Why Burn Books When You Can Stop Them from Being Published?

You won’t have to burn them if they’re never published

W.J. Astore

There are many forms of lying. One that we don’t always think about is lying by omission. A partial truth can be a more insidious lie than an outright falsehood. I might argue, for example, that the Vietnam War was awful for America, dividing the country and costing more than 58,000 U.S. troops their lives, along with innumerable other mental and physical casualties. But if I leave out or downplay the far more horrifying costs to Southeast Asia, the literally millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians killed in that war, the poisoning of their land by highly toxic chemicals like Agent Orange along with millions of unexploded mines and munitions, which still kill to this day, I have most definitely lied by omission. Perhaps the Vietnam War was a “tragedy” for the U.S., but it was far, far worse for those on the receiving end of American firepower.

It’s not easy to get books published that tell tough truths we’d prefer not to hear. For example, Nick Turse’s book about “the real American war in Vietnam,” entitled “Kill Anything that Moves,” was published by Metropolitan Books, which is now being shuttered and shut down, notes Tom Engelhardt in his latest article at TomDispatch.com. Engelhardt has seen this before, with Pantheon Books, another publisher known for publishing books that told uncomfortable truths about America. It too was a victim of consolidation in publishing, of being shut down, mainly because the consolidators simply didn’t like the books being published. And perhaps too because these same books sometimes didn’t make enough money (though some proved to be bestsellers, which, from the owners’ ideological perspective, may have been worse).

Engelhardt’s heartfelt article made me think. Imagine that. It made me think that the best way to “burn” books is to make sure they’re never published.  Same with banning books.  You don’t have to ban them when they can’t find their way into print.

Also, it’s far easier to manufacture consent — to control the national discourse — when only certain books are being published and hyped — the ones reflecting and reinforcing mainstream thought.

Whether it’s shutting down Pantheon or Metropolitan or similar publishing houses, it’s about blocking alternative views that challenge capitalism, neoliberalism,, neoconservatism, and similar mainstream ideologies. You can always claim that the house you’re shuttering just wasn’t making enough money, wasn’t moving enough product, never mind the quality of that “product” and the invaluable service it was providing to democracy and the free exchange of ideas.

Readers here know that I started writing for TomDispatch in 2007. My first article was critical of the Petraeus Surge in the Iraq War, but my goal back then was “to save the U.S. military from itself,” from its misleading and often mendacious metrics to its inflated sense of itself, shown most clearly with its obsession with medals and decorations even as the war was going very poorly indeed. I tried several mainstream publishers including the New York Times and Washington Post without success. A friend mentioned TomDispatch to me, I wrote to Tom, and he found something in my writing worthy of being published at his site. My next “Tomgram” will be the 95th I’ve written for the site.

If TomDispatch didn’t exist, my criticisms and critiques would probably have never been published. Tom’s example inspired me to write further, to become a regular at Huff Post and Antiwar.com and to start my own blogs. Bracing Views exists because of the example provided by TomDispatch.

Good books beget other good books. Critical books beget other critical books. Scholarship builds on itself. When you block or severely limit opportunities for good, daring, and critical books from being published, you strike a blow against scholarship, against the free exchange of ideas, against the very idea of an enlightened America made more powerful and righteous by its informed citizens.

Sure, it’s just another publisher being put out of business. Nothing to see here, move along. Except it’s much more than that. It’s a form of book burning before the book ever existed, a silencing of synapses in our minds, an insidious form of mind control in the sense of curtailing certain thoughts and ideas from ever taking form.

Do I exaggerate? Readers, what do you think?