When the news came out that Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of the memoir Eat, Pray, Love, had pulled her forthcoming novel The Snow Forest from publication because it was set in Russia and her Ukrainian readers had protested, people across the political spectrum expressed dismay at what seemed like a reductio ad absurdum of censorship. Here was an American author inflicting on herself what Vladimir Putin was imposing on his own citizens—the difference being that Putin’s censorship served a practical purpose, while Gilbert’s great renunciation had not the slightest practical or moral effect on the war in Ukraine.
Gilbert made her announcement, in a video posted on Instagram, with no small amount of self-righteousness: “I have received an enormous, massive outpouring of reactions and responses from my Ukrainian readers expressing anger, sorrow, disappointment and pain about the fact that I would choose to release a book into the world right now—any book, no matter what the subject of it is—that is set in Russia.” Was there really a “massive” number of people in Ukraine who took time amid the carnage of war to ask an American author not to publish a novel that displeased them? As with so much in our virtue-mongering culture, Gilbert’s declaration seemed designed at least in part to hide a self-interested motive. The best publicity is, after all, free.
The subsequent widespread disapproval of Gilbert’s grand gesture was a gratifying moment of unison in our culture, like the cloud of toxic wildfire smoke that had lain over part of the country for days suddenly lifting.
It was an indirect rebuke to our new era, in which social and political issues are cast into a crude moral equation that arrives at a sum of self-flattering virtue. Russia invaded Ukraine equals Russia is bad, multiplied by the condemnation of everything Russian, equals we are irreproachably good. But classic Russian literature, from Gogol to Dostoevsky to Tolstoy, consists of one excoriating assault after another on Russia’s stultifying atmosphere of official conformity, stupidity, corruption, and oppression. Beyond that obvious fact, applying collective guilt to culture is absurd. Shall we remove all Chinese paintings from museums in the face of China’s rising aggression? Should we ban Plato and Aristotle from schools and libraries every time a boatload of refugees tragically sinks off the coast of Greece? Retrospective shame on all those virtuoso Jewish violinists living in New York who played recitals of Bach during the Holocaust.
Gilbert’s declaration of solidarity with all things virtuous and good is what passes for American “dissent” these days. In this view, the social arrangement we live under systematically privileges the oppressor over the victim. It has to be turned on its head. Anyone perceived as being on the bottom must be elevated to the top; anyone perceived as being at the top, along with everyone and everything associated with them, must be hurled to the bottom. A straight line goes from the murderous white cop to the white male novelist, from an (allegedly) transphobic author of a series of young-adult books to all the people who read and enjoy them, from the Russian invader to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” The inexorable logic of social justice sweeps common sense, and humanity, from its path.
True dissent, however, doesn’t pander to a consensus. Consider Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who went from heroic defier of the Soviet regime to brave moral critic of his new American home. Gilbert might want to take his example to heart.
In 1978, Harvard University invited Solzhenitsyn to deliver its commencement address. That was four years after an English translation of his epic account of life in Stalin’s labor camps, The Gulag Archipelago, was published in this country, where it sat on library shelves alongside works by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev, and Mikhail Sholokhov’s socialist realist novel And Quiet Flows the Don. At the height of the Cold War, the most intense anti-communists never called for the removal of such works from American libraries or schools—not even Sholokhov’s novel, which had won Stalin’s approval and the prestigious Stalin prize.
The Harvard administrators who had invited Solzhenitsyn doubtless looked forward to the distinguished Russian novelist congratulating America’s future ruling elites on their impending role as bearers of the flame of American freedom and democracy. But, famously, that is not what happened when Solzhenitsyn rose to speak. Instead, he laid into the assembled students, families, and Harvard personages. He railed against “destructive and irresponsible freedom,” which resulted in an “abyss of human decadence.” He inveighed against the triumph of “mediocrity.” He asked his stunned listeners to consider the possibility that the media respect “the right of people not to know, not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life has no need for this excessive and burdening flow of information.” For this direct descendant of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the boundless freedom he found in America was in desperate need of character and restraint, as well as liberation from mediocre groupthink.
Something else Solzhenitsyn said that June afternoon has a particular relevance: “Without any censorship in the West, fashionable trends of thought and ideas are fastidiously separated from those that are not fashionable, and the latter, without ever being forbidden, have little chance of finding their way into periodicals or books or being heard in colleges.” That is to say, the idea that collective cultural guilt—all things Russian are bad—is irrational and inhumane has little chance of finding its way into our cultural bastions, thanks to our new atmosphere of virtue-bullying. In that sense, Gilbert’s embarrassing self-censorship is as revelatory as a genuine work of art. It is a perfect example of the American censoring that is rampant now, and that thrives without the presence of any official censor.
Photo by Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images for Texas Conference for Women 2019