Opinion

Censorship is as old as the pharaohs — and as new as today

History's lessons on book burning are lessons we haven't learned

"There was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves," Ray Bradbury wrote of the reasons behind censorship in his story Usher II, part of The Martian Chronicles.

While Bradbury more famously took on censorship in his book Fahrenheit 451, in some ways this quote best summarizes the human need to blot out information we don't like. The fear he described is once again visible in Florida right now.

And how far back does this fear go? As far as civilization itself.

In ancient Egypt, pharaohs who didn't like their predecessors would literally deface their monuments — taking the faces off their statues and reworking the stone into their own likeness. They also removed cartouches (pre-classical nameplates) from buildings or other objects, chipping away with hammer and chisel. Cartouches were considered so important because they were thought to contain a part of the owner's soul.

The first Roman emperor, Augustus, concerned about the legitimacy of his rule, tried to snuff out information he didn't like, including records of senatorial proceedings. He even exiled poets, such as Ovid, who wrote works he didn't like.

And the desire to limit access to information is not a Western thing. It's a global thing, with the East's history just as long as the West's.

Perhaps every religion, at one point or another, has tried to ensure its way to the truth would be the only one people could know. Nonreligious ideologies have done this too: The Nazis' book burnings of 1933 are rightly famous for their horror, and they previewed other horrors to come. Author Helen Keller's works championing social justice and equality for the disabled were among those burned, and the Nazis would later try to systematically kill the disabled to remove "useless eaters" from their "more perfect" Germany.

What the Nazis did wasn't original, nor did anyone seemingly learn from it. Americans have famously burned lots of different books, or at least worked to make sure they never darken the door of any library in the Union. My favorite, in several senses, is Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. I wrote my senior thesis on it in college, unoriginally positing the Mississippi River as a metaphor for a journey into growing darkness. Huckleberry Finn has been in trouble since its publication, just like the titular boy himself.

Some people didn't like the friendship between a poor white boy and the Black slave, Jim. Others said the language (it's written almost entirely in dialect) makes Southerners sound stupid. And then there's Huck's troubling (if historically accurate) use of the N-word throughout.

It's a disturbing book. It's meant to be a disturbing book — to disturb the status quo — that's why Twain wrote it. So you're disturbed? Good. I've heard it said that Jesus disturbed a lot of people, too.

Books belong on shelves, not pyres, and I'm hard-pressed to think of anything that doesn't belong somewhere in a library. Don't want to read it? Don't check it out. And I'll stick by that till the end for adults — maybe even most high school students. But kids in elementary school and middle school classrooms? That's where my resolve starts to crumble.

Thinking of the children is the most compelling excuse for censorship. It can lead down a slippery slope right to the devil, too. People are always concerned about their children's education. They move across town for the better school. They lie, cheat, and steal to get their kids in where they want them to go. And who wants their children to be taught something they believe is factually incorrect or, worse, immoral?

The sad thing for a free speech near-absolutist like myself is that children genuinely are impressionable. Otherwise, they wouldn't be able to learn anything, and they need to be able to learn everything to grow up and function in society. And not only are children more absorbent than a roll of Bounty paper towel, but they don't get to choose what they are taught. Adults can choose for them and must choose carefully. Right now, many people are concerned about critical race theory, and it's leading to serious issues around the country, including which math textbooks get into Florida classrooms.

This is something it is critical to get right. It is also something we never will get right, not least because what seems "right" at one time will most certainly be wrong at another. Huck Finn makes that obvious enough.

The problem is who will be the arbitrator of what gets into our schools. Who do we trust to get this right? Elected officials who blow with the wind? School board members with axes to grind? Parents who have no particular expertise to decide how children should be taught — but undeniable interest in what their children are learning?

Here is where I should turn to a panel of perfect experts, philosopher kings of education. Unfortunately, as even Plato knew, these are but ideals we must strive for, not realities we live with. So, we'll continue to do our best with this mixed muddle and hope that what we decide is not simply the sum of our fears.

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