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  • Jerome Kocher

#21. Book Burning

In 2012, I spent the Summer in Berlin, Germany as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar for high school teachers. I thought it would also give me the opportunity to travel outside of Berlin. But I practically never left. Why? There was too much history in Berlin to ever leave. One of my explorations took me to Berlin’s prestigious Humboldt University. Yes, named for the same German explorer after which Humboldt State University in Northern California is named.

Walking over the cobblestones of Bebelplatz, an open spaced plaza at the University, I discovered a strange memorial buried below ground with a 5 x 5 foot glass plate to view down into its contents, or lack thereof. It was a sterile empty room with white empty shelves. A void. I was puzzled until I read the nearby brass marker. It commemorated the Nazi book burning in May of 1933 of over 20,000 books by mostly Jewish, communist, liberal and social-critical authors. It was an “empty library” reminding posterity of the loss and disappearance of works by rational thinking people. It did not show the ashes, but instead a cultural scar, an abortion of eighty years earlier, when ideas and imaginations were eliminated because they did not fit in with the ruling political elite.

Like everyone else, I asked myself “how could this happen?” Who would allow this. Now it’s nine years later and I sadly understand. First of all, references to Nazi Germany today are so over used and wrought with intellectual dishonesty, if not ignorance of history itself. But allow me to make an exception . . . with this image of the “empty library.”

Our constitutional First Amendment of free speech was created to protect minority opinions, even ugly or disagreeable speech. It was never intended to protect our “feelings,” but rather the free expression of ideas. The answer to opposing ideas is not less speech, but more speech. Challenge them on their value, honesty and moral integrity. Don’t eliminate them.

You all know where this is going. Today’s cancel culture movement is based on “feeling offended,” and erasing any current or past act, word, statue . . . or even joke from our collective historical memory that does not agree with political correctness. This is being done by a very, very small group with a political agenda. Most people, on both sides of the political spectrum, find it abhorrent. But they are held hostage by a fear of reprisal of losing their social status, if not their job, reputation and livelihood. If you are looking for domestic terrorism, look no further. It ignites a fear to not voice your own legitimate thoughts and feelings.

Currently, this raging social fire has many casualties. Big Tech giants suspend or ban people from social media platforms. Publishers are banning targeted clients from previous contracts. Hollywood fires celebrities for dissenting opinions. Schools are being renamed, forty-four in San Francisco alone, because the very names of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and even Diane Feinstein are moral stains that must be eliminated.

And of course books as well. Some high schools will no longer teach Shakespeare because of the racial stereotypes and misogyny embedded in the human experience. And of course this last week on the birthday of Dr. Seuss, March 2, the highly promoted “Read Across America” was sterilized by disowning its namesake. Under the pressure from “experts” Dr. Seuss Enterprises has self-cancelled six of its children’s books dating back to the 1940’s and 50’s because of its “hurtful” imagery.

Because Seuss Enterprises itself is cancelling publication of only selected books and not all Seuss books, the Left will technically argue that they are not being banned. The New York Public Library and most public libraries across the country are not banning these discredited books, but will remain on the shelves. They will just not be replaced when worn or damaged. But tell this to eBay who is monitoring all re-sale of these books and with one click eliminating them from the market making their purchase impossible on their platform. Or ask Universal Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando to explain their announcement about Seuss Landing, a play area inspired by “If I Ran the Zoo.” Universal said, “Seuss Landing continues to be very popular with our guests and we value our relationship with Seuss Enterprises. We’ve removed the books from our shelves as they have asked and we’ll be evaluating our in-park experience too.” Does this in any way feel like “banning.” Does it pass the eye test? The smell test? No!

The solution here should not be to ban these books, but use them as a “teaching moment.” Use them as an example by comparing and contrasting past mores and culture with current expectations. Show how we have progressed. But no, the Progressives are not interested in demonstrating ideas that celebrate how we have progressed, even improved. No, the past must be eradicated out of a raw emotional response that is spreading like wildfire across our cultural landscape.

A fire burned the ancient library of Alexandria destroying much of the wisdom of our Western classical heritage. And today a social fire is burning our free speech and past history to the ground. But that’s the purpose. Don’t unify. Destroy all vestige of historical bonds that create a culture. George Orwell’s “1984” comes to mind where “Big Brother” uses the “Thought Police” to eradicate “Thought Crime.” In this dystopian novel, current or past events that do not serve an authoritarian elite are pushed down a “memory hole” to forever disappear. With this method, they could create a cleaner, more sterile, more perfect society.

The irony today is that by banning books and people you elevate them to martyr status. Banned Seuss books were re-selling for as much as $1500 this week. It’s like putting up a “don’t touch” sign for fresh paint. Everyone wants to touch it. The dirty little secret is that if you want to motivate someone to read a book, ban it. If you leave it on the shelf fewer people will read it. But no fear, because eBay is sending them down the “memory hole” as fast as they can.

If you are seriously concerned about stereotypes, don’t eliminate our imperfectly evolving past, but use those flawed examples as a teaching moment for how far we have come. Celebrate our consciousness today while acknowledging our own past, and the achievements of our forefathers and foremothers, on whose shoulders we stand.

The solution should not be less speech, but more speech.

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