Monday, August 09, 2004

Berman on Censorship

I am reading Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000, paperback ed. 2001, xiv + 205 pp.). This Spenglerian jeremiad is required reading for anyone interested in culture-critique. I’ve had to force myself to put it down, it is that fascinating. Unfortunately, Morris Berman (not to be confused with Paul Berman, who is also an astute culture critic) is a bit of a liberal, and this interferes, as one might expect, with the clarity and rigor of his thought. Perhaps I will get around to launching a full-scale critique of his book over the next weeks and months, but for now I zero in on just one passage.

At the top of p. 56, we find the following paragraph which I reproduce verbatim:

It is also the case that New Age inanities, as well as various other myths and historical falsifications, get published by the large commercial publishing firms because they are guaranteed to sell, whereas books that debunk such myths, or are based on careful scholarship, can get published only by university presses (if at all), which accounted for 0.77 percent of the number of books sold in the United States in 1998. This effectively amounts to a new form of censorship, Benjamin Barber’s “default totalitarianism.”

The main problem with this passage is Berman’s slovenly misuse of ‘censorship,’ a misuse that clearly indicates liberal-leftist bias. In the situation he describes, there is no censorship at all. Censorship involves the active suppression of free expression, typically, by a government agency. In the situation described, however, there are simply impersonal market forces at work: the market for scholarly works, which typically demand hard work and intelligence on the part of the reader, is small, unlike the market for drivel which makes minimal demands on its readers. Since there is little demand for scholarly books, the large commercial firms have no economic reason to publish them. To call this censorship or a form of censorship is absurd. Why ruin a perfectly good word? Analogy: suppose you try to use a screwdriver as a crowbar. Chances are excellent that you will fail to pry loose what you are trying to pry loose but will destroy the screwdriver in the process. Use the right tool for the right job. Similarly, use the right word for the right concept, on pain of entering into the Spenglerian twilight.

Berman’s fallacy could be called ‘verbal inflation.’ One takes a perfectly useful word and inflates it so that it becomes useless and misleading. He commits the fallacy a second time when he cites Barber’s “default totalitarianism.” In what sense is a free market totalitarian? This needs to be explained.

An even more serious problem with the passage cited is that it refutes itself. It amounts to a performative self-refutation analogous to ‘No one is speaking now’ spoken by me now. Let me explain. Berman claims that books based on careful scholarship get published, if at all, only by university presses. Now his book is based on careful scholarship, but it is not published by a university press. It is published by Norton, and is touted on its cover as a “national bestseller.” Therefore, the existence and widespread availability of Berman’s book refutes the central thesis of the paragraph cited above. For the record, I found my copy of his book in paperback in a Borders, not exactly an arcane locale accessible only to pointy-headed intellectuals. So where is the censorship?

Am I being pedantic? Well, if you are going to preach high standards, then, dangblastit, you must adhere to them yourself. Of course, it is easy to zero in on a passage and tear it to pieces. But I’m a serious man with a serious point. Berman is on the right track, and we need culture critique; but we need to extrude the liberal-leftist nonsense from it. What we really need is conservative culture-critique. In addition, we need a conservative metacritique of the extant culture-critiques, a metacritique that extrudes the bad elements in them, which are mostly of liberal-leftist provenience, and retains the good elements, which are mostly of conservative provenience.