Censored Thoughts

Stephen Eric Bronner / Reader Supported News

You learn something every day—all right, perhaps every other day. That’s because I read the newspaper—all right, occasionally read it. Anyway, I see that a new day is dawning! In the land of the free, censorship looms large. Admittedly, most of it is imposed by reactionary swine. But I wonder…Is the Left also exhibiting a few (slightly!) authoritarian traits? Some are (understandably!) sensitive to slights against what they believe, and others insist that artists write only what they want to read.

Consider Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, or that old standby, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Full disclosure: I’m not crazy about any of them. Of course, Lee’s plea for simple justice in the segregated society of Jim Crow is laudable. But is that really enough? I recall my eyes rolling at her syrupy description of an innocent child learning about prejudice from the novel’s wise and patriarchal “white savior.” Meanwhile, Steinbeck may have stood with the workers in the 1930s, but he later supported the Vietnam War: It figures! His work is rife with violence against women, racist epithets, and (especially!) insensitivity to the mentally challenged! As for Salinger’s legendary teenager, Holden Caulfield, his navel-gazing alienation has always gotten on my nerves!

Works from the past that don’t meet today’s standards lack both an anticipatory consciousness and artistic transcendence! I remain placidly indifferent to their fate: our works are simply better! What I can’t understand is why those clearly outmoded novels drive the Right into a frenzied rage. There are more than 1500 such works banished from libraries and schools by outraged parents seeking to “Make America Great Again!” Is there any doubt that these upright souls have read all of them? An obviously irrelevant concern! It’s true! Their ilk never believed in free speech –except when they were doing the talking.

Am I missing something? Unlikely! With us lefties it’s different! We only apply censorship if it’s necessary! Campus life is rife with conflict, and preventing demagogues and extremists from taking the podium and manipulating young minds are obviously brave actions in defense of an imperiled democracy! Trump’s minions may have captured the Republican Party, but my courageous comrades stormed the nation’s literature departments! Their success, I believe, is a far more impressive feat! And this has made me reconsider what some might call my original position.

Let’s not mince words! There was a time when lefties were champions of toleration, transgression, provocation, eroticism, fantasy, critique, and experimentation? Remember the “Free Speech Movement”? It’s come and gone! Times change! What is censorship in one circumstance is not in another! All our revolutionaries knew that – or, at least, some of them! My friends have sagely reminded me that free speech is never free, which is a very(!) profound insight, and that power comes from the hegemonic discourse — somewhat like, back in the day, it came from the barrel of a gun.

Sitting at my desk, sipping my coffee, I reflect on history. The old ideals are so . . . old! They just don’t speak to what is going on in my life. Today we deal with identity and micro-aggressions – and that is surely a step forward! We even deal with class—sort of. We battle classism! We really feel the workers’ pain! And, more important, we know what they want! But the language of class consciousness, economic contradictions, and accumulation only confuses them – and, frankly speaking, us too! It’s the same with globalization, imperialism, post-imperialism, and the like. Intersectionality, normativity, episteme, and meaningful words like those are much clearer! So many theories, so little time! Distinguishing between them is irrelevant! Everyone knows what we mean by class struggle, anti-imperialism—or whatever. It’s enough that we defend the victim and, tucked away in our “safe spaces,” we do —or at least sometimes we do.

Careful not to patronize, many old-timers wisely warn that we must learn from the young! After all, they have learned so much from us! Enough of our cherished youth insist that authors reject elitism, prove sensitive to others, and express only their lived experiences! That certainly makes sense to me! Who can deny that James Joyce’s incomprehensible prose is written for the ruling class or that that Molly Bloom’s endless orgasm in Ulysses is pornographically sexist? Those white chauvinist old-timers were too genius! Hah! Can anyone today seriously defend opera? Not only is it boring, but it’s also sexist, elitist, and Eurocentric –just consider Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio or Puccini’s Madame Butterfly!

Time for history to find a larger dustbin! It must have space for Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” and “Othello” and “The Taming of the Shew” and “King Lear”. . . The Bard had some nerve! He wasn’t a Jew, wasn’t a Moor, wasn’t a woman, and wasn’t old (at least by my standards)! You and I both know that the author is the work! That is our contribution to aesthetics! Why would anyone watch a film by a sexual pervert like Charlie Chaplin or gaze at a painting by that pig Picasso?

I know! Orchestras under the Nazis did not play Mendelssohn and Mahler because they were born Jewish. But that was a different time! Our logic is also very different . . .OK, sort of different! Shakespeare should have stuck to writing about what he knew, England, and (maybe) ancient Rome? As for the rest please! Upon learning that Voltaire was somewhat important for the Enlightenment, that he defamed Jews, blasphemed against the Prophet Mohammed, and wished to ecrasez l’infame, the Catholic Church, an understandably horrified young radical exclaimed: “Then the Enlightenment is bullshit!”

A blazing observation! The hours passed as my brain worked at a feverish pace! But then. . . ., Suddenly, I recalled that religion might disempower people, strengthen superstition, intensify intolerance and inspire the fanatic. Voltaire may have battled religious persecution, fought for civil liberties, supported science, and stood for cosmopolitan values. So, what! We engage in something more important and, certainly, more dangerous! We defend the identity and faith and community of the oppressed! And we determine –logically, fairly, and without any emotional bias – who and what they are!

I was shocked to learn that a French high school teacher recently showed his students some cartoon caricatures of the Prophet. He wanted to discuss them. But what is there to discuss? After school let out, he was beheaded by a Muslim—who was surely devout, but not a student. All right! Our true believer’s reaction was a bit over the top. Still, that young pedagogue should have known better! How could he not anticipate that his actions would test academic freedom, enrage the faithful, and result in his beheading?

People must be held accountable for their actions! Can anyone really blame that man of faith for taking revenge in the name of the Prophet whose divine will he alone really knew! Thank God for the Hasidim! Their rabbis bravely challenge Western civilization! Protecting their (always brilliant!) children from life as we know it, their Yeshivas nurture Jewish identity by ignoring everything that their rabbis don’t like, which is pretty much everything: no English, no math, no science, no computer programming, no history, or world literature. Learning Yiddish and reading Torah suffices! What else is there to know! One book says it all! All right! Others might insist that it is the Koran or the New Testament. But, clearly, they are wrong! And they will undoubtedly pay for their mistake in the life to come!

How’s that for fighting anti-Semitism!?! Orthodox rabbis from times past knew what to do with Spinoza -- and we today can’t be too careful! Just listen to “Springtime for Hitler” from Mel Brooks’ The Producers? If there was ever a justification for censorship!. . . And, come to think of it, Art Spiegelman could have depicted the Holocaust with a bit more delicacy in his graphic novel Maus. Jews as mice, Nazis as cats, Poles as pigs? It’s disgusting—and I hate mice!

Such self-hating Jews threaten who we are! I’m not into the Hasidim but…We must be vigilant-- like Iran’s morality police! Speaking of Iran, I have a nice story about my experience with its censors. The manuscript of my book, Reclaiming the Enlightenment, had been translated into Farsi, and my translator submitted the manuscript to the censorship apparatus for approval. All seemed in order until I learned from him that the censor was insisting that I cut the last sentence from my introduction. So, I suggested substituting a different sentence. In horrified tones, however, my translator rejected the idea. Including a new sentence would result in the entire book once again entering the censorship bureaucracy.

Censors need something to excise to justify keeping their jobs and, apparently, this particular censor must have liked the book and was trying to do me a favor. So, my book appeared unfinished –something like Schubert’s 8th symphony! Nevertheless, we we must do what must be done!

Comrade Lenin hit the nail on the head! You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs—though sometimes you don’t get an omelet, only a mess. But that is neither here nor there! If the Right engages in censorship why can’t the Left cancel the art or censor the speech that its members dislike? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander!

And then it struck me like a lightning bolt! The “open society!” Zionists facing off against Palestinian radicals? Let’s admit it: neither has anything to learn from the other! Letting either speak on campuses like Rutgers University or Berkeley only causes trouble! We must be more radical than those liberals or socialists of times past! Let each community cultivate only its own culture! The world might then turn into a galaxy of ghettoes where thorough indifference to other cultures reinforces the cult of the self! No one will then argue about anything! There will be nothing to debate! No one will feel insulted! Hate will vanish! Even better! If we self-censor our words, before we speak, we wouldn’t even need censors! How cool would that be! The world’s problems solved!

I am proud to say I figured all this out by myself! Still, I know that very serious problems remain. I faced one of them just before the publication of another book, A Rumor about the Jews, which deals with the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” This anti-Semitic classic exposes a fictitious world-wide Jewish conspiracy. Unfortunately, I was quite sure, very few members of my reading public had ever read the vicious tract. Thus, I was confronted with an ethical dilemma! Should I include this short, vicious, delusional and vulgar expression of conspiracy fetishism? Or should I consider the more emotionally fragile among my people, avoid insulting the secret anti-Semites among the goyim, and omit the vile text?

My publisher said that including it would further debate and, thus, make the book more attractive to a larger audience. Not that this had anything to do with my decision! I took the principled stand that my readers must engage the bigot’s words and deeds, which leads me to make another confession! Whenever I taught my course on Nazism at Rutgers University I assigned Andrew MacDonald’s neo-Nazi bestseller, The Turner Diaries. I also insisted that my students watch Alain Resnais’ outstanding documentary, “Night and Fog” with its brutal photos of concentration camps and mass graves. I know: Is it really so important to expose college students to such barbarism?

Now I am feeling guilty! I probably made some of them “uncomfortable” and “insecure.” Some might even have been traumatized for life! Wow! What about I other classes and other assignments? Is it fair to insist that students read Jonathan Swift’s “modest proposal” for bettering the conditions of the Irish poor by chopping up their children and selling the nutritious product to English aristocrats? Or what about the possible psychological impact of Goya’s depiction of Saturn sloppily gobbling up his little darlings? So, what if this painting anticipated the course of revolutions to come! Must the classroom really contribute to such . . . baby-ism? I think not!

Works of art and philosophy should make us proud of who we are (whatever that means)—not promote infanticide and cannibalism! Let us wear our sensitivity on our sleeves like the yellow badges worn by Jews in times past! Let us express our compassion for others by canceling whatever insults them – or, better, what insults (and benefits) me! These are the ideas that will inspire working people and independent voters in coming electoral battles! But that is for another time! I am a novice who is still learning!! Indeed, I just can’t wait to see what lesson tomorrow brings!

*Stephen Eric Bronner is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University and Co-Director of the International Council for Diplomacy and Dialogue.