Defining the Marketplace of Ideas

“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon.”– Ray Bradbury

Last night I happened upon a very interesting debate. To be more accurate, a friend posted his opinion on a situation and I engaged him. Then all the floodgates burst open. That’s usually how these things work. The seriousness and complexity of the situation is not common. I doubt I can adequately address all the angles in one post. So, this might be the first of several.

First, we need to set up our situation. Lyndon McLeod wrote two books that were available on Amazon. They were ostensibly fiction and penned under the name of Roman McClay. He then went out and killed five people in almost identical fashion to what was mentioned in the books.

Thus begins a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional debate that will likely take a few of these posts to flesh out. I’ll try to focus on one aspect at a time, but I will lay out the issues so that we all know what’s coming. Of course, I welcome engagement on these issues. I don’t have all the answers as I can barely articulate all of the questions.

So, the questions that need to be answered are these. First, what exactly is the line between art that we might find disturbing and a not so thinly veiled manifesto that’s too dangerous for public consumption? Secondly, what should be done about such a work now that these murders have occurred? Finally, what responsibilities if any do Amazon and other publishers have in situations like this?

I’ll try to tackle the first question today. The first question is whether this even qualifies as art. This is where we have to be careful and show our work as the math teachers used to tell us. A book about killing other people is not unique. Hell, shows like “Dexter” and “Hannibal” have famously pushed those boundaries and that’s just two prominent examples.

So, what is the difference between those books/movies/shows and these two books here? It can’t be that those books didn’t inspire a crime spree. That’s an extremely low and convenient bar to clear. Besides, that’s not specific enough. “Grand Theft Auto” has had any number of iterations and people still steal cars. One could argue that the video game glorifies the act.

So, the question before us is what differentiates these two books about killing left-leaning politicians and people and those books. movies, and shows. I would say the difference comes in the specificity of the subject matter. Dexter and Hannibal Lecter are fictional characters that harm other fictional characters. The story lines are exactly that: story lines.

Amazon took the books down yesterday. A search on their website won’t yield any results for these two books. Obviously, this was based on a public outcry and the problem of a mass murderer profiting off books that described his crimes. The public has every right to protest such a thing, but one has to wonder where we draw the line.

I normally detest the slippery slope argument. It’s lazy and misleading. Yet, in this case I see the impulse. If the so-called woke crowd pulls these books then where does it stop? This is a valid question that has little to do with left and right. At the same time that liberals and progressives are protesting these books, conservatives protest books they don’t like. They want to force libraries not to carry books and art they object to.

I would go back to the specific subject matter of these two books. The author fantasizes about killing specific people that exist in reality. That somehow blurs the line between art and reality. It is incumbent on those that want to take a book out of circulation to articulate the precise reasons why. It has to move beyond a matter of taste. A free society can be messy. The marketplace of ideas is not always tidy and respectable.

Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart once famously said he could not define pornography but he “knew it when he saw it.” The definition of politically inspired revenge porn might fall under the same category. We can’t provide an exact definition, but we know it when we see it. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it must be a duck. These two books are most definitely quacking. Next time we will address the second question.

Author: sbarzilla

I have written three books about baseball including The Hall of Fame Index. I also write for thefantatasyfix.com. You can follow me on twitter @sbarzilla.

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