Stick to your morals, even if you feel icky

I celebrate Powell’s Bookstore’s decision to keep an unpopular book on its shelves.

Ray Miller-Still

Not every moral decision feels like a victory.

Let me explain: my wife Kathryn and I recently got an email from one of our favorite bookstores, the Portland-based Powell’s Bookstore. The email caught our eye because it wasn’t promoting a special offer, or telling customers about their COVID-19 safety precautions; it was explaining their position on continuing to offer an upcoming book, “Unmasked,” by Andy Ngo on their online catalogue.

Here is the email, in full:

At Powell’s, a lot of our inventory is hand-selected, and hand-promoted. And a lot of our inventory is not. Unmasked by Andy Ngo came to us via one of our long-term and respected publishers, Hachette Book Group. We list the majority of their catalogue on automatically, as do many other independent and larger retailers. We have a similar arrangement with other publishers.

Since Sunday, Powell’s has received hundreds of emails, calls, and social media comments calling for us to remove Unmasked from Demonstrations outside our Burnside store have forced us to close to ensure the safety of employees, protestors, and neighbors. If we need to remain closed, we will not hesitate to do so.

As many of you may be following these events, I want to offer additional context about our decision to allow this book to remain online.

Since the first published texts there have been calls to disown different printed work, and at Powell’s we have a long history of experiencing these calls, and the threats they bring with them, firsthand. Until recently the threats were from those who objected that we carried books written by authors we respected or subjects we supported. The threats were real but we could feel virtuous — we were bringing the written word to the light of day. We could feel proud of our choices, even when the choices created conflict.

Our current fight does not feel virtuous. It feels ugly and sickening to give any air to writing that could cause such deep pain to members of our community. But we have always sold books that many of us would reject. We have fought for decades, at Powell’s, for the right of a book to stand on its own. Doing so is one of our core values as booksellers.

In our history we have sold many copies of books we find objectionable. We do that in spite of all the reasons not to, because we believe that making the published word available is an important and crucial step in shedding light on the dark corners of the public discourse. It is actually a leap of faith into the vortex of the power of the written word and our fellow citizens to make sense of it.

That leap of faith is inextricably woven into our existence as Powell’s: faith in our customers is what first propelled us from a small corner store into who we are today. We recognize that not every reader has good intentions, or will arrive at a writer’s intended destination, but we do believe that faith must extend to our community of readers. That offering the printed word in all its beauty and gore, must ultimately move us forward. As my father says, if your principles are only your principles sometimes, they’re not principles at all.

A lot of context is missing from this email, though I don’t fault Emily Powell, president and owner of Powell’s, for declining to recount the arduous and painful history behind Portland and Mr. Ngo. I’ll do my best to fill in the holes.

In short, Ngo’s rise to fame went hand-in-hand with his coverage of the grassroots antifa (anti-fascist) movement, and he is known for his conservative views.

In June 2019, Ngo was attacked by antifa members while he was covering a left-wing rally in Portland, sending him to the hospital.

“Ngo was repeatedly kicked and had different items thrown at him by antifa members, who don’t like him because of his coverage of the group’s actions at different protests in Portland, Oregon. Some of his camera equipment was also stolen during the attack,” the Washington Examiner reported.

“I was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital where I received a CT scan, and it confirmed a brain hemorrhage. So I was kept under close monitoring at the hospital with a brain injury,” Ngo said.

Ngo isn’t the only journalist to run afoul of antifa — many journalists, whether they lean left, right, or center, have been met with violence around the county by members of the movement. However, there is more to the story, as the Washington Examiner reported later in August:

“The Portland Mercury published video on Monday that appears to show [Ngo] watching the right-wing group Patriot Prayer making plans for a violent clash at a bar, which he did not report or try to stop. The website published a story from ‘Ben,’ a pseudonym, who spent two years undercover with Patriot Prayer,” the newspaper wrote. “‘Ngo tags along with Patriot Prayer during demonstrations, hoping to catch footage of an altercation. Ben says Ngo doesn’t film Patriot Prayer protesters discussing strategies or motives. He only turns his camera on when members of antifa enter the scene,’” the article states.

“The footage was highly embarrassing for Ngo, who has long claimed to be an independent and objective journalist, despite many left-wing activists in Portland accusing him of antagonizing them at rallies and selectively editing his footage to malign the left,” Rolling Stone reported.

Objective journalist, or conservative provocateur? Take your pick (I’ve made mine). Either way, and especially in light of legal challenges, there is no love lost between the left-leaning city of Portland and Ngo.

Which finally brings us to “Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s radical plan to destroy democracy,” which describes itself thusly:

When Andy Ngo was attacked in the streets by Antifa in the summer of 2019, most people assumed it was an isolated incident. But those who’d been following Ngo’s reporting in outlets like the New York Post and Quillette knew that the attack was only the latest in a long line of crimes perpetrated by Antifa.

In Unmasked, Andy Ngo tells the story of this violent extremist movement from the very beginning. He includes interviews with former followers of the group, people who’ve been attacked by them, and incorporates stories from his own life. This book contains a trove of documents obtained by the author, published for the first time ever.

Whether this book stands up to scrutiny is yet to be seen, and I’ve yet to see a professional review. However, it’s not Powell’s job to pick and choose what books it will sell based on accuracy and journalistic integrity.

It’s Powell’s job to sell books, and in the process of that, protect free speech — not just the First Amendment, but the wider idea about dissemination and discussion of all ideas in the public space.

As Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “If there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

It’s not a perfect rule, to be sure, but when it comes to “Unmasked” there is time aplenty to give the book its due.

So it’s because of my liberal policies — not in spite of them — that I celebrate Powell’s decision to continue offering the book on its online shelves. I hope that the bookstore’s newfound critics will come to the same conclusion.

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