Books and History

Not too long ago, a lot of headlines were devoted to the controversies surrounding confederate statues being taken down. Those who objected did so on the basis that taking down these statues amounted to erasing history. This is not the case, of course, and never was. This is a technique of deflection that gets taken up, using language to conceal and obfuscate rather than to enlighten. Really, it is a sin against language that is intended to reveal truth not interfere with it. The same thing happens again and again. Do you want to speak out against racism in our legal system? Take a knee and you are disrespecting our flag. Black Lives Matter? Were you unaware that All Lives Matter? Fake news. Alternative facts. Language gets used to make something about what it is not to distract from what it is about. Language is a powerful tool that shapes consciousness and public response to events and issues.

Photo by Maxim Lugina on Unsplash

This is nothing new, of course. While millennia old examples could be cited from the whole of recorded history, think back just twenty years ago when Frank Lutz, consulting for the Bush campaign, provided a now well-known memo urging language like “climate change” instead of “global warming” because it is “less frightening.” This was just one of many advisements of language use that Luntz offered to give Republicans the edge on environmental concerns of the day. Of course, not a single word on the sixteen pages had anything to do with what was true or not true regarding environments. It was explicitly about using language in order to shape perception. Of note, in 2019 Luntz said he got it wrong on climate change. But I digress.

During that time when people were upset about erasing history over statues, a friend of mine sent me a screen shot of a post she had read on social media from some guy she knew through a sibling. In his post, he expressed his objections to taking down confederate statues and his argument was of the “what’s next?” variety where he asked if we were going to begin to remove books from libraries, such as Mein Kampf or Ayn Rand books (his examples), just because we object to what they stand for.

The problems with this comparison are many and, for some reason, I think should be obvious to people of reasonable intelligence; but perhaps I’m mistaken in my confidence. When at any time in human history has any book been put on a library shelf to valorize and commemorate it? Never. At least not in the way that statues of historic figures are erected. Statues, monuments, and the like do indeed embody history, but we erect them to honor an historical figure or to commemorate an important event. We also erect statues or monuments to remember tragedy and loss, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

I don’t know, but erecting a statue of a slave-owning confederate who was fighting for his “right” to own other human beings doesn’t seem to fit the bill. If you either want to valorize that person with a statue or to feel bad that he lost and want a memorial, you might be missing the point. And seriously, where were all you preserve history folk when the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled after the U.S. invaded Iraq and toppled Hussein from power? Sure, none of us liked the dictator, but don’t erase Iraq history! Many of us knew it was a stunt to create a particular image of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” but it was celebrated by the very same kind of people (and same news networks) that are now claiming removing statues is about removing history.

Another fault to the comparison between statues and libraries is that libraries ARE the place where we preserve history, primarily. Statues speak to history, sure, but the primary aim is to celebrate and honor a person or to help us remember tragedy. A librarian does not put Mein Kampf on a shelf next to thousands of other books to celebrate it. To think keeping a statue of a slave-owning confederate is the same as keeping a copy of Mein Kampf on a library shelf is just…weird.

But here is where it gets really strange. Among the headlines frequently dominating news in the U.S. is the removal of books from school libraries. WHERE ARE ALL YOU SAVE HISTORY PEOPLE?!?!?! WE COULD REALLY USE YOU NOW!!!!

Not long ago, a Tennessee school board banned Art Spieglemen’s Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, on the basis, according to the NPR report, of “eight curse words and nude imagery of a woman, used in the depiction of the author’s mother’s suicide.”

If I thought that the concern of books in schools was really about material that is not appropriate for certain age groups, I might be willing to entertain a discussion. Much like what I wrote above about using language in order to deflect and distract from the real issue by creating a substitute one, I think a technique of deflection is happening in the book banning as well. The technique here is to take a moral high ground, to claim to be standing for decency and morality. From what are those who want to ban books deflecting?

The fact that they are engaging in erasure. Erasure from what? Two things. History that either makes them uncomfortable or, for whatever reason, they wish to eliminate from our social consciousness (not to mention “conscience-ness”). Even more wicked, they are engaging in the attempted erasure of people—people that make them feel uncomfortable or people who do not fit into their ideal picture of society. These are human beings they do not wish to recognize.

Philosopher Axel Honneth wrote of a kind of recognition that he refers to as “social esteem.” Recognition as social esteem, as Honneth defines it, is a kind of recognition in society based on difference. In other words, whereas there is a recognition that says “I recognize you as a legitimate member of this community because you are like me,” recognition as social esteem says, “I recognize you as a legitimate member of this community because you are a human being regardless of your differences from me.” What we are seeing today is a purposeful refusal to recognize certain persons precisely because they are different from how some people think everyone should be.

Just a few days ago, the state of Texas pulled over 40 books from school libraries and classrooms to “review” them to see if they met new standards. One of those books was a graphic novel of style adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. Can things be any more absurd? I recall reading The Diary of Anne Frank in elementary school and it instilled in me a sense of injustice in society and what sort of horrors we human beings are capable of committing; and that such things should not happen. It taught me to consider all persons with respect and compassion. I shudder to think that children might no longer be given this gift that I was given.

I have not seen it personally, but I was recently told about a Texas eighth grade history book handout that does indeed talk about slavery in U.S. history, but painted it as if slaves were happy, slave owners were benevolent, and things were not all that bad. Everyone was treated like family.

I would seriously like to know where all you “don’t erase history” folk are. Ironically, some of the same who are ordering books pulled or support those books being pulled are precisely the same people who opposed removing confederate statues on the basis that it was erasing history. Those who yelled “don’t erase history!” are intentionally engaging in erasing history.

For the record, those of us who think the anti-American confederacy should not be celebrated, do not want it erased from history. We want it taught. There is a difference between teaching history and celebrating it. It all should be taught. Not all of it should be celebrated. This is not difficult to understand.

I am a philosopher, not an historian, so I have a sincere question for historians. Is there any free and open society in the history of humankind that ever forbade, banned, or pulled books from schools? In my admittedly limited knowledge, it seems to me that taking away books was always a constituent part of creating a social order that would eventually persecute and even murder people. Is there a free and open society that was ever created or remained free that took away books?

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