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

This issue of Up for Debate is a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. He gathers timely conversations and asks readers to respond to one thought-provoking query on Wednesdays. Later, he publishes thoughtful responses. Subscribe to the newsletter by clicking here

Question of the Week

Is there any class prejudice in America? If so, explain how it works. What are some examples of this? Do you think it is underrated or overrated? How has your experience of or participation in class prejudice been? What is the difference between class prejudice in another country and the U.S., if you have a good understanding of that country? You needn’t answer every question.

Send responses to [email protected]

Conversations of note

The World Health Organization has declared monkeypox a worldwide-health emergency. The Biden administration also informed Congress that the United States may require $7 billion to put together an adequate response. Is it too late to prevent situations that could have been avoided 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 BarroHe argues that the context is telling.

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. The response has been insufficient and late at 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 this could be the future of an orthopoxvirus outbreak.

He may be referring to smallpox which is part of the same virus family as monkeypox but much more deadly. The technologist explained. Nicholas WeaverThis is how you can describe the public-health crisis:

The CDC was expected to have spent the last two decades preparing for this specific scenario. “what if someone resurrects Smallpox and releases it as a bioweapon.”Now, imagine being confronted by a virus that is literally everywhere. “Story Mode Smallpox” they fail … For Monkeypox there are vaccines that work (the Smallpox vaccines). Smallpox vaccines have been developed with treatments that work. Techniques that work (contact trace as if it were Smallpox). It isn’t hyper-virulent. They have also failed to stop it from growing.

China Watches Ukraine and Arms It

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 notable 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 brings us to the question of the “porcupine strategy.”Is Taiwan ready to resist a Chinese attack right away?

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. This will require increased investment, increased workforce growth, and increased emphasis on supply chain management to ensure that no components are being cannibalized, and that all necessary systems, including munitions, are being 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.

Many people wonder if China is learning from Ukraine. They are. Some of those lessons can be very troubling. But not as many people question this. “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

Jeffrey Aaron Snyder and Amna Shahlid shine in a debate often marked by partisan hypocrisy. This is what it means to be a lament.:

Today, both the right and left have aggressively supported cancelation campaigns in the United States. Each side has its own distinctive objectives, strategies, initiatives and networks—as well as its own particular strongholds. The liberals and left are dominant on college campuses. They also dominate the publishing, arts, and culture industries. The Fox News bullhorn and similar media outlets are the trademarks of the right. The state legislatures are its most important source of power. Red State legislatures are currently in the midst a mass cancellation frenzy, fuelled by concerns about critical race theory and LGBTQ+ hyperstylism.

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, Donald Trump was my choice for those concerned about illiberalism. However, I think that both right and left illiberalism fuel one another. It is not the right question to ask which is worse. Both should be opposed, no matter what the answer.

Take, for example, the world of books. In my ideal world, no one would stand between an Author and a Willing Reader. I value freedom and inquiry, even in cases like The Communist Manifesto where the ideas in a book led real-world deaths.

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times Alarm alarmRight-wing Illiberalism in This Region:

Books are a signpost of anti-democratic suppression and philistinism.

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,”Jonathan Friedman, director for free expression and education at PEN America, says: “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 troubling aspect is the way that campaigns to ban books are tied 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 is chief executive of PEN USA.

So far, I’m in agreement. Hiltzik will write:

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 a difference?

Yes, of course there is—and it’s a qualitative difference. On the one side, you will find orchestrated campaigns that often use government authority and are targeted at large groups of works. On the other hand, there are objections from people who question whether a book deal is really in line with the image that a publishing house wants 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”The benefits outweighed the disadvantages The deal was completed.

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.”

These cases are targeted at specific authors or books and are considered one-offs. These right-wing campaigns are a mass assault.

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 stymieing the culture of free inquiry and expression many of us value. Pamela Paul, The New York Times ProvidesAn example that is arguably worthy of concern:

American publishing has long been proud to publish ideas and narratives worthy of our engagement, even though some might consider them unsavory and dangerous. The industry also stands its ground on freedom and expression. But this ground is starting to look shaky. Although the publishing industry would not condone book bans, a subtler form is being used in the literary world to restrict intellectual and artistic expression behind closed doors. These restrictions are often justified with thoughtful-sounding arguments. Many top editors and publishing executives are now openly admitting that there is a real strain in self-censorship that many liberal-minded editors, agents, and authors feel compelled by.

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?

This issue has never been explored more thoroughly by anyone than this author. Kat RosenfieldWho 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 are often the subject of a lot of media attention. The titles they want to ban are often quickly popularized by liberal backlash-buying. In many cases, activists from the left will.Particularly 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 worry about what their kids are reading and distributing banned books, liberals embrace their role as child-corrupting providers of literary contraband. A high school library currently contains copies of Maus, Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer and other titles, along with a titillating placard. What Adults Don’t Want you to Read.

Today’s censorship flaps are more varied than those that were once the sole domain of religious right and political conservatives. 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 …

Contrary to traditional book bans, which target already-published work this literary McCarthyism flies under the radar. For every author that writes candidly about how identitarian politics has affected their work, there are many who bristle at it but remain silent for their livelihoods. It is more chilling that anything the right could concoct. Left-wing censorship blocks creativity at the source, intimidates authors with the threat of professional and social death if they don’t follow the rules, and, crucially obviates any notion of suppressing books after publishing. One doesn’t have to ban books that never existed.

It is also a characteristic of these practices that those who engage are able to categorically deny that they are censoring. If they claim a book shouldn’t be there, that’s just criticism. When a terrified author bows to their demands she did the right things.

According to me, reasonable people will draw different conclusions about how the right and left can stifle free inquiry and make it harder for authors to connect with willing readers. 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 are 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 Week

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

We hear that online life has fragmented our lives “information ecosystem,”This is because social division has accelerated the process of breakup and vice versa. We hear that young men become radicalized via 4chan and Gab because of alienation. People who feel like society has abandoned them find consolation in QAnon and anti-vax Facebook groups. This is all about the individual-togetherness.

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”This is the idea that people are more inclined to believe things that reinforce what they already believe. It does not explain our emotional delight, the pure joy when something that is in line with our deepest feelings about this world, something so perfect, appears before us. These feelings are similar to how we feel when our team scores a point, or when we win a board game.

The unity we felt as we watched the news unfold on television gave way to the division that we feel when we see the events unfold online. Social media played a significant role in this. We shouldn’t underestimate its impact because the story is bigger. It is a story about the shifting foundations of reality itself—a story in which you and I are playing along.

He writes, “A bit later in the long essay, he writes: “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.”Would you believe me when I tell you that the entire New Atlantis story is worth reading?

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


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