Friday, September 18, 2009

National Hogwash Week?

SafeLibraries, quoting others who deny that censorship takes place in modern-day America, is fond of referring to Banned Books Week as "National Hogwash Week." He/they claim in various blog posts (e.g., click here) that "no book has been banned in the USA for many decades."

I hope most readers have noticed how horribly twisted this claim is.

To be sure, the title Banned Books Week is meant to be used symbolically. It reminds us of a time, happily behind us, when large-scale book bans were a common part of American life. It reminds us that Free Speech was initially hard won, and has been under constant threat ever since. It reminds us that attempts at censorship, in many different forms, are still common today. Above all, it reminds us of the need for vigilance.

The symbolic meaning of Banned Books Week is, therefore, valid, both in terms of history and current events. But let's be clear: the concrete, non-symbolic, meaning of banned books is also frighteningly real.

Those who deny that book-banning still takes place are using an artificially expansive definition of the concept. They're insisting that a book is only banned if its prohibition is complete and official. There is, of course, no such presumption in the term. To ban merely means to prohibit. A book, then, can be banned in Wisconsin, just in West Bend, or even banned just in the West Bend Community Memorial library. This more local meaning of to ban has always been understood, as attested by the survival of phrases like "Banned in Boston."

Another argument used by those who would deny that banning still takes place is that the books are available in many places, including on the web, so removing a title from one library doesn't amount to banning. This is really just another version of the artificially expanded definition of the term, since to remove a title is to prohibit it, and all that ban really means is prohibit. This common-sense analysis has often been followed by the courts. For example, in the decision known as Case v. Unified School District No. 233, the US District Court in Kansas held that the availability of Annie on my Mind outside the library did not alter the infringement upon the First Amendment that the school board committed by removing it. The court stated: "The availability of Annie on My Mind from other sources does not cure defendants' improper motivation for removing the book. 'Restraint on expression may not generally be justified by the fact that there may be other times, places, or circumstances available for such expression.'"

Of course, the ban deniers are engaging in a completely circular argument on this point. If, as they say, a book is so available elsewhere that removing it from a library isn't a ban, then it is also true that removing it in the first place is a pointless waste of time, accomplishing nothing. Circular reasoning seems basic to their entire position. At some level, they know that banning books is evil, otherwise they wouldn't deny that banning is what they're doing. But the cognitive dissonance created by wanting both to ban books and to be a person who eschews evil cannot be resolved in the real world. Thus their fantasy that removing books from libraries, or restricting access to them, isn't banning. Denial can be such a useful neurosis.

Just look at the map of recent book challenges documented by the American Library Association (Click Here to see the whole, current map).

The map bristles with markers, mostly indicating challenges in school and public libraries. The ban deniers claim these incidents don't amount to banning because most of the attempts were unsuccessful, and this somehow makes Banned Books Week invalid and obsolete. Circular logic again: their claim is that these bans aren't real bans because the attempted ban was fought and prevented or reversed. Of course, to make even that circular point they have to ignore the documented cases in which books were actually removed from shelves.

We must remember that what's on the map are only the cases that are documented. It is reasonable to expect that there are other instances of book banning that we have no way to quantify. We expect that a school board here, a public library there, have quietly removed one or another book either to enforce their personal agenda or just to avoid a controversy. Such actions are real book bans, even if they don't receive national attention.

They only hogwash is in claiming that Banned Books Week is hogwash. Book banning happens in these United States in this 21st century, and is only one aspect of the many varieties of Censorship we still have to contend with. It's sad that we still NEED Banned Books Week, but great that we still HAVE Banned Books Week.


  1. Non-Censor, this is such a wonderful discussion of the term banned books. Interesting to note that there was no comment by Kleinman, who insists no book has been banned in the USA for decades.

    Just wanted to suggest that if anyone does start something called National Hogwash Week, Thomas Sowell and Dan Kleinman would be perfect mascots.

  2. Check out this amazing poem by author Ellen Hopkins about Banned Books: