All progressive people, among whom I proudly number myself, must rejoice. We live at a time of heightened moral sensibility, and our standards are higher than they’ve ever been.
Yet standards mean nothing if compliance isn’t rewarded and deviation isn’t punished. That’s why writers and academics who say or write things progressive people find objectionable lose their book contracts, jobs and careers.
However, and here rejoicing ought to become thunderous, we also apply our exacting standards to history, which is a good thing. Moral laws differ from criminal ones in that they can – indeed must – be retroactive, and no statute of limitations should exist.
Moreover, speaking of writers specifically, they ought to be censured for what they wrote not only in their books, but also in private correspondence. One wrong word, on race especially, and their books must be banned. Ideally, they should also be burned, even if the historical associations are a bit of a turnoff for some wimps.
When I say one wrong word, that’s exactly what I mean. Context doesn’t matter: the writer may be making anti-racist points in his book and indeed his whole life, but if he does so by putting racist words in his protagonists’ mouths, he deserves no mercy.
In that spirit, Loyola University Maryland has removed the name of Flannery O’Connor from one of its residence halls because the Southern writer consistently depicted the dignity of blacks and enormity of racists… sorry, I got that wrong. O’Connor did do all that, but it’s not what got her punished posthumously. It was her use of a racially derogatory term in her letters.
She was weighed against today’s standards and found wanting. This isn’t baseball, chaps; no three strikes for you. Just one, and you’re out.
That’s what Mark Twain got for his novel Huckleberry Finn, out of which, according to Hemingway, all American literature came. This is a passionate anti-slavery book, and the black protagonist there is perhaps the most sympathetic character. But because he’s referred to as Nigger Jim, our new morality can no longer tolerate the novel’s toxic presence in school libraries.
Anti-black racism in Europe is a relatively new phenomenon for the simple reason that there used to be precious few blacks on the continent. But Jews have resided here for many centuries, and not all great writers have treated that fact with equanimity.
Eschewing understatement, one could even say that most of them erred against the standards of our time, some consistently, others sporadically. In fact, so few of them can pass muster that abolishing literature altogether seems to be the most sensible solution.
As a side benefit, the billions of books accumulated in Europe could be used to fire power stations, thereby providing an instant source of energy to tide us over until all the windmills have gathered speed.
If you think this recommendation may be too harsh, just look at the three great literatures: Russian, French and English. You’d have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find any writers there who either weren’t virulent anti-Semites or didn’t depict Jews pejoratively or at least described them by ethnic slurs.
Thus, with the possible exception of Chekhov, most great Russian writers were either rank Jew-haters (Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Rozanov) or at least prone to striking anti-Semitic notes in their books and correspondence.
Pushkin, Lermontov, Turgenev are all culpable there, as is the subject of one of my books, Tolstoy. The good Count tended to regard himself as a world authority on any subject he had studied for a couple of weeks, such as education. When the famous pedagogue Friedrich Froebel had the temerity to argue with him, Tolstoy was aghast: Froebel was “just a Jew” who ought to have known his place.
Into the bonfire go War and Peace and Anna Karenina, followed by the rest of Russian literature: we don’t want to waste time digging through an anti-Semitic dung heap in search of a few rare pearls of philo-Semitism.
And please don’t get me going on English literature, just bring that box of matches out. Shakespeare, Dickens, Waugh, Greene, Belloc, Chesterton, Buchan, Kingsley Amis… need I go on? I needn’t – by now you must be ready to strike the first match.
But, as you do, please don’t forget those Frenchmen: from Voltaire and Diderot to Sand, Balzac and Céline, they all belong in the pyre. Of course, when the fire spreads it’s also likely to consume even works by innocent writers, but that’s acceptable collateral damage.
If we go to such (justified!) extremes, I hear you ask, what will our young people read? That’s an odd question to ask, considering the profusion of social media that provide such a broad panoply of life’s intellectual and moral content.
Who needs Dostoyevsky and Chesterton when we have Twitter and Facebook? Only dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries and intellectual snobs. So perhaps the time has come to consider tossing them too into the bonfire of books.
I do hope that the corpus of my work and this piece specifically have established my progressive credentials clearly enough for me to be spared. Just in case, let me repeat: Heil progress!