In the last month, three news stories out of Britain have seized the attention of book lovers. First, with the approval of the Roald Dahl Story Company, holder of the rights to the late author’s works, the publisher Puffin Books (a Penguin Random House imprint) announced that Dahl’s celebrated children’s books would henceforth be published in revised editions reflecting the changes recommended by “sensitivity readers.” The result would be to eliminate references “to fatness, craziness, ugliness, whiteness (even of bedsheets), blackness (even of tractors) and the great Rudyard Kipling,” among other changes, as Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote in the Wall Street Journal. Christopher Scalia added in the Washington Examiner that “this compulsion not to offend is especially strange regarding Dahl, whose work is distinctively unsettling. His publishers were once proud of that.”
Subsequent reports informed us that purchasers of ebook copies of Dahl’s children’s stories would see these changes made in the copies they had previously bought but that were stored on vendors’ servers—yet another reason to own paper copies of books. Puffin later announced that “classic” editions of Dahl’s books—with unchanged texts—would continue to be available for future purchase. But the bowdlerized editions have not been withdrawn, as they should be.
The second story, which did not get much attention in the United States, was that a similar “sensitivity revision” has been performed on the James Bond books of the late Ian Fleming. The sexism of Agent 007, and his retrograde racial views, were gone over with a fine-tooth comb, with the approval of Ian Fleming Publications. Henceforth James Bond, of all people, will try hard not to disturb the prejudices of a typical humanities professor of 2023. It’s a wonder he’s still licensed to kill.
The third story, which I did not see any U.S. media outlet notice, was that the Research Information and Communications Unit, part of Prevent, itself an arm of the UK’s Home Office charged with enforcing the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, had identified certain books, films, and television shows that were on favored “reading lists” of right-wing terror groups the unit was keeping tabs on. The list included works by Tolkien, Conrad, Kipling (again!), Tennyson, Chesterton, Huxley, Orwell, Milton, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, as well as films such as The Great Escape, Zulu, and The Bridge on the River Kwai, and the Kenneth Clark art history series Civilisation. Suffice it to say one could begin to build a pretty good education on the foundation laid by works the British government is concerned about.
Orwell and Huxley would have understood perfectly what’s going on in these stories. Orwell’s Winston Smith, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, works in the Ministry of Truth, which busily rewrites history from day to day, in accordance with what the Party needs people to believe, regardless of whether it is true. Huxley’s Brave New World doesn’t need a daily rewriting of history. Unlike Orwell’s Oceania, Huxley’s World State has no external enemies, and has achieved a complete break with humanity’s distant past. The few remaining copies of “obsolete” and otherwise forgotten books such as the Bible and the works of Shakespeare are locked away in the possession of the elite World Controllers. And in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, books of every kind are simply forbidden, and are immediately burned by the government’s firemen wherever they are found.
These dystopias all feature one form or another of a war on knowledge and truth by those in power. Their victory in that war can only come if the works of the past are revised to suit present needs, or rendered irrelevant and forgotten, or simply banned altogether. It is alarming that the impulse to treat the past as the enemy of the present, rather than as a precious inheritance, is rising to a commanding position at the heights of our culture.
I don’t mean to suggest that the deeply stupid revisions of the works of minor authors such as Dahl and Fleming represent the advent of a dystopian tyranny. In these cases they will only succeed in making the original works more valuable to preserve, while the insipid revisions will not attract the new readers whose “sensitivities” are being catered to. It is the spirit of the revisionists that is repellent and tyrannical, however.
It is the same spirit identified by George Packer in his recent Atlantic article “The Moral Case Against Equity Language,” where he describes the top-down, flattening, and stultifying dictates of various “inclusive” language guides, crafted by busybodies with no appreciation for plain speaking and no ear for metaphor. It’s the spirit of the “new Roundheads” critiqued by Jonathan Sumption, who simultaneously—and without any apparent discomfort caused by holding two incompatible ideas in their heads—believe both that “knowledge and truth are mere social constructs” and that they know their own countries’ histories are a dreary tale of unrelieved evil.
The impulse to censor—to revise the history and literature we inherit, to ban what we think the worst of it, to banish certain ideas—is as natural to human beings as any of the seven deadly sins. In fact, properly understood, censorship is an essential element of education. There are ideas and books that are fit for children, and others fit for adults. Parents, who have the primary and direct responsibility for the rearing of their children, are right to take an interest in what is assigned to them to read, and what is available to them in the school library. The publisher’s revisions of Dahl’s books might be well intended, with the best interests of children in mind. But they do both the author and responsible parents an injustice—the former by converting a talented author’s genius into mush, and the latter by usurping their role of controlling what their children should read. Should children be prepared for a robust, open-minded adulthood, or should certain windows in their minds be permanently obscured by blackout curtains?
The first work in western philosophy to take up the matter of education in the formation of a political community was Plato’s Republic. No sooner does Socrates begin to sketch the education of the “guardians” who defend and rule his perfectly just “city in speech” than he finds it necessary to demand the revision or banishment of much of Greek culture’s poetic inheritance, because it depicts the gods as variously warlike, vicious, and deceitful. The guardians of the best city must be paragons of virtue, and so poetry that might harm the development of their virtue must go. Finally, at the end of the work, returning to this subject, Socrates argues that the great poets—above all, Homer—make false claims to knowledge of the virtues, in contrast to the philosophers, who are the poets’ great rivals. Homer must go; he and his ilk are to be banished for the sake of justice.
My own view of the Republic, which I have taught on and off for four decades, is that Plato is ironically highlighting the impossibility of perfect justice, because it requires (among other absurdities explored in the dialogue) an iron grip on the dissemination of ideas, a grip that no one but omnicompetent authorities could maintain. Plato can no more banish Homer from Greek culture than we can banish Shakespeare; these poets have put an indelible stamp on their civilizations. To say they merit our study and engagement is to state the obvious; to say they loom so large we have no choice but to reckon with them would be more accurate.
Yet the attempt to control thought can do incalculable damage, however doomed it is ultimately. And just as Plato’s guardians are to be kept on the path to virtue by the elimination of all examples of vice, so the self-appointed guardians of contemporary culture have decided that “inclusion” is the virtue of our time, and all literature that might make the path to inclusion a bumpy one must be flattened, bulldozed, paved over. No fat or ugly people in the children’s books of Roald Dahl; no Asian stereotypes in the mind of Ian Fleming’s 007. Readers of Kipling are suspect; Kenneth Clark’s exaltation of Chartres has a whiff of chauvinism about it.
A much-noticed piece in The New Yorker recently concerned “The End of the English Major.” Nathan Heller’s lengthy and depressing overview of the decline of student interest in the humanities, literature in particular, only once or twice barely touched upon what may be the most important cause of the malady it richly described. Students’ interest in the humanities has waned for multiple reasons: careerism in a tough economy (but without a corresponding rebound, as in the past, when conditions improve); the impact of the smartphone on reading habits and attention spans; an increasing emphasis by universities themselves on STEM education (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).
But the humanities have neglected the age-old maxim “know thyself.” At one point Heller quotes a Harvard dean and English professor saying, “Young people are very, very concerned about the ethics of representation, of cultural interaction—all these kinds of things that, actually, we think about a lot!” There speaks, not a student mind genuinely curious about literature, but a young drone—with that “ethics of representation” bushwa—already thoroughly schooled by the Ministry of Inclusion. That is, if anyone is actually saying that to the dean at all, which may be doubted.
Later in the article, for just a moment, other voices “suggest that the humanities’ loss of cultural capital has been hastened by the path of humanities scholarship itself.” But it is not simply that it has become too specialized and obscure, as these voices say. It is the relentless drumbeat, in countless English and other humanities departments, for “representation,” and “inclusion,” and the “interrogation” of literature through a “critical,” ideologically focused lens.
No one becomes a scholar of the humanities—of literature, language, philosophy, history—without first becoming a lover of books. And this passion is fed, not by “representation” and “inclusion” of the reader, or by hacking off the sharp corners of square-pegged works of art to fit them into the round holes of our ideological commitments. It is fed by strangeness—by the encounter with worlds hitherto unknown to us, where we begin by feeling disoriented, groping for a sense of direction, and finally getting our “book legs” under us by patient reading and study.
To acquaint students with works great, good, or merely instructive, it is incumbent on teachers not to flatter them with promises of their “inclusion” in the world of ideas, or to assure them that their ideological priors will be built up and reinforced. It is necessary instead to emphasize to them how they will benefit from being taken out of themselves into places where they do not feel at all included or represented, but where by dint of effort they can come to feel they belong after all.
As in the encounter with Roald Dahl’s grotesques, who have simultaneously repelled and fascinated children for sixty years, the future students and scholars of literature must leave behind the comfy confines constructed by the Ministry of Inclusion and begin again with the experience of strangeness.