Are You Having a Free Speech Emergency?

Back in February, Amazon, “the world’s largest bookstore,” delisted (a current euphemism for “censored”) Ryan Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, a book I had published at Encounter Books in 2018. I wrote about the incident in this space at the time and added a few updates about the censorship business in subsequent weeks. (It wasn’t only Amazon, of course, though they are the gorilla at the book party.) 

Amazon, its affiliates, and the rest of the wokerati are still refusing to sell the book, but I am happy to say that Barnes and Noble declined to join the crowd of hysterics and the book is also available directly from Encounter through our website. 

What happened with Anderson’s thoughtful contribution to public debate is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the manufactured hysteria surrounding a malady that affects a tiny (though probably still over-reported) percentage of the population.

A good barometer of the hysteria was afforded on Bastille Day, when Casey Morrissey, who works at Greenlight Bookstores in Brooklyn, when he (or possibly she) opened a “white box” of promotional books sent round to various independent bookshops by the American Booksellers Association and discovered—horror of horrors—a book whose argument Morrissey disagreed with: Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.

“I’m seething,” Casey said on Twitter. “I was excited to open our July white box, and then the first book I pulled out is ‘Irreversible Damage.’ Do you know how that feels, as a trans bookseller and book buyer?” 

Casey’s Twitter account is private, but you can read the pathetic tweet in the Publisher’s Weekly account of the episode.

For its part, the American Booksellers Association maintained a dignified silence, refusing to feed poor Casey’s hysteria. 

Ha! Just kidding! In fact, the ABA capitulated immediately, and in the most craven terms. “Within hours,” Publisher’s Weekly reports, “the ABA issued an apology statement”:

An anti-trans book was included in our July mailing to members. This is a serious, violent incident that goes against ABA’s ends policies, values, and everything we believe and support. It is inexcusable.

But what’s this “was-included”/“mistakes-were-made” passive-voice evasiveness? The trans-warriors were all over that in a nonce. “I’m disappointed with the use of the passive language at the beginning of the statement and the shift in blame. They really should say that ‘we included this book,’” quoth Luis Correa, identified as—and I am not making this up—“a queer, Latino, and fat-bodied person.”

Once the hysteria starts, it’s difficult to stop. Self-abasement accomplishes nothing, as Allison Hill, CEO of the ABA discovered when she issued her own pathetic apology for circulating a book with which some people disagreed as well as for yet another traumatizing incident. It turns out, the ABA had also featured the book Blackout by various authors, but had inadvertently featured not the correct book cover but the cover of a book by an author whom Hill described as “a different Black author, a right-wing extremist.” 

Get out the parade of flagellants and extras from The Seventh Seal

“We traumatized and endangered members of the trans community,” Hill sobbed. “We erased Black authors, conflated Black authors, and put the authors in danger through a forced association. We further marginalized communities we want to support.” 

Shouldn’t the ABA consider changing the name of this promotional initiative? I mean, really, “white box”? 

The board of the ABA also got in line for a few whacks. In an email to its members, it issued this mea maxima culpa:

These incidents harmed booksellers, ABA board members, and ABA staff who identify as LGBTQIA+ and/or BIPOC, as well as the wider community. They also added to a toxic culture overall.

Reading all of that, some questions come to mind. How did the ABA “harm” anyone? Is the ABA being inclusive enough? Are they sure the correct designation is not now “LGBTQIAGJDHTUANEOF87501224+”? Isn’t everyone a color? Why should certain skin tones get special treatment? 

The great irony in all of this, as the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher noted in his column on the incident, is that all this hand-wringing and woke demands for censorship coincide with the ABA announcement of this year’s “Banned Books Week.” A press release, written in tones of great moral self-satisfaction, declares that the event (like the ABA itself, of course) “celebrates the freedom to read by encouraging readouts, bookstore displays, and community activities designed to raise awareness of the ongoing threat of censorship. . . . The 2021 theme [“Books Unite Us, Censorship Divides Us”] is intended to be inclusive, emphasizing the ways in which books and information bring people together, help individuals see themselves in the stories of others, and aid the development of empathy and understanding for people from other backgrounds.”

Unless, of course, your book happens to argue for something that hasn’t passed muster with this week’s star chamber in charge of deciding what opinions are OK and what must be ignored, censored, or oppressed. An accompanying graphic invites readers, should they encounter “a free speech emergency,” to contact someone from the American Booksellers for Free Expression to commiserate. 

There is a “free speech emergency” in the United States circa 2021. The pretend-anguished cries of sexual exotics are only part of the story. Even as this tale of fake woe was circulating, Jen Psaki, press secretary to Joe Biden, titular president of the United States, informed the White House propaganda committee that “We’re flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation.” Why? So Facebook can exercise its power to keep Americans in line and on message when it comes to any subject the junta decides the plebs need to be at one about. And who decides what counts as “disinformation”? Shut up

How does this end? I don’t know. It’s always a mistake to extrapolate from present trends and predict future realities. Unexpected events have a way of intervening and changing the narrative. But Rod Dreher spoke for many of us when he noted the ABA story is the “kind of thing” that has left him “more radicalized.” Maybe that qualifies him for inclusion on Christopher Wray’s or Mark Milley’s or Merrick Garland’s list of “domestic extremists.” 

If so, they are going to need a lot of paper to accommodate the 75 or so million people who will want to be included. Dreher notes he no longer believes “that the leading voices of the Left have any confidence in traditional liberal principles anymore. They—or at least their organizations, like ABA— are illiberal leftists.” 

Indeed they are, but that is only the start of the bad news.

About Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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