January 17, 2017

Publishing during wartime, part IV: Learning from history


Whether you are among those joining the boycott against Simon & Schuster for publishing hate speech monger Milo Yiannopoulos or not, the Martin Luther King holiday weekend was a moving time to contemplate the four-year-long protest movement confronting our democracy.

First there was the electrifying protest of a Yiannopoulos speaking engagement on the campus of the University of California at Davis on Friday night: As a CNN report details, students chanting, “Say it loud, say it clear, racists are not welcome here” linked arms and “surrounded” the campus lecture hall where Yiannopoulos was scheduled to appear and shut down the event.

Yiannoploulos immediately took to Facebook to declare that his appearance had been canceled due to “violence from left-wing protestors,” even though the police, UC Davis officials, and the event’s organizers denied anyone was hurt or that property damage occurred.

As part of “The Dangerous Faggot Tour,” a pre-publication tour for that upcoming S&S book Dangerous, Yiannopoulos had been scheduled to appear with Martin Shkreli — you know, the guy currently under Federal indictment for securities  fraud who, like Yiannopoulos, was kicked off Twitter for his harassment of women, and whose pharmaceutical company Turing, as an NPR report details, bought the rights to the drug Daraprim, “the only cure for toxoplasmosis, a disease that strikes people, including AIDS and cancer patients,” and then promptly “jacked up the price 5,000 percent” … and which in turn prompted the BBC to label Shkreli “the most hated man in America.”

In short, a couple of classy guys, famous for leading ominous intimidation campaigns against people—particularly women—who disagree with them. But that didn’t stop the chancellor of UC Davis, Ralph J. Hexter, from castigating the students for protesting their appearance. “I am deeply disappointed with the events of this evening,” Hexter said in a hasty statement that equated the protest with “censorship.”

Student protestors countered in an open letter saying, as a Washington Post story reported, “The university’s commitment to free speech is not an obligation to provide a formal podium for every form on nonacademic, hateful rhetoric that student groups wish to bring to campus.”

“There’s a big difference between free speech and giving up platform to someone that’s openly hateful,” one protestor added.

There is indeed, and I couldn’t help but think about how the clueless response of the UC Davis administration is sadly resonant with the institutional response of the book industry biggies, including the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers, and the American Booksellers Association, who have signed onto the garbled and desperate-sounding self-contradictory rhetoric of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) statement saying that people were free to protest the Yiannopoulos book deal but, if they did, they were basically censoring Simon and Schuster.

Putting that disingenuous conflation into even more stark perspective was President-elect Trump’s attack of civil rights legend John L. Lewis because he announced a protest: For the first time in thirty years, Lewis said he wouldn’t be going to the inauguration because he didn’t think Trump was a “legitimate president.”

“I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected, and they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton,” Lewis explained to NBC’s Chuck Todd.

The comments of course made Trump nuts, leading him to tweet that Lewis was “all talk,” “no action,” and thereby showing—surprise!—that he was generally unaware of Lewis’s many jailings and batterings in the Civil Rights movement, including during the march on Selma — a mind-bogglingly stupid admission to make over the Martin Luther King holiday.

That Trump would attempt to intimidate a protest by such an icon of the Civil Rights movement gives you some appropriately ominous sense of why protest is only that much more important right now — and, for those of us in the book industry, some idea of why the protest of hate speech by one of the up-and-coming icons of Trump’s distinctively fascist movement is all the more crucial.

Of all the various minority groups that should be worried about the threat of a Trump presidency—well, ALL minority groups should be worried about the threat of a Trump presidency, including the minority that voted him into office—the book business, the business of making art and speaking truth to power, should surely be high on the list.

Which is what makes the convoluted stance of groups like the AAP, the ABA, and the Authors Guild so sinister. It seems willfully unaware and blithely supportive of those who are most likely to enforce censorship once they are in power, just a few days from now. It says hate speech is no different from any other speech. It says let the big house make its money.

It’s creepy that, in support of the NCAC statement, industry spokespeople such as NCAC head Joan Bertin continue to attack protestors for trying to enforce a “chilling effect” on poor Simon and Schuster, which they clearly equate with censorship.

It makes the NCAC statement seem unaware of the definition of the word “protest.” And shouldn’t we be alarmed that they also don’t seem to understand that boycotts are, by definition, very precisely all about “chilling effects” — that the idea is to encourage S&S not to promote hate speech?

In any event, it’s clear that those institutional groups are going to stick by the status quo — it is indeed all about the money, as I detailed in the first part of this series, and as several others have reiterated since (most succinctly, Michael Wolff, in his most recent USA Today column).

And if my voluminous mail on this—including messages from employees of S&S itself, as well as from numerous booksellers and editors from numerous houses, unanimously crying shame and supporting the boycottis any indication, those organizations are indeed not really representing their constituency.

As Michelle Goldberg wrote in a recent column for Slate, “the forms of democracy seem to matter more than the thing itself” to the institutionally concerned. But they can’t see the forrest for the trees. The question is not whether Simon and Schuster will survive, but the democracy.

Let us learn from history, then, and take John Lewis as our inspiration. Protest, in the face of a virulent fascism that has never had power in this country before, is legitimate, indeed vital. Giving that fascism a platform is not the same thing as defending free speech.

As Lewis himself said yesterday—according to a Guardian report—at a celebration of MLK Day, “Stand up, speak up, when you see something that is not right and not fair and not just. You have a moral obligation to do something and say something.”
See part one, Publishing during wartime
See Publishing during wartime, part II
See part III, Protest of S&S and “gaslighting” is growing
See part IV, Learning from history
See part V, The violence begins
See part VI, The growing resistance
See part VII, Enter the Black Bloc, exit discernment
See part VIII, Enter the rainmaker?
See part IX, The flying monkeys multiply, but so does the opposition
See part X, Chickens, roosting

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives