The “cancel culture” that some say doesn’t exist has struck again: Woody Allen’s autobiography, “Apropos of Nothing,” scheduled for publication by Hachette Book Group next month, has been canceled due to objections from Allen’s estranged son, Ronan Farrow, famous journalist and fellow Hachette author, and a walkout by staffers. The protests were driven by the belief that the 84-year-old filmmaker sexually abused his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, in 1992.
When novelist Stephen King voiced unease about Hachette’s decision on Twitter, saying that he worries about “who gets muzzled next,” some responded by pointing out that censorship is when the government stops a book’s publication, not when a publisher drops it. True enough. But just because a book cancellation doesn’t officially qualify as censorship doesn’t mean it should not be a cause for concern, particularly when it’s the result of outside pressure and not editorial judgment.
To be sure, free speech includes protest, and axing a book in response to public pressure may sometimes be appropriate if the book or the author is truly heinous. Few would lament the cancellation of, say, a defense of pedophilia by a convicted child molester.
But Allen has never even faced criminal charges. The accusation by 7-year-old Dylan came amid Allen’s bitter breakup with longtime partner Mia Farrow due to his affair with her college-age adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn (now Allen’s wife). Experts brought in by the police concluded that Dylan had not been molested and had likely been coached by her mother; the investigation by the New York State Department of Social Services found no credible evidence of abuse. The judge in the custody case was scathing toward Allen and rejected the claim of coaching by Farrow — but stopped short of concluding that Allen was guilty and recommended that his visits with Dylan be resumed in a therapeutic setting in six months. (They weren’t.)
The allegations against Allen resurfaced in 2014 when the now-adult Dylan Farrow repeated her accusations — and then again two years ago after the #MeToo movement took off, largely on the strength of Ronan Farrow’s reporting. In a new climate where “Believe survivors” was the first commandment, this proved devastating. A number of actors publicly repudiated Allen; Amazon canceled a four-movie contract.
And now comes the cancellation of Allen’s memoirs.
One may disagree on how much sympathy is due Allen even assuming he’s innocent of child sexual abuse. His affair with his partner’s adopted daughter was shockingly reckless and self-centered — particularly when his two young children were exposed to a domestic drama caused by their father having sex with their adoptive sister.
But the issue isn’t Allen’s morality; it’s the free exchange of ideas and creative works. If Allen, a preeminent cultural figure of the last half-century, can be canceled because of a crusading journalist and some offended publishing house staffers, who else could be a target? Any author who has faced an accusation of sexual misconduct or of racism, however trivial or unproven? Anyone whose book makes an argument that some progressive activists see as “harmful”?
Public pressure to stop a book can be appropriate in some cases — but only as long as it’s rare, narrow in scope, and reserved only for things truly beyond the pale. Otherwise, it will become a weapon for muzzling dissent.
Eventually, Allen’s autobiography will be published one way or another. (A small press could make a big name for itself giving him a platform.) And when it does, it’s our civic duty to make it a best-seller. Remember, the bell of cancel culture tolls for you, too.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.