I Do Not Like This Woke Flimflam
The left bans books by Dr. Seuss and Ryan Anderson, showing they've become more theocratic than progressive.
When I was a boy in school, we were often encouraged to read banned books. Back then, to censor anyone was about the least hip thing you could do, the province of the glowering churchman and the cordless phone-wielding parent, the least cool of 1990s archetypes. Pitted against them was the heroic liberal-minded librarian, who would sooner raise her voice in the study section than deny a book to a curious student. “READ!” cried colorful signs off of every classroom wall. And if you wanted to READ! Judy Blume, Alice Walker, or William Golding, well, then, far be it from anyone else to stop you.
It was a healthy attitude, I think, even if it was a bit precious and overdone. For all of Holden Caulfield’s necking and socking in the jaw, The Catcher in the Rye was not only the most censored book in public schools, it was also the second most assigned. I read it in English class without anyone ever complaining, along with Lord of the Flies and Brave New World. Those puritanical censors never did descend. And while today there’s even a Banned Books Week to revel in that which you’re not supposed to READ!, it would be almost unthinkable for anyone with any cultural power to try to silence Myra Breckinridge or even Lolita.
That isn’t to say we no longer censor. Oh, Lord, do we censor. It’s just that our criteria have changed.
Last week, Amazon quietly scrubbed a book from its online store called When Harry Became Sally. Written by conservative author Ryan T. Anderson, it’s a measured critique of trans ideology that had previously been available on Amazon.com for three years without issue. Amazon has long had a policy against selling anything deemed to be “hate speech,” yet prior to now, that had mostly meant the likes of Holocaust denial and fringe conspiracy theories. The deplatforming of Anderson’s book suggests that the retail giant has significantly enlarged its definition of “hate speech,” making it much more, shall we say, woke.
If that’s true, then it raises a serious question: are conservative books now banned? And I do mean banned—Amazon is a far more authoritative censor than any single library or public school. About 72 percent of new adult books are sold in its online store; to be yanked off its virtual shelves is a literary death sentence. And what happened to When Harry Became Sally seems like a pilot run, a sign of things to come. I don’t mean that Amazon is about to sweep away en masse all conservative literature, that Deliver Us From Mail-In Ballots or whatever Sean Hannity’s latest book is called won’t be available for purchase next week. I do mean that the books that pose the most serious challenges to left-wing identity politics, like Anderson’s, are also those that fall most neatly under that “hate speech” rubric.
And then what? What happens if critiques of the ruling ideology are no longer easily accessible? What happens when it isn’t the offensiveness of the opposition tract that determines whether it’s allowed but the effectiveness? This is the reality we now confront. You don’t need government to pass a law to shut somebody up; you need only to capture the relevant cultural gatekeepers. Likewise did the company that publishes Dr. Seuss recently announce that six of his books will no longer be sold. It doesn’t matter that these titles—And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Scrambled Eggs Super!—were already more difficult to find than, say, The Lorax. Some of the racial depictions therein were deemed to violate woke standards and practices, and so they were, not criticized, not taken off a curriculum, but removed from publication.
From there, cue the White House dropping any mention of Seuss’ name from Dr. Seuss Day and Universal Orlando saying it’s “evaluating” its Seuss Landing theme park area. And then along comes the Associated Press to innocently point out that other children’s book series have also been criticized for racism, including “Babar the Elephant” and “Curious George” (a white man can’t just live with a monkey). And certainly we can’t continue to overlook the raging cis-colonial transphobia of Corduroy the bear. This isn’t about to stop. Anyone familiar with the woke bloodletting inside the Young Adult fiction industry understands as much. When back in 2019, two New Jersey legislators sought to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from public schools because it contains the N-word, they were mostly dismissed. Today it can’t be taught in Burbank.
Mark Twain’s novel, of course, doesn’t reinforce racism but skewer it, by depicting it in all its antebellum ugliness. But blaspheming the woke cannot be permitted even if it’s in the service of an approved point. Think again of that glowering churchman, only put him in a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt with a trans flag poking out of his JanSport. The impulse that drives these cancellations isn’t progressive and it certainly isn’t liberal. It’s theocratic. Wokeness treats its hierarchies of race, gender, and sexual orientation as unquestionable dogma, with everything else—discourse, literature, art, math—subordinated to its tenets. The left has thus become everything it once claimed to hate. They’re the book banners now, the quaking prudes, the reverend from Footloose, the Savonarola.
Which has put conservatives in the strange position of creatives demanding freedom of expression against an established religion. There are some on the right who say classical liberalism is dead; we should hope not. If it is, we’re in a hell of a lot of trouble. It’s telling that even at their most illiberal, conservatives still wave around their First Amendment rights, both against the government and on big tech social media platforms. That says a lot about where both left and right are today. Still, what of Seuss and Huck? Racial stereotypes and slurs are bad, of course, and must be stigmatized. But how do you convey their severity if you hide every example of what we’re no longer supposed to do? How do you teach about the passé insensitivities of history and art if your paramount goal is to never offend any sensitivities?
Abolish the past and you impoverish the present. The old liberal idea says that if even one person was to hold an opinion, he should have the right to express it since society might benefit if only in rejecting it. Whatever you think of the philosophy of John Stuart Mill, that principle seems worth defending today. There’s a corollary too: ban that one-person opinion and you might suddenly find it catching on. Here’s something no teenager has ever said: Mom told me I’m not allowed to watch this so better change the channel to PBS. There’s nothing quite like breaking a taboo; some people even elected a president in part because he stomped all over them. In which case, for its own good, maybe the left ought to recognize that argument is better than censorship.