Intolerance impulse goes both ways

by Steven Roberts

The intolerance impulse from the left is as odious as it is from the right.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his allies are wrong for banning books that, as I’ve written, “feature characters who don’t conform to a conservative Christian straight white view of America.” More than 1,600 titles were removed from libraries or reading lists nationwide during the last school year.

In two cases, the woke warriors of the left are now doing the same thing: trying to suppress authors and views they disagree with. The first involves the writer Roald Dahl, whose beloved children’s books have sold 300 million copies.

Dahl died in 1990, but today his publishers are reissuing revised editions that scrub hundreds of passages that might offend, well, just about anyone.

London’s Daily Telegraph, which first outed the outrage, found that most of Dahl’s references to his characters’ weight, mental health, gender or race had been either cut or rewritten.

In “James and the Giant Peach,” for example, The Cloud-Men are now the Cloud-People. Miss Sponge is no longer described as “terrifically fat,” Miss Spider’s head is no longer “black” and the Earthworm no longer has “lovely pink” skin but “lovely smooth skin.”

Sir Salman Rushdie, the esteemed British author, accurately called this “absurd censorship.” Even British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak chimed in: “I think it’s important that works of literature and works of fiction are preserved and not airbrushed.”

This is political correctness gone crazy. The notion that no young reader should ever be dismayed or discomfited by a book profoundly misunderstands the nature of literature and learning. Dahl’s publishers are mirroring the wrongheaded closed-mindedness of the right, and even handing them leverage, notes Suzanne Nossel, head of PEN America, an organization which defends free expression.

“Amidst fierce battles against book bans and strictures on what can be taught and read, selective editing to make works of literature conform to particular sensibilities could represent a dangerous new weapon,” she warned. “Those who might cheer specific edits to Dahl’s work should consider how the power to rewrite books might be used in the hands of those who do not share their values and sensibilities.”

Her warning bears directly on the second recent example of left-wing vigilantism: two letters to The New York Times criticizing the paper’s coverage of gender diversity in general and the struggles of trans youth in particular. One letter, signed by more than 200 writers, including Times contributors and staffers, complained that the paper “has in recent years treated gender diversity with an eerily familiar mix of pseudoscience and euphemistic, charged language.”

Happily, the Times, where I worked for 25 years, is standing its ground. “Our coverage of transgender issues, including the specific pieces singled out for attack, is important, deeply reported and sensitively written,” replied editor Joseph Kahn.

The Times and other mainstream platforms have come under growing pressure – especially from younger journalists of color – to allow their employees to abandon traditional values of impartiality and express their strongly held personal beliefs.

Kahn used this conflict to reinforce the paper’s commitment to those traditional values. “We do not welcome, and will not tolerate, participation by Times journalists in protests organized by advocacy groups or attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums,” he insisted.

Kahn’s courageous stance contrasts sharply with the Times’ performance in June 2020, when it published an op-ed article by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton advocating military force to quell the riots that erupted after the death of George Floyd.

When the woke warriors protested fiercely, alleging the article placed the Times’ Black reporters “in danger,” the editorial page editor, James Bennet, argued back: “Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy.”

Within days, however, Bennet’s bosses had capitulated, blaming themselves for publishing Cotton’s piece and forcing Bennet to resign. It was a shameful episode, and a growing number of observers are now willing to say so. Erik Wemple, The Washington Post’s media critic, published an essay last fall under the headline “James Bennet Was Right.” He apologized for not recognizing that earlier and admitted his previous posture had been “one of cowardice and midcareer risk management.”

Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine echoed Wemple’s regrets and warned that “the most unreasonable people on the left” are pressuring “the whole progressive movement into indefensible and self-discrediting positions.”

Both extremes in politics today are breeding and breathing intolerance for dissenting views. And they’re both wrong.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.