They’re banning books right and left these days

I want to call your attention this morning to two attempts to ban books — one from the left, which will ultimately prove futile, and one from the right, which may be more effective. Together, I think they tell us something important about our culture’s ongoing separation into two very different spheres of reality.

Let’s consider the right-wing book-banning campaign first. We tend to regard such efforts as something out of a Southern Gothic tale, but this one takes us no farther south than a few miles from Route 128. In Abington, a group of parents is attempting to ban “This Book Is Gay,” by Juno Dawson, from the Middle/High School Library. The book that has come under fire across the country.

“This Book Is Gay” was the subject of a recent meeting by the Abington School Committee. According to the Abington News, “It is traditionally kept in the section of the library reserved for high schoolers. However, during Pride Month last June it was included in a display along with other LGBTQ books.”

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One parent told the committee that displaying the book was “a definite sign of indoctrination and endorsement by the schools,” adding: “Children become victims of the cultural environment that is highly suggested to them. I prefer an environment that is healthy and safe instead of installing ideologies not consistent with family values.”

One complicating factor: A gay selectman, Alex Hagerty, also spoke out against the book, saying that he believed it indulged in outdated stereotypes. But the superintendent of schools, Peter Schafer, said that he supported the book’s availability to older students because, even though parts of it are graphic, “those chapters are really warnings to the reader about safe sex and behavior.”

Because of what sounds like a clash between state and local policies, it’s not clear what will happen next. I hope common sense prevails and that “This Book Is Gay” will remain available in the library for any student who wishes to seek it out. But I’m not holding my breath.

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Justice Barrett

The futility on the left comes in the form of a $2 million book contract given to Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett by Penguin Random House. According to Martin Pengelly of The Guardian, more than 250 people from the literary world have signed an open letter calling on the publisher to re-evaluate its decision to publish Barrett’s book, citing her vote to overturn overturn Roe v. Wade earlier this year. The letter states in part:

Barrett is free to say as she wishes, but Penguin Random House must decide whether to fund her position at the expense of human rights in order to inflate its bottom line, or to truly stand behind the values it proudly espouses to hold. We … cannot stand idly by while our industry misuses free speech to destroy our rights.

So, free speech is “misused” if it expresses views that you don’t agree with? Good Lord. Leaving aside the fact that the health of the First Amendment doesn’t depend on Barrett’s getting $2 million, this turns freedom of expression on its head.

According to Brittany Bernstein, writing in National Review, the protests are coming from inside Penguin Random House as well.

What’s especially absurd about this is that Barrett’s book will (or might?) be published by Sentinel, a Penguin Random House imprint that is specifically focused on conservative titles and whose authors include right-wing figures such as Rod Dreher, the late Ken Starr and Nikki Haley. If the campaign against Barrett’s book succeeds, will the entire Sentinel imprint be next?

The absurdity is that there are conservative publishing houses (Regnery comes to mind) that would be glad to take Barrett’s book and provide her with just as much publicity as she would get from Penguin Random House — maybe more, since they could use its cancellation as a marketing ploy.

In an ideal world, kids would be able to borrow “This Book Is Gay” from their school library and Amy Coney Barrett could publish her book with a mainstream outfit. But that’s not the world we live in anymore.

Self-published books make cancellation a non-issue

Photo via Wallpaper Flare

The New York Times has yet another story on the pressures being placed on publishers to cancel controversial books. The example in question is by Jonathan Mattingly, one of the Louisville police officers who took part in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor.

Probably the best known of such incidents was Simon & Schuster’s decision to cancel a contract with Sen. Josh Hawley earlier this year after he essentially endorsed the Jan. 6. insurrection. Hawley’s book was instantly picked up by the right-wing publisher Regnery, and Hawley has been talking ever since to whine about how he’s been silenced.

The Hawley situation shows that the marketplace can resolve disputes over speech. But I want to push it one step further by pointing out that publishing and distributing a book has become absolutely frictionless. Self-publishing a book, either in print or online, is cheap and easy — I’ve done it myself.

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And though it is true that Amazon will occasionally decline to carry a book, as was the case recently with a work that had come under attack by the transgender community, DIY methods are always available, starting with the web, email lists and the like. (I’m leaving out Facebook because the service has been making efforts to take down disinformation and hate speech.)

What this comes down to is that fringe right-wing books will continue to be published and will continue to be promoted by fringe right-wing media, with the most prominent authors finding a voice on Fox News.

And even lesser authors can find creative ways to make money from their books. Just ask Sen. Ted Cruz, now facing allegations that he used campaign funds to promote his tome.