Dangerous Ideas

A Brief History of Censorship, from the Ancients to Fake News

(Beacon Press, 2021)

 

The compulsion to silence others is as old as the urge to speak, because speech—words, images, expression itself—exerts power. Speech influences people’s hearts and minds, and affects their actions. In many ways, speech is action. Dissent disturbs, and those who rattle norms often do so in obnoxious ways. For governing authorities, tolerating dissent implies approval, which in turn subverts the myths on which their power is based. If such speech goes unpunished, others feel encouraged to follow, and society’s stability can be put at risk. Even in places where free expression is cherished, we often forget that foregoing censorship requires the embrace of discord as a fair price for the general good. Tolerance is risky. Suppression is logical—and, across history, it has been the norm.

 

This is the paradox: censorship violates our natural rights, yet it has always been a pervasive element of social reality—in individual psyches no less than dictatorships. While most agree that free expression should encourage robust, sometimes acrimonious debate, we still seek “safe spaces” from disturbing expressions. We yearn to make ourselves known, to yell on a soapbox, just as we try to block the voices of others. It’s an unresolvable conflict.

 

Behind that reality of censorship lie many more, and driving the entire story are people: criminals and philosophers, emperors and rebels, tribal elders and pornographers, and, lately, millennial tech executives. Dangerous Ideas takes the long view on censorship, using vivid human dramas and deft analysis to weave together the many reasons why humankind has, from the beginning, sought to silence itself, and how callow Silicon Valley engineers acquired vast powers over the speech of billions.

 

Using the same meticulous research and lively storytelling that brought author and civil rights lawyer Eric Berkowitz’s books rave reviews worldwide, Dangerous Ideas informs, saddens, and amuses, sometimes all at once. From the first Chinese emperor’s wholesale elimination of books and murder of scholars, to Henry VIII’s decree of death for anyone who “imagined” his demise, and on to China’s Great Internet Firewall and the troll armies marauding the social media environment, Dangerous Ideas entertains while revealing the base impulses behind censorship and thought suppression.

 

Why did Plato demand that poets be banished from his ideal republic? Why were 19th century British authorities so afraid of working-class access to sexual and irreligious materials? Why did Communist East German authorities ban mentions of lawn bowling? How could Exxon claim a First Amendment right to mislead the world about climate change? And who appointed Mark Zuckerberg as arbiter of the world’s most pressing speech issues? Dangerous Ideas places events in context to show that censorship is not merely an act of self-preservation -- it illustrates the fragility of power; it is a purifying spectacle; it cements class and gender privilege; and it consumes those who practice it.

 

But more than all that, it is the setting for great, flesh-and-blood stories. By focusing on the travails of the people, famous and obscure, who played central roles free-speech controversies, and by exposing the motivations of both the suppressors and the suppressed, Dangerous Ideas moves the conversation past the good/bad, us/them, offense/offended binaries that bog down current debates.

 

It’s all quite a story.

 

Advance Praise for Dangerous Ideas

“Free speech good! Censorship bad! Undeniable. Indisputable. Except that Eric Berkowitz denies and disputes with such intellectual agility as to induce cramping of the brain. Vivid, violent historical examples buttressing the case against censorship, while we citizens of the internet find ourselves drowning in crud for want of it. The point is you’ll enjoy the ride, and the argument has never been more pressing.”
— Ted Koppel

 

 

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© ERIC BERKOWITZ 2020