The free flow of information and ideas is just as important to democracy as a free and fair vote, and serious books are a crucial tool in that flow. It is by stemming this current that democracies decline. This is one of the main reasons why a thriving publishing industry is so important.
Granted, the petitioners expressly disavow any intention of censorship, but then they hit us with such gems as this: “Penguin Random House needs to decide whether to fund its position at the expense of human rights in order to inflate its financial results, or to truly defend the values it proudly defends.
Do you see the problem? People may have different “values” than the publisher, but the publisher should not distribute their books. It’s hard to see how a volume arguing for a “bad” position could pass this test.
Perhaps their concern is simply that the $2 million price tag is too high. But to publish a book, you have to buy the rights. And while the economics of publishing progress is controversial, the company must believe that the sales will justify the figure. In other words, whatever one thinks of the author’s views, his arguments are meant to find an audience.
Then there’s this: “We can’t sit idly by while our industry abuses free speech to destroy our rights.” I always read such rhetoric with a chill. This was precisely the case advanced by the McCarthyists, who always insisted that they were all in favor of free speech, even as they set out to compile lists of people whose opinions they regarded as too harmful – too detrimental to democracy – to justify their publication.
Even beyond the notorious “Hollywood Ten”, there were blacklists everywhere. And a little wonder. Advocacy for free and open debate has come to be seen as a smokescreen for the destruction of democracy. A letter to the Hartford Courant claimed that “Communist degraders of free speech” must themselves be “cracked down”. In a 1948 opinion poll by Roper, only half of American respondents said freedom of speech was an important right. A 1955 survey found that only about a quarter of respondents would tolerate a communist speaking in their communities, and two-thirds thought those with communist views should lose their jobs. As the jurist Geoffrey Stone said, “the only ‘safe’ way was to join nothing.”
Publishing is no better. Dashiell Hammett, who went to jail rather than name names, was let down by the industry and found his best-selling novels suddenly out of print. Government libraries threw away the books of those who were now disadvantaged. Even books slated for publication have been cancelled. In 1953, for example, Little Brown changed his mind about the publication of a volume by historian Robert K. Murray, whose only offense was to chronicle the wrongs committed in the first Red Scare under Woodrow Wilson. To release such a volume was too great a risk at a time when even the publishing industry – understandably, but to its shame – spent a lot of time looking over its shoulder, hoping not to embarrass itself. It wasn’t until after McCarthy’s downfall that the University of Minnesota Press agreed to market Murray’s book.
Then as now, it is the responsibility of the publishing industry to fight for the vigorous expression of unpopular ideas… and to do its part to ensure that they are heard.
My personal library includes books written by many people whom I consider to be wrong on fundamental issues. To pick one at random, I have a first edition of James J. Kilpatrick’s volume The Southern Case for School Segregation, published in 1962. He’s got just about everything wrong, but so what? I don’t read books to be confirmed in what I already believe. I read to be challenged, to be questioned, to be forced to come up with better arguments.
Above all, I read to understand how thoughtful people come to different conclusions than I do – especially on topics I’m passionate about.
Nor would I refuse to read a book because of the author’s opinions or history. Hugo Black was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but I discover something new every time I leaf through his book on the Bill of Rights. Bobby Fischer was a vicious anti-Semite, but I treasure his “60 Memorable Games.” And so on.
I certainly understand why those who signed the petition want Roe v. Wade was not canceled. Right now, I’d bet Republican politicians across the country want the same thing. But those who appreciate books should take a longer view.
The signatories accuse Judge Barrett of “imposing his own religious and moral agenda on all Americans while appropriating the rhetoric of impartiality.” Maybe they are right; maybe they are wrong. As a serious reader, all I can say is that by stirring up controversy, they made me want to read the book and form my own opinion.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A law professor at Yale University, he is the author, most recently, of “Invisible: the story of the black lawyer who shot down America’s most powerful gangster”.
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