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A row has engulfed one of America’s leading independent bookstores following its decision not to remove conservative journalist Andy Ngo’s Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy from its website. Powell’s Books in Portland Oregon has had to close early on some days to ensure staff safety after protesters covered its windows with posters saying ‘Say Ngo to Fascism’. It has also received a torrent of criticism on social media.
‘Antifa’ stands for ‘anti-fascism’ and has its roots in the anti-fascist movements of the Twenties and Thirties in Europe. With the rise of the ‘alt-right’ and the arrival of Donald Trump as president, it became more active in the US in the last ten years. Ngo’s book is published by Center Street, the Hachette imprint which publishes ‘Nonfiction Conservative Politics and Military’.
The author is a Portland local and a well-known right wing commentator. In describing the author and his book, Center Street says Ngo is ‘a journalist who’s been attacked by Antifa [and has written] a deeply researched and reported account of the group’s history and tactics.’ It continues: ‘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.’
Emily Powell, owner of Powell’s Books, said the store had received a huge number of complaints over its decision not to remove the title from its website. “We have received hundreds of emails, calls, and social media comments calling for us to remove Unmasked from Powells.com. Demonstrations outside our Burnside store have forced us to close to ensure the safety of employees, protestors, and neighbours.”
Powell notes that in the past protests have come from the right of the political spectrum, “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”.
But she notes that its current right “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”.
She argues that freedom of speech means that the store sometimes has to sell titles it finds objectionable. She observes: “Booksellers are not censors. We have the privilege to curate, promote, and act as guides to the books and ideas we value, but it is antithetical to our core mission of free speech to impose limits on what our customers read. At the end of the day, making space for books and readers with whom we disagree is the nonviolent antithesis to the dominant impulse to shout down (or worse) anyone who doesn’t support your worldview, something we see daily on social media and, more terrifyingly, in America’s seats of power. Given the choice between holding our noses over a book and bowing to pressure to begin banning them, we will always choose the former.”
But many commentators have taken to twitter to voice their disgust. One wrote: ‘You cite freedom of speech as the reason you keep [Ngo’s book] on your shelf. [But] according to the Supreme Court, freedom of speech does not include the right to incite actions that would harm others’, which is the allegation many make against Ngo.
The row looks set to continue. So far, Barnes & Noble – which has far more stores than Powell’s and does show the title on its website – has avoided any protests. There have also been no reports of protests being made to Hachette. The book is due to be published on 2 February 2021.