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Banning Bigot Books In Boston

Douglas Koziol, who works for an independent bookstore in the Boston area, is pained that some people come into his bookstore asking for deplorable volumes [1], like the bestselling Mein Kampf of the Moonshiners, Hillbilly Elegy. What is a Puritan bookseller to do when people come in wanting to buy books that stand to corrupt them? Koziol writes:

I don’t intend to review Elegy here. More capable pieces have already been written about the book’s “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” message, its condemnation of a supposed culture of poverty, its dismissal of the working class’s material reality as a determining factor in their lives, and its callous claim that the welfare state only reinforces a cycle of dependency. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because these are the same rightwing talking points that have been leveled at the working class and poor for decades. As if that weren’t enough, the book also boasts glowing blurbs from the likes of Rod Dreher, whose oeuvre consists of transphobic screeds for The American Conservative; literal tech vampire Peter Thiel; and the National Review, which, under the guidance of William F. Buckley, promoted segregation and derided the Civil Rights Movement, among countless other odious stances, and which now primarily serves as a trust fund for a gaggle of #NeverTrump Republicans who hold the President’s views but gussy them up with a bowtie. And yet the customers where I work—largely liberal, well-educated and well-meaning people—have bought the book in droves.

Imagine that. What’s wrong with liberal Bostonians? Don’t they understand that Hillbilly Elegy is just filled with Wrongthink? Bad people have said it’s good, and still, good liberals think it has something to say to them about the world. For shame!

More from Nanny Koziol:

So what can you do when a customer wants a book that you not only find objectionable but also believe actually dangerous in the lessons it portends amidst such a politically precarious time? If it helps, swap Elegy for any book that you find particularly insidious, whether it’s Atlas Shrugged [2]The Communist Manifesto [3], or The Bible [4]. The question remains: without stooping to the level of crazed book-burning, does the bookseller’s role ever evolve past the capitalist exchange of money for paper and pulp? And are there meaningful ways to resist the continued sales of disastrous books?

Or, as a reader of this blog reframes the question, “How can we ban books without, you know, banning them?”

A lot of people on Twitter are laughing at prim Nanny K. today, and he certainly deserves it. But he does raise an interesting point. No bricks-and-mortar bookstore can stock everything, so decisions have to be made. How do we make them?

LifeWay Books, the Southern Baptist bookstore chain, recently decided to stop selling the books of Eugene Peterson when the well-respected elderly pastor publicly stated his support for same-sex marriage (the chain changed its mind after Peterson recanted). To me, that didn’t make a lot of sense, given that he had not advocated same-sex marriage in his published books. But then, you can’t buy my Christian books at LifeWay either, because I don’t fit their test of Christian orthodoxy. I am not offended by that.

Similarly, I wouldn’t expect to go to Eighth Day Books [5]in Wichita and pick up smut like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” even though it was a megaseller. If we’re going to fault Nanny K. for his censorious ways, we have to avoid hypocrisy. If a bookstore branded itself as a left-wing bookseller, we couldn’t plausibly be offended by their refusal to sell right-wing books, could we?

The problem here, I think, is that Nanny K. doesn’t appear to work for a bookstore that considers itself to be anything other than a general book retailer. Nanny K. is trying to get away with enjoying the reputation as a “full-spectrum” bookstore without actually being one. Reader Annie explains why she’s bothered by this:

For many years I made it a priority to buy books, new, from independent booksellers. They provided a public space and service that should be treasured, I believed. Even though I was an underpaid, uninsured caregiver, it was very important to me to spend my money in an ethical way.

It never escaped me that the philosophy and religion sections were shrinking. Time after time I noticed the only books on theology would be “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell. I’d notice there would be three shelves on Jewish mysticism, two on Sufis, four shelves on Buddhism, and a scrappy half-shelf on Christianity. Usually that shelf would include Karen Armstrong and other critics; a really good bookstore would have a few by C.S. Lewis. That’s it.

This was more than a hobby to me. I visited bookstores all over the country, tracking them down like a pilgrim seeking holy places. Over the past fifteen years the subtle censorship has accelerated. Even the great, eclectic Powell’s has employees who have quietly spoken up in odd corners of the web about the censorship.

This is stealth indoctrination. Yes, some of these books are dangerous. They might change your life! To see booksellers try to keep the Holy Bible out of people’s hands is terrifying. This is our cultural heritage. Far be it from me to say any bookseller SHOULD stock certain books (though of course it’s deeply ironic that these same booksellers most likely insist upon Baking the Cake), but freethinkers should be aware that, excluding places like Eighth Day Books, most booksellers these days are servants of the progressive, intersectionality religion.

A great service on the parts of BenOp-minded folk would be to start up independent, full spectrum bookstores.

If I were an independent bookstore owner, I would stock a wide range of titles, both left and right, but there are certain kinds of books (e.g., books I considered to be pornographic) that I would not stock. Every reader of this blog, if he or she were an independent bookstore owner, would have to draw the line somewhere too. What principles would you use to decide? I would stock Atlas Shrugged and The Communist Manifesto, not because I agree with them, heaven knows, but because I think they are within the bounds of important and necessary discussion. For that matter, I would stock Muslim books, Jewish books, Hindu books, and so forth. But I would not stock works of the racialist right, or for that matter queer theory, or anything that serves what Annie calls “the progressive, intersectionality religion.”

Which, to me, is an interesting place to draw the line. Why would I stock books from what you might consider the “Old Left,” but not some on the Postmodern Cultural Left? I’m not quite sure. It has to do with drawing boundaries within which the discussion I would like to see can take place (as distinct from saying which books I believe people should or should not read).

What do you think? How would you handle this if you were the bookstore owner?

And by the way, a general interest bookstore that would deliberately not stock my books, or J.D. Vance’s book, is a bookstore that I would not patronize, period. As a customer, I too have boundaries.

UPDATE: St. Louisan writes:

“The question remains…does the bookseller’s role ever evolve past the capitalist exchange of money for paper and pulp?”

WAIT. Wait just a minute. For years now, Christian small business owners have been in the news for refusing to sell their services for same-sex marriage ceremonies to which they have religious objections. And for just as long the left, in general but overwhelmingly, has found this to be simply incomprehensible. ‘What? By what right does a seller of goods and services presume to limit who and what she’ll sell to? Surely once you enter the marketplace, you must sell to anyone who has money to exchange! If you don’t like it, you can just NOT HAVE A BUSINESS.’

But now that some Bostonians want to buy Hillbilly Elegy (of all places to draw the line), it’s suddenly dawned on our bookseller here that just maybe, the sale of goods and services may have some moral content not reducible to raw economics. He wonders sellers may have some ground for refusing business which would involve them in what they consider immoral. And he wonders this as if it’s a radical new insight which has only just occurred to him.

I’m curious if he himself sees any connection between his disinclination to sell books when he thinks doing so will be participating in something morally dangerous and people like Barronelle Stutzman’s disinclination to sell cakes for the same reason.

Not for nothing, but the other day was the feast of Saints Justa and Rufina in the Roman calendar–they were martyred aftered refusing to sell their pottery for use in a pagan ritual.

116 Comments (Open | Close)

116 Comments To "Banning Bigot Books In Boston"

#1 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On July 21, 2017 @ 11:48 am

But I’m not sure the comparison between book sellers refusing to sell a certain book and cake sellers refusing to sell to a certain kind of person really works. Whatever you think of either case, you’ve got to admit that they’re radically different situations.

They are. And, refusing to sell to a gay person, vs. refusing to decorate a cake for a gay wedding, are likewise radically different situations.

St Louisan–why the law draws a very narrow line between “forced expression” (the writing on the top of the cake) and “forced cake-baking” is that if you start on the primrose path of saying that just baking a cake is “expressive behavior”, where do you stop?

Grumpy, we’ve been over this ground many times. Your nit-picking is becoming incredibly dense. The line drawn by a great deal of existing constitutional jurisprudence is very, very, simple, clear, and unambiguous.

If you refuse to serve a customer because of some spurious characterization, whether it is true or false, that is invidious discrimination. If you demand that a business owner craft a message or participate in an event, that is compelled speech or expression.

You’ve never actually read Hurley v. Irish Gays and Lesbians of South Boston have you?

I think Enginner Scotty has, and I agree with nearly all of Scotty’s outline of where the lines are drawn. I offer this one caveat:

Has a decent argument here, even though so far no court has found that baker’s First Amendment rights trump state anti-discrimination laws.

No court has yet applied these constitutional restraints to state anti-discrimination laws in the commercial context. Hurley DID restrain application of state anti-discrimination statutes to a privately organized St. Patrick’s Day parade. The pending question is whether being in commerce means a craftsperson has forfeited protection against compelled speech.

And, as I never tire of pointing out, with a little tolerance, patience, creativity, and sense of humor, the Irish gays and lesbians could simply have reorganized as the Sir Roger Casement Memorial Marching Band, and joined the parade playing “Banna Strand.”

All you need is a willingness to deal.

No need to deal. All it takes is judges willing to apply well established constitutional jurisprudence. The Supreme Court of New Mexico indulged in the most bombastic nonsense I’ve ever seen (at least since the last judge who ruled that federal courts have no jurisdiction over Jim Crow laws) in the Elane Photography case. I don’t think it will stand in the long run.

#2 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On July 21, 2017 @ 12:05 pm

I agree with Chuck: could you sue a bookstore for refusing to order a book for you? We have a local, left-leaning bookstore (“Books on Christianity? Why, yes, the Bart Ehrman books are right over here…”), and I order Catholic titles through them, partially in hopes that someone who works there will see the book when it comes in and have their interest sparked. This tactic led to an interesting conversation/confrontation when I ordered “Padre Pio Under Investigation.” The elderly lady at the counter thought the title referred to “that” sort of investigation and she began singing the praises of Dominic Crossan. It went downhill from there

This is a pretty brilliant strategy, and a good way to start interesting conversations (and maybe get people’s interest sparked in a book they wouldn’t otherwise have read). I should start trying it.

Out of curiosity, did your discussion with the elderly lady make any progress?

#3 Comment By Kevin On July 21, 2017 @ 2:36 pm

“A public accommodation discrimination ban could very easily be written to define expressive conduct that it then exempts.”

But as I understand, a lot of protestants see any kind of work as a form of religious expression, right? So why should someone who rents tents to be held having less legal rights of refusal than someone making photos?

#4 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On July 21, 2017 @ 10:17 pm

But as I understand, a lot of protestants see any kind of work as a form of religious expression, right? So why should someone who rents tents to be held having less legal rights of refusal than someone making photos?

Your understanding may be severely deficient or vividly delusional. But do cite the work of the Protestant theologian who said that.

In any case, what some Protestant believes does not determine the contours of constitutional jurisprudence. But if the government IS restrained from enforcement, then it doesn’t really matter what the person with a right to be free of restraint believes. You can’t make a person confess that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is Lord, or make them publicly detest the Flying Spaghetti Monster as the Father of Lies.

#5 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On July 22, 2017 @ 2:19 pm

Your understanding may be severely deficient or vividly delusional. But do cite the work of the Protestant theologian who said that.

Oh come on Siarlys, no need to be snarky. This is a pretty standard Protestant formulation and I think it dates from Luther himself.

#6 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On July 22, 2017 @ 5:25 pm

This is a pretty standard Protestant formulation and I think it dates from Luther himself.

Well, when I try to google it, all I get is EEOC material about religious expression at work. I know Puritans considered it godly to work hard. Perhaps Luther did too. But its a far cry from that to say that “work is a form of religious expression.” Puritans believed that it was sinful to have sex outside of marriage, but they considered marriage a purely civil function, not a sacrament, not even a ceremony to be held in church.

Kevin is indulging in straw-man trolling. Lighten up a little.

#7 Comment By FL Transplant On July 22, 2017 @ 9:24 pm

I think Engineer Scotty nailed it–I’d stock “good” books I thought worthwhile and go broke within a year.

The books that generate the profits at a book store–the James Patterson, Brad Thor, romances, political screeds, Amish stories, science fiction/fantasy series, celebrity bios, pop culture–are exactly the ones I wouldn’t stock. But unless you’re in a large city where there’s enough people you could sell enough books to to keep the lights on stocking only “serious” books is the way to quickly go broke.

And stocking Bibles would be problematic in a smallish general interest bookstore. There are enough flavors of the Bible that you’d need a shelf to have the “right” one for the buyer. (When I worked in a now-bankrupt big box bookstore chain I was always fielding complaints from customers how someone had purposely placed the wrong Bible in the section for the ones their denomination used, obviously to lead those searching for spiritual guidance unknowing astray. I have no idea if it was intentional, though, and with the way customers would randomly reshelve books they had looked at I had my doubts. One of my jobs was to periodically go through the entire store, shelf by shelf, and put the books back where they belonged. It wasn’t unusual for our inventory to show we had several copies of a book, but they would be lost on the shelves. I once asked my local librarian if they had the same problem–she could only sigh and smile.)

One item of interest, though–I was interested in finding some books on conservative thought. Not the latest Rush Limbaugh/Ann Coulter screed, but something that had some depth and substance. I ended up going to a couple of on-line forums asking for titles. The general conclusion was that there was very little out there and I needed to go back to Burke, Hayek, Buckley, and bios of Reagan.

#8 Comment By FL Transplant On July 22, 2017 @ 9:28 pm

And note for Rod–I wrote in a couple of days ago about IT problems I was having on The American Conservative’s site with my screen jumping because of the video ads. I downloaded and installed an ad blocker which resolved the problem. I din’t like doing that, since I’m effectively blowing off all of your advertisers, but if I can’t visit the web page any other way that’s what I’m dong.

#9 Comment By PeterK On July 23, 2017 @ 11:02 am

i’ve worked as a bookseller in the past. one of the key roles of a good bookseller is recommending books. If I Nanny Koziol were any good they would recommend books that are counter to what the buyer is purchasing in an effort to provide a balanced view. but folks like koziol and others work overtime to hide books that run counter to their beliefs. sure they’ll prominently display the best sellers, but check out their recommendations to see what they really think. lots of stories over the years of conservative authors finding their books hidden from view

#10 Comment By PeterK On July 23, 2017 @ 11:05 am

“I downloaded and installed an ad blocker which resolved the problem”

i’ve had adblocker plus installed for years. did it because the ads were intrusive and spoiled my reading experience. stop the popups the videos automatically running, stop the insertion of ads between the text and more.
yes in an ODT magazine or newspaper I see ads all the time but they are passive not active.
now if only TAC would install a comment system would allow me to reply to someone’s comment directly rather than further down the line as well as notifying me when my comment is replied to

#11 Comment By Jim Bear On July 23, 2017 @ 2:34 pm

Siarlys Jenkins “Has a decent argument here, even though so far no court has found that baker’s First Amendment rights trump state anti-discrimination laws.’
This is very simple. No one, not even the supreme being Anthony Kennedy, has a right to force business owners against their will to enter contracts that violate their first amendment protected religious conscience. All the florists and bakers under attack by the Marxist Left served gay clients but only stopped at the ceremony. The Christian business owners are the ones being discriminated against by being forced against their will to participate in an event that violates their Constitutionally protected faith.
In a pluralistic society why does the radical Marxist Gay lobby demand Christians validate their worldview and life choices? No Christians are protesting or trying to stop their pagan weddings yet radical gays are demanding the government force them to enter contracts for their services against their will. Tyranny anyone? Why are radical gays so desperate for validation? I don’t walk into a Jewish deli and demand they make me a ham sandwich and call my lawyer when they respectfully decline. Then again I’m not a d-bag nor a Marxist. Cleon Skousen wrote about this as a Communist goal for the USA in the Naked Communist. I read it in the eighties and dismissed it but we are living with it today, The Left is using gays to take away unalienable God given right by destroying the Church in America.

On the topic at hand I believe business owners can make their own decision on what to sell. Its their store. If they chose not to do so then find and patronize someone who does. Freedom, liberty and free will work.

#12 Comment By Charles Pluckhahn On July 23, 2017 @ 11:17 pm

My comment there is as follows.


In list form:

1. The first duty of any business is to stay in business. I don’t know how much your store charges for “Hillbilly Elegy,” but I’ll climb out on a limb and guess that it’s more than what Amazon charges. The difference helps keep the store in business.

2. As an employee, it’s not your job to choose what to sell, and that extends to passively discouraging a sale.

3. That much said, if a customer wants to discuss the book with you, and you’ve read it, I’ll crawl out on another limb and suggest that some customers might be interested in your view of it. Nothing wrong with offering your view to a receptive customer, but not in such a way that will discourage the sale. See #1 above.

4. It took me until my early 30s, in graduate school, to realize that no author has all the answers, no matter how good they are. Any writing is, in the end, one take on a subject, and should be seen as such — regardless of whether you “agree” or “dsagree” with what you have read.

5. Intelligent readers will make their own judgments. If a book is “influential,” there is all the more reason to read it. I have a personal hate-literature shelf, and it includes The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, Mao’s “little red book,” In the Belly of the Beast, The Turner Diaries, and some others. I don’t “agree” with these books, but I think they’re important to have read.

6. Your reductionism of Dreher, Buckley, etc. is sadly comical. If this is emblematic of how you think, and of how you present your views, I think most of your customers will dismiss your opinion of Hillbilly Elegy.

7. I read Atlas Shrugged when I was in high school. I laughed. You seem to think that the act of reading someone’s viewpoint will mesmerize the reader. Wrong. Sometimes, the articulation and dissemination of a point of view is the most effective means of discrediting it.

8. Sometimes, a chicken sandwich is just a chicken sandwich.

9. Do you stock “The Bell Curve”? I read it. Did you?

10. Quit telling people what to think, even by inference. It’s obnoxious.

#13 Comment By KevinS On July 24, 2017 @ 11:08 am

Jim Bear writes, “In a pluralistic society why does the radical Marxist Gay lobby demand Christians validate their worldview and life choices?”

Ugh. Can we stop the practice of throwing “radical Marxist” in from of everything we disagree with? What the hell does this even mean? That the “Gay Lobby” accepts the labor theory of value? That the “Gay Lobby” believes in the rising organic composition of, and dealing rate of return on, capital? That the “Gay Lobby” believes that capitalism invariably leads to a crisis of overproduction, underconsumption and surplus capital? That the “Gay Lobby” believes in historical materialism? Give me a break.

#14 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On July 24, 2017 @ 12:19 pm

Jim Bear, its not as simple as you claim, but it is simple. The “religious liberty” argument is weak, in terms of existing jurisprudence that long pre-dates Anthony Kennedy. A law of general application that happens to conflict with some person’s religious beliefs is not restrained by the First Amendment. Conscientious objectors, e.g., are exempt from military conscription, not because of the First Amendment, but because congress wisely made such a provision in the Selective Service Act. Congress might have done a little more, but the First Amendment has never been held to require that it do anything at all.

All the florists and bakers under attack by the Marxist Left served gay clients but only stopped at the ceremony.

Very true, and this is the heart of the matter, factually. There was no discrimination against customers, in general, because they are gay. There was only refusal to participate in a ceremony. Which invokes, not an Establishment of Religion, but compelled speech.

Why are radical gays so desperate for validation? I don’t walk into a Jewish deli and demand they make me a ham sandwich and call my lawyer when they respectfully decline.

Again, I agree. When I said “so far no court has found” I meant exactly that. As you may know, if you were paying attention, the attorneys for Elane Photography submitted very coherent arguments that requiring the photographer to take pictures of a same-sex commitment ceremony would be compelled speech. The Supreme Court of New Mexico could not deny the extensive U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence about compelled speech — but it side-stepped the argument by observing, accurately enough, that the U.S. Supreme Court HAS NOT applied compelled speech jurisprudence in this manner to any commercial enterprise. (No such set of facts has, as yet, been submitted and accepted by the court). So, its true, its an open question, although I believe it can, should, and perhaps even will, be settled on terms that would retroactively vindicate Elane Photography.

#15 Comment By Sam McGowan On July 24, 2017 @ 8:48 pm

This is a non-story. Anyone who wants any book can order it online and bypass bookstores entirely. As for bookstores, they have the right to sell or refuse to sell any book.

[NFR: As exactly nobody has denied here (re: the second sentence). — RD]

#16 Comment By Mark On July 25, 2017 @ 11:09 pm

Siarly wrote: There was no discrimination against customers, in general, because they are gay. There was only refusal to participate in a ceremony.

No, they were asked to bake a cake, not to participate in the ceremony. You don’t see a tailor dashing down the street, “Not in the suit I made you, you don’t!”