The Book-Burners Are Here
In terms of free speech and the defense thereof, this month has been one of the worst in our nation's history. Those who don't kowtow to either the street mob or the Twitterati regarding the George Floyd controversy are finding themselves canceled, fired, and socially exiled for life. Opinion editor James Bennet of the New York Times was forced to resign after printing an article by Senator Tom Cotton that fellow staffers claimed put them "in danger."
Bennet is not alone. Magazine editors, TV stars, sports announcers, university professors, radio hosts, and newspaper reporters donned their scarlet letters and took the walk of shame after uttering their respective blasphemies. Most caved to the will of the online show trials, offering false confessions and begging for their inquisitors' forgiveness for their alleged transgressions. Many of these allies-turned-enemies had previously fancied themselves modern-day Robespierres. Unfortunately for them, they were correct.
At China's request, the U.S.-based video conferencing company Zoom shut down meetings commemorating the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre and suspended the accounts of the participating activists. Over at HBO, the writers of Looney Tunes are removing Elmer Fudd's shotgun from all future episodes. Writer Michael Ruocco defended the decision, claiming that the shotgun represented Elmer's "flawed, challenged masculinity," which one assumes would be the ideal straw-man prop for today's hyper-woke audience.
In true Orwellian fashion, Merriam-Webster is "revising" its definition of racism after receiving an email from 22-year-old Kennedy Mitchum, who felt that the current definition didn't satisfy her political agenda and decided for herself that it should be changed. Editor Alex Chambers folded like wet paper, explaining that the definition was indeed being revised and whimpering regret for the "harm and offense we have caused in failing to address the issue sooner." We've reached the point where any perpetually aggrieved activist can literally change the definitions of words, and the gatekeepers comply without batting an eye. Whoever controls the language controls the debate.
The worst example of censorship masquerading as progress comes from NPR's Juan Vidal, who penned an article entitled "Your Bookshelf May Be Part of the Problem." In it, Vidal issues blanket statements against white people and the books he assumes they own. His argument boils down to the idea that if your books' authors are predominately white, then you are simply listening to "your own voice on repeat." Vidal claims that the books white people read are rooted in "colonialist ideas" and that white people should be "actively resisting and casting aside" these books.
Leave aside the fact that Vidal offers no standard by which he determined that books written by white authors are "colonialist" or his racist assumptions about white people's reading habits. It is imperative to note that Vidal is not suggesting books to expand your collection. He is demanding you reduce your collection. He is not advocating adding new voices to the pool of existing ones. He is advocating replacing voices with ones he approves of while jettisoning the ones he considers unworthy. Peddling the notion that only "anti-racist" books are good books, he states that reading such books is ineffective unless the readers "silence themselves first" (and by "themselves", he means "white authors," which he considers simply an echo of white readers).
One wonders which white books or white authors Vidal considers to be part of the problem. Mein Kampf? Fair enough. But which other white "colonialist" books would Vidal prefer we toss to the bonfires? A Tale of Two Cities? Crime and Punishment? Dante's Inferno? Does it not reflect the genius (and equality) of literature that one doesn't have to be a 19th-century French pauper to be able to empathize with Jean Valjean in the same way as one doesn't need to be a 19th-century black slave to empathize with Uncle Tom?
Vidal's understanding of colonialism as a "white" institution betrays his stunning ignorance of history. Should I toss my books of Chinese classical poetry because China colonized (and colonizes) other lands? Should I burn my copy of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam because of Islam's 700-year colonization of southern Europe? Are Spanish-language books considered "colonialist" because they reflect the language and culture of those who colonized Central and South America?
Vidal never makes any suggestion as what we should read, aside from his prerequisite of non-white authorship. It would be safe to assume, however, that the authors he has in mind are only those who share his ideological worldview. It's doubtful he'd recommend South of Haunted Dreams by Eddy Harris, a black professor whose travels through the Deep South shatter his preconception of its whites as ignorant bigots. Nor would he suggest Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a black Somali who fled her misogynist culture to find freedom and equality in America. Nor would he propose Realizing Property Rights by Hernando De Soto, a Peruvian economist who could run circles around whichever oatmeal-mouthed sleep aid is hosting NPR this week. From Vidal, predict endorsements along the lines of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Frantz Fanon.
I personally am a big fan of the classics. I tend to diversify my reading not out of any obligation to Vidal's warped sense of morality, but out of natural curiosity to see the world through different eyes at different times. They're called the classics not because they narrow experiences to a singular group, but because they expand their stories to transcend humanity. Their stories relate to everyone and everywhere. The works of Primo Levi and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn are almost interchangeable with those of Dith Pran and Kang Chol-hwan. Harriet Beecher Stowe, perhaps the most influential author in American history, was effective because she based her characters (and her soul-wrenching pleas to the reader) on the idea that both suffering and compassion are experienced and understood across racial lines. Great authors are such because they refuse to be boxed in by the arbitrary categories through which Vidal insists on seeing the world.
The heretics mentioned at the start of this article were punished for public utterances against the clerisy. Vidal takes the next logical step down that totalitarian path, reprimanding us for what we shouldn't be reading (and thinking) not in the public square, but rather in the privacy of our own homes, and within the confines of our own minds. It won't stop at books. One shudders to think which artists, musicians, and philosophers will soon be lambasted as "colonialist" based on no factor other than race. Should Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel be painted over with whatever dreck Ana Mendieta refers to as "art"? Should Chopin's Nocturnes be forever silenced in favor of the incoherent Nicki Minaj?
Vidal asserts that reading broadly is how we "demand visibility." This is a good idea, which unfortunately is completely antithetical to the rest of his article. The only difference between his invitation to self-censor and the 1933 Nazi-sponsored book burnings is that the latter were less insidious about their true intentions. In this time of censorship, groupthink, and mob rule, Primo Levi and Alexander Solzhenitsyn demand visibility. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Dith Pran demand visibility. They all have lessons, none of which depends on skin color, to teach the likes of Vidal.