Anyone still innocent enough to believe in the perfectibility of the species is urged to ponder the following: The year is 1983, the place is the United States of America, and the occasion now being celebrated through the land is Banned Books Week. It has been almost two centuries since the states declared that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech," yet there can be no getting around it: We are being asked this week to contemplate the example of libraries that recently banned "Doris Day: Her Own Story" on the grounds that some of its contents are "shocking."
This hilarious decision by a couple of high schools in Alabama is probably more notable as an instance of unwitting self-parody than as anything else, but it does rather nicely prove the point that in what we like to think of as an enlightened age, ample soil still remains for the cultivation of human stupidity. Generations after the counsel of Thomas Jefferson should have been absorbed into the national character, Americans still go around pulling books off library shelves because they don't like the language in them, pressuring bookstore owners not to carry titles because they are offended by the activities described in them, demanding that schools eliminate texts from their courses because they are frightened by the ideas they contain.
The operative word is fear. The tendency is to think of book-burners and book-banners as ominous figures in brown shirts and white hoods, but that assumption is incorrect; quite often they turn out to be little young ladies in hair curlers. People who try to dictate what others may read do so not because they are strong and confident, but because they are weak and afraid. They fear that their attitudes toward sexual behavior and mores--attitudes usually shaped by ignorance, superstitition or religiosity--will be undermined if they find pleasure or stimulation in the description of sexual acts. They fear that emotions and sentiments they prefer to repress may find release in the strong language of others. They fear that ideas or prejudices in which their confidence is shaky will be exposed by the more coherent opinions of others.
So they organize--in the name of one god or another, one morality or another, one ism or another--and seek to expunge the ideas and words they fear. This unfortunate quirk of human nature greatly appalled poor old Jefferson, who was primarily responsible for assuring Americans the freedoms they are so eager to abuse. He once wrote: "I am mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, the sale of a book can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offense against religion; that a question like this can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this then our freedom of religion?"
Certainly there are those who would have it that way: The religious zealots, glassy-eyed adherents of faiths that crawled out of the primal ooze in Ol' Dixie or the Inscrutable Orient or points as yet unidentified, who believe that there is no god but theirs; the moral crusaders, whether on behalf of harsh repression or giddy liberation, who are intellectually incapable of imagining legitimate moral alternatives to their own inanities; the political radicals, of both the dizzy left and the nutty right, whose greatest longings would be achieved should their opponents find their way into permanent incarceration. These are the people who, obsessed by their private terrors and misgivings, would deny to the rest of us the right to read--or think--as we please.
They are also, it goes without saying, the people at whom Banned Books Week is directed. The campaign, which is sponsored by a veritable encyclopedia of great-hearted organizations ranging from the American Library Association to the Association of American Publishers, takes as its target the traditional enemies of anticensorship drives. Most of these, as it happens, are of the medium-to-hardcore right: religious and/or political fundamentalists, many of them packing nasty messages behind their unctuous, seductive words. For librarians and booksellers and publishers, these people are natural enemies; if they did not exist they probably would have to be invented, in order to provide whipping boys for the intellectually correct.
But disagreeable though many of these censors certainly are, they are not the only ones on the block. As has been pointed out by people at both ends of the political and cultural spectrum, there is another form of censorship, quiet and insidious in manner, that gets little or no notice--at least from those who are championing their own rectitude as sponsors of Banned Books Week. This is the censorship practiced by those special-interest groups who pressure school boards and textbook publishers into rewriting history so that it will accommodate their own points of view.
All of this was quite thoroughly documented several years ago in "America Revised," a study by Frances Fitzgerald of the ways in which pressure groups attract the attention of writers, publishers and teachers of history. Angered (sometimes with reason) because they consider American history to have been fenced off as a primarily WASP, male preserve, these groups have fought in recent years for bigger pieces of the pie--in the process too often demanding not merely that the record be corrected but that it be skewed on their behalf. Blacks pitch for greater emphasis on black accomplishments; feminists want more attention paid to the role of women; homosexuals want questions of "sexual preference" taken into consideration. Organizations representing these and other interests know how to use threats of political reprisal to scare a school board, and threats of boycott to scare a textbook publisher; the result has been a hectic and unseemly scramble to alter the pages of history to keep them happy.
Precisely how this differs from the censorship practiced by the fundamentalists and right-wingers is difficult to discern. There may be differences in style, but there are none in substance. All of these groups want, for purely self-interested reasons, to exercise control over the books and articles that other people read. That some of the causes and points of view they represent are exemplary is absolutely irrelevant; twisting history for the sake of a good cause is, stripped of self-serving rhetoric, twisting history. Indeed, the claims that these interests make on the nation's moral attention are greatly diminished by the efforts they simultaneously undertake to distort--as opposed to rectify--the historical record to their advantage.
So let us by all means have Banned Books Week, but let's not limit our outrage to those censors whose viewpoints are anathema to the intellectual orthodoxy. Censorship takes many forms; the person who attempts to remove a book from the shelves and the person who attempts to distort the contents of a book are up to the same dirty business.