Don’t cancel Amy Coney Barrett’s book

Stephen L Carter

Kudos to Penguin Random House for sticking to its plan to publish a book by Judge Amy Coney Barrett despite a petition from hundreds of people who work at the publication arguing that the company should cancel the volume due to the author’s vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Some of the petition signers are writers they admire. Some of them are booksellers. Others work at Penguin Random House, a section of which has published several of my books, and so may be people who have helped me in my career.

However, with all due respect, I am compelled to object to the petitioners’ opposition.

The free flow of information and ideas is as important as free and fair voting to democracy, and serious books are a crucial tool in that flow. Damaging this current is how democracies decline. This is the main reason why a thriving publishing industry is so important.

People also read…

Sure, the petitioners explicitly disclaim any intent of censorship, but then they hit us with a gem like this one: “Penguin Random House must decide whether to fund its position at the expense of human rights in order to inflate its bottom line, or to truly stand behind the values ​​it so proudly espouses.” “.

see the problem? People can have different “values” than the publisher’s, but the publisher shouldn’t distribute their books. It’s hard to see how any volume that defends a “wrong” position can pass this test.

Perhaps their concern is simply that the $2 million price tag is too high. But to publish a book, one must purchase the rights. And while the economics of publishing progress is a moot point, the company must believe that sales will justify the number. Whatever one thinks of the author’s views, her arguments can be expected to find an audience.

Then there is this: “We cannot stand by while our industry misuses freedom of speech to destroy our rights.” I always read such a speech with a shudder. This was exactly the case put forward by the McCarthyists, who always insisted that they were all in favor of free speech, even as they set out to compile lists of people whose opinions they considered too harmful—too harmful to democracy—to publish.

Even after the famous Hollywood Ten, there were blacklists everywhere. And little wonders. The call for free and open debate has become a smokescreen for the destruction of democracy. In a 1948 Roper poll, only half of American respondents said that freedom of speech was an important right. A 1955 survey found that only about a quarter of respondents would tolerate communist talk in their communities and two-thirds believed that those holding communist views should lose their jobs.

In the words of legal scholar Jeffrey Stone, “The only ‘safe’ course was to join nothing.”

Posting has never been better. Dashiell Hammett, who went to jail rather than names, is dumped by the industry and his bestselling novels are suddenly found out of print. Government libraries gave away books by those who were now disadvantaged. Even books that were due to be published were cancelled.

In 1953, for example, Little, Brown changed its mind about issuing a volume by historian Robert K. Murray, whose only crime was chronicling mistakes made during the earlier Red Scare under Woodrow Wilson. Producing such a volume was too risky at a time when even the publishing industry — understandably, but it’s a shame — spent a lot of time looking over its shoulder, hoping not to borrow trouble. Only after McCarthy’s downfall did the University of Minnesota Press agree to put Murray’s book on the market.

Then, as now, it was the responsibility of the publishing industry to fight for strong expression of unpopular ideas…and to do its part to make sure they were heard.

My home library contains books by many people whom I consider to be wrong on fundamental issues. To pick one at random, I own the first edition of James J. Kilpatrick’s volume The Southern Case of School Separation, published in 1962.

He’s wrong about almost everything, but so what? I don’t read books to confirm what I already believe. I read to be challenged, questioned, and forced to come up with better arguments.

Most of all, I read to understand how thinking people come to conclusions different from mine—especially on matters of which I am passionate.

Nor would I refuse to read a book because of the author’s opinions or history. Hugo Black was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but I discover something new every time I flip through his book on bill of rights. Bobby Fischer was a vicious anti-Semite, but I appreciate “60 Unforgettable Games.” And so on and so on.

I certainly understand why those who signed the petition wanted Roe v. Wade not to be invalidated. Right now, I bet Republican politicians across the country wish the same. But those who appreciate books should take a longer view.

The signatories accuse Judge Barrett of “imposing her religious and moral agenda on all Americans while embracing the rhetoric of fairness.” Maybe they are right. Maybe they are wrong. As a serious reader, all I can say is that by creating controversy, they have made me anxious to read and decide on the book.

Stephen L. Carter is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

Leave a Comment