Intellectual Book Burning in a Totalitarian Democracy
By John W. Whitehead
“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feel it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.”
In Ray Bradbury’s futuristic novel Fahrenheit 451, the state burned all books in order to hide the truth from the people. In the coda to a 1979 edition of the book, Bradbury wrote: “Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the libraries closed forever.”
Today, the forces of political correctness have managed to replace actual book burning with intellectual book burning. A recent incident at the University of Virginia makes my point.
Grant Woolard, a political cartoonist and graphics editor for the University’s student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, had developed something of a reputation for his politically incorrect cartoons prior to the publication of his most recent one, “Ethiopian Food Fight.” For example, a 2006 cartoon entitled “A Nativity Ob-scene” depicted the Virgin Mary with a rash telling Joseph that it was “immaculately transmitted.” Still, despite nationwide criticism, the Cavalier Daily continued to run Woolard’s work.
Perhaps the paper’s decision to stand by Woolard had less to do with free speech and journalistic integrity than with the fact that Woolard just hadn’t pushed the right politically incorrect buttons yet. His latest cartoon, however, did the trick. “Ethiopian Food Fight” depicts nine darkened figures with bald, enlarged heads, dressed only in loincloths, throwing non-food items during a food fight.Unfortunately for Woolard, the college community—especially the African-American community—didn’t read into the cartoon what he intended. The day after “Ethiopian Food Fight” was published, nearly 200 students staged a sit-in outside the Cavalier Daily to protest the comic’s racist overtones. Telephone calls demanding Woolard’s removal from the school newspaper also started pouring in. Woolard apologized profusely, explaining that the cartoon wasn’t intended to be a racist or cultural jab at blacks or Ethiopians. Rather, it was meant to call attention to the sad reality of famine and poverty afflicting the African nation. “I am implying,” he wrote to his critics in defense, “that in a hypothetical situation, were anyone to have a food fight during famine, these seemingly inedible objects would be used as ‘food.’” He noted, “This surrealistic hypothetical situation invites the reader to realize that what initially appears to be a joke reflects a sobering reality.” However, his critics refused to be satisfied with anything less than Woolard’s forced resignation.
This type of reaction is typical of the totalitarian democracy in which we now live, and the University of Virginia is a perfect microcosm of what is happening across the nation. While the notion of free speech remains enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution, censorship is no longer a bad word. Instead, it is what responsible adults must now do in order to ensure that no one is offended or made to feel inferior.
Yet when we suppress controversial ideas, we deny free speech. And when we deny free speech, we cease to be a free society. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once noted, “Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”
No doubt Woolard’s cartoon was crude and lacking in sound judgment. Yet don’t we have a particular duty to protect the Woolards of the world—those politically incorrect few who, while they might be perceived as irresponsible and lacking in judgment, are in fact testing our constitutional fortitude?
Ray Bradbury was right. There is more than one way to burn a book. And it’s a downright shame that Woolard was forced to resign, because it would’ve made for a good fight. In fact, we all would have been better served had the paper chosen to defend his right to free speech.
In writing about his own experiences with “butcher/censors,” as he termed them, Ray Bradbury remarked, “t is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws.”
If we allow the First Amendment to be unmade by the forces of political correctness, we might as well say goodbye to the Constitution as a whole, for it will count for less than nothing.
Founded in 1982 by constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead, The Rutherford Institute is a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated.