“Literary Figures” Attack Free Speech

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Over 600 people in the writing and/or publishing field have signed an open letter requesting that Penguin Random House reconsider its decision to publish a book by Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

Let’s dissect this a bit.

First, the letter is entitled “We Dissent.” This is an example of members of the “literary community” choosing the wrong word. They do not dissent. They disagree. In order for them to dissent, they would have had to have had some role in the decision of Penguin Random House to publish Barrett’s book. To say they dissent is to suggest that they voted against the majority of those at Penguin Random House who voted to publish Barrett’s book. They didn’t, because they had no role whatsoever in the decision. Now, people can dissent from majority opinions that are commonly or officially held, but let’s not pretend that opposition to abortion is commonly or officially held by a majority of those in the “literary community.” So, from whom or from what are these “literary figures” dissenting? They aren’t dissenting from anyone or anything. They are disagreeing with Penguin’s decision and hope to influence the publisher to change its decision. But to say they dissent sounds more heroic and daring, doesn’t it? Which is likely why they chose to use “We Dissent” rather than “We Disagree.”

The letter opens with a lie: “As members of the writing, publishing, and broader literary community of the United States, we care deeply about freedom of speech. We also believe that it is imperative that publishers uphold their dedication to freedom of speech with a duty to care.” These people don’t give a twit about freedom of speech. The so-called “duty to care” that they believe publishers have and ought to uphold stands in direct contrast with the freedom of speech. Duty to care about what, exactly? They don’t say. Based on the rest of the letter, I get the impression that they believe that publishers have a duty to care about what they care about. They seem to assume that what they care about is what everyone else cares about, or ought to care about. And there’s the rub. Who gets to decide what we ought to care about? Who gets to decide when someone exercises their freedom of speech to say something that’s a violation of the “duty to care”? This is why protecting free speech is so important. Because what I think we ought to care about and what you think we ought to care about may be two different things. In that case, if the “duty to care” trumps free speech, then free speech is nothing more than the right to say what those in power determine what may be said. The signatories of this open letter are trying to assume that power.

I would recommend that publishers, in fact, do not have a duty to care. It is the larger community that has a duty to care, and the larger community practices that duty to care by how they respond to a publisher’s decision to uphold freedom of speech by publishing books that sometimes offend members of the “literary community,” or any number of other “communities.” (Frankly, I’m over the attempt by people to secure some sort of false authority by claiming to be representing a particular “community”). This is not the same as saying that publishers have an obligation to publish whatever anyone has to say. There is the responsibility of an author to write coherently about important subjects in a way that makes sound arguments. If you write something that makes no sense, or that argues from logical fallacies, then no publisher has an obligation to publish what you write. There is also the responsibility not to commit libel or defamation or to undermine the innocence of children. But the mere fact that you are writing something that offends doesn’t place upon the shoulders of the publisher the burden of upholding some vague “duty to care.”

What’s next? They continue, and in bold: “We recognize that harm is done to a democracy not only in the form of censorship, but also in the form of assault on inalienable human rights.” And what assault on inalienable human rights is Amy Coney Barrett guilty of? Why, of course, the inalienable human right to abortion. Barrett’s book should not be published, these literary figures contend, because she has violated the inalienable human right to abortion by her siding with the majority in the Dobbs Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade. Does it matter that Roe v. Wade was overturned because it rested on shaky legal grounds? Not at all. According to these literary figures, what matters is that abortion is an inalienable human right, and Barrett voted to strike down the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed access to abortion around the country was a right.

According to the open letter, “International human rights organizations widely recognize abortion access as a fundamental human right and have condemned the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision.” The letter doesn’t cite which international human rights organizations recognize abortion as a “fundamental human right” or which have criticized the Supreme Court ruling. They go on to cite Human Rights Watch: “In fact, Human Rights Watch — founded by Random House’s second publisher, Robert L. Bernstein … notes that “the human rights on which a right to abortion access is predicated are set out in the [United Nations’] Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” a document to which Penguin Random house parent company Bertelsmann commits itself …” (again, bold in original).

Well, I guess that settles it! Except for a few points that the open letter fails to mention. They fail to mention that Human Rights Watch (HRW) takes an openly pro-abortion stance, so no one is surprised by their interpretation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They fail to mention that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says nothing about the right to abortion, though it does affirm that, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” I’m guessing that HRW interprets Article 12 of the Universal Declaration as supporting abortion. Article 12 says, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy …” In its ruling on Roe v. Wade, the U. S. Supreme Court famously found the right to abortion in the 14th amendment, in which it famously found the right to privacy (which is nowhere mentioned in the 14th amendment). So, my guess is that HRW finds support for abortion in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration because of its protection of privacy. Of course, this is precisely what the Supreme Court in the Dobbs ruling found specious. The Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade basically made up the right to abortion out of thin air. It was a horrible decision with no support in the Constitution. Dobbs corrected that, and that’s a good thing.

Another thing the open letter fails to mention is that HRW has come under considerable criticism itself for bias against various nations, especially Israel, making much hay over what they regard as human rights violations committed by some countries and saying nothing about violations committed by other countries, depending on the political leanings of a particular country or those of the staff at HRW. Even Robert L. Bernstein has been critical of HRW for its bias.

Finally, the signatories of this open letter, if they’re going to cite HRW, ought to read what HRW has to say about free speech:

“Freedom of speech is a bellwether: how any society tolerates those with minority, disfavored, or even obnoxious views will often speak to its performance on human rights more generally.  In international law, access to information and free expression are two sides of the same coin, and both have found tremendous accelerators in the Internet and other forms of digital communication.  At the same time, efforts to control speech and information are also accelerating, by both governments and private actors in the form of censorship, restrictions on access, and violent acts directed against those whose views or queries are seen as somehow dangerous or wrong. From our earliest days, when we were called The Fund for Free Expression, we have fought all forms of repression of speech, in all media, around the globe.”

Nothing in there about publishers having a responsibility to balance freedom of speech with a duty to care.

The open letter accuses Justice Barrett of inserting her personal religious views into her Supreme Court rulings. They write: “The ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health that overturned Roe hinged on exactly what Coney Barrett’s book is reportedly about—the judiciary’s role and “how judges are not supposed to bring their personal feelings into how they rule. “Yet, it seems this is exactly what Coney Barrett has done, inflicting her own religious and moral agenda upon all Americans while appropriating the rhetoric of even-handedness—and Penguin Random House has agreed to pay her a sum of $2 million to do it.”

The signatories of the open letter have no grounds on which to accuse Justice Barrett of “inflicting her own religious and moral agenda upon all Americans.” They simply assume she made her decision based on her religious and moral views because she is a devout Catholic. This is anti-Catholic bigotry, the ages-old accusation that Catholics are not capable of serving well in public office because of the natural conflict caused by their devotion to the pope or their Catholic faith. The signatories really ought to be ashamed of themselves, but shame is in little supply in our current political atmosphere. As well, Penguin is not paying Justice Barrett to “inflict her own religious and moral agenda on all Americans.” Justice Barrett’s role in Dobbs was played out months prior to her deal with Penguin to publish her book.

The letter continues (unfortunately): “This is not just a book that we disagree with, and we are not calling for censorship. Many of us work daily with books we find disagreeable to our personal politics. Rather, this is a case where a corporation has privately funded the destruction of human rights with obscene profits. Coney Barrett is free to say as she wishes, but Penguin Random House must decide whether to fund her position at the expense of human rights in order to inflate its bottom line, or to truly stand behind the values it proudly espouses to hold.”

Okay, they most certainly are calling for censorship. It is blatantly obvious they are calling for censorship. They say that many of them work with books they find disagreeable. How noble! Isn’t that part of their job? “This is a case where a corporation has privately funded the destruction of human rights with obscene profits.” The hyperbole here is so … well, hyperbolic … it’s hilarious. Penguin is not funding the destruction of human rights. First, you would have to agree that abortion is a human right. Clearly, that is not a universally held position, no matter how desperately the signatories try to prove it is. Second, again, Justice Barrett’s role in the Dobbs decision was played out months ago. So, whatever “destruction of human rights” occurred did so long before Penguin cut a deal to publish her book. All they’re doing is paying her for her book. They’re not paying her to rule one way or the other on abortion. You would think that Penguin was paying Idi Amin $2 million to record in detail how he sliced up his political enemies rather than paying a Supreme Court justice to write an account of her time on the bench and how she came to agree with the majority of her colleagues that a really bad prior Supreme Court decision was really bad.

Finally, the letter closes (and, once again, in bold): “We the undersigned have made the decision to stand by our duty of care while upholding freedom of speech. We cannot stand idly by while our industry misuses free speech to destroy our rights.

Oh, give me a break! Where’s a barf bag? These people take themselves so seriously and are so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that they seem led by their own self-righteousness to go to ridiculous extremes in making their point. They’ve made the decision to stand by their duty to care, while still never specifying what they have a duty to care about. They insist that they are upholding freedom of speech even as they strike at its roots with an ax. They cannot stand idly by (such heroic protectors of human rights never can, can they?) while their industry (there’s that claim of authority again – do they work for Penguin? No. But they represent the “literary community”) misuses freedom of speech to destroy their rights. Misuses freedom of speech by allowing someone to publish a book wherein she expresses her opinion? Rights to what? “Rights” is plural, but it seems the only “right” they care about is abortion. The claim that the dignity of one group of people is contingent on their possessing the right to kill another group of people is moral insanity. Yet, that is precisely the “right” they claim to have and the “right” they claim Justice Barrett has destroyed.

The executives at Penguin Random House ought to bury this letter deep in the circular file. If they’re smart and if they truly care about freedom of speech and their reputation as a credible publishing house, they’ll see this open letter for what it is: an attempt to intimidate the publishing industry into complying with a set of standards determined by the sensibilities of a mob who cannot tolerate anyone saying anything contrary to their own worldview. Anything that smacks of the slightest deviation from their perspective on the world is an attack on international human rights, a misuse of freedom of speech, and a violation of the “duty to care.” The only way to respond to this sort of effort at intimidation is to laugh in their collective face and move on with your plans to do exactly the opposite of what they demand. Let’s hope Penguin has the backbone to do just that.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

One thought on ““Literary Figures” Attack Free Speech

  1. Please. With only slight modifications, send your analysis to Penguin House. They need to read sanity. They need to hear truth! Thank you.


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