Find out the surprising answer in Conor Friedersdorf’s latest strenuous exercise in bothsiderism, entitled “Is it Worse to Ban a Book, or Never Publish It?”
I’m often asked, “But which side is worse?” If two candidates are facing each other in an election that forces a binary choice, I’m happy to answer. Last time around, for example, I thought Donald Trump was the inferior candidate for people who are concerned about illiberalism. In general, however, I tend to think that right and left illiberalism fuel each other, such that asking which is worse is the wrong question. Regardless of the answer, both should be opposed.
For an example, consider the world of books. In my ideal scenario, no one would stand between an author and a willing reader, because I value freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry, even in cases, like The Communist Manifesto, where the ideas in a book led to real-world deaths.
This is the kind of argument that appeals to a precocious 14-year-old, but really not ought to be put forward by actual adults who have thought about this issue for more than ten seconds.
Any political tract of world historical significance has led to countless real-world deaths — for example consider the implications of the Declaration of Independence in this regard — so focusing on The Communist Manifesto seems like a pointless gesture. But a far more important point is that the general principle Friedersdorf is asserting is utterly and even bizarrely implausible.
Does he really want to argue that it’s an affirmatively good thing that the authors of, say, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or The Poisonous Toadstool, or The Camp of the Saints or an Alex Jones text asserting that no children were murdered at Sandy Hook all managed to find millions upon millions of “willing readers?”
Because that’s what this kind of fantastically jejune libertarianism involves: Not an argument that government censorship of noxious literature is a cure worse than the disease, but the claim that there’s no such thing as a book that, in an “ideal scenario” — his phrase! — should not be published, as long as its author can find willing readers.
The rest of the piece is just an extension of this preposterous proposition. Therefore “censorship” — this means editorial decisions of any kind, as opposed to, say, restraints on publication imposed via the violence of the state — is bad, because it interferes with the free exchange of ideas. That’s the argument.
For Friedersdorf, the idea that an author might pause before choosing to try to publish an argument because people might object to some aspect of it is by definition a bad thing. Authors are thereby “censoring” themselves, you see, and that’s always bad, because freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry are good things, and we should have more good things, not fewer.
I keep typing this argument out because somebody is getting paid actual cash money by a very prominent national magazine to publish it.