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.

Amsterdam: Jacob Frederick Stam, publisher, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Image by Pretty Sleepy Art from Pixabay

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.  

Carol M. Highsmith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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!

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.

That’s a witch if I ever saw one. Or at least one of these people probably is. unattributed, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Yes, that Benjamin Franklin. He was much funnier than he looks. By David Martin – The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9390044

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.

Puritans Inhaling Swamp Gas

Sometime in late February of 1639, a man by the name of James Everell, along with two of his Puritan buddies, rowed his boat up the Muddy River of Massachusetts and spotted a weird light in the sky. The light appeared as a large flame, about three yards square, and then began to dart around the sky, taking on a different shape, like that of a swine, presumably still on fire.

pig roast
Maybe that fancy, dancy light was just the aliens’ way of inviting the men to a pig roast. photo credit: eric dickman Pig Roast ’05 via photopin (license)

After a few mesmerizing hours of watching the flaming pig streak back and forth across the sky, the three men realized that during that time, they had somehow ended up a mile upstream from where they’d been with no recollection of how they’d gotten there.

But here’s the really strange part. These three pals actually told people they’d watched a flaming pig fly through the night sky. By people, I mean they told John Winthrop, then governor of the Massachusetts Colony and among the puritanest of Puritans. On March 1, 1639 he wrote down the account in his now well-studied diary. It’s clear he found the tale a little odd, but also that he believed the tale-tellers to be credible men who generally made pretty bang-up witnesses.

JohnWinthrop
John Winthrop. If this man told me he’d been abducted by aliens, I’d probably believe him. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a few possible explanations, then, for what these reliable men saw. First, and obviously most likely, this could be the earliest written account of a North American UFO sighting and alien abduction. Alternatively, these gentlemen could have been boating to a safe distance away from the stocks before overindulging in their puritanical beer. Or of course the whole thing could just be an example of spontaneously igniting swamp gas reflecting off Venus.

Governor Winthrop proposed another explanation nearly five years later when two similar events occurred. During the second of these later events, a voice accompanied the mysterious lights. Winthrop’s most reliable witnesses said they heard the words, “Boy! Boy! Come away! Come away!”

The governor notes fourteen days later, the same voice could be heard again. The reason, he suggests, is that the colony had recently experienced a nearby shipwreck resulting in an explosion. All the victims’ bodies were accounted for except one. Logically, Winthrop theorized the Devil had possessed the body and was now using it, along with a freaky light show, to terrorize the colonists. Hmm. Maybe.

foil hat
This guy knows what I’m talking about. photo credit: c r i s They’re Coming To Take Me Away / 135.365 via photopin (license)

Then again, perhaps a bunch of enthusiastic otherworldly visitors were calling to their human would-be abductees as they have so many times in generations since. Personally, I’m a little skeptical, but perhaps you’re not. Perhaps you, or someone whose story you find credible, have experienced something that to the rest of us might seem a little far out there.

If so, then National Alien Abduction Day, observed in the US on March 20 every year for at least the last decade, may be just the day for you. As for me, I think I’ll avoid the swamp gas and the puritanical beer that day. Perhaps I’ll fashion a nice aluminum foil hat, too, just in case.