In a few pages at the end of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury gives us an eloquent defense of freedom of speech as he recounts the ridiculous editing of short fiction for consumption by students in the middle 20th century. These pages should be required reading now, as Bradbury reminds us that not only governments can censor thought and art and that all censorship is dangerous and deplorable.
“There is more than one way to burn a book,” he writes. “And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” This should resonate with anybody paying attention today as misguided activists demand that Netflix remove The Closer from its streaming line-up because they find Dave Chappelle’s jokes offensive. The badly reasoned USA Today op-ed I linked even quotes academics in opposition to Chappelle, which is ironicury because the first victims of the government’s war on books in Fahrenheit are scholars of literature, history and philosophy.
Says Bradbury: “Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist/Zionist/Seventh Day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.”
Bradbury is as annoyed at the petty censors from society as he is the professionals who kowtow to such audiences, citing market forces as reason enough to blandify art and culture to suit the under-developed tastes of amateur critics.
These few pages, clearly stated and a strong rebuke to the forces of order and obedience now at work in our homogenizing culture, are refreshing and vital.
The purpose of this blog is deliberately not political. I could write an 800 word column about current affairs every day and publish it here. Many mistakes would be made, no doubt, but it could be done. Instead, I’ve stuck more to musings about literature and to a lesser extent television, film and art. I haven’t even touched on music. When I get political, it’s largely about free speech and cultural issues surrounding the notion in an age where censorship is seen as something only a government can indulge in.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, two whistleblowers who revealed vast wrongdoing by the U.S. government, starting with Chelsea Manning’s leak about U.S. war crimes in 2010 and followed by Edward Snowden’s revelation of a massive and illegal government surveillance and data collection observation. Assange is in jail in the United Kingdom, fighting extradition to the U.S., where he would be charged under the espionage act. Snowden lives in exile in Russia and would face Espionage Act charges were he to ever return home.
It’s a common American refrain that the accused should be willing, if not eager, to face trial, if they believe they acted rightly. But the Espionage Act would prevent either from using the substance of their information leaks as a defense for their actions. A jury would not be able to fully consider the argument that they broke government secrecy laws only to expose larger and more eggregious crimes by the government. When you’re charged under the Espionage Act, your defense is immediately hobbled. Chelsea Manning went to jail. Refusing to participate in an unfair trial seems reasonable though such a refusal is, also, a crime. The accused, in these circumstances, are practically left with the choice of accepting punishment they don’t deserve or continuing to commit crimes to avoid unfair persecution.
Let’s let all that rest. The reason I’m bringing it up now is that Zinn is friends with Daniel Ellsberg and in his book he recounts Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the complete history of the U.S. and Vietnam, including how the Gulf of Tonkin incident was staged by the U.S. as a justification for war. Ellsberg brought the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971 and the paper resisted government orders and injunctions not to publish them. It was a principled choice that might not fly today, in a world where digital advertising agencies and social media platforms now dictate news content with an eye only towards their own bottom lines and friendly government relations.
Another interesting point is that Ellsberg was indicted and put on trial but that the charges were ultimately dismissed because President Richard Nixon had ordered his cronies to break into Ellsberg’s property, seeking information to discredit him. Imagine that — a judge finding the actions of the executive branch so inappropriate, illegal and alarming, that a prosecution was halted. We seem farther from that kind of thinking today.
At this point, I’d like to see Assange and Snowden pardoned. Both, for all they may be criticized for, revealed information that self-governing citizens have a right to know. We have a lot of work to do to get there, though, and I think it’s going to require a turn back towards older forms of radical thinking where we collectively defend what’s right, rather than what’s written into the law.
At least the Streissand Effect still works. I had never heard of the novelist Bruce Wagner before he took back his manuscript from Counterpoint Press over his editor telling him to excise the word “fat” from his story. Chris Beck at SpliceToday has the most complete account of the story where an author with a real following was asked to tone down his content to avoid offending people’s sensibilities.
Wagner uses the word fat to describe a character who calls herself Fat Joan and she is purposefully trying to bring her weight to 1,000 pounds in a bid for reality television celebrity. This is not the authorial voice labeling a character “fat” as an insult — it’s the voice of a character whose psychological fitness is more meant to be questioned by the reader than her physical fitness.
Though, what if, I wonder, the author had meant to question the girth of his own creation? It’s hard to imagine Shakespeare’s Falstaff or Sir Toby Belch without prodigious bellies. Or, in the case of Alfred Jarry, the lard of his Pere Ubu is absolutely meant as moral judgment as a tyrant king starves his people to feed his avarice — such things happen in real life, even in America today. We’re having an election about it.
It’s getting harder and harder for writers who haven’t established an audience to stand up to the demands of sensitive editors and even professional “sensitivity readers” trying to avoid “cancel culture” episodes. I see two big problems for authors with unique voices these days:
A non-trivial portion of young intellectuals, who might be counted on to buy books and support artistic expression, have taken a strict view of “freedom of speech” where only government can “censor” content and no artist can expect an unfettered right of expression on any publishing or even social media platform. They do not view the publisher’s demands for edits as inappropriate and would argue that Wagner’s ability to distribute his novel through his own website is all the free speech that a healthy culture needs. The ethos here is one were you can speak all you want but have no right to be heard. This is unhelpful for artists and thinkers without an established audience or platform and especially for artists who need to be paid for their work.
Related: publishers used to champion controversial work but are unwilling or unable to do so in a culture that will censure them for taking risks. It’s publishers, after all, who brought the ethos of sensitivity reading, not to mention sensitivity readers, into the industry.
Without the support of publishers willing to push back against social prudery, Beck finds that: “Younger writers are more accepting of their prose being nannied by the guardians of faux civility, which doesn’t bode well for the future of the power of the written word.”
What’s little understood here is that freedom of speech isn’t something that can be captured entirely by the first ammendment, and it doesn’t end with government censorship. It’s an ethos, and one that we’re culturally abandoning, one lost novel at a time.
What if all the good free speech has been defended already? The United States government hasn’t gone after James Joyce, DH Lawrence or Theodore Dreiser in a long time. While the occasional local library might perk up against this book or that, it seems like the real free speech fights are all about Twitter running the right wing QAnon conspiracy group off of its platform or whether Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos can visit a college campus. Even progressives who value freedom of speech highly yawn at that stuff.
Who really wants to go to the mat for the organizers of a white supremacy march looking for a parade permit? Who has the time, energy or spirit to want to stick up for those people? Free speech has an image problem. If the voices most prominent suppressed by legal, corporate or cultural voices are the ones spreading hate, racism, conspiracies and misinformation, folks will not lose sleep over it.
In her new book, Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech in Our Time(HarperCollins, July 2020), PEN America president Suzanne Nossel explores our collective willingness to loosen our commitment to the First Amendment in favor of other values that seem at least as important right now. “If free speech is discounted as a retrograde precept used mainly to provide a safe harbor for hateful ideologies, these protections will be vulnerable as political attitudes evolve,” she writes.
Attitudes are changing quickly among the young, who seem to take a narrow view of free speech rights (only the government can censor you, nobody has a right to a book deal) and who increasingly believe the government should get into the content regulation business. In 2017, Smith College surveyed its students and asked if “free speech should be granted to everyone regardless of how intolerant they are of other people’s opinions.” Only half said yes. When Smith conducted the same survey in 2007, 70% answered affirmatively. Pew says that 40% of Millenials support the government regulating speech that might be offensive to minorities. Nossel recalls a Black woman employee at PEN telling her “The First Amendment wasn’t written for me,” and then concedes that her employee had a point.
Nossel sees danger here and attempts to address it from a couple of a couple of angles. First, her book is a defense of free speech as an innate human right, necessary for self-governance, economic success and all creative endeavours. But she recognizes this is not enough. While Pen America steadfastly defends, say, the rights of white novelists to write from the point of view of characters from other cultures and while it refuses to support boycotts that threaten to stop publications or to shutter events, she believes that the commitment to freedom of speech will only erode if other values aren’t included.
So, for example, while she’ll defend the rights of white authors to create whatever characters they want, she’ll also push the publishing industry to diversify itself, for its own good and the good of society. Maybe people would object less to the white voice if it weren’t the only voice. She also warns against needless provocation, particularly online, and counsels that better quality speech (knowing what you’re talking about) might pre-empt those social media cultural cancellations that get so much press. It’s the ignorant statement, rather than the innocent statement, that tends to cause people trouble, after all. Also, cool it on calling people “snowflakes.” It doesn’t help.
Of activists compelled to protest the speech of others, Nossel has some requests that will likely be ignored. Say your piece, she says, but stop short of drowning out the speaker. Attack ideas with enthusiasm, she says, but if your activism denies other people the chance to hear a talk, buy a book or see a film, you’ve gone too far. Eschew “The Heckler’s Veto” and don’t celebrate using social power to get people removed from their jobs or books pulled from store shelves. But Nossel’s call for civility has already been rejected by activists who claim the rules for civil debate seem designed specifically to mute their impact.
All of this seems to point towards either a resurgence of government regulation of the content of speech or for the government to encourage and reward large companies and social media platforms for acting on its behalf by running services that look like public spaces but are, in fact, gated gardens where owners can make the rules.
Our current system, where the government takes a largely neutral approach to speech content is only a century old, emanating from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in Abrams vs. The United States where the Supreme Court allowed for the imprisonment of left wing activists protesting the U.S. contravention of the Russian Revolution. We could easily slip backwards.
“University of Michigan Law professor Catharine A. MacKinnon argues that judicial interpretations of the First Amendment have been progressively corrupting, such that ‘once a defense of the powerless, the First Amendment over the last hundred years has mainly become a weapon of the powerful.’” writes Nossel. “She decries that a one-time shelter for radicals, artists, and activists is now used to protect Nazis, Klansmen, racists, and misogynists.”
Countries in the European Union routinely ban hate speech, Holocaust denial and the like. Such laws would be unconstitutional here, but Nossel sees that public opinion is shifting to where most people would likely accept such prohibitions as fine. Then, if laws also required social networks to conform, people wouldn’t object to that either. To most people, the EU is hardly oppressive. So what if it’s illegal for some chump to show off his white power tattoos?
The full-throated defense of even abhorrent speech might become an extreme position in American politics. Nossel is committed to it and her book is necessary right now, both as a guide for how to argue and as a celebration of the moral foundation of an open society. Nossel should win the day. But I’m skeptical she will.
Arcade Publishing, the press that brought out Woody Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing in a surprise drop today, has a venerable record of fighting censorship and prudery. Its founder, the late Richard Seaver, brought D.H. Lawrence’s suppressed novel Lady Chatterly’s Lover to the public in the 1950s.
“Richard Seaver, an editor, translator and publisher who defied censorship, societal prudishness and conventional literary standards to bring works by rabble-rousing authors like Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, William Burroughs and the Marquis de Sade to American readers, died Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 82.”
As editor in chief of Grove, he also published The Story of O as well as work by William Burroughs, Henry Miller and the Marquis de Sade. Arcade, the publisher he founded and grew into one of the most important independent publishers in the U.S. has an impressive backlist that includes the memoir of director Ingmar Bergman, for which Allen provided an introduction.
How appropriate that this daring publisher has stepped up to douse the flames of 2020’s virtual book burning.
I don’t know what it was that had me reaching for my Voltaire a few months ago — probably something in the cultural air portending a dissolution of standards and, yes, a Closing of the American Mind that must be dealt with.
New Rules for Cultural Criticism:
Don’t speculate about real people’s personal lives, you’ll never get it right.
Never wish a creative work out of existence. Criticize it all you want, denounce it if you must, but never seek to destroy it or isolate it from other people’s attention.
“De-platforming,” or whatever the scolds are calling it these days, has more in common with red baiting, blacklisting, book burning and Victorian shaming than it does to liberation or empowerment.
The first amendment is a subset, and a damned small one, of free speech and expression. It does not define the concept.
It’s fine not to work on creative projects that offend you morally, but it’s bankrupt to try to hinder them if the creators wish to move on without you.
While you can reassess works you liked in the past, you shouldn’t ignore what initially attracted you to the art. While you don’t have to laugh at the same joke over and over, you can’t unlaugh at something.
Everybody has standing to create anything and to comment on anything. This is the essential human right from which all others derive.
Wandering through the Tribeca Barnes & Noble today, I came upon something surprising in these repressed cultural times. The publishers of the maligned and protested American Dirt have stuck by their author, as has Oprah’s book club.
Not only that, but a store employee who likes the book is not afraid to say so.
Of course I’m not saying anybody should like this novel or buy it. But imagine letting readers decide, rather than giving into pressure from activists who are out for nothing more than to silence the people they dislike and the points of view they’re afraid to contend with.
My aim here is not to write much about politics but creative arts are often, if not always, political and lines cannot be clearly drawn all of the time. We’re in the midst of Democratic primary season for the 2020 presidential election and former New York City mayor and the multibillionaire founder of Bloomberg LP, Michael Bloomberg, is running on a “can do” mantra, touting his competency and accomplishments. Fine. But he’s also complaining that his campaign offices are being tagged around the country with spray-painted epithets like “Oligarch,” “corporate pig,” and “Eat the rich.”
Of course, the Bloomberg campaign will take exception to this but, at the same time, the candidate has said he’d spend maybe $1 billion of his own money on advertising. His ads became quickly ubiquitous on all major social media platforms and on cable television networks. He bought a massive amount of ad spots to run on MSNBC during a debate where he was a participant and MSNBC was one of the sponsors. He bought Superbowl ads. Bloomberg is using his massive wealth to flood and takeover public spaces both online and off.
Graffiti is a communications tool used by people without $1 billion to also get their message out to the public. A Mike Bloomberg campaign office is an advertisement to everybody who walks or drives by it. So is a graffiti tag. Bloomberg will never see it that way, of course, but in the spirit of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Hambleton and more importantly, to resistance movements around the world, we should see these tags not as the affront that Bloomberg does but as artists taking back space that Bloomberg is buying in our minds.
I grew up with and have long practiced a kind of first amendment absolutism that seems now to be out of step with our times. It’s not that people don’t believe in the first amendment — polls show that most do and pretty much everyone I know would say they do — it’s more that people will no longer rank it as the highest value as issues of safety and social equality have taken new precedence in our discourse.
I first encountered this impulse directly in the 1990s, as part of an Albuquerque-based theatre company producing Ntzozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf with a multiracial cast, a decision that ran afoul the sensibilities of a local bookstore and led to protests. It didn’t even matter to those offended that Shange had explicitly blessed the production and casting.
We tend to view new attitudes about speech and whats constitutes offensive speech as a highly contemporary development, but this has been with us since the social awakenings of the 60s and was huge in the 90s. Along the way, the right of anybody to say whatever they want has eroded and the simple dismissal “you’re just complaining about the social consequences of speech,” doesn’t really suffice as an answer. Not if those social consequences are shutting people out of global conversations.
In an online literary forum where the topic of American Dirt was raised, I wrote: “We all have an absolute right to tell any story we want.”
The first response: “Hard disagree.”
This isn’t exactly an attack on the Constitution is how the argument tends to proceed. The Constitution only guarantees that the government will not stop something like American Dirt from being written and published. It makes no promises about people buying the book, agreeing to sell the book or not protesting the book’s existence. That’s all true. The right to write a book is equal to the right for somebody to protest the book’s existence. That’s the deal.
But I sill believe that the conviction that certain people shouldn’t even attempt to tell certain stories represents the beginning of an erosion of free speech. “A white woman shouldn’t have written American Dirt,” is just not an argument I can get behind even as “A white woman shouldn’t have written American Dirt badly,” is one I’m fine with.
We should argue about the quality of speech, not the existence of speech. The Freedom Forum Institute, which conducts an annual poll about first amendment attitudes shows that absolute support for free speech is slipping. In 2018, 23% of the poll respondents said that first amendment protections “go too far.” That number climbed to 29% in 2019. Can nearly a third of Americans really believe such nonsense?
35% of respondents believe that student journalists in public schools should need school administrator approval to write about controversial topics in student run publications. 27% believe that teachers should be allowed to punish students for the contents of their social media posts.
We allow and accept, by the way, that employers can fire people for what they post on social media or for having political bumper stickers on their cars. We also allow and accept that the massive corporate gatekeepers of the internet and the wider culture, like Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Twitter can promote or ban whatever speech they want and we say that this is proper because they are private even though corporate censorship may be a bigger threat than government censorship in contemporary America.