In 1258 A.D., there was no Iraq. The ancient city of Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, and it was under siege by a Mongol army under the command of Hulagu Khan. When the city’s defenses fell, its invaders stormed in and laid waste to Baghdad. One of their central targets was the House of Wisdom, at that time, the most prominent library and intellectual center in the Arab world. Established in the eighth century, Baghdad’s House of Wisdom came to hold collections of books, art, and other treasures dating back five hundred years. Unfortunately, it took the invading army only one week to destroy it all.
The invaders of Baghdad were deliberate in their effort. They burned books and tossed others in the Tigris River. In fact, so many books were tossed in that survivors recounted the Tigris River being black with ink and red with blood.
That story, which inspires the title of my missive, helps to frame our subject — book censorship. History is replete with accounts of the willful destruction, burning, and banning of books. And while the sacking of Baghdad’s House of Wisdom is a sensational tale, the Arab world was, of course, no stranger to the destruction or burning of books. Indeed, for as long as there have been books, there also have been those among us who have sought to restrict their influence.
Some rulers destroyed books that they deemed contrary or potentially destabilizing to their grip on power. Such was the case in 961 A.D., in Cordoba, during the reign of Abd al-Rahman al-Nasir. According to some historians, al-Rahman was notable for his religious tolerance, but this ruler of a caliphate stretching over western Europe and northern Africa was not above silencing dissenting views. In fact, al-Rahman very famously ordered the burning of works by Ibn Massara. Al-Rahman, born in what is now Spain, did not welcome Massara’s Sunni-leaning ideas into his Shi’ite empire. Such ideas were, well, inconvenient, if not disruptive — and, so, the burning began in the courtyard of the Mosque of Cordoba.
The destruction, burning, and banning of books are all forms of book censorship. The purpose of book censorship is, yes, to limit access to written words. And these acts are not just relegated to our history or limited to the Muslim world. No, we have all been — and continue to be — a party to this crime against intellectualism.
Way back in 213 B.C., the emperor Qin Shi Huang set fire to all types of books across China as a way of consolidating power and ridding China — and, well, his ego — of historical comparisons to past rulers. So effective was his campaign that, even now, some information about preceding emperors has been lost entirely. And today, China continues its brutal march to “sinicize” the country. Under the direction of President Xi, its military and police are ordered to confiscate and destroy any and all copies of the Bible and Quran, alike, just as millions of people are forced into mysterious re-education camps. Yes, millions!
Similar book censorship debacles dotted Europe’s history, as well. In the 15th century, for example, when the pioneering Medici family was forced by religious reformers to flee the city of Florence, the reformers seized all the family’s property. They proceeded to destroy everything that symbolized modernity, especially the books. And the Catholic Church even joined them in the cleansing, which famously became known as “the bonfire of the vanities”.
Later, in the 1930’s, book burning became commonplace in Germany and Austria, where the Third Reich faced little resistance in its rise to power. There was no room for ideas from those deemed inferior to the master race or those hostile to Nazism… And we all know the rest of that story.
Today, countries across Europe restrict access to scores of books, typically based on obscenity, extremism, and a violation of the public good. Those books include everything from Mein Kampf and The Anarchist’s Cookbook to The Rights of Man and Suicide mode d’emploi.
Meanwhile, America has been no exception. In the late 1600’s, nearly a century before ours was a country, Puritans burned books alongside the “witches” they had prosecuted, and since that time, book censorship has had lots of momentum. To be sure, while book burnings have not been a common occurrence in the land of the free — except, say, in Tennessee, where a fanatical pastor recently vowed to “get rid of unholy covenants and alliances and some word curses and some witchcraft” — the work to restrict some books from the public domain has been ceaseless. One only needs to revisit the Comstock Laws of 1873, which, among other things, prohibited the trade and circulation of materials deemed obscene and immoral. The acts hindered the spread of pornographic materials, but it also blocked the trade of medical journals and books that discussed and depicted the human body and subject matter like abortion and contraception.
Now the fight over book censorship is taking place in America’s schools, where parents and school administrators are increasingly tussling over the need to educate children and the desire to shield them from provocative ideas. According to Pen America, as of 2021, as many as 1,500 books have been banned in 86 school districts across 26 states. Yes, I did say 1,500. It is not a typo. Even thought-provoking, classical works like To Kill a Mockingbird, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Fin, and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms are caught up in this dragnet.
It is worth repeating: for as long as there are books, there will also be those among us who seek to restrict their influence.
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In every occurrence, throughout time, common themes are present in book censorship: an unspoken but unmistakable fear of the unfamiliar; a desire to protect the status quo; and a sharp pushback against new ideas and pluralism.
Books become the perfect target for the personnes resistantes, because books have historically been the most instrumental conduit for the spread of ideas, even before the advent of the Guttenberg printing press. Books provide history, context, analysis, and perspective. They inform their readers and help them to develop ideas of their own. And perhaps what’s more sinister, books often raise questions — and it’s those questions that bring trouble. You see, while the effort is to censor books, for the supporters of book censorship, the real problem has never been with the books, themselves. It has always been the ideas those books inspire. And, according to those people, that is why certain books should never be in the public domain or in the impressionable hands of youngsters — only those books likely to placate, only those books likely to promote conformity, only those books likely to support the status quo.
This is a question about power, and it leads to the prescription for a closed society.
Whether you admire or distrust George Soros, his work on the advocacy of pluralism and an open society is worthy of note. Soros, a Hungarian-born immigrant to the United States, made billions in the world of finance. What many do not know, however, is, for decades now, he has been using that money to promote the notion that no one — no person or party or belief system — has a monopoly on the truth, and that our world is made better when all forms of ideals have a seat at the table. Soros created the Open Society Foundation, and since its inception, he has personally donated $32 billion to the organization promoting pluralistic initiatives and programs around the world. Having witness the horrors of brutal, single-minded ideologies for himself, Soros penned these foreboding words in a 1997 article, published in The Atlantic Monthly: “We are enjoying a truly global market economy in which goods, services, capital, and even people move around quite freely, but we fail to recognize the need to sustain the values and institutions of an open society.” He went further to say this:
“The open society offers a vista of limitless progress. In this respect it has an affinity with the scientific method. But science has at its disposal objective criteria — namely the facts by which the process may be judged. Unfortunately, in human affairs the facts do not provide reliable criteria of truth, yet we need some generally agreed-upon standards by which the process of trial and error can be judged. All cultures and religions offer such standards; the open society cannot do without them. The innovation in an open society is that whereas most cultures and religions regard their own values as absolute, an open society, which is aware of many cultures and religions, must regard its own shared values as a matter of debate and choice. To make the debate possible, there must be general agreement on at least one point: that the open society is a desirable form of social organization. People must be free to think and act, subject only to limits imposed by the common interests. Where the limits are must also be determined by trial and error.”
These words are instructive in explaining the merits of a plural way for viewing the world, but in practice, that open society cannot flourish — if it can even exist, at all — when people feel the need to silence the voices with which they disagree or to censor the writings they find inconvenient.
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As a writer, I take exception to the practice of book censorship — especially in this country, and particularly in our schools. It is my fervent belief that no ideas should be restricted from the public domain, no matter how vile or controversial or radical the ideas happen to be. There is enough room for all of us here, and our country is made stronger, when we value our fellow Americans and respect the ideals that make them individuals. When we seek to marginalize or censor those things with which we disagree, I believe, we do so at the risk of creating a slippery slope down which, at some point, we will find ourselves and our ideals also out of fashion and marginalized or censored.
Are there writings that spur harm and disruption? Absolutely! But no one of us — least of all, myself — should ever consider ourselves morally, intellectually, religiously, or even politically superior enough to cast judgments on those writings. Indeed, if some are inspired to do harm, we already have a law-enforcement and judicial system perfectly tasked to deal with those who pose a threat to the public good. When such people run afoul of our rule of law, they can be addressed accordingly, as they always have been.
For this reason, I firmly believe that people should be left to live their lives, read what they want, believe what they want — and still arrive at a place, each day, where they can find common cause and work together to build great things.
Again, I fully recognize that many of those exercising book censorship do so with an ulterior motive: they want to undermine any critical thinking that poses a threat to their agenda. If critical thinking is eroded, it is easier to maintain a hold on power, while also feeding the servile a diet of only what they want the servile to believe. And along with that, if they can use book censorship to deprive men and women a comprehensive understanding of history, then it would be easier to discount any claims about past injustices, while promoting conformity over reconciliation.
The practice of book censorship is made problematic by the fact that Americans are not avid readers. Yeah, no one has had to keep books away from us; most of us do not bother to seek them out or to read them. This is evidenced by the fact that, in 2020, when a significant number of Americans were stuck at home, the annual mean expenditure on books was just above $27 per consumer. That’s roughly the price of one, new hardback book! Just one!
We can do better.
I accept that it is important to recognize that parents and school leaders have the ultimate say in what books populate the shelves of school libraries. But it is important for us to also understand what is motivating some people to exercise book censorship. I mean, does anyone really believe that Toni Morrison’s Beloved did anything to readers, other than initiate conversations about the post-slavery experiences of blacks in America? But alas, that is a banned book in some school districts. And, as that example suggests, most efforts to ban books have political roots — not legitimate ones.
Ours is a society that is globally connected, diverse, and ever-changing, and the regressive tendencies of those promoting book bans pose an acute challenge for youngsters and for the future of this country. As Peter Drucker rightly pointed out, the most successful among us will be those who have the capacity to learn, unlearn, and learn anew, as they adapt to a competitive marketplace. That means critical thinking is vital to their success — to our overall success — and that means reading broadly is a necessary habit, in order to create workers who will be able to synthesize a variety of information and make determinations in critical and effective ways.
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To school administrators, I say this: you are the guardians of modern-day houses of wisdom, America’s schools. Your primary job is to help young people become the best versions of themselves today, so that this country might flourish tomorrow. Your job is not to carry out the political edicts of one group over another group doggedly fighting a losing battle. When you join in on the antics of book censorship, you fail in your duty to these children. You deprive them of the tools with which, and forums wherein, they can be shaped into free and critical thinkers, hence robbing them of self-sufficiency, and what’s worse, you bring into their learning environments the same political divisiveness corrupting the world outside. The long-term consequences of such an effort have yet to be seen, but it is not impossible to predict what follows — tribalism, otherness, rancor, and conflict.
We have already had so many centuries of malice, murder, and mayhem. This century, too, should not be left to drown in conflict. Our youth should not join preceding generations in awful marches toward destruction or see a time when rivers are turned black with ink and red with blood.
The best way to avoid such dark times are to empower people to think for themselves, to explore new ideals, to learn empathy and respect, and to challenge staid ways of thinking. The best way to initiate this kind of thinking is to encourage each of these youngsters to read ambitiously. And your objective stewardship in the lives of our youngsters can assure that this happens, by ending the needless exercise of book censorship.