Gordon Patterson: The bonfire of liberty
Florida historian Gordon Patterson points out that the scourge of book banning has a long history in America.
In 1821, the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine observed, “Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people.”
One hundred years later, German university students gathered in Berlin’s Opera Square and burned 25,000 “un-German” books. As the bonfire raged, 40,000 Berliners cheered when Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda henchman, declared that the Third Reich would not tolerate “decadence and moral corruption.”
Fast-forward 90 years: On Feb. 28, 2022, members of the Indian River County (IRC) Moms for Liberty (M4L) chapter demanded that the IRC school board remove 156 books from libraries because they contain pornographic passages and advocate critical race theory (CRT).
The Treasure Coast’s censorious Moms for Liberty set their sights on authors like the 1962 Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck and Alice Walker, African American Pulitzer Prize winner.
Two weeks later, the Brevard M4L chapter joined the blue-pencil team. In a gymnastic rhetorical twist, a spokesperson declared that the group was not advocating “banning books” but merely wanted to “remove[ing] inappropriate content” from library shelves.
Book banning has a long history in America. In 1637, Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan aroused the ire of Puritans who objected to Morton’s denunciation of the Puritans’ “New Israel.” His call to “demartialise” (encourage diversity) in the English colonies and his desire to create a multicultural New Canaan led to a charge of sedition, a sojourn in the stocks, and exile.
Two centuries later, opponents of the 1850s version of CRT banned the sale of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” arguing that Stowe’s pro-abolitionist agenda would corrupt young minds.
Banning books reached an absurd high in the Cold War era. In November 1953, Mrs. Thomas J. White of Indianapolis, a Republican member of the Indiana State Textbook Commission, called for removing the story of Robin Hood from school libraries.
“There is a Communist directive in education now,” Mrs. Thomas explained, “to stress the story of Robin Hood. They want to stress it because he robbed the rich and gave it to the poor. That’s the Communist line. It’s just a smearing of law and order.”