Photo by Joel Bellman
San Francisco Beat Museum, 2021.
Todayâ€™s conservatives have done a masterful job creating a fake media narrative casting themselves as stalwart defenders of free speech against the woke mobs of the â€śRADICAL LEFT DEMOCRATS,â€ť as the criminally charged Former Guy routinely screams from his Truth Social account.
Like all propaganda and disinformation, in its most persuasive iteration there is always a grain of truth at the heart of the claims, which most people are unable or unwilling to disentangle from the web of lies and deceit spun around them.
It is true, and deplorable, that conservative speakers sometimes get shouted down or disinvited altogether from some college campuses. And it is not only disappointing, but flat wrong that politically incorrect individuals and viewpoints are suppressed by book publishers, newspapers, and magazines. And suppressed not as part of editorial judgment, but as a result of ideologically oriented external protest campaigns, or internal pressure from hypersensitive employees who have no business overriding an orderly process.
Here, Iâ€™m thinking specifically of:
Woody Allen, whose memoir â€śApropos of Nothingâ€ť was abruptly canceled by Hachette Book Group only days before publication in March 2020 (but subsequently published by Skyhorse Publishing) after employee protests because of a longstanding (but unproven and never prosecuted) claim by his adoptive daughter that Allen had once molested her 28 years earlier.
James Bennet, the New York Times editorial page editorâ€”and brother of Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO)â€”who was fired in June 2020 because the newsroom employees loudly objected to a conservative op-ed piece by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK).
Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) whose estate in 2021 bowed to an organized outside campaign to end publication of six of his childrenâ€™s books because they â€śportray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,â€ť e.g. a â€śChinamanâ€ť with pigtails and peaked hat in the 1938 book â€śTo Think That I Saw it On Mulberry Street,â€ť and an â€śEskimo fishâ€ť wearing a little parka in â€śMcElligotâ€™s Poolâ€ť (1947).
Blake Bailey, whose monumental biography of author Philip Roth was renounced by his publisher W. W. Norton & Co. soon after its well-reviewed publication in 2022 because a number of women subsequently emerged who alleged sexual misconduct by Bailey years before when he was a teacher. No charges had ever been brought forward, and the claims remain unproven. Baileyâ€™s new book will reportedly recount his bitter experience with cancel culture.
Roald Dahl, famously misanthropic author of â€śCharlie and the Chocolate Factory,â€ť â€śJames and the Giant Peach,â€ť and many other darkly humorous childrenâ€™s and adult books, whose estate recently collaborated with his publisher Penguin/Puffin UK to edit out purportedly offensive language that might threaten todayâ€™s young readers. It took the Queen Consort herself, Camilla, to back off the publisher in remarks to supporters of her online book club: â€śPlease remain true to your calling, unimpeded by those who may wish to curb the freedom of your expression or impose limits on your imagination.â€ť As in the notorious New Coke/Classic Coke marketing debacle, Puffin quickly announced that it would retain the original versions in print after all, as part of a new â€śclassicâ€ť series.
In all these examples, the pressure came from the stereotypical snowflakey left, while the criticism came from the right, whose adherents love to preen as fearless free-thinkers. But the truth is that historically, itâ€™s the liberals, progressives, artists and intellectuals who have invariably been the critics and truth-tellers, while the right has been far more censorious than the left, driven by imperatives of dogmatic religiosity and social and political control.
Go back to Anthony Comstock, the 19th century Puritanical (literally) â€śsocial reformerâ€ť who in 1872 founded the Committee for the Suppression of Vice, bankrolled by New York Cityâ€™s rich and powerful, and mounted a crusade that confiscated thousands of books, pictures, and other â€śobsceneâ€ť material. He succeeded in pushing for a federal law, known informally as the Comstock Act, which broadened the definition of obscene matter to include information on abortion and birth control. After the law was signed, Comstock was appointed a special agent of the U.S. Post Office, where he zealously enforced his ban on mail-order â€śsmutâ€ť until his death 42 years later.
You can trace a straight line of Comstockery through the Motion Picture Production Code that sanitized American movies 1934-1968; the 1934 Communications Act that created the FCC and imposed strict â€śdecencyâ€ť standards on American broadcast licensees (including comedian George Carlinâ€™s â€śseven dirty wordsâ€ť that became part of a Supreme Court case); the 1954 Comics Code driven by fears of crime and horror comics spurring juvenile delinquency; then-NY Mayor Rudy Giulianiâ€™s 1999 threats to defund and evict the Brooklyn Museum over a â€śblasphemousâ€ť painting of the Virgin Mary; and right on up to the present day, where PEN America has identified 2,352 instances of book bans between July 2021 and June 2022, a staggering number that today is almost surely a significant undercount.
When you hear about book bans, the news stories often mockingly focus on such relatively wholesome and inoffensive literary staples as â€śTo Kill a Mockingbird,â€ť â€śOf Mice and Men,â€ť â€śGone With the Wind,â€ť â€śThe Color Purple,â€ť and â€śFahrenheit 451.â€ť
But thatâ€™s not the whole story: the American Library Association notes that the vast majority of books subject to complaints or removal from classrooms and libraries in the name of â€śparental controlâ€ť focus not coincidentally on people of color and LGBTQ themes. To put it bluntly, they mainly want to ban books that threaten the power and privilege of the straight white patriarchy. A survey published last September by EveryLibrary Institute, a non-profit library advocacy organization, found Democrats three times more likely than Republicans to consider preventing book bans â€śvery importantâ€ť in their decisions on voting. And while only 3% of those surveyed support book bans on the classics, a whopping 34% would support banning books that focus on sexuality.
Itâ€™s also no coincidence that the leading Republican challenger to the indicted Former Guy for the 2024 presidential nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is his partyâ€™s leading cultural warrior and book-burner-in-chief. Legislation speeding through Floridaâ€™s Republican legislature at his behest would expand the stateâ€™s â€śdonâ€™t say gayâ€ť education ban from third grade all the way through high school, and among other provisions would allow any resident to demand the instant removal of an â€śobjectionableâ€ť book from K-12 schools and keep it off the shelves â€śuntil the objection is resolved,â€ť by whatever process and however long that may take.
Anthony Comstock died in 1915, and in 1965 the Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut overturned the last remnant of the law that carried his nameâ€”a ban on contraception by married couples. But in 2023, in red-state America, Comstockâ€™s spirit of prudish repression is alive and well and more dangerous than ever.