Comment: What Ever Happened to Innocent Until Proven Guilty?

The decision by publisher W.W.Norton to “permanently” remove Blake Bailey’s biography of the late novelist Philip Roth from print is a significant act of censorship and has dangerous implications for democratic rights.

The publisher said it had decided to do this because several individuals have accused Bailey of sexual harassment. So far, none have produced evidence to back their claim up. Bailey’s book, which on the whole has been well received with be pulped. Bailey’s 2014 memoir will also be dropped. The publisher has amended its website, so anyone looking for the book gets the message, “Our apologies! We cannot find the page you are looking for.”

Norton said that it was contacted by email anonymously by a woman in 2018, who alleged that Bailey had assaulted her. This begs the question of why act now against Bailey.

Despite saying that “Norton is here for you.” and will “stick to the business of publishing the best books we can lay our hands on and then keep our hands on them for as long as maybe.” Or as one writer put it “until some clique of gender-fixated zealots applies a bit of pressure”. Well Norton has now folded like a cheap shirt as soon as a few MeToo “zealots” make some noise.

As the writer, David Walsh, points out, “The purging of Bailey’s book sets a sinister example, intended to intimidate artists, biographers and scholars alike. The message being sent is clear: any influential figure who rubs establishment public opinion the wrong way can be denounced and dispatched in like manner. The filthy snout of the New York Times has been busily at work in this affair. On April 21, the Times published an article setting out the “sexual assault allegations” against Bailey. There is no reason to give the slightest a priori credence to the claims made in the Times article, which conforms to a pattern of trial-by-media that has been “perfected” since the launching of the #MeToo witchhunt in October 2017. Bailey has never been charged with or convicted of a crime. None of the alleged incidents was ever reported to the authorities”.[1]

Bailey has rejected the allegations calling them “categorically false and libellous.” His lawyer criticised the publisher’s “drastic, unilateral decision … based on the false and unsubstantiated allegations against him, without undertaking any investigation or offering Mr Bailey the opportunity to refute the allegations.”

As Walsh points out, “The attack on Bailey is unprecedented since the dark days of McCarthyism when the U.S. government removed thousands of books by left-wing authors and sympathisers from its overseas libraries. It continues and escalates a recent process that has already involved the ruination (or attempted ruination) of individuals such as the late James Levine, Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey, Placido Domingo, Aziz Ansari, Louis C.K., Charles Dutoit, Garrison Keillor and Geoffrey Rush, and the institutionalisation of censorship.[2]

It would seem that those attacking Bailey are also attacking the subject of his biography, Philip Roth. Many reviewers of Bailey’s biography have attacked him for his refusal to attack Roth’s so-called indiscretions or “mistreatment” of women. That Roth is no longer around to defend himself has only emboldened those who wish to see his work trashed and Roth becoming a non-person. Roth accused  his critics of resurrecting the old McCarthyite witchhunt, which he says, “In some quarters, ‘misogynist’ is now a word used almost as laxly as was ‘Communist’ by the McCarthyite right in the 1950s—and for very like the same purpose.”[3]

Not everyone has gone along with this right-wing attack on democratic rights. The chief executive of PEN America, Suzanne Nossel, has raised concerns that “If we were to apply that standard writ large there would be thousands of books by bigots, misogynists and miscreants that could be removed from circulation on those grounds,” While these books may be picked up elsewhere, once that stigma is attached, there might not be another publisher willing to touch them.”[4]

The attack on Roth and Bailey has a definite right-wing feel about it. As the working class starts to come into conflict with the ruling elite, this same elite encourages any form of backwardness to, as Walsh writes, “ dull popular consciousness and awareness. It inevitably fears any work that sensitises and alerts the viewer or reader or encourages a searching, thoughtful approach to public matters. In that sense, every significant attack on democratic rights is an attack on the working class and its political progress”.

In a typical attempt to play down the attack on democratic rights, New Yorker Magazine writer Alexandra Schwartz said, “This is not a case of censorship, which implies the suppression of ideas but, rather, a scramble at damage control”.[5]Unlike Schwartz, I believe this is an attack on democratic rights and a suppression of ideas. It must be opposed, and Norton’s censorship should be opposed, and I defend Bailey’s and Roth’s right to represent the world as they saw it.

[1] Book-burning comes to America

[2] Book-burning comes to America




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