Against Intellectual Biblioclasm II

I wrote my first manifesto “Against Intellectual Biblioclasm” over a year ago. I concluded it was time for an update when I read this earlier today:

Yet I am more persuaded by a former jihadi named Shahid Butt, who now spends his time deradicalising misguided souls in Birmingham. To him, another rioter from 1989, Rushdie is simply “a dickhead”. He says: “What kind of literary writer, academic, are you that the only way that you can get any fame is by being derogatory and by insulting billions of people. Is that the best you can do?”

Rushdie’s silly, childish book should be banned under today’s anti-hate legislation. It’s no better than racist graffiti on a bus stop. I wouldn’t have it in my house, out of respect to Muslim people and contempt for Rushdie, and because it sounds quite boring. I’d be quite inclined to burn it, in fact. It’s a free country, after all.

This may or may not be “a modest proposal” on the author’s part—Poe’s Law applies. Yet his logic, the eliminationist-totalitarian logic of #cancellation now rampant within the left-liberal literary world, is impeccable. As I wrote in my review of Albert Murray’s The Hero and the Blues last year:

[T]his [is the] time of the left-liberal literati’s retrenchment, its increasingly shrill insistence, enforced by regular social media mob actions against wreckers and traitors, on a Marxist-derived reductionist approach to human identity and a moralistic attitude toward the nature and purpose of art, the latter coupled with impatient defenses of inquisitorial censoriousness. They want to pull books from the shelves and pictures from the walls; who could possibly doubt that if, say, the Rushdie affair happened today, all of literate Brooklyn would high-mindedly excuse those calling for the “racist” novelist’s head?

When I was a teenager, I joined the political left because I understood it, in that era of the religious right’s now-almost-forgotten hegemony, to be the side that stood for freedom of thought and speech. I was warned by several older people that this was not the case, but with the certitude that can only come from youthful inexperience, I did not listen. 15 years ago, depressed and afraid, I wrote all day on Livejournal (remember that?) about how George W. Bush was going to put us in prison camps and had done 9/11 and would start a nuclear war, about how both climate change and peak oil (remember that?) would end the world within the decade, and about how only proletarian and Third-World revolution would save us.

It only took a year or two, and professional acquaintance with some fellow travelers of this creed, to show me how wrong I was about its reliability as a guide to both facts and ethics. Apocalypticism is always a racket; dystopia is an abuse of the speculative intellect, a genre fit for children, and perhaps not even for them. And if the world ends, you can’t do anything about it anyway. Chekhov said that artists should only participate in politics only enough to keep themselves safe from politics. We need to cultivate our gardens, after we secure our right to them in the first place. The autonomy of art is not incidental to secular freedom but its bedrock. It is logically, because politically, prior to almost every other right. The enslaved were not permitted to read; freedom of speech, thought, and art grounds and founds every other freedom. 

The totalitarian left as a metaphysical entity is, in contrast to secular freedom, an only very slight development of the theocratic imagination, with its anathemas, its iconoclasms, and its eschatologies. In the platonically sterile air of its cultural dominance, laughter itself, laughter per se, becomes a confession of unrighteous thought, hence the perennial necessity of purging jesters like Rushdie or, before him, Joyce. 

How did this happen? How did we, the heirs to Joyce and contemporaries of Rushdie,  become thrall to these latter-day Savonarolas, Matherses, and Zhdanovs? Ours was a literary century inaugurated by the martyrdom of Oscar Wilde, who would be #canceled today if only the present-day literati lifted their heads from whatever children’s books have not yet been pulped for insensitivity long enough to know of his pederasty, his anti-Semitism, or his Confederate sympathies, none of which justify the juridical destruction of his person nor corrupt the spirit of imaginative freedom that respires from his perfumed prose.

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them. Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognizes infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of one’s neighbor that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him. (“The Soul of Man Under Socialism”)

And this inquisition has nothing whatsoever to do with “anti-racism,” which is just another in a long line of noble causes corrupted into an alibi for tyranny by opportunists who begin to feel insane if they go one second without controlling other people. Albert Murray would be the first to tell you. But also: Toni Morrison stood with Rushdie, Ralph Ellison mocked the Marxists, and Zora Neale Hurston knew the score 90 years ago:

Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more of less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. (“How It Feels to Be Colored Me”)

As for “social justice,” it is practiced just as you would expect a political concept developed in the 19th-century Catholic Church to be practiced: with less respect than is presently desirable for freedom, individuality, and the imagination.

I was raised Catholic and educated in Catholic schools, so I will say what I want about the abuses within the institutions of that faith, if not about the faith itself, which is often salvific and beautiful (Wilde would agree). Perhaps many forms of feminism would make somewhat more emotional sense to me if I hadn’t heard three generations’ worth of stories, and witnessed an example or two with my own eyes, of adult women dressed all in black beating small children with rulers bound into fasces or stabbing them in the chest with ballpoint pens for their sins. My parents were married by a priest now known to be a predatory pedophile, and in my youth a different priest now known to be a predatory pedophile was frequently entertained at my family’s dinner table. So much for holiness, holy women, holy men, and holy causes. In Catholic school, long before I knew about any priest’s private predilections, long before I read Wilde (or Nietzsche), I learned that avowed morality is usually a cover for domination and brutality.

Anyone who speaks of morality while controlling or harming others does the devil’s work. It might even be true, sometimes I suspect it is, that anyone who speaks of morality ever, at all, instead of silently doing all the good that can be managed in this crooked world, is the devil’s assistant. In any case, “morality,” “justice,” and all the rest of “those big words that make us so unhappy,” make me want to vomit. These are abstractions susceptible of being twisted into this shape and that by totalitarians. Those who want to ban and burn the books of authors of color are “anti-racists” in the same way that many communist states were “democratic republics.”

By contrast, the élan vital of literature is specificity, concretion, and singularity. That is not because all writers are moral, or all works are; the very question of the morality of art is—not a childish one, because children blessedly don’t care, but precisely one motivated by all the insecurity of adults who don’t feel they have command of themselves unless they are commanding others. As one good Catholic, Simon Leys, once wrote,

It is not a scandal if novelists of genius prove to be wretched fellows; it is a comforting miracle that wretched fellows prove to be novelists of genius.

Now I write the foregoing because I know how many people agree with me. They are just unwilling to say so in public; in public, they melt into puddles if someone cries, “Think of the children!” or if some opportunist, with transparent phoniness, claims to be the single voice of a race, a gender, a class, or a sexuality, even though doing so is a form of dehumanizing essentialism in its own right because it traduces the complexity of all communities and individuals.

It has to stop. We all have to seize our courage in the face of the all-out assault on artistic freedom that is coming from within the very institutions (the press, academia, publishing) we have appointed custodians of art. There is no excuse. The time for freedom of speech and art is now and forever. Against the book banners and the book burners—against them while we’re allowed to be.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Why Speech Is Not Violence

Psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett has written an article for the New York Times entitled “When Speech Is Violence.” It begins:

Imagine that a bully threatens to punch you in the face. A week later, he walks up to you and breaks your nose with his fist. Which is more harmful: the punch or the threat?

Barrett’s goal is to use findings in biology and medicine about the effects, supposedly tantamount to violence, of certain kind of language on the body to “provide empirical guidance for which kinds of controversial speech should and shouldn’t be acceptable on campus and in civil society.” Her conclusion is that “abusive” language should be unacceptable, while merely “offensive” language should be accepted and refuted rather than being somehow proscribed. Bracketing for the moment that there are no clear ways of differentiating between the two (and that the social justice movement in fact refuses such a distinction outright, which I will discuss below), her argument rests on the idea that abusive speech causes bodily harm by setting in motion stress reactions in the body:

Your body’s immune system includes little proteins called proinflammatory cytokines that cause inflammation when you’re physically injured. Under certain conditions, however, these cytokines themselves can cause physical illness. What are those conditions? One of them is chronic stress.

Your body also contains little packets of genetic material that sit on the ends of your chromosomes. They’re called telomeres. Each time your cells divide, their telomeres get a little shorter, and when they become too short, you die. This is normal aging. But guess what else shrinks your telomeres? Chronic stress.

If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech — at least certain types of speech — can be a form of violence.

The chain of reasoning here is as follows: stress shortens life; certain forms of speech cause stress and so shorten life; therefore certain forms of speech should be impermissible in the university and civil society; abusive speech, such as identity-based hate speech, is such impermissible language.

You may notice two problems with this.

First, Barrett has smuggled into her thesis the unstated and unargued assumption that one mission of the university is the protection of students from medically-defined stressors. This theory has far-reaching implications I will discuss below, but suffice to say for now that any project of social formation, which university education is, will involve numerous stressors that are not extricable from the process of strengthening individuals by testing them.

Second, in an atmosphere where there is no common understanding of what constitutes hate speech, abusive speech, or offensive speech, Barrett has left the definition of a crucial term far too open—in practice, it will be seized upon by political actors of all sorts to claim that the speech they object to is an abusive life-shortening stressor and so in need of curtailment. This is not a negligible point. It is no longer 2014: Obama’s DOE is not the one making monitory recommendations to college and university administrators, and the cultural right in all its varieties has grown expert in repurposing leftish rhetoric against its devisers. Barrett shows an awareness of this problem when she tries to differentiate between “a campaign of abuse” (typified by Milo Yiannopoulos, whose speech should be proscribed as “a danger to a civil society (and to our health)”) and mistaken, offensive arguments couched in academic rhetoric (typified by Charles Murray, whose speech should be entertained and then refuted, and which entertainment and refutation is “the lifeblood of democracy”), but even here there are problems.

For one thing, Barrett must be very inexperienced in the realm of social justice activism if she thinks that its partisans will be willing to make this distinction. For them, an academic article or an online art installation are as capable of “literal violence” as explicitly abusive or insulting rhetoric, as the cases of Rebecca Tuvel and Vanessa Place, to name only two, should prove. And why not?—aren’t overt epithets lobbed by a flamboyant insult-artist actually much easier to brush off than the deeper and longer-lasting stress of a respectable and respected argument against one’s deepest convictions? If some speech is more stressful than a punch in the face, then perhaps the verbal equivalent of a punch in the face is less stressful than the slow erosion over time of one’s self-definition. So, using her own assumptions, I have reversed her argument with implications for her own academic identity and methodology, which she took great care to protect from social justice activism in the guise of supporting its cause. That is what the dreaded “SJW” will do with the ammunition she provides.

(Never mind that the application of Barrett’s anti-stress ideal to the arts is nightmarish to contemplate. What will the theater departments of the world do once we have defended our quaking telomeres against King Lear or—forget dead white men—feminist drama like Blasted, black drama like Joe Turner’s Come and Gone?)

At this late hour—after a spate of disciplinary actions or investigations against academics for their liberal or left “abusive speech,” some of which really is abusive by Barrett’s broad definition (e.g., Steven Salaita, George Ciccariello-Maher, Johnny Eric Williams, Tommy Curry, Dana Cloud, Lisa Durden)—Barrett should also be aware by now what the political right will do with her ideas. The right may claim that for Christian students to read the incendiary rhetoric of Nietzsche or perhaps even the calmly-stated claims of Darwin is an intolerable, insulting stressor that they should be protected from; the right may claim likewise that Jewish students should not subjected to the stressful speech of anti-Zionists, an abusive insult to their suffering European ancestors and their threatened Middle Eastern co-religionists; the right may repurpose feminist rhetoric, as they have been doing for a very long time, to object that certain “obscene” artworks are too stressful for students to endure; the right may even claim that the language of Frantz Fanon or Karl Marx are, in their threat or implication or incitement of physical violence toward European people or middle class people, abusive stressors that ought not to be tolerated while universities are publicly funded. (Don’t miss the last five words—they are important!)

Please remember that nothing in the above paragraph is ruled out by Barrett’s premises, which only include the arguments that some forms of speech cause stress and are therefore equivalent to violence, and that in conclusion such speech ought to be proscribed.

In contrast to Barrett, I contend that universities cannot be in the business of protecting people from stressors of all sorts. The traditional mission of the university—to produce a well-informed, well-rounded, and cultivated citizenry, especially one capable and competitive in labor—cannot survive such a definition. Especially in so far as a university education no longer guarantees accession to middle-class professions, it may be more urgent for students to become resilient toward the entire universe of non-respectable or -respectful speech they will encounter in the working and living world, much of which remains unpoliced by bureaucracies schooled in progressive thought as modified by psychiatry.

Finally, a word on the meanings of “violence.” Social and even natural scientists often use terms borrowed from the humanities without, understandably, always elaborating on their provenance or implications. The idea of “discursive violence” or “epistemic violence,” which quietly underlies Barrett’s use of “speech is violence,” is one such term. It has its origins in a Marxist-inflected post-structuralism: figures such as Derrida, Foucault, and Spivak claimed that violence was done in the discursive realm when the dominant discourses or languages of any given moment excluded certain other discourses or languages from being heard or, more importantly, from being intelligible if heard. (See here for a useful gloss on Spivak’s use of the term.) This epistemic violence was often enough accompanied by physical violence, from that of colonial occupation to that of incarceration in mental institutions, and that is what gives it force. It does not obviously follow that middle-class students at pricey institutions guarded by police forces and destined for positions of relative social power meet the description of the victims Foucault or Spivak had in mind—and I have to imagine that Spivak, at least, would be quite hostile to the appropriation of this sort of rhetoric by her students at Columbia; part of the point of her famous essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” was to inquire whether she, as a privileged and educated bourgeois cosmopolite, could understand or interpret the subaltern (those Indian women who had died by sati), not that she was one. In fact, I could go even further and say that the dominance of psychology or sociology as disciplines discrediting other ways of understanding psyche and society on models other than rationalization is closer to what post-structuralists meant by “epistemic violence” than something like hate speech as such—a theory that will probably stress out psychology professors!

I would not, however, suggest that we stop analogizing speech and violence totally. So many of our metaphors for non-bodily experience are drawn from bodily experience that it would be hard to do so. Even if I described Barrett’s article as an “irritating” one, that would be a bodily metaphor—as if sandpaper were abrading my skin. Some sentences really will land like blows to the face, even if they are less likely to be ones encountered in university classrooms and more like the following: “You’re fired,” “You have cancer,” “I no longer love you, I’m leaving,” “We did everything we could to save her.” But we should always remember that the metaphor is a metaphor, that the whole concept of education is premised upon the notion that we are not utterly exhausted by biological explanation (what, really, do I learn about myself as a subject and not as a body from contemplating telomeres?), and that we will become prey not only to well-meaning if ill-advised do-gooders but also to positively malign opportunists if we prioritize intellectual comfort over learning. And let us not forget moreover that we will become subjects of universal mockery should we, perched at the top of a world system of power and inequality maintained by very real material agencies, confuse emotional discomfort with physical devastation.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Fredric Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent

Seduction of the InnocentSeduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I was younger—say in the late 1980s, early 1990s—the concept of free artistic expression was associated with the social and political left. The totalitarian states of international communism were discredited and second-wave feminism had clearly overreached in its anti-porn crusades; meanwhile, tirades against the objectionable character of both elite and popular culture were coming from the religious and racial right, with its crusades against alleged Satanism and against queer and black arts. I am thinking of the controversies over heavy metal, NEA funding, and “Cop Killer,” for example.

But when I was a kid, I didn’t listen to rap or heavy metal and I didn’t attend elite art exhibitions; instead I avidly read comic books. In those pre-Internet days, the folk memory of comic-book readers tended to elide the 1950s public outcry against comics—which led to their being tried in the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency Hearings and to the self-imposition by the industry of the absurdly censorious comics code—with the ‘80s/‘90s posturing of the religious right (and of certain New Democrat or blue dog allies, such as Tipper Gore). I had certainly heard of Fredric Wertham by the time I was 11 or 12, but, lacking good information, I pictured him as a Pat Robertson or Pat Buchanan or Bill Bennett type.

As comics have over the last generation come under increased academic jurisdiction, though, readers have noticed that Wertham was in fact far more like the type of person who would today profess comics studies: a leftist less enamored of free speech than prior generations. (See, for instance, Chris Bishop’s very engaging and informative lecture.) In the introduction to the most recent edition of Wertham’s 1954 anti-comics polemic, Seduction of the Innocent, James E. Reibman sets the record straight: “Of course, the irony in all this is that Fredric Wertham, a traditional left-wing European intellectual and product of the Enlightenment tradition, continues to be both castigated and characterized as a reactionary.”

Seduction of the Innocent, then, is in a very different genre from the Chick-tract-type screed; it is, rather, a lament over the demise of high bourgeois culture sung by an impeccably cultured exile of that culture’s European calamity. (Wertham was brought up within the humanistic milieu of the assimilated German-Jewish bourgeoisie.) It is more like Theodor Adorno than Jesse Helms.

When read with the above understanding, Seduction of the Innocent is an almost sympathetic book. The psychiatrist Wetham was a crusader for racial equality who opened a clinic in Harlem (named after Paul Lafargue) for indigent black youth; he collaborated with or earned the praise of Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, Ralph Ellison and Thurgood Marshall. That comics promote racial hatred was, not at all unreasonably, one of his chief complaints:

If I were to make the briefest summary of what children have told us about how different peoples are represented to them in the lore of crime comics, it would be that there are two kinds of people: on the one hand is the tall, blond, regular-featured man sometimes disguised as a superman (or superman disguised as a man) and the pretty young blonde girl with the super-breast. On the other hand are the inferior people: natives, primitives, savages, “ape men,” Negroes, Jews, Indians, Italians, Slavs, Chinese and Japanese, immigrants of every description, people with irregular features, swarthy skins, physical deformities, Oriental features.

He also charged comics with misogyny and the promotion of sadism. While psychoanalytically informed, he rejected Freud’s pessimism about human nature; a devoted reader of Dickens, he was a Rousseauist who did not believe in innate human aggression. No death drives or wills-to-power for him. He is at his most attractive in Seduction of the Innocent when fighting the almost eugenic contempt with which the judicial system and society at large treated young criminal offenders and their parents. He saw ordinary children and their parents as preyed upon by much larger social forces, which made it difficult for them to negotiate normative social life. As aware as he was of such oppressive forces as poverty and racism, though, he became convinced that comic books—and the industry behind them, which he viewed as a rapacious and amoral capitalist force—were an autonomous vector for cultural damage. Hence, his long and rather unfocused polemic against them.

Besides racism, misogyny, and sadism, Wetham also charged comics with poor aesthetic standards in everything from printing materials to spelling; with the promotion of crime and violence; with inspiring children to undertake all sorts of dangerous acts (jumping off the roof to try to fly like Superman, etc.); with numbing children’s sensibilities so that they could not appreciate great literature and art; and with being produced by an industry that mistreated its creators, strong-armed its distributors, and bought off off “experts” and politicians (he never states outright, but carefully implies, what we now know to be true of the early comics’ mafia connections, as elaborated by Chris Bishop in the lecture linked above).

Despite Wertham’s left-wing credentials, he shared the midcentury left’s dim view of homosexuality, seeing it as a lamentable form of maladjustment brought about by a corrupt society. For this reason, he is perhaps best remembered for his actually rather perceptive, if undeniably homophobic, attack on Batman as homoerotic text (this is another reason, I believe, that he was misremembered as right-wing by the time of my adolescence):

In the Batman type of comic book such a relationship is depicted to children before they can even read. Batman and Robin, the “dynamic duo,” also known as the “daring duo,” go into action in their special uniforms. They constantly rescue each other from violent attacks by an unending number of enemies. The feeling is conveyed that that we men must stick together because there are so many villainous creatures who have to be exterminated. They lurk not only under every bed but also behind every star in the sky. Either Batman or his young boy friend or both are captured, threatened with every imaginable weapon, almost blown to bits, almost crushed to death, almost annihilated. Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and “Dick” Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a “socialite” and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. As they sit by the fireplace the young boy sometimes worries about his partner: “Something’s wrong with Bruce. He hasn’t been himself these past few days.” It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.

Unfortunately for his credibility, he was also convinced that there were subliminal images in comics art, finding women’s pudenda and the like in the cross-hatching on a well-muscled hero’s shoulder; this is bizarre, because Wertham’s perfectly correct assessment of comics’ wretched business practices should have told him that nobody got paid enough to bother with such minutia!

And Wertham, to be fair, was not much of a totalitarian censor. His proposal was to ban the sale of “crime comics” to children under 15 (though “crime” was a pretty all-encompassing generic designation to him; he thought Donald Duck was, for all practical purposes, a crime comic). He was not for any kind of outright ban—and he was at pains to emphasize that he did not advocate any restriction on what adults could purchase and read. In his defense, one might note that the comics of the time really were wild and that today we accept without objection things like rating systems, which inform consumers without much interfering with free expression. On a more personal note, I might add that I agree with his defense of the subtler pleasures and greater intellectual demands of high culture against sensationalist mass-produced pop culture—but this, for me, is on grounds of aesthetics, not ethics or politics.

It is well and good to re-assess Wertham’s book with a greater understanding of his not totally unsympathetic intellectual position, but Seduction of the Innocent is still the product of a faulty worldview. For one thing, Wertham was in a sense not socialist enough; even if we accept that cultural objects can do mental harm to vulnerable children (and this remains an “if,” as far as I know), why blame cultural objects themselves and not the structural forces that create vulnerability in the first place? Furthermore, his Rouseauist/Dickensian picture of the unsullied innocent coming into the world to be snatched from the virtuous hands of his mother by greedy capitalists peddling smut may have been a welcome correction to some elitist and racist opinions of the innate inferiority of the poor; but even so, I don’t believe it does anyone any good in the long run to deny some of the harder truths of existence. Throughout the book, Wertham complains of Superman’s Nietzschean lineage (and if he grasped the irony that superheroes were created not by Aryan fascists but by assimilationist Jewish working-class immigrants’ sons, he does not mention it):

As our work went on we established the basic ingredients of the most numerous and widely read comic books: violence; sadism and cruelty; the superman philosophy, an offshoot of Nietzsche’s superman who said, “When you go to women, don’t forget the whip.” We also found that what seemed at first like a problem in child psychology had much wider implications. Why does our civilization give to the child not its best but its worst, in paper, in language, in art, in ideas? What is the social meaning of these supermen, superwomen, super-lovers, superboys, supergirls, super-ducks, super-mice, super-magicians, super-safecrackers? How did Nietzsche get into the nursery?

But Nietzsche is already in the nursery, as is Freud. I have no desire to let theory obliterate common sense: it is surely better not to rear children exclusively on texts and images that are poor in quality and utterly cynical about sex and violence. Still, we are born with the full panoply of human potential, including the potential for aggression, greed, hate, sadism, masochism, and all the rest; as these are ineradicable, they are best confronted. Wertham spends a lot of time attacking what I believe is, even now, a consensus position among educators and psychologists: that some fantasy violence is not terrible for children and can even be an inoculation against the real thing.

As for Nietzsche, while he certainly wrote some disturbing sentences and was obviously taken up by some worse-than-dubious admirers, one fails to learns the lessons of The Genealogy of Morals at one’s peril. Just as Wertham’s polemic against sensationalism is amazingly sensationalist (seduction! of the innocent!), so too is his moral crusade no less an exercise in power-seeking than the actions of his opponents.

While Nietzsche may slight some of our nobler drives, I accept his argument that no human pursuit, not the most artistic or the most holy or the most egalitarian, is totally free from the quest to dominate or from impulses of aggression. To deny this is to leave oneself open to dangerous delusions of righteousness. Such delusions, it seems to me, have done more damage than violent comic books or pornography. The books that have proved most corrupting have been books like the Bible, the Koran, and The Communist Manifesto; surely, more people have been slaughtered for the ideals of Rousseau than for the anti-ideals of Sade.

A final word against censorship—and censoriousness, which I also dislike. The imposition of the restrictive comics code was the end result of Wertham’s activism. And the end result of the comics code was to put EC Comics out of business. EC’s company of superb writers and artists—Harvey Kurtzman, Al Feldstein, Wally Wood, Bernard Krigstein, among others—were making thoughtful, humane, literary, beautiful comics that went some way toward correcting the flaws of comics that Wertham was most reasonable in pointing out, such as their simplistic worldview, their illiteracy, their racism, their intellectual poverty, and their low artistic standards. It would take almost thirty years for the promise of EC to begin to be realized, as the code eased off, and mainstream American comics could again pursue the creation of serious artistic work.

In short, Wertham did more damage to the artists who might have been his allies than he did to the crass and mobbed-up money-men of the industry itself, who simply adjusted, as such people always do. Feel free to take this as a parable directed at the Werthamites of today.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

“Tear Him for His Bad Verses”: PEN, Charlie Hebdo, and the Cosmopolitical Writer in Bad Faith

[The following is more of a collage than an argument, strictly speaking, so please feel free to fill in some of the gaps with your own imagination. For a quality argument on the topic, see here.]

Teju Cole:

I’m a free-speech fundamentalist, but I don’t think it’s a good use of our headspace or moral commitments to lionize Charlie Hebdo in particular. L’affaire Rushdie (for example) was a very different matter, as different as blasphemy is from racism. I support Rushdie 100%, but I don’t want to sit in a room and cheer Charlie Hebdo. This distinction seems to have been difficult for people to understand, and any dissent from the consensus about Charlie Hebdo is read as somehow “supporting the terrorists,” or somehow believing that they deserved to be murdered.

Some people in the republic of letters develop a short memory when it’s convenient—when, that is, a little cost-free moralism is to be had, when a few “victims who had it coming” are to be trendily blamed. The offense, if offense it was, of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons was in fact identical to that of The Satanic Verses in the eyes of its detractors. When is the last time Cole read The Satanic Verses? Well, I confess I haven’t read it since high school myself, but I do remember a few things. I don’t have the novel to hand, but here is an account from a critic who broadly shares Cole’s politics:

Religious apostasy may have been the proximate cause, but as in other sectoralist conflicts the real struggle was, as always, over rights, labor, and land. As perceived by the book’s detractors, Rushdie’s crime was the combined product of notoriety and an insider status that could effectively translate itself in Anglo-American surroundings, and do so in a context of palpable contempt for an immigrant community of believers in an era, as Syed Shahabuddin put it, of the “new Crusades.” He had, in the view of Shahabuddin, “peddled his Islam wares in the West.”Following the fatwa, Muslim scholars seeking to explain what was outrageous in the book focused on his distance from the working-class Muslims and Hindus he typically wrote about—above all in England (and British Muslims were the first to burn the book publicly). What, for example, do we make of the fact that among them he was often referred to, with deliberate cruelty, as “Simon Rushton”?


If Rushdie had made a point about the adaptability of immigrants, and their tendency to try on identities in order to “turn insults into strengths,” there is an aspect to the writing of these sections that are presented as strengths but that should in all justice be turned back into insults. It certainly was by many Muslim readers of the book.

Remember that Baal in the novel is a court hireling contracted by the Jahilian Grandee to satirize the village poor. His job is to practice on behalf of the state the “art of metrical slander.” It is a key moment in the novel. When the novel arrives at his portrayal of the resistance of the black communities of Britain,we are introduced to their comically overweight leader, Uhura Simba (named after Tarzan’s elephant?), and the fatuous deejay toaster Pinkwallah, the white black man—both vicious send-ups of British dub poetry and the sorts of popular resistance represented by Linton Kwesi Johnson, Darcus Howe, and other figures recognizable to postwar British, especially left, readers. These portraits are combined with an almost unreadably condescending passage on the Afro-British communities, an Orpheus and Eurydice parody in “Black speech,” involving two lovers who work in the London Underground. One wonders why the first protests against the novel did not come from the Afro-British communities. It seems particularly depressing that one of the characters—Uriah Mosley—is given the same surname as Oswald Mosley, the 1930s leader of British fascism; a joke that, needless to say, falls flat.

From the perspective of the metropolis, there is a good deal of overlap, after all, between black people, working-class people, and the Islamic faithful. The village poor that the Jahilian Grandee first wants Baal to satirize are the water carrier Khalid, a Persian named Salman, and the black slave Bilal—the riffraff who become the Grandee’s targets because they are early converts to Islam. The scene evokes a psychological truth, for Islam in the mind of many Western commentators is a religion of Semites of Arab extraction, Persians with dark eyebrows, laborers from the Punjab, and sub-Saharan blacks—the kind of people who, long before the Ayatollah posted his bounty, were demonstrating in Bradford, Detroit, and Karachi. What is Rushdie doing satirizing such people through his persona, Baal?

(Timothy Brennan, Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right, New York: Columbia UP, 2006, 69-70, 88-9)

But Teju Cole cannot admit any of that because his identity, like that of his cohort at large (Carey, Kushner, Eisenberg, Ondaatje, et al.), let us collectively call them “the cosmopolitical writer,” is to double business bound. It depends on being elite enough not to be mistaken for some mere migrant worker (“I am an Author, after all, and I am better than you”) but still able to don the identitarian mask of the oppressed or the tribune thereof when some rival elites are to be mocked and castigated. Pre-fatwa Rushdie is Cole’s model for the cosmopolitical writer, so Rushdie can’t have been racist, only a bunch of bad cartoonists, merely national, could be racist, and who cares what happens to them? Theirs is a self-serving politics of pure projection, disguised as humanitarian concern. They want to be elites, but silent about it; fellow artists who display the distance between themselves and the wretched of the earth, i.e., who announce the elitism that Cole, Eisenberg, et al. only live, fuck with the brand. Post-fatwa Rushdie has at least aligned belief with practice, however unedifying is the spectacle of his calling his colleagues “pussies” on Twitter.

Of Deborah Eisenberg’s remarks, quoted at the link—

Thus they expended their courage, and ten of them lost their lives, in what was essentially a parochial, irrelevant, misconceived, misdirected, relatively trivial, and more or less obsolete campaign against clericalism. It is also courageous to bait a hallucinating and armed soldier, to walk around naked in the dead of winter, to jump off a roof, to drink from a sewer, or to attempt sexual intercourse with a wild boar.

—I will say only that she ought to be ashamed of herself. Her words are the left’s version of “don’t dress that way if you don’t want to be raped” and “don’t mouth off to the cops if you don’t want them to shoot you dead.” And, if you follow the logic of the metaphors, about as racist as anything Charlie Hebdo published, unless being compared to “a sewer” and “a wild boar” is somehow a compliment. Funnily enough, if Eisenberg were assassinated for comparing Muslims to sewers and boars, I would say that she did not deserve to be.

Likewise, if Teju Cole were assassinated for what even I took to be the rather high-handed portrayal of Farouq in Open City (plausibly insulting to immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, unless “tastefulness” and “literariness” are all-purpose shields, unless literally only cartoons can be offensive), I would say he did not invite it and that he was a martyr to the writer’s freedom. A Marxist once told me that The English Patient was a thoroughgoing and rebarbative apologia for imperialism; should Ondaatje return his honors for possibly having aggressed against the disempowered? Do these writers understand the test to which they are implicitly submitting their works? Or are they only submitting the works of those they consider beneath them to the test so that they can look in the mirror and see a friend of the people staring back?

Are these anything more than the ironies of liberalism itself, veering between elite delectation and over-compensatory populism? Is an intellectual just one who “recks not his own rede”? Perhaps, as the best Marxist literary critic of his generation now says, we need “an un-critical theory,” by which I gather he means something like what used to be called “vulgar Marxism.” Though of course that too is an aesthetic position parading as a politics, unless he’s laying in a cache of arms he’s not telling us about (he wouldn’t tell us, would he?). The point isn’t exactly theory, after all, but its materialization as practice, and if the wished-for Red Guard ever arrives, they will not ask for the adjective (“Marxist”) modifying the noun (“professor”) before they apply the proletarian brick to the bourgeois brain. The organic intellectual will categorically not have tenure. On the Day of Red Judgment, subject position will be all—contra some sensitive young men these days, there is no quarrel between Marxism and identity politics; Marxism invented identity politics.

I stopped being a Marxist because the gap it opened between my beliefs and my practices was just too stupid to be endured: “This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am.” I am a literature-loving petit-bourgeois, a skeptical aesthete, a son of assimilationist and ambitious immigrants, and a free-speech fundamentalist of the unequivocal type. With Borges I say that the universe is my birthright, and someday maybe, if the un-critical theory has its day again, they will put me against the wall for the liberalism I am way too cool to espouse but which they will correctly perceive that I nevertheless embody, and until then (who knows what cowardly lies I will come out with on the day?) I will not pretend that I do not care more for Shakespeare than for The People, whoever they might be and not that I have ever seen them, having only met people in my life so far. Here is a passage from Shakespeare that might be profitably studied in the current context:

THIRD CITIZEN. Your name, sir, truly.

CINNA THE POET. Truly, my name is Cinna.

FIRST CITIZEN. Tear him to pieces; he’s a conspirator.

CINNA THE POET. I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet.

FOURTH CITIZEN. Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses.

CINNA THE POET. I am not Cinna the conspirator.

FOURTH CITIZEN. It is no matter, his name’s Cinna; pluck but his
name out of his heart, and turn him going.

(Julius Caesar, 3.3)

Perhaps we poets, not conspirators, might live honestly. I wonder how discouraged frankness is today. For instance, we might just admit, we literary cosmopolitans, that for the most part the “un-critical theorists” are correct: we have embraced a set of values (to name just three: irony, rootlessness, aesthetic formalism) that entail a certain antipathy to the religious commitments of most of the planet’s poor, Christian or Islamic, migrant or native, and that are moreover inimical to most variants of Marxism (perhaps all except the Adornian adjustment, which is just another aestheticism). I can admit it. My own people were poor and religious; they too were immigrants; then they got a bit less poor; then they could afford to have me educated; and here I am, educated and irreligious and literary, and not really able, deep down, to care whose religion I may happen to insult in the course of my literary endeavors, and generally of the belief that everyone should be educated into my self-delighting skepticism. (I used to think the latter belief—economic provision so that we can all become cosmopolitan nihilists—was what it meant to be on the political left, but increasingly I see that I was mistaken, that the theodicy of the revolution demands absolute sacrifice of the sensibility.) And I have made my peace with who I am and with what I want; I’m certainly not going to twist myself up all in knots to pretend otherwise, let alone to join the cosmopolitical writer in his magnanimous gesture of principle conducted over the corpses of his disowned because less elegant brethren.