According to Eric Berkowitz’s Dangerous Ideas, the first public book burning in recorded history likely occurred in 430 BCE. Because the Sophist philosopher Protagoras questioned the existence of the gods, who had inflicted defeats in war and a devastating pestilence on Athens, his fellow citizens wanted to appease them by incinerating his sacrilegious writings.
Two hundred years after Protagoras’s works were devoured by flames, Chinese scrolls and wooden tablets suffered the same fate during the reign of Qin Shi Huang.1 In Imperial Rome books were burned assiduously, including many Christian texts, and then pagan texts once the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the fourth century. A religion “rent by its own internal battles,” Berkowitz writes, required fiery measures to ensure orthodoxy and a unified church, which “became the model for speech suppression for centuries to come.” And so the pyres continued to blaze, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Age, and reaching, shamefully, into our own times.
Fire’s sheer destructiveness and capacity for spectacle make it dear to censors, as exemplified by two of the most infamous cases of book burning in recent centuries. The first comes from the United States, where in 1873 Anthony Comstock persuaded Congress to enact laws making it illegal to send lascivious materials through the mail. As a postal inspector, and with the help of mobs associated with his New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Comstock claimed to have burned 160 tons of obscene literary material in the forty-year period following passage of the so-called Comstock laws, as well as illustrated playing cards, sex toys, marriage guides, and abortion and birth control devices.2
The second example is the notorious Nazi bonfires in 1933 that turned to cinders and smoke hundreds of thousands of books, including “degenerate” works by Marx, Mann, Proust, and Einstein. Both at the time and subsequently, this was so widely condemned that it seemed no one would dare to repeat it, or at least would not film and display it to the world. And yet in Chile, forty years later, that is exactly what happened after the coup against the democratically elected president Salvador Allende. Watching television in September 1973, I saw soldiers casting books on a smoldering pyre, among which was my own How to Read Donald Duck, an experience that helped convince me, as it has authors over the ages, that it was necessary to go into exile lest I endure the same mistreatment. Heinrich Heine expressed it best in 1823: “Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.” Eight years later, he went into exile in Paris to escape German censorship.
Exiles appear throughout Dangerous Ideas3; Berkowitz observes that those who flee their oppressive homelands can air their views abroad, but he does not engage with the paradox that exile also limits the influence that émigrés can exercise back home, which turns banishment into yet another deterrent in the arsenal of censorship. What Berkowitz does describe abundantly are other punishments: publishers are chopped to pieces and scholars are buried alive, bishops are beheaded and scribes are crucified for copying a derogatory book, translators are knifed and plays are shuttered, the Talmud is put on trial and songs are banned, reports are redacted, cinema content is restricted, books are used as toilet paper, references to sex are excised as obscene, and workers are forbidden to read what affluent members of society peruse at their leisure. During World War I an unregistered alien in America was even imprisoned because his parrot spoke German (“the bird [was] sent to…a ‘loyal’ pet store”).
Given how repetitive these actions are, one might expect Berkowitz’s book to be tedious, but it always manages to surprise, especially with a lively flow of villains. Among those I hadn’t come across, a few stood out. Frederick Mead, the magistrate at proceedings in 1929 against the English gallery that exhibited D.H. Lawrence’s watercolors (in which pubic hair peeked out at visitors), refused to hear testimony that they constituted art, thundering that “I would destroy these pictures, as I would destroy wild beasts.” Eight years later, the president of the British Board of Film Censors boasted, “We may take pride in observing that there is not a single film in London today which deals with any of the burning questions of the day.” The nineteenth-century Spanish general Ramón Narváez declared, “It is not enough to confiscate papers; to finish with bad newspapers you must kill all the journalists.”
Malesherbes, the chief censor in eighteenth-century France, intervened to help the circulation of ideas of religious tolerance and social criticism, but he seems to have been an outlier.4 It would have served Berkowitz well to spend more time on the enforcers implementing these policies of silencing, because they are crucial to the history of censorship. Rather than admitting that they act on behalf of oligarchs, politicians, and religious potentates determined to keep their hold on power, these censors often perceive themselves as protecting the land and its most vulnerable members—women, children, the poor—from corrosion and corruption, paternally sheltering them from scandalous and disturbing emotions and pictures.
And yet the interaction between censors and those they suppress can be complex, as illustrated by an encounter I had with one of these guardians in the late 1970s while I was in exile in Holland. A compilation of my short stories was under contract with Aufbau, a prestigious East German publishing house, so my wife and I crossed into foreboding East Berlin to discuss the final contents with my editor. Over lunch, he explained that only one of the stories would not appear in the collection. Before he named it, I knew it had to be “Reader.” Its protagonist, Don Alfonso, an eagle-eyed censor serving a Latin American dictatorship, receives the manuscript of a treasonous novel whose main character seems based on his own life, revealing his most secret desires. Ultimately, rather than suppressing that story—akin to suffocating his own image in a mirror—he allows it to circulate, putting himself and his son in danger.
Though I may have been naive to think that such a tale could be published under a regime that was restraining speech in the name of the victorious proletariat, I nevertheless trusted that my editor would find a way to include it. He did not lack courage, having fought for the Spanish Republic and then against Hitler, and I knew that he respected literature that was not typical social-realist fare. But when I asked him what was wrong with the story, he cited aesthetic arguments: it was stylistically awkward, not well constructed. Why embarrass him by pointing out that the real reason behind his decision was political, that my fiction, inspired by events in my native Chile, could be construed as criticism of the government to which he had pledged allegiance? He had Schere im Kopf (scissors in the head)—a phrase that Berkowitz quotes about censors in East Germany.
I did not, however, valiantly withdraw my truncated collection from Aufbau. Choosing compromise over confrontation, I opted not to forfeit the rest of the stories by defending one of them. That sort of calculation also forms part of the history of censorship. There are innumerable authors who have accommodated themselves to the strictures of the state or worked their way around them. One cannot fully grasp how the struggle for free expression has developed without taking into account such maneuvers, the kind I would have to learn when I was allowed, a few years later, to return to dictatorial Chile.
History is full of writers wondering how far they can go, which themes to avoid or disguise, how to frame what is said as allegorical or transpiring in distant lands or future times; painters wondering how much to depict; singers gauging what might land them in jail; reporters holding back incendiary revelations about influential people; actors eliminating lines so their theaters can stay open; humor being deployed to imply what cannot be said openly. Berkowitz hardly mentions any of these stratagems or subterfuges. He does allude to Shakespeare, mostly to show how publishers cut potentially seditious scenes or how Bowdler purged words of the Bard as “unfit to be read aloud by a gentleman to a company of ladies.” Absent is any examination of the ways in which Shakespeare shaped his plays with an eye to the Master of the Revels, whose approval was necessary for performances. It could be argued that his fear of state intervention influenced how Macbeth or the Roman tragedies cunningly engage in politics.
It is under the shadow of censorship that many of humankind’s greatest creations have been forged by those who chose neither the exemplary death of martyrdom nor the death-in-life that is often the result of banishment. Ricardo Piglia, for instance, stayed in Argentina (a country unmentioned by Berkowitz) and produced Artificial Respiration, one of the masterpieces of experimental fiction in Latin America. In that novel, without once alluding to the Dirty War raging around him, he denounced the disappearance of thousands of his compatriots and dissected the grinding machine of censorship that was trying to silence the survivors.5
An entire book could be written about these and other surreptitious strategies of communication. It is not the book Berkowitz set out to write. This is not because he is unaware of how ingenuity can outwit the overseers and smuggle offensive material into the mainstream, or because of a lack of sensitivity to the intricacies of literary expression, as proven by his subtle approach to Flaubert and Baudelaire. If he sidesteps the vast gray areas of human creativity, it is because he is singularly focused on those heroes and heroines who refused to submit to the dictates and biases of their time. The fact that their works are still with us today hammers home the central thesis of Dangerous Ideas: censorship is ultimately futile and cannot permanently extinguish the thirst for freedom of expression.
Berkowitz has assembled a stirring cast to demonstrate this point. There is Margaret Sanger, arrested in 1914 because, in violation of the notorious Comstock Act, she wrote a sex education column, What Every Girl Should Know, that was distributed through the mail. Berkowitz writes: “The column was suppressed; a blank box was put in its place that read ‘What Every Girl Should Know—nothing, by order of the United States Post Office!’” Sanger was not dissuaded and doggedly kept campaigning for women’s reproductive rights.
Just as admirable in his defiance, though less to my liking, is the fanatical English lawyer William Prynne, sentenced in 1634 for seditious libel and thereafter “pilloried, fined, imprisoned, and deprived of his ears,” because of his hysterical criticism of the indecency of plays, actresses, and spectators. Revelry of any sort, he believed, was an abomination, condemned by the Scriptures. The fact that Berkowitz chooses someone with whom he strongly disagrees accentuates the need to respect adversaries whose views we find distasteful. More inspiring is Titus Labienus, a victim of Rome’s draconian decrees against satire. Though he committed suicide after “his entire oeuvre was set aflame,” his friend Severus was true to his memory, declaring, “If they really want to destroy the works of Labienus, they must burn me alive. For I have learned them by heart!”
This solidarity that preserves a persecuted person’s work for future readers is crucial in the eternal battle to defeat censorship. It is what happened with Giordano Bruno, defiant even when he was burned alive, along with his books, in 1600 in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori. Others hid his books and passed them from hand to clandestine hand until the world was ready to celebrate them.
Berkowitz fills many pages with those who, from the relative safety of their privilege, expanded the borders of free speech. There are thinkers who began to map out the need for protecting destabilizing ideas (John Milton, Baruch Spinoza, John Stuart Mill, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Leslie Stephen, and the lesser-known William Walwyn and Thomas Maule) and the legislators, judges, and activists (Charles Pinckney, Richard and Jane Carlile, and Supreme Court justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis, Robert Jackson, and Hugo Black) who, through a series of tentative steps, created laws guaranteeing the liberty to speak our minds that some of us take for granted today.
As is evident from the names just listed, Berkowitz centers this slow progress primarily in England and the United States, an emphasis that I can appreciate, having found refuge here from the Pinochet regime. And yet I would have preferred that less attention be lavished on the details of judicial wrangling and political and legislative accomplishments in these nations to make space for other parts of the world.
Spain, for instance, despite being part of the “West,” is almost entirely neglected. Surely General José Millán Astray’s ominous words in 1936 at the University of Salamanca—“Down with intelligence! Long live death!”6—are worthy of inclusion, especially as they anticipated what awaited the nation that was one of the post–World War II allies of the “free world” and yet applied to its citizens, in the name of god, civilization, and the purity of the family, a ferociously comprehensive system of censorship whose boundaries were constantly tested by struggling intellectuals and artists (for example, the filmmakers Carlos Saura and Luis Berlanga).
Something similar could be said about South Africa, which merits one paragraph from Berkowitz on Steve Biko without probing, even in passing, some of the richest examples of resistance in literature, theater, music, and graffiti of the twentieth century.7 Brazil is touched upon, mainly in order to denounce the mistreatment of an American, Glenn Greenwald. I deplore that persecution but lament the absence of the many Brazilians who risked their lives fighting censorship. Berkowitz employs the same anecdotal tactic regarding Israel, where the suppression of one Israeli author’s book in Arabic on the intifada is mentioned, but not a word about the flagrant persecution of Palestinian journalists or the constraints on the kind of news that can be published in that country and the ruses used to foil these limitations.
Lip service is paid to the colonies that gained independence after World War II in a page on Indonesia that, welcome as it is, cannot make up for the omission of so many other countries where democracy is besieged but dissident voices find a way of shrewdly expressing themselves. Think of what we can learn from the Arab world, Vietnam, South Korea, Nigeria, India, and Sri Lanka, just to name a few. This dearth is even more regrettable because, as democracy is besieged everywhere and crises loom ahead—war and plagues, mass migration, and climate apocalypse—the temptation to censor and control will increase exponentially.
As I read through Berkowitz’s wide-ranging overview, I could not help but notice parallels with our own time. Augustus Caesar forbade satiric insults against his person, and millennia later Winnie the Pooh was banned in China because apparently the portly, lovable bear was being used by dissidents to mock President Xi Jinping. The Supreme Court in 1920 upheld the sentencing of the Socialist Eugene Debs to ten years in prison for “a speech denouncing [World War I] as a capitalist plot,” and the ayatollahs of Iran, a century later, imposed harsh sentences on Arash Ganji for translating a book on the Kurdish struggle in Syria, and on others like Nahid Taghavi and Mehran Raoof for “propaganda against the state.”
The British government in 1792 sought to put Thomas Paine on trial for his seditious writings, forcing that hero of American Independence and supporter of the French Revolution to flee the country of his birth; more than two hundred years later came the disquieting news that my friend Sergio Ramírez, Nicaragua’s most prominent living author, whom I had met when we were both in exile, had been forced again to wander the earth, this time because President Daniel Ortega, the man he had served as vice-president in the Sandinista government, had ordered his arrest for “acts that foment and incite hatred and violence.” All the more depressing because Ortega himself had once been a revolutionary jailed for fighting for freedom—as depressing as news from Cuba that its government is harassing artists and dissidents.
The parallels seem endless: heretics murdered in Tudor England and journalists murdered in today’s Russia, the shaming of dissidents in Puritan Massachusetts and the shaming of professors with controversial views in our times, the Nazis’ use of force to “compel cultural homogeneity” and House Bill 3979 in contemporary Texas forbidding the teaching of critical race theory in schools—a not-so-covert way of stopping students from discovering the deep roots of white supremacy in America’s past.8 And, of course, recent book burnings echo the pyres of yesteryear.9
Berkowitz has wisely decided not to be distracted by the alarming continuities between past and present, waiting until a brilliant final chapter to describe the many persecutions that still threaten us while also emphasizing how much has changed, as well as the new challenges brought about by seismic alterations in “the nature of information and its transmission,” akin to what happened after the invention of the printing press. Inspired, perhaps, by the fearless predecessors he admires, he does not shy away from any number of controversial issues. Most of them derive from the paradox that the Internet—initially hailed as “a technology of freedom”10 that would let “all voices be heard in equal measure”—is now “marred by hate, threats, data privacy breaches, and fake news driven by bots, troll armies, and unseen actors,” forms of online speech managed by “self-serving corporations…whose readiness to manipulate people is matched by their platforms’ susceptibility to exploitation.” “It may be time,” Berkowitz declares, “to rethink some cherished assumptions” about unrestrained discourse.
How to balance the need to restrict hate speech with the need to safeguard people’s right to express repulsive, immoral, toxic, and, yes, dangerous ideas? How to deal with evident falsehoods that poison today’s polarized electorate and undermine democracy? How to make sure that the need for new ways of including racial and social equality in our common conversation does not lead to the false innocence of hygienic “safe spaces” that preclude genuine debate?11 How to counter those who have been the beneficiaries of the vicious suppression of the right to speak of the enslaved, Native Americans, immigrants, and gay people and who now weaponize free speech to safeguard odious prejudices about gender and race, privilege and history? Who will be the judges of what can be disseminated without themselves becoming censors?
Berkowitz wades into these issues armed with the perspective that comes from having just explored the ways in which humanity managed, over thousands of years, to forge a certain agreement that debate on public issues “should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Though he acknowledges that “there is no consensus in the West” about how to resolve the thicket of dilemmas he examines, he comes down strongly on the side of allowing more freedom rather than less,12 clinging to the certainty that we should not treat our fellows as if they were children unable to distinguish truth from deception. He makes this choice in the full knowledge of democracy’s precariousness, mindful of how easily a system that tolerated free inquiry—as Athens did—can turn into a repressive society when its identity is threatened. After all, thirty years before Protagoras’s books were burned, he was allowed to freely speak his mind. A cautionary tale: disasters breed censorship; yesterday’s champions of liberty can become the repressors of tomorrow; our freedoms can be reversed and intellectual autonomy sacrificed on the altar of security.
As we navigate the uncertain waters that await us, we do not lack inspiring stories to give us a cautious optimism. In 1974, a year after the coup in Chile, the actor and playwright Óscar Castro was arrested for performing a play that obliquely criticized the dictatorship, and he spent the next two years in concentration camps. Despite having been tortured, despite his mother and brother-in-law being “disappeared,” he expressed his creativity by staging a series of works with his fellow inmates. On one occasion, he managed to convince the commander of the Melinka detention center to approve a subversive text, adducing that it had been written by the “famous” (and fictitious) Austrian playwright Emil Kan (an anagram for Melinka). Under the very nose of those who could harm him, Óscar Castro did not cease to defy the censors.13 If he could nurse freedom behind barbed wire, if Margaret Sanger could persist despite indictments and proscriptions, if Giordano Bruno never recanted as his body burned, how can we believe that censorship will have the last word?
This “First Emperor” was praised and emulated by Mao thousands of years later as he wreaked havoc on his country’s intellectuals and libraries during the Cultural Revolution, boasting that he had far outdone his predecessor. See John A. Lynn, Another Kind of War: The Nature and History of Terrorism (Yale University Press, 2019). ↩
The figure of 160 tons comes from Margaret A. Blanchard, “The American Urge to Censor: Freedom of Expression Versus the Desire to Sanitize Society—From Anthony Comstock to 2 Live Crew,” William and Mary Law Review, Vol. 33, No. 3 (March 1992). ↩
Aristotle, Ovid, Dante, Tyndale, Voltaire, Joyce, Brecht, Rushdie, and many more are mentioned but, strangely, no female authors, such as the Algerian novelist Assia Djebar or the Cuban poet Lourdes Casal. ↩
For more on the collaboration between bureaucrats and writers in that time, see Robert Darnton, Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature (Norton, 2014); reviewed in these pages by Timothy Garton Ash, October 23, 2014. ↩
See my analysis of how these phrases reflect on Trump’s attitude toward science and truth in “Trump’s War on Knowledge,” nybooks.com, October 12, 2017; and “I Warned of Trump’s Attack on Science. But I Never Predicted the Horror That Lay Ahead,” The Guardian, April 20, 2020. ↩
See J.M. Coetzee, Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (University of Chicago Press, 1996); André Brink, Mapmakers: Writing in a State of Siege (London: Faber, 1983); and Margreet de Lange, The Muzzled Muse: Literature and Censorship in South Africa (John Benjamins, 1997). ↩
For those interested in current violations of free expression, some resources: PEN America’s Freedom to Write report; the Committee to Protect Journalists; International Emergency Campaign to Free Iran’s Political Prisoners; Project Censored: The News That Didn’t Make the News; and Index on Censorship (full disclosure, I am a member of its advisory committee). ↩
For example, seminarians in Boone, North Carolina, consigning to the flames books that question the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church; authorities in Ontario setting fire to five thousand books, including copies of the comics Tintin and Asterix, because they denigrated indigenous peoples; and officials in China burning “illegal” and “biased” books at a state-run library. On the recent banning of Art Spiegelman’s Maus by a Tennessee school board, see Tom Engelhardt, “My Life with Maus,” tomdispatch.com, February 17, 2022. ↩
The term comes from Ithiel de Sola Pool, Technologies of Freedom (Harvard University Press, 1983). ↩
For two differing views on the seriousness of this problem, see Anne Applebaum, “The New Puritans,” The Atlantic, August 31, 2021; Michelle Goldberg, “The Middle-Aged Sadness Behind the Cancel Culture Panic,” The New York Times, September 21, 2021; and Goldberg’s response on October 2, 2021, in the same paper to mostly critical reactions from readers. A valuable perspective on the unintended consequences of “deplatforming” on campus is Dax D’Orazio, “Deplatforming in Theory and Practice: The Ann Coulter Debacle,” in Dilemmas of Free Expression, edited by Emmet MacFarlane (University of Toronto Press, 2021). ↩
For a forceful and nuanced defense of the same position, see Suzanne Nossel, Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All (Dey Street, 2020). Nossel is the CEO of PEN America. ↩
Óscar Castro died last year of Covid in Paris. For more on his exceptional life and works, see my homage to him, “How Theater Can Help Us Survive,” The Nation, May 6, 2021; and “El Teatro en los campos de concentración,” Araucaria, No. 6 (1979), the result of several days and nights of recordings carried out by my wife and me in our Amsterdam exile. ↩