In a petition, 500 literary professionals seek to define who gets a book deal in the post-Trump world
The Cancel Culture faithful in our current literary world tirelessly patrol the perimeters of the public square for the public good. Their latest eruption comes in the form of “No Deals for Traitors,” a petition of sorts unveiled by Barry Lyga, a young adult author from New York. The screed, published on Lyga’s website, seeks to very precisely define what is ‘beyond the pale’ in our emerging cultural norms. Put simply, the letter asserts that participation in the Trump administration should automatically disqualify someone from getting a publishing deal:
“As members of the writing and publishing community of the United States, we affirm that participation in the administration of Donald Trump must be considered a uniquely mitigating criterion for publishing houses when considering book deals.”
The letter (which has 500 signatories as of this writing) details the reasons for the disqualification in language that is appropriately hyperbolic for a young-adult author. It characterizes Trump administration officials as complicit for having served in an administration that “caged children,” performed “mandatory surgeries” on “captive” women and “scoffed at science as millions were infected with a deadly virus.” For these crimes, Lyga and friends demand that big publishing should deny administration officials “the almost rote largesse of a big book deal.”
But the “No Deal for Traitors” manifesto doesn’t end there. It widens the definition of Untouchable to include anyone “who incited, suborned, instigated, or otherwise supported the January 6, 2021 coup attempt.” They, too, should not have “their philosophies remunerated and disseminated” by publishers. By way of justification Lyga cites “Son of Sam” laws that prohibit criminals from benefitting financially by writing about their crimes. This is where the hyperbole crests, and rightly so. Because you can’t get much farther beyond the pale than a serial killer who took orders from his pet dog.
A January 18th piece in the Wall Street Journal by independent publisher Thomas Spence of Henry Regency sounds the storm warnings. Henry Regency was the house that picked up “The Tyranny of Big Tech” by Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. Simon & Schuster canceled the book’s initial publication after Hawley raised objections as to the accuracy of the 2020 presidential election, and raised a fist to the assembled insurrectionists on January 6. Spence writes:
“An independent publisher is vulnerable to today’s Jacobins in many ways, for it relies on large partners to print, distribute and sell its books. Now that dissent from the latest version of progressive orthodoxy is equated with violence and treason, my colleagues and I know we could be next…those who would censor or silence political speech with which they disagree are employing a strategy that has been and is currently being used by the most brutal and intolerant dictatorships in the world’s history. Hitler censored. Stalin censored. Mao Zedong (Mao Tsê-tung) censored.”
But of course, our modern-day culture warriors object, we’re not really CENSORING anything! We’re simply protecting the public by punishing those who are beyond the pale.
One gets the uneasy feeling, reading the words of Lyga, that the terms of acceptability are infinitely scalable. The petition makes reference to “the monsters among us”–alarmist language that directly echoes the rhetoric of any of the regimes cited in the WSJ piece. It is also deliberately malleable. Given the vagueness of “those who supported” the January 6th storming of the Capitol, one wonders the extent of the support necessary for publishing to label someone deplorable. Showing up in person? Being a bystander? Posting a positive comment or thumbs up on the social media account of a participant? Knowing someone who knows someone?
Censorship is like a wall of silence, built in silence, its length and height diligently expanded to encompass each new redefinition of what lies ‘beyond the pale.’ This new wave of censorship, which began online and in the universities, spreads with each new pogrom against the deplorable. It has now invaded media, movies, journalism and publishing. Put simply, it is a slippery slope from outrage to action to censorship to enforcement, and the range of possible victims, fluid in an ever-shifting terrain of fads, prejudices and hip new ideologies. Those who champion Cancel Culture would claim to be cleaning house. Those of us who know better, who have sat through this movie before, know it is more akin to burning the house down.
The Canceled languish in a kind of silent purgatory, Barry Lyga and friends imposing the judgment and sentence against them in absentia. The Nazi term was ‘Nacht und Nebel’ (Night and Fog)–the unreachable landscape into which they consigned the punished. But as the appetite for cancellation becomes ever more insatiable, what is ultimately being exiled is not a small group of deplorables but freedom of expression itself –guardian of the marketplace of ideas, and the indispensable buttress of any democracy. As night falls and the fog gathers, we would do well to note which way this wind is blowing.