Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Book Matters

Did you ever hear anyone say: That work had better be banned
because I might read it and it might be very damaging to me?
Joseph Henry Jackson, American pastor

The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame. 
Oscar Wilde, Irish poet & playwright

It is our attitude toward free thought and free expression that will determine our fate. There must be no limit on the range of temperate discussion, no limits on thought. No subject must be taboo. No censor must preside at our assemblies.
William O. Douglas, Justice, US Supreme Court

Index Librorum Prohibitorum: The Index of Prohibited Books, first promulgated by Pope Paul IV in 1559, was a list of 583 books that the Catholic Church prohibited. The final list (20th edition) was published in 1948, and listed about 4,000 books. Pope Paul VI formally abolished the Index on June 14, 1966.
Some people think that some books are dangerous. Every so often, I read that some group or another has petitioned the state authorities to ban a particular book. The reasons cited might vary. It might be on the grounds that such author or writings will pollute young minds, or cause harm to society, or result in civil unrest or dissent. It can be almost any book. It could be for any number of reasons. It could happen in any nation. Whatever the reason, or however the argument is framed, banning books is a form of censorship.

This is a worrisome sign, but not unprecedented. The parties and groups arguing for censorship are wide and varied, including those with political, religious, and social affiliations. When censorship takes hold of a nation, however, it leads to a suffocation of the human spirit and a decided lost of individual dignity and autonomy. Censorship in any form reflects a lack of confidence in its citizens, says Potter Stewart, a former Justice of the United States Supreme Court. "It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime."

Even so, some people defend censoring words, especially those who like the idea of a sanitized society. In such a scenario, the authorities, the overseers of order, good government and good taste, then decide whose and what ideas are proper to consider and behold. The result? A limited and stifling literature available to the general public. It all sounds very reasonable and well-meaning.

Well-Read Books: As Louis D. Brandeis, former US Supreme Court Justice once said: "Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding."
Photo Credit: Lin Kristensen, New Jersey, USA, 2007.
Good intentions are not enough. When well-meaning groups carry on with great zeal and good intentions to encourage governments to ban or censor books, it's always a bad day for democracy and individual freedom. Books have long been a lightning rod for criticism by some aggrieved group or another. Consider some of these well-known books that were banned on censored at one time, often when first published:
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell (USSR);
  • Call of the Wild by Jack London (Italy);
  • Candide by Voltaire (United States);
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (United States);
  • Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence (Australia, Canada, India, United Kingdom, United States);
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (France);
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (USSR);
  • Of Mice and Man by John Steinbeck (United States);
  • The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (Nazi Germany);
  • The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine (England);
  • The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (India, Bangladesh, Sudan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Venezuela, among other nations);
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (Ireland); and
  • Ulysses by James Joyce (United States).
Sadly, the list is much longer (See List of Banned Books). There are many other books that are challenged by various special-interest groups each year, the majority directed at schools and their reading lists. (An example of such a list can be found on the site, Freedom to Read.)

State Interest is Narrow

One of the first acts of an authoritarian state is to draw up a list of books and writers they want to ban, notably those that its leader deems as dangerous to the interests of the state. The press is censored. The media is controlled. Art becomes nationalistic. All creative endeavours become a vehicle for the state and its limited notions of public morality (The first censors were Roman officials dating to 443 BCE.)

Yet censorship has certain outcomes. The sum total of these efforts of censorship is to direct people's thoughts, away from individual dignity and freedom to collective fear, suspicion and paranoia of the Other. Or, in other words, it's an attempt to tear at the heart of humanity and control people's thoughts. Fear is an effective method, history has aptly demonstrated.

That is essentially what happened during the Nazi Regime in Germany and Stalinist Regime in the former Soviet Union. (Here is a list of books banned by the Nazi Regime.) The Soviet Terror was a period of unusually long censorship. It was a horrible period for the Soviet people, who suffered indescribable cruelty and inhumanity on par with anything written about and witnessed in the last 100 years. Under the cruelest and darkest period of the Soviet Union, art, history and literature was controlled by the state.

That is why many people, this writer included, cringe at the thought of a group asking for a particular book to be banned by government authorities. It starts with one book, then another, and then more books are added to the list. Before you know it, whole genres of literature, history and art are expunged from the canon of a nation's library, joining a list of forbidden books. (These forbidden books, then, are read only, for academic's sake, by the political elites.)

I would think that if someone does not like a particular book, don't read it. That's what most reasonable people do. The price of democracy and freedom is to allow others to say and write things that you might find objectionable, including some artistic expressions and forms. The marketplace, in this case, will prevail. Tommy Smothers, a comedian, once remarked: "The only valid censorship of ideas is the right of people not to listen."

True enough. This makes state censorship in any form a poor and ill-advised choice. The state has to stay out of people's libraries, notably if it values intellectual freedom and democracy. A society that values individuals that can think for themselves will be far better and stronger than one allowing others to think for you. People can decide on their own what they want to read, which is essentially spelled out in the American Library Association's Bill of Rights.

That might be messy, but it's democracy at its finest.