Unperson: “A public figure, especially in a totalitarian country, who, for political or ideological reasons, is not recognized or mentioned in government publications or records or in the news media. A person accorded no recognition or consideration by another or by a specific group. . . . Introduced in George Orwell’s novel 1984 (1949)”—Dictionary.com
It seems somehow fitting that the great beat poet and artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, departed this mortal realm (at the age of 101) on February 22, 2021, the day after Amazon.com digitally unbooked When Harry Became Sally. Authored by Ryan T. Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and founder of Public Discourse, When Harry Became Sally offers a critical assessment of the transgender movement.
Anderson is an honest and careful scholar, one who makes a real effort to understand his opponents’ arguments and answer them with charity and rigor. Anderson’s views are not in ascendancy among elites these days, as is evident by the vitriol hurled at him by activists as soon as When Harry Became Sally was published. These critics, I am afraid to say, are not at all interested in debate, discussion, or a careful sifting through the evidence and arguments. What they seek is absolute unquestioned conformity to their views, policed by roving cyberspace inquisitors whose mission is to extract confessions from their targets and to inculcate in them the habit of unforgiving social justice scrupulosity. This is not to say that Anderson does not have some serious academic critics who raise penetrating questions about the quality of his sources, the strength of his arguments, and the nature of his project. Here I am thinking of two critical reviews that appeared in the Journal of Medical Humanities and Studies in Christian Ethics.
But that’s all the more reason why Amazon’s removal of Anderson’s book from its catalog is so pernicious: it marginalizes from the public conversation an intelligent and informed voice that should be confronted and taken seriously by those who disagree with him. As my esteemed Baylor colleague, Alan Jacobs, points out:
The censors at Amazon clearly believe there is only one reason to read a book. You read a book because you agree with it and want it to confirm what you already believe. Imagine, for instance, a transgender activist who wants to understand the position held by Ryan Anderson and people like him in order better to refute it. That person can’t get a copy of the book through Amazon any more than a sympathetic reader like me can.
What does all this have to do with Ferlinghetti? More than you may think. Founder of the small press City Lights Books, he published in late 1956 Howl and Other Poems, authored by the beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Soon after the book was published, Ferlinghetti was arrested on obscenity charges. The reason? The book’s poems included lines that contained graphic descriptions of sex acts, and thus, the government reasoned, it was legally obscene.
Read it all.