The Canary in the Coal Mine

Kenny Brechner -- January 29th, 2020

We are familiar with the mist we encounter in Kazuo Ishigura’s Buried Giant, with the vagaries imposed on personal identity by the passage of time, and the fogging and subsuming of memory. Such mist is intrinsic to our experience of the present moment. The effort to dispel it is at the same time strenuous, imperfect, and vitally important.

Few things illustrate that importance more than the heartrending spectacle of people of good will turning against each other under the stress of competing ideals, all of which are valid. Such is the case in the the event cancellation filled outcry over American Dirt. Important concerns over inequities in publishing, the commoditization of migrant suffering, and cultural appropriation clash with core values of self determination and free speech in such a way that they harden and ignite rather than become supple and mutually informing.

To live awake in the present moment is to be shorn of hindsight. I think most of us would agree that while Hitler was voted into power, we still feel that any means, no matter how anti-democratic, which could have prevented what happened after his election would have been justified. Yet, as we assess the turbulence of our own times, we do not have hindsight. We must labor on in the fog of the present, in a mist which the application of three things—attention to history, free speech, and shared humanity—are the primary means to dispelling.

Free Speech is the canary in the coal mine. It goes out the window whenever serious turbulence hits. It happened here during the first and second world wars, for example.

Objectifying people based on ethnic gradients is an evil. During the second world war the definition of Jews under German authority shifted a number of times from 1/2 to 1/4 to 1/8 with the newly identified and defined then rounded up and sent to camps. Do we really want to be deciding that someone is only 1/8th and therefore not Brown enough?

An open, critical exchanges of ideas, infused with an awareness of shared humanity, is the best means for resolving literary disputes. I have seen it time and again when threats of school bans have come up locally, for example.

When people make the effort to perceive the past clearly in its own context, to appreciate the positions and humanity of others, to understand the value of new books from the vantage points of multiple audiences, that effort rewards us with the clarity and context we need to address difficult issues and evils in the world around us.

I don’t believe that books are ever the problem, or the cause of harm. It is heartrending indeed to me to see people of good will turning against each other as they struggle to defend themselves from perceived sources of harm. Speech cannot necessarily overcome the madness of hate unleashed, but it is a precious tool. We should not silence ourselves in my opinion. We have mordant, political, social and economic problems at hand. Silencing each other through fear and anger cannot help. Nor can speech solve the problems on its own. We need both speech and action now.

7 thoughts on “The Canary in the Coal Mine

  1. JOHN T SHEA

    “Free Speech is the canary in the coal mine.”
    “I don’t believe that books are ever the problem, or the cause of harm.”
    “We should not silence ourselves in my opinion.”
    All wise words!

  2. Tova

    This is super misguided. It’s easy to try to draw a comparison between racism and criticism of a white person that’s based on their whiteness, but the idea that doing the latter is a slippery slope towards the former is simply not grounded in any kind of reality. White people will never be in danger for being white, and an argument that only works in a vacuum where there’s no difference between the circumstances of white and non-white people is simply not a sound argument.

    We’re not going to accidentally call out racism so hard that we create a fascist state run by liberals. We just aren’t.

  3. Emily Schneider

    I am Jewish. I can’t speak for Mr. Brechner, only for my own interpretation of his very clearly written and humanistic statement. In order to compare two things, they need not be identical. I believe he is issuing a warning, in this case because the novelist had undermined her own work by saying that she wished the book had been written by someone “slightly browner.” She has also written of having one Puerto Rican grandmother. Mr. Brechner was pointing out the dangers of this type of reductionist vision of literature, and he refers to the most extreme case of what may happen when it becomes the norm: “Objectifying people based on ethnic gradients is an evil.” This sentence is the core of his courageous post.

  4. X

    If you think books can never be the problem and never cause harm, then you must have a truly low opinion of the impact books have on our society. You can make the argument that free speech must be an absolute right without implying that speech is meaningless.

    You should also reconsider your suggestion that discussions of Cummins’s race or ethnicity are in any way comparable to the identification of Jewish people before they were rounded up and sent to camps.

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