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Geoff Johnson: Book-banning attempts have a long history

Through the centuries, expressing ideas not in line with prevailing leaders’ philosophy about history or the evolution of a culture in print form has proved extremely dangerous

Attempts of late by various American authorities to ban certain books from public school libraries — books like The Call of the Wild, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, Catcher in the Rye, Catch 22 and The Color Purple — echo centuries of similar efforts by those seeking to maintain power by controlling ideas.

Book banning, even here in Canada, is not a new political tactic. But we’ll get to that.

Back through the centuries, expressing ideas not in line with prevailing government philosophy about history or the evolution of a culture in print form proved extremely dangerous.

In 259–210 B.C., the Chinese emperor Shih Huang Ti is said to have buried alive 460 Confucian scholars in an attempt to control the writing of history in his time.

In 212 B.C., he burned all the books in his kingdom, retaining only a single copy of each for the Royal Library and those were destroyed before his death. With all previous historical documents and records destroyed, he thought history could be said to begin with him.

Sound familiar?

Fast forward to 1436, when German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg is credited with inventing the printing press.

With the newfound ability to inexpensively mass-produce books on every imaginable topic, revolutionary ideas and priceless ancient knowledge were placed in the hands of every literate European, whose numbers doubled every century.

That meant big trouble for “those above,” especially in the ecclesiastical world.

There’s a famous quote attributed to German religious reformer Martin Luther that sums up the role of the printing press in the Protestant Reformation: “Printing is the ultimate gift of God and the greatest one.”

As history would have it, Luther nailed his “95 Theses” — revolutionary religious ideas challenging the absolute hegemony of the Catholic Church — to the church door in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517.

University of Chicago historian Ada Palmer, whose field of expertise is the proliferation of ideas, says broadsheet copies of Luther’s document were being printed in London as quickly as 17 days later.

But historically, the dissemination of new ideas in printed form sometimes had lethal consequences.

Between 1524 and 1526, thousands of copies of William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament were printed in Germany and smuggled into England, where they were publicly burned in 1526 on the orders of London’s Roman Catholic bishop.

Church authorities in England insisted that the Bible would be available to its priests only in Latin and that only they would be able to read and interpret it.

In 1536, as a result of a plot masterminded by the English, Tyndale was arrested in Belgium, tried for heresy, and strangled and burned at the stake near Brussels.

A few of his translations were burned with him. Today, apparently only two copies and a fragment of Tyndale’s New Testament survive at London’s British Library.

But knowledge and intellectual challenges to those in power were not to be stifled so easily.

During the “Age of Enlightenment,” the intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, philosophers like John Locke, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were widely read among an increasingly literate populace.

Their elevation of critical reasoning above custom and tradition encouraged people to question religious and political authority and prize personal liberty.

Nor, at the same time, did the anti-literacy, anti-intellectual movement give up, either.

In 1933, a series of massive bonfires in Nazi Germany burned thousands of books written by Jews, communists and others not aligned with Nazi philosophy.

Included were the works of John Dos Passos, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, Lenin, Jack London, Thomas Mann, Karl Marx, Upton Sinclair, Stalin and Leon Trotsky.

Perhaps the most chilling reactionary aftermath of the 9/11 attack on New York was the almost immediate emergence of the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, passed by Congress in response to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.

The act gave the FBI power to collect information about the library borrowings, even book purchases, by any U.S. citizen.

Not that Canada is squeaky clean. Over the last two decades, numerous attempts by various individuals, religious groups or other authorities (some of whom may or may not have actually read the books in question) have sought to ban books not in sync with their own world view from school libraries

Canadian books that have come under the decency chopper include (predictably) The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), and, of course, the Harry Potter series by J.K.Rowling.

As prolific American author and historian Henry Steele Commager explained: “The fact is that censorship … will create a generation incapable of appreciating the difference between independence of thought and subservience.”

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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