116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Banning books, as seven states have permitted in recent years, and other states, including ours, have been considering, is not the same as burning them. That is comforting: no fire, no smoke, no ashes to pollute the air. Yet the results unfortunately are close to the same. Books disappear.
In Iowa, if state Senate President Jake Chapman got his way, we would see harassed teachers, besieged school administrators, and withdrawn and depressed librarians. Topics, often gender-related, that offend the senator or a narrow part of our society, Evangelicals and Tea Party conservatives, are beyond discussion and into suppression. The vigilantes include the lumpen uneducated, but they also attract governors, legislators, and other state officials who preach democracy and practice hypocrisy.
The roots of all this go back at least to Nazi Germany, although the first recorded book burning in Germany was 1827. In 1936 in Berlin’s Opera Platz, 25,000 books were burned with 40,000 German illiterates screaming “Heil Hitler.” An identical scene took place in 30 other university towns. Places of learning were turned into scenes of national hysteria and hate. Nazis went into libraries, bookstores, and publishing houses to ensure that no “unGerman” books were there.
The forbidden books chosen for the bonfire were often by Jewish authors, including Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. But it was interdenominational. Erich Maria Remarque, a Catholic, made the fire in large part because he was a pacifist. Berthold Brecht was born a Jew, but had converted to Christianity and was a Lutheran, but a socialist as well. They all apparently wrote fluently in unGerman.
That the German example has found new life recently in the United States is beyond troublesome; it is frightening. The banning legislation considered in Iowa is part of a far-right agenda showing up in many states.
The books the banners attack have been read by reasonable Republicans and Democrats without dire effects. A good example is “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. It shows up on virtually every target list and is a good example of the absurdity of banning. The book is out of the bottle. It has sold 14 million copies worldwide since it was published in 1939. It has caused no revolutions, unwanted pregnancies or increased cases of athlete’s foot. Steinbeck won a Pulitzer Prize for it.
But a book doesn’t need that kind of recognition to call attention to itself. Sen. Chapman can find them and decide what is unacceptable. Here’s a newspaper account of his “thinking.” “Sen. Jake Chapman said there should be criminal charges against teachers who allow children to read books he believes are obscene.” (Who elected him state censor?)
He said he hoped to “introduce an amendment that would raise the penalties teachers could face … to an aggravated misdemeanor on the first offense and a Class D felony on the second offense.” Fortunately, his idea hasn’t moved forward.
I would never, ever, say Sen. Chapman is a neo-Nazi, but I certainly would not hand him an unread copy of “The Grapes of Wrath” and a match.
Norman Sherman of Coralville has worked extensively in politics, including as Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s press secretary.