The Most Insidious Censorship: A Conversation
K. ANTHONY APPIAH: As member’s of PEN’s Freedom-to-Write Committee, we’re heirs to a tradition of worrying mostly about the role of governments in restricting access to information, which is what censorship conventionally means. But since the end of the Soviet empire it’s become less easy to use the old picture of the old problem. It seems to me that there are at least two major questions, and they have to do with God and Mammon.
BENJAMIN BARBER: Or God as Mammon…
APPIAH: Well, yes, the horrible conjugation of the two. It’s true that a state got involved, say, in the Rushdie matter, but it didn’t have to. If Salman Rushdie was in danger, it was because of the religious sentiments of people, not in Iran, but in the places that Salman Rushdie hung out. On the other side, all of us, as writers, are very conscious of the concentration of power in the media—you know, Bertelsmann owns Knopf and Time Warner is owned by AOL and they own CNN. There is this vast accumulation of what we now are pleased to call content—which means it’s possible that certain voices can be kept out of the discussion. And you don’t have to threaten anybody with prison and you don’t have to burn any books.
BARBER: Well, the great irony is that writers and intellectuals who are usually populists and progressives and on the Left—not all of them, but some of them—begin to sound like Republicans when it comes to censorship. Which is to say, they carry on about the overweening state and the powers of government, and they talk about freedom as the sphere of independence from government interference. And like Republicans they have a sturdy eighteenth-century picture of the world in which they live. It’s certainly true that, historically, from the end of the Middle Ages until well into the nineteenth century and the advent of corporate capitalism in its early form, the primary source of power, authority, and thus potentially of censorship, was the state. Quite properly, early writers on censorship like John Stuart Mill, and before him Milton, understood very well that the state was the source of peril and the place to watch. The trouble is in the twentieth century—or no, it’s the twenty-first century, isn’t it?
APPIAH: I think that’s like the sixties, which went on well into the seventies.
BARBER: Right, right. You know, for intellectuals to be talking like Republicans about the overweening power of the state, in the face of these new forms of coercion which are neither visible nor rooted in brute force and power and which indeed are often even welcomed by those who are being coerced, is to miss the central political feature of the new millennium. The caveat of course is that a lot of the world still looks eighteenth century, and I understand that in much of the developing world the state still represents a perilous danger for writers and intellectuals. I don’t mean to say that we are now free from the traditional perils of state intervention. I do mean to say, even in such countries as those, there are other powers afoot which are equally dangerous, and you exactly identified them under the rubric God and Mammon. But particularly, for me, Mammon. The power of God is in a certain sense the pre-modern paradigm—the paradigm of the Middle Ages, when the Pope and the Emperor were the two great dangers to liberty—and the Inquisition certainly put flesh on those particular bones.
What’s striking about today is not the persistence of state power, or the persistence of theocratic power, but the invention of new forms of market intervention that seem to work inside the head, rather than out of it, that don’t put a pistol to the head but manipulate the wiring inside the head in ways far more dangerous to liberty because they’re so hard to resist. And indeed very often those forms of coercion work with, if not the outright volition, certainly the manipulated compliance of those being imprisoned. Tom Stoppard tells a story about his time in Eastern Europe before the revolution, when liberty of expression was forever threatened and as a consequence was vital and productive, and the time after the revolution, when freedom of expression was utterly unthreatened and nobody could think of anything to say. You could say anything and nothing seemed worth saying. And in that paradox is perhaps much of the new problem of censorship, which I think wonderful institutions like PEN have yet to take the full measure of.
APPIAH: It’s difficult, I think, to grasp these new forms of censorship, especially if our consciousnesses are being inhabited by forces outside ourselves, which was one of Mill’s great worries. His form of liberty was the liberty of self-creation, and the market can colonize your consciousness and stop you from exercising your imagination, stop you from making decisions about what kind of life you would want to live. And I do think that one of the great roles of literature and the arts, generally, is to allow people materials for thinking about those questions. If your consciousness is colonized by the market to the point where you can’t think about those questions, you don’t necessarily notice. And it’s a hard story to tell. I mean, what does it look like? It looks like somebody shopping at the Gap…
BARBER: Our imagination fails to leap the chasm from the totalitarianism of a political tyranny to a much softer form of—one hesitates to call it totalitarianism, but it bears some resemblance to it—the totalitarianism of the market. Totalitarianism suggests the infusion of every realm of being, every domain of activity, by a single set of norms and values. In the case of political ideology, it’s political totalitarianism; in the case of religion, it’s theocracy and theocratic totalitarianism. But when the market infuses every domain of activity—when everything is privatized, everything is commercialized, whether it’s culture or education or even politics—that we call freedom.
I used to go to Eastern Europe in Soviet Days and was, of course, appalled by the billboards that were everywhere in Moscow and Budapest and Warsaw. There was a sense of our public space, the air we breathed, being pervaded by state slogans—which were actually old Enlightenment slogans about brotherhood and universalism. What was noxious about them was that they took over our public space. They were everywhere and you felt that you couldn’t breathe, that there was no place for the self or relationships or anything else. Now you go to Budapest or Warsaw and there’s Coca-Cola and Nike and IBM, and in fact it’s exactly the same. Everywhere you go there are billboards, but because their message is “private” and “commercial,” they somehow strike us as part of a world of choice, a world of options. I find them far more base than the old messages, and equally pervasive.
There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of liberty in modern society, which I think goes to the heart of political and literary free expression. Liberty is essentially a public good and requires public space. Our freedom is made and forged by our public institutions and requires public space. The privatization of space—the privatization of cities and suburbs, the privatization of choice itself—actually inhibits, limits, and ultimately paralyzes real liberty. In Sophie’s Choice, that remarkable and awesome title, the commandant of the camp tells Sophie, “I will prove to you that it’s about freedom. I will let you choose which of your two children I will kill.” So much of the choice in modern privatized society is a trivialized version of Sophie’s choice. Choices without meaning, without dignity, without a real capacity to change the nature of the world we live in. And yet the forces that shrink those choices are not recognized as coercive, are not seen as a threat to freedom of expression, and as a consequence are not seen as an appropriate subject matter for the work of PEN’s Freedom-to-Write Committee.
APPIAH: I guess that seems—
BARBER: hyperbolic and overstated?
APPIAH: Right, and a bit more pessimistic than I think I am. Perhaps we could think about the problem in another way. Let’s consider the possibility that, whereas in the old world we had to work against states all the time, part of the task in the new world may be to work with governments to help them help us as a public shape the public sphere, which is something that government, in the end, must be able to do. That is, part of the function of government is to define public spaces.
BARBER: I think that’s exactly right, and that’s, in a sense, the shiny and bright side of the tarnished coin that I’ve been talking about. The celebration and exaggeration of the liberty of the private realm have been accompanied by an ongoing onslaught against not just the idea of government but the idea of democracy, because every onslaught on government in our country and in Europe is also an onslaught on democracy. People talk about “the government” as if we lived in Moscow, or dropped in from Mars, rather than elected our own representatives. When you attack government, you’re really saying, “We, as a people, together, can’t do anything. Better let us as selfish individuals flourish.” In fact, the government representing us turns out to be, in many cases, the only viable instrument we have to take on the new, powerful, private monopolies that themselves present a threat to freedom.
We’ve seen this in what to me was a landmark and disastrous recent case; the Democrats and the Republicans conspired on the 1996 New Federal Communications Act, which updated the Federal Communications Act of 1934. Now in 1934 it was clear to everybody that radio, the new radio technology, was a public utility, and that it had to be regulated in the public interest, and the undergirding for the 1934 act was simply that statement: Radio broadcasting is a public utility, and it has to be used in the public interest, and we will intervene where necessary to ensure that this happens. The 1996 act in effect repealed that fundamental principle. It said that the new technologies afford a spectrum, a broad pluralism of alternatives, which means that the primary utilities of the new technologies are private and not public and that therefore governments should stand aside, should deregulate, should get out of the way. This led then Senator Dole to call it the giveaway of the century with respect to digitalization of television stations worth seventy billion dollars, which were being handed over for free to the companies that already owned them.
There you have a kind of innocence about what happens in the private realm, an innocent belief that the private realm is Adam Smith’s small competitive enterprises, that the world of telecommunication is inhabited by a thousand newspapers, five thousand publishers, ten thousand TV stations, all in competition with one another like eighteenth-century broadsides, and that what government has to do is get out of the way and watch freedom flourish. The reality is that ownership in telecommunications, since 1945, has been constantly monopolized and concentrated—by most accounts something like six or seven global telecommunication corporations own over half of the television stations, satellite stations, book companies, entertainment companies, ball teams. You get a new form of vertical integration in which the whole entertainment business—in its content, the conduits that convey it, and the hardware on which we receive it—is owned by a tiny handful of monopolistic corporations. Finally, the U.S. Justice Department got enough religion to understand that Bill Gates, well named the gatekeeper of the new software, was actually a threat to competition and to liberty. So I think, to come full circle, you are exactly right to say, not only is government not the enemy, but where government is democratic, where we keep an eye on it, it can indeed become a friend of pluralism, a friend of the variety and competition that capitalism boasts it’s about but systematically undermines.
APPIAH: You’ve made most of your points in terms of the diminishment of liberty, but from time to time you invoke other values, among them dignity. The old way of thinking about censorship led us to be very skeptical about attempts to regulate content, to make it wholesome. And that’s what we’re talking about when we worry that our public sphere makes it impossible for people to live dignified lives. We’re not worrying about the things that the Puritans thought unwholesome, but we are worrying about a kind of unwholesomeness, and it seems to me that there’s a reason such thinking makes people nervous. There’s a deep Libertarian instinct in many Americans which says, “It’s not that people can’t do terrible things if left to themselves, it’s that government can get in the way of doing good things, and we don’t trust the government to be left in charge of deciding what’s good.” But if these are truly democratic institutions, everybody gets a fair say. In a functioning liberal democracy majorities respect minorities.
One of the things that I think is lacking, increasingly, in the industrialized western world is the kind of culture one notices, or at least noticed—perhaps it’s disappearing there, too—in Scandinavia, for example, where the basis for democracy seemed to include notions of respect for people who were, in your view, weird and strange. This kind of toleration is not imposed, as we often have to impose toleration here by getting the ACLU to come in and prevent somebody from doing something; it flows from an understanding of all of us as real equal citizens of a shared public. That brings me, in a rather rambling way, to a point about education. It’s difficult to prepare people to live in this world, and writers of fiction and nonfiction, intellectuals, ought to be, I think, at the forefront in thinking about how best to prepare them. What do we say to young people, as we invite them into this world, which will innoculate them to some extent against the risk of having their consciousnesses colonized?
BARBER: I couldn’t agree more that education is one of the primary ways a democratic society defends its pluralism and some sense of its dignity, and its standards, without relying on a cultural establishment backed by government force to impose it. But education is being colonized by the same commercial and marketing forces that are colonizing everything else. Many universities have now signed exclusive contracts with cola vendors and apparel vendors and so forth. A lot of student unions now look like malls; education is becoming an acquisition of brand loyalty. So, we’ve got a circle: at the very point we’re appealing to education to help us defend against privatization and commercialization, the institutions that we depend upon are themselves being privatized and commercialized.
The other issue that you raise, of course, is the very delicate one of how we sustain our moral and cultural standards without creating a cultural tyrant to impose them—which always ends up destroying both liberty and culture. Part of the problem is the assumption—and this is the assumption of Mill and the old liberals—that in the competition of ideas, good values will thrive. That’s true in a genuinely free and egalitarian market. But markets aren’t free and they aren’t egalitarian and they’re run largely by profit, and consequently the value that’s least expensive to produce and cheapest to buy is the one that wins. This suggests that a role for government , a noncensorious role, might be to try to guarantee that the free market allows cultural values some space to thrive. That’s what public television and public radio are about. That’s what special postage rates were supposed to be about. There are lots of things government can do without imposing its own norms, to assure a fairer and better competition, but on the whole, in recent years, we’ve gone in the other direction. We deregulated, we got out of it, we said, “Don’t worry, the market will take care of it.”
You talked about education. My daughter is in a public school in New Jersey. She just went into the fourth grade, and last night she gave me a piece of paper which she had to sign and I had to sign. She’s now going to go on the Internet—which, courtesy of President Clinton and Vice President Gore, is supposed to mean new access to new wealths of culture and information, but you would think that she was being wired to a cesspool. She came home with a piece of paper that said, “We are not responsible for commercial uses; your child may not use the Net commercially. We are not responsible for illegal and pornographic sites that your child accesses, and she may not access such sites. We are not responsible for any misuses of the information she gets. We are not responsible for the quality of information she gets—most of which will not be any good.” In other words, this great new age of the wired schools is one in which the schools are worried only, apparently, about the tainting of the child’s mind by a largely commercialized and privatized Internet that is a far cry from the electronic frontier we hoped for back in the nineties.
Over and over again, the market, which is supposed to be the source of competition, the source of a variety and plurality of goods, is making inadvertent, if you like, but certain choices about what will prevail. The Internet today is 95 percent commercial, and of that, 25 percent of the hits are pornographic. I’m not a Puritan, but if you’re going to wire up the schools to the Internet with the idea that it will improve education, maybe you’re misjudging the scene. It seems to me that we need government to assure fairer competition, to assure that public, educational, and cultural institutions have at least some voice.
APPIAH: Just to be my normal, Pollyanna-ish self, it does seem to me that if I go on the Web now, I have unprecedented access to information. A few months ago, preparing to give a talk to the Phi Beta Kappa class at Harvard, I was trying to remember a favorite poem of mine that I wanted to tell them. It’s a poem by Horace, and I could remember almost all of it, but not quite all. I found it in one minute on the Web—the whole text, in Latin, with a good eighteenth-century translation, because the twentieth-century ones are all in copyright and the person who put it there, someone who loves Horace, didn’t want to infringe on anyone’s copyright. It seems to me that as the cost of making information available to anybody goes down, there are real benefits. I mean, if I type something in, anybody in the world who has access to this system can find my words or Horace’s words or, of course, endless images of people having endless kinds of bizarre sex. So-
BARBER: Horace has something about that as well, come to think of it…
APPIAH: Yes, and Catullus too, whom I did not quote to the students. But the point is that we ought to have a terrain in which it’s possible to find what we need, not merely to have it there.
BARBER: Exactly. The point about technology is that while it always has its own entailments, which often can move, as new technology does, in democratic and educational and pedagogically worthwhile directions, new technologies almost always reflect the societies in which they are forged. For some people, the new technologies are a tremendous facilitator, no question about it. But to use these technologies in a discriminating way takes a lifetime of education and literacy. We are telling uneducated people that the Net will educate and render them, when in fact they require the very literacy and education that the Net is supposed to produce in order to use it wisely and intelligently. Otherwise there is no way to distinguish between the gossip and the lies and the truth.
You type in Whitehouse.com and you get a hardcore porn site—which some people would say is appropriate. You’re looking for information about the genome project and instead find a site about uplifting people onto Martian vehicles and transforming their brains. The Net gives you access to endless data—hard data—but it doesn’t give you access to information organized as knowledge, let alone as wisdom. That takes a serious education. What if, in 1996, the government had said, “The new technological tools that we have available to us offer tremendous assets for culture and education, and we’re going to insist that 10 percent or 15 percent be set aside for such uses. We will not, ourselves, prescribe the standards, we will simply say that anybody who wants to use them in such ways and meets minimal standards will be subsidized.” That would have been a terrific way to do it. Instead, government said, “Give it to the market. The market will take care of it.” And the market sank to its lowest level, engaged in the race to the bottom. Precisely because it is in a sense a mirror of the society in which it grows, technology needs direction, and our democratic institutions can provide that.
APPIAH: You mentioned at the start, when I was talking about God and Mammon, that they can come together very easily in our world. One can think of certain kinds of television evangelists who are making pots and pots of money, and you don’t have to be heavily religious to feel upset by what they’re doing in the name of religion. Not because it’s blasphemous but because it seems to trivialize the most important things about human life. I wonder if we could spend a minute talking about what you rightly call the pre-modern worry, the one about religion. Religious institutions have borrowed all the apparatus of modern technologies—the apparatus that marketing people use. Yet, because they’re still able to generate quite powerful senses of community, religions also connect with something that represents a powerful obstacle to Mammon.
The Rushdie affair brought together Muslims, not just in Britain and the United States, but all around the world; it brought them together in an argument. Some of them were deeply hostile to the Fatwa, and some of them understood its motives and disapproved, and some of them were in favor of it, but they realized that they all affected by it. Religion has something that Mammon doesn’t have, except perhaps in France, where it’s still possible to mobilize ideas of Frenchness in the market—to insist that you can’t have McDonalds—but that doesn’t work in this country. Buying American just doesn’t mean anything anymore, and I don’t think buying British means anything to Brits. But religion can generate powerful community feeling.
BARBER: It does more than that. It generates a powerful sense of values that aren’t merely materialistic and trivial. And in that sense it’s a potential source of the dignity that you were saying is absent in the culture of private markets. I want to agree with you and I want to say again that the state’s abstention from its proper duties is causing some of the problems religion has right now. People forget that the separation of church and state was not simply to protect the state against religion, it was also to protect religion against the state. What we now need, I would say, is a separation of religion and market enforced by the state. We need the same wall there, and the state ought to spend energy and money making space for religion in a society where the market colonizes it and makes its life impossible. When was the last time anybody has seen on prime time or commercial television a portrait of religion that is other than either sanctimonious, or right-wing reactionary, or simply ridiculous?
APPIAH: For most people, in most places, to the extent that they have a commitment to noncommercial values, that commitment is connected with their sense of themselves as religious. I’m not enforcing the view that atheists can’t have values, but it’s an empirical fact that in most places in the world, the power of those values, for most people, comes from some sense of the transcendent, which pulls them away from simply being market consumers and asks them to think about other things. Here again, to come down to our more parochial concerns, this is difficult subject for the Freedom-to-Write Committee.
BARBER: In a sense, a simplistic sense, religion, or religious orthodoxy, is the enemy of the freedom of expression.
APPIAH: It shouldn’t be taboo to raise questions about how religion, or matters that are important to religious people, should be represented in a multi-religious society. It seems fine to raise them. We don’t want the state to come in and determine which religious positions are going to be permitted. We don’t want people to express their strongly felt feelings in ways that amount to coercing rather than engaging in dialogues with each other. The standard Freedom-to-Write view is that while it’s perfectly fine for the Catholic League to stand outside the theater, it’s not fine for them to threaten to blow it up. (And if there is an organization called the Catholic League, I do not wish to be held to have implied that on occasion they have actually threatened to blow anything up. It’s an example out of the air.) Our response would be that we deal with such disagreements by having a dialogue about them, discussing them, and the discussion starts with the assumption that everybody is worthy of respect.
BARBER: The other thing is, particularly, in America, we want everything both ways. We want deeply held religious convictions that nobody takes too seriously, we want freedom of expression to say absolutely anything but not to offend anyone, we refuse the reality that there are real value conflicts and that we have to make compromises. We pay homage to the power of religion sociologically without giving it the space to do what, sociologically, it’s supposed to do. You see that in what I would call the ongoing privatization of religion. There’s a notion that religion, like everything else, should be private and not public. That’s on its face absurd. Religion is, by its very nature, about communities—it has to be public. To take an unpopular example, I would rather live in a community that is allowed to put a crèche in a public square, if the community is Christian, and maybe put up a Jewish star at Passover time as well, than in one where they say, “No religious symbols are going to be allowed. They can be displayed in the privacy of your home.” Because the whole point of these displays is their public nature, the sense of belonging to a community.
Or we could of course just say that we’re going to live in a wholly secular atheist society where religion is nothing more than a trivial private matter. But we don’t want to; we want it both ways. If I lived in seventeenth-century or eighteenth-century Massachusetts, I would say we need more freedom and less public display of religion. But looking at the United States today, I’d say we could afford a little more display of religion without undermining the secular base of society, without offending the variety of people who are here. If we at PEN are really concerned about free expression, then maybe we should be a little less sensitized to displays of religion and a little more sensitized to the implicit censorship that goes on when these displays are forced inside.
APPIAH: Perhaps we should distinguish between two publics. There’s the public as the state and there’s the public as civil society.
BARBER: You’ve put your finger on the crucial conceptual issue. When we talk only about state and private sector, we miss the middling reality of civil society, where most people live their lives. I think there’s a lot of confusion about that. We have polarized our world into state and government, which is called the public world, and the market, which is called the private world. But in fact, though we vote and pay taxes in the state world, and though we shop and work in the private world, most of what we care about—when we pray, when we play, when we go to school, when we work with foundations, when we have community associations—is done in civil society. Civil society is public like the state sector but voluntary like the private sector, and it shares the virtues of both. It has the freedom of association of the private sector and the public communitarian character of the state sector, without the state’s coerciveness. If we can make civil society the arena for public expression of religious and moral sentiments, we can avoid coercion from the state and trivialization from the market sector, where other invisible forces actually dominate.
APPIAH: Right, right. I’m sometimes resistant to talk of privatization in this society because it seems to muddle up things that ought to be kept clearly distinct. The social and the economic are not the same thing, and neither is the same as the government.
BARBER: You know, maybe here you and I, and PEN, represent the best form of liberalism. Liberalism is about boundaries. It’s about boundaries between government and civil society, between civil society and the economic sector, between public and private, and we’ve been fighting a war of boundaries as if there is only one boundary—the state—instead of a series of boundaries, all of which have to be protected for liberty and pluralism to be protected. If we begin to think about censorship in the context of a series of boundaries, we could sometimes use one perilous source of authority—governmentto help secure the boundaries, and at other times we might use the economic market to help secure boundaries for civil societies against government.
APPIAH: Yes, and then we, ourselves, of course, are society. We don’t any money—
BARBER: —so we’re not economic. And we don’t have any power—
APPPIAH: —so we’re not governmental! But we also want to play a role in shaping how things turn out for ourselves and for each other.
BARBER: And we have there the greatest power, which Tocqueville understood. Civil society has the power of public opinion. And if we can recognize the varied threats that are presented to freedom of expression and to the values we care about, we can provide a kind of leadership that makes for a stronger and more vital civil society and allows it to fight these fights.