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American Intellectual Freedom

Apparently, several weeks back, the American Library Association (ALA) organized a "Banned Books Week" campaign to draw attention to the problem of literary censorship. For a country where the most vocal patriots, whether liberal or conservative, love to yammer on about how they are the "greatest free country in the world," and then go to great lengths to bomb other people out of some desire to spread this freedom, it's somewhat amusing to know that American freedom implies intellectual censorship. There is a reason that Banned Books Week is not an organized campaign in other so-called "free" countries - the problem is very American.

The ALA has mapped the books that have been challenged and/or banned across the U.S. in public school libraries, public libraries, and sometimes academic libraries. They estimate that 70-80 % of banned books go unreported every year. And since banning books goes all the way back to the declaration of independence, banning books is pretty much an American tradition. Right up there with Mom and Apple Pie. So while a typical American liberal response might be to claim that censorship goes against "the fabric of American identity," or something equally vague, the fact that special interest groups feel empowered to mobilize against literature art and education - and have felt so since the birth of American intellectual life - intellectual censorship is very American. This is particularly amusing when we consider all the hooplah from the Cold War days surrounding communist censorship. Oscar audiences grow particularly weepy around movies like "The Lives of Others" that focus on East Germany's censorship of art. Or movies like "Kundun" and "The Red Violin" depict China during the Cultural Revolution as fanatically censorious.

And yet Americans have censored, and continue to censor, more books than the Soviets and Chinese ever censored. What's more, those responsible for this censorship are PROUD of it. The problem with the communists, I guess, is not that they censored books but that they censored the wrong books. If they had just known what books to censor, then they wouldn't be guilty of censorship.

This is a little confusing, so for convenience sake, I've provided a handy guide to understand American Freedom and Censorship - just so that we know what books can be banned without violating intellectual freedom. You know, with all those books out there it's getting harder for a concerned book-banner to know what s/he can get away with banning without infringing on American freedom.

1) Censorship:

2) Not Censorship:

(meaning everything else)

I'm not the biggest fan of liberal notions of free speech. In fact, I think radical notions of freedom must ask the question "whose freedom and for whom?" and that, in any socialist stage where the former ruling class is in danger of returning, reactionary ideology may need to be suppressed. That being said, I think America's traditional censorship policy is rather funny considering how often the American public likes to use the word "freedom" and complain that other places are not "as free." For those who claim that this censorship tradition runs counter to some nebulous notion of American freedom, I would counter that there really is no proof of an American tradition of intellectual freedom outside of a history of censorship. Nor can appeals be made to some "ideal notion" of freedom that the Founding Fathers supposedly had in mind when they were running their slave plantations and drafting constitutions. There is no "ideal" America. There is only the real America that permits book banning and then celebrates this banning as freedom.

Just to be clear, books are not generally suppressed in America for laudable reasons. The banned books are not written by neo-Nazis and other racists. Generally speaking, the most frequently challenged and/or banned books are targeted because they violate that American institution of "family values." Therefore, banned/challenged books are often pro-queer, possess sexual content (however vague), and generally "anti-American." The Diary of Anne Frank, for example, was targeted because of lesbian content. Sexual education material is treated as smut. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary was challenged at one middle school because it contained the definition of "oral sex."

Maybe I just don't understand the proper and real definition of "freedom" that Americans, since America is free, understand better than the rest of the world.

1) "Freedom"

Yes, thank goodness we have the freedom and privilege to raise our children as heterosexual protestants in a surrounding sea of barbaric spiritual bondage!

2) "Not Freedom"

Books are about thinking and thinking is against freedom. They must be burned so that the devil cannot use them to imprison our minds and souls!

Well I guess the fact that I can still order these books in stores means it's not censorship. And if I can't afford to buy the books that's my fault not the fault of the people yanking them from public libraries. That is just their freedom at work, and they are pursuing the real freedom - the freedom of family values.

This long-standing American tradition is designed to foster ignorance and prevent literacy. In an earlier entry I mentioned that the reactionary American right, like any fascist movement, wants to foster stupidity so that the poor will accept the terms of their poverty. By removing literature from public libraries, these book banning campaigns target accessible education.


  1. A good post overall. However, when you say that "And yet Americans have censored, and continue to censor, more books than the Soviets and Chinese ever censored", you misunderstand the very nature of Soviet censorship. There was no black list of books you couldn't read or publish in the Soviet Union. There was a list of books that you were allowed to read, teach, and know about. In order to get any book on that list (including, for example, XVI and XVII century classics of European literature), somebody had to prepare a detailed explanation of how these books served communist goals.

    The entire modernist literature (let alone the postmodern) was simply non-existent. I was a literature student in the post-Soviet Ukraine and we were still taught according to the textbooks and class plans of the Soviet era. For us, literature ended with the realists. In English literature, for example, pretty much nothing happened after Dickens. This, as you can imagine, left the entire XXth century literature completely unaccessible to the people of the Soviet Union.

    Also, entire continents were silenced. There was a huge animosity towards Spain and Portugal in the Soviet Union. As a result, no literature of the Hispanic and Luso-Brasilian world was even mentioned in any context.

    Censorship in the American academia is a problem that I, as a scholar of literature in the US, confront on a regular basis. Still, as somebody who has been able to compare and contrast the two systems, there is simply no comparison to how powerful and overwhelming censorship was in the Soviet Union.

  2. Yes, I agree that I made a rather blanket statement about that. There was definite censorship in the Soviet Union. The point I was trying (perhaps too rhetorically but that's the problem with blogs, no?) was that the American discourse around communist censorship during the cold war (a discourse that continues with movies like "The Lives of Others" - critiqued by artists who did experience that censorship and thought the movie was inaccurate) is utterly hypocritical.

    Also I would suggest that America did end up censoring more books historically - they just went about it in a different way. Books would be published but then yanked from shelves by special interest groups on a city-to-city basis. Entire literatures in the 1960s and 1970s, during the height of political repression, were denied publication. Small presses were raided.

    In any case, the real point is that there is no moral basis for America to claim superiority over Soviet (or Chinese) censorship when it is known as one of the world's censorship capitals.

  3. "In any case, the real point is that there is no moral basis for America to claim superiority over Soviet (or Chinese) censorship when it is known as one of the world's censorship capitals."

    -That's very true. America also has no right to claim superiority over the Soviet Union in terms of economy since the corporate bailouts of 2008-09 were done in truly Soviet fashion. The American taming of the unions that took place in the recent decades and almost completely castrated many of the unions is also very similar to the Soviet attitude to the unions.

    The Soviet and the US empires have a lot more in common than the proponents of preserving the Cold War mentality want to recognize.

  4. Indeed. Although I know we probably won't agree on this point, I do think it's important to understand why the CPC in the late 1960s (which was still revolutionary rather than state-capitalist, as would happen with Deng) went to great length to parallel the ideology of the Soviet Union at that time with the ideology of America. The idea that it had become a competing capitalism/imperialism was, at least at that time and for radical movements that rejected Soviet hegemony, a very important concept.


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