You’ve probably noticed that whenever some sort of ban is proposed or imposed, the targeted item becomes more appealing to the general public. This phenomenon is readily apparent with media and books. I’ve long wondered if the moralistic regimes and individuals of the world understand this. I know that moralistic outrage against certain publications hatches my awareness of those books and makes me curious to investigate their content.
This is true, regardless of the subject matter. I bought a copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses following the hoopla of its American release. I enjoyed the book and found it to be intellectually stimulating. There was the outrage over the “Captain Underpants” books, so, I read one of them and determined that the character is childishly amusing and harmless.
During Banned Books Week, I reflect on the long, dreadful history of censorship. Banning publications and oppressing writers and readers has taken place since antiquity. The word “censor” is derived from the “Office of Censor” in the Roman Republic, established around 443 BCE. Then, as now, political and religious authorities used censorship as an effective tool to control the thinking and lives of the general population. In China, the rulers imposed the first official censorship decrees around 300 CE.
The most well-known examples of free expression suppression were in post-Roman Europe. Books were written about many topics with many perceived by the Church as subversive and heretical. Censorship became extremely rigid and punishments were horrific.
Censorship gained more traction when Pope Paul IV issued the first Index of Prohibited Books in 1559. The Index was revised and reissued 19 times by various popes. The censorship decrees justified the banning and destruction of books and sometimes the torture and execution of writers. The low point was the “Sacred Inquisition”. Official censorship of authors included Joan d’Arc and Galileo Galilei. The infamous Index was finally abolished in 1966.
The iron fist of censorship first cracked open when John Milton lobbied the English Parliament in 1644 with his very controversial speech, “Areopagitica”. The author strongly opposed the Licensing Act of 1643. His passionate defense of free expression helped lead to the lapse of the Licensing Act in that country. Advocates of freedom of expression should take time to read the “Areopagitica”.
Regarding actual rights and liberty laws that guarantee freedom of the press, we find Sweden as the trailblazer. Sweden officially abolished censorship and instituted freedom of the press in 1766. Denmark-Norway was second in 1770.
Memories of official censorship inspired the inclusion of freedom of expression as the first Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, in 1787. Naturally, censorship did not disappear in the US and certainly not abroad. Writings in America were discouraged and banned in more subtle ways by the government and more blatantly by moralistic non-governmental organizations. Oppressive regimes, overseas, still severely restrict writers and their books.
As one of the many people who cherish the right to speak and write whatever, however I wish, Banned Books Week is a very important celebration for me. I remember the old saying “Truth is the first victim in a war.” This is as true in a cold war, like our “Culture War” in the US, as it is in a hot war. Whitewashing one’s own cruelty and demonizing the adversary is an ages old practice. Censorship has thus been one of the most favored strategies by tyrants of all stripes throughout history and today.
The list of banned books is lengthy. Check out famous books like: Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, Nicolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Celebrate the rest of this week with a good, eyebrow-raising banned book.
The Blue Jay of Happiness cites The National Assembly of France of 1789. “The free communication of thought and opinion is one of the most precious rights of man; every citizen may therefore speak, write, and print freely.”