In perusing the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged books, I’m struck by the agenda underlying many of the objections. The general notion is that parents have a right, even an obligation, to prevent their children from reading material that contains unacceptable ideas. By far, the majority of challenges were in the classroom or school or public libraries. According to the ALA, of the 4,312 challenges between 2001 and 2009:
1,413 were due to “sexually explicit” material
1,125 to “offensive language”
897 to material deemed “unsuited to age group”
514 due to “violence”
344 due to “homosexuality”
269 because of their “religious viewpoints”
109 because they were “anti-family”
It’s all too easy to say, “If you don’t want your kids to read that stuff, don’t let them, but it’s fine for mine,” or “If your viewpoint is that narrow, it deserves to be broadened!” Such responses close off the possibility of dialog by dismissing the sincere concerns of the people raising the challenges. People who don’t share those opinions, who see nothing objectionable in the works in question, often fail to appreciate the distress and fear of those who see a threat to their children and to their values.
I believe that all of us, if we read enough and live long enough, will encounter books that offend us, outrage us, and sometimes terrify us. Sometimes this is due to the content of the books, the opinions expressed therein, the negative portrayal of people or ideas we hold dear (or, conversely, the positive depiction of what we believe odious). I could rattle off a dozen such books on my personal list and I’m sure you could, too. Most of the time, I’m able to shrug and say, “Not my cup of tea.”
Sometimes, however, it’s that’s not so easy. It’s one thing for a book to contain ideas I find loathsome, and quite another for people to take action on the basis of those ideas, action that has monstrous consequences. Books (and the burning of books) can also become symbols, rallying cries, incitements to run out and take revenge on either the people who owned them, the people who wrote them, or the people who burned them.
First case in point: Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf (original title: Four and a Half Years (of Struggle) Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice). Originally published in 1925 and 1926 in two volumes, Mein Kampf articulates Hitler’s hatred of what he believed to be the world’s twin evils: Communism and Judaism. It was widely distributed in Germany during the Nazi regime, even given free to every newly married couple. Today it is considered by many as evil not only for its ideological content but because it was used as a justification and blueprint for the Holocaust.
Is the book to blame for the deaths of millions of people? Should it be available today? Could it inspire antisemitic violence?
As an interesting historical point, the US government seized the copyright during World War II under the “Trading with the Enemy” Act and then sold it to Houghton Mifflin in 1979. In Germany, its sale is still illegal, although according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, it’s readily available from internet booksellers.
One of the strongest arguments against banning books like Mein Kampf is that banning does not work. Instead of making offensive books unavailable, it increases their influence. Even before the internet, copies of such books circulated among those people least likely to examine them critically. Being forbidden added to their appeal and conspiracy paranoia enhanced their credibility. If the government is so anxious to keep us from reading this, the argument goes, it must be real.
Moreover, another reason states, removing a book from public discourse eliminates open critical analysis and deprives us of the tools needed to identify lies and answer spurious arguments.
Second case in point: “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” First appearing in Russia around 1903-1905, this virulently antisemitic text has been proven to be a literary forgery and hoax as well as a clear case of plagiarism. Yet because it purported to be a legitimate record of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, it was circulated internationally during the 1920s and 1930s (and still is today in certain areas of the world). Hitler cited it as factual in Mein Kampf, although it had been irrefutably exposed as a forgery in 1921 by the London Times.
This book is particularly difficult for me because my father lived in Ukraine about the time it became an incitement for violence against Jews. In his later years, my father wrote of his horrendous experiences as a child surviving the pogroms following World War I, the times he narrowly escaped execution, the scenes of brutality he witnessed.
How much of this viciousness was fueled by the “Protocols”? How many people might be killed or traumatized in the future?
An even more difficult question: How many Muslims today are threatened or attacked or live in fear of their neighbors because of similar lies?
The operant word here is lies. My father eventually became a printer and taught me, among other things, how easy it is to publish a lie. You just set it in type. Nowadays, you upload it to the internet (although I am happy to see increasing skepticism of what’s written there).
Lies gain authority when they are set down on paper. Lies increase in power even more when they are suppressed. They fester in the dark, hidden from the light of historical accuracy, logical analysis, critical thought, and dissenting opinions.
Do I wish the “Protocols” and Mein Kampf had never been written? Do I wish they would simply disappear from history? Do I believe that by banning them I can undo their harmfulness, past and future? Yes, yes, and no.
Quakers coined a wonderful phrase: “Speak truth to power” (American Friends Service Committee, 1955). I think this is our most powerful weapon against lies: speaking the truth. Not trying to make the books go away, but calling hatred and intolerance what they really are, exposing them, debating them, showing how they are harmful. Only then can lies be seen for what they are and thereby lose their power.
That’s why Mein Kampf, that vile and delusional tract, should not be banned.