The History of Book Banning

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From Publishers Weekly:

As a historian of literacy, I coined the phrase “the literacy myth” to identify, explain, and criticize the former consensus that reading and writing (and sometimes arithmetic) are sufficient in themselves, regardless of degree of proficiency or social context, to transform the lives of individuals and their societies.

In late 2021, I’m confronted with an unprecedented “new illiteracy”—another version of the ever-shifting literacy myth. The historical continuities are shattered by, first, the call to ban books in innumerable circumstances; second, the banning of written literature without reading it; and, third, calls for burning books. This constitutes a movement for illiteracy, not a campaign for approved or selective uses of reading and writing.

Banning books from curricula, erasing them from reading lists, and ridding them from library shelves has mid-20th-century precedents; the burn books movement does not. Nor does the banning of books without censors reading them to identify their offending content.

Banning books is an effort, unknowingly, to resurrect the early modern Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation against both radical Catholics and early Protestants, which attempted to halt unauthorized reading, including curtailing the ability of individuals to read for themselves. Then seen as a “protest,” individual access to written or printed texts was perceived as threatening in ways that controlled oral reading to the “masses” by a priest or other leader was not. It enforced orthodoxy and countered both collective and individual autonomy.

The similarities and differences between today and a half millennium ago are powerful. Both movements are inseparable from ignorance, rooted in fear, and expressed in both legal and extralegal struggles for control and power. Both are inextricably linked to other efforts to restrict free speech, choice and control over one’s body, political and civil rights, public protests, and more.

Once led by the established church, censorship crusades to ban written materials of all sorts are today supercharged by right-wing politicians, radical evangelicals, and supporting activists. In the eyes of some, these politicians are opportunistic.

Despite media comments and condemnation by professors, teachers, librarians, and First Amendment attorneys, these issues are poorly understood. Parents of school-age children are confused. The young, supposedly in the name of their protection, face the greatest threat to intellectual and psychological development. That danger is most severe for the racially and gender diverse, who see themselves being erased or banned.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

The author of the OP is a professor emeritus at Ohio State University. PG suggests that, while he undoubtedly knows the history of book bans, etc., he doesn’t understand or ignores the current nature of this type of activity on college and university campuses across the United States and, perhaps, elsewhere.

Today, it’s more often the radical left that is attacking individuals and their writings for wrongthink.

From The Washington Times:

“Mr. Bean” actor Rowan Atkinson compared cancel culture to a “medieval mob looking for someone to burn.”


No one is immune to woke politics. It doesn’t matter how long ago a person made their irredeemably “offensive” comments, or how passionate their apologies are — the social media mob takes no prisoners.

. . . .

Below is a list of the top 10 cancellations, all that have occurred within the last year. Many on this list are notable names, people who will find other work and/or have the position and power to stand up to the woke crowd.

It’s the names not represented who are the true victims — like those who have had their college acceptances rejected because of a social media post they made in high school — who were canceled before they ever could get started. They are not famous, and their names are not known.

Not surprisingly, cancel culture cuts one way. If you say something too conservative and mildly offensive, the woke hall monitors on social media will find you. And if you’re famous, all the better, as Hollywood and corporate America seems to have embraced this new form of blacklisting:

  • Mike Lindell — The CEO of My Pillow said his company was ditched by nearly 20 retailers after he publicly questioned the electoral results of the 2020 presidential election and made his election fraud claims into a movie. Lindell is an unwavering supporter of former President Donald Trump and visited him in the White House on Jan. 15 — five days before Mr. Trump left office.
  • Chris Harrison – The longtime host of ABC’s “The Bachelor” franchise decided to “step aside” after defending current contestant Rachael Kirkconnell when old photos surfaced of her attending an Old South antebellum party. “While I do not speak for Rachael Kirkconnell, my intentions were simply to ask for grace in offering her an opportunity to speak on her own behalf,” Harrison explained. “What I now realize I have done is cause harm by wrongly speaking in a manner that perpetuates racism, and for that I am so deeply sorry.”
  • J.K. Rowling — The famous author of the Harry Potter series has faced backlash for voicing her fears that the push for transgender rights will ultimately endanger women’s rights. She’s since defended her comments on her website and joined 150 authors and academics denouncing “cancel culture.” These actions have only further infuriated her critics, who called for a boycott of her books and for her publisher to stop paying royalties.
  • Adam Rubenstein — The former New York Times opinion editor and writer resigned from the paper in December, six months after its staff went into an uproar over a piece he edited by Sen. Tom Cotton. The column by Arkansas Republican argued for the federal government to “send in the troops” to quell violence in cities throughout the country in response to civil unrest following the death of George Floyd. Former editor Mari Weiss wrote on Twitter about the resignation: “Adam was hung out to dry by his own colleagues. Then he and his work were lied about, including in this mendacious editor’s note.”
  • Gina Carano — The “Mandalorian” actress was fired by Disney after posting on social media that being a Republican in 2021 was similar to being Jewish during Nazi Germany. Her Hollywood agent dropped her, and Hasbro scrapped her “Star Wars” action figures

. . . .

  • Matthew Yglesias — The liberal opinion writer resigned from Vox, a publication he co-founded, after many of his woke colleagues found his articles too right of center. Mr. Yglesias argued against defunding the police this summer and took aim at the liberal term “Latinx” as alienating many people from progressive politics and the Democratic Party. He has since joined Substack, so he can voice his opinions more freely.
  • Washington/Lincoln/Jefferson — The former U.S. presidents’ names have been wiped from San Francisco public schools after the school board decided to rename 44 schools that had “ties to racism” and “dishonorable legacies.”
  • Sen. Josh Hawley – The Missouri Republican was dropped from his publisher, and Democrats have called for his resignation after he raised a challenge to the electors in Pennsylvania, siding with Mr. Trump and saying the state violated its own Constitution in conducting the 2020 presidential election. In the New York Post, he defended his actions, writing: “I, for one, am not going to back down. My book will be published, and I will continue to represent the people of my state without fear or favor, whatever the left or the corporations say.

End of Washington Times quote.

PG doesn’t doubt that some on the radical right are doing or attempting to do the same thing. However, in the United States, the mainstream media are generally controlled by those who are well left-of-center and contemporary wokism is a creation that originated on the left.

PG is suggesting that a group of people loudly attacking an individual or small group for their words and opinions and attempting to harm them financially or physically, as opposed to making an alternative argument to the one they believe is wrong-headed is a slippery slope that has and can lead to a great deal of harm to a society that is difficult to remedy.

Consider the bourgeoisie in Soviet Russia, the Jews in Nazi Germany and a great many other examples of ethnic cleansing as examples of where great intolerance of those who differ in opinion, race, etc., has and still can lead to horrible consequences.

13 thoughts on “The History of Book Banning”

  1. Washington/Lincoln/Jefferson — The former U.S. presidents’ names have been wiped from San Francisco public schools after the school board decided to rename 44 schools that had “ties to racism” and “dishonorable legacies.”

    — Shoddy opinionating. That naming proposal never flew, and there is a school board recall on the ballot.

    • (CNN)The San Francisco Unified School District voted this week to rename 44 schools named after controversial public figures, including former Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and current Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
      Jan 27, 2021

      (New York Post) San Francisco’s school board late Tuesday night overturned its controversial plan to rename dozens of schools with names its members claimed honor “racist” historical leaders.
      April 7, 2021

      (BallotPedia) Recall elections against three of the seven members of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education in California are on the ballot on February 15, 2022. Petitions to recall board members Gabriela López, Alison Collins, and Faauuga Moliga were certified in October 2021.

  2. Right-wing politicians?

    Elizabeth Warren calls for Amazon to ban books from its platform.

    “This pattern and practice of misbehavior suggests that Amazon is either unwilling or unable to modify its business practices to prevent the spread of falsehoods or the sale of inappropriate products—an unethical, unacceptable, and potentially unlawful course of action from one of the nation’s largest retailers,”

  3. One of the great myths/mysteries of modern discourse (not just in the US, either) is who really controls communication conduits — ranging from local newspapers to various print publishers to electronic media. As usual with any complex system, it is not amenable to any quick and easy answer, and substantial exceptions can be found to each and every generalization.

    Consider, for example, who controls the portion of “the media” that purports to cover “the publishing industry.” (Hint: Even defining those two terms is extraordinarily difficult; is The Passive Voice part of it, thereby making PG a media mogul? If not, why not — and does that definition consistently and intellectually honestly also exclude Publishers’ Marketplace, and why?) If the definition of “control” is “immediate influence, day to day, over whether a specific story is made available to the public”* one’s answer will be different from “assigns specific stories to specific reporters” from “determines whether a specific freelance contributor’s contributions may/ever will be made available to the public through that outlet” from “engages in smoke-filled-back-room discussions with peers at other publications regarding the suitability of particular authors for making available to the public” from “directs overall impression left” from “monitors outside influences” from “signs paychecks” from “sits on the board of directors” from “has a substantial-enough interest that could fire an individual for producing or authorizing a ‘disagreeable’ piece” from “tyrant whose perceived interests must be fawningly approved even if the perception is wrong.”

    And that very discussion, even more egregiously, presumes so direct a relationship between “predispositions of those in control, whoever the hell they are” and “what they will choose to make available to the public on specific issues” that it’s difficult to comprehend. A one-word rejoinder from over two centuries in the past is sufficient: Voltaire. (Really. Just try to place Voltaire — his writings, his personal history, his publishing history — on a left/right or liberal/conservative axis, either of the time or as we’d view it now.)

    So these questions strongly resemble the Michelson-Morley experiment, which had as a fundamental assumption an assumption about the nature of reality that turned out to be inaccurate, and ended up proving both that assumption and a number of other things incorrect. (Only to be later revised, of course.) By no means am I claiming that there is no bias in “the media,” for whatever slice of it one is considering; I am only claiming that the way one frames the inquiry into and finds that bias determines the result.

    * The Berne Convention rightly calls it this. “Sold” and “first sale” are disturbingly misleading terms bound up in class conventions of nineteenth-century real property transactions, and bury — no, utterly ignore — questions like “what about copyright interests in a public address?” and “can graffiti and other street art ever generate a copyright interest?” and “do unpaid blog entries count?”

    • Well, “Publishing Media” can be reasonably described as publications that get a major portion of their revenues from BPHs sources and thus parrot the party line to keep cash flowing. 😉

      No different than “movie critics” who never say anything bad about Disney movies under peril of losing access. (Disney is known to *always* retaliate.) So if a given “critic” has nothing to say before release they are either playing it safe or blacklisted.

      No need to issue marching orders.

  4. I am pleased to see the “cancel culture” critique expanded to include a political publication insisting that its writings agree with its politics. This nicely illustrates the vapidity of the critique–how it is not a substantive argument offered in good faith.

  5. I’ll point out that woke is a term that the left came up with to describe themselves. It’s not something the right invented.

    • “Woke” came out of the African-American community. The expression “stay woke” dates to the 1930s, meaning to stay alert to racial prejudice and discrimination, and to vote. It is still used essentially the same way, whether by African-Americans, by White Progressives, or by Conservatives. The difference is merely whether they approve of this awareness.

  6. I’m not a fan of cancel culture, whether it’s from the left bitching about an alt-right-wing fascist coming to spew venom at some college venue hosted by a conservative student organization, or the right for losing their minds over a black athlete daring to kneel during the national anthem in silent protest of the pervasive racism in ‘Merkuh. The intolerant should not be tolerated.

    Wokism is a lovely term to use against an opponent, it sounds like the target is such an idiot for whatever it is they’re protesting. Like conservative tankie, Tucker Carlson, who uses his propaganda show to defend Russian aggression against Ukraine one moment, then decries that lefties are making the Green M&M “less sexy”. I wish I was joking. So, be careful about pointing fingers because both sides are being stupid, but there’s one side that is often more malicious and is currently proving to be dangerous to the democracy, free expression, and even existence, of the people of this, laughably, “United” States.

    • And then you have the progressives like Don Lemon and Rachel Maddow who spent the entirety of summer 2020 covering for the people lighting America’s cities on fire and talking about how anyone who didn’t completely agree with BLM about both what the problems and solutions were, or just wasn’t fond of rioting, was an evil white supremacist.

      Say what you will about the wisdom of Carlson’s stance on Ukraine (He’s wrong, and not only that but wrong for the wrong reasons), but forcing people to actually think about why we’re sending Americans to potentially die to keep Moscow out of Kiev and reminding them that a war with Russia would not be the walkover that the first stage of Gulf War II was is not, in fact “dangerous to the democracy, free expression, and even existence, of the people of this, laughably, ‘United’ States.”

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