A Q&A with Eric Berkowitz
If free speech is one of the West’s most revered values, it is also among the most contentious. The base impulses driving many famous acts of suppression of free speech date way back. Book burnings, decrees of death, violent attacks of retaliation—censorship comes in several guises, which writer, lawyer, and journalist Eric Berkowitz covers in Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News. His book illuminates the power of restricting speech; how it has defined states, ideas, and culture; and (despite how each of us would like to believe otherwise) how it is something we all participate in. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Berkowitz to chat with him about it and why censorship doesn’t work.
Christian Coleman: Tell us about the inspiration behind writing Dangerous Ideas.
Eric Berkowitz: Not terribly inspiring, really. My UK publisher was proposing ideas for new projects, none of which seemed likely to hold my—or the public’s—interest very long, until one or another censorship/free speech issue popped up. I think it was the censorship of “drill” music—a hardcore rap genre—there, along with the inevitable battles and accusations. It struck us that every time an issue like this comes up, it’s as if it was for the first time. We realized that there were no books for the non-specialist audience unlocking what Western censorship or free speech has meant over the centuries, and how the same issues continually emerge in new forms. I started to read and didn’t look up for a long time.
CC: In addition to the writer hat, you wear two others: lawyer and journalist. How has your background informed the writing of Dangerous Ideas?
EB: It’s easy to see where journalism and the book intersect. As for my lawyering life, my very first case involved an unlikely free-speech hero: a captain in the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. He had worked against the reelection of the miserable incumbent sheriff and found himself working the night shift in the county jail. We sued, claiming retaliation against his expressed political beliefs and—much against the obvious wishes of the judge—won big. That taught me the power behind the words of the First Amendment. I now represent Central American women seeking asylum. No one has experienced silencing like they have.
CC: One of the main points of your book is that censorship doesn’t work. Suppressing speech gives it that much more power. How is that?
EB: It doesn’t work because it can’t work. A text might be burned, a person or group might be punished or worse, but the ideas expressed invariably carry on and gain more currency for being forbidden fruit. Words, the poet John Milton said, have their own life apart from the page they appear on. Once the invention of the printing press supercharged the spread of ideas to the masses, censorship laws bloomed as well, along with an exploding black market. Printers told writers to write “anything that will be forbidden” while Catholic monks drove up the price of Galileo’s works the Church had forbidden.
Censors eventually got into the act, as the profits from trading in printed contraband outpaced their official pay. As time pressed on, government prohibitions became marks of quality. France’s chief eighteenth-century censor declared that anyone who read only approved books was behind the times by at least a century.
This is no less true now. The Chinese government, for example, knows that its “Great Firewall” against Western news is being circumvented millions of times a day—recently a raft of forbidden news was routed through Spotify and the online game Minecraft—but that has only hardened its resolve. It’s not just speech authorities fear but also the appearance of toleration. And once an aggressive stance toward speech has been taken—even a symbolic one—to abandon or soften it seems to dig them into a deeper hole.
CC: I want to look at two current issues of Dangerous Ideas to see how they form part of the cultural history of censorship. For starters, our former president had the habit of speaking untruths—boasting the size of his inauguration turnout and downplaying the severity of the pandemic—while decrying “fake news” whenever he was fact checked. Why is it so important for world leaders like him, including Mao Zedong and others before him, to make history, as you write, “an instrument of ideology and power?”
EB: The curation of history—by smashing statues and images, censoring books and records, or even destroying people—has always been a preoccupation of authoritarians, and similar impulses have spilled over to democratic societies. The past, as the historian J.H. Plumb noted, has always been “a created ideology with a purpose,” sculpted to shore up power and class structures and provide people with a sense of collective destiny. As such, it’s best to think of history less as an accumulation of verified facts than a psychological reality. For governments, the management of that reality is critical to justify their authority and undermine their opponents, living and dead.
There are so many examples of this. Napoleon banned the Roman historian Tacitus because he didn’t want the descriptions of tyrannical emperors to remind readers of him. An American filmmaker was jailed during World War I for a movie depicting British atrocities during the Revolutionary War—the judge didn’t want Americans to know how badly America’s current ally had behaved. Poland has a new law censoring any scholarship showing its complicity in the murder of Jews during World War II, and right now there is a move from the right to bar schools from teaching the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which documents (among other things) the persistent legacy of American slavery.
CC: Secondly, would you consider cancel culture to be a form of censorship?
EB: I defy anyone to give a coherent definition of cancel culture, other than by pointing to the consequences—fair or otherwise—of one’s speech or actions. Terms like this, or “woke,” or “politically incorrect,” or even censorship, have become bleached by weaponized overuse, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. It forces us to be more precise in our thinking.
It’s comical to think of congresspersons, or famous celebrities, or zillionaire businessmen as being silenced, and they rarely suffer lasting consequences for their words or actions. But when the less powerful are driven from their jobs or are threatened by online mob attacks, well, that looks like silencing. Is it censorship in the traditional sense of government action against citizens? Generally not, other than when Trump called out the online dogs against his enemies du jour. Is it fair? Often not, in my estimation, as the subtleties of speech, context, and meaning are lost in instant online pile-ons.
Way back in 1968, Marshall McLuhan warned of “womb-to-tomb surveillance” made possible by “the electrically computerized dossier bank—that one big gossip column that is unforgiving and unforgetful, and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early ‘mistakes.’” I fear we may have reached that point.
CC: How do you see Dangerous Ideas commenting on our post-truth cultural landscape? What do you hope readers will take away from reading it?
EB: I’m not sure this landscape is that novel. Can we forget that our country was founded in part on the belief that a large part of the population was less than fully human? Or that millions of Jews were killed on the false notion that they were undermining Christian society? Or that we went to war on the lie—amplified by the likes of the New York Times—that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11? All this predated Mark Zuckerberg.
We have long bathed in bullshit because it often answers knotty questions, affirms what we want to believe, and demonizes those we already hate. I hope Dangerous Ideas sensitizes us to this and to our innate hostility to ideas that jar our beliefs. Hopefully, the book will nudge us toward greater toleration of ideas unlike our own. Tolerance isn’t easy, it’s a flimsy muscle that easily atrophies.
About Eric Berkowitz
Eric Berkowitz is a writer, lawyer, and journalist. For more than 20 years, he practiced intellectual property and business litigation law in Los Angeles. Berkowitz has published widely throughout his career, and his writing has appeared in periodicals such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Economist, the Los Angeles Times, and LA Weekly. His previous books include Sex and Punishment and The Boundaries of Desire. He lives in San Francisco. Connect with him at ericdberkowitz.com and on Twitter at @ericberkowitz4.