This is an excellent short read. More a pamphlet than a novel, it is the autobiography of an HB pencil. By looking at the birth and ancestry of the pencil a complicated topic of economics and knowledge theory is made easily understandable. As individuals we have only a tiny fraction of the sum of human knowledge and planning, not one of us is able to make a pencil by ourselves. But by our cooperative endeavours every one of us can own and use a pencil.
We are, in part, successful because we don’t need to know everything about everything. We can specisalise in what brings us most pleasure, and that which plays to our strengths, in the knowledge that others will be doing liklewise in different areas. By this, knowledge is distributed between all of us and is much more than the sum of its parts. When we act cooperatively, in a dispersed and decentralised manner we achieve much more than we ever could when we work under central guidance.
As the pencil decribes it :-
“This is not a dispute about whether planning is to be done or not. It is a dispute as to whether planning is to be done centrally, by one authority for the whole economic system, or is to be divided among many individuals.”
“None of the Robespierres of the world knew how to make a pencil, yet they wanted to remake entire societies.”
I felt that there was an exquisite irony when I noted that Milo Yiannopoulos’ book ‘Dangerous‘ was heading the amazon best sellers list before his book was even available for sale. Since his book deal with Simon & Schuster was announced there has been a flurry of critical press. As the glamour boy of the alt-right Milo has also become the bogey man of the left’s twitterati and social media groups.
There were early calls to ban the book from Sarah Silverman and Jud Apatow (1) and The Guardian’s comment pages were awash with calls to ban the book. Later the Chicago Review of Books announced (2) that it would not review any of Simon & Schuster’s output in 2017. A storm of indignation was raised before a single word of the book was available to be read.
The liberals were apparently oblivious to the illiberal calls they made – book banning, book burning and suppression of authors are tactics whose history is often associated with the totalitarian right (Though as George Orwell described in ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ the totalitarian left has become very able at this strategy).
But more importantly the liberals have forgotten the reasons that book-banning and censorship is a bad idea. Sure, it is morally wrong to try and suppress ideas discordant with your own as it denies the equality of other peoples’ opinions. Also, it is rather silly as it is unlikely that you can presume you will always be correct and, come the time you are wrong, you will need access to different ideas to adapt to new circumstances. But, at a very basic level, it is also a bad idea because it does not work. Refusing to discuss issues with people who think differently never causes them to change, indeed it may tend to promote in them a confidence that their views are correct. Your refusal to debate is not seen as a sign of moral strength but rather as a sign of weakness, a sign that you can’t debate, and a sign that you are aware that your argument is inherently weak.
However, at the very basic level it should have been clear that this was a stupid strategy because it is likely to backfire and be counter-productive. It should have been obvious that much of the success of the alt-right, and Milo in particular, rests on the pleasure gained from upsetting the hierarchy, the pleasure found by saying the unsayable, and the simple pleasure from witnessing easily prompted outrage and indignation. To deliver these shows of outrage and upset feelings before a word had been printed was a free gift to the alt-right’s keyboard warriors who quickly booked their pre-orders for the book.
No matter what review the Chicago Review of Books may have given Milo’s book, whether it be good, bad or indifferent they could not have given more publicity, and increased sales, than had they tried. They have not only guaranteed home more sales and a wider initial audience, they have also increased his profile and cemented his poster-boy status.
The only thing of which we can be certain is that following this campaign more people will have read the book than would have done otherwise. It certainly helped the sales of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and, as Oscar Wilde stated, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”