A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News
(Beacon Press, 2021)
The compulsion to silence others is as old as the urge to speak. Dissent disturbs by definition, and those who rattle norms often do so in obnoxious ways. Freedom of expression is one of the West’s most revered rights, but it is also among the most contentious—and censorship, Eric Berkowitz vividly demonstrates, is a paradox: it violates our rights, but it has always been a pervasive element of social reality, in the psyches of individuals no less than dictators.
Combining stunning erudition, brisk story-telling, and trenchant analysis, Berkowitz reveals how drastically censorship has shaped societies throughout history. From the first Chinese emperor’s wholesale elimination of books, to Henry VIII’s decree of death for anyone who “imagined” his demise, to the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the volatile politics surrounding control of social media, Berkowitz deploys gripping human dramas to unlock the many reasons why humankind has, from the beginning, sought to silence itself.
Dangerous Ideas shows that censorship and thought suppression are not merely acts of self-preservation by governments—they have also been driving forces in culture, religion, and ideas. By focusing on the travails of people, both famous and obscure, who played central roles in the formation of the right to express ourselves, Berkowitz demonstrates the fragility of power and the elusiveness of truth.
As speech issues become increasingly globalized and as Silicon Valley engineers wield more power over expression than any government, the need for a book that untangles the complexities is more urgent than ever. Dangerous Ideas gives no comfort to free speech purists. Rather, it forces us to confront and engage with some of the more uncomfortable realizations of our time—it’s not just repressive regimes who demand silence: it’s all of us.
Praise for Dangerous Ideas
"Regarding freedom of speech, Berkowitz demonstrates -- with both rigor and humor -- that no human right is less separable from its most absurd manifestations." —The Sunday Telegraph
"A captivating sprint through two millennia of censorship..." —The Financial Times
"Berkowitz provides a sorely needed reminder of the follies and crimes of censorship."
—The Wall Street Journal
"Berkowitz is a skilled narrator and has synthesized a great deal of history ... its details can be fascinating and unfamiliar, implicitly rebuking our conventional wisdom." —The Times Literary Supplement
"Engrossing ... lively and wide-ranging ... shows that conflicts between free speech and censorship are rarely simple or settled for long." —The Economist
“A timely contribution to an ongoing debate.” —Kirkus Reviews
"A level-headed, salutary intervention in today’s overheated rows over free speech." —The Daily Telegraph
"Absorbing and comprehensive ... The sweep of Berkowitz’s lively account emphasizes that the fight for freedom of expression has never been won." —Jo Glanville, former editor of Index on Censorship, for Chatham House
"A masterpiece ... astounding. I have never read a more comprehensive, entertaining historical account of censorship in the West." —Greg Lukianoff, President of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
"In this nuanced outing, California human rights lawyer Eric Berkowitz gives the subject of censorship the consideration it is due." —The Globe and Mail
“[A] thought-provoking account . . . Berkowitz segues fluidly between historical eras and marshals a plethora of intriguing case studies. Readers will be convinced that policing harmful rhetoric too aggressively ‘will cause worse mischief in the long run.’” —Publishers Weekly
“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, ABC
“Berkowitz untangles censorship’s maddening complexities to reveal core truths behind every book burning, every silencing of dissidents, and every removal of online content. Weaving together unforgettably vivid stories and accessible analysis, Dangerous Ideas takes the reader on an unruly ride—from the Vatican’s infamous list of banned books to algorithms that manipulate online speech to modern demands for safe spaces from offense. A hugely entertaining and urgently important book." —Nadine Strossen, former president of the ACLU, and author of Hate: Why We Should Resist it With Free Speech, Not Censorship
“In Dangerous Ideas, Eric Berkowitz has traced censorship in the western world from its beginnings in antiquity through the ambitions of Donald Trump. The sweep of this book is vast and its judgments thoughtful. Above all, Berkowitz shows that censorship remains tempting for those in power, even as history demonstrates how often it proves futile.”
—Richard Tofel, President of ProPublica
“Eric Berkowitz has written a magnificent book that is original in its scope: looking at the history of censorship from ancient times through today’s efforts to restrict what is on social media and the internet. Beautifully written, this book leaves the reader with the strong sense that in every society there is the impulse to censor, but censorship rarely works.”
—Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law
“Unorthodox ideas can be dangerous enough to provoke censorship. Forbidden truths lurk in the shadows of taboo. With impressive scholarship and erudite humor, Eric Berkowitz guides the reader through mental spaces that have been declared off-limits from the ancient world to the present. Read this book before it's banned.” —Christopher Ryan, Author of Sex at Dawn and Civilized to Death
"An entertaining and instructive overflight of censorship from late antiquity to the present, [Berkowitz's] study reminds us that to understand free speech we need to understand the many ways it can be gagged." —The Political Quarterly
"A timely riposte to censorship." —The Morning Star
"Eric Berkowitz’s book continues to astonish and shame those who think thinking can be policed ... This book is important." —The Diplomat
"A lively, engaging and thoughtful history of the complex evolution of free speech. Tracing the story from ancient Athens to the Sedition Act to the advent of American blasphemy and anti-obscenity laws to the Supreme Court's first encounters with the First Amendment to the Communist era and, ultimately, to the world of the Internet, Berkowitz brings to life the most exciting and compelling controversies over free speech in the history of the Western world." —Geoffrey R. Stone, Author of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism
"Rollicking, entertaining ... Berkowitz has a flow and a style that makes Dangerous Ideas an easy yet never simplistic read." —The Australian
"An engaging book asking important questions..." —The House Parliamentary Journal