Back in 1995, when I was still at Indiana’s ACLU, I wrote a column about a “recurring fantasy” of mine, which I described as follows: a caveman discovers that he can produce drawings of the animals he hunts on the walls of his cave. Excited by the possibilities of his art, energized by the creative act, he produces a drawing–only to have it rubbed angrily off the cave wall by someone in his tribe who declares that the depiction of animal genitalia is indecent.
The first artist encounters the first censor, and a dynamic is born that is with us still!
Here in Indiana, there has been a takeover of the Hamilton County library board by some current descendants of my imagined angry tribesman. (Hamilton County is one of the “doughnut counties” surrounding Indianapolis, which occupies all of Marion County.)The new board immediately moved to “protect” children by requiring the library staff to review all of the books available to teenagers in the Young Adult section (at an estimated cost to the taxpayers of $300,000 ). Reports are that, out of the 1,859 physical books examined thus far, 1,385 have been moved from the Young Adult section to the Adult or General section.
One of the book moved was John Green’s best-selling “The Fault in Our Stars,” and Green sent–and publicized– an appropriately outraged message to the Board, triggering a national outcry, and a local petition to “Stop Censorship at Hamilton East Public Library.” (When I last looked, that petition had garnered some 3500 signatures.) As I write this, the turmoil has resulted in the (welcome) replacement of the library board’s president, a strong supporter of “protecting” children from reading about things they can easily access on the internet and elsewhere.
The insistence that this exercise has been in furtherance of “parental rights” is equally ridiculous; a genuine concern for parental rights would respect the rights of all parents to determine what materials their children can access–not the right of some parents to determine what everyone else’s children can read.
No one said these people are smart. Just rabid.
I confess that I have never been able to understand the frantic need of so many of our fellow-citizens to control the habits and behaviors of the rest of us–habits and behaviors that do not affect them.
Nat Hentoff once wrote that the human animal’s urge to censor is stronger than its sex drive. In my days with the ACLU, I dealt regularly with folks who were absolutely convinced that they knew better than you and me what books we should read, what art we should see, and what musical lyrics the government should allow us to hear.
For those of us who believe that ideas matter, that literature and art are intensely important activities through which humans explore ideas, censorship poses a threat to our most important values. The government that can determine which ideas are worthy of consideration– and/or the age at which we should be allowed to consider them– is a government with power over the most important of all human functions–the power of the intellect.
In my long-ago fantasy, the caveman and his critic take their respective arguments to the leader of the cave clan. The censor insists that he and his friends find the drawing indecent, and argues that allowing smut in the cave will debauch the children and undermine the clan’s community standards. Another member argues the case for the artist: a society unwilling to consider all ideas will never leave the caves, will never reach the stars. A society willing to be ruled by the fears of the many will be deprived of the genius of the few.
In my dream, the leader considers the arguments and rules in favor of freedom of artistic expression. Civil liberties are born.
That, of course, was my fantasy. It remains to be seen whether civil liberties–not to mention common sense– will prevail in Hamilton County….Or, for that matter, elsewhere in Indiana.Comments