Smother Thought, Kill A Nation

COMMENT

October 03, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain is often considered to be the best American novel ever written.

It's one of the few classics endorsed for reading by young and old alike. It's also probably one of the few classics that is widely read (at least parts of it), instead of being praised but ignored by the general reading public.

But that novel has also been a book worthy of banning by various generations. It was proscribed for its bad grammar and immoral messages in the last century. Most recently, it has been decried for its demeaning depiction of blacks.

But Huck Finn just keeps rolling along, like the Mississippi River he admired, and is discovered with joy by succeeding generations who seem to navigate remarkably well the shoals and eddies of dialect and custom from the distant yesteryear. The picaresque novel keeps bumping up against the shifting sandbars of newfound sensitivities, prompting calls for its abolition.

The Twain novel shares its banned status with hundreds of books that are still on the shelves of libraries and schools and bookstores, having braved the battle and won.

There was an interesting selection of such titles at the Little Professor Book Center in the Festival at Bel Air shopping center last week, marking the 12th annual Banned Books Week.

It's an observance promoted by the libraries and booksellers to celebrate the right to free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The Bible was there. So was Shakespeare's "Hamlet," a whimsical book by Dr. Seuss, "The Diary of Anne Frank" and Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter."

It's an illustrious list. We of the enlightened community can view these examples with amusement and smug condescension.

None of us would be so narrow-minded as to demand that a disagreeable book be banned. Or would we?

Book banning is not like a disease that is eradicated from our midst by a vaccine. It's a persistent virus that always seems to find hospitable environs from which to regroup and multiply, ever mutating into new strains.

We probably won't call it book-banning if we're involved. We'll see it as defense of morality, prevention of bigotry, assuring historical accuracy, maintaining acceptable standards of society. That's not the same thing as those ignorant censors of the past prohibiting the works of Shakespeare, or Cervantes, or Homer.

Or is it?

Truth is, most of us try to exercise censorship in deciding what our family should and should not read (or view or hear.) Then we find like-minded folk and jointly try to extend that discrimination to the community.

The American Library Association hears about hundreds of cases each year where groups have tried to remove books from public schools or libraries.

At the bookstore exhibit, there's a monograph listing 40 pages of titles that have been the target of community objections throughout this country in recent times.

The majority of incidents involve decisions on age-appropriate reading material in schools, which seems acceptable to many people just so long as they have the say on what age is appropriate.

There's no divine authority on that matter, either, whether it be a library science diplomate or a certified school teacher.

Communities clearly do decide such matters. Even then, the battles are brutal over what age should have access to the disputed titles and where the books should be available.

The mere fact that there is conflict over such decisions underlines the danger of banning access by all to the books in question without abrogating our rights to freedom of speech and expression.

It's not just blatant pornography or torture. It's hate-mongering and religious supremacy and anarchy and blueprints for self-destruction or destruction of others. But these inflammatory ideas, more appealing in fictional attire than in the drab dress of propaganda and polemic, demand open discussion rather than prohibition, which irresponsibly adds to their allure.

Ideas are dangerous but even more dangerous to a democratic society is the proscription of ideas. From a diversity of ideas the concept of freedom flourishes. "Where opinions are free, truth will prevail," as John Stuart Mill wrote. Truth often changes, too, as more opinions flourish.

In the past few years, John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" has become a frequent target of bans, even though written a half-century ago. Perhaps it's the release of a new movie version last year that has sparked renewed interest and attempts at censorship.

Surprisingly, most of the objections to the book in schools relate to the use of "profanity," strong evidence that the would-be book-banners haven't been on a school campus in decades.

I'd think parents might be more concerned about the impact on adolescents of the controversial ideas in that powerful and poignant work, about the taking of life and attitudes toward the mentally retarded.

But that's what makes censorship so appealing -- and so distasteful.

Because it's what I decide is good or bad for you that matters, not what you decide.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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