Must We Vote for the Holocaust?

March 08, 1991|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. Popes and the like tend to condemn works they have not read -- a practice easily abused. On the other hand, one need not experience everything in order to disapprove of it. People who have never tried heroin do not need to hesitate in deploring its use.

The defender of free speech will object, here, that ideas are not like chemical interferences with one's physical state. True. Ideas may corrupt but not by invariable physical consequence. Yet even in the realm of expression, one need not sample everything before judging it. For a while there were reports that certain people were making ''snuff movies'' -- killing people in order to photograph their torture and murder. I would gladly condemn any snuff movie without having to see it. The reports were false, by the way; there were no such movies -- but the principle remains the same.

So along comes the closest literary equivalent of a snuff movie one can have without the actual murder -- Bret Easton Ellis' ''American Psycho.'' How do I know this is the literary equivalent of a snuff movie? By report of those I respect, by report even of the book's defenders, by substantial excerpts contained in both those kinds of reports. I have read enough to know I do not want to read more, and I would not read more even if I did want to -- as I will not watch boxing matches, though some of their less lethal aspect appeals to me.

As often happens, it is the defenders of morally obtuse things who reveal their hollowness. Mr. Ellis is defended, reluctantly, by Norman Mailer, who thinks we should welcome the Ellis novel, disgusting as it is by his own account of it, because it is so revolting that it may do for anti-feminism what the Holocaust did for anti-Semitism.

He says this in the context of being asked to vote for or against publishing Mr. Ellis. He does not grasp the implications of his own parallel -- that he would have been required to vote for the Holocaust in order to discredit anti-Semites.

Other defenses of Mr. Ellis are not as daringly idiotic. But neither are they cogent. My two favorite bookstores are refusing even to stock the novel. As Jeff Rice, the assistant manager of Great Expectations, in Evanston, Illinois, puts it, ''We never do stock slasher novels.'' Those who think this is a form of censorship, or opposition to free speech, must think that his store should be required to stock slasher novels.

Advocates of free speech reduce their noble cause to absurdity when they say I am required to listen to or read or buy anything anyone else is free to say or publish or sell. My freedom not to listen is a part of my freedom of thought. If I made myself equally available to all quacks and exploiters, I would have no freedom worth mentioning. Not listening is not the same as preventing speech. Only the censors, those in authority, those able to compel, do the latter. The former is what the rest of us do if we have any sense. Freedom not to read Bret Ellis ranks right up there with freedom not to patronize such brutal things as boxing. It's a contribution to humane values.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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