The latest insanity over political correctness has come from an unlikely source, Ukrainian Americans who one would assume, consider themselves supporters of Democracy and freedom of speech. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of “Eat, Pray, Love” has written a new book, set in Russia in the 1930s. “The Snow Forest” is, according to the New York Times, about a family in Siberia that retreats into the forest to escape Soviet oppression. One would also assume that a topic like that would be supportive of the underlying cause of freedom in Ukraine’s war with a Russian tyrant. It was announced on the New York Times today that, at Gilbert’s request, the book has been pulled and will not be published due to “…an enormous, massive outpouring of reactions and responses from my Ukrainian readers.”
The book has been “review bombed” on Goodreads, the website owned by Amazon that features reader reviews. There has always been a problem with many reviews that are allowed to be put on the site long before anyone could have actually read the book. Thousands of low score “reviews” of Gilbert’s book, which has not yet been published, could not have been that widely read. It’s clear that some Ukrainian Americans and their supporters have decided to stop the publication of this book, simply because it is about Russia. (I have not yet read the book and apparently will never get the chance).
We seem to be in an era of insanity, very much like the McCarthy era of 1950. Writers of both the left and right politically, or those of no political bent at all, have continued to find themselves under attack by anyone who can rally a mob against something they personally find objectionable. The author J.K. Rowlings has found herself on both sides of the politically correct mob for either allegedly supporting witchcraft in the Harry Potter books (attacked by religious fundamentalists and cheered by many who considered themselves “outsiders” including a lot of people who said they were gay) or by the left for her comments (not even a book) in supporting the notion of a woman being defined as a biological person. This attack was in spite of the fact that she had on numerous times supported LGBTQ+ rights, had clarified that Dumbledore was gay (!) and her philanthropy organization has supported numerous NGOs’ that support women and children, especially those who have suffered from abuse. She also published long discussions on Twitter about her beliefs, asking that people simply agree or disagree with her but not feel compelled to issue death threats or physical violence to her or her family. Her left-wing creds, up until the moment she ‘crossed a line’ with some in the LGBTQ+ community, had been sterling, yet since then, no amount of reasoning has stopped parts of the left from viciously attacking her. For an outstanding podcast on this issue, see “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowlings” on any of the major podcast outlets.
Rowlings and Gilbert don’t have to worry much about financial fallout. Both are extremely successful authors. But the chill this places on other, not well-known authors, is profound. Authors often find significant guidance from their agents and publishers. Either can ask for changes in the content or warn an author of an inability to find a publisher willing to publish. That critical mobs can storm the bastions of GoodReads to claim that a book is bad before most if not any of them have even read it and openly ask for ransom without having Goodreads stop this means that no writer is safe from politically correct attacks. Time magazine highlighted the problem a couple of years ago, so this is not a new issue. Authors Beth Black, Alena Leonova and Gretchen Felker-Martin highlighted in the Time article are just three of many. The problem has usually been worse for authors of color.
Since the early parts of this century the Internet has shown significant ability to shout down anyone that doesn’t agree with their beliefs. Whether it is supporters of political actors profiting from so-called culture wars, left or right-wing supporters of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, student irritation at being “triggered” and their inability to listen to opposing viewpoints on controversial subjects; these simply shape shift into the newest outrage. The careers of very well-meaning and successful people have been destroyed for issues that hardly seem to matter to more than a handful of people who take issue with the action. Some are influencers on Facebook or Twitter. Some are nothing more than extortionists. The issue has been given a thorough look in the recent book Woke Racism:How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America by African American author, John McWhorter who teaches at Columbia. Hardly a bastion of right wing thought. An interview with him discussing his book can be found on NPR, here.
The foundations of Democracy are based on a few fundamental freedoms, including speech. Speech is under attack across the planet these days, from China, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Russia and also right here in America. Our country and its people have supported Ukraine with billions of dollars against a megalomaniac who has taken control of Russia and has silenced speech in all its forms. Gilbert’s book appeared to honor the very ideals we cherish. But if we can’t take the fact that someone is going to publish or even say something that might offend us, we have pretty much destroyed our Democracy and we might as well just stop pretending we are worthy of the title.
The New York Times article on Gilbert’s controversy is found here.