Just the Worst: A Celebration of Banned Book Week
In 1637, English lawyer and colonist Thomas Morton, founder of the Merrymount colony that eventually became Quincy, Massachusetts, published a book that was not very complimentary of his Puritan neighbors.
According to Morton, who had been pretty successful in establishing trade and good relations with the Native Americans in the vicinity of his colony, the Puritans were generally unfair, dishonest, abusive, and hateful. He also had some unflattering nicknames for them.
Prior to writing his book, Morton had attempted to expel the Puritans from Massachusetts with a lawsuit that rested on their alleged misrepresentation of their purpose for establishing a colony in the first place. They’d done so in a different location than originally planned as well, and in a location to which someone else technically held the rights. He won the suit.
The lawsuit had come on the tail of a particularly nasty encounter between Morton and his neighbors. Despite his own traditional Anglican beliefs, Morton engaged in his fair share of passive aggressive paganistic behavior of the variety that would drive a Puritan mad. When he erected an eighty-foot-tall maypole and invited his Algonquin friends over for a raging kegger, the highly offended Puritans arrested him, cut down his maypole, burned down his colony, and left him to die stranded on a rocky, coastal island.
Fortunately, Morton had managed to make himself some friends by throwing the best parties and, you know, not slaughtering them, and so he survived the ordeal. If the legal decision that revoked the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter had been enforced, that might have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. And so, Morton wrote his offensive book.
New English Canaan, which today is considered a historically significant literary work of the American colonial period, consists of three parts. The first is a primarily positive view of Native American customs. The second is an account of the natural history of Massachusetts. And the third is a satirical look at why Puritans are just the worst.
The book was originally published in the Netherlands, where anti-English books of the day tended to be published. Not all that surprisingly, most of the copies were initially seized and destroyed by the English government. The few copies that managed to circulate were quickly condemned and banned by the Puritans, making New English Canaan the first banned book in America.
Today there are just sixteen original copies of Morton’s book in existence, though it has been republished with plenty of scholarly criticism and is freely available on the internet. I haven’t read it, but honestly, the mere fact that it was banned makes me kind of want to pick it up.
I might just do so, in honor of Banned Book Week. The annual event is celebrated this week by the American Library Association and by intelligent, thoughtful people everywhere who are not the busy-body mom crusaders across the nation that have for some reason decided they are responsible for monitoring the reading material of everyone else’s children.
I feel compelled, too, as long as I am standing up here on my soapbox, to state that such people shout on each side of the political aisle, as is evidenced by the practice of revenge banning being attempted at a truly alarming rate.
At this point I am so frustrated by the book banners I, probably unfairly, assume that if given the chance they would cut down a maypole, burn down a school, and banish all the librarians to die alone on a rocky, coastal island. All in the noble name of keeping children safe from just the kind of intellectual stimulation and freedom of thought that could help them to develop into critical thinkers. Just the worst.
Thank heavens for the majority of parents who recognize that censorship belongs in their private homes and families, along with their noses. Thank heavens, too, for the librarians who, too often without support from their district administrators, are standing up for the freedom to read. And shame on the politicians who are not.
Happy Banned Book Week to all!
The Title of this Post has Been Censored
In March of 1919, noted socialist activist Kate Richard O’Hare, fresh from the Missouri State Penitentiary where she had been briefly imprisoned for interfering with military recruitment through her anti-war speech, arrived in Des Moines, Iowa where she was scheduled to speak at the public library auditorium.
There she was denied the right to present by city librarian Forrest Spaulding who claimed the auditorium had been booked under false pretenses, stating “I believe that I have the support of the large majority of citizens of Des Moines whose interests I am endeavoring to serve.”
I don’t doubt that he was correct about a majority supporting him, but I question his assertion that he was serving their best interests by denying space for a perspective many might have found unpalatable. And it turns out, he probably questioned it, too.
Because by 1940, his tune had changed dramatically. That’s when a local minister approached him about banning Hitler’s Mein Kampf from the library shelves, to which Spaulding responded, “If more people had read Mein Kampf, some of Hitler’s despotism might have been prevented.” It wasn’t the material that frightened him nearly as much as the “small minds” who wished to prevent others from engaging intellectually with controversial ideas.
He was also pretty outspoken against the frequent banning of Grapes of Wrath, for which I am grateful because it was one of the better books I was required to read in high school. And it was the fight over access to that book that led the American Library Association in 1939 to adopt the Library Bill of Rights, a slightly more generalized version of the one created specifically for the Des Moines Library by Forrest Spaulding in November of 1938.
The wording of that document has been tweaked a little through the years, but it’s still going strong and you should click here and read it, because it’s important. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Now, this is more or less an apolitical blog. As a writer who is not apolitical in my personal life, I do try very hard to keep it that way. I think there should be some places where we all can just have fun. But about this one issue I will shout loudly from every corner of every platform I ever have the opportunity to occupy.
Censorship is the death of freedom. And willfully ignoring or silencing the voices on the other side of an argument only leads to increased violence and instability. That’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. That’s a human thing.
Politically speaking, we’re still going through a rough patch here in the US. It’s been building for a long while and for a lot of reasons and it’s erupted in violence and destructive behavior more in the past few years than it had for quite a while. I think it’s safe to say that no matter our individual political bents, that’s kind of scary.
I remain optimistic that we’ll eventually weather it okay, not without fallout of course, but hopefully with the opportunity to move forward and be better. However, I am absolutely convinced that it will only get rougher if we silence one another.
And so, I ask you, please listen and consider, especially when those you tend to agree with are saying you shouldn’t. Turn on the channels you have a hard time watching, reach out to your friends who post things that make you want to block them, read the books and articles by authors you aren’t sure you trust, and look up the actual wording of the speeches of those politicians you wouldn’t mind seeing thrown out of office.
Don’t do this because you’ll likely find something to agree with them on. You might. You might not. Don’t do it because it will feel good. Because it probably won’t.
Do it because the humanity of the person on the other side of the argument matters as much as your own. Do it because they don’t really understand how you reached your conclusions, either, and maybe in the act of listening and considering, you both might see that your differing perspectives don’t actually make you all that different from one another.
It’s not too late to be part of the solution, even if we’ve failed in the past.
Forrest Spaulding once disallowed a speech by someone many of his library patrons would have found disagreeable. And by the standards he himself later laid out, that was the wrong thing to do. He then went on to speak out against censorship and was included on the American Library Association’s list of the hundred most important library leaders of the 20th century.
I know you may not think that such a list is a big deal, but I bet that like me, you know a few great librarians. So, consider that Mrs. G., the wonderful children’s librarian in my hometown when I was a kid, is not on that list. This is the woman who listened to me drone on and on about the books she’d probably read a hundred times because she knew that a reader becomes a thinker and a thinker becomes a person who can stand up and speak for the rights of all. That made a difference in my life and, I’m guessing, in a lot of lives. And she’s not even in the top 100.
And this is where I tell you that this morning, I very nearly decided to pull this post and replace it with a sillier, lighter re-run from the Practical Historian archives. Ah, the irony.
But next week will be sillier.
Facebook to Ban Benjamin Franklin for Inciting Violence
On October 22 of 1730 The Pennsylvania Gazette ran a truly incendiary story. It was an account of a good old-fashioned witch trial, and it displayed a great deal of unforgivable misjudgment on the part of the newspaper to run it at all.
Two defendants, a male and female stood accused, but were clever enough to willingly subject themselves to the trial on the condition that two of their accusers stood with them. The four, then, were first weighed against the largest Bible anyone could find. As everyone surely knows, the Bible will outweigh any soulless witch. Of course, it didn’t. Not even the smallest of them.
The next part of the trial, before six hundred peers of the accused, took place at the mill pond since, logically, witches float. The two men and two women were bound and dunked. If they drowned, then they clearly couldn’t be witches. If they managed to surface, they’d best be burned at the stake.
But that didn’t go exactly as planned, either. The first to surface was the male accuser who explained that if he was a witch, he certainly had no knowledge of it. It’s hard to fault a guy for that. And then there were the ladies whose flimsy shifts must surely have made them more buoyant, as 18th century women’s clothing tended to do. The appropriate decision was made to postpone the trial for a warmer day when the ladies could be presented naked, just to reassure the crowd of highly proper Puritans that nothing improper was going on.
Because the article was clearly entirely factual, not satirical in the least bit, and inflamed such violence against, well someone, probably, Facebook decided to take it down and immediately suspend any ability for The Pennsylvania Gazette to share content on its massive and far-reaching platform.
Obviously, I jest. As far as I know Facebook never did any such thing to The Pennsylvania Gazette or to the author of the satirical “A Witch Trial at Mount Holly.” That author happened to be the young polymath Benjamin Franklin who would go on to help birth a nation, invent bifocals, and make questionable choices regarding electricity and poultry. He also was fond of writing satire and of making a little fun of the hypocrisy in Puritan culture.
And in 1730, Facebook could take a joke.
But apparently not in 2020.
This past week, Facebook removed a post by the Babylon Bee, a publication that, to the best of my knowledge, has never electrocuted a turkey and has only ever been known as a satire site. We’re talking really silly stuff here, like the recent articles: “Senators Vow to Hold Big Tech Accountable by Flying them to D. C. and Saying Mean Things to Them” and “Embarrassed Pope Realizes He’s Been Reading the Bible Upside Down this Whole Time.”
To be fair, neither of those is the really disturbing article that made Facebook demonetize the Babylon Bee’s page with cries that their article incites violence. The truly dangerous post was about the entirely factual senate confirmation hearing for supreme court nominee Amy Coney Barrett in which she was accused of being a witch by Senator Hirono of Hawaii, who is wise in the ways of science, and who insisted the nominee’s soul be weighed against a duck.
Oh wait, that can’t be right. That’s a schtick from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You know, I bet Senator Hirono didn’t even say anything about Amy Coney Barrett being a witch just because she has so much poise and apparently no need for notes in order to answer hard-hitting questions that she literally legally cannot answer.
Huh. I see what they did there. That’s clever. It’s probably even worth a chuckle. And violence. So much violence. Actually, I am feeling a little incited here. Thank goodness for Facebook’s censorship, or who knows what I might do.
Well, what I might do is get put into Facebook prison for this post, which frankly, would be a badge of honor. So feel free to share away, and let’s just see what happens.