A timely contribution to an ongoing debate.

DANGEROUS IDEAS

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CENSORSHIP IN THE WEST, FROM THE ANCIENTS TO FAKE NEWS

A history of attacks on free speech.

Lawyer and journalist Berkowitz offers a well-informed chronicle of censorship, from ancient times to the present, arguing persuasively that censorship does not work but instead makes ideas more effective by forbidding them. “Once transmitted,” he writes, “an idea is not easily extinguished” despite fierce coercive power wielded to prevent, suppress, or punish expression. In the ancient world, some words, thought to have magical powers, were considered “so venomous” that they were banned. Athens allowed free speech in the agora but silenced thinkers such as Socrates, whose words were seen as polluting and his trial and death, a means of purification. Societies under stress—war, rebellion, class uprisings, religious dissent—often resort to censorship in the form of conflagrations: From Rome to Nazi Germany, many texts have gone up in flames. In the Middle Ages, the state quashed treasonous utterances by instituting public shaming; severed heads went on display as warnings. Beginning around 1450, the printing press, which circulated ideas quickly and widely, proved a bane to censors. Although, in 1670, Spinoza argued that free speech is a right in a free state, that principle has not been easily upheld. Soon after adopting the First Amendment, for example, the fragile new American nation passed a draconian sedition law. With examples of banned books such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Grapes of Wrath, Berkowitz underscores John Stuart Mill’s contention that an idea that seems harmful one day might be beneficial on another. As much as he champions free expression, Berkowitz sharply indicts social media companies engaged in “surveillance capitalism,” profiting by allowing racism, anti-Semitism, conspiracy theories, and disinformation to proliferate. Still, faced with this challenge, he reminds readers that “policing speech too aggressively risks exactly the kind of overbearing exercise of state power that spells the end of a free society.”

A timely contribution to an ongoing debate.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-8070-3624-2

Page Count: 312

Publisher: Beacon Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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A handful of pearls amid a pile of empty oyster shells.

THE COMFORT BOOK

Bestselling author Haig offers a book’s worth of apothegms to serve as guides to issues ranging from disquietude to self-acceptance.

Like many collections of this sort—terse snippets of advice, from the everyday to the cosmic—some parts will hit home with surprising insight, some will feel like old hat, and others will come across as disposable or incomprehensible. Years ago, Haig experienced an extended period of suicidal depression, so he comes at many of these topics—pain, hope, self-worth, contentment—from a hard-won perspective. This makes some of the material worthy of a second look, even when it feels runic or contrary to experience. The author’s words are instigations, hopeful first steps toward illumination. Most chapters are only a few sentences long, the longest running for three pages. Much is left unsaid and left up to readers to dissect. On being lost, Haig recounts an episode with his father when they got turned around in a forest in France. His father said to him, “If we keep going in a straight line we’ll get out of here.” He was correct, a bit of wisdom Haig turned to during his depression when he focused on moving forward: “It is important to remember the bottom of the valley never has the clearest view. And that sometimes all you need to do in order to rise up again is to keep moving forward.” Many aphorisms sound right, if hardly groundbreaking—e.g., a quick route to happiness is making someone else happy; “No is a good word. It keeps you sane. In an age of overload, no is really yes. It is yes to having space you need to live”; “External events are neutral. They only gain positive or negative value the moment they enter our mind.” Haig’s fans may enjoy this one, but others should take a pass.

A handful of pearls amid a pile of empty oyster shells.

Pub Date: July 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-14-313666-8

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Penguin Life

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2021

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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST

Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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