We’re worried about the pandemic. Not just the coronavirus. As scary as that is, everyone—except Donald Trump—agrees on a united response.
We’re also alarmed by the cancel pandemic.
It’s infecting the spines of editors and movie studios all over, most notably the Hachette Book Group, which last week decided to abort the publication of Woody Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing, after a staff walkout.
Free speech means that workers have every right to defy their employers. But these are workers whose calling is publishing—their employers have a duty to defy censorship even when it comes from within their own workplace. The uprising didn’t happen until Ronan Farrow, the Gen Y Torquemada whose Weinstein book, Catch and Kill, was also published by Hachette, led the charge on Twitter—a little like Russell Crowe commencing battle in Gladiator with the words “At my signal, unleash hell.”
The Hachette uprising didn’t happen until Ronan Farrow, the Gen Y Torquemada, led the charge on Twitter.
The American branch of Hachette instantly surrendered. The German publisher Rowohlt quailed, then rallied and said it planned to publish—despite an open letter from some of its other authors objecting to the Allen book. Manuel Carcassonne, managing director of the French publishing house Éditions Stock, said he would do everything he could to release Apropos de Rien in April.
From quarantine in Milan, Elisabetta Sgarbi, editorial director of La Nave di Teseo, announced: “It is my intention to respect the agreements with the author and to publish Woody Allen on April 9th and I hope this book is of help to the suffering Italian bookstores right now.” (Presumably, given that nation’s shutdown, the book will also be made available on Amazon.it.)
Russia, not surprisingly, spoke out with forked tongue. “Woody Allen, we will publish your book because we believe in free speech,” Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of RT, wrote on her Facebook page. RT is the Putin-controlled Russian news network that believes in free speech for everyone except Russians.
This Year’s Fashions
We understand that there is a generational divide over the importance—even the very definition—of free speech and what it grants citizens in a democracy, and that many in the #MeToo movement believe that men accused, let alone convicted, of rape or sexual abuse should not be permitted to profit from movie deals and book royalties. (One thing keeps getting lost in the noisy clash between those who #believeallwomen and those who argue for due process and the need to respect the courts: the fact that prosecutors declined to charge Allen for allegedly sexually molesting his daughter Dylan.)
But American film distributors and publishers are not Yale students and they aren’t canceling artists on principle—rather, they are bowing to pressure and cutting their consciences to fit this year’s fashions, as Lillian Hellman famously said she would not do at the height of the McCarthy witch hunts.
And in this moment, that’s alarming.
Nobody has to read Woody Allen’s memoirs or see his movies, just like no one is forcing anyone to read or listen to or see any other works they find objectionable. For heaven’s sake: Mein Kampf is for sale in bookstores, and slut-shaming slasher films like Texas Chainsaw are on Netflix. Last month in San Francisco, the Gagosian gallery held a Man Ray exhibition—Man Ray, among other things, took sexy naked photographs of a nine-year-old girl, Tamar Hodel, the daughter of his good friend George Hodel. Tamar told the journalist Sheila Weller about it when describing the Surrealist’s bizarre kinship with her father, who was widely believed to have been the Black Dahlia murderer.
For heaven’s sake: Mein Kampf is for sale in bookstores, and slut-shaming slasher films like Texas Chainsaw are on Netflix.
Roman Polanski, now 86, was accused of raping a 13-year-old girl in 1977. After pleading guilty to unlawful sex, he fled the United States to avoid a prison sentence and cannot return. (He’s not even that welcome in France anymore, now that several women have come forward saying that decades ago he sexually abused them when they were minors.)
But however much we despise Polanski’s misdeeds, that shouldn’t mean that Americans are banned from seeing An Officer and a Spy, his film about the Dreyfus affair that was a box-office hit in Europe and won three Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscars. It’s an important film about one of the most infamous cases of anti-Semitism and a miscarriage of justice of the late 19th century. If anything, it should be made available for extra credit in high-school European-history classes.
The mere existence of Apropos of Nothing may indeed offend some people. Who cares? Self-censorship is dangerous, and selective self-censorship is worse.