All throughout history governments have tried to ban books to control what the people were allowed to read. But why are governments so scared of letting the people read and think for themselves?
Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Brittany: Hi, Connor.
Connor: Hey, Brittany.
Brittany: So, we hear a lot these days about book bans. I’ve been hearing this all over the news, and usually, I think we’re hearing about it today, mostly in government schools banning books. But one thing I wanna touch on is this is not a new phenomenon. People all throughout history, people power government specifically, have been trying and even succeeding in banning books, and it’s so crazy to me why would people wanna ban books. So, that’s what I wanna talk about today. Now Connor, you’ve probably, I’m trying to think what books, we’ve talked about this before when we talked about like dystopian novels, but I don’t know that we’ve ever talked about banned books that you can remember.
Connor: I don’t think we’ve talked about it specifically, but it’s an important topic to talk about because while the recent, you know, the focus has been about, let’s say, some controversial things of a kind of gender nature or sexual things like this that maybe shouldn’t be part of government schools throughout history, the books that have been banned are often of a much, you know, different type. They had political things in them. Sometimes in the past, they had race things in them. So maybe like a black and a white person getting married and oh, you know, that’s a problem. Certainly, there have been books banned about, like tax strategies to evade taxes. A lot of countries have banned, books like Animal Farm by George Orwell or, 1984, these things that talk about, you know, the problems with totalitarianism and big government.
Brittany: To Kill a Mockingbird too, is another one, which is funny because it’s been banned because they think there’s racist words in there, which there is, but the whole point of the book is to stand up against racism. And so you’re like, wait a second. That’s weird.
Connor: Well, and even what’s I find interesting too is there have been countries like Singapore and others that banned books that you and I would probably agree are really bad books by Marx and Lenin and Stalin. And, you know, a lot of these communists, Maly Don, they banned his books as well. And so you might say, well, yeah, those books are horrible. But then, there’s this quote, I think it’s attributed to Abraham Lincoln. I should go back and verify, if he said this or who said this, but this quote I’ve been familiar with for a long time, it says that never give your friend power. You wouldn’t want your enemy to also have. That’s great. I think of something like the filibuster. We’ve talked about this, I believe, in the past, this, power of the US Senate to kind of decide things based on how they’re gonna vote for it. And do you need just a majority vote, or do you need a super majority vote? And then years ago, Harry Reid and the Democrats changed how the filibuster would work because they wanted to be able to get through this law that they really wanted, but they didn’t have enough votes for. So they said, oh, we’re gonna change the filibuster and make it so we can get this law passed that we want. Well, then the Republicans got in control later, and they used the same power to pass laws that they wanted, but that they didn’t have enough votes for. And so then the Democrats free out. No, oh, you shouldn’t do that. It’s like, well, wait a minute, you guys, you know, changed this. You gave your friends a power that you don’t want your enemy to have. Well, maybe you shouldn’t have done that to begin with. And I think it’s that way with, ban books as well. It’s like, well, if you ban books that you and I agree are bad and you know, prohibit people from reading them or just don’t allow them in schools, like, that’s all nice and good, and you and I can agree on that, but what happens when the same process is used for books that we do, like books that we do think are important. And so it kind of cuts both ways.
Brittany: It does. And I wanna back up a little and just talk about books in general, because I think books have always scared people in power. So, when the printing press was invented, that was the first time humans all over the world had access to books, you know, before, especially with churches, the priest, and I think it was Catholicism, or it could have been the Church of England, I don’t know which one. So, there’s some homework for you guys. but they, when they had the Bible, the Bible was literally chained to a pulpit because they were so scared of it getting stolen. And remember, there were no printing presses. So there was like one copy, you know, for each church. And none of the people in the congregation were allowed to read it because it was supposed to be read and interpreted by the priest. And what’s funny about this is some of this stuff even carries over to today. And then you kind of wonder why is that now we have so many books, and I think it’s because people, people in power, whether it was governments or the church, which at the time had a lot of government power, so it was kind of the same thing. They didn’t want people to think for themselves. It’s very scary when you let people think for themselves, because then they might question your authority, right? They might question whether you’re doing the right things. So, I always think that the greatest threat to power wasn’t even, you know, guns or things like that. It was the printing press, because then all of a sudden you had people learning how to read. You had these books spreading all over the place. And before you know it, people have these crazy ideas like the founding fathers to rebel against, you know, the King of England and start a whole country. So, it’s crazy to me how that one invention, to me anyway, sparked an entire revolution of thought. I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that, Connor?
Connor: Well, yeah. Cause we’re not just talking about banning books. We’re really talking about banning ideas. And can you really ban an idea? you can make it harder for people to access. You can, impose a lot of, you know, legal consequences if people were to be in possession of, you know, that book. But, you can’t really ban ideas. You just can’t, I mean, that’s impossible. You can make it a lot harder for them to disseminate or to be distributed, which I think is ultimately their goal of the people in power who do this type of thing. But, you know, like a lot of kids, right? If their parents or a teacher or someone in authority says, you know, don’t look inside that box. Well, you just made it more tempting to look inside that box, right? Don’t tell me what to do. I’m gonna look inside that box. And so when you ban books, quote unquote, and say, these ideas are dangerous, it almost makes them a little bit more alluring to some people who are like, well, I’m gonna show you. I’m gonna go look into that myself. And so, especially with things like internet and even in China where they have like heavy censorship, and, you know, you can’t find in China information about Tiananmen Square, which was this big, you know, big shooting of all these, college kids that were protesting the communist government and Tiananmen Square. And so China has basically tried to erase that event from history by, you know, censoring, websites and the internet. Well, of course, anyone with a VPN, which is a special tool that allows you to bypass these, these controls. Anyone with one of these little tools called VPN a virtual private network, they can access the open and free internet. And so it’s like, well, I mean, governments can try and restrict ideas like this idea that the communist government killed all these protestors to keep them in line. They can try and control the flow of those ideas, but ultimately they can’t ban them. And like any black market, we’ve talked about black markets before, it just makes the, the trade of that product or information more dangerous, right? When prohibition was in place, you know, alcohol and liquor was banned, the distribution of it. but it just, it continued. It is just in the hands of Al Capone and as gangsters, which made it, you know, way more dangerous than just going to the local market and buying a bottle of something peacefully. So when they try and ban books and ideas, when these, despotic governments in the past or, you know, today decide, Hey, we’re gonna ban these books, or we’re gonna restrict access to this, you know, it doesn’t really happen. And it could potentially make the access to that information more dangerous, especially if you’re in a totalitarian government because they might, you know, imprison you or kill you or, you know, harm you in some way if you are found to be in possession of these dangerous ideas that they don’t like.
Brittany: Isn’t that funny? We think, you know, trying to put somebody in jail for drinking raw milk or choosing what they put in their bodies is bad. Imagine being put in jail or worse because of a book, right? It sounds so silly, but that’s happened in history. So that’s, that’s pretty crazy. You reminded me of one of my favorite, quotes. I wanna say it’s from V Vendetta, maybe it’s not, but ideas are bulletproof. Maybe it’s just an, or maybe it’s just a quote that’s out there. But I’ve always liked that ideas are bulletproof, because like you said, they can’t, they can’t go anywhere. They can’t be destroyed. I do wanna talk about a few examples. Cause I was doing some research and I found, some examples I shared with Connor that I wanna share with you guys that I thought was funny. So, in year 35, which I thought was funny, I’ve never seen a year that didn’t have ad like, when it was that small, but it was just 35 . And I’m like, okay. So, in year 35, there was this Roman emperor named Caligula, which I always thought was a cool name, and he did not want his people reading the book, the Odyssey by Homer, which I’ll be honest, I think it’s a boring book ’cause I’ve had to read it in so many college classes. But it’s like one of the most famous pieces of literature. it was written 300 years before this time, but he thought it was dangerous because it was based on these Greek ideas of freedom. And heaven forbid, the people in Rome find out that there’s such an idea of freedom. And so this gives you an idea of the kind of books, you know, that were banned and why leaders were using them. And it’s, you know, straight to the point. He didn’t want his people to hear about freedom. So I think that’s one good example. Connor, if you wanna share another?
Connor: Well, there’s, I think that the Bible, you know, certainly with the printing press, this was a huge innovation that allowed the Bible to spread, which, you know, as we were talking about, led to people seeing differently. The power structures, the king, right? And, and, you know, whether they had the divine, you know, approval of God for everything they did. And they started to evaluate this differently. William Tyndale translated the New Testament into English. Thousands of copies were printed in Germany. They were smuggled into England, but then they were publicly burned in, I believe it was 1526 on the orders of the Roman Catholic bishop in London. And so, church authorities in English, they, you know, in England, they insisted that the Bible would be available only in Latin, that they only would be able to read and interpret it. They didn’t want people gaining access to the ideas. Now, what’s interesting to me about this is there’s kind of a part two to the story. Of course, later, you know, the printing press is going everywhere, more English copies of the Bible. They can’t keep this like Latin only Bible idea going on for very long and so decades pass, and now everyone’s got a Bible. So again, they tried to restrict it to Latin, and the government and the church tried to come in and control it. But you know, the cat was out of the bag. And so English copies of the Bible started to proliferate. Well, there was one Bible, one version in particular translation that was extremely popular with, the people in England. And that was the Geneva Bible. And what was really popular about the Geneva Bible was that it had commentaries in it. So they had a translation of all the scripture. But then in the columns, they would have these kinds of interpretations or comments to kind of explain things more, to give more context, to help people kind of understand a little bit more. You might say, well, that’s really helpful. However, there was one individual in particular, that totally disagreed that those commentaries were helpful. And his name was King James. So King James decided to help fund the production translation and distribution of an entirely new Bible. And to kind of ban and, suppress through overwhelming competition, of a sort the Geneva Bible, which he didn’t like. Why didn’t he like it? Well, among the reasons, the primary reason was the Geneva Bible in these commentaries said things that the king did not Like, for example, when Moses’ mother, evades the order of Pharaoh, right? They’re going after all the males to the male babies to kill them all. ’cause Pharaoh sees, you know, this threat, here’s about this baby. And so Moses’ mother places, Moses like in the river, in the basket, whatever, and basically evades, you know, fair, she’s basically practicing civil disobedience, right? I’m not going to allow the government to do this to my child. And so then in the commentaries, in the column, you know, next to the verses, there was some commentary saying, Hey, this is a good thing, right? Like, it’s okay to, defy the unjust orders of a king, you know? And so there were things like this talking about the difference between what is right and what is legal. And people reading the Geneva Bible were kind of, gaining access to that perspective, which was very different, right? Because they had all been taught for eons, centuries that like, you know, the king can do no wrong. And that the king is, you know, ordained by God and everything the king does is fine. Well, here’s this Geneva Bible that was spreading around these different ideas. So in the church that I grew up in, you know, the King James Bible is the one that is used. It’s, it’s like an extremely common bible in a lot of churches. And only recently, a few, couple years ago did I learn the origin story of why it’s like, why do we, why is everyone using this King James Bible? It’s like, oh, he funded the production of this, this bible because he didn’t like these commentaries, and he wanted to be, banned it.
Brittany: Crowdsourcing Bible.
Connor: Yeah, it was a political threat. It was, he didn’t wanna help educate people according to the Bible. He wanted to make sure that they stayed in line and saw him as ordained by God. So let’s have, throw it over to you, Brittany, for maybe a final story, and then we’ll go.
Brittany: Yeah. I’m gonna do two quick ones. So the first one is, this one was one of my favorites. So Alice in Wonderland was banned in China because, like the province governor, he said that animals should not use human language. And it was disastrous to put animals in humans on the same level. So had to be banned. And the last thing I wanna mention, ’cause I think this is really important, is 2001, the US Patriot Act. As we’ve talked about a lot in here, this is interesting. It’s not so much a banned book, but this gave the government the authority to look at library records specifically to see what books people in the US were checking out. So, it’s not technically a ban, but I think that’s really interesting because the government still wanted to know what books you were reading, and that wasn’t that long ago. So, I think that’s just an interesting thing to touch on as well.
Connor: I think we have to keep in mind that, there are ideas in our society that are very powerful, that are a threat to those in power, because these ideas can help us see them differently, see ourselves differently. One of the quotes I love from John Adams is he says that something like this, I’m summarizing, but he says, the real American Revolution happened in the 15 years before the first shot ever being fired at Lexington and Conquer. We often think that that’s when the revolution started. The shot was heard around the world. John Adams is saying no. The real revolution was in the 15 years before that, people were reading John Locke. And you know, Tom Payne is starting his stuff. Everyone’s kind of seeing themselves differently, and they are learning about their rights. They’re learning that they are sovereign individuals, that they have these freedoms, that the government should protect those, that the government is not the source of them. And so people are reading and they’re learning, and they’re like, well, yeah, we are, we do have rights. We are free people. We should have a government of our own, et cetera, et cetera. And so when they saw themselves differently, that led to the kind of political conflict that led to the revolution. It was in a revolution of ideas where people saw themselves differently. And that’s what led to the conflict and then the country that we now have. So, ideas are powerful. They can be a threat to those in power. That’s why people in power often wanna ban them. Sometimes there’s other, you know, perhaps inappropriate stuff that does make sense. Maybe not to have it in a, you know, elementary school library. Yeah. So I’m not, gonna say that every, effort to kind of pull some books out of these taxpayer-funded schools is inherently wrong. And we should just have everything in there. Cause there’s certainly some nuance and some reasonable, kind of discussions about that. But certainly books that espouse the ideas of freedom and free societies, you know, that a lot of dictators throughout history have not wanted us to have access to, or their people to have access to. I think we should very much be on guard for that because again, those ideas are a threat to those in power. And all the more reason why we should learn about those ideas and share those ideas. So, Brittany, thank you for the idea and the discussion. And until next time, we will talk to you later.
Brittany: Talk to you later.