The Banality of Censorship

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Just in time for Banned Books Week, the American Library Association's annual celebration of intellectual freedom, the Brooklyn Public Library has removed a 79 year old children's book from its shelves after a patron complained about its racial offensiveness.  As the New York Times reported last week, "Tintin au Congo," has been locked up in a "vault-like room" of the library, where it is "available for viewing by appointment only."  How does this infringe on the right to read and learn?  Library users won't discover this book browsing the library shelves, they won't have an opportunity to read it anonymously, and unless they're aware of the book's existence and highly desirous of reading it, they won't learn what it might teach them about the history of racism and racist literature.

The good news is that most efforts to remove books from library shelves and school curricula are unsuccessful, according to the American Library Association.  The bad news is that such efforts are common, nationwide.  Censorship is distressingly banal.  The ALA counts 520 reported challenges in 2008; (an estimated 70 - 80% of challenges are unreported.) "Parents challenge materials more often than any other group, the ALA reports. "Sex, profanity, and racism remain the primary categories of objections, and most occur in schools and school libraries.  Frequently, challenges are motivated by the desire to protect children," the Illinois Library Association confirms:  Books challenged in 2008 -2009 range arbitrarily from the instructional  -- The Joy of Sex -- to the beloved -- To Kill a Mockingbird.

As the list of challenged books shows, contemporary censorship campaigns are not a response to new media, the proliferation of pornography, or heightened concern about pedophilia.  Prevailing notions of what's harmful to children are relative.  In the late 19th century, advocates for women, like Frances Willard of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, condemned "impure" and "vicious literature" with the intensity directed at Internet porn today.  "Books are feeders for brothels," anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock famously proclaimed.  In the mid 20th century, Congressional hearings investigated television's alleged connection to juvenile delinquency, citing the violence in shows like Hopalong Cassidy.  So, while the content and media at issue in our censorship battles are sometimes new, underlying hysteria about harm to children and censorship campaigns aimed at protecting them are hardy perennials.

In part, they're a tribute to a socially conservative love affair with big government - a government that dictates through public schools and libraries, obscenity and indecency laws what we may or may not read and view.  Are you offended by ads for erectile dysfunction?  Virginia Democrat Jim Moran has introduced H.R. 2175 -- Families for ED Advertising Decency Act:  "To prohibit as indecent the broadcasting of any advertisement for a medication for the treatment of erectile dysfunction, and for other purposes."  (Other purposes include the euphemistically referenced "male enhancement.")  Labeling these ads "indecent" would bar them from radio or tv broadcasts between 6AM and 10PM, when they might pollute the eyes or ears of children.  That a product famously endorsed by a former Republican Senate majority leader and presidential candidate is now the subject of a federal indecency bill is just one measure of our cultural confusion. 

Another is the resolution introduced by Georgia Republican Paul Broun encouraging the President to designate 2010 the Year of the Bible -- a book replete with sex and violence.  Maybe Congress can redact Lot's offer to pimp out his daughters.  Or maybe people who hold the Bible sacred can come to understand that deeply offensive literature can also be deeply redemptive.


UPDATE (or pre-date:) Another historical note -- Chris Finan, President of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, recalls that the Brooklyn Public Library "banned Huck Finn in 1885 because 'Huck not only itched but scratched, and that he said sweat when he should have said perspiration.' ")   Naturally, people find different reasons to protest Huck Finn today, (different times, different lists of forbidden words,) but the impulse to censor remains the same.


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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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