I didn’t know what to expect from Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News, by Eric Berkowitz. It was on the new audiobook display at the public library when I went in to grab some holds. I hadn’t heard any advance press, and didn’t know anything about the author. And of course I have some strong opinions about the subject matter—what library worker doesn’t? I decided to give it a chance, and I’m glad I did.
Berkowitz is a lawyer and a journalist, and there is impressive scholarship here, with new angles on histories you think you might already know. It’s refreshing to read these new insights on familiar chronicles. It’s also interesting to see the long narrative arc of censorship through the centuries, and how there are periods of progress and regression, and how technology changes the conversation.
The historical insight on the use of censorship in Ancient Greece and Rome helps inform the history I’ve already learned, and I also think it would be interesting for someone without that previous grounding. The section on medieval England definitely draws some clear lines from then to now, and the evolution of the “marketplace of ideas.”
The section on WWII is especially interesting, and it gave me many anecdotes to share with others. I read about how censors in many countries changed standards quickly, as feelings about involvement in war changed—and how when alliances changed, censorship followed. And how changes in censorship informed the public’s feelings about the war.
The author’s observations of the modern era are clear-eyed, and he doesn’t pretend to have answers he can’t have. This might frustrate some readers, but I found it honest, and without the stridence that usually underlies discussions of censorship today. The author does note how censorship is changing with new media, and I think anyone interested in this topic would benefit from engaging with this discussion.
Berkowitz, Eric. Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News. 2021.