Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News

Eric Berkowitz. Beacon, $29.95 (312p) ISBN 978-0-8070-3624-2

Journalist Berkowitz (Sex and Punishment) examines how censorship backfires in this thought-provoking account. He notes that although the ancient Romans tried to eradicate the memory of “egregious” wrongdoers such as Brutus and Nero by mutilating their images and banning the use of their names, their deeds remain well-known today. Censorship tends to run in cycles, according to Berkowitz—what’s forbidden under one pope or government may be venerated or celebrated under the next. Other topics include the 1873 Comstock Act’s ban on sending information about birth control through the mail, how the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988 inaugurated an era in which free speech “has been transformed from an inherent good into an inherent problem because of its potential for offense,” and the Trump administration’s efforts to censor data on climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic. Berkowitz segues fluidly between historical eras and marshals a plethora of intriguing case studies. Readers will be convinced that policing harmful rhetoric too aggressively “will cause worse mischief in the long run.” (May)
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