Every high-profile controversy discloses a deeper reality, and the one involving Woody Allen and the off-again, on-again publication of his memoir is no different. There is the despised celebrity and then the despised many, who have no power and for whom a sex accusation or conviction may make their very existence criminal. There is one damned book and then the damned many, banned by the thousands by state and federal prison authorities. There is one attention-seeking crowd of private censors and then the crowd working less noisily, organizing morality campaigns to remove books from school, university, and public libraries. Every year the American Library Association puts out a Top 10 Most Challenged Books list. In 2017 the list included Sex Is a Funny Word, a sex education book, challenged because of fears it might lead children to “ask questions about sex.” Since 2015, half the titles have had queer subjects.

Censorship is rarely called by its true name among those who practice it. History groans with the righteous justifications of private interests bent on erasing words and people they don’t like. New excuses can’t hide the old reflex. They do make it easy, though, to mistake the moral scold for the rebel spirit. Some scenes from the long contest between the vice cop of the mind and the champion of free thought offer a clarifying light.

Beginning in the 19th century, Anthony Comstock and his New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (supported by J.P. Morgan, William Dodge, Samuel Colgate, and The New York Times) ruined thousands of writers’ lives and destroyed hundreds of thousands of pounds of books and pamphlets, many by women, in the service of protecting “innocent girls.” Comstock’s successor, John Sumner, took up the cause in the 1910s, pressuring publishers into melting the printing plates for obscure, supposedly obscene novels, and in 1920 he and his crowd invoked the safety of “young girls” to get Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, lesbian heroes of the avant-garde press, arrested and prosecuted for daring to be the first in the world to publish Ulysses. Sumner also got the Post Office to burn some 20,000 copies of The Little Review, where the women had been serializing James Joyce’s masterwork. The vigilantes of decency had already scared off dozens of men in the reputable book trade from publishing anything by Joyce. When Dubliners finally got into print in Europe, a private citizen bought up the entire edition and had it set ablaze in Dublin. Joyce called it “a new and private auto-da-fé.”

Joyce is but a name we know. Avowed protection from deviance, dirt, degeneracy, and the corruption of children led to such routine burning of unknown titles by unknown authors in the Western world that when the Nazis torched the library and archive of the great Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in 1933, the act reverberated most forcefully among Hirschfeld’s fellow Jews, sex radicals, and researchers, who were already habituated to stepping cautiously—studying women’s sexual satisfaction in the United States, for instance, under the camouflage of “maternal health.” Depending on one’s point of view, Hirschfeld might be categorized as a “sexual psychopath” (an American synonym for “homosexual” in the 1930s), part of a group to be watched, suspected, obliterated, or as a founder of the world’s first gay rights organization and a giant in the study of human sexuality (that would be current history’s view; thank you, sexual liberation). One final example from a vast history: During the Red Scare and the interrelated though oft-ignored Lavender Scare, Cold War centurions in industry, the arts, media, unions, and other organizations cast themselves as defenders of democracy against radical contagion and guardians of wholesome (straight, marital) sexuality in their effort to shut people up, lock them up, oust them from their jobs, exile them, and deprive others of the freedom to see, read, know, be.

There is an element of the absurd in raising Ronan Farrow’s censorious zeal and Hachette’s cowardly decision to pulp Woody Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing, on the heels of such weighty history. The book’s resurrection by Skyhorse Publishing, announced as we went to press, does not lessen it. These are absurd times, when censors masquerade as justice warriors. For them, the degenerate man, as Allen has been labeled, is the real object of erasure. For Hachette, the cowardice was threefold, actually: first, in keeping its acquisition of Allen’s book a secret from Farrow, who as an author with its Little, Brown division did deserve the courtesy of a heads-up. Second, in caving to the crowd, including protesting staffers, who invoked allegiance to Farrow and victims’ rights to validate their censors’ reflex; third, in couching its public explanation of the betrayal of an author (Allen) and the destruction of a book in the soothing language of commitment—to “challenging books,” “conflicting points of view,” and a “stimulating…work environment.” Hachette ought simply to have said what it meant: “We fear the crowd. The crowd has power. Our US revenues dropped in 2019, so we chose the power side over the pervert.”

Farrow’s duplicity is more obvious. He made his first splash promulgating one side of a family drama, convicting Allen of child molestation in the public mind—despite copious reasons for doubt, including official investigations finding no abuse (which I discussed years ago in The Nation) and his brother Moses’s severe rebuttal in a 2018 blog post—and lamenting media industry efforts to obstruct his own writing about Hollywood.

“Free speech for me but not for thee,” as Nat Hentoff famously condensed it, is an ignoble political standard. Farrow, of course, is laden with emotion, with loyalty to his mother, Mia, and sister, Dylan, and his own lifetime of exposure to their accusing narratives. He cannot be dispassionate about Allen, and it’s preposterous to think he should be. It’s preposterous as well that others who care about writing, ideas, independent thought, and the freedom to see should lash their intellect to Farrow’s prejudices. More disturbing is the pretense that there’s high principle in cleansing the public sphere of anyone who’s been declared a public demon.

For the crowd in this case, the weasel’s way out of complicity in censorship took many routes, all of them dead ends. “Censorship is an act of the state.” “Businesses are free to do what they want.” “Who needs another book by Woody Allen? He’s had his day in the sun. He’s rich; he can self-publish (and, look, his book will still come out in France).” “This is a down payment on justice and accountability; the powerful have always had a platform, finally the powerless have a voice. ‘Free speech’ is a bourgeois construct to maintain the social order, so why care about it for Woody fucking Allen?” Such were the sentiments floating in the suspect air after the staff walkout that preceded Hachette’s decision to pulp the book. So “brave,” power agent Lynn Nesbit said of the walkout. “I feel moved almost to tears.” Nesbit represents not just Ronan Farrow but also Dylan and Mia, who have both profited off accusations against Allen via book contracts and considerable flattery in the press.

It requires no illusions about the social order or the “free marketplace of ideas” to understand that the dead end is the point at which someone commands someone else to shut up. The problem with private censorship is not so different from the problem with the nondisclosure agreement. But under the cover of #MeToo, censorship and the will to shun and silence are being renovated as social goods when exercised by the self-declared forces of good, on behalf of the good, as if definitions of what’s “good,” what’s “progress,” aren’t always politically contested. It’s remarkable—at a time when scientists are purging their work of dangerous terms like “climate change” and “fetal tissue” and “transgender” in order to maintain federal funding—that anyone might feel confident that their own claim to purity can’t boomerang.

The cowing power of the crowd suits the authoritarian spirit of the time, and some traditional defenders of free speech have gone soft or silent. The ACLU did not respond to a request for comment after the book was quashed. The Writers Guild issued no statement. PEN America issued a wobbly statement, which left Allen twisting in the wind, though its CEO, Suzanne Nossel, did slam Hachette’s decision on the radio. Index on Censorship, by contrast, took swiftly to social and other media to defend principle. At the National Coalition Against Censorship, Christopher Finan criticized Hachette and pointed to the continuing relevance of “The Freedom to Read Statement,” first issued by librarians and publishers during the Cold War. Amid the current enthusiasm for moral cleansing, its propositions bear study, particularly one that states, “No art or literature can flourish if it is to be measured by the political views or private lives of its creators. No society of free people can flourish that draws up lists of writers to whom it will not listen, whatever they may have to say.”

The early sex radicals and avant-garde feminists, who really were brave, recognized that the struggle to expand the realm of freedom had to include the freedom to write, read, see, and be seen, all of which broadened knowledge of—hence possibilities for—human experience. (It’s notable that Sylvia Beach, also a lover of women, was the first to publish Ulysses in its entirety, from her bookshop in Paris in 1922, thus providing the basis on which the men at Random House were able to orchestrate the landmark Supreme Court ruling on obscenity years later.) “Vice,” a term that in those days covered almost any writing about sex and any nonconformist behavior, was the point of a spear that helped enforce every social hierarchy and intensify every form of repression. We don’t use the word much today, but the vice cop of the mind is still on the beat, allowing a certain kind of sex talk—the stories of abuse and accusation—but making it unanswerable, deciding who is worthy to speak, who is not, and who should hide. Skyhorse’s bet on a market for Allen’s book while much of society is housebound should not obscure that larger and unlovely reality.