Is This How the Book Burning Begins?
This is a reflection about our times. In recent weeks, the news has prompted me to ask this question. Yes, I’m sort of joking. Yes, it’s wordplay. But, to tell you the truth, it’s sort of not a joke. Not in my eyes. Here, I’ll examine current trends and dystopian models — and answer the burning question. Is this how the book burning begins?
If you’ve been following Voyage of the Mind for any time at all, you’ve probably picked up on my propensity for writing provocative pieces. I don’t like them too provocative. I don’t want to come out here and write something titled “Modern Liberalism is Destroying America,” though I could. Honestly, I don’t like throwing ideas in people’s faces.
But I do like approaching them from a slant — a provocative slant that makes people think (or so I choose to believe). When people read my work, I want them to ask questions and think deeply. This is my goal in writing “provocative” articles like this one. I think it’s really, really important for people to question not only their actions, but also the actions of others around them — and to think deeply about why things happen in a certain way, at a certain time and in a certain place.
What current events brought me to this train of thought?
A whole spat of them!
First off, there was the wholesale destruction of books in the Harry Potter series on the part of some fans following those tweets of J.K. Rowling’s. Please keep in mind that I’m not defending anyone here. I am just saying that the destruction of books put book burning in my mind — a train of thought you can probably follow.
Then there’s Gone With the Wind, a more serious example in my eyes. The discussion there began with the movie, not the book, but soon grew roots into the literary world.
Lastly, there’s the reinterpretation of Civil War-era stuff — books, statues, names — that’s been happening lately.
Why are these recent pieces of news worrisome to me?
If you’ve ever read dystopian fiction, you might have an idea why these recent pieces of news — and the idea of book burning in general — come as a bit of a worry. A lot of dystopian novels incorporate some component of the destruction of literary and historical materials. I just came off reading both The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s 1984 classic, as well as its sequel, The Testaments. (In fact, you can read my review here on the blog if you’re interested.) But there are a whole host of others. 1984… Brave New World… and, of course, the book all about book burning — Farhenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
Now, I’m not actually going to talk at length about any of these books, but suffice to say that with the spread of “cancel culture” — read more about what I think about cancel culture in my article devoted to the subject — and “trial” in the media, some sects of American society seem to be plummeting into “thought police” territory.
In my eyes, it’s a problem if you have to stop and wonder every single time you open your mouth who you’re going to offend and who’s going to step in to police you once you say something wrong. I agree that people should think before they talk and that you ought to expect some backlash when you say certain things. But at the same time, we have freedom of speech in this country. And freedom of speech, in my eyes, encompasses not only literal freedom of speech, but also the creation of a climate that’s conducive to free speech. That is, a climate that doesn’t frighten people into silence.
Unfortunately, in some liberal circles, people are being frightened into silence. This is part of the reason why liberal America has become more and more homogeneous over the past few years. It appears homogeneous because the people sitting at the top, the ones with the loudest and most hardline beliefs, have bullied a lot of others into silent submission. I don’t believe that all liberals are crazy. But some of them seem to have crazy ideas. Or, rather, not crazy — just not well thought-out.
In my opinion, it’s important to preserve history and literature.
The question is one of precedent. It’s a question about where we’ll draw the line.
Recently, there was a ludicrous article published about the movie version of Stephen King’s novel The Shining. It claimed that The Shining had not aged well because it depicted “abuse and violence.” The center of the argument was not that the cast had been abused in the process — but that the movie contained themes of abuse and violence.
This example was so beyond the pale that people of all stripes took to Twitter, questioning the article’s validity. Because, let’s be honest, The Shining is absolutely not meant to be a bright, sunny movie about ideal family life. And, let’s be honest again, most movies contain a lot of darkness.
This article would also give you the sense that the people in the 1980s (when The Shining came out) didn’t understand abuse and violence. Um, okay. Those people lived 40 years ago. You really think they were any different than we are now? In my opinion, human nature and even human culture don’t change that fast. Just look at history. Which repeats itself, if you haven’t noticed.
It’s a dark tunnel… and a slippery slope.
I understand complaints against certain pieces of literature and historical relics, like statues of Confederate generals. I really do understand these complaints. The point is not that I think the complaints are wrong. The point is that I think the action that’s taken is sometimes not thought out to the best of our abilities. Would you rather a single reactionary shove in “the right direction,” or a real reckoning?
Right now, we seem to favor reactionary shoves that build in one direction — and set dangerous precedents. You may not like the movie Gone With the Wind or its themes. But take a moment to consider. Do you want anyone to be able to get rid of any piece of media they don’t like? That’s the precedent you’re setting when you remove media from circulation, be those books, movies, or historical documents.
It’s particularly dangerous to destroy history. If we have any chance of learning from our past, we need to preserve every bit of history we can. Granted, Confederate monuments don’t fall into the kind of history I’m talking about, and because the Confederacy stood for slavery I favor the removal of those monuments. But a removal of monuments doesn’t constitute a rewriting of history. A rewriting of history occurs when pieces of information, like pieces of media, are systematically removed from the record. And that’s the slope that we’re unfortunately beginning to traverse today. In terms of historical documentation, the film Gone With the Wind is a hundred times more useful than a Confederate statue. Why? It shows what people thought at a given time in history. It gives us a gateway into their beliefs — beliefs we don’t want to repeat. Beliefs we want to study, so we know what went wrong.
America is at a point in its history where we need to take a hard look at the historical record and make changes going forward. I do believe that through a careful examination of history and the current climate, we can defeat systemic racism over time. Emphasis on over time. As unfortunate as it is, things like systemic racism don’t vanish overnight. Cultural change happens slowly. That’s not to say we can’t make progress quickly in the form of bills and and new laws, but we won’t change people’s hearts overnight.
I don’t think defeating racism will take a book burning. It shouldn’t take a book burning. If it does, we’ve resorted to the wrong tactics, tactics that will produce a tyrannical society, one in which the leading majority will be able to dictate happenings as they will. I don’t know about you, but that’s not the kind of society I want to live in.
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