We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.
— John F. Kennedy
There are a couple of things about banning books that bear noting.
1. It doesn’t work.
2. It is always a bad idea.
Whether it’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or “Mein Kampf,” try to prevent someone from reading something, and he or she will only be more intrigued and likely to read it.
We have laws against child pornography, and rightfully so, given that children should never be exploited in creating it. And, certainly, we don’t want to see sexual acts portrayed in literature at public schools or other places young people gather.
But once someone is of legal age, it’s important to remember that one person’s porn is another person’s literature. The Federal Anti-Obscenity Act of 1873 — since weakened by the courts — prevented “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” materials from going through the U.S. mail. These included “Canterbury Tales” and “The Arabian Nights.”
We are proud that Sigma Tau Delta, the international honor society for English students at Hartwick College, highlighted the folly of book banning last week by setting up a table in the Dewar Union building and inviting students to peruse lists of banned and challenged books.
Attempts to limit what people can read or hear about have a rich and sordid history. In 385 B.C., The Greek philosopher Plato attempted to keep Homer’s “The Odyssey” away from young readers. The infamous Roman Emperor Caligula in 35 A.D. also tried to ban it.
From 325 A.D., with the banning of Thaleia, the Catholic Church through the centuries banned many writings. In 1966, Pope Paul VI finally did away with Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a long, specific list of prohibited books begun by Pope Paul IV in 1559
In 1650, the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony — who ostensibly came to America for their religious freedom — burned a book by William Pynchon because it strayed from doctrine. Pynchon had to skedaddle it back to England to save his life.
Today, the USA Patriot Act allows federal investigators to make libraries show them what books you checked out. You’re checking out books — they’re checking you out.
This, too, is an insidious form of censorship that forces people to ban themselves from books they would otherwise want to bring home to read.
Book burnings in Nazi Germany or banned books in America — it’s hard to see much of a difference.