Memories fade, books are forever, until they’re not / Glenn Stewart

Click the image of the book cover of Maus by Art Spiegelman to access the author sharing the story behind the book on NPR

February 13, 2022 Glenn Stewart

The price we pay for a world where information from one human to another flows freely may be that some foul language and lascivious behavior is part of the lexicon.  So be it.  And if that were all that mattered, the discussion about banning books would be over.  

The brilliant Historian Marc Bloch wrote while a prisoner of the Nazis (he was murdered by them) “History is the most authoritative of dictators.”  So it is that selectively banning books, especially history books really has nothing to do with foul language or descriptive passages about sex and sexuality, and further, the very history some wish to erase tells us that banning books never ends well.  Bloch’s murder and the murder of millions was the result the last time a modern national government targeted the writing of scholars, and ultimately the scholars themselves for expulsion from the record.  That record reveals that no one who has advocated a peaceful, egalitarian, plural democracy ever proposed banning books.  

Let’s get real here; those who ban books aren’t trying to protect innocent eyes and ears from unwarranted trauma.  They’re not attempting to restrict exposure to the word ‘fuck’ so much as they’re trying to prevent exposure to thousands of other words they find inconvenient and even offensive.  

No modern theory of democracy includes criminalizing offensive speech.  We have ‘free speech’ precisely because throughout the ages someone has slaughtered someone else for merely holding a point of view perceived to be offensive.  Happily for us that seemed to the Framers a tradition worth breaking as evidenced by the language of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. 

One cannot learn to live easily in a world one knows nothing about—The goal of the ‘book burners’ is to teach that such things as racism and anti Semitism do not exist, and the result is that the student, now an adult citizen, finds himself suddenly and inevitably in a world wherein racism is demonstrably real, anti-Semitism is as robust as ever, and resulting widespread poverty is the norm.  

An entire class of White people (and to an even greater degree nearly everyone else) have been devastated by the macro-economic policies of the past 30 years.  And while we’re most certainly correct in observing that the White folks are blaming the wrong folks for their dilemma—they’re right to be pissed off.  The problem is of course that they have been convinced by unprecedented demagoguery (Reagan, Bush, Bush, Trump) not seen in the United States since the 1850’s that “Liberals” are the problem; that increasing numbers of Black & Brown people are determined to “Take over” the Country (whatever that means).  “Racism isn’t a problem,” they would have you know, “Wokeness is the problem…The Libs want to punish all white people for the sins of the past.”  

An unmistakable pattern emerges wherein those white people immersed in the grievance-laden Right see themselves as society’s primary victims, the history of their existence at the top of the racial-food chain notwithstanding.  As a proud ‘lib’ I would say that we Liberals don’t want to punish anyone, in fact the whole notion is ridiculous.  My third great grandparents owned slaves—I didn’t do that of course, but I’m here now, and it’s painfully obvious that unjust and inhumane conditions persist now precisely because my ancestors did that.  

AND—I am in no way diminished when public schools use books to tell the truth about my ancestors’ part in an inhumane institution.  Seems simple enough to me.   Obviously some don’t see it in such simple terms.  Which brings us back to books…

Because of books and writing more generally we have inched our way forward by alerting our species to mistakes already committed; there is no question that we’ve slowly increased the value of an individual life (we no longer hang horse thieves)—Whether a record of Anne Frank, Moses, St. Augustine, Mohammad, or Confucius, what there is to know—-what we need to know, has been recorded in books.  

Memories fade, books are forever, until they’re not.  No matter the current technology for reading them, the banning of books severs the only true lifeline our species has to the reality of the past.  When the witnesses are all dead, our ability to ‘pay forward’ the information required to avoid nefarious actors, and maybe even the human-catastrophes that litter the shores of History relies on the written record.  Attempts to destroy that record are really an attempt to return us to a primal state-of-nature wherein ‘might,’ and not history is the only authority.