HB 999 [in Florida] would require faculty to censor their discussion and materials in general education courses, to the detriment of both faculty and their students. The measure would prohibit faculty teaching these courses from including material that “teaches identity politics,” which the bill defines as “Critical Race Theory” — something the bill does not define. Faculty teaching courses on history, philosophy, humanities, literature, sociology, or art would be required to guess what material administrators, political appointees, or lawmakers might label “identity politics” — no matter how pedagogically relevant the material is to the course.
HB 999 would also require that general education courses rewrite “American history,” prohibiting teaching that would suggest that America was anything other than “a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” And faculty would be required to guess what it means — again, in the eyes of administrators and political appointees — to “suppress or distort significant historical events.”
But perhaps the most vague restriction in HB 999 is its prohibition on the inclusion of “unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content” in general education courses. A broad range of academic content — including quite literally all scientific theories — is contested and theoretical. State officials would have unfettered discretion to determine which views are “theoretical” and banned from general education courses. A bill so vague that it allows officials the discretion to declare that professors cannot discuss new theories and ideas in a particular public university class should be rejected, flat out.
Meanwhile, in Hungary,
According to draft legislation seen by Reuters on Friday, the government would set up a National Cultural Council, headed by a minister, with the task of “setting priorities and directions to be followed in Hungarian culture.”
The minister would also have a say in the appointment or sacking of theater directors at institutions that are jointly financed by the state and municipality.
“It is a fundamental requirement for activities belonging under the auspices of this law to actively defend the interests of the nation’s wellbeing,” the bill says.
Because nothing says “stop woke tyranny” like imposing an alternative tyranny. Let me sing the chorus once more: EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY.
Academics and artists are typically not well-equipped to resist this kind of bullying, because they have spent much of their lives seeking the approval of others. (It’s one of the hazards of pursuing a career in symbolic manipulation. If you’re a good plumber or carpenter, you don’t have to care whether people approve of your personality.) Faced with challenges to our core values, we’re more likely than not to fold like an origami bird. Thus, as Russell Jacoby reports, the minimal response to the attack on Salman Rushdie:
An August 19 New York City rally of writers gathered in support of Rushdie reprised a 1989 demonstration against the fatwa in which Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Christopher Hitchens, and others participated, but the later iteration “paled in comparison,” a Le Monde editorial remarked. Across social media, writers expressed concern for Rushdie’s health, but an instinctual solidarity with him and the sense — so strong at the time of the fatwa — that his fate spoke to all of us as members of a liberal society did not materialize. Even among his defenders, free speech took a back seat.
Why? One reason is fear. In 2009, the British writer Hanif Kureishi told Prospect Magazine that “nobody would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses.” He might have added that no one would have the balls to defend it. Most writers, Kureishi continued, live quietly, and “they don’t want a bomb in the letterbox.”
Actually, they’re probably more afraid of being dragged on Twitter than receiving the letterbox bomb. And in such a climate of fear-to-offend, this is the key paragraph in Jacoby’s essay:
Censorship by fear can take two forms: top-down or bottom-up. From the top, a publisher or editor can stop publication over concern about a potential reaction. If the right to free expression is qualified by the condition that you not “upset someone, especially someone who is willing to resort to violence,” Rushdie noted in Joseph Anton, it is no longer a right. However, the text or cartoon still exists, and might appear elsewhere (a small publisher picked up The Jewel of Medina after Random House scrapped it). But bottom-up censorship — self-censorship — is more nefarious, more widespread, and more difficult to track. Writers shelve projects before they see the light of day. The cartoon is undrawn, the novel or the scene unwritten. “The fight against censorship is open and dangerous and thus heroic,” the Yugoslavian novelist Danilo Kiš observed in 1985, “while the battle against self-censorship is anonymous, lonely and unwitnessed.”
And this is why it is virtually impossible for good art to be made in our place, in our moment. And also why we need to treasure and protect the works of the past that both disturb our comfortable assumptions and open to us new vistas of moral and intellectual possibility. Reading those books used to be compulsory; soon enough it will be forbidden.