Rooting Out ‘Wrongthink’ Is the Mission of Ideologues Who Have Captured the Publishing Industry
Why are so many children drawn to books in which the parents are absent—death or abandonment—and the step-parent or guardian hostile? From “Snow White” to “Cinderella,” through “Anne of Green Gables” and “Harry Potter,” these stories take flight from a parentless child’s insecurity and loneliness. The answer, I think, is that children’s deepest fears relate to separation from their parents before they are ready to negotiate their way in the world.
Children will accept frightening or grotesque material in the process of getting to the endings they favour, where the hero’s resilience and courage is rewarded within a circle of sustaining relationships. But there can be no happy ending without a satisfactory parenting, or substitute-parent, outcome.
The late Roald Dahl wrote literature for both adults and children, the adult stories often taking their inspiration from Dahl’s deeply cynical and misanthropic view of life. His children’s stories are quirky and imaginative, but edgy and suspenseful. His protagonists’ initial family situations are binary—either wonderful (but threatened) or awful. But characters with an awful family end up with the loving substitute family they deserve.
In a moralistic update reflecting woke obsessions with race, gender, appearance, and neurodiversity, Puffin books made a slew of changes to Dahl’s children’s books. The word “fat” was disappeared, and “female” was changed to “woman.” “Boys and girls” became “children”; “mothers” and “fathers” became “parents”; the words “crazy” and “mad” were excised. In his story, “Matilda,” a double chin was excised. They even removed references to the “black” of a tractor and the “white” of a sheet. As if children, even subconsciously, would associate these words with race. It’s an absurd but accurate indicator of the extent to which the publishing world has been colonized by political actors.
The irascible Dahl, who died in 1990, would never have agreed to a single change. It was Netflix, to whom the estate was sold in 2018, who gave consent. The “sensitivity readers” employed for the task diligently applied the social justice dogmas they had imbibed in university. It was not their job to consider whether their changes affected the quality of the prose, or the author’s vision. It was their job to protect certain readers from presumed offence. As there are so many ways in which society’s victims can be offended today, and as Dahl was a writer with a cruel streak who delighted in creating tension in his readers, it must have been a gruelling slog for the Penguin–Puffin functionaries.
This isn’t the first time pre-woke children’s books have been altered to meet newer standards of acceptable discourse and attitudes. The N-word in “Huckleberry Finn” was changed to “slave”; gender roles in Richard Scarry’s books were tweaked to preclude traditional stereotyping; and six of Dr. Seuss’s books are no longer published. But it was the scale of the edits in the Dahl case that drew sharp remonstrance from commentators.
Salman Rushdie, who may justly claim special moral authority on the theme of writers’ freedom of speech, called the airbrushing “insane,” adding in a note to PEN America’s CEO: “Roald Dahl was a bigot and he never supported me, but really? We can’t say fat or female?” Dahl’s French publishers, Gallimard, flatly refused to go along with the scheme and announced the books will remain as they were when published in the 1960s.
Such was the blowback that Penguin Random House announced it would publish unexpurgated versions of 17 of Dahl’s children’s novels as “The Roald Dahl Classic Collection” alongside the altered version. That’s a victory of sorts. But it won’t alter the mission of ideologues who have captured the publishing industry. They have been momentarily thwarted, but not humbled, by this snub. They will continue to root out wrongthink in their collections. For the compelling urge to expunge the past in order to control the present and future is common to power-seeking ideologues of the left.
Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984,” published in 1948, is the urtext for totalitarianism in all its inglorious facets. But for prophecy regarding censorship in particular, we turn to Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel, “Fahrenheit 451.” The title refers to the temperature at which paper will burst into flames. In the book’s imagined society, book burnings are meant to keep society safe from harmful knowledge. The government’s firemen, who set fires rather than quell them, are portrayed as society’s protectors, cleansing ignorance in the service of enlightenment. In fact, they use fire to destroy individual identity and the creative spirit, both the enemies of authoritarian regimes.
In a prescient explanation of how the censorship became widespread, the book’s protagonist, Montag, is told by his boss: “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.” Outlawing literature is presented as virtuous on the grounds of equity. If everyone is made ignorant, then “everyone [is] made equal.” And so we were warned, but this pretty well describes what is happening before our eyes today.
Back in 1994, Bradbury told an interviewer “political correctness” had proved his predictions accurate. Since then, social media and the advent of “cancel culture” have only reinforced his vision. Ironically, “Fahrenheit 451” was itself subject to well-intentioned excisions of swear words and other changes. In a coda to the 1979 Del Rey edition, Bradbury wrote : “[S]ome cubby‐hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel.” Bradbury wasn’t having it. He had the entire book reset and republished “with all the damns and hells back in place.” The only lesson publishers apparently took from this outcome was to wait until the author was dead before bowdlerizing his or her work.
“Fahrenheit’s” opening line is: “It was a pleasure to burn.” It is very clear to anyone who spends time on Twitter that social justice warriors take joy in shaming and humiliating those targeted for cancellation. They don’t perceive their victims, or in this case dead writers, as human beings with rights to their intellectual and creative property. They look at wrongthinkers of the past in the way Bradbury’s firemen looked at books they burnt: “you weren’t hurting anyone, you were hurting only things! … you were simply cleaning up. Janitorial work, essentially.”
No, of course the “sensitivity readers” are not literally burning books. But, as Bradbury observed, “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.