabeth Gilbert, who, after being demonized on social media, withdrew from future publication her latest novel, The Snow Forest. Why? Solely because it was set in Russia—1930s Siberia, to be exact. Apparently writing about Russia when Putin’s Russia is attacking Ukraine—a century after the novel was set—simply cannot be done. Besides the pushback, which may have come from an organized campaign, Gilbert claims that she withdrew the book because its topic elicited an outpouring of anger and pain from Ukrainian readers, and she didn’t want to add “any harm to a group of readers who experienced and continue to experience extreme harm.”  Note that none of those who objected had read the book, for it wasn’t due out until next February. All they knew was its topic. But of course that hasn’t stopped literary Pecksniffs before.

And that’s apparently the only reason for the self-cancellation, as recounted in the following Free Press piece by novelist Kat Rosenfield (click screenshot to read):

I don’t know much about Gilbert except what everyone else does: she wrote the wildly successful autobiographical novel Eat Pray Love, aimed at giving hope to all women whose love life wasn’t successful. I neither read the book nor saw the movie, but I did pick up the book in a bookstore and paged through it. What I saw was the worst writing of any novel I’ve seen since The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller, which was a good movie but an absolutely dreadful book—perhaps the most abysmal modern novel I’ve read. (Note: I haven’t read any other of Gilbert’s half dozen books.)

Gilbert’s withdrawal was accompanied by the usual act of public contrition, so look at that first: click on the confession below to hear it on Instagram, and be sure to turn the sound on:

Now everyone knows I’m firmly on the side of Ukraine in this conflict, but this novel had nothing to do with the current conflict; the only “problematic” thing about it was that it was set in Russia. Not only that, but it depicted the lives of a group of anti-Soviet people, people who, says Gilbert, “removed themselves from society. . . resisted the Soviet government and defended nature against industrialization.”  What on earth does that have to do with the current conflict?

Yes, I’m with the Ukrainians in the war, but I’m not with them on this one, for they’re exhibiting the kind of cancellation-without-reading madness that we’ve become familiar with.  Here’s what Rosenfield says about the episode:

Until this week, Elizabeth Gilbert was best known as the author of Eat, Pray, Love, a memoir about finding her bliss (and her appetite) in a post-divorce odyssey through Italy, India, and Bali. Now, she’s the unwitting harbinger of what appears to be a seismic change within the literary community, and perhaps in the culture at large.

Gilbert’s upcoming novel, The Snow Forest, was set in 1930s Siberia—which, as we all know, is part of Russia, which, as we all know, is the headquarters of Vladimir Putin’s ongoing and execrable war against Ukraine. As is so often the case when it comes to publishing controversies, this fourth-degree connection between American author and Russian imperialist wasn’t a big deal until, suddenly, it was: over the weekend, The Snow Forest was trashed on the book review site Goodreads in an organized campaign by people who took exception to Gilbert’s choice of setting.

As of this writing, the book has 174 reviews and 533 ratings, every single one of them one star, and most employing eerily similar language that suggests the existence of a form letter lurking behind the scenes. (Chief among the claims on the page, which has now been removed, is that Gilbert’s book, which was not slated for release until February 2024 and absolutely none of its critics have read, is guilty of “romanticizing” Russia.)

This from a New York Times piece on the cancelation:

[Gilbert] continued: “It is not the time for this book to be published. And I do not want to add any harm to a group of people who have already experienced and who are continuing to experience grievous and extreme harm.”

The publication of the book, “The Snow Forest,” was announced last week and had been scheduled for Feb. 13, 2024, shortly before the second anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The novel follows a Russian family that has removed themselves from society in the 1930s to try to resist the Soviet government.

. . .Since the start of the war in Ukraine, arts institutions have sought to distance themselves from Russian artists and writers — in some cases, even from dissidents. In May, during PEN America’s World Voices Festival, participating Ukrainian writers objected to a panel featuring Russian writers, leading to a disagreement about how to proceed and the cancellation of the panel. (Both of the Russian writers on the canceled panel, the journalist Ilia Veniavkin and the novelist Anna Nemzer, had left Russia shortly after the invasion of Ukraine.)

Last year, the Metropolitan Opera in New York cut ties with the superstar Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who had previously expressed support for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. The Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev, who denounced the invasion, had his concert tour in Canada canceled last year. The Bolshoi Ballet lost touring engagements in Madrid and London.

It’s one thing to impose sanctions on the Russian government that, incidentally, may cause harm to regular Russians. But it’s a different thing entirely to cancel all things Russian because Russia invaded Ukraine. Many Russian people don’t agree with their government, but are afraid to oppose it publicly.  Just as I don’t favor academic boycotts of “demonized” countries like Israel, I don’t favor cultural boycotts of countries like Russia, which seem to me to have no positive impact at all. It’s a form of enraged virtue signaling.

Rosenfield makes two more points. First, this cancelation is nothing new, as you’ll know if you read this site. Sometimes the publisher does it (not in this case, though), and sometimes the author does it. But the cancelations are invariably accompanied by cringeworthy statements of contrition by the author, like Gilbert’s above. As Rosenfield notes:

 Within the past five years, authors withdrawing their books over allegations of nebulous harm have become a familiar spectacle.

In 2019, fantasy author Amélie Wen Zhao cancelled her novel Blood Heir over allegations the book was racist. That same year, Kosoko Jackson withdrew his debut novel from publication after critics complained that its Kosovo-set gay love story “centered” Americans and trivialized genocide. In 2020, Ember Days author Alexandra Duncan withdrew her book from publication after another author, who had not read it, took exception to its cover tagline (yes, really).

More interesting to me is that, for the first time, the literary world is showing a backlash to the backlash: authors, literary organizations, and free speech groups are upset and worried about the ability of the public to control literature in this way, and are not that supportive of Gilbert’s decision:

[Because previous acts of contrition had been applauded], there was no reason to think that Gilbert’s announcement would not be similarly celebrated. Yet, right away, this one just hit differently. Commentators immediately compared it to the histrionic moment in 2003 when the Congressional cafeteria renamed French fries “freedom fries” after France declined to support the American invasion of Iraq. PEN America’s Suzanne Nossel released a statement calling Gilbert’s decision “regrettable,” saying, “literature and creativity must not become a casualty of war.” And fellow writers were no less dismayed: as acts of moral grandstanding go, this one had disturbing repercussions. Elizabeth Gilbert, whose net worth is estimated upward of $20 million, might not have thought much about the financial hit she would take by cancelling her book, but for most writers, this sets a precedent that is not just economically ruinous but completely untenable in the glacially paced world of publishing. As author Rebecca Makkai tweeted, “So apparently: Wherever you set your novel, you’d better hope to hell that by publication date (usually about a year after you turned it in) that place isn’t up to bad things, or you are personally complicit in them.”

Perhaps most tellingly, this was a bridge too far even for some of the most diligent defenders of similar, previous incidents. “The Russian people are human beings,” wrote Osita Nwanevu on Twitter. “Stories can and should be told about them. They are not reducible to the actions of their present government. This stuff over the last year has been pretty unsettling, honestly.”

. . . That someone, someday, would take the anti-Russian cultural crusade too far was probably inevitable; the only question was where the line would be drawn. As it turns out, declaring Russia off-limits even as a fictional setting—a place you dare not go even in your own imagination—was too much, even for the scolds among us.

Even the staid but woke New York Times couldn’t help point out the difference from previous cancelation campaigns:

By the early afternoon on Monday, a backlash to the backlash had escalated on social media, with many slamming Gilbert’s critics, and others chiding Gilbert herself for succumbing to pressure.

The episode also sparked renewed criticism of Goodreads, which allows users to leave reviews of books long before their publication date, without having read the book, and has sometimes served as a springboard for online campaigns against authors.

Some literary and free speech organizations saw the controversy over the novel — the latest example of how a social media pile-on can derail a book’s publication — as a cautionary tale.

Mary Rasenberger, the chief executive of the Authors Guild, said the organization supports Gilbert’s right to make decisions about her book’s publication date, but also expressed alarm about how authors increasingly feel vulnerable to online pressure campaigns.

“We don’t think authors should ever be pressured not to publish their books,” said Rasenberger. “The more complicated issue of the era is that authors are being told they can’t write about certain subjects.”

Other organizations warned that the criticism of the novel, and Gilbert’s response, set an unnerving precedent, and urged her to release her novel as originally planned.

“The publication of a novel set in Russia should not be cast as an act exacerbating oppression,” Suzanne Nossel, PEN America’s chief executive, said in a statement. “The choice of whether to read Gilbert’s book lies with readers themselves, and those who are troubled by it must be free to voice their views.”

When PEN America, which hasn’t had a particularly strong backbone about these issues (besides its canceling its Russian literary panel in May, in 2015 many of its members criticized an award given to Charlie Hebdo for literary courage), then you know that the literary establishment isn’t with you.  The Ukrainians who complained about this novel being set in Russia are understandably peeved at that country, but that’s overwhelmed their judgment to the extent that an author who simply writes about Russia is piled on (I suspect many of those one-star ratings came from Ukrainians or their sympathizers). Are we to have no more literature about Russia until the war is over? Will they start pulling Tolstoy and Dostoevsky off the shelves? Not this time: the literary world is fed up with cancelations, at least for a while.  Gilbert is not a hero, and her actions aren’t admirable: she is a sniveling, whining, coward who refuses to recognize the obvious: her book has nothing to do with the current war, and thus causes no harm to Ukrainians. 

The book that dares not be on shelves

More anti-Semitism in academia: under pressure, Jewish students at Yale Law School pull out of supporting a talk by a centrist Israeli politician

April 23, 2023 • 9:30 am

Does anybody really doubt that American and British college campuses are become increasingly anti-Semitic? You can say, as some do, that opposition to Israel comes mainly from Netanyahu’s right-0wing government, and isn’t directed at Jews themselves, but that won’t wash. The recurrent cries that Israel is an apartheid state (implying that Palestinians are oppressed people of color and that Palestine isn’t the real apartheid state), combined with the trope “Zionists” (an anti-Semitic euphemism for “Jews”), leave little doubt that there’s a palpable resurgence of anti-Semitism both on campus and on the progressive Left. It’s the Jews (“Zionists”) and the existence of Israel, not Netanyahu, who are the targets.

Would an apartheid state allow a member of the Muslim Brotherhood—a terrorist-associated organization banned in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAR—become an Israeli minister (equivalent to a U.S. Cabinet member), while several members of that same organization sat in the Israeli parliament? Of course not, but this was the case in Israel, at least in the recent past. I doubt that the Palestinian Authority or Hamas would allow an Israeli Jew to play a substantial role in their government! If anyone claims that Israel is an apartheid state, you can immediately write them off as both ignorant and anti-Semitic.

You can see the fulminating anti-Semitism clearly in the article below (yes, it’s from the right-wing site Free Beacon, but if you ignore the report because of that, you’re an ostrich).  It recounts how Jewish students at Yale Law School (a hotbed of wokery) invited a moderate former member of the Knesset (the Jewish parliament), and a vocal opponent of Netanyahu, to address them on the topic of anti-Semitism. The speaker was Michal Cotler-Wunsch, a former member of the moderate Blue and White Alliance, a unity group in  the Knesset that was critical of Netanyahu and more pro-Palestinian and pro-gay-rights than other Israeli parties. As the article below notes,

The behind-the-scenes drama surrounding the event demonstrates the extent to which pro-Israel speakers—even those who criticize the Jewish State’s government—are increasingly unwelcome at America’s top law school.

A former member of the Israeli Knesset, Cotler-Wunsh is part of the Blue and White alliance that briefly unseated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2020. The centrist party has promoted same-sex unions, opposed bans on public transit during Shabbat, and signaled an openness to peace talks—albeit not to land concessions—with the Palestinians, stances that have endeared it to secular Israelis while angering the country’s ultra-Orthodox bloc.

“If I’m controversial, I don’t know who isn’t,” Cotler-Wunsh said.

The topic of her talk was “Defining and combating Anti-Semitism“. How controversial can you get?  But apparently that raised some hackles. And had not a deputy dean of the Law School stepped in at the last moment, offering to host the event personally, Cotler-Wunsch’s talk would have been canceled.

Click the screenshot to read:

From the article:

A Jewish student group at Yale Law School pulled out of an event with a centrist Israeli politician, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, after deciding the talk would be too controversial, according to Cotler-Wunsh and two professors with knowledge of the situation.

Yale’s Jewish Law Students Association agreed in February to host Cotler-Wunsh for a lecture on anti-Semitism and human rights, one of several planned stops on a speaking tour organized by the Academic Engagement Network, a pro-Israel advocacy group. But on April 14–one week before Cotler-Wunsh’s talk, which is scheduled for Friday—Yale’s Jewish Law Students Association told the Academic Engagement Network that it would no longer be able to sponsor the event, according to Miriam Elman, the network’s executive director.

The drama follows a string of anti-Semitism controversies at the Ivy League university, which just this month hosted Houria Bouteldja, an anti-Israel activist and outspoken defender of Hamas, on the second night of Passover.  The event’s timing sparked blowback from Jewish students—though not from the Jewish Law Students Association—who said their religious obligations prevented them from organizing a counter-event or from attending the talk to pose questions.

Though the Jewish Law Students Association gave no reason for its about-face, Cotler-Wunsh and two Yale law school professors said they understood that the group succumbed to pressure to call off her lecture.

It is not clear who was applying that pressure, and Morgan Feldenkris, the president of the Jewish Law Students Association, did not respond to a request for comment. The talk would have been canceled but for deputy dean Yair Listokin’s willingness to step in and host the event himself, Elman said. Listokin declined to comment.

Dean Yair Listokin, also a chaired Professor of Law at Yale, saved the day, but I’d still like to know who pressured the Jewish Law Students Association to back away from supporting what was, after all, a pretty uncontroversial talk. Or is fighting anti-Semitism somehow controversial?

And who else could apply that pressure save someone who doesn’t want an Israeli politician—regardless of their views—to speak?  And yet, as the article recounts, Yale has been a venue for a fair bit of anti-Israeli activity:

This is not Yale Law’s first debacle over anti-Semitism or the Jewish state. In 2021, the Yale Law Journal hosted a diversity trainer, Erika Hart, who accused the FBI of artificially inflating the number of anti-Semitic hate crimes. And last year, activists at the law school urged students to boycott a spring break trip to Israel, plastering signs around the school that called Israel an apartheid state, according to sources familiar with the matter. Some of those activists, two sources said, were themselves members of the Jewish Law Students Association.

Here’s a tweet from Cotler-Wunsch as she went to Yale. I can’t find any account of her talk on Friday, not even at the Yale Daily News, but it must have gone on as scheduled. Thanks, Dean Listokin!

h/t: Ginger K., Malgorzata