Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Hope at the NYT: Douthat on cancel culture

Ross Douthat in the New York Times doubts that canceling Dr. Seuss is a good idea. That this essay made it in to the Times, of all places, and as of 9 AM Monday he has not yet been fired may give us some hope. 

The most daring and revealing bit: 

Just a few weeks ago the Amazonian giant decided to simply delete, without real explanation, a 2018 book by Ryan Anderson, a Catholic scholar and the head of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, called “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment.”

...I live and work among highly educated liberals, and I know that more than a few of them actually agree with the critiques of current transgender theory Anderson presents. They’re skeptical about the widespread use of puberty blockers for gender dysphoria. They’re wary about the implications for women’s spaces, women’s sports. They don’t share Anderson’s Catholic presuppositions, but they are, at least, J.K. Rowling liberals.

In the last stages of the same-sex marriage debate, I never encountered a flicker of private doubt from liberal friends. But in the gender-identity debate, there are pervasive liberal doubts about the current activist position. Yet without liberal objection, that position appears to set rules for what Amazon will sell.

That this admission could be printed in the New York Times strikes me as good news for free speech. 

Let me be clear, as this is an explosive topic and I don't want my intent misconstrued. The question is not to judge anything about the gender-identity debate.  People I care deeply about lie on a trans spectrum, and I have learned a lot about their point of view. The question is whether public policy and medical or psychological fact on the issue can be discussed. Can evidence be sought, studies done, research discussed, books written and sold, and policy debated, actual science be performed? Can good progressives who work for the New York Times discuss these issues? Or is the current "activist position" on policy and medical issues undebatable? Nor is the issue, yet, legality of expression. Legality in a democracy only formalizes elite opinion. Amazon and Twitter censor first, law follows. Activists burn books first, law follows.  

Douthat makes a good case for open-minded Children's literature rather than indoctrination, again an obvious point, but in an unusual venue:

Western children’s literature really has been influenced by imperialism and racism. The Babar books have obvious colonialist undertones. Ditto the Man in the Yellow Hat. And as kids get older — well, “The Lord of the Rings” is waiting, with its Greco-Roman Gondorians besieged by darker races from the south and east.

The colonialist subtext in Babar is a complication in a brilliant series of books. In a free society that appreciates greatness, these flaws are good reasons to develop a diverse canon — but terrible reasons to make the works of important artists disappear.

It's more important than just overlooking "flaws." If you want your kids to understand racism or colonialism they have to see some real racism and colonialism. If you want your kids to  understand how some middle-class Belgians could possibly have countenanced what happened in the Congo, they should read Titin au Congo.  Your kids are not idiots. They will not become racist colonialists by reading this now thoroughly censored book. They may perhaps  understand something about the banality of evil, and what the the question is about, rather than just mouthing slogans. 

...it was a good thing when liberalism, as a dominant cultural force in a diverse society, included a strong tendency to police even itself for censoriousness — the [former] ACLU tendency, the don’t-ban-Twain tendency, the free-speech piety of the high school English teacher.

Now liberal cultural power has increased, the ACLU doesn’t seem very interested in the liberties of non-progressives anymore, and Dr. Seuss sells as pricey samizdat.
The link to Wendy Kaminer's ACLU op-ed is interesting. First, it links to the Wall Street Journal! In case you didn't know, 
The American Civil Liberties Union has explicitly endorsed the view that free speech can harm “marginalized” groups by undermining their civil rights. “Speech that denigrates such groups can inflict serious harms and is intended to and often will impede progress toward equality,” the ACLU declares
The [new] 2018 guidelines claim that “the ACLU is committed to defending speech rights without regard to whether the views expressed are consistent with or opposed to the ACLU’s core values, priorities and goals.” But directly contradicting that assertion, they also cite as a reason to decline taking a free-speech case “the extent to which the speech may assist in advancing the goals of white supremacists or others whose views are contrary to our values.”
In selecting speech cases to defend, the ACLU will now balance the “impact of the proposed speech and the impact of its suppression.” Factors like the potential effect of the speech on “marginalized communities” and even on “the ACLU’s credibility” could militate against taking a case. Fundraising and communications officials helped formulate the new guidelines
Et tu, ACLU? One more institution of civil society falls to the movement. 

This is all tame stuff, you may say. And Douthat is the Times'  pet conservative. But they published it. What's noticeable, and worth a post, is that some self-reflection has come to this bastion of the woke revolution.  Sure, I wrote much more darkly in "Understanding the left." Sure, Edward Skidelsky has a great essay pointing to the parallels between today's woke movement and the totalitarians  of yore. All much deeper and harsher. But today's ray of hope is a little self-reflection from inside the movement. 

Update:

On Dr. Seuss, Dave Henderson has a great blog post on copyright law (aka Mickey Mouse protection!) and how absurd it is that 95 year old work is not public domain. 

18 comments:

  1. How many Americans actually believe in the full woke movement? I hope its a small minority and that most see the perils of what its doing, even if their heart is in the right place. I don't want any high priest, no matter how pious, being the arbiter of what is or is not acceptable speech, behavior, or custom. We've had those so called messiahs in the past...with grizzly results.

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    1. Small minorities have enforced their views before.

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    2. Taleb can be a blowhard, but this is spot on...

      https://nassimtaleb.org/2016/08/intolerant-wins-dictatorship-small-minority/

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    3. Anonymous,

      I read the article by Taleb.

      His examples of asymmetries and the "tyranny" of small minorities

      1. A Kosher (or halal) eater will never eat nonkosher (or nonhalal) food , but a nonkosher eater isn’t banned from eating kosher.

      2. A disabled person will not use the regular bathroom but a non-disabled person will use the bathroom for disabled people.

      3. Someone with a peanut allergy will not eat products that touch peanuts but a person without such allergy can eat items without peanut traces in them.

      It is misleading to label these examples as a "tyranny" or "dictatorship" of small minorities because the individual unaffected by a disability, a peanut allergy, religious beliefs is unencumbered in the choices he / she makes.

      The "tyranny of the minority" occurs when two nearly equal groups of individuals are engaged in a negotiation that affects the fortunes of all involved (all members have "skin in the game"). A few defectors on either side changes the balance of power between the two groups. And so small minorities on either side are able to exploit the the balance of power and demand concessions in excess of what their votes may be worth on a one for one basis.

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  2. Let's keep going with this "Seuss is being Cancelled" metaphor. The publisher here was exercising their right not to publish works they owned to copyright to - which, as this article argues, is tantamount to cancel culture. We should instead be forcing publishers to continue to print works ad infinitum, so that no work can ever be taken from the public consciousness. If that's our standard, though, we'd better be willing to subsidize the publishing industry, since we're distorting the market forces that underpin their decision-making.

    In fact, let's go further and just abolish all copyright protection wholesale, so that any cancelled work can simply be reprinted by another publisher if the demand justifies it. Why should any individual hold exclusive right to ideas?

    And why stop at just intellectual property? Why not extend this to the physical realm too?

    Exaggerations aside, this is the free market at work. An independent company made a business decision that they felt was in their best financial interests. They broke no laws. They hurt no-one. If you honestly don't want this type of decision to be allowed, then you're asking for Socialism.

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    1. Anonymous,

      "In fact, let's go further and just abolish all copyright protection wholesale, so that any cancelled work can simply be reprinted by another publisher if the demand justifies it. Why should any individual hold exclusive right to ideas?"

      https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-duration.html

      "The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years."

      Theodore Geisel (author of Dr. Seuss) died in 1991. And so the copyright for his books published after 1978 lasts until 2061. With books published before 1978, I think the duration is 67 years (thanks to the Sonny Bono amendment of 1992).

      "An independent company made a business decision that they felt was in their best financial interests."

      How is it in a company's best financial interests to NOT publish something that they have exclusive rights to? If they are afraid of bad public relations by reprinting the material, they can simply sell copyright for the material to someone else.

      "They hurt no-one."

      I don't know if that's true or not. Do any of Mr. Geisel's relatives collect royalties on republication of Mr. Geisel's works?

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    2. Why was it in their best financial interests?

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    3. Those books had virtually no circulation and this is an easy win in terms of publicity and thus additional sales of their popular books.

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    4. Ed,

      This article is a bit dated but sales of Dr. Seuss books was still going strong in 2015 (just 6 years ago).

      https://priceonomics.com/the-statistical-dominance-of-dr-seuss/

      "In 2013, 4.8 million Geisel books were sold, a 50% increase on the 3.2 million that were sold in 2010."

      "Random House has also continued to publish Dr. Seuss’s unfinished works posthumously, which keeps Seuss relevant. Seven new books have been published after his death, including 2015’s What Pet Should I Get, which debuted at number one on the New York Times Children’s Books Bestseller list."

      https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/books/2021/03/04/dr-seuss-books-sales-spike-after-some-banned-racist-imagery/6917679002/

      Dr. Seuss dominates this week's USA TODAY Best-Selling Books list with "The Cat in the Hat" taking the No. 1 spot, the highest the title has appeared since the list's inception.

      Sales for popular Dr. Seuss titles soared following the announcement that six of the children's book author's titles are no longer being sold because of racist and insensitive imagery.

      The author claimed six spots in the USA TODAY's Top 10 ("The Cat in the Hat," "One Fish, Two Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish," "Green Eggs and Ham," "Oh, the Places You'll Go!," "Fox in Socks" and "Dr. Seuss's ABC"). His works accounted for a total of 33 places on the 150 rank list.

      So much for no circulation.

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    5. That post should go into a dictionary as a perfect illustration of a non-sequitur. Some Dr. Seuss books are very popular, therefore all Dr. Seuss books are very popular.

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    6. Compared to your unsubstantiated statement:

      "Those books had virtually no circulation..."

      Perhaps you could elaborate on this?

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    7. If you bothered to open the link you posted with most popular books and compared the list from there to the discontinued books you'd be able to substantiate it yourself. Hint: there is no intersection.

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  3. Free speech: There's always samizdat!

    Should be easier than in the former Soviet Union where all typewriters and photocopiers were centrally registered, along with copies of the marks they make.

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  4. I'll believe this when one is freely capable of talking about uncomfortable facts around IQ and race, and heritability.

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  5. Sure Free Speech. Great idea. It's been at the center of pur democracy since its inception.

    What people have problems with are reactions to Free Speech, some of which are legal and some of which are not. People are, however, free to make decisions as a result of Free Speech, some of which have consequences.

    The consequences that are being framed as moral and ethical themselves are running the risk of being perceived as immoral or unethical, it is unfortunate our culture has gotten to a place of extremes to the point one cannot even have a conversation without being labeled as crazy, immoral, and extreme.

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  6. There's an economic model in there somewhere, right? --Shall we liberate it?

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  7. I am hoping that people will start posting pdf copies of the banned Dr. Seuss books on the web. Our grandchildren were not quite old enough for them.

    Read John McWhorter's defense of the Dr. Seuss books. https://johnmcwhorter.substack.com/p/and-then-they-came-for-on-beyond

    I think Australia has a shorter copyright regime than other countries. I was able to find a Gutenberg edition of 1984 on the .au website, and it was only published 72 years ago.

    Sadly the US Supreme court, which should have tossed the copyright act extensions was in this, as in so many other areas, gutless.

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  8. I used to enjoy this blog, but lately it seems like John has been on a crusade. Why did we come up with the name "cancel culture" to describe something that's been going on for as long as humans have been alive? Why get so worked up about Dr Seuss and Mr Potato Head? It's a bit cringe worthy when economists try to double as political pundits.

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