As the Seuss Foundation pulled several titles from the author's catalogue this past week, advocates for free expression and free speech balked. CNN's Jake Tapper didn't seem to think there was any issue with an author's estate removing books from print, saying that they made this choice of their own free will. They did. But it's still censorship. Celebrated Russian author Leo Tolstoy shows exactly how.
Tolstoy addressed the distinction between being censored and self censorship under pressure from external forces, such as cultural pressure. There isn't any. Getting you to censor yourself is the point, getting you to bend to the norms before they must be enforced is the point. He knew this from experience. In Russia at the time in which Tolstoy was writing, in the 1890s specifically, there were government censors. It was best, however, for publishers make sure their work was compliant before compliance was demanded.
The goal was to have a book hit the censors office and pass with little amendment, as this would ensure ease of publishing in the future. Tolstoy understood this, and so, he explains, when his friend Professor Grote approached him about publishing a work called "What is Art," telling Tolstoy that he could get the book through the censors if Tolstoy would agree to a few small changes, Tolstoy agreed.
In the introduction to the work Tolstoy explains the process of its being censored. First the editor asked for a few changes so as to not have the work raise too many red flags. Tolstoy agreed, they seemed small, he writes "I did not consider it necessary to protest."
"The thing occurred in this way," he writes. "First, Grote softened my expressions, and in some cases weakened them. For instance, he replaced the words 'always' by 'sometimes,' 'all' by 'some,' 'Church' religion by 'Roman Catholic' religion, 'Mother of God' by 'Madonna,' 'patriotism' by 'pseudo-patriotism,' 'palaces' by 'palatii,' etc., and I did not consider it necessary to protest."
The book then went to the censor, as was customary, and again changes were requested and again Tolstoy did "not consider it necessary to protest." As the process continued, and the book got closer and closer to publication, it seemed to Tolstoy again and again that his objections were small in the face of actually seeing the book published. Had these changes been demanded all at once, perhaps he would have had a different take, but as it was, one little change at a time, he did not protest.
This process continued. The book was altered, changed to be compliant and at every step of the way it was Tolstoy who was changing the work, approving the changes. Tolstoy writes "I was weak enough to agree to this and it has resulted in a book appearing under my name from which not only have some essential thoughts been excluded but into which the thoughts of other men—even thoughts utterly opposed to my own conclusions—have been introduced."
He writes, as regards one change, "I agreed to this also, and to some further alterations. It seemed not worth while to upset the whole affair for the sake of one sentence, and when one alteration have been agreed to it seemed not worth while to protest against a second and a third. So, little by little, expressions crept into the book which altered the sense and attributed things to me that I could not have wished to say. So that by the time the book was printed it had been deprived of some part of its integrity and sincerity."
CNN's Jake Tapper would undoubtedly not see this as censorship as all, since Tolstoy himself agreed to the changes, the publisher was on board with the changes, the the pair initially had made changes so as to make the book more palatable. Of the latest controversy surrounding the expunging of Dr. Seuss titles from his catalogue by the foundation that controls the properties, Tapper writes:
"The @DrSeuss Foundation explained its decision—and please note it was the Seuss estate that made this decision—this way: 'These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong. Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalog represents and supports all communities and families.'"
Undoubtedly, Tolstoy's decision to allow the changes from "the evil of landed property" to "the evils of a landless proletariat," were similarly understood. The changes seemed so small, as does the removal of a mere six titles from a decades long catalogue of well-loved books.
Tapper shows the offending images in the censored Seuss books, writing: "Here are two of the empirically racist images from two of those books. Ask yourself why the self-styled culture warriors 'standing up' for Dr. Seuss don't show these offensive images or read from the actual books in question when they’re on this crusade."
For Tapper, the images themselves are reason to pull the books, and in his view it is right and good that the publisher should have removed the offending material from the public. In fact, for Tapper, it is the defense of the right to free speech that is the problem in as much as that defense must bring along with it a defense of the work itself. Of those elected leaders who have been touting their love of Seuss despite the purge, he writes:
"I would submit that they can't defend the images because they're indefensible. I would suggest that they don't show them to you on the floor of the House or in their little videos because they don't want to be associated with those racist images either.
"Again: if you’re going to defend the books and the images, defend the books and the images. [To defend others of Seuss work by way of defending the offensive work] would be like trying to defend Disney’s Song of the South by showing Frozen and Toy Story."
Surely Tapper doesn't think he is a proponent of censorship, but that's exactly what he is. He is saying that one cannot stand for the principle of free speech without defending the content of the speech itself. This is a complete misunderstanding of what it means to be in favor of free speech. To be in favor of free speech means to defend and to believe in the right of the speaker to speak, with no distinction between speech you agree with and speech you do not.
The goal of censors is not to have to enforce their will upon the work but to get people to enforce their norms upon their own work themselves. Self censorship is censorship. Censors that can get artists, publishers, and writers to simply not make the work they find "offensive" are very efficient censors indeed. The goal is not enforcement but compliance. Tolstoy complied, and we too comply. It's still censorship. We allow ourselves to be censored, we take up the mission ourselves.
He writes that even during this censorious process, where his words and ideas were chipped away at slowly, almost imperceptibly, he writes "But there was some consolation in the thought that the book even in this form, if it contains something that is good, would be of use to Russian readers whom it would otherwise not have reached."
"Things, however, turned out otherwise," Tolstoy writes. Once one capitulation was allowed to, the rest fell into place and there was no way to refused. "To protest in Russia is impossible—no newspaper would publish such a protest; and to withdraw my book from the magazine and place the editor in an awkward position with the public was also not possible."
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