The American Library Association’s “Banned Books Week,” coming up September 18 through 24 this year, obviously provides an appropriate occasion to do so. So, if you are in favor of banning (which in my mind is only a slight step away from burning) books with which you have some sort of problem, you probably don’t want to read this post. (And, by the way, if your mind is that closed, I suspect that you are incapable of understanding simple logic and/or plain English, in any event.)
In any case, I ran across this image on the ALA website not long ago and rather liked it as an image, as well as the sentiment which it expressed.
You see, while I make no claims to be a significant literary scholar, nor an actual historian, as the son of a librarian and the grandson of a Professor of English, as well as one who has studied dramatic literature and theatrical history under several rather well respected individuals, I like to think I MAY have been exposed to a reasonable sample of the fundamental ideas of European and North American history, philosophy, religion, etc., since some understanding of such material is necessary to understand the theatre and drama of those societies.
The general trend which I have seen emerge from these studies is that autocratic leaders tend (rather strongly) to desire to control what “their” people think. They tend to accomplish this by only permitting discussion of ideas which support the notion that THEY (the autocrats) are somehow superior to the common horde (the rest of us) and, therefore, are qualified to order the rest of us around. These autocrats have gone by many names: President, Monarch, Supreme Leader, Dear Leader, Fuhrer, Mullah, Pope, Bishop, and many more, but all have taken upon themselves the right to determine which ideas and what information are acceptable in their society and which must be outlawed as “too dangerous” for the common people to even be allowed to consider them.
Yes, to the annoyance of many, I suspect. I believe that I must include many religious figures as the autocrats which they, in fact, are, even if they are, technically, not leaders of nations. I am sorry to have to do so, but while I recognize that this may upset some people, a fact is a fact, and many religious leaders have asserted the right to suppress ideas contrary to the supremacy of the beliefs they espouse. Some are more active than others, but, if one looks closely, the principle emerges that ,any of these people think it “dangerous” to allow the common people to have access to information and/or ideas which might challenge the supremacy of “correct” beliefs (those being the ones of which they approve).
An example might even include the various interpretations of the New Testament. Here, it’s impossible for the leadership of different “Christian” groups, for example, to suppress the actual SOURCE material, but that doesn’t seem to create a problem with indicating that the interpretation of that source by others is clearly incorrect and, certainly, is unacceptable for us, “right-thinking,” people. In fact, I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to suggest that disagreements over the “correctness” of religious ideas (not JUST Christian ones) have, historically, been a major cause of wars and other conflicts between nations and other groups.
In the U. S., the recent conflicts have included religious disagreements, but much of the controversy has focused on how young people should be “protected” from ideas which some people (occasionally parents, but often politicians [who MAY be parents, as well]) think are “age-inappropriate,” or will make them “feel shame” for being White, or some other such idiocy. To indicate how far into stupidity such arguments have gone, let me point out an example. The Diary of Anne Frank was recently challenged in some school curricula and/or libraries. I am told that this is because it is “obscene” in discussing female puberty, and that Anne had lesbian fantasies, etc., making it “age inappropriate” for public school students. That may be true for the very young, but Anne died at age 15. Is the point that it was okay for her to THINK about such things and to put them in her diary at that age (and younger), but it MUST BE FORBIDDEN to allow others of that age to KNOW that she had such thoughts and concerns at 15 years old?
Does that REALLY make sense? Does forbidding any discussion of topics, including those related to LGBTQI issues make them go away? As best I can tell, such topics have been around a long time, they just had to be hidden and “secret,” which probably made them MORE interesting. So let’s make sure to hide things which some of us may be a bit uncomfortable with discussing openly, because THAT’s TOTALLY likely to solve the problem, right? If refusing to discuss that “Bobby has two mommies” in a school setting, for example, is the only way to prevent all of our children from immediately “choosing” to become “gay,” we are, obviously, unaware of reality, certainly in relation to matters related to sexuality, gender identity, etc.
In a recent article I ran across online by Jeffrey Salkin, it was pointed out that a school district in suburban Fort Worth, Texas, had responded to challenges from parents by demanding librarians to remove a graphic novel adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank from their libraries, along with many other books, including The Bible. As Salkin put it,
OK, I can understand removing the Bible. Sons sexually violating a father; a
patriarch selling his wife into temporary sexual slavery in order to get a few
camels; that same patriarch having sexual relations with the “help” in order to
father a child; a man offering his daughters to an unruly mob for sexual abuse;
the aforementioned patriarch almost killing his own son; a man having sex with
his daughter-in-law, thinking that it (sic) had been a prostitute (that would be
Judah, our ancestor and namesake!); the attempted seduction of a Hebrew man …
That’s just the Book of Genesis. And, to think: For the last 45 years, I have been
earning my living teaching this text — to children!
What could I have been thinking?!
No, I’m NOT making this up. Nor am I making up the fact that a number of governors, state and local school boards and legislatures are acting to force schools to either ignore the subject of slavery (let alone the concept that racism might now exist or ever have existed) by either ignoring the topic completely or by insisting that slavery “really wasn’t so bad.” Their justification for this, in many cases, is that they don’t want “little White children to be embarrassed by being White.” I think that most children understand that, if they are racist, it’s because they were TAUGHT to be. Probably by their parents! I strongly suspect that the REAL concern here is that these “leaders” don’t want children asking THEM why they put up with (and, conceivably, fostered) such attitudes for so long.
But MY real concern relating to the issue of book banning/burning is broader than just these narrow issues. What I find most concerning is the notion that somehow it’s okay for CERTAIN people to tell me (or anyone else) that I am not allowed to encounter ideas which THEY have (in their infinite wisdom) decided would be bad for me. I will NOT accept the idea that ANYONE has the right to define what I am ALLOWED to think!
I confess that I am not completely convinced that the “book banners” are likely to have much success in the long run when I consider the fact that some such people recently made a serious attempt to ban Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel from 1992, Maus, from a school only to achieve getting national attention, and driving that book into second place on Amazon’s best selling list. How many brain cells does it take to realize that “forbidden fruit” is ALWAYS attractive?
I haven’t made a detailed study of such things, but I know enough about American history to know that the United States was created (at least in large part) because of a rejection of the idea that George III, the King of Great Britain and Ireland (just ask him) could control the acceptability of ideas by his subjects. After all, the first, permanent American colonies were established a good deal earlier, during the reign of James I. But, it’s worth noting that many, if not all, of those colonies were established by religious dissenters in order to escape the mandatory membership in the “accepted” Church of Britain. It’s also worth noting that different groups of these dissenters tended to form different colonies because, while most were unhappy with the “official” religion, they didn’t much care for the other dissenting groups, either. Hence, Quakers were not really welcome in New England, Catholics were really only welcome in Maryland, etc. I have long believed that the probable reason for the “Freedom of Religion” clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution was that it eliminated the possibility of ANY of the existing churches from establishing themselves as the “correct” one IN LAW.
One of these branches of Christianity (there were VERY few Jews in the U. S. at that time, and other belief systems were not even considered to be religions) might be the most common in a specific area, but it was, eventually, forbidden under the First Amendment, to outlaw other religions. Of course, the native religions of the Indigenous people these folks took the land from because the British monarch said they could, were written off as “sinful,” “the work of the devil,” and similar notions because they couldn’t possibly be considered actual religions. It’s no wonder that we have had trouble accepting the notion of “freedom of religion” now that we have to face up to the fact that much of the world’s population doesn’t support the same ideas as us, “right-thinking,” people do.
It all seems to be a part of a concept which has existed for a long time. If I can control what you are allowed to think, I have power over you and can maintain that power by controlling your ability to share any contrary thoughts. This is both the beauty and the challenge of public education, libraries, bookstores, the press, and what is called “social media.”
Public education is the most obvious target, of course, as it can quite easily be made to succumb to political pressure. It is vital for people to support the idea that schools should teach FACTS! After all, they are TRUTH! Now, I’ll accept that the truth isn’t always pleasant, but our kids WILL eventually discover it (or, at least that they haven’t always been presented with the closest thing we have to it) and they may well be more upset with the fact that their “grown-ups” lied to them, than if they had had it explained that ideas can change with time and greater knowledge. Copernicus’ ideas of the universe eventually became accepted in spite of the Christian Church’s earlier teaching because it fit reality better than the older idea. Many people thought slavery (in various forms) was okay in the past. In the U.S., however, we fought a civil war to establish the idea that the slaves were, in fact, people, not property because of changing notions of truth. And so on…
Organizations like the ALA are doing their best to preserve your right to choose to be exposed to controversial material in libraries, but libraries can be manipulated by political interests which don’t want us to have that right. I would encourage people who care about TRUTH to fight to preserve the openness of public libraries. After all, no one is forcing anyone to check out (let alone read) something they don’t wish to, any more than having abortion being legal and safe FORCES anyone to have an abortion. Your brain, to at least the same extent as your body, ought to be subject to YOUR choices, not mandated by some dictatorial government entity. I have encountered MANY ideas in books over my lifetime. Some, I support. Others, I abhor. But I got a chance to consider those ideas and make up my own mind! I think that is why libraries should exist! Libraries give everyone a shot at exploring many ideas. I think that’s a good thing in the long run.
Bookstores are probably the next, most frequent target of the censors. Unfortunately, the independent, local bookstore is often a target and, I suspect, the one most likely to be affected by the bigots. That MAY be the major saving grace of the chain stores, although they, understandably, tend to focus most heavily on the books deemed to have the greatest popularity, which limits, at least to some extent, the variety of ideas which one might encounter in them. Still, while I agree with the comment in the Non Sequitur cartoon below, I like the notion that a bookstore may still wish to provoke thought.
My suspicion is that the PRINT press is, generally, more likely to be well researched and presented, but that all too much of the television “news” is feature “stories” promoting upcoming “entertainment,” gossip about people whom I, mostly, don’t really care much about and brief moments of actual reportage which are inadequate to actually understand what’s important. I DO think that the “PBS New Hour” tends to be more like what (based on my high school English/Journalism class) I would consider to be responsible journalism, but even there a good deal of analysis and “feature” stuff is mixed in. It, on the other hand, IS often interesting to me.
Still, a great deal of what is presented to us as TV “news” isn’t really journalism. There are whole channels which are, almost exclusively, devoted to propaganda of the most blatant sort. Even this may, occasionally, touch on something which might be construed as actual news coverage, but often it so focused on presenting a particular “spin” on the events of the day that it can’t really be said to have much of a relationship with what could properly be called “news.”
Of course, the worst offender is the Internet and “social media.” Yes, since I am posting this on the internet, it may seem a bit hypocritical of me to attack these as purveyors of garbage, but my own limited experience, and the reports that I have received from MANY others suggest that there may well be some accuracy in that assertion. As a case in point, I enclose this picture which I found on the Internet for your consideration.
But we all have to understand that there is a problem/advantage with the internet. You see, content on it really can’t be controlled! There ARE people who actually TRY to promote ideas which are based on fact, reason, and logic instead of prejudice, bigotry and emotion available on it. They may not be as common as one might like, but they ARE available. And all of the would-be censors are going to find that those “children” they are “trying to protect from evil ideas” are almost certainly more skilled at finding stuff on the net (good AND bad) than the autocrats are. And, we haven’t even touched on the penetration of various controversial ideas into popular culture, especially if one includes television, streaming platforms, motion pictures, theatre and popular music.
Do these autocratic losers really think they are going to get away with shutting down popular culture in order to enforce their ideas of what is “correct” thinking? I have serious doubts about the likelihood of THAT happening. In the meantime, I’ll just keep posting my appeals for common sense, decency, and rational thinking. At least I will be able to say that I have tried to support free speech and people’s right to factual information and rational thought ….
And I intend to continue to do so!
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
— Nelson Mandela
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic; capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” ― Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows