Banned Books Week (September 26-October 2, 2021) is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it spotlights current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools. It brings together the entire book community — librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types — in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.
My mom raised me with a healthy skepticism of this stuff. Think like a Bayesian for a second. If you knew nothing about a piece of published material, and then you learned that someone had thought it was bad, should that really lead to a higher posterior probability that it’s worthwhile? In reality, none of it is what the marketing says, because “challenged” books are only those that someone was advocating against while someone else was advocating for it1. All the items that librarians’ own judgments excluded never show up on the lists. (Not a lot of porn there, you’ll note.) The lists end up looking heroic because they outline the cultural conflicts between the educated educators and the reactionaries, where you, the marketed-to, already know which side you want to land on.
Librarians themselves2 are more thoughtful about what should be included in collections than this simplistic advocacy implies, so don’t imagine that I’m criticizing them here. It’s a different kind of mindset that fuels the thing.
“Doctors don’t want you to know this one weird trick.”
One time I read on Reddit a thread of “What’s one thing you wish you didn’t know?” I thought it was a fascinating question, because a lot of, you know, post-Enlightenment thinking presumes the acquisition of knowledge itself can never be bad, that the Reason with which Man was endowed must always discern among Ideas. That maybe we should even be trying to maximize the scope of our thought–so within that framework, how could knowing a thing (itself implying the thing is true) be bad?
The answer that stuck with me was an elaboration on “how good heroin feels”.
Contagion is a fun concept because it’s intellectually an interesting substance to poke at, but emotionally (evolutionarily?) deep-set. It’s objective and scientific and social and spiritual and reasoned and instinctive.
It’s one of those heuristics that works so well that in total isolation from reality it can take you all the way around from being wrong to being right.
There’s a funny rationalismist3 preoccupation with “infohazards”, which of course assume a scary prominence when you are deeply emotionally committed to the primacy of your between-the-ears existence. I’ve done the reading and wouldn’t recommend it – these SCPs have greater merit (and somehow less theatrics).
After the US dropped nuclear bombs on Japan, Americans fixated on the hypothetical impact of bombs dropped at home.
…hotomontages, maps and artwork. Significantly, the burden of these accounts was on the effects of blast, burn and destruction. Hersey’s descriptions of radiation sickness in Hiroshima were not mirrored in the United States, where the government consistently minimized its dangers. For the benefit of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in February 1953 the Atomic Energy Commission superimposed the blast radius from the first hydrogen bomb detonated in the Marshall Islands the previous November (‘Ivy Mike’) over a map of Washington DC, and the conceit provoked laugher from members of Congress because the ‘zero point’ was centred on the White House not the Capitol. The high-yield thermonuclear blast of Castle Bravo on 1 March 1954 was of a different order, and its fallout contaminated thousands of square miles. To illustrate its extent the AEC superimposed the plume over the eastern seaboard of the United States. Had this bomb been detonated over Washington, then Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York would have become uninhabitable.
President Eisenhower insisted on the map remaining classified, and when the New York Times splashed across its front page ‘The H-Bomb can wipe out any city’ its map was centred on New York and emphasised physical damage and destruction: [standard radial map]
I rehearse all this because in her reflections on ‘the age of the world target’ Rey Chow writes of ‘the self-referential function of virtual worlding that was unleashed by the dropping of the atomic bombs, with the United States always occupying the position of the bomber, and other cultures always viewed as the … target fields.’ Yet, as I have shown, a common – perhaps even the most common – American response to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the years immediately after the war was precisely the opposite. To be sure, the preoccupation wi…
It’s immediately possible to theorize about why the former kind of map would have been suppressed, though I’d love to read accounts of the decision-making.
Max Read notes we still all think in terms of those bullseyes, not unlivably radiating plumes. The suppression of that mode of analysis defined our conceptual landscape.
If you want to maintain a hardened posture capable of threatening devastation, you need people to reason about tactical maps with boundaries drawn on them, not fluid dynamics swirling in air and ocean. If you’re Eisenhower, that’s what you wanted, so that’s what you needed.
Am I better off for reading about nuclear winter? Is anyone better off for my having read about it? Is there even an abstract Good there?
My little household lives and works and walks the dog thirty miles away from “one of the U.S. Navy’s four nuclear shipyards [and] one of two strategic nuclear weapons facilities”. Coworkers wished I’d said nothing and they’d remained ignorant. Ha ha infohazard ha.
In the theorized apocalypse, we’d all be too dead to care about contamination. Metatheory: believing that is comforting.
Derek Gregory’s linked article is called “Nuclear Narcissism.” We give our own hypothetical suffering more weight than other people’s actual suffering. I guess it’s not innovative to note that was the unwritten key all along to those bullseye maps, those rumors – paranoia’s more politically tractable than empathy.
At the same time, wartime propaganda has always emphasized The Other Side’s Threat only alongside Our Side’s Strength.
I see videos of Ukrainian heroism and it’s, you know, inspiring, and I’m on their side in whatever abstract sense that can be true, but it’s all through a haze of suspicion of whatever I’m not seeing. Losses, not just victories. Even sympathetic ones.
On The Daily, a Ukrainian’s asked how the war’s going. He says they’re winning the information war. They ask how the conventional war’s going.
He says he’ll be able to talk about it when it’s over. Inseparable from the first answer.
Would it even really be better for him to be able to talk about it now?
I don’t know I have a clear opinion there, but it’s hanging fuzzy in my sight in between me and the joy natural to my temperament at shouted allusion to The Witch of Konotop (“Do you know where you are?! It’s Konotop. Here every second woman is a witch. Tomorrow you’ll no longer be able to get your dick to stand.”).
If you Google “ukraine donate”, nonprofits pay Google for ads to appear on the top.
Tell me, I guess, if the Yudkowskites have figured out a good option.
Even the physical existence of a conventionally published item implicitly asserts someone other than the creator thought it had value, so “banned ideas” carry a different valence in a digital age. ↩
A group that includes my sainted mother, thank you very much. ↩
One of my heuristics is to ignore opinions that childishly try to rename their opposition. DemonRats. Drumpf. Micro$oft. I thus have to acknowledge the hypocrisy here, but I just can’t cede an actual epistemological term to a social identity roughly originating in a Harry Potter fanfic I would not class among the better Harry Potter fanfics I have read. If anyone knows a better word here, HMU. ↩
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