Stephen L. Carter
Kudos to Penguin Random House for sticking to its plan to publish a book by Justice Amy Coney Barrett despite a petition from hundreds of people who work in publishing arguing that the company should cancel the volume due to the author’s vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Some of the petition’s signatories are writers I admire. Some are booksellers. Others work at Penguin Random House, a division of which has published several of my books, and therefore might well be people who’ve helped my career.
Nevertheless, with all due respect, I am forced to dissent from the petitioners’ dissent.
The free flow of information and ideas is every bit as important to democracy as a free and fair ballot, and serious books are a crucial tool in that flow. Damming up that current is how democracies decline. That’s a key reason that a thriving publishing industry is of such importance.
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To be sure, the petitioners expressly disavow any intention to censor, but then they hit us with such gems as this: “Penguin Random House must decide whether to find 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.”
See the trouble? People can have “values” different from those of the publisher, but the publisher shouldn’t distribute their books. It’s hard to figure out how any volume arguing for a “wrong” position could pass this test.
Perhaps their concern is simply that the $2 million price tag is too high. But to publish a book, one must purchase the rights. And although the economics of publishing advances is a matter of some controversy, the company must believe that the sales will justify the figure. Whatever one thinks of the author’s views, here arguments are expected to find an audience.
Then there’s this: “We cannot stand idly by while our industry misuses free speech to destroy our rights.” I always read such rhetoric with a shudder. This was precisely the case put by the McCarthyites, who insisted always that they were all in favor of free speech, even as they saw about compiling lists of people whose views they considered too noxious — too injurious to democracy — to warrant publication.
Even beyond the famous “Hollywood Ten,” there were blacklists everywhere. And small wonder. Advocacy for free and open debate had come to be seen as a smokescreen for the destruction of democracy. In a 1948 opinion poll by Roper, only half of US respondents said free speech was an important right. A 1955 survey found that only about one-quarter of respondents would tolerate a communist speaking in their communities and that two-thirds believed those who held communist views should lose their jobs.
In the words of the legal scholar Geoffrey Stone, “The only ‘safe’ course was to join nothing.”
Publishing fared no better. Dashiell Hammett, who went to prison rather than name names, was abandoned by the industry and found his best-selling novels suddenly out of print. Government libraries discarded books by those who were now disfavored. Even books scheduled for publication wound up cancelled.
In 1953, for example, Little Brown changed his mind about issuing a volume by the historian Robert K. Murray, whose only offense was chronicling the wrongs done during the earlier Red Scare under Woodrow Wilson. Bringing out such a volume was too big 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 borrow trouble. Only after McCarthy fell did the University of Minnesota Press agree to bring Murray’s book to market.
Then as now, it’s the responsibility of the publishing industry to fight for the robust expression of unpopular ideas … and to do its part to make sure that they’re heard.
My home library includes books by lots of people I consider wrong on fundamental issues. To pick one at random, I own a first edition of James J. Kilpatrick’s volume “The Southern Case for School Segregation,” published in 1962.
He’s mistaken about pretty much everything, 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.
Most of all, I read to understand how thoughtful people come to conclusions different from my own — especially on matters about which I am passionate.
Nor would I refuse to read a book due to the author’s own views 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 antisemite, but I treasure his “60 Memorable Games.” And so on and so on.
I certainly get why those who signed the petition wish Roe v. Wade hadn’t been overruled. Right now, I’d wager that Republican politicians across the country wish the same thing. But those who value books should take a longer view.
The signers accuse Justice Barrett of “inflicting her own religious and moral agenda upon all Americans while appropriating the rhetoric of even-handedness.” Maybe they’re right; maybe they’re wrong. As a serious reader, all I can say is that by stirring up the controversy, they’ve made me eager to read the book and make up my own mind.
Stephen L. Carter is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.