Cultivating virtue, respecting liberty & remembering history: Author J. Daniel Sawyer on the “new censorship” and bowdlerization of Roald Dahl and James Bond

By Michael Grossberg

Censorship, suppression of literature and “bowdlerization” of our culture has a long, harmful and shameful history – and is anathema to libertarians, who favor full freedom of expression and artistic liberty.

The Prometheus blog has posted several articles recently about the disturbing recent spate of efforts to suppress or change the original wording and author’s intent of Roald Dahl in his children’s fantasy classics.

Similar suppression sadly has been reported about efforts to shove down the Orwellian memory hole some wording in the original editions of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.

It’s even extended to the Goosebumps children’s horror-comedy series, many books of which were changed by the publisher without the knowledge or consent of the series’ still-living author R.L. Stine.

This is a troubling time for libertarians, classical liberals and all lovers of liberty and art – which is why it’s important to seek out, read and digest the best insights about the roots of this anti-authoritarian trend and how we might strive to better support both liberty and literature that reflects the intent of its creators.

Perhaps the most illuminating, historically aware and wisest commentary I’ve come across about this disturbing modern recurrence of bowdlerization was written recently by J. Daniel Sawyer as a guest post on the Substack blog of Holly Math Nerd.

Sawyer, who ends his must-read essay with apt references to two Prometheus Hall of Fame winners – Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Fouris a prolific and published author of both non-fiction and science fiction, fantasy and mystery.

His profoundly enlightening essay – whose title “(In)sensitivity Readers” falls far short of suggesting its many treasures – provides crucial historical context and wisdom for our troubled times.

“This turn towards rewriting the past to bring it into accord with the moral tastes of the moment is less sudden than it might seem,” Sawyer writes.

“The 19th century saw a wave of such retroactive censorship directed at everything from fairy tales to Shakespeare to works of history to the Bible. This movement was pioneered by Thomas Bowdler, a reputable man of letters who wished to “preserve” the great tradition of English literature while making it “suitable” for the tender, easily corrupted minds of women and children. His bowdlerized (a term named for him) The Family Shakespeare was published in 1806, establishing the market for sanitized literature.”

Sawyer writes insightfully about the recurring justifications for such suppression. More often than not, censorship and suppression are done in the name of the children:

“In all cases, such censorship is justified with the purported need to protect the tender minds of the vulnerable from dangerous and upsetting ideas and themes. And, in all such cases, the logic underlying the justification holds that we, today, are more enlightened and clear-sighted about the nature of good and evil, right and wrong, and the way things oughta be than were the poor benighted fools that, by sheer luck, managed — in their ignorance and wickedness — to muddle through long enough to give birth to those who, generations or centuries later, would finally apprehend the secret to human flourishing and liberation.

“Bowdler’s contemporary heirs in the publishing world are called “sensitivity readers.”

“…Unfortunately, the logic of Bowdlerization is deeply flawed. Our era is not one in which we have cracked the moral nut. It has its pet sins, and they are doubtless as terrible as those of days gone by.”

Perhaps the deepest insight that Sawyer offers, evokes the wisdom of the Great Books stretching back to ancient Greece and Rome, and the perennial human struggle for virtue – one of many crucial prerequisites to sustaining a humane and free civilization in which rights are respected and individuals can flourish.

“This sounds obvious, as those assholes on the other side of the political or ideological divide are always advocating for plainly immoral transformations to law, culture, society — transformations that would hurt children, or working people, or the downtrodden. If only the right people were in power, the proper movements ascendant, and if only persons of conscience and character were to get their act together and seize control, we could finally, finally, get things right and ensure an excellent future for our progeny…

“But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Our era’s pet sins do not merely rest on the far side of the political or ideological divide from you or me. They are everywhere, and they are as invisible to us as were the pet sins of those previous eras were to the people who lived back then, for a very troubling reason.

“Think of some of the great virtues of humanity:
Fortitude, constancy, courage, survival, ambition, honesty, tolerance, temperance, love, loyalty, justice, the capacity for joy and beauty, ingenuity, forgiveness, discernment, mercy, humility, and adaptability.

“Consider also some of our greatest vices:

“Stubbornness, stagnation, arrogance, greed, the appetite for arbitrary power, cruelty, self-righteousness, puritanism, hatred, tribalism, vengeance, decadence, recklessness, self-vicitimization, judgmentalism, enablement, weakness, and equivocation.

“If you compare those two lists, you may notice that each vice is simply an unchecked version of the respective virtue. As Aristotle first observed, to say “I love you” is, necessarily, to say “I hate those who threaten you,” otherwise the professed love is meaningless. Further, looking solely at the list of virtues, you will notice that each one is checked or limited by another item on the list.”

Sawyer concludes his essay by asking a question especially relevant to fans of the Prometheus Awards and members of the Libertarian Futurist Society: “What good is fiction, anyway?”

His answer is thoughtful and compelling – and filled with a wisdom that is appallingly absent from most of today’s leading magazines, newspapers and bestselling books.

“Among the purposes of fiction, the most important and lasting is the exploration of the nature of virtue, and of the tensions between virtues. The most basic and ancient form of drama — tragedy — is itself premised upon the setting of one good against another in such a way that one of the two goods must lose.

“To return to the issue of Fleming and Dahl, both men wrote fiction that explored, explicitly, the tension between virtues with a stark, honest view of the horrific ways that such virtues might play out.

“James Bond is an instrument of the state, a miserable figure always dancing on the edge of death for the protection of his country, who finds his only meaning in the everyday pleasures of life (food, art, sex, tobacco, alcohol, power).

“Dahl’s child-heroes navigate a world full of predatory adults and frightening complexity they can barely comprehend.

“These two authors are the definition of “problematic” by modern standards. Both were hedonistic, often mean, culturally conceited ethnocentrists with more than a touch of racism, and each possessed an edge of nastiness and cruelty that permeated their writing.

Author Roald Dahl (Creative Commons license)

They came of age in an era of intense interstate warfare, of economic devastation, of great treachery and moral fervor. Such an age makes hedonism, pettiness, and ethnocentrism virtuous, because it is these qualities that allow a person to survive privation, invasion, and stand up to the potential destruction of one’s culture and people, even at the risk of one’s own life (which both of these men did during World War Two).

Author Ian Fleming (Creative Commons license)

“These morally dubious men wrote glorious stories that captured — and continue to capture — the imaginations of millions of people across the English-speaking world, and the greatness of their prose is entirely dependent upon those “problematic” parts of their personalities.

“You can no more remove these men’s difficult thought patterns from their books than you can remove Tolkien’s Catholic thought-forms from Lord of the Rings or Orwell’s socialist worldview from 1984.

“These books are what they are, and bowdlerizing them isn’t just a crime against aesthetic greatness (though surely it is), it is something worse.

“It is a lie.”

Note: J. Daniel Sawyer hosts The Every Day Novelist podcast, blogs on geopolitics and history at Unfolding the World. For more information, visit his website.



* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to the full set of published appreciation-reviews of past winners.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch  videos of the 2022 Prometheus ceremony with Wil McCarthy, and past Prometheus Awards ceremonies, Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights and differences.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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