Pluralistic: The majority of censorship is self-censorship; The Bezzle excerpt (Part V) (22 Feb 2024)

Today's links

Burning of 'dirt and trash literature' at the 18th Elementary school in Berlin-Pankow (Buchholz), on the evening of International Children's Day, June 1st, 1955. It was the first of a wave of initiatives by the Parents-Teachers Association (Elternversammlungen), to legally ban 'trash and filth.'

The majority of censorship is self-censorship (permalink)

I know a lot of polymaths, but Ada Palmer takes the cake: brilliant science fiction writer, brilliant historian, brilliant librettist, brilliant singer, and then some:

Palmer is a friend and a colleague. In 2018, she, Adrian Johns and I collaborated on "Censorship, Information Control, & Information Revolutions from Printing Press to Internet," a series of grad seminars at the U Chicago History department (where Ada is a tenured prof, specializing in the Inquisition and Renaissance forbidden knowledge):

The project had its origins in a party game that Ada and I used to play at SF conventions: Ada would describe a way that the Inquisitions' censors attacked the printing press, and I'd find an extremely parallel maneuver from governments, the entertainment industry or other entities from the much more recent history of internet censorship battles.

With the seminars, we took it to the next level. Each 3h long session featured a roster of speakers from many disciplines, explaining everything from how encryption works to how white nationalists who were radicalized in Vietnam formed an armored-car robbery gang to finance modems and Apple ][+s to link up neo-Nazis across the USA.

We borrowed the structure of these sessions from science fiction conventions, home to a very specific kind of panel that doesn't always work, but when it does, it's fantastic. It was a natural choice: after all, Ada and I know each other through science fiction.

Even if you're not an sf person, you've probably heard of the Hugo Awards, the most prestigious awards in the field, voted on each year by attendees of the annual World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon). And even if you're not an sf fan, you might have heard about a scandal involving the Hugo Awards, which were held last year in China, a first:

A little background: each year's Worldcon is run by a committee of volunteers. These volunteers put together bids to host the Worldcon, and canvass Worldcon attendees to vote in favor of their bid. For many years, a group of Chinese fans attempted to field a successful bid to host a Worldcon, and, eventually, they won.

At the time, there were many concerns: about traveling to a country with a poor human rights record and a reputation for censorship, and about the logistics of customary Worldcon attendees getting visas. During this debate, many international fans pointed to the poor human rights record in the USA (which has hosted the vast majority of Worldcons since their inception), and the absolute ghastly rigmarole the US government subjects many foreign visitors to when they seek visas to come to the US for conventions.

Whatever side of this debate you came down on, it couldn't be denied that the Chinese Worldcon rang a lot of alarm-bells. Communications were spotty, and then the con was unceremoniously rescheduled for months after the original scheduled date, without any good explanation. Rumors swirled of Chinese petty officials muscling their way into the con's administration.

But the real alarm bells started clanging after the Hugo Award ceremony. Normally, after the Hugos are given out, attendees are given paper handouts tallying the nominations and votes, and those numbers are also simultaneously published online. Technically, the Hugo committee has a grace period of some weeks before this data must be published, but at every Worldcon I've attended over the past 30+ years, I left the Hugos with a data-sheet in my hand.

Then, in early December, at the very last moment, the Hugo committee released its data – and all hell broke loose. Numerous, acclaimed works had been unilaterally "disqualified" from the ballot. Many of these were written by writers from the Chinese diaspora, but some works – like an episode of Neil Gaiman's Sandman – were seemingly unconnected to any national considerations.

Readers and writers erupted in outrage, demanding to know what had happened. The Hugo administrators – Americans and Canadians who'd volunteered in those roles for many years and were widely viewed as being members in good standing of the community – were either silent or responded with rude and insulting remarks. One thing they didn't do was explain themselves.

The absence of facts left a void that rumors and speculation rushed in to fill. Stories of Chinese official censorship swirled online, and along with them, a kind of I-told-you-so: China should never have been home to a Worldcon, the country's authoritarian national politics are fundamentally incompatible with a literary festival.

As the outrage mounted and the scandal breached from the confines of science fiction fans and writers to the wider world, more details kept emerging. A damning set of internal leaks revealed that it was those long-serving American and Canadian volunteers who decided to censor the ballot. They did so out of a vague sense that the Chinese state would visit some unspecified sanction on the con if politically unpalatable works appeared on the Hugo ballot. Incredibly, they even compiled clumsy dossiers on nominees, disqualifying one nominee out of a mistaken belief that he had once visited Tibet (it was actually Nepal).

There's no evidence that the Chinese state asked these people to do this. Likewise, it wasn't pressure from the Chinese state that caused them to throw out hundreds of ballots cast by Chinese fans, whom they believed were voting for a "slate" of works (it's not clear if this is the case, but slate voting is permitted under Hugo rules).

All this has raised many questions about the future of the Hugo Awards, and the status of the awards that were given in China. There's widespread concern that Chinese fans involved with the con may face state retaliation due to the negative press that these shenanigans stirred up.

But there's also a lot of questions about censorship, and the nature of both state and private censorship, and the relationship between the two. These are questions that Ada is extremely well-poised to answer; indeed, they're the subject of her book-in-progress, entitled Why We Censor: from the Inquisition to the Internet.

In a magisterial essay for Reactor, Palmer stakes out her central thesis: "The majority of censorship is self-censorship, but the majority of self-censorship is intentionally cultivated by an outside power":

States – even very powerful states – that wish to censor lack the resources to accomplish totalizing censorship of the sort depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four. They can't go from house to house, searching every nook and cranny for copies of forbidden literature. The only way to kill an idea is to stop people from expressing it in the first place. Convincing people to censor themselves is, "dollar for dollar and man-hour for man-hour, much cheaper and more impactful than anything else a censorious regime can do."

Ada invokes examples modern and ancient, including from her own area of specialty, the Inquisition and its treatment of Gailileo. The Inquistions didn't set out to silence Galileo. If that had been its objective, it could have just assassinated him. This was cheap, easy and reliable! Instead, the Inquisition persecuted Galileo, in a very high-profile manner, making him and his ideas far more famous.

But this isn't some early example of Inquisitorial Streisand Effect. The point of persecuting Galileo was to convince Descartes to self-censor, which he did. He took his manuscript back from the publisher and cut the sections the Inquisition was likely to find offensive. It wasn't just Descartes: "thousands of other major thinkers of the time wrote differently, spoke differently, chose different projects, and passed different ideas on to the next century because they self-censored after the Galileo trial."

This is direct self-censorship, where people are frightened into silencing themselves. But there's another form of censorship, which Ada calls "middlemen censorship." That's when someone other than the government censors a work because they fear what the government would do if they didn't. Think of Scholastic's cowardly decision to pull inclusive, LGBTQ books out of its book fair selections even though no one had ordered them to do so:

This is a form of censorship outsourcing, and it "multiplies the manpower of a censorship system by the number of individuals within its power." The censoring body doesn't need to hire people to search everyone's houses for offensive books – it can frighten editors, publishers, distributors, booksellers and librarians into suppressing the books in the first place.

This outsourcing blurs the line between state and private surveillance. Think about comics. After a series of high-profile Congressional hearings about the supposed danger of comics to impressionable young minds, the comics industry undertook a regime of self-censorship, through which the private Comics Code Authority would vet comics for "dangerous" content before allowing its seal of approval to appear on the comics' covers. Distributors and retailers refused to carry books without a CCA stamp, so publishers refused to publish books unless they could get a CCA stamp.

The CCA was unaccountable, capricious – and racist. By the 60s and 70s, it became clear that comics about Black characters were subjected to much tighter scrutiny than comics featuring white heroes. The CCA would reject "a drop of sweat on the forehead of a Black astronaut as 'too graphic' since it 'could be mistaken for blood.'" Every comic that got sent back by the CCA meant long, brutal reworkings by writers and illustrators to get them past the censors.

The US government never censored heroes like Black Panther, but the chain of events that created the CCA "middleman censors" made sure that Black Panther appeared in far fewer comics starring Marvel's most prominent Black character. An analysis of censorship that tries to draw a line between private and public censorship would say that the government played no role in Black Panther's banishment to obscurity – but without Congressional action, Black Panther would never have faced censorship.

This is why attempts to cleanly divide public and private censorship always break down. Many people will tell you that when Twitter or Facebook blocks content they disagree with, that's not censorship, since censorship is government action, and these are private actors. What they mean is that Twitter and Facebook censorship doesn't violate the First Amendment, but it's perfectly possible to infringe on free speech without violating the US Constitution. What's more, if the government fails to prevent monopolization of our speech forums – like social media – and also declines to offer its own public speech forums that are bound to respect the First Amendment, we can end up with government choices that produce an environment in which some ideas are suppressed wherever they might find an audience – all without violating the Constitution:

The great censorious regimes of the past – the USSR, the Inquisition – left behind vast troves of bureaucratic records, and these records are full of complaints about the censors' lack of resources. They didn't have the manpower, the office space, the money or the power to erase the ideas they were ordered to suppress. As Ada notes, "In the period that Spain’s Inquisition was wildly out of Rome’s control, the Roman Inquisition even printed manuals to guide its Inquisitors on how to bluff their way through pretending they were on top of what Spain was doing!"

Censors have always done – and still do – their work not by wielding power, but by projecting it. Even the most powerful state actors are not powerful enough to truly censor, in the sense of confiscating every work expressing an idea and punishing everyone who creates such a work. Instead, they rely on self-censorship, both by individuals and by intermediaries. When censors act to block one work and not another, or when they punish one transgressor while another is free to speak, it's tempting to think that they are following some arcane ruleset that defines when enforcement is strict and when it's weak. But the truth is, they censor erratically because they are too weak to censor comprehensively.

Spectacular acts of censorship and punishment are a performance, "to change the way people act and think." Censors "seek out actions that can cause the maximum number of people to notice and feel their presence, with a minimum of expense and manpower."

The censor can only succeed by convincing us to do their work for them. That's why drawing a line between state censorship and private censorship is such a misleading exercise. Censorship is, and always has been, a public-private partnership.

The cover of the Tor Books edition of *The Bezzle*: a yellow background with the words 'Cory Doctorow,' 'The Bezzle,' 'New York Times Bestselling Author,' and 'A Martin Hench novel.' Between them is an escheresque impossible triangle. The center of the triangle is a barred, smaller triangle (in blue, black and cream) that imprisons a silhouetted male figure in a suit. Two other male silhouettes in suits run alongside the top edges of the triangle.

The Bezzle excerpt (Part V) (permalink)

I'm out on tour with my new novel, The Bezzle, a cyberpunk revenge thriller about Marty Hench, a two-fisted forensic accountant, and a guerrilla war he wages on a prison-tech provider that treats incarcerated people as assets to be strip-mined:

If you'd like an essay-formatted version of this thread to read or share, here's a link to it on, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog:

As part of the promotion for the book, I've been serializing an excerpt: Chapter 14, in which Marty takes on a side-quest to recover the stolen royalties of one-time funk star Stephon Magner (AKA Steve Soul) which were stolen by his scumbag manager and then sold on to an even scummier sample-licensing clearinghouse.

Today, I bring you part five, in which Marty's simple cross-referencing project is violently altered by an encounter with the criminal gangs of the LA Sheriffs Deputy departments, a real crime-syndicate whose reign of terror continues to this day:

I'm posting this installment en route to San Diego, where I'll be appearing tonight at Mysterious Galaxy:

From there, it's back to LA, where I'm appearing on Saturday evening with Adam Conover at Vroman's:

And then on Monday I'll be in Seattle at Third Place Books with Neal Stephenson:

From there, I'm off to Portland, Phoenix, Tucson and points further:

Here's part one of the serial:

Part two:

Part three:

Part four:

And now, part five!

* * *

The storefront had an old break room with a first-­aid kit, and a bathroom with a sink. I sponged myself clean in the mirror, ate two expired Aleves and three 200 mg expired Tylenols out of the kit. The ass was ripped most of the way out of my pants, so I moved my wallet to my front pocket, which my massage therapist had been nagging at me to do for years.

I opened the door more carefully this time and limped out into the parking lot. My rental—­a little red Civic—­was the only car left in the parking lot, except for a rusted junker with no tires that was the perennial sentry of its farthest corner.

I bipped the doors open with my fob, checked the back seat, then slid inside. I checked my reflection in the rearview mirror and winced, which pulled at my bruises and set blood oozing from my lip and cheekbone again, which made me wince harder. I was already halfway to Quasimodo and I tried to remember if there was a 7-­Eleven on the route home where I could buy a couple of bags of frozen peas for the swelling.

I reset the mirror and backed out of my spot. The pain was increasing. They’d have Advil at the 7-­Eleven, and I’d remembered where there was one on the way back to my Airbnb.

As I waited for a red light at Eagle Rock and Colorado Boulevard, I watched as a homeless man labored across the road with his shopping cart. I was still watching him when I realized the light had been green for some time and had just toggled yellow. I made the turn and headed up Colorado, but I was barely a hundred yards down the road when I heard a siren blat and saw the police lights. I checked my mirrors and saw the LASD cruiser directly behind me, racing right up to my bumper, slowing only at the very last moment. The cruiser’s high beams blinked insistently and the siren whooped.

I pulled over.

I waited while the officer slowly got out of his car and walked to my driver’s-­side window. I kept my hands at ten and two. The officer tapped my window and made a roll-­down motion, so I hit the button, moving slowly, putting my hand back.

I got a light in my face, squinting and thus reopening my cheekbone and lip.

“Everything all right, sir?”

“Yes,” I said, feeling the blood ooze down my chin. “I was beaten up,” I said, stating the obvious.

“That is unfortunate,” the officer said. “License and registration.”

I got my driver’s license out of my wallet and found the rental papers in the glove box and handed them over. He crunched back to his cruiser and I watched him in the side mirror. He’d left his cruiser’s headlights on and in the glare it was hard to tell, but it looked like there was another cop in the car whom he was conferring with. After a long delay, he came back.

“Step out of the car, please.”

I did. He turned me around and had me plant my hands on the hood, kicked my feet apart, and roughly frisked me, getting his hand inside the rent in the seat of my pants and patting my boxer shorts and giving my balls a hard squeeze.

“Sir, do you know why I stopped you?”

“I don’t,” I said.

“You proceeded unsafely through a traffic signal. Have you been drinking, sir?”

“I haven’t.”

“Have you consumed any cannabis or other drugs?”

“I haven’t.”

He turned me around and shone his light in my eyes. “If I search your car, am I gonna find any drugs?”

“No, sir.”

“Because I am gonna search that car and if I do find drugs and you’ve been lying to me, this is gonna be a lot worse than it needs to be.”

I didn’t dignify that with a response. My head hurt. My face hurt. My back hurt. This was a bullshit stop.

I expected the deputy’s partner to get out of the cruiser while my tormentor tossed the rental car, but he stayed put. I did, too. Obviously. I wasn’t going to take off on foot. I’m a forensic accountant, not a gang kid getting fifteen minutes of fame on Cops.

He spent long enough on the rental that I started to worry. Who knew what some previous driver might have shoved between the seats? But after pulling out the floor mats and tossing them onto the grassy verge beside the car, he finally stood up.

“All right, sir. I’m going to go and get a breathalyzer test. You can refuse it and I will then suspend your license for twenty-­ four hours. I will arrest you for a suspected DUI and bring you in for a blood test. If you fail that test, you will be subject to additional criminal penalties. Do you understand me?”

He had old coffee on his breath. My face hurt. “I’ll take a test.”

Back to the cruiser. It had been half an hour at least. Once the breathalyzer was done—­fifteen minutes, if memory served—­I could go to the 7-­Eleven for painkillers and frozen peas. I decided I’d add a six-­pack, I was so tired. My face hurt. I knew that mouthing off to this cop wouldn’t make things go faster, quite the opposite, but as he took his leisurely time coming back to me, I was hard-­pressed not to.

I blew. “May I sit down?” I asked. “My face hurts.”

He didn’t bother to look up from his phone. “Stay where you are, sir.”

I stood. My face hurt. Time crawled. Finally, the breathalyzer beeped. He held it up and squinted at it, then used his phone to light up its face.

When he did, his sleeve rode up and revealed the “998” tattoo on his forearm. Suddenly, I didn’t care so much about the pain in my face.

The cop looked at me. He was an older guy, but quite a silver fox, in a Clooneyoid sort of way. Had the same smile lines at the corners of his lips and eyes. But on him, they looked mean. Dangerous. A man who would smile at you while he beat your face in.

“All right, sir,” he said. “I’m going to write you a citation for reckless driving and you will be free to go.” He smiled. “Thank you for your cooperation.” It sounded like “fuck you.”

Back to the cruiser again. When he was done writing, he switched off his headlights, and the bubble light inside the car lit up his partner. Heavyset. Smiling. Excellent teeth. He gave me the same look as he had just before kicking me in the ribs. I gasped involuntarily and my ribs burned. His smile got bigger.

The Clooneyoid deputy returned with my ticket. I looked at it and then I realized he’d said “reckless driving”—­not “dangerous driving.” This was a summons, not a citation. For a misdemeanor. Two points off my license and I’d have to go to court. Depending on the judge, I could be in for fines or even a jail sentence.

Clooneyoid saw me figuring this out and he smiled, too. Everyone was having a great time tonight except for poor old Marty Hench.

“See you in court, sir,” he said.

I exercised extreme care on the drive to the 7-­Eleven, even backing out of my parking spot and reparking so that I was perfectly centered between the white lines. The clerk didn’t bat an eye at my hamburger face. I gave myself five minutes to bury my bruises in the frozen peas before I backed out and drove the rest of the way to my Airbnb.

I drove five under the limit the whole way, and when I got out of my rental, I looked long and hard up and down the street for an LA Sheriff’s Department cruiser.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Parent of gamer asks his son to honor the Geneva Conventions

#15yrsago UAE plans ban on negative economic reporting

#15yrsago UK’s top snoop gets finked out by her neighbours

#15yrsago Stimulus bill requires RSS feeds of how the money is spent

#10yrsago Conservative western bloggers: Ukraine strongman’s pay-for-play useful idiots

#10yrsago I am a Ukrainian: powerful, viral video about Euromaidan

#10yrsago Kansas lawmaker introduces bill to permit teachers to hit children hard enough to bruise

#10yrsago Canadian court rules on copyright trolls: letters can go ahead, under strict supervision

#10yrsago Mall cops freak out over steampunk meetup, call the real cops

#10yrsago Openknit: a Reprap-inspired open source knitting machine

#5yrsago Beyond “more copyright”: how do we improve artists’ lives and livelihoods through policy?

#5yrsago Iowa’s electricity monopolist Midamerican Energy has written a bill to let it “monopolize the sun”

#5yrsago Tucker Carlson thought anti-elite historian would be an easy interview, but ended up telling him “go fuck yourself”

#5yrsago As sports company abandons support for “smart” basketball, Nike pushes a software update that bricks its self-tying shoes

#5yrsago The TRUE Fees Act: legislative proposal to force cable/ISP companies to advertise the true cost of their services, inclusive of surcharges

#1yrago Matt Ruff's "Destroyer of Worlds"

Colophon (permalink)

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