Is It Worse to Ban a Book, or Never Publish It?

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

Is there class prejudice in the United States? If so, describe how it works. What are some specific examples? Is it underrated or overrated as a problem? How have you personally experienced or engaged in class prejudice? If you know another country well, how does class prejudice there compare with the U.S.? You needn’t answer every question.

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Conversations of Note

This week the World Health Organization declared monkeypox a global-health emergency and the Biden administration communicated to Congress that the United States may need $7 billion to mount an adequate response. But is it too late to stave off scenarios that could have been prevented with a better public-health response?

Scott Gottlieb, a former head of the FDA, is worried that he’s witnessing a historic failure:

If we have allowed monkeypox to become an endemic virus in the U.S.—which is becoming an increasingly possible outcome—it will be among the most unfortunate public health failures in recent times.

The journalist Josh Barro argues that the context is damning:

Monkeypox should have been a layup for the public health apparatus — precisely because it affects a relatively small and defined community, it should have been quick and easy to deploy an effective vaccine and educational response. Instead, the response has been late and insufficient at almost every turn. Now imagine how screwed we would be if this virus were more easily spread and/or caused more severe disease—the inadequacy of the government response would have been so much more dire. And that could be the nature of a future, different orthopoxvirus epidemic.

He seems to be referring to smallpox, which is in the same family of viruses as monkeypox and much deadlier. As the technologist Nicholas Weaver put it while characterizing the public-health failure:

The CDC was supposed to have spent the last 2+ decades preparing for the specific scenario of "what if someone resurrects Smallpox and releases it as a bioweapon." Now, when faced with a virus that is literally "Story Mode Smallpox" they fail … For Monkeypox there are vaccines that work (the Smallpox vaccines). Treatments that work (designed for Smallpox). Techniques that work (contact tracing as if it was Smallpox). It is not hyper-virulent. And they have failed, completely and utterly, to prevent this growing.

Arming Ukraine as China Watches

Whether you’re an internationalist, an isolationist, or somewhere in between, Jeffrey Goldberg’s conversation with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan affords insight into what the Biden administration is thinking as it continues to funnel weapons to Ukraine. One noteworthy exchange:

Goldberg: A question that comes up, in terms of supplying Ukraine with weapons … is that you’re also trying to buttress Taiwan with many of the same kinds of weapons. This goes to the issue of the “porcupine strategy.” Is Taiwan ready right now to repel a Chinese attack?

Sullivan: One of the things I’ve learned a lot about in the last 18 months is every form of artillery, munition, coastal defense system, naval mine that is produced on Mother Earth ... And there are longer-term questions about ensuring that the American defense industrial base, and the defense industrial base of our allies, can sustain the kind of security assistance that we are going to need in Ukraine, as well as Taiwan, as well as for ourselves, to ensure that we are maintaining a proper level of deterrent. That is going to require increased investment, increased workforce development, increased emphasis on supply chains, to ensure that components are not being cannibalized and that all of the necessary types of systems, especially munitions, are getting created in sufficient numbers

… one of the things that the United States has tried to do over multiple administrations, but that we have accelerated dramatically over the course of the past 18 months, is to try to ensure that in our defense and security relationship with Taiwan, we are focused on those capabilities that are going to be most useful in the kinds of contingencies we can expect, and not just rely on systems that they’ve had around for a very long time.

A lot of people talk about whether China is learning lessons from Ukraine. Of course they are. And some of those lessons are concerning. But not as many people ask, “Is Taiwan learning lessons from Ukraine?”

You can bet they are. They’re learning lessons about citizen mobilization and territorial defense. They’re learning lessons about information warfare. And they’re learning lessons about how to prepare for a potential contingency involving China, and they’re working rapidly at that.

Cancellation Nation

In a debate too often characterized by partisan hypocrisy and bereft of rigorous definitions, Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder shine, drawing useful distinctions while voicing this lament:

In the United States today, the left and right alike have aggressively embraced cancelation campaigns. Each side has its own distinctive objectives, strategies, initiatives and networks—as well as its own particular strongholds. The left and liberals are ascendant on most college campuses and predominate in the arts, culture and publishing industries. The right, of course, has the Fox News bullhorn and other like-minded media outlets. But its most vital sites of power are state legislatures. Fueled by alarm surrounding critical race theory and LGBTQ+ hysteria, Red State legislatures are in the midst of a frenzied, mass cancelation spree.

I’m often asked, “But which side is worse?” If two candidates are facing each other in an election that forces a binary choice, I’m happy to answer. Last time around, for example, I thought Donald Trump was the inferior candidate for people who are concerned about illiberalism. In general, however, I tend to think that right and left illiberalism fuel each other, such that asking which is worse is the wrong question. Regardless of the answer, both should be opposed.

For an example, consider the world of books. In my ideal scenario, no one would stand between an author and a willing reader, because I value freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry, even in cases, like The Communist Manifesto, where the ideas in a book led to real-world deaths.

In the Los Angeles Times, Michael Hiltzik expresses alarm at right-wing illiberalism in this realm:

Attacks on books occupy a special place among the signposts of philistinism and anti-democratic suppression.

So it’s proper to be alarmed at the upsurge of efforts to ban books from public schools and libraries, largely because they represent political views, lifestyles and life experiences that organized groups characterize as objectionable.

“It’s not that book banning itself is new,” says Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at the free-speech group PEN America. “The biggest trend is the force and the coordination around the country. What’s different is how school districts are giving in to these demands so quickly, in some cases without much due process whatsoever.”

Another disturbing aspect is how campaigns to ban books are linked to partisan political goals. “These are deliberate campaigns being waged with the support of political groups ... who use them as a new and promising front in our political and cultural battles,” Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of PEN America, told me.

So far, I agree. But later in the column Hiltzik writes:

It’s tempting to both-sides book-banning campaigns. After all, it’s said, just as politically motivated groups agitate for the removal of certain books from schools and libraries, book publishers face pressure—sometimes from their own staffs—to refuse or rescind contracts with certain authors. Is there really any difference?

Yes, of course there is—and it’s a qualitative difference. On one side are orchestrated campaigns, often employing government authority, aimed at large categories of works. On the other, objections from people questioning whether a book deal really fits the character that a publishing house is trying to project.

Sometimes a publisher sees things the staff’s way, sometimes not: When staff members of Simon & Schuster objected to that house’s deal with former Vice President Mike Pence, who was closely identified with discriminatory policies aimed at women and members of the LGBTQ+ community, executives decided that the company’s commitment to publish “a diversity of voices and perspectives” outweighed the objections and went ahead with the deal.

Mainstream publishers canceled publication plans for Woody Allen’s memoir “Apropos of Nothing” and Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth because of accusations of sexual misdeeds aimed at both authors; both books soon found a home with Skyhorse Publishing, an independent company that … has become known as what The Times described as “a publisher of last resort.”

Those cases are one-offs, targeted at specific books or authors. The right-wing campaigns are mass assaults.

While I concur that government censorship is different and often more alarming than decisions by private actors––and while I believe that private actors are legally entitled to behave in ways I might lament, including exercising their right to free association in ways that frustrate authors––it does not follow that we should be unconcerned by all decisions of private actors, as if they are incapable of stymying the culture of free inquiry and expression many of us value. In The New York Times, Pamela Paul provides an example that arguably warrants concern:

The American publishing industry has long prided itself on publishing ideas and narratives that are worthy of our engagement, even if some people might consider them unsavory or dangerous, and for standing its ground on freedom of expression. But that ground is getting shaky. Though the publishing industry would never condone book banning, a subtler form of repression is taking place in the literary world, restricting intellectual and artistic expression from behind closed doors, and often defending these restrictions with thoughtful-sounding rationales. As many top editors and publishing executives admit off the record, a real strain of self-censorship has emerged that many otherwise liberal-minded editors, agents and authors feel compelled to take part in.

If a culture of self-censorship is resulting in worthy books going unpublished, surely that loss is worth lamenting––after all, if the idea is that kids lose out when far-right school-board members keep a book out of libraries in their district, don’t many more readers of all ages lose out if analogous political pressure prevents a book from ever being published?

No one has explored this issue more compellingly than Kat Rosenfield, who wrote:

The O.G. book ban, in which someone tries to have a book removed from a library or classroom curriculum, was traditionally (and remains) a predominantly right-wing pursuit … That restricting the dissemination of controversial books is the preferred (and it seems, only) tactic of conservatives is somewhat mystifying, considering that it invariably backfires every single time, and in exactly the same way. Right-wing book bans receive massive amounts of outraged media coverage, and the titles they seek to suppress frequently become instant bestsellers thanks to liberal backlash-buying. In many cases, activists on the left will specifically mobilize to put copies of the forbidden book in the hands of every affected student …

Nobody risks imprisonment by reading or distributing banned books in 2022, and the books themselves are widely available in stores, libraries, and classrooms—not to mention celebrated annually across the country during Banned Books Week. While conservatives wring their hands over what their kids are reading, liberals embrace their identity as child-corrupting suppliers of literary contraband: one high school library currently displays copies of Maus, Maia Kobabe's Gender Queer, and other titles alongside a titillating placard: Stuff Some Adults Don't Want You to Read.

But where the quest to suppress objectionable reading material in America used to be more or less the exclusive purview of political conservatives and the religious right, today's censorship flaps are more diverse in both origin and execution. Those freedom-to-read liberals are also, increasingly, enthusiastic censors themselves—ones whose cultural influence is both greater and more insidious than their right-wing counterparts …

Unlike traditional book banning, which targets already-published work, this is a literary McCarthyism that flies largely under the radar; for every author who writes candidly about the deleterious effect of identitarian politics on their work, there are dozens who bristle at the interference but stay silent for the sake of their livelihoods. Ultimately, it's more chilling than anything the right could cook up. Left-wing censorship stifles creativity at the source, intimidates writers with the threat of social and professional death if they refuse to toe the line, and, crucially, obviates the entire notion of suppressing books post-publishing. After all, one need not bother banning what never existed in the first place.

It's also a feature of these practices that those who engage in them will categorically deny that what they're doing is censorship. When they say a book shouldn't exist, that's just criticism; when a terrified author capitulates to their demands, she just did the right thing.

In my estimation, reasonable people will reach different conclusions about the relative power of the right and left to stymie free inquiry by making it harder for authors and willing readers to connect. But one needn’t agree on which side is more consequential to stand in solidarity against all such attempts, as Rosenfield does. Rosenfield’s both of these is bad approach is likelier to attract a liberal coalition big and diverse enough to win than Hiltzik’s only one of these is worrying attitude.

Provocation of the Week

In “Reality Is Just a Game Now,” Jon Askonas describes something anyone who follows public discourse online will recognize:

We hear that online life has fragmented our “information ecosystem,” that this breakup has been accelerated by social division, and vice versa. We hear that alienation drives young men to become radicalized on Gab and 4chan. We hear that people who feel that society has left them behind find consolation in QAnon or in anti-vax Facebook groups. We hear about the alone-togetherness of this all.

What we haven’t figured out how to make sense of yet is the fun that many Americans act like they’re having with the national fracture … Reflect on the feeling you get when you see a headline … so perfect, that so neatly addresses some burning controversy or narrative, that you feel compelled to share it… “Confirmation bias” names the idea that people are more likely to believe things that confirm what they already believe. But it does not explain the emotional relish we feel, the sheer delight when something in line with our deepest feelings about the state of the world, something so perfect, comes before us. Those feelings have a lot in common with how we feel when our sports team scores a point or when a dice roll goes our way in a board game.

The unity we felt watching the news unfold on TV gave way to the division we feel watching events unfold online. We all know that social media has played a part in this. But we should not overestimate its impact, because the story is much bigger. It is a story about the shifting foundations of reality itself—a story in which you and I are playing along.

A bit later in the lengthy essay, he writes that “digital discourse creates a game-like structure in our perception of reality. For everything that happens, every fact we gather, every interpretation of it we provide, we have an ongoing ledger of the ‘points’ we could garner by posting about it online.” If I told you that the whole New Atlantis piece is worth reading, would I be playing?

That’s all for today––see you next week.

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