You may not recognize the name David Icke if you don’t spend a lot of time slithering around the anti-Semitic corners of the Internet or listening to Alice Walker. Icke is a former British sports commentator who announced in the early 1990s that he is the son of God. Soon after that, he started to sound weird. He’s published more than a dozen “mind-blowing” conspiracy books that explain everything, including how interdimensional reptiles control planet Earth.
“The Trigger,” Icke’s new self-published book, is 900 pages of harebrained word vomit. It claims that the official explanation of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is a lie to cover up the “massive and central involvement in 9/11 by Israeli government, military and intelligence operatives.” This is consistent with his claims that the “satanic” Mossad has had its hands in international drug running and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Naturally, Icke is also a student of that anti-Semitic classic “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
Given that content, I thought it was odd to see Barnes & Noble promoting “The Trigger,” so I sent a note to B&N’s corporate office asking about it. A day later, a spokesperson told me: “This book is sold by an independent publishing distributor, and was ordered for a sub-section called ‘Conspiracies’ in some stores. After being alerted to the content, we are removing the book from all stores.”
Now you can’t even find “The Trigger” on Barnes & Noble’s website, although plenty of Icke’s other execrable books are still available there.
Asked more broadly about B&N’s selection process involving books by white supremacists, anti-Semites and other hate-fueled activists, the spokesperson added: “We work to never allow content with hate speech in our stores, and in cases when something slips through, we take quick and resolute action to remove it.”
That sounds wonderfully decisive, but the more I think about that message, the more I find my First Amendment absolutism chasing its tail.
Should the country’s largest bricks-and-mortar bookstore chain “never allow content with hate speech”? I expect — and want — an indie bookstore to curate its collection of titles carefully. But the idea of a big corporation sending books to the shredder raises different historical precedents. Of course, B&N has every right to carry whichever books it wants, but how will the company determine what is hate speech? And is “quick and resolute” the right way to decide which books should be removed?
This is not a recent conundrum for Americans. In the 1690s, long before we had a First Amendment, a Boston merchant named Robert Calef dared to publish a book denouncing the witchcraft trials in Salem. Leading clergymen condemned Calef’s “scandalous” book, and bookstores took quick and resolute action to removeth it.
Most of us would say that was a mistake, but the offense against free expression is always obvious when the censored title is one we appreciate. How hard are we willing to fight for the principle of free speech when we think the censored book is abhorrent? It’s the bookstore version of “Must the neo-Nazis be allowed to march through Skokie?”
This week, as it does every year, the American Library Association is promoting Banned Books Week to raise awareness of threats against our freedom to read whatever we want. Central to that campaign is the annual list of Top 10 Most Challenged Books. The list — 11 this year — is a collection of beloved titles for children and young adults. Years ago, it contained books such as “Harry Potter” (witchcraft!), “Huck Finn” (language!) and “In the Night Kitchen” (nudity!). But, lately, the list is dominated by books that draw censure for their positive portrayal of LGBTQIA+ relationships, such as David Levithan’s “Two Boys Kissing.” Bookstores around the country are championing these titles in special Banned Books Week displays. I hope kids read every one of these books, but I can’t help noticing that no liberal tastes were harmed in the making of this list. It costs us nothing to celebrate these banned books. The whole campaign is pungent with self-satisfaction, a chance for us enlightened liberals to remind each other that we are freedom fighters.
What, though, of the detestable books — such as “The Trigger” — removed from stores after someone objects? There will be no nationwide First Amendment protests. Barnes and Nobles will not be picketed by activists waving “Fahrenheit 451” flags.
Maybe that’s as it should be. After all, do we really need to put up with freaks like Icke to maintain a free and open exchange of ideas? Can’t intelligent people be trusted to distinguish between books that should be taken seriously and books that should be consigned to the flames? Perhaps my First Amendment anxiety is a luxury afforded only to male WASPs. If my life were being actively threatened by hate speech, I wouldn’t regard it with such legalistic objectivity.
But it was the First Amendment that allowed once repressed and forbidden voices that we now celebrate to speak in this country. Watering down that principle by reassuring ourselves that we can make righteous judgments about who should be allowed to sell their books might be a dangerous step backward. If we’re not willing to trust the wisdom of crowds, what hope has democracy? Under the rule of corporate blandness policed by a cloud of Furies on social media, we could someday find ourselves browsing shelves entirely sanitized, guaranteed not to offend the sensibilities of any reader.
Maybe the best we can hope for is an uneasy balance of tolerance and abhorrence, while we let the messy marketplace of ideas sort the chaff from the wheat. It would be wonderful if David Icke’s awful books didn’t exist, but they do. And nothing will discredit him more effectively than reading one of them.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.