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.
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.
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:
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”
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
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”
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
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
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
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
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and racist stereotypes, and their negative effect on students
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Reasons: Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and depicts child sexual abuse
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:
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:
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”
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
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
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”
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
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”
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Reasons: banned and challenged for profanity and for “vulgarity and sexual overtones”
Drama written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier. Reasons: challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and for concerns that it goes against “family values/morals”
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
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!
It’s that time of year again: the time when the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) awards its yearly “Worst Colleges for Free Speech” kudos. (The University of Chicago always gets the “Best College for Free Speech” award.) There are ten awards plus a lifetime award to a particularly censorious college. Click on the screenshot below to see the details. I’ll just name the colleges and give a few words about why they’re on the list.
Of course all public universities must adhere to the First Amendment. Several of the colleges singled out by FIRE are private schools, but they’ve also made a pledge to respect freedom of speech, a pledge that they violated.
The winners (i.e., losers), in no particular order. The offenses are given in much more detail in the article.
University of Tennessee, UT Health Science Center, Memphis, TN. A doctoral student in pharmacy was investigated for her excessive “sexuality” in her social-media posts, even though she didn’t identify herself as a student in the program. She’s sued the university.
St. John’s University, Queens, NY. A professor was removed from the classroom indefinitely for asking students whether the transatlantic slave trade had any positive effects on biodiversity. He didn’t try to justify slavery; this was part of a course on the effects of transatlantic ship traffic on biodiversity. He’s sued the University.
Collin College, McKinney, TX. A history professor criticized Mike Pence on Twitter during the Vice-Presidential debate, saying that the moderator “needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.” The college issued a statement condemning her tweets and gave her a written warning despite the fact that her tweets were protected by the First amendment. Collin College then refused to renew her contract. Collin College did several other questionable things that are detailed in the piece.
Haskell Indian Nations University, Lawrence, KS. This is a publicly-funded school. It kicked out a student during the pandemic, forcing him to sleep in his car, for criticizing a university official. It also tried to order the student newspaper not to criticize the University.
New York University, New York, NY. NYU’s school of medicine tried to prevent its doctors from making any public comments about the coronavirus without consulting the University. This constitutes “prior restraint”. (NYU is a private school but swears to uphold free speech.)
Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA. A professor gave a student permission to say the n-word during a class discussion about why it’s inappropriate to use the word. The prof didn’t say the word, but allowed a student to do so pedagogically. The professor was removed from the class and then suspended for seven months without pay, including mandatory training. The prof has hired an attorney.
Frostburg State University, Frostburg, MD. Like NYU, this school told its employees not to speak to the media about how the school was handling the pandemic. (That’s illegal, as this is a public school.) It then investigated and harassed a reporter for the student newspaper who criticized the school’s pandemic response.
Northwestern University in Qatar, Doha, Qatar. This Qatari branch of the Chicago school canceled a rock band concert because the lead singer was openly gay, citing “safety concerns.” They had the event on the U.S. campus, but violated freedom of expression overseas.
University of Illinois at Chicago. A law professor asked a hypothetical question on a law-school exam using redacted words. The question included an assertion that a person said they were called “a ‘n______’ and ‘b_______’. (profane expressions for African Americans and women” Yes, the words were censored on the exam. And how could he have posed a hypothetical any more sensitively? After all, to judge the case you need some idea how the words were used. Nevertheless, UIC opened an investigation into the professor’s exam. This is chilling of speech, pure and simple.
Fordham University, New York, NY. Fordham has repeatedly refused to recognize a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine because “its sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group.” This has been going on for four years. As I’ve said, I consider SJP an Islamist organization, but it’s both illegal and unethical to not recognize it when it recognizes other organizations with political agendas. The school also suspended a student for legal postings on his Instagram account.
And. . . . a school gets a Lifetime Censorship Award for repeated violations of its free-speech code! Voilà:
There’s too much to recount, but here’s one paragraph:
Even inaugurating a new chancellor in 2014 did not stem the tide of student rights abuses — Kent Syverud oversaw the dismantling of an entire engineering fraternity and the expulsion of several members in 2018 over their private satirical “roast.” Syracuse claims that the voluntary skit constituted “conduct that threatens the mental health” of others once it was leaked to the public — an assertion so preposterous that it led to lawsuits in state and federal court, where university attorneys attested, under oath, that the school’s speech promises are, in fact, worthless. Syracuse concluded the decade by rejecting a Young Americans for Freedom chapter over its conservative viewpoints, banning all fraternity social activity despite no evidence of misconduct by any of the students, and, most recently, placing a professor on leave for writing “Wuhan Flu or Chinese Communist Party Virus” on his course syllabus.
It’s sadly ironic that the university itself argues that its promises of free expression are worthless. Parents, don’t let your children grow up to be Syracuse students!
And as a downer, here’s some illegal chilling of speech on the high-school level (click on screenshot):
An excerpt (the whole article is quite interesting in showing how the school simply fired the coach for questioning the curriculum as a parent):
Judicial Watch announced today that it filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of David Flynn, the father of two Dedham Public School students, who was removed from his position as head football coach after exercising his right as a citizen to raise concerns about his daughter’s seventh-grade history class curriculum being changed to include biased coursework on politics, race, gender equality, and diversity (Flynn v. Forrest et al.(No. 21-cv-10256)).
The lawsuit, which was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, seeks damages against the superintendent, high school principal, and high school athletic director for retaliating against Flynn for exercising his First Amendment rights.
A lot of people don’t like Quillette because they consider it an “alt-right” site. That’s not true: it’s a “contrarian” site that publishes stuff that’s often critical of the extreme or authoritarian Left. And I have to give kudos to editor Claire Lehmann for building up the site from nothing to a go-to site for those who are generally liberal but can’t stand wokeness, censorship, or authoritarianism. While there’s some plonk on the site, there are also a lot of good reads.
The site isn’t full of Nazis or white supremacists, so I was baffled to get a mass email from Claire declaring that Quillette has been banned from Facebook. An excerpt:
As you may have heard, Facebook has blocked Australian users from viewing or sharing news content on their platform. The mass-blocking is in response to new media laws proposed by the Australian Government which would mean that digital giants such as Facebook are required to pay for news content.
I have been critical of the proposed media code. We did not expect to benefit from it at Quillette, and we generally take a neutral position on battles between legacy media corporations and multinational digital giants.
But in resistance to the proposed laws, Facebook has now blocked Australian news sites, and Quillette has been included in the wide net that has been cast. Our Facebook page has been wiped and our links are blocked on the platform. If you would like to share a Quillette article on Facebook you will be unable to, even if you live outside of Australia.
Currently, Facebook is our third source of traffic referral, with the platform having sent over six million readers our way since our inception. Losing this stream of traffic is a significant and unexpected blow, and it will impact our revenue.
Other Facebook pages have also been caught in the dragnet. Australian Government Health Department pages, local Fire and Rescue services, weather services such as the Bureau of Meteorology and academic forums such as The Conversation have all been blocked. This is clearly a ham-fisted response. The proposed code has not been passed into law, yet Facebook is attempting to manoeuvre the Australian Government into submission.
The article referred to in Claire’s tweet is from Bloomberg Technology, and refers to a proposed law requiring sites like Facebook and Twitter to pay news sources when displaying their articles. That would mean, for instance, that if somone shared a news article on Facebook (including the news source itself, many of which share articles on Twitter), Facebook would have to pay that news source. That, of course, is insane, because it’s free publicity from the social-media site and if the news site charges for access, like the New York Times, readers would still have to pay to read an article.
Apparently Google and Facebook objected, and succeeded in securing an “arbitration panel” that would decide how much compensation should be given to the news sources.
But I’m still puzzled as to why Quillette, which isn’t really a “news source”, and doesn’t share direct links to news sources (save as hyperlinks in the text), was blocked—along with first responder and weather pages. Who’s running the railroad Down Under? At any rate, some folks won’t be able to share Quillette links on Facebook (I’ll try doing it myself) until this blows over. In the meantime, Claire has asked for donations to the organization, and you can follow her personal Facebook page.
I just did an experiment trying to share a Quillette link on Facebook, and it worked (see below). I guess only Australian users can’t put up posts like this:
Regardless of what you think about canceling book deals with those Republicans who urged an audit of the election—as Simon and Schuster did with Josh Hawley’s book (now picked up by Regnery)— surely most readers can’t agree with the letter below, which says that no publisher should put out books by anyone considered part of the Trump administration. (That also holds for those who stormed the capitol, whether or not they were arrested.)
At least that’s the way I interpret the letter, which is genuine and appeared on the website of Barry Lyga, an author of books for young adults(click on screenshot). Lyga, who did not sign the letter, titled his post “No book deals for traitors“, and I presume is opposed to the letter. But it’s already been signed by more than 500 authors, agents, and people who work in publishing; and miscreants are still signing on here. (Click on screenshot to enlarge.)
As I’ve said repeatedly, while publishers have the right to publish whatever books they want, and can reject books based on not just their content but their authors, this is completely unwarranted censorship of authors based on their politics. It means, of course, that not only do the signers oppose publishes accepting Trump’s memoirs, but books by anyone who was part of his administration, including Robert Mueller, Nikki Haley, Anthony Fauci (who did not “scoff at science”), Ben Carson, James Mattis, and so on.And not just books about Trump—books about anything. (Don’t forget that Obama’s administration also “caged children” as well as killing civilians with drones.)
And it assumes that anybody who worked for the Trump administration agreed with all its policies, which is simply a lie.
This is an attempt to censor works by people who have political opinions different from yours. It is an attempt to silence those who disagree with you and to suppress their views. Beside that, it’s an attempt to punish people for being on the “wrong” side politically. Yet think of all the people who worked in the Trump administration and weren’t big fans of his. Some of these people, or even the “criminals” more closely aligned with Trump, may have worthwhile things to say and to hear.
The 500+ signers of the letter don’t want to hear them, though—indeed, they don’t want anybody to hear them!
This is an example of Woke Fascism: the worst behavior of the Authoritarian Left. They call anyone associated with the Trump administration a criminal, for those who were part of the administration are accused of “enabling, promulgating, and covering up crimes.” Talk about hyperbole!
I won’t reproduce the list of signers (I don’t recognize any of them), but here are some of the houses with Pecksniffian editors and employees. I’ll stop at the J’s:
Jessica Awad (Media Assistant Editor, W. W. Norton & Company)
Kat Bennett (Senior Cartographer, Hachette Book Group)
Rachel Blaifeder (Editor, Cambridge University Press)
Sam Brody (Editorial Assistant at Hachette Book Group)
Megan Carr (Senior Sales Support Associate, HarperCollins Publishers)
Henna Cho (Digital Sales Associate (SImon & Schuster))
Angelica Chong (Editorial Assistant, Macmillan
Mia Council (Assistant editor, Penguin Random House)—MY PUBLISHER!
Michella Domenici (Springer Nature)Rachel Dugan (Publicity Assistant, Penguin Random House) ANOTHER!
Carl Engle-Laird (Editor, Macmillan)
Leah Gordon (Senior editor, Avalon Travel, an imprint of Hachette Book Group)
Sarah Grill (Associate Editor, Macmillan)
Stephanie Guerdan (Assistant Editor, HarperCollins)
Sarah Homer (Assistant Editor, HarperCollins Publishers)
Madeline Houpt (Editorial Assistant, Macmillan)
I’ll stop now, but have to add that these people do not deserve their jobs in publishing—not when they decide to reject in advance books by anyone who was in the Trump administration. This bodes ill for the future of publishing, for these are reputable houses, and they control a lot of books who go to the public. It’s a metastasis of the cancer of Wokeism.
And if you respond, “Tough. These editors and authors did the right thing in trying to silence Republicans,” then I have no use for you. And I have only marginally more use for those who say, “Nobody’s entitled to a book deal; publishers are doing the right thing by ruling out a priori books by any of these people.” That is an extraordinarily punitive and close-minded point of view.
The book below is scheduled to be published in about two weeks, which means it’s not even out yet—unless they released it beforehand. It’s by Andy Ngo, a conservative journalist who’s described by Wikipedia as “editor-at-large of The Post Millennial, a Canadian conservative news website”. We’ve encountered him before in several posts on this site, many of them covering Antifa in a negative light (Ngo is from Portland: Antifa Central); but I haven’t followed his reporting or writing in a long while, and didn’t know that he wrote a book on Antifa. It’s due out February 2.
But although the book hasn’t yet been released, it is in fact #1 among all Amazon books (Obama’s memoir is number 5), so It’s already a bestseller and will haul in a lot of dosh for Ngo. But its Amazon site (click on cover below) is curiously devoid of descriptions, and has no endorsements. That’s highly unusual for a #1-ranked book. I haven’t read it, but I suppose its popularity is due to the public’s increased interest in Antifa, alleged—falsely—to have participated in last week’s storming of the Capitol.
Portland is of course the wokest town in America, and is also home to Powell’s Books, one of America’s best bookstores, which also has a reputation for wokeness. I spent a lot of time in Powell’s on my two visit to Portland, and actually bought some books there despite my own bookshelves being jammed full. It’s an excellent store. Portland would of course carry Ngo’s bestseller, but it poses a dilemma for them. The town is woke, the bookstore is woke, yet the book is anti-woke and anti-Antifa. What to do?
The good citizens of Portland (and I use that adjective ironically) decided to picket the bookstore—not because it actually had the physical book in its store, but because it was carrying it online. There were protests in front of the chain’s flagship store on Sunday and Monday, and eventually they closed the store. Here are two photos from OregonLive: though it’s not much of a demonstration.
I don’t think Powell’s closed its store to send a message to the protestors so much as to protect its property from Antifa’s well-known propensity to do damage. But they did issue a statement about why they are carrying the book—a statement that asserts Powell’s commitment to free speech but, at the same time, emphasizing that the book is basically against the store’s values and causes “pain” to the community. In other words, Powell’s sent a mixed message, trying to satisfy everyone.
Further, the store has emphasized that it won’t be carrying the physical book in its store: you can get it only by ordering online. That’s part of the mixed message as well. You can see Powell’s high-sounding statement by clicking on the screenshot below.
Now in fact this would be an excellent statement if it didn’t go out of its way to denigrate the book. Here’s a statement from the store’s owner, and there’s more on the site. The emphasis is mine.
Dear Powell’s community,
At Powell’s, a lot of our inventory is hand-selected, and hand-promoted. And a lot of our inventory is not. Unmasked by Andy Ngo came to us via one of our long-term and respected publishers, Hachette Book Group. We list the majority of their catalogue on Powells.com automatically, as do many other independent and larger retailers. We have a similar arrangement with other publishers.
Since Sunday, Powell’s has received hundreds of emails, calls, and social media comments calling for us to remove Unmasked from Powells.com. Demonstrations outside our Burnside store have forced us to close to ensure the safety of employees, protestors, and neighbors. If we need to remain closed, we will not hesitate to do so.
As many of you may be following these events, I want to offer additional context about our decision to allow this book to remain online.
Since the first published texts there have been calls to disown different printed work, and at Powell’s we have a long history of experiencing these calls, and the threats they bring with them, firsthand. Until recently the threats were from those who objected that we carried books written by authors we respected or subjects we supported. The threats were real but we could feel virtuous — we were bringing the written word to the light of day. We could feel proud of our choices, even when the choices created conflict.
Our current fight does not feel virtuous. It feels ugly and sickening to give any air to writing that could cause such deep pain to members of our community. But we have always sold books that many of us would reject. We have fought for decades, at Powell’s, for the right of a book to stand on its own. Doing so is one of our core values as booksellers.
In our history we have sold many copies of books we find objectionable. We do that in spite of all the reasons not to, because we believe that making the published word available is an important and crucial step in shedding light on the dark corners of the public discourse. It is actually a leap of faith into the vortex of the power of the written word and our fellow citizens to make sense of it.
That leap of faith is inextricably woven into our existence as Powell’s: faith in our customers is what first propelled us from a small corner store into who we are today. We recognize that not every reader has good intentions, or will arrive at a writer’s intended destination, but we do believe that faith must extend to our community of readers. That offering the printed word in all its beauty and gore, must ultimately move us forward. As my father says, if your principles are only your principles sometimes, they’re not principles at all.
Read more about our commitment to free speech below.
President and Owner
Get that bit about the book causing “deep pain to members of our community”! If the book isn’t out yet, and people haven’t read it, then where does the “deep pain” even come from? Presumably from Ngo’s reputation alone. It’s typical of of the censorious Left to demand the banning—for that’s what they want here—of books they haven’t read. In fact, they don’t care what’s in the book; they’re trying to prevent people from reading anything by Ngo. And that is cancel culture.
Now there’s a FAQ section of Powell’s response as well, which has virtuous statements like the following:
Booksellers are not censors. We have the privilege to curate, promote, and act as guides to the books and ideas we value, but it is antithetical to our core mission of free speech to impose limits on what our customers read. At the end of the day, making space for books and readers with whom we disagree is the nonviolent antithesis to the dominant impulse to shout down (or worse) anyone who doesn’t support your worldview, something we see daily on social media and, more terrifyingly, in America’s seats of power. Given the choice between holding our noses over a book and bowing to pressure to begin banning them, we will always choose the former.
As an independent bookstore, Powell’s believes that it is our responsibility to respect your choice of reading material. We are dedicated to providing a wide array of books, authors, viewpoints, and voices, and our selection is one of the things that sets Powell’s apart from our peers in bookselling. We provide these options out of deference to the First Amendment, but just as importantly, because we believe that exposure to a multiplicity of writing — in fiction and nonfiction alike — facilitates critical thinking and spurs conversation and growth.
That is all good stuff. But why did they have to ruin it by saying stuff like this?:
Why wouldn’t you make an exception to your policy for a book as inflammatory as Unmasked?
Unmasked was written by a provocateur who has made a career of inciting violence over inflammatory and inaccurate ideas that divide people into factions. It is natural that his supporters and detractors have passionate, emotional responses to our carrying his book online.
Talk about inciting violence! That’s Antifa’s modus operandi!
The next question they answer is “Why would you carry books you find deplorable?”, implying that Powell’s does indeed find Ngo’s book deplorable. You can read the answer for yourself.
The most arrant hypocrisy is the failure of the store to carry the physical book so that people can go into the store, look at it, and decide whether to buy it. Now you’re saying, “Well, the Antifa folks would just damage or destroy any physical books on the shelves.” That may be true—and of course shows that Ngo has a point, for exercising censorship is eroding democracy—but Powell’s could always keep the book behind the counter. Here’s Powell’s unconvincing explanation for why it’s selling the book only online.
Why would you sell the book online but not in stores?
Even a store as large as the City of Books can’t carry every book on the market. To expand our offerings for our customers, Powell’s and many other retailers make their distributors’ and publishing partners’ catalogs available for purchase online. This is how a book like Unmasked, which our buyers did not purchase for the stores, finds its way onto Powells.com.
Yeah, right. They can’t carry the #1 book on Amazon in the store? Who on earth believes that explanation? And of course they could order more copies to sell in the stores. No, they aren’t carrying the book either because they’re afraid of Antifa or because they are exercising some kind of restricted access—censorship. Either alternative bespeaks cowardice and undermines the eloquent defense of free speech given elsewhere in Powell’s statement.
Which is worse, a Democrat accused of pedophilia or a Republican Senator questioning Biden’s victory? I ask because those of you who thought that Hachette’s cancelation of the book deal it made for Woody Allen’s memoirs—a cancelation I thought was bad form, as the publisher caved to its employees, and of course there was no evidence for the accusations against Allen—might ask yourself the same question about Simon & Schuster’s new cancelation of an upcoming book by Josh Hawley.
Yes, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) was one of those morons who was going to officially call for an audit of the election this week. That was unconscionable, and made doubly bad by this report, taken from Wikipedia:
Before the counting of the votes, to which Hawley had publicly announced he would object, he saluted the protestors and rioters with a fist pump as he walked outside the Capitol.
Nevertheless, does he bear responsibility for what happened at the Capitol two days ago? I would be reluctant to ascribe to him responsibility for those attacks, for I hold Trump (and the protestors themselves) responsible. Trump incited the violence, not Hawley or the other 12 misguided Senators. You can say, well, their actions helped fire up the protestors, but so did a lot of other Republican actions. This was a long time in the making, and the fomenting of Republican ire was done by many.
Nevertheless, Simon & Schuster, clearly objecting to Hawley’s actions and his politics, have canceled plans for his new book, which wasn’t really about politics but the tech industry. The New York Times has an article about the cancelation (click on screenshot):
Just a few quotes and I’ll sum up:
Simon & Schuster said on Thursday that it would cancel the publication of an upcoming book by Senator Josh Hawley, one of several members of Congress who tried to overturn the results of the presidential election.
“We did not come to this decision lightly,” Simon & Schuster said in a statement. “As a publisher it will always be our mission to amplify a variety of voices and viewpoints: At the same time we take seriously our larger public responsibilityas citizens, and cannot support Senator Hawley after his role in what became a dangerous threat.”
But his role, misguided as it was, was legal, and within the bounds of the Constitution. This leads to the question, which the Times poses, of the role of publishers in an America sharply divided along political lines. Books by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Donald Trump Jr. (Hachette author), Sean Hannity (and you could argue that he helped work up Republicans), and Tucker Carlson (ditto) have been published by major houses, and ten to one somebody will snap up Trump’s ghostwritten memoirs, Triumphs of the Ill, after he leaves office. (Yes, I made up the title.)
The Times reports as well that “the escalation of the rhetoric from the president and some of his supporters in recent weeks has likely changed the calculus for editors and publishers who are wary of provoking a backlash from readers and employees.” In other words, they lack spine. But the job of all good publishers—except for religious and explicitly political ones—is not just to make money or push a favored ideology, for most of them know that most of their books won’t turn a profit. Many publishers and editors simply love books because they love speech, discussion, and ideas. Further, as I said, Hawley’s book wasn’t about politics, so he’s being punished for his political beliefs and actions:
The subject of Mr. Hawley’s book, which was already available for preorder on Amazon and other retailers, is not about the election or Mr. Trump, but about technology corporations like Google, Facebook and Amazon.
Does what Hawley think still deserve to be heard after what he did? Yes, I think so, though I won’t read his book—the subject doesn’t interest me.
Of course Simon & Schuster have a right, or so I think, to cancel the book (it depends on what was in the book contract), but I don’t think they should have. Although convicted criminals can still publish books, even about their crimes, sometimes the law forbids them to profit from their crimes. That’s what happened with this book, written by O. J. Simpson (notice the small “if” in the title), who wasn’t convicted of murder but lost a civil suit (the $600,000 Simpson was reportedly paid went to the Goldman family).
So, much as I dislike Republicans and despise those who sought to overturn an already-certified election, I don’t call for all of their books to be canceled or rejected from now on. Publishers have the right to reject them—there’s no First Amendment right to have your book published—but it’s arrant cowardness, and against the unwritten code of good publishers, to cancel a book simply because you don’t like the politics of the authors.
If this is truly to be a time of healing, as Joe Biden emphasizes so often, we can’t continue to dehumanize our political opponents. Perhaps (and this may be likely) our reaching out may be sufficiently rebuffed that we can leave them alone completely. But we shouldn’t cancel their books, accost them in restaurants, or insult them in public. I think we should be better than that.
‘You’re not entitled your book contract,’ can quickly become ‘United doesn’t have to let you onto its planes’ ‘Marriott doesn’t have to let you stay at its hotels,’ or ‘Visa doesn’t have to let you use its cards.’
Now I’m not sure about the legality of refusing these services to people whose politics you don’t like; it seems to me like illegal discrimination. Lawyers should weigh in here. And, as I said, a publisher is under no obligation to publish a book by someone the editors don’t like. But if they deem the book worth publishing initially, which is decided when a contract is issued, then short of stuff like plagiarism or similar circumstances, the book still deserves to be published.
I’m sure others might object, but I don’t need a second; my own opinion is enough for me. (You know the rest. . .)
Writer Thomas Edsall is best known for his weekly op-ed in the New York Times, with the latest example below. It’s a long column, and not a bad one at all, even though I disagree with his conclusion that the First Amendment seems obsolete because, in the age of social media, free speech cannot promise “that factual information is guaranteed”.
Note that what is asserted in Edsall’s headline is not that the First Amendment has “wrecked free speech”, but that Trump’s lies have. The rationale for First-Amendment free speech in America is that it ensures a “free marketplace of ideas,” and, with that in place, the assumption is that truth will Triumph. Now that’s clearly not been so obvious under Trump, because he beleaguers the American public with untruth, and many of them buy it.
Is the wrecking of the benefits of the First Amendment, then, due to the election of a fascist as President, which has nothing to do with the Amendment itself, or to social media, which allows a largely unregulated dissemination of lies? That, too, has nothing to do with the Constitution, because social-media companies like Facebook and Twitter, as private corporations, aren’t required to abide by that Amendment. And those companies are already engaged in regulating speech in a manner that wouldn’t stand up if they were government agencies. But that hasn’t worked, either. It was social media, after all, that led to the debacle on Capitol Hill yesterday.
Another argument is that we do need to modify the First Amendment: we need to go to the European system in which some “hate speech”, like Holocaust denial and blasphemy, is banned. That doesn’t seem to have worked, either: those countries don’t seem to have less “hate” than America, and at any rate, I don’t see how banning, say Holocaust denial, is useful. In fact, I think it’s harmful, as people have no impetus for learning what the real evidence is for the Holocaust. The benefits of free speech are that you can hear the best arguments of those whose views you oppose. That was suggested by Mill, who also mentioned another benefit: if odious speech is prohibited, you’ll never learn who its exponents are.
At any rate, Edsall’s piece is fair in that he airs both sides in extenso. In fact, most of the airtime goes to those who want to keep the First Amendment intact. Yet at the end he concludes we need more regulation of speech to ensure that the truth will out. But he’s not specific about how this will happen. I’ll give some quotes from those on different sides of the issue; Edsall has done his homework by interviewing lots of people
Arguments for Modifying the First Amendment (Edsall’s words indented; those of his interviewees further indented):
In making, embracing and disseminating innumerable false statements, Trump has provoked a debate among legal scholars over whether the once-sacrosanct constitutional protection of free speech has itself become a threat to democracy by enabling the widespread and instantaneous transmission of lies in the service of political gain.
In the academic legal community, there are two competing schools of thought concerning how to go about restraining the proliferation of flagrant misstatements of fact in political speech.
Richard Hasen, at the University of California-Irvine Law School, described some of the more radical reform thinking in an email:
There is a cadre of scholars, especially younger ones, who believe that the First Amendment balance needs to be struck differently in the digital age. The greatest threat is no longer censorship, but deliberate disinformation aimed at destabilizing democratic institutions and civic competence.
Change is urgent to deal with election pathologies caused by the cheap speech era, but even legal changes as tame as updating disclosure laws to apply to online political ads could face new hostility from a Supreme Court taking a libertarian marketplace-of-ideas approach to the First Amendment. As I explain, we are experiencing a market failure when it comes to reliable information voters need to make informed choices and to have confidence in the integrity of our electoral system. But the Court may stand in the way of necessary reform.
Of course Trump’s lies were disseminated mostly Twitter, which is free to make its own rules. It can ban some speech, as it did yesterday for Trump (but for only 12 hours), censor it, as it did yesterday by hiding three of Trump’s tweets, or ban some people for speaking, as it threatened to do if Trump persisted. It is up to these companies how they handle speech, and what they decide to censor, but I would still favor them having fairly lax restriction, as close to the First Amendment as possible. After all, there’s no law against people standing up in public and telling injurious lies. Social media can spread lies faster and more widely, but the same goes for truth via counter-speech.
More calls to reform the First Amendment:
Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia and a contributing opinion writer for The Times, is largely responsible for pushing the current debate onto center stage, with the 2017 publication of his essay, “Is the First Amendment Obsolete?” by the the Knight First Amendment Institute and subsequently in the Michigan Law Review:
“The First Amendment was brought to life in a period, the twentieth century, when the political speech environment was markedly differently than today’s,” Wu wrote. The basic presumption then was “that the greatest threat to free speech was direct punishment of speakers by government.” Now, in contrast, he argued, those, including Trump, “who seek to control speech use new methods that rely on the weaponization of speech itself, such as the deployment of ‘troll armies,’ the fabrication of news, or ‘flooding’ tactics.”
But these aren’t new methods, just ones that can be deployed faster. And, as I said, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube can counter what they see as undesirable speech via censorship or banning. The problem with that, of course, is whether we trust these companies to do the right thing. I, for one, don’t. They already are biased in how the censor anti-Israeli speech (largely tolerated) and anti-Palestinian speech (often censored as “Islamophobia”). Of course companies can do what they want, but there’s no guarantee that they themselves won’t tilt speech toward their ideological preferences. Note, too, that Laurence Tribe, below, says that every era has argued that “political speech is different from what it was.”
are the most worrisome of the exogenous shocks facing democracies because they undermine the advantages that democracies once enjoyed over authoritarianism.
Democracies, Schor continued, “have muddled through profound crises in the past, but they were able to count on a functioning marketplace of ideas” that gave the public the opportunity to weigh competing arguments, policies, candidates and political parties, and to weed out lies and false claims. That marketplace, however, has become corrupted by “information technologies” that “facilitate the transmission of false information while destroying the economic model that once sustained news reporting.” Now, false information “spreads virally via social networks as they lack the guardrails that print media employs to check the flow of information.”
It seems to me that this “corrupt marketplace” still gives people the opportunity for counterspeech and weeding out false claims. And if the fault is “information technologies”, then what’s the solution? The technologies are here to stay, and who wants to give Zuckerberg the ultimate power over what speech should be aired?
And what happens at colleges where students, though they can’t exercise direct censorship, can still create bannings and deplatformings, and silence those who oppose them. This has created a rigid ideology in which Critical Theory gains ascendancy and no dissent is brooked. This purported attempt to eliminate “hate speech” has resulted in gutting the free discourse that is the heart of our universities.
Should we adopt the European system? (which of course means modifying the First Amendment). Nobody in the article seems to favor this.
Here’s what Erwin Chemerinsky (dean of UC Berkeley’s law school) has to say:
On the negative side, Chemerinsky noted that:
It is easy to spread false information. Deep fakes are a huge potential problem. People can be targeted and harassed or worse. The internet and social media have caused the failure of many local papers. Who will be there to do the investigative reporting, especially at the local level? It is so easy now for people to get the information that reinforces their views, fostering polarization.
Despite these drawbacks, Chemerinsky wrote that he is
very skeptical of claims that this makes the traditional First Amendment obsolete or that there needs to be a major change in First Amendment jurisprudence. I see all of the problems posed by the internet and social media, but don’t see a better alternative. Certainly, greater government control is worse. As for the European approach, I am skeptical that it has proven any better at balancing the competing considerations. For example, the European bans on hate speech have not decreased hate and often have been used against political messages or mild speech that a prosecutor doesn’t like.
Indeed; blasphemy—the criticism of religion—can still be punished in parts of Australia, as well as in Austria, Canada, Finland, Ireland, Poland, South Africa, Spain, and other countries in the West, not to mention the many Muslim countries. Granted, Western countries don’t often prosecute blasphemy, or don’t have explicit “blasphemy laws” (but can penalize criticism of religion), but the point is that if religion got into power, it could censor its critics. And I think laws banning Holocaust denialism or pro-Nazi sentiments are either counterproductive or haven’t worked. Remember too that many, many people see criticism of religion as “hate speech.” The First Amendment, however, says it’s okay. It is okay, and the ability to criticize religion is vital in dispelling a pernicious influence on society.
The problem is with advertising, capitalism, or the print media, not the social media. Some of those interviewed blamed the proliferation of lies to the failure of mainstream media (MSM) to be responsible enough to do objective reporting or on new “advertising models”. A few quotes:
Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Harvard, was outspoken in his call for reform of free speech law:
There’s a very particular reason why this more recent change in technology has become so particularly destructive: it is not just the technology, but also the changes in the business model of media that those changes have inspired. The essence is that the business model of advertising added to the editor-free world of the internet, means that it pays for them to make us crazy. Think about the comparison to the processed food industry: they, like the internet platforms, have a business that exploits a human weakness, they profit the more they exploit, the more they exploit, the sicker we are.
Well, this seems to apply more to the Internet than the mainstream media—have you looked at HuffPost lately, though?—but it doesn’t make a lot of sense. What does it mean to say that advertisers “profit the more the exploit, the sicker we are.” This seems to be a problem of all advertising, not just the Internet. And, at any rate, the fix for this has nothing to do with regulating non-advertising speech. Deceptive advertising is not protected by the First Amendment anyway, so what should we do: keep advertisers from “exploiting” us? Good luck with that?
A different argument from Jack Balkin, a law professor at Yale:
The problem of propaganda that Tim Wu has identified is not new to the digital age, nor is the problem of speech that exacerbates polarization. In the United States, at least, both problems were created and fostered by predigital media.
Instead, Balkin contended:
The central problem we face today is not too much protection for free speech but the lack of new trustworthy and trusted intermediate institutions for knowledge production and dissemination. Without these institutions, the digital public sphere does not serve democracy very well.
A strong and vigorous political system, in Balkin’s view,
has always required more than mere formal freedoms of speech. It has required institutions like journalism, educational institutions, scientific institutions, libraries, and archives. Law can help foster a healthy public sphere by giving the right incentives for these kinds of institutions to develop. Right now, journalism in the United States is dying a slow death, and many parts of the United States are news deserts — they lack reliable sources of local news. The First Amendment is not to blame for these developments, and cutting back on First Amendment protections will not save journalism. Nevertheless, when key institutions of knowledge production and dissemination are decimated, demagogues and propagandists thrive.
We also lack reliable sources of national news. But again, as Balkin notes, this has nothing to do with the First Amendment. It may be part of the problem, but what is the cure?
When you look at the views of First Amendment scholars I’ve admired, like Geoff Stone here at Chicago or Lawrence Tribe at Harvard, they don’t see changing the First Amendment to counter whatever problems exist—though Stone notes that, as is true with any amendment, interpretations of the courts may change over the years. These scholars, and several others, favor keeping the First as it is. Curious, then, that though the weight of cogent argument is in favor of keeping the Constitution as it is, Edsall feels otherwise (see his conclusion below):
Geoffrey Stone, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, voiced his strong support for First Amendment law while acknowledging that Wu and others have raised legitimate questions. In an email, Stone wrote (my emphasis):
I begin with a very strong commitment to current First Amendment doctrine. I think it has taken us a long time to get to where we are, and the current approach has stood us — and our democracy — in very good stead. In my view, the single greatest danger of allowing government regulation of speech is that those in power will manipulate their authority to silence their critics and to solidify their authority. One need only to consider what the Trump administration would have done if it had had this power. In my view, nothing is more dangerous to a democracy that allowing those in authority to decide what ideas can and cannot be expressed.
Having said that, Stone continued,
I recognize that changes in the structure of public discourse can create other dangers that can undermine both public discourse and democracy. But there should be a strong presumption against giving government the power to manipulate public discourse. [JAC: I’d add “social media companies” to “government”]
The challenge, Stone continued,
is whether there is a way to regulate social media in a way that will retain its extraordinary capacity to enable individual citizens to communicate freely in a way that was never before possible, while at the same time limiting the increasingly evident risks of abuse, manipulation and distortion.
The problem is exacerbated because “regulating social media” runs exactly the same risks as “allowing government regulation of speech”, but the regulators are corporations rather than the government. If Twitter is now most people’s source of news and information, then Twitter is in fact more powerful than the government, and their own biases pose a danger to free discourse.
Laurence Tribe, a constitutional scholar at Harvard, agrees with Stone, and doesn’t think we should go to the European system:
In one of the sharpest critiques I gathered, Laurence H. Tribe, emeritus professor at Harvard Law School, wrote in an email that,
We are witnessing a reissue, if not a simple rerun, of an old movie. With each new technology, from mass printing to radio and then television, from film to broadcast TV to cable and then the internet, commentators lamented that the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly enshrined in a document ratified in 1791 were ill-adapted to the brave new world and required retooling in light of changed circumstances surrounding modes of communication.” Tribe added: “to the limited degree those laments were ever warranted, the reason was a persistent misunderstanding of how constitutional law properly operates and needs to evolve.
The core principles underlying the First Amendment, Tribe wrote, “require no genuine revision unless they are formulated in ways so rigid and inflexible that they will predictably become obsolete as technological capacities and limitations change,” adding that
occasions for sweeping revision in something as fundamental to an open society as the First Amendment are invariably dangerous, inviting as they do the infusion of special pleading into the basic architecture of the republic.
In this light, Tribe argued
that the idea of adopting a more European interpretation of the rights of free speech — an interpretation that treats the dangers that uncensored speech can pose for democracy as far more weighty than the dangers of governmentally imposed limitations — holds much greater peril than possibility if one is searching for a more humane and civil universe of public discourse in America.
Agreed. And after all this (I’m not leaving out much criticism of First-Amendment free speech), Edsall still quotes Hannah Arendt as if Edsall thinks that that Amendment still poses a problem:
The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and the truth defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world — and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end — is being destroyed. . .
Totalitarianism required first blurring and then erasing the line between falsehood and truth, as Arendt famously put it:
In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true ….
Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.
And here’s Arendt in “Truth and Politics” again, sounding like she is talking about contemporary politics:
Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute.
America in 2021 is a very different time and a very different place from the totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century, but we should still listen to what Arendt is saying and heed her warning.
Her warning is that the proliferation of lies doesn’t drive out truth so much as make people cynical about truth; it’s a reiteration of the ideology of Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But how do we “guarantee factual information?” I don’t see how we can do that unless someone becomes the arbiter of fact. And we know that what is seen as “fact” depends on who’s in charge. Trump, for instance, saw climate change as fake rather than fact. And of course in science facts are provisional, as they should be.
It would be nice if Edsall would have told us exactly how we’re supposed to pay attention to Arendt. How do we heed her warning? The only recourse I see is allowing someone to determine what the facts is (like Steve Miller’s “detective down in Texas”).
Former basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has taken up a new career as a writer and activist, and he’s pretty good at it. Well, what I mean is that I often agree with what he says, like decrying the failure to call out anti-Semitism in sports. (“Calling out”, though, means just that; it doesn’t mean censorship.) And yet he’s also defended the violence accompanying this summer’s racial protests.
And yes, Abdul-Jabbar is also a bit woke, which isn’t too bad so long as he’s not calling for censorship or other authoritarian actions. Sadly, in his new column at The Hollywood Reporter, where he writes regularly, that’s exactly what he does. He thinks that social media companies should “slap warnings” not just on posts with false claims, but also on posts that “incite violence or are harmful to society.” Who, though, gets to decide what’s violent or harmful? Guess!
Click on the screenshot to read.
The Hollywood Reporter isn’t exactly a high-profile media site, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a high-profile person, so I’ll report briefly on his opinions.
He begins by noting that the public often feels Schadenfreude at the downfall of high-profile people, which is generally true. But then his examples include Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, who were rightfully excoriated (and imprisoned) for sexual assault. From them he segues into someone less criminal, Rudy Giuliani, who’s been brought low by his own stupidity, and then. . . . yes, he apparently puts J. K. Rowling in the same lineage:
Sadly, Giuliani is not alone in his stumble from grace. Few are more beloved than J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter books make up the best-selling series in history. Yet her anti-trans tweets may not only damage the Potter and Fantastic Beasts franchises, they could end up tainting her entire literary legacy. Even the stars of the movies — Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Eddie Redmayne — have spoken out against her position. John Cleese’s tone-deaf defense of Rowling left many fans bitterly disappointed, tarnishing his reputation.
Note the red flag of “tone deaf”, as sure a sign of Wokeness as the word “erasure”. Unfortunately, Rowling’s comments were not “anti-trans”, but against the notion that transsexual women were exactly identical in all respects to biological women. One can make a good argument, in fact, that Rowling is right in this claim, even though she showed immense empathy for the travails faced bu transsexual women. Just because a few of the woke stars in her movies have criticized her on the specious grounds that she was “transphobic” doesn’t mean that she is transphobic. In fact, she’s not. As for her destroying her own literary legacy, I wouldn’t count on it.
Abdul-Jabbar then goes on to defend “cancel culture” because it prevents harm to society.
It would be tempting to dismiss this self-mutilation as merely the triggering of overly sensitive “cancel culture.” But some of this public braying does immediate harm to the foundation of society. Giuliani’s attacks on the integrity of the 2020 elections, without any substantive evidence, has undermined the democratic process. A post-election poll indicated that 77 percent of Republicans think Joe Biden won because of fraud. Since no credible proof has ever been shown, this opinion can only be held because they practice flat-earther, anti-vaxxer cult-think: Someone in authority told me what I want to hear, so it must be true. Unfortunately, they include celebrities as “authorities.” (Yes, I’m aware that I am a sports celebrity, but I have been writing books and articles about history, culture and politics for 30 years to establish my credibility.)
And indeed, Giuliani’s criticism of the elections as phony (along with a gazillion Republicans), was stupid, and perhaps “harmful” in the sense that it buttressed those benighted folks who wanted Trump to win. But of course there was lots of counter-speech, too—largely by the media. Giuliani was shown up as a loudmouthed moron, and only Trump now seems to think that the elections were rigged. What Abdul-Jabbar is saying, of course, is trite; there’s really nothing new in the editorial except “some conservatives acted like morons and, I think, harmed society, so their speech should be flagged or censored.” As for the last humblebragging sentence, Abdul-Jabbar may indeed be a culture critic, but he’s no more qualified to defend “cancel culture” than anyone else. If he thinks that Rowling is a transphobe, he’s got some reading to do.
Abdul-Jabbar then proceeds to give a litany of conservative celebrities who have embarrassed themselves—at least to us on the Left—with conservative rants or posts: Roseanne Barr, James Woods, Jon Voigt, and so on. (He doesn’t mention, of course, Left-wing celebrities who have said stupid things, because Abdul-Jabbar is on the Left.)
But what to do? FLAG WHAT THEY SAY! And what do you flag? Stuff that, in most cases, is speech protected by the First Amendment, though of course social media sites need not adhere to that standard (though they should).
Social media companies have begun slapping warnings on some messages that are false, incite violence or cause harm to society. But this needs to be done with more consistency and vigilance. Studies indicate that when readers see these warnings, they are less likely to read or believe things. However, as another study showed, there can be a backfire effect in which content that isn’t flagged, even when inaccurate, is perceived as true.
God forbid that some people might like content that, to Abdul-Jabbar, “incites violence” or, worse, “causes harm to society”.
What, exactly, does Abdul-Jabbar mean by “harm”? Apparently it’s stuff like J. K. Rowling’s thoughts on transsexual women, or James Woods’s defenses of Donald Trump. As far as I can see, none of that stuff has either incited violence, and the harm to society that it’s caused, if any, is much less than the harm that would come if you give someone like Abdul-Jabbar the power to censor others, or to decide what speech is “harmful.” Frankly, though there was an outcry over Rowling’s remarks, did she really “harm” society with her thoughtful remarks on transsexuals? I don’t think so. What “harm” did Woods do? He gave conservatives a movie star who supported them. So what? What I really fear is people like Abdul-Jabbar getting their hands on the levers of censorship. And I bet he’s just itching to do so, for he could then, slap labels on all the conservatives or “transphobes” he doesn’t like. In a poorly written conclusion, that’s what he calls for:
Many Americans imbue stars with political and social intelligence they just don’t have. Great success in one field can lead to the delusion that all your thoughts are great. It doesn’t help to be surrounded by fawning people whose job it is to agree with everything you say. The irresponsibility of tweeting irrational and harmful opinions to millions, regardless of the damaging consequences to their country or people’s lives, proves that those stars deserve the harsh backlash. Unfortunately, the long-term result may be that their professional legacies could become brief footnotes to the memory of their collection of mason jars filled with their excreted opinions.
Mason jars? He needs an editor. . . .
Yes, by all means we should speak out against what we think is irrational and harmful. But it’s one thing to label tweets by the President of the United States, and another to do that with the likes of J. K. Rowling or James Woods. The “harm” that the latter folks do is, in the end, to offend Left-wingers like Abdul-Jabbar, who can’t stand the thought that a conservative movie star might actually influence somebody’s opinions.
And of course Facebook and Twitter are free to flag or censor what they want, but they’ve done a damn bad job of it. My view has always been that such platforms should use as light a hand as possible in dealing with speech.
Apparently publishers are supposed to adopt a consistent ideological point of view, publishing books that comport not only with “progressive” ideology, but also avoiding publishing any books that violate it. If there are such violations, the books should not be published. This is what happened when Hachette decided not to publish Woody Allen’s memoirs after employees objected—on the totally unproven grounds that Allen was a pedophile.
You’ll probably remember Jordan Peterson’s 2018 best-seller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, a self help book that remains at #95 on Amazon nearly three years after publication. I’m not much interested in the phenomenon of Peterson, who seems unhinged at some times and coherent and thoughtful at others, so I haven’t read any of his works. I did, however, look at 12 Rules in a bookstore, and found it mildly amusing and inoffensive—and possibly of help to some people.
Despite Peterson being demonized by the Authoritarian Left for his views on pronouns and masculinity (neither of which I agree with), his self-help book, published by Random House Canada, avoided all the political stuff. Here are the rules as summarized in Wikipedia:
“Stand up straight with your shoulders back”
“Treat yourself like you are someone you are responsible for helping”
“Make friends with people who want the best for you”
“Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today”
“Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them”
“Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world”
“Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)”
“Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie”
“Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t”
“Be precise in your speech”
“Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding”
“Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street”
Each of these rules was the subject of a short chapter, and I especially appreciated rule #12, which I think is a good one and one that I obey religiously.
I judge the reviews to have been mixed but on the positive side of neutrality (here’s a fair, and pretty positive one in the New Woker), but the book sold like hotcakes: over five million copies.
Now Peterson—who’s had his share of troubles, suffering from depression and addiction, and nearly dying in Russia where he sought treatment—is about to publish a sequel to 12 Rules called Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. It looks pretty much like what it purports to be: more self-help, more rules. It will be published in March of next year.
Despite the fairly anodyne nature of this book compared to the other ruckuses Peterson has raised, many employees of his publisher are now outraged—not because of the book’s contents, but because of what Peterson has said in his talks and in other publications and interviews. The publisher, again Penguin Random House Canada (it changed its name), is going ahead with the book, but, as VICE reports below (click on screenshot), the publication has ignited a lot of controversy among employees.
Yes, it’s the usual stuff; a few quotes from VICE will suffice, and will show that it’s not this book the employees object to, but Peterson’s views in general. He is an Unperson and therefore should not be published:
Several Penguin Random House Canada employees confronted management about the company’s decision to publish a new book by controversial Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson at an emotional town hall Monday, and dozens more have filed anonymous complaints, according to four workers who spoke to VICE World News.
On Monday, Penguin Random House Canada, Canada’s largest book publisher and a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, announced it will be publishing Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life by Peterson, to be released in March 2021. The book will be published by Portfolio in the U.S. and Penguin Press in the U.K., both part of the Penguin Random House empire.
Four Penguin Random House Canada employees, who did not want to be named due to concerns over their employment, said the company held a town hall about the book Monday, during which executives defended the decision to publish Peterson while employees cited their concerns about platforming someone who is popular in far-right circles.
. . . A third employee told VICE World News the company’s diversity and inclusion committee received at least 70 anonymous messages about Peterson’s book, and only a couple are in favour of the decision to publish it.
. . . “I feel it was deliberately hidden and dropped on us once it was too late to change course,” said the junior employee who is a member of the LGBTQ community. The employee said workers would have otherwise considered a walkout, similar to what Hachette employees did when the publisher announced it would be publishing Woody Allen’s memoir; Hachette later dropped the book.
Four Penguin Random House Canada employees, who did not want to be named due to concerns over their employment, said the company held a town hall about the book Monday, during which executives defended the decision to publish Peterson while employees cited their concerns about platforming someone who is popular in far-right circles.
“He is an icon of hate speech and transphobia and the fact that he’s an icon of white supremacy, regardless of the content of his book, I’m not proud to work for a company that publishes him,” a junior employee who is a member of the LGBTQ community and who attended the town hall told VICE World News.
Is there hate speech in this book? I doubt it? Is there transphobia? I doubt that, too? White supremacy? If Peterson has been a white supremacist, I don’t know about it, but I seriously doubt there’s any of that in his upcoming book.
The view that a publisher must publish books hewing to a consistent ideological line:
“The company since June has been doing all these anti-racist and allyship things and them publishing Peterson’s book completely goes against this. It just makes all of their previous efforts seem completely performative,” the employee added.
. . . “(But) [Peterson’s] the one who’s responsible for radicalizing and causing this surge of alt-right groups, especially on university campuses.”
And the “harm”:
Another employee said “people were crying in the meeting about how Jordan Peterson has affected their lives.” They said one co-worker discussed how Peterson had radicalized their father and another talked about how publishing the book will negatively affect their non-binary friend.
The employee said the company’s diversity and inclusion committee aired concerns about how this will affect other authors.
“We publish a lot of people in the LGBTQ+ community and what is the company going to do about making sure these authors are still feeling supported by a company that is supporting somebody who denies their existence,” the employee said.
. . . All of the workers who spoke to VICE World News said if the book isn’t cancelled, they would like Penguin Random House Canada to consider donating the profits from the book to LGBTQ organizations.
Crying??? When I read this kind of stuff, and realize that the book isn’t likely to contain anything seen as “transphobic” or “Nazified”, I want to tell these employees to a.) get a grip and b.) realize that publishers are one of the main venues for promulgating controversial speech. Only religious or creationist publishers have catalogues that don’t include dissenting voices, and Penguin Random House, which happens to be my own publisher in the U.S., has a consistent policy that they accept books based on quality and interest (and profitability, see below), not whether they’re ideologically palatable. If that were the case, they wouldn’t have published Faith Versus Fact. They knew my book would encounter criticism from the faithful, as indeed it did.
Think about how many books you disagree with, whatever your political stand. Many of those are solid books that make good arguments, and even if you reject the arguments, can you say that those books shouldn’t have been published? If so, then you’re not in favor of free speech.
Now of course publishing is a business, and part of the decision to accept books is also based on their likely profitability. But publishers realize that most of their books won’t make money, and they count on a few blockbusters to keep them afloat. Peterson’s book is likely to be one of these, since its predecessor sold over 5 million copies worldwide. But I doubt that Penguin Random House Canada simply wouldn’t publish the book if it were loaded to the gunwales with slurs on trans people or claims of white supremacy. No, it’s another cute self-help book, likely to contain nothing offensive save the name of the author.
But that’s enough. Peterson has been officially Canceled, and therefore nobody should publish anything he says.